[Book] Russia: From Revolution to Counter-Revolution

The October Russian Revolution, led by Lenin and Trotsky, swept away landlordism and capitalism and placed the working class in power for the first time. It transformed the idea of socialism from theory into practice. From this point of view, the Bolshevik revolution can be considered the greatest event in history.

The revolution changed the course of world history and the last century has been dominated by its consequences. Ted Grant’s book traces the evolution of Soviet Russia from the Bolshevik victory of 1917, through the rise of Stalinism and the political counter-revolution, its emergence as a super-power after the Second World War, and the crisis of Stalinism and its eventual collapse.

The book, which was first published in 1997, has been updated and edited in the light of new developments and the subsequent re-establishment of capitalism in Russia. Grant based his analysis on that of Leon Trotsky, who first analysed Stalinism in his Revolution Betrayed.

While the counter-revolution has attempted to bury the memory of October, the new crisis of world capitalism has led to a revival of interest in Marxism and the significance of Bolshevism. The republication of Ted Grant’s book in this centenary year of the revolution therefore comes at a fitting time.

Table of Contents

Preface to the 2017 edition

Introduction (by Alan Woods)

1. The Balance Sheet of October

2. The Rise of Stalinism

3. From Five-Year Plan to the Purges

4. The Nature of Stalinism

5. From War to ‘De-Stalinisation’

6. The Period of Stagnation

7. The Meaning of Perestroika

8. From Foreign Policy to the National Question

Afterword: The Collapse of Stalinism (by Alan Woods)


Preface to the 2017 edition

About the present work

The present work was first published in London twenty years ago in March 1997. Its author was the veteran British Marxist Ted Grant. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Stalinism had led to widespread questioning of socialism and the October Revolution, not least of all in Russia itself. The purpose of this book was to clarify these questions, and answer the propaganda of the enemies of socialism, basing itself on facts, figures and arguments. It was a task that was long overdue.

This was no academic exercise, but a preparation for the future. What was the Soviet Union, why did it collapse and where was Russia now heading? Ted wanted to shed light on the nature of the regime that emerged from the October Revolution, to analyse its contradictory tendencies, to plot its rise and fall, and to point the way forward. The author spent most of his life studying the Russian question and was uniquely qualified to provide a Marxist analysis of it. An active follower of Trotsky since the days of the International Left Opposition, Ted Grant was a leading exponent of the ideas of Trotskyism. A large part of the present work is based on the wealth of material written by Ted over a period of more than 50 years.

Only the Marxists were capable of explaining the processes that were unfolding in Russia, not ex post facto but decades in advance. By contrast, the writings of both the bourgeois critics of the USSR and its Stalinist friends were characterised by the most complete absence of any understanding. From diametrically opposed points of view, they arrived at the same erroneous conclusion – that the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union was a virtually indestructible monolith, which could continue to exist for as long as one could see.

What happened in the Soviet Union can only be explained by using the Marxist method of analysis. Already in the pages of the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels explained that the motor force of human history is the development of the productive forces. From this point of view, the nationalised planned economy in the USSR furnished proof of the most extraordinary vitality for decades. Indeed, such a transformation is unprecedented in the annals of human history.

Needless to say, the method used here is that of Marxism, dialectical and historical materialism, because this alone provides us with the scientific tools necessary to analyse complex and contradictory processes, to separate the accidental from the necessary, to distinguish between what men and women think and say about themselves and the material interests which they ultimately represent. Only by such means is it possible to understand what occurred in the Soviet Union, and thus comprehend what is happening now, and, at least tentatively, establish a prognosis for future developments.

Even before the Second World War, when most capitalist pundits, as well as apologists for Stalin, saw no chink in the armour of the ‘monolithic’ regime in Russia, Leon Trotsky, the Bolshevik leader exiled by Stalin, argued that either Stalinism would be overthrown by a political revolution of the working class or, under certain conditions, it could revert to capitalism.

The question of the class nature of Russia

The question of the class nature of Russia has been a central issue in the Marxist movement for decades. Only the dialectical method, which takes the process as a whole and concretely analyses its contradictory tendencies as they unfold, stage by stage, can shed light on the situation. Although Ted was the only one to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union as early as 1972, neither he nor anyone else could have predicted the precise course of events that occurred subsequently.

That should not surprise us. The German poet Goethe once wrote: “Theory is grey, my friend, but the tree of life is evergreen.” The actual working out of the historical process is enormously complicated, not least because it involves what Marxists call the subjective factor, the conscious intervention of human beings. To predict in detail how the historical process develops would require not just scientific perspectives but a crystal ball, something which, alas, is not available to us.

Although he had predicted the collapse of Stalinism, Ted Grant had thought that the restoration of capitalism in Russia was ruled out. Indeed, for a whole period, it was ruled out. The necessity for a planned economy flows directly from the impasse of world capitalism. It is the only way in which the contradictions can be resolved. But the attempt to re-impose a capitalist regime in Russia by no means flowed as a natural conclusion from the crisis of Stalinism.

Ted’s view was strongly influenced by his conviction that, in spite of the brutal repression of decades of Stalinist totalitarianism, the fundamental ideas of Lenin and the October Revolution would remain alive in the Soviet Union. He did not believe that the capitalist counter-revolution would succeed. But all perspectives necessarily have a conditional character. At the time when Ted wrote this book the process of capitalist restoration in Russia had not yet acquired an irreversible character. It was not clear whether it would be completed or whether there could be a reversal. This was an open question, and we had to proceed with due caution, by a process of successive approximations. For that reason, Ted’s analysis of the process had an algebraic and not an arithmetical character.

An important element in Ted’s thinking was his over-estimation of the potential for the crystallisation of a Reiss faction (a section of the Stalinist bureaucracy moving towards a revolutionary position) and the possibility of a political revolution against the bureaucracy. The so-called Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) had degenerated to such an extent that it was completely alien to the ideas and principles of Lenin and the October Revolution. Although there was a certain element in the leadership of the CPSU that was in favour of a return to Lenin, and even looking towards Trotskyism, that faction was extremely weak and had no influence on the course of events. It was the pro-capitalist wing of the bureaucracy that proved to be the decisive force. In the moment of truth, the Stalinists were not even capable of defending Stalinism.

The problem that we faced two decades ago was comparable to that faced by Trotsky in the 1920s and 1930s, when he had the task of analysing the phenomenon of Stalinism. There were many turning points on the road of the bureaucratic counter-revolution in the period 1923-36. This was by no means a pre-ordained event. The final victory of Stalin was not determined in advance. As late as 1933, Trotsky held the position that it was possible to reform both the Soviet state and the Communist Parties, a position that led to frequent conflicts with the ultra-lefts.

Trotsky traced the process of the Stalinist counter-revolution through all its stages, laying bare all its contradictions, analysing the conflicting tendencies both within Soviet society and within the bureaucracy itself and showing the dialectical inter-relation between developments in the USSR and on a world scale. He painstakingly followed the process through all its stages, showing concretely the relation between the class balance of forces in Russia, the different tendencies in the Communist Party and their relationship to the classes, the evolution of the world situation, the economy, and the subjective factor. It is true that he varied his analysis at different times.

For example, he initially characterised Stalinism as bureaucratic centrism, a formula which he later rejected in favour of the more precise proletarian Bonapartism. These changes do not reflect any vacillations on Trotsky’s part, but only the way in which his analysis accurately followed the process of bureaucratic degeneration as it unfolded.

In just the same way the capitalist counter-revolution unfolded with many contradictions and cross-currents. Its success was by no means guaranteed. Only after some time did the process reach the critical point where quantity became transformed into quality. This took place after the economic collapse of 1998. A very important element was the subjective factor and the role of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF). In the 1930s Trotsky referred to the existence of contradictory tendencies within the Stalinist bureaucracy (the Butenko and Reiss factions). Butenko was a Stalinist functionary who defected to the camp of fascism, while Ignace Reiss was an officer of the GPU who broke with Stalin and came out in favour of Trotsky and the Fourth International before he was murdered in Switzerland.

Decades of Stalinist bureaucratic and totalitarian rule had a far greater effect than we realised in throwing back consciousness. Stalin had succeeded more than he could have hoped in liquidating the traditions of Bolshevism. The most advanced elements of the working class had been exterminated, and because the regime lasted far longer than Trotsky had anticipated, the very memory of the genuine traditions of October had been almost wiped out from the consciousness of the Soviet workers and youth.

This was the ground on which the seeds of capitalist counter-revolution were planted and then thrived. But its subjective causes lay deeper, in the contradictions between a nationalised planned economy and bureaucratic rule that was stifling every pore of the Soviet economy and society. The way in which this process unfolded, and the complex interplay between objective and subjective factors, is brilliantly explained in the present work.

What the book contains

The first part of the book deals with the Russian Revolution and draws an historical balance sheet of October, answering many of the criticisms, distortions and misconceptions that have surrounded it for decades. In the course of this section there are a number of chapters which provide a detailed exposition of the Marxist theory of the state in relation to the transitional regime that emerged from the October Revolution. The rise of the bureaucracy and the Stalinist political counter-revolution is traced through all its stages.

This part, especially the critique of the theory of ‘state capitalism’ (including a valuable appendix on the law of value in the transitional period) presents more difficulties for the reader than other parts of the book. But it is essential to grasp these points in order to understand the process as a whole. It should be pointed out that these sections were originally published in the late 1940s in an important work by Ted called The Marxist Theory of the State. In order to make this and other material available in book form, a considerable amount of editing was necessary. Any variations in style which the reader may notice are entirely due to this.

In the light of subsequent experience, it is not necessary to alter what was written at the time concerning the reasons for the crisis of Stalinism, and the inevitability of its collapse. When the book was written, the movement towards capitalism in Russia had not yet been carried to a definitive conclusion, and Ted strongly believed that it could be reversed. The movement towards capitalism still had an unfinished character. Different outcomes were possible. One might add that this view was also held by the bourgeois analysts.

When one reads today what the strategists of capital were writing at the time it is very clear that the question of the re-establishment of capitalism in Russia was not at all settled once and for all. On the contrary, in the period immediately following the collapse of 1998 it could easily have been reversed. This was clearly understood by the serious representatives of international capital.

The Independent on Sunday of 23rd August 1998 reported Marcel Cassard, a former International Monetary Fund official now working for Deutsche Bank in London, as saying, “the measures taken could lead to the re-nationalisation of the banks. If we get to that point, that’s not good.”

The most significant analysis was provided in the August 1998 issue of the magazine Transitions. This is a magazine that studies “Changes in Post-Communist Societies” published in the Czech Republic, but which also acknowledges support from such institutions as the General Marshall Fund of the United States. In one article analysing developments in Russia we read the following:

By autumn 1997, a banking war that became the main constituent of Russian internal politics began. The conflicts between different financial groups over attractive property, even if conducted with underhanded methods and with the deployment of compromising materials and the financiers’ personal contacts reflected, so it was believed, the growing power of the Russian bourgeoisie. It was reckoned that this bourgeoisie had enough resources not only to take over the property but to keep it in working order, ensuring the growth in the economy and the preservation of the state.

Today, it is clear that the role of the bourgeoisie was overestimated. The ‘new Russians’ and the rest of the economy live separate lives. It is also clear that the economy has still not reached a turning point, which it will have to do in the near future.

What is most interesting in the same article is a section called ‘Back to central planning’. There we read the following:

The long-term prognosis for the Russian economy does not look rosy. It is possible the country will be obliged to return to the system it left behind ten years ago, central planning.

An economy built on state property would probably also be highly inefficient as it was before, in Soviet times. But is there an alternative? Russia’s economic reformers believed that private property would magically produce a rise in efficiency and an increase in production . But as we have seen, this growth did not take place.

Despite these concerns, the movement towards capitalism swept all before it and the Stalinist regime was consigned to the dustbin of history. The final part of the book has therefore been completely revised in light of developments that occurred after the first edition had seen the light of day. Subsequent developments enabled us to fill in many gaps in our knowledge, correcting mistakes and making a definitive judgement concerning the class nature of Russia, which was still an unfinished process at the time of writing. Much of what was written then is now out of date, and has been replaced by a new afterword written by Alan Woods, who collaborated closely with Ted Grant for many years.

To this day, one would seek in vain for an explanation of the real causes of the crisis of Stalinism in all the writings of the bourgeois, reformists and ex-Stalinists, not to speak of the myriad sects on the fringes of the labour movement. Yet they were analysed in advance in the documents written by Ted in International Perspectives, as early as August 1972. Unfortunately, at the time this material was read by only a small number. The present work will make this detailed and profound analysis available to a wider public. The present work not only asks questions, but provides answers.


by Alan Woods

No matter what one thinks of Bolshevism, it is undeniable that the Russian Revolution is one of the greatest events in human history, and the rule of the Bolsheviki a phenomenon of worldwide importance. (J. Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, p. 13.)

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution. The apologists of capitalism, and their faithful echoes in the labour movement, try to comfort themselves with the thought that the collapse of the USSR signified the demise of socialism. But what failed in Russia was not socialism but a caricature of socialism. Contrary to the oft-repeated slanders, the Stalinist regime was the antithesis of the democratic regime established by the Bolsheviks in 1917.

The collapse of the USSR was presented by the defenders of capitalism as the equivalent of the final victory of the ‘free market economy’ over ‘Communism’. A quarter of a century ago it produced a wave of euphoria in the bourgeoisie and its apologists. They spoke of the end of socialism, the end of communism and even the end of history. Ever since then, we have witnessed an unprecedented ideological offensive against the ideas of Marxism on a world scale. This irrational exuberance knew no bounds.

The then American President, George Bush, triumphantly announced the creation of a ‘New World Order’ under the domination of US imperialism. “The Soviet Union is no more,” wrote Martin McCauley. “The great experiment has failed… Marxism in practice has failed everywhere. There is no Marxist economic model capable of competing with capitalism.” (M. McCauley, The Soviet Union 1917-1991, pp. XV and 378) “We Won!” exclaimed the editorial of The Wall Street Journal (24/5/89). It was at this point that Francis Fukuyama uttered his notorious prediction: “The period of post-history has arrived… Liberal democracy has triumphed, and mankind has reached its highest wisdom. History has come to an end.”

Twenty-five years later, not one stone upon another remains of these foolish illusions. Capitalism has entered into the most serious crisis since the Great Depression. Millions are faced with a future of unemployment, poverty, cuts and austerity. Wars and conflicts ravage the entire planet, the very future of which is placed in jeopardy by the depredations wreaked by the uncontrolled market economy. Now in the cold light of day, those triumphalist proclamations sound ironic. The global crisis of capitalism and its effects have falsified those confident predictions. All the lavish promises of milk and honey by the Western leaders, that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, have evaporated like a drop of water on a hot stove.

America’s dream of world domination lies buried beneath the smoking ruins of Aleppo. All the triumphalist pronouncements of the bourgeois strategists have been falsified. History has returned with a vengeance. The same Western observers who exaggerated every defect of the Soviet economy are now struggling desperately to explain the manifest failure of the market economy. Now there is only economic collapse, political instability, uncertainty, wars and conflict. The earlier euphoria has given way to the blackest pessimism.

It is for this very reason that the centenary of the Russian Revolution will inevitably be the occasion for an intensification of the vicious anti-Communist campaign. The reason for this is not difficult to understand. The worldwide crisis of capitalism is giving rise to a general questioning of the ‘market economy’. There is a revival of interest in Marxist ideas, which is alarming the bourgeoisie. The new campaign of slanders is a reflection, not of confidence, but of fear.

Fear of revolution

History shows that it is not sufficient for the ruling class to defeat a revolution; it is necessary to cover it with slanders, blacken the name of its leaders, and surround it with a cloud of malice and suspicion, so that not even the memory remains to inspire new generations. There is nothing new in this. In the 19th century when the historian Thomas Carlyle was writing a book about Oliver Cromwell he said that before he could begin he had to rescue Cromwell’s body from under a mountain of dead dogs.

After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, all the memories of Cromwell and the English bourgeois revolution had to be erased from the collective memory. The restored monarchy of Charles II officially dated its reign from the 30th January 1649, the date of the execution of Charles I, and all references to the republic and its revolutionary deeds were to be obliterated. The upstart Charles II was so carried away by the spirit of spite, hatred and revenge that he went so far as to dig up Oliver Cromwell’s corpse, which was then subjected to a public hanging at Tyburn.

The same malice and spite born of fear is what motivates the present efforts to deny the gains and revolutionary significance of the Russian Revolution, and blacken the memory of its leaders. The systematic falsification of history now being undertaken by the bourgeoisie, although somewhat more subtle than the posthumous lynchings of the English monarchists, is in no way morally superior to them. Ultimately it will prove no more effective. The locomotive of human progress is truth, not lies. And the truth will not remain buried for all time.

For the best part of three generations, the apologists of capitalism vented their spleen against the Soviet Union. No effort or expense has been spared in the attempt to blacken the image of the October Revolution and the nationalised planned economy that issued from it. In this campaign, the crimes of Stalinism came in very handy. The trick was to identify socialism and communism with the bureaucratic totalitarian regime which arose from the isolation of the Revolution in a backward country.

The hatred of the Soviet Union shared by all those whose careers, salaries and profits derived from the existing order based on rent, interest and profit, is not hard to understand. It had nothing to do with the totalitarian regime of Stalin. The same ‘friends of democracy’ had no scruples about praising dictatorial regimes when it suited their interests to do so. The ‘democratic’ British ruling class was quite happy to see Hitler coming to power, as long as he put down the German workers and directed his attentions to the East.

Winston Churchill and other representatives of the British ruling class expressed their fervent admiration for Mussolini and Franco, right up until 1939. In the period after 1945, the Western ‘democracies’, in the first instance the USA, actively backed every monstrous dictatorship. From Somoza to Pinochet, from the Argentine junta to the Indonesian butcher Suharto, who climbed to power over the corpses of a million people with the active support of the CIA. The leaders of the Western democracies grovel before the blood-soaked regime of Saudi Arabia that tortures, murders, flogs and crucifies its own citizens. The list of these barbarities is endless.

From the standpoint of imperialism such regimes are perfectly acceptable provided they base themselves on private ownership of the land, banks and big monopolies. Their implacable hostility to the Soviet Union was not based on any love of freedom, but on naked class interest. They hated the USSR, not for what was bad in it, but precisely for what was positive and progressive. They objected, not to Stalin’s dictatorship (on the contrary, the crimes of Stalinism suited them very well as a convenient means of blackening the name of socialism in the West), but to the nationalised property forms which were all that remained of the gains of October.

This re-writing of history reminds one forcibly of the old methods of the Stalinist bureaucracy which placed history on its head, turned leading figures into non-persons, or demonised them – as in the case of Leon Trotsky – and generally maintained that black was white. The present writings of the enemies of socialism are no different, except that they slander Lenin with the same blind hatred and spitefulness that the Stalinists reserved for Trotsky.

Some of the worst cases of this kind are to be found in Russia. This is not surprising, for two different reasons: firstly, these people have been raised in the Stalinist school of falsification, which based itself on the principle that truth was only an instrument in the service of the ruling elite. The professors, economists and historians were, with a few honourable exceptions, accustomed to adapt their writings to the current ‘line’. The same intellectuals who sang the praises of Trotsky, the founder of the Red Army and leader of the October Revolution, a few years later had no qualms about denouncing him as an agent of Hitler. The same writers who fawned on Joseph Stalin the great Leader and Teacher soon jumped the other way when Nikita Khrushchev discovered the ‘personality cult’. Habits die hard. The methods of intellectual prostitution are the same. Only the master has changed.

There is also another quite separate reason. Many of the capitalists in Russia not long ago carried a Communist Party card in their pocket and spoke in the name of ‘socialism’. In fact, they had nothing to do with socialism, communism or the working class. They were part of a parasitic ruling caste which lived a life of luxury on the backs of the Soviet workers. Now, with the same cynicism that has always characterised these elements, they have openly gone over to capitalism. But this miraculous transformation cannot be consummated so easily. These people feel a compelling need to justify their apostasy by heaping curses on what they professed to believe in only yesterday. By these means they try to throw dust in the eyes of the masses, while salving their own consciences – always supposing that they possess such a thing. Even the worst scoundrel likes to find some justification for his actions.

What the Revolution achieved

The regime established by the October Revolution was neither totalitarian nor bureaucratic, but the most democratic regime yet seen on earth. The October Revolution radically abolished private ownership of the means of production. For the first time in history, the viability of a nationalised planned economy was demonstrated, not in theory but in practice. Over one-sixth of the earth’s surface, in a gigantic, unprecedented experiment, it was proved that it was possible to run society without capitalists, landowners and moneylenders.

Nowadays, it is fashionable to belittle the results achieved, or even to deny them altogether. Yet the slightest consideration of the facts leads us to a very different conclusion. Despite all the problems, deficiencies and crimes (with which, incidentally, the history of capitalism furnishes us in great abundance), the most astonishing advances were achieved by the nationalised planned economy in the Soviet Union in what was, historically speaking, a remarkably short space of time. This is what provoked the fear and loathing which characterised the attitude of the ruling classes of the West. This is what compels them even now to indulge in the most shameless and unprecedented lies and calumnies (of course, always under the guise of the most exquisite ‘academic objectivity’) about the past.

The bourgeois have to bury once and for all the ideals of the October Revolution. Consequently, the collapse of the USSR was the signal for an avalanche of propaganda against the achievements of the planned economies of Russia and Eastern Europe. This ideological offensive by the strategists of Capital against ‘communism’ was a calculated attempt to deny the historical conquests that issued from the Revolution. For these ladies and gentlemen, the Russian Revolution was a historical aberration. For them, there can only possibly be one form of society. Capitalism in their eyes had always existed and would continue to do so. Therefore, there could never be any talk of gains from the nationalised planned economy. The Soviet statistics are said to be merely exaggerations or falsehoods.

‘Figures can’t lie, but liars can figure.’ All the colossal advances in literacy, health and social provision, were hidden by a Niagara of lies and distortions aimed at obliterating the genuine achievements of the past. All the shortcomings of Soviet life – and there were many – have been systematically blown up out of all proportion and used to ‘prove’ there is no alternative to capitalism. Rather than advance, there was decline, they now say. Rather than progress, there was regression. “It has been claimed that the USSR in the eighties was as far behind the United States as was the Russian Empire in 1913,” writes economic historian, Alec Nove, who concludes that “statistical revisions have had a political role in de-legitimising the Soviet regime…” (Alec Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, p. 438)

Against this unprecedented campaign of lies and slander, it is essential that we put the record straight. We do not wish to overburden the reader with statistics. However, it is necessary to demonstrate beyond any doubt the tremendous successes of the planned economy. Despite the monstrous crimes of the bureaucracy, the unprecedented advances of the Soviet Union represent not only a historic achievement, but are, above all, a glimpse of the enormous possibilities inherent in a nationalised planned economy, especially if it were run on democratic lines. They stand out in complete contrast to the crisis of the productive forces of capitalism on a world scale today.

Unprecedented advance

The October Revolution of 1917 brought about the greatest advance of the productive forces of any country in history. Before the Revolution, tsarist Russia was an extremely backward, semi-feudal economy with a predominantly illiterate population. Out of a total population of 150 million people there were only approximately four million industrial workers. That means it was far more backward than Pakistan at the present time.

Under frightful conditions of economic, social and cultural backwardness, the regime of workers’ democracy established by Lenin and Trotsky began the titanic task of dragging Russia out of backwardness on the basis of a nationalised planned economy. The results have no precedent in economic history. Within the space of two decades Russia had established a powerful industrial base, developed industry, science and technology and abolished illiteracy. It achieved remarkable advances in the fields of health, culture and education. This was at a time when the Western world was in the grip of mass unemployment and economic collapse in the Great Depression.

The viability of the new productive system was put to a severe test in 1941-45, when the Soviet Union was invaded by Nazi Germany with all the combined resources of Europe at its disposal. Despite the loss of 27 million lives, the USSR succeeded in defeating Hitler, and went on, after 1945, to reconstruct its shattered economy in a remarkably short space of time, transforming itself into the world’s second power.

Such astonishing advances in a country must give us pause for thought. One can sympathise with the ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution, or oppose them, but such a remarkable transformation in such a short space of time demands the attention of thinking people everywhere.

In a period of 50 years, the USSR increased its gross domestic product nine times over. Despite the terrible destruction of the Second World War, it increased its GDP five times over from 1945 to 1979. In 1950, the GDP of the USSR was only 33 per cent that of the USA. By 1979, it was already 58 per cent. By the late 1970s, the Soviet Union was a formidable industrial power, which in absolute terms had already overtaken the rest of the world in a whole series of key sectors. The USSR was the world’s second biggest industrial producer after the USA and was the biggest producer of oil, steel, cement, tractors, and many machine tools.

Nor is the full extent of the achievement expressed in these figures. All this was achieved virtually without unemployment or inflation. Unemployment like that in the West was unknown in the Soviet Union. In fact, it was legally a crime. (Ironically, this law still remains on the statute books today, although it means nothing.) There might be examples of cases arising from bungling or individuals who came into conflict with the authorities being deprived of their jobs, but such phenomena did not flow from the nature of a nationalised planned economy, and need not have existed. They had nothing in common with either the cyclical unemployment of capitalism or the organic cancer which now affects the whole of the Western world and which currently condemns 35 million people in the OECD countries to a life of enforced idleness.

Moreover, for most of the post-war period, there was little or no inflation. The bureaucracy learned the truth of Trotsky’s warning that “inflation is the syphilis of a planned economy”. After the Second World War, for the most part, they took care to ensure that inflation was kept under control. This was particularly the case with the price of basic items of consumption. Before perestroika (reconstruction), the last time meat and dairy prices had been increased was in 1962. Bread, sugar and most food prices had last been increased in 1955. Rents were extremely low, particularly when compared to the West, where most workers have to pay a third or more of their wages on housing costs. Only in the last period, with the chaos of perestroika, did this begin to break down. With the rush towards a market economy, both unemployment and inflation soared to unprecedented levels.

The USSR had a balanced budget and even a small surplus every year. It is interesting to note that not a single Western government has succeeded in achieving this result (as the Maastricht conditions prove), just as they have not succeeded in achieving full employment and zero inflation, things which also existed in the Soviet Union. The Western critics of the Soviet Union kept very quiet about this, because it demonstrated the possibilities of even a transitional economy, never mind socialism.

From a backward, semi-feudal, mainly illiterate country in 1917, the USSR became a modern, developed economy, with a quarter of the world’s scientists, a health and educational system equal or superior to anything found in the West, able to launch the first space satellite and put the first man into space. In the 1980s, the USSR had more scientists than the USA, Japan, Britain and Germany combined. Only recently was the West compelled to admit grudgingly that the Soviet space programme was far in advance of America’s. The fact that the West still has to use Russian rockets to put men and women into space is sufficient proof of this.

Women and the October Revolution

The great French utopian socialist Fourier saw the position of women as the most graphic indicator of the progress or otherwise of a social regime. The attempt to introduce capitalism in Russia has had the most calamitous consequences in this regard. All the gains for women made by the Russian Revolution, which, incidentally, was begun by striking textile workers on International Women’s Day, are being systematically eliminated. The reactionary face of capitalism is graphically revealed in the position of women in Russia.

The Bolshevik Revolution laid the basis for the social emancipation of women, and although the Stalinist political counter-revolution represented a partial setback, it is undeniable that women in the Soviet Union made colossal strides forward in the struggle for equality. “The October Revolution honestly fulfilled its obligations in relation to woman,” wrote Trotsky. “The young government not only gave her all political and legal rights in equality with man, but, what is more important, did all that it could, and in any case incomparably more than any other government ever did, actually to secure her access to all forms of economic and cultural work.”

The October Revolution was a milestone in the struggle for women’s emancipation. Prior to that, under tsarism, women were regarded as mere appendages of the household. Tsarist laws explicitly permitted a man to use violence against his wife. In some rural areas women were forced to wear veils and were prevented from learning to read and write. Between 1917 and 1927 a whole series of laws were passed giving women formal equality with men. The 1919 programme of the Communist Party boldly proclaimed:

Not confining itself to formal equality of women, the party strives to liberate them from the material burdens of obsolete household work by replacing it by communal houses, public eating places, central laundries, nurseries, etc.

Women were no longer obliged to live with their husbands or accompany them if a change of job meant a change of house. They were given equal rights to be head of the household and received equal pay. Attention was paid to the women’s childbearing role and special maternity laws were introduced banning long hours and night work and establishing paid leave at childbirth, family allowances and child-care centres. Abortion was legalised in 1920, divorce was simplified and civil registration of marriage was introduced. The concept of illegitimate children was also abolished. In the words of Lenin: “In the literal sense, we did not leave a single brick standing of the despicable laws which placed women in a state of inferiority compared with men…”

Material advances were made to facilitate the full involvement of women in all spheres of social, economic and political life – the provision of free school meals, milk for children, special food and clothing allowances for children in need, pregnancy consultation centres, maternity homes, crèches and other facilities. True, the emergence of Stalinism ushered in a series of counter-reforms in the social sphere, which drastically affected the position of women. But with the death of Stalin, the post-war economic growth allowed a steady general improvement: retirement at 55 years, no discrimination in pay and terms of employment, and the right of pregnant women to shift to lighter work with fully paid maternity leave for 56 days before and 56 days after the birth of a child. New legislation in 1970 abolished night work and underground work for women. The number of women in higher education as a percentage of the total rose from 28 per cent in 1927, to 43 per cent in 1960, to 49 per cent in 1970. The only other countries in the world where women constituted over 40 per cent of the total in higher education were Finland, France and the United States.

There were improvements in pre-school care for children: in 1960 there were 500,000 places, but by 1971 this had risen to over five million. The tremendous advances of the planned economy, with the consequent improvements in health care, were reflected in an increase of the life expectancy for women from 30 to 74 years, and the reduction in child mortality by 90 per cent. In 1975 women working in education had risen to 73 per cent of the workforce. In 1959 one-third of women were in occupations where 70 per cent of the workforce were women, but by 1970 this figure had climbed to 55 per cent. By this time, 98 per cent of nurses were women, as were 75 per cent of teachers, 95 per cent of librarians and 75 per cent of doctors. In 1950 there were 600 female doctors of science, but by 1984 it had climbed to 5,600.

Capitalist restoration has rapidly reversed the gains of the past, pushing women back to a position of abject slavery in the hypocritical name of the ‘family’. The biggest part of the burden of the crisis is being placed on the shoulders of women.

Why the Soviet Union collapsed

Yet despite these extraordinary successes, the USSR collapsed. The question that must be addressed is why this occurred. The explanations of the capitalist ‘experts’ are as predictable as they are hollow. Socialism (or communism) failed. End of story. But the commentaries of the Labour leaders, both left and right, are not much better. The right-wing reformists, as always, merely echo the views of the ruling class. From the left reformists, we get an embarrassed silence. The leaders of the Communist Parties in the West, who yesterday uncritically supported all the crimes of Stalinism, now try to distance themselves from a discredited regime, but have no answer to the questions of the workers and youth, who demand serious explanations.

The achievements of Soviet industry, science and technology have already been explained, but there was another side to the picture. The democratic workers’ state established by Lenin and Trotsky was replaced by the monstrously deformed bureaucratic state of Stalin. This was a terrible regression, signifying the liquidation of the political power of the working class, but not of the fundamental socio-economic conquests of October. The new property relations, which had their clearest expression in the nationalised planned economy, remained.

In the 1920s Trotsky wrote a small book called Towards socialism or capitalism? That was always the decisive question for the USSR. The official propaganda was that the Soviet Union was moving inexorably towards the achievement of socialism. In the 1960s Khrushchev boasted that socialism had already been achieved and the USSR was going to build a fully communist society in twenty years. But the truth was that the Soviet Union was moving in another direction altogether.

The movement towards socialism should signify a gradual reduction in inequality. But in the Soviet Union inequality continually increased. An abyss opened up between the masses and the millions of privileged officials and their wives and children, with their smart clothes, big cars, comfortable apartments and dachas. The contradiction was still more glaring because it contrasted with the official propaganda about socialism and communism.

From the standpoint of the masses, economic success cannot be reduced to the amount of steel, cement or electricity produced. Living standards depend above all on the production of commodities that are of good quality, cheap and easily available: clothes, shoes, food, washing machines, televisions and the like. But in those fields the USSR lagged far behind the West. That would not have been so serious but for the fact that some people enjoyed access to these things while most did not.

The reason why Stalinism could last so long, despite all the crying contradictions it created, was precisely the fact that for decades the nationalised planned economy made extraordinary strides forward. But the suffocating rule of the bureaucracy resulted in corruption, mismanagement, bungling and waste on a colossal scale. It undermined the gains of the planned economy. To the degree that the USSR developed to a higher level, the negative effects of bureaucracy had even more damaging consequences.

The bureaucracy always acted as a brake on the development of the productive forces. But whereas the task of building up heavy industry was relatively simple, a modern sophisticated economy with its complex relations between heavy and light industry, science and technology cannot be run by bureaucratic fiat without causing the most serious disruption. The costs of maintaining high levels of military expenditure and the costs of maintaining its grip on Eastern Europe imposed further strains on the Soviet economy.

With all the colossal resources at its disposal, the powerful industrial base and the army of high-class technicians and scientists, the bureaucracy was unable to achieve the same results as the West. In the vital fields of productivity and living standards, the Soviet Union lagged behind. The main reason was the colossal burden imposed on the Soviet economy by the bureaucracy – the millions of greedy and corrupt officials that were running the Soviet Union without any control on the part of the working class.

As a result, the Soviet Union was falling behind the West. As long as the productive forces in the USSR continued to develop, the pro-capitalist tendency was insignificant. But the impasse of Stalinism transformed the situation completely. By the mid-1960s, the system of a bureaucratically controlled planned economy reached its limits. This was graphically expressed by a sharp fall in the rate of growth in the USSR, which declined continually throughout the 1970s, approaching zero under Brezhnev. Once the Soviet Union was not able to obtain better results than capitalism, its fate was sealed.

It was at this point that Ted concluded that the fall of Stalinism was inevitable, a brilliant prediction that he made as early as 1972. From a Marxist point of view, such a perspective was inescapable. Marxism explains that in the final analysis the viability of a given socio-economic system depends on its ability to develop the productive forces. This book explains the whole process in great detail, and shows how in the period after 1965, the growth rate of the Soviet economy began to slow down. Between 1965 and 1970, the growth rate was 5.4 per cent. Over the next seven-year period, between 1971 and 1978, the average rate of growth was only 3.7 per cent.

This compared to an average of 3.5 per cent for the advanced capitalist economies of the OECD. In other words, the growth rate of the Soviet Union was no longer much higher than that achieved under capitalism, a disastrous state of affairs. As a result, the USSR’s share of total world production actually fell slightly, from 12.5 per cent in 1960 to 12.3 per cent in 1979. In the same period, Japan increased its share from 4.7 per cent to 9.2 per cent. All Khrushchev’s talk about catching up with and overtaking America evaporated into thin air. The growth rate in the Soviet Union continued to fall until it was reduced to zero at the end of the Brezhnev period (the ‘period of stagnation’ as it was christened by Gorbachev).

Once this stage had been reached, the bureaucracy ceased to play even the relatively progressive role it had played in the past. This is the reason why the Soviet regime entered into crisis. Ted Grant was the only Marxist to draw the necessary conclusion from this. He explained that once the Soviet Union was unable to get better results than capitalism, the regime was doomed. By contrast, every other tendency, from the bourgeois to the Stalinists, took for granted that the apparently monolithic regimes in Russia, China and Eastern Europe would last almost indefinitely.

The political counter-revolution carried out by the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia completely liquidated the regime of workers’ Soviet democracy, but did not destroy the new property relations established by the October Revolution. The ruling bureaucracy based itself on the nationalised, planned economy and played a relatively progressive role in developing the productive forces. However, they managed this at three times the cost of capitalism, with tremendous waste, corruption and mismanagement, which Trotsky had pointed out even before the war, when the economy was advancing at 20 per cent a year.

But despite its successes, Stalinism did not solve the problems of society. In reality, it represented a monstrous historical anomaly, the result of a peculiar historical concatenation of circumstances. The Soviet Union under Stalin was based on a fundamental contradiction. The nationalised planned economy was in contradiction to the bureaucratic state. Even in the period of the first five-year plans, the bureaucratic regime was responsible for colossal waste. This contradiction did not disappear with the development of the economy, but, on the contrary, grew ever more unbearable until eventually the system broke down completely.

This is now common knowledge. But to be wise after the event is relatively easy. It is not so easy to predict historical processes in advance, but this was certainly the case with Ted Grant’s remarkable writings on Russia, which accurately plotted the graph of the decline of Stalinism and predicted its outcome. Here alone we find a comprehensive analysis of the reasons for the crisis of the bureaucratic regime, which even today remains a book sealed with seven seals for all other commentators on events in the former USSR.

Trotsky’s analysis

The starting point of the present work was the brilliant analysis made by Leon Trotsky in his masterpiece The Revolution Betrayed written in 1936, which even today retains all its original vigour and relevance. No one who seriously wants to understand what has happened in Russia can ignore this great work of Marxist analysis. However, for understandable reasons, Trotsky did not provide a finished, once-and-for-all analysis of the class nature of the Soviet state, but left the question open as to which direction it would finally take.

The great Russian Marxist understood that the fate of the Soviet Union would be determined by the struggle of living forces, which was in turn inseparably connected with developments on a world scale: such developments could not be precisely predicted in advance. In fact, the peculiar way in which the Second World War unfolded had a decisive effect on the destiny of the Soviet Union, which was anticipated by nobody. Trotsky wrote:

It is impossible at present to answer finally and irrevocably the question in what direction the economic contradictions and social antagonisms of Soviet society will develop in the course of the next three, five or ten years. The outcome depends upon a struggle of living social forces – not on a national scale, either, but on an international scale. At every new stage, therefore, a concrete analysis is necessary of actual relations and tendencies in their connection and continual interaction. (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 49)

Trotsky was careful to place a question mark over the future of the Soviet state. His prediction that the Stalinist bureaucracy, in order to preserve their privileges, “must inevitably in future stages seek support for itself in [capitalist] property relations”, was shown to be absolutely correct. The disgusting spectacle of long-standing Communist Party leaders, managers and officials tearing up their Party cards and openly transforming themselves into ‘entrepreneurs’, with the same ease as a man moving from one compartment on a train to another, shows how far the Stalinist regime was from genuine socialism.

Trotsky did not expect the Stalinist regime to last as long as it did. True, in his last work Stalin, he did suggest that the regime might last for decades in its present form, but the book was unfinished at the time of his assassination and he was unable to develop this idea further. The Soviet Union emerged from the Second World War enormously strengthened. The Stalinist regime, which Trotsky regarded as a temporary historical aberration, survived for decades. This had a profound effect on everything, particularly the consciousness of the masses and the bureaucracy itself.

Trotsky had hoped that the Stalinist regime would be overthrown by a political revolution of the working class. But if that did not happen, he raised the possibility at a certain stage that the process of bureaucratic counter-revolution would lead to the overthrow of the property relations established by the October Revolution:

The counter-revolution sets in when the spool of progressive social conquests begins to unwind. There seems no end to this unwinding. Yet some portion of the conquests of the Revolution is always preserved. Thus, in spite of monstrous bureaucratic distortions, the class basis of the USSR remains proletarian. But let us bear in mind that the unwinding process has not yet been completed, and the future of Europe and the world during the next few decades has not yet been decided. The Russian Thermidor would have undoubtedly opened a new era of bourgeois rule, if that rule had not proved obsolete throughout the world. At any rate, the struggle against equality and the establishment of very deep social differentiations has so far been unable to eliminate the socialist consciousness of the masses or the nationalisation of the means of production and the land which were the basic socialist conquests of the Revolution. Although it derogates these achievements, the bureaucracy as not yet ventured to resort to the restoration of the private ownership of the means of production. (Ibid., pp. 405-6)

The perspective of capitalist restoration in Russia and its repercussions was explained with remarkable foresight by Trotsky in 1936:

A collapse of the Soviet regime would lead inevitably to the collapse of the planned economy, and thus the abolition of state property. The bond of compulsion between the trusts and the factories within them would fall away. The more successful enterprises would succeed in coming out on the road of independence. They might convert themselves into stock companies, or they might find some other transitional form of property – one, for example, in which the workers should participate in the profits. The collective farms would disintegrate at the same time and far more easily. The fall of the present bureaucratic dictatorship, if it were not replaced by a new socialist power, would thus mean a return to capitalist relations with a catastrophic decline of industry and culture. (Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, pp. 250-1)

What strikes one is the brilliant way in which Trotsky anticipated the main lines of what actually took place in Russia. In complete contrast to the clarity of Trotsky’s approach we see the theoretical and practical bankruptcy of the theory of ‘state capitalism’, which in different forms has occupied the minds of different ultra-left sects for decades. After the Second World War, Ted Grant developed and extended Trotsky’s analysis of proletarian Bonapartism, particularly in The Marxist Theory of the State, which comprehensively demolished the idea of state capitalism in Russia.

According to this ‘theory’, the regime in the USSR had been capitalist for a very long time. Thus, the workers need not bother to defend the old forms of state ownership (state capitalism) against the nascent bourgeoisie, since there was no difference between them. This line of argument, which would completely disarm the working class in the face of the capitalist counter-revolution, is a glaring example of how a false theory leads inevitably to a disaster in practice.

The crisis of Stalinism had nothing whatsoever in common with the crisis of capitalism (or ‘state capitalism’). The latter is the result of the anarchy of the market and private ownership. But there was no question of a crisis of overproduction in the case of the USSR, which was based on a nationalised planned economy, although one afflicted with all the evils of bureaucracy, corruption and mismanagement.

To this must be added the limiting character of the nation state, which has outlived its usefulness and become a gigantic fetter on the productive forces. This explains why every country, even the biggest superpower, is compelled to participate in the world market. This was predicted in advance by Marx. It is also the reason why the idea of socialism in one country is a reactionary utopia.

Caricature of socialism

What failed in Russia and Eastern Europe was not communism or socialism, in any sense that this was understood by Marx or Lenin, but a bureaucratic and totalitarian caricature. Lenin explained that the movement towards socialism requires the democratic control of industry, society and the state by the proletariat. Genuine socialism is incompatible with the rule of a privileged bureaucratic elite, which will inevitably be accompanied by colossal corruption, nepotism, waste, mismanagement, and chaos.

The nationalised planned economies in the USSR and Eastern Europe achieved astonishing results in the fields of industry, science, health and education. But, as Trotsky predicted as early as 1936, the bureaucratic regime ultimately undermined the nationalised planned economy and prepared the way for its collapse and the return of capitalism.

What is the balance sheet of the October Revolution and the great experiment in planned economy that followed it? What implications do they have for the future of humanity? And what conclusions should be drawn from them? The first observation ought to be self-evident. Whether you are in favour or against the October Revolution, there can be no doubt whatsoever that this single event changed the course of world history in an unprecedented way. The entire twentieth century was dominated by its consequences. This fact is recognised even by the most conservative commentators and those hostile to the October Revolution.

Needless to say, the author of these lines is a firm defender of the October Revolution. I regard it as the greatest single event in human history. Why do I say this? Because here for the first time, if we exclude that glorious but ephemeral event that was the Paris Commune, millions of ordinary men and women overthrew their exploiters, took their destiny in their own hands, and at least began the task of transforming society.

That this task, under specific conditions, was diverted along channels unforeseen by the leaders of the Revolution does not invalidate the ideas of the October Revolution, nor does it lessen the significance of the colossal gains made by the USSR for the 70 years that followed.

The enemies of socialism will reply scornfully that the experiment ended in failure. We reply in the words of that great philosopher Spinoza that our task is neither to weep nor to laugh but to understand. But one would look in vain in all the writings of the bourgeois enemies of socialism to find any serious explanation for what occurred in the Soviet Union. Their so-called analysis lacks any scientific basis because they are motivated by blind hatred that reflects definite class interests.

It was not the degenerate Russian bourgeoisie, but the nationalised planned economy that dragged Russia into the modern era, building factories, roads and schools, educating men and women, creating brilliant scientists, building the army that defeated Hitler, and putting the first man into space.

Despite the crimes of the bureaucracy, the Soviet Union was rapidly transformed from a backward, semi-feudal economy into an advanced, modern industrial nation. In the end, however, the bureaucracy was not satisfied with the colossal wealth and privileges it had obtained through plundering the Soviet state. As Trotsky predicted, they passed over to the camp of capitalist restoration, transforming themselves from a parasitic caste to a ruling class.

The movement towards capitalism has meant a big step backwards for the people of Russia and the former Republics of the USSR. Society was thrown back and had to learn all the blessings of capitalist civilization: religion, prostitution, drugs, and all the other ‘blessings’ of capitalism. For the time being the Putin regime has succeeded in consolidating itself. But its appearance of strength is illusionary. Russian capitalism, like the hut in the Russian fairy tale, is built on chicken’s legs.

The Achilles heel of Russian capitalism is that it is now linked with an umbilical cord to the fate of world capitalism. It is subject to all the storms and stresses of a system that finds itself in a terminal crisis. This will have a profound impact on Russia, both economically and politically. Sooner or later the Russian workers will recover from the effects of the defeat and move into action. When that happens, they will quickly rediscover the traditions of the October Revolution and the ideas of genuine Bolshevism. That is the only way forward for the workers of Russia and the entire world.

London 7th January 2017

1. The Balance Sheet of October

The advances of the planned economy

Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be. (Alfred Tennyson)

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was one of the greatest events in history. If we leave aside the heroic episode of the Paris Commune, for the first time millions of downtrodden workers and peasants took political power into their own hands, sweeping aside the despotic rule of the capitalists and landlords, and set out to create a socialist world order. Destroying the old tsarist regime that held sway for a thousand years, they had conquered one-sixth of the world’s land surface. The ancien régime was replaced by the rule of a new democratic state system: the Soviet of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies. It heralded the beginning of the world revolution, inspiring the hopes and dreams of millions who had lived through the nightmare of the First World War. Notwithstanding the terrible backwardness of Russia, the new Socialist Soviet Republic represented a decisive threat to the world capitalist order. It struck terror into bourgeois circles, who rightly regarded it as a threat to their power and privileges, but comforted themselves with the notion that the Bolshevik regime was likely to only last a matter of weeks. The nationalised property relations that emerged from the revolution, the foundations of an entirely new social system, entered into direct conflict with the capitalist form of society. Despite the emergence of Stalinism, this fundamental antagonism existed right up until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even today events in Russia continue to haunt world politics, like some Banquo’s ghost that continually overshadows the festivities of the capitalist class.

In order to fully appreciate the scope of these achievements, it is necessary to remember the point of departure. In their eagerness to discredit the ideas of genuine socialism, the apologists of the ‘free market’ conveniently forget a few details. In 1917, tsarist Russia was far more backward than present-day India. It lagged far behind the West. It was the barbaric land of the medieval wooden plough, used by peasants who had only achieved emancipation from serfdom two generations before. Russia had been ruled by tsarist despotism for centuries. The industrial working class was a small minority – less than four million out of a total of 150 million. Seventy per cent of the population could neither read nor write. Russian capitalism was extremely feeble and rested upon the crutches of foreign capital: French, British, German, Belgian and other Western powers controlled ninety per cent of Russia’s mines, fifty per cent of her chemical industry, more than forty per cent of her engineering, and forty-two per cent of her banking stock. The October Revolution attempted to transform all this, showing the way forward to the workers everywhere and preparing the road for the world socialist revolution. Despite the immense problems and obstacles, the planned economy revolutionised the productive forces in the USSR and laid the basis for a modern economy. The pre-war period saw the build-up of heavy industry through a series of Five-Year Plans and laid the foundations for the advances of the post-war years.

In 1936, Trotsky wrote that the “underlying service of the Soviet regime lies in its intense and successful struggle with Russia’s thousand-year-old backwardness… The Soviet regime is passing through a preparatory stage, importing, borrowing and appropriating the technical and cultural conquests of the West.” (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 20.) Since that time, the Soviet economy advanced with seven league boots. In the 50 years from 1913 (the height of pre-war production) to 1963, despite two world wars, foreign intervention, civil war, and other calamities, total industrial output rose more than 52 times. The corresponding figure for the USA was less than six times, while Britain struggled to double her output. In other words, within a few decades, on the basis of a nationalised economy, the Soviet Union was transformed from a backward agricultural economy into the second most powerful nation on earth, with a mighty industrial base, a high cultural level and more scientists than the USA and Japan combined.

From a Marxist point of view, the function of technique is to economise human labour. In the 50-year period from 1913 to 1963, the growth of productivity of labour in industry, the key index of economic development, advanced by 73 per cent in Britain and by 332 per cent in the USA. In the USSR, labour productivity rose in the same period by 1,310 per cent, although from a very low base. The periods of tremendous economic advance in Russia largely coincided with periods of crisis or stagnation in the capitalist West. The strides forward of Soviet industry in the 1930s coincided with the great slump and Depression in the capitalist world, accompanied by mass unemployment and chronic poverty. Between 1929 and 1933, American industrial production dropped 48.7 per cent. The American National Research League estimated the number of jobless in March 1933 was 17,920,000. In Germany, there were more than six million unemployed. These comparisons alone show graphically the superiority of a planned economy over the anarchy of capitalist production.

In the former USSR, whilst the population grew by 15 per cent, the number of technicians grew by 55 times; the numbers in full-time education by over six times; the number of books published by 13 times; hospital beds nearly ten times; children at nurseries 1,385 times. The number of doctors per 100,000 people was 205, as compared to 170 in Italy and Austria, 150 in America, 144 in West Germany, 110 in Britain, France and Netherlands, and 101 in Sweden. Life expectancy more than doubled and child mortality fell by nine times. Between 1955 and 1959 urban housing space (state and co-operative) more than doubled, while private space more than tripled in size. By 1970, the number of doctors had increased from 135,000 to 484,000 and the number of hospital beds from 791,000 to 2,224,000.

Despite the terrible blow to agriculture by Stalin’s forced collectivisation in the early 1930s, from which agriculture never fully recovered, progress was made, allowing Russia to feed her population adequately. Such economic advance, in so short a time, has no parallel anywhere in the world. The amount of cultivated land was increased in just three years, between 1953 and 1956, by a staggering 35.9 million hectares, an area equivalent to the total cultivated land of Canada. This achievement lies in stark contrast to the dire position of the masses in India, Pakistan and the rest of the third world. This advance of the Soviet economy is even more incredible given the chronic backwardness that characterised its starting point. The old tsarist economy, a semi-feudal country with outcrops of modern industry mainly owned by foreign capital, was shattered in the First World War. Then came two revolutions, the civil war, the imperialist blockade and foreign intervention and a famine in which six million people died. To this must be added the countless millions of workers, peasants, technicians, and scientists who perished, first in the period of forced collectivisation, then in the Great Purges of the 1930s. Bureaucratic planning pushed the economy forward, but at three times the cost compared to the industrial revolution of the West. The dead weight of mismanagement, waste, corruption and bureaucracy weighed down heavily on the economy, eventually dragging it down to a standstill.

The Second World War in Europe was a further testimony to the achievements of the planned economy. The war had in reality been reduced to a titanic battle between the USSR and Nazi Germany, with Britain and the USA as mere spectators. It cost the USSR an estimated 27 million dead. A million died in the siege of Leningrad alone. Vast areas of Russia were annexed by Hitler or completely destroyed in the Nazi’s ‘scorched earth’ policy. Almost fifty per cent of all urban living space in occupied territory – 1.2 million houses – was destroyed, as were 3.5 million houses in rural areas. “Many towns lay in ruins. Thousands of villages were smashed. People lived in holes in the ground. A great many factories, dams, bridges, which had been put up with so much sacrifice in the first Five-Year Plan period, now had to be rebuilt,” stated historian Alec Nove. (Alec Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, p. 292.)

In the post-war period, without any Marshall Aid programme, the USSR made colossal advances on all fronts. Thanks to the nationalised economy and the plan, the Soviet Union rapidly built up its devastated industries, with growth rates of over 10 per cent. Alongside US imperialism, the USSR had emerged from the war as a world superpower. “World history knows nothing like it,” states Nove. As early as 1953, the USSR had built up a stock of 1.3 million machine tools of all kinds – double what it had pre-war. Between 1945 and 1960, steel production had grown from 12.25 million tons to 65 million tons. In the same period, oil production had risen from 19.4 million tons to 148 million tons, and coal from 149.3 million to 513 million. Between 1945 and 1964, the Soviet national income rose by 570 per cent, compared to 55 per cent in the USA. Let us not forget that the USA emerged from the war with its industries intact and two thirds of the world’s gold in its vaults. In fact, it had benefited enormously from the war effort and was able as a result to impose its domination throughout the capitalist world.

Before the war, the Soviet Union was still far behind not only the USA, but also Britain and Europe. Astonishingly, by the mid-1980s the USSR had overtaken Britain and most other capitalist economies, with the exception of the USA. At least in absolute terms, the USSR occupied the first position in many key fields of production, for example, in the production of steel, iron, coal, oil, gas, cement, tractors, cotton, and many steel tools. In the mid-1980s the Massachusetts Cambridge Engineering Research Association described the Soviet natural gas industry – which doubled production in less than ten years – as a “spectacular success story”. (Financial Times, 14/11/85.) Even in the field of computers, where Russia in the 1970s was said to be ten years behind the West, the gap had been narrowed to a point where Western experts admitted it was only about 2-3 years. The most spectacular proof of the superiority of a planned economy, where it was run well, was the Soviet space programme. Since 1957 Russia had led the ‘space race’. While the Americans landed on the moon, the Russians were building a space station that would take them to the far reaches of the solar system. As a by-product, the Soviet Union was selling the cheap and reliable Proton rockets on world markets at a price some £10 million less than the European Ariane space project.

As late as 1940, two-thirds of the population lived in conditions of rural backwardness. Now, the entire position has been reversed. Two-thirds live in the cities and only one-third on the land, in other words, we have witnessed the same processes that we saw in the West over the last 50 years, i.e. the development of industry leading to an enormous strengthening of the proletariat at the expense of the peasantry and middle layers of society. In the USSR, however, the process (‘proletarianisation’) had been carried to unheard-of lengths, with the concentration of the workforce into gigantic industrial enterprises of 100,000 or more. Today the Soviet proletariat, far from being backward and weak, is the strongest working class on earth. The position as regards education has been transformed. This was one of the main historical gains of the October Revolution. In the USSR, about one worker in three was qualified, and a large number of working class youth had access to university. The total numbers of pupils receiving both higher and secondary technical education quadrupled between 1940 and 1964. By 1970, there were 4.6 million students in the USSR, with 257,000 graduates in engineering (in the US by comparison there were 50,000 graduates in this field). Four times as much per head of population was spent on education in Russia than in Britain. A mere glance at the figures indicates the superiority of a planned economy over all the petty fussing of the reformist leaders in the West who have accepted the need to drastically curtail spending on education, health and welfare generally.

The growth of the economy meant a steady improvement in living standards. The great majority of Russians in the past period[1] possessed such things as TV sets, refrigerators and washing machines. And all this had been achieved without unemployment or inflation. Rents were fixed at about 6 per cent of the monthly income, and were last increased in 1928. A small flat in Moscow, up until recently, cost about £11 a month, which included gas, electricity, telephone and unlimited hot water. Again, bread was around 16 pence a kilo and, like sugar and most basic foodstuffs, last went up in price in 1955. Meat and dairy produce prices were last increased in 1962. This situation only began to change in the 1980s. With the move towards capitalism, this situation has radically changed since subsidies were cut and price controls abolished. In 1993 inflation reached 2,600 per cent and, although it has fallen back since then, still remains high.

Yet the colossal advantages created by a society which had abolished capitalism and landlordism were revealed, at least in outline, by this unprecedented growth. The advances of the Soviet economy over the first sixty years were however extremely uneven and contradictory. They were far from the idyllic picture painted in the past by the ‘Friends of the Soviet Union’. Without doubt, a regime of workers’ democracy would have far outstripped what had been achieved under Stalinism with all its corruption and mismanagement. Within this contradictory development of the Soviet economy lies the key to understanding the collapse of Stalinism in the late 1980s and the move towards capitalist restoration.

The laws of the development of capitalism as a socio-economic system, were brilliantly analysed by Marx in the three volumes of Capital. However, the development of a nationalised planned economy, which is a prerequisite to the movement towards socialism, takes place in an entirely different manner. The laws of capitalism are expressed in the blind play of market forces, through which the growth of the productive forces takes place in an automatic fashion. The law of value, expressed through the mechanism of supply and demand, allocates the resources from one sector to another. There is no plan or conscious intervention. This cannot be the case where the state centralises the economy into its hands. Here a workers’ state occupies the same position in regard to the whole economy as an individual capitalist occupies in the context of a single factory.

For that very reason, the actions of the Soviet government over the past seven decades have played a decisive role – for good or ill – on economic development. “There is no other government in the world,” noted Trotsky, “in whose hands the fate of the whole country is concentrated to such a degree… The centralised character of the national economy converts the state power into a factor of enormous significance.” Under these circumstances, the policy of the regime was decisive. It was the blind alley of bureaucratic rule that brought the fireworks display of economic advance to a shuddering halt. Unlike the development of capitalism, which relies on the market for the allocation of resources, a nationalised economy requires conscious planning and direction. This cannot be undertaken successfully by a handful of bureaucrats in Moscow, even if they were Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. Such a state of affairs requires the involvement of the mass of the population in the running of industry and the state. Only a regime of workers’ democracy would be capable of harnessing the talent and initiative of society. A regime of bureaucratic mismanagement would inevitably lead to the eventual seizure of the economy as it became more sophisticated and technologically advanced. By the 1970s, the Soviet economy had reached a complete impasse. But the reasons for this are the subject of a later chapter.

Suffice to say that, despite the bureaucratic stranglehold of Stalinism, the successes of the planned economy were demonstrated, not on the pages of Capital, but in an industrial arena comprising a sixth part of the earth’s surface, not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity. As Trotsky explained:

Even if the Soviet Union, as a result of internal difficulties, external blows and the mistakes of its leadership, were to collapse – which we firmly hope will not happen – there would remain as an earnest of the future this indestructible fact, that thanks solely to a proletarian revolution, a backward country has achieved in less than ten years, successes unexampled in history. (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 8.)

Was the October Revolution a coup?

In an attempt to discredit the Bolsheviks, no effort has been spared to falsify the historical record. The usual trick is to describe the October Revolution as a coup d’état, that is, a movement carried out by a small minority using conspiratorial methods behind the backs of the majority. The Bolsheviks, so the argument goes, seized power from the Provisional Government which issued from the February Revolution and which, supposedly, represented the democratic will of the people. If only Lenin’s ‘conspiracy’ had not prospered, the story goes, Russia would have entered on the road of Western parliamentary democracy and lived happily ever after. This fairy story has been repeated so many times that it has been uncritically accepted by many. Like any other fairy story its purpose is to lull the wits to sleep. And also like any other fairy story, it is convincing only to very small children.

The first thing which springs to mind is: if the Provisional Government really represented the overwhelming majority, and the Bolsheviks only an insignificant group of conspirators, how did the latter succeed in overthrowing the former? After all, the government possessed (at least on paper) all the might of the state apparatus, the army, the police and the Cossacks, whereas the Bolsheviks were a small party which, at the beginning of the revolution in February had only about 8,000 members in all Russia. How was it possible for such a tiny minority to overthrow a mighty state? If we accept the argument of a coup, then we must assume that Lenin and Trotsky possessed magical powers. This is the very stuff of fairy tales! Sadly, it has no place in real life, or in history.

In reality, the conspiracy theory of history explains nothing. It merely assumes what has to be proved. Such a superficial mode of reasoning, which assumes that every strike is caused by ‘agitators’ and not by the accumulated discontent in a factory, is typical of the police mentality. But when it is seriously advanced by self-styled academics as an explanation for great historical events, one can only scratch one’s head in bewilderment – or else assume that an ulterior motive is present. The motive of the policeman who seeks to attribute a strike to the activities of unseen agitators is quite clear. And this mode of argument is really no different. The essential idea is that the working class is incapable of understanding its own interests (which are, naturally, identical to those of the bosses). Therefore, if they move to take their destiny into their own hands, the only explanation is that they have been misled by unscrupulous demagogues.

This argument, which incidentally can be used against democracy in general, also misses the point. How could Lenin and Trotsky ‘mislead’ the decisive majority of society in such a way that in the short space of nine months, the Bolshevik Party passed from an insignificant minority to win the majority in the soviets, the only really representative organs of society, and take power? Only because the bourgeois Provisional Government had revealed its complete bankruptcy. Only because it had failed to carry out a single one of the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. And this can be demonstrated very easily by one fact alone: the Bolshevik Party took power in October on the basis of the programme of ‘Peace, Bread and Land’. This is the most graphic illustration of the fact that the Provisional Government had failed to achieve any of the most burning needs of the Russian people. This, and this alone, explains the success of the Bolsheviks in October.

The most striking thing about 1917 is precisely the active involvement of the masses at each stage. This, in fact, constitutes the essence of a revolution. In normal periods the majority of men and women are prepared to accept that the most important decisions affecting their lives are taken by others, by the ‘people that know’ – politicians, civil servants, judges, ‘experts’ – but at critical moments, the ‘ordinary’ people begin to question everything. They are no longer content to allow others to decide for them. They want to think and act for themselves. That is what a revolution is. And you can see elements of this in every strike. The workers begin to participate actively, speak, judge, criticise – in a word, decide their own destiny. To the bureaucrat and the policeman (and some historians whose mental processes function on the same wavelength), this seems like a strange and threatening madness. In fact, it is precisely the opposite. In such situations, men and women cease to act like automatons and begin to behave like real human beings with a mind and a will. Their stature is raised in their own eyes. They rapidly become conscious of their own condition and their own aspirations. Under such conditions, they consciously seek out that party and programme that reflects their aspirations, and reject others. A revolution is always characterised by the rapid rise and fall of parties, individuals and programmes, in which the more radical wing tends to gain.

In all Lenin’s speeches and writings of this period, we see a burning faith in the ability of the masses to change society. Far from adopting ‘conspiratorial’ methods, he based himself on appeals to the revolutionary initiatives of the workers, poor peasants and soldiers. In the April Theses, he explained that:

We don’t want the masses to take our word for it. We are not charlatans. We want the masses to overcome their mistakes through experience. (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 36, p. 439, henceforth referred to as LCW.)

Later on, he said:

Insurrection must rely, not upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon the advanced class… Insurrection must rely upon a revolutionary upsurge of the people. (LCW, Vol. 26. p. 22.)

The fact that Lenin here counter-poses the masses to the Party was no accident. Although the Bolshevik Party played a fundamental role in the Revolution, this was not a simple one-way process, but a dialectical one. Lenin pointed out many times that the masses are a hundred times more revolutionary than the most revolutionary party. It is a law that in a revolution, the revolutionary party and its leadership come under the pressure of alien classes. We have seen this many times in history. A section of the leadership at such moments begins to doubt and hesitate. An internal struggle is necessary to overcome these vacillations. This occurred in the Bolshevik Party after Lenin’s return to Russia, when the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd (mainly Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin) adopted a conciliatory attitude to the Provisional Government and even considered fusing with the Mensheviks. The line of the Party was only changed after a sharp internal struggle in which Lenin and Trotsky joined forces to fight for a second revolution in which the working class would take power into its hands.

In this struggle, Lenin appealed directly to the advanced workers over the heads of the Central Committee. He said that “the ‘country’ of the workers and the poor peasants… is a thousand times more leftward than the Chernovs and the Tseretelis, and a hundred times more leftward than we are”. (LCW, Vol. 24, p. 364.) The motor force of the revolution at each stage was the movement of the masses. The task of the Bolsheviks was to give a clear political and organisational expression to this movement, to ensure that it was concentrated at the right moment for the seizure of power, and to avoid premature uprisings which would lead to defeat. For a time, this meant actually holding the masses back. The key Vyborg Committee in Petrograd stated in June: “We have to play the part of the fire-hose.” (Quoted in M. Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, p. 200.) Podvoisky admitted at the Sixth Party Congress in August: “We were forced to spend half our time calming the masses.” (Ibid., p. 200.)

Permanent mobilisation

Numerous witnesses from all parties testify to the extraordinary degree of participation by the masses. In the words of Marc Ferro: “The citizens of the new Russia, having overthrown Tsardom, were in a state of permanent mobilisation.” (Ibid., p. 201.) The prominent Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov recalls that “all Russia… was constantly demonstrating in those days. The provinces had all become accustomed to street demonstrations”. (Ibid., p. 201.)

Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, recalls:

The streets in those days presented a curious spectacle: everywhere people stood about in knots, arguing heatedly and discussing the latest events. Discussion that nothing could interrupt!… The house in which we lived overlooked a courtyard, and even here, if you opened the window at night, you could hear a heated dispute. A soldier would be sitting there, and he always had an audience – usually some of the cooks or housemaids from next door, or some young people. An hour after midnight you could catch snatches of talk – “Bolsheviks, Mensheviks…” At three in the morning: “Milyukov, Bolsheviks…” At five – still the same street-corner-meeting talk, politics, etc. Petrograd’s white nights are always associated in my mind now with those all-night political disputes. (N. Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, pp. 351-2.)

The same picture is presented by John Reed:

At the Front the soldiers fought out their fight with the officers, and learned self-government through their committees. In the factories those unique Russian organisations, the Factory-Shop Committees, gained experience and strength and a realisation of their historical mission by combat with the old order. All Russia was learning to read, and reading – politics, economics, history – because the people wanted to know… In every city, in most towns, along the Front, each political faction had its newspaper – sometimes several. Hundreds of thousands of pamphlets were distributed by thousands of organisations, and poured into the armies, the villages, the factories, the streets. The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the Revolution into a frenzy of expression. From Smolny Institute alone, the first six months, went out every day tons, car-loads, train-loads of literature, saturating the land. Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable. And it was not fables, falsified history, diluted religion, and the cheap fiction that corrupts – but social and economic theories, philosophy, the works of Tolstoy, Gogol, and Gorky…

Lectures, debates, speeches – in theatres, circuses, school-houses, clubs, Soviet meeting-rooms, Union headquarters, barracks… Meetings in the trenches at the Front, in village squares, factories… What a marvellous sight to see Putilovsky Zavod (the Putilov factory) pour out its forty thousand to listen to Social Democrats, Socialist Revolutionaries, Anarchists, anybody, whatever they had to say, as long as they would talk! For months in Petrograd, and all over Russia, every street-corner was a public tribune. In railway-trains, street-cars, always the spurting up of impromptu debate, everywhere. (John Reed, op. cit. p. 14-5)

The thirst for ideas was reflected in an enormous interest in the printed word. John Reed describes the situation with the soldiers in the front line:

We came down to the front of the Twelfth Army, back of Riga, where gaunt and bootless men sickened in the mud of desperate trenches; and when they saw us they started up, with their pinched faces and the flesh showing blue through their torn clothing, demanding eagerly, “Did you bring anything to read?” (Ibid., p. 16, emphasis in original.)

The Bolshevik Party gained because it stood for the only programme that showed a way out. Lenin’s celebrated slogan was – ‘Patiently explain!’ The masses were able to experience the programmes of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries in practice, and discarded them. The votes for the Bolshevik candidates in the soviets steadily increased to the point where, by September they had won the majority in Petrograd, Moscow, Kiev, Odessa and all the major cities. At this point, the question of a transfer of power from the discredited Provisional Government, which represented only itself, to the soviets, the democratic organs of the mass of workers and soldiers (overwhelmingly peasants) was an imperative necessity. The growth of the Bolshevik Party in this period is something without precedent in the history of political parties. From only around 8,000 members in February, it grew to 177,000 by the Sixth Congress in July. Moreover, we must remember that this was achieved despite an extremely weak apparatus, and in conditions of severe persecution. Krupskaya writes:

The growth of Bolshevik influence, especially among the troops, was obvious. The Sixth Congress welded the forces of the Bolsheviks still closer. The appeal issued in the name of the Sixth Party Congress spoke about the counter-revolutionary position taken by the Provisional Government, and about the impending world revolution and the battle of classes. (N. Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, pp. 369-70.)

The numerical growth of the Party only partly expressed the rapid growth in its mass influence, above all in the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets. Marcel Liebman describes the Party’s progress thus:

Lenin’s Party recorded, all through the year 1917, remarkable and almost constant election successes. Whereas at the beginning of the revolution it had only small representation in the Petrograd Soviet, by May the Bolshevik group in the workers’ section of that institution possessed almost an absolute majority. One month later, during the first conference of the factory committees of Petrograd, three-quarters of the 568 delegates expressed support for the Bolshevik theses. Yet it was only at the end of the summer that the Leninists reaped the full harvest of their policy of opposition to the Provisional Government. In the Petrograd municipal elections in June the Bolsheviks received between 20 and 21 per cent of the votes; in August, when the Party was still suffering from the consequences of the July days, it received 33 per cent. In Moscow in June the Bolsheviks had received a little over 12 per cent of the votes. In September, they won an absolute majority, with 51 per cent of the votes. That their grip was especially strong among the working class is clear from the advance of their representation at the factory-committee conferences. In Petrograd, by September, there were no more Mensheviks or Social Revolutionaries present at the regional meetings of these bodies, their places having been taken by Bolsheviks. (Liebman, op. cit. p. 206.)

We will give the last word on this subject to a prominent opponent of Bolshevism, who was also an eye witness and historian of the Russian Revolution, the Menshevik Sukhanov. Describing the situation in the last days of September, he writes:

The Bolsheviks were working stubbornly and without let-up. They were among the masses, at the factory-benches, every day without a pause. Tens of speakers, big and little, were speaking in Petersburg, at the factories and in the barracks, every blessed day. For the masses, they had become their own people, because they were always there, taking the lead in details as well as in the most important affairs of the factory or barracks. They had become the sole hope… The mass lived and breathed together with the Bolsheviks. (Ibid., p. 207.)

Party and class

The Russian Revolution took place over nine months. During that period, the Bolshevik Party, using the most democratic means, won over the decisive majority of the workers and poor peasants. The fact that they succeeded so easily in overcoming the resistance of the Kerensky forces can only be explained by this fact. Moreover, as we shall see, there is no way that the Bolsheviks could have held onto power without the support of the overwhelming majority of society. At every stage, the decisive role was played by the active intervention of the masses. This is what set its stamp on the whole process. The ruling class and its political and military representatives could only grind their teeth, but were powerless to prevent power from slipping from their hands. True, they were involved in constant conspiracies against the Revolution, including the armed uprising of General Kornilov, which aimed at overthrowing Kerensky and instituting a military dictatorship, but all of this foundered on the movement of the masses.

The fact that the masses supported the Bolsheviks was accepted by everyone at the time, including the staunchest enemies of the Revolution. Naturally, they put this down to all kinds of malign influences, ‘demagogy’, the immaturity of the workers and peasants, their supposed ignorance, and all the rest of the arguments which are essentially directed against democracy itself. How it came about that the masses only became ignorant and immature when they ceased to support the Provisional Government must be one of the greatest mysteries since Saint Paul saw the light on the road to Damascus. But if we leave aside the obvious motivation of spitefulness, malice and impotent rage, we can see that the following passage from a right-wing paper constitutes a valuable admission that the Bolsheviks indeed enjoyed the support of the masses. On the 28th October, Russkaya Volya wrote the following:

What are the chances of Bolshevik success? It is difficult to answer that question, for their principal support is the … ignorance of the popular masses. They speculate on it, they work upon it by a demagogy which nothing can stop. (Quoted in J. Reed, op. cit., p. 298, my emphasis.)

It is impossible to understand what happened in 1917 without seeing the fundamental role of the masses. The same is true of the French Revolution of 1789-94, a fact which historians frequently fail to grasp (there are exceptions, notably the anarchist Kropotkin, and, in our own times, George Rudé). But here for the first time in history, if we exclude the brief but glorious episode of the Paris Commune, the working class actually succeeded in taking power and at least beginning the socialist transformation of society. That is precisely why the enemies of socialism are compelled to lie about the October Revolution and slander it. They cannot forgive Lenin and the Bolsheviks for having succeeded in leading the first successful socialist revolution, for proving that such a thing is possible, and therefore pointing the way for future generations. Such a precedent is dangerous! It is therefore necessary to ‘prove’ (with the assistance of the usual crew of ‘objective’ academics) that this was all a very bad business, and must not be repeated.

The claim that the October Revolution was only a coup is often justified by pointing to the relatively small numbers actually involved in the insurrection itself. This apparently profound argument does not resist the slightest scrutiny. In the first place, it confuses the armed insurrection with the revolution, that is to say, it confuses the part with the whole. In reality, the insurrection is only a part of the revolution – a very important part, it is true. Trotsky likens it to the crest of a wave. As a matter of fact, the amount of fighting that took place in Petrograd was very small. One can say that it was bloodless. The reason for this was that nine-tenths of the tasks were already accomplished beforehand, by winning over the decisive majority of the workers and soldiers. It was still necessary to use armed force to overcome the resistance of the old order. No ruling class has ever surrendered power without a fight. But resistance was minimal. The government collapsed like a house of cards, because nobody was prepared to defend it.

In Moscow, mainly because of the mistakes of the local Bolsheviks, who did not act with sufficient energy, the counter-revolutionary Junkers initially went onto the offensive and carried out a massacre. Despite this, incredibly, they were allowed to go free on giving their word that they would not participate in any further violent acts against the Soviet power. This kind of thing was quite typical of the early days of the Revolution, characterised by a certain naïvety on the part of the masses who had yet to understand of what terrible violence the defenders of the old order were capable. Far from being a bloodthirsty regime of terror, the Revolution was an extraordinarily benign affair – until the counter-revolution showed its real nature. The White General P. Krasnov was one of the first to lead an uprising against the Bolsheviks at the head of the Cossacks. He was defeated by the Red Guards and handed over by his own Cossacks, but again was released on parole. Of this Victor Serge writes correctly:

The revolution made the mistake of showing magnanimity to the leader of the Cossack attack. He should have been shot on the spot. At the end of a few days he recovered his liberty, after giving his word of honour never to take up arms again against the revolution. But what value can promises of honour have towards enemies of fatherland and property? He was to go off to put the Don region to fire and the sword. (V. Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution, p. 87.)

Do the relatively small numbers involved in the actual fighting mean that the October overturn was a coup? There are many similarities between the class war and war between nations. In the latter, too, only a very small proportion of the population are in the armed forces. And only a small minority of the army is at the front. Of the latter, even in the course of a major battle, only a minority of the soldiers are normally engaged in fighting at any given time. Experienced soldiers know that a lot of time is spent waiting in idleness, even during a battle. Very often the reserves are never called into action. But without the reserves, no responsible general would order an advance. Moreover, it is not possible to wage war successfully without the wholehearted support of the population at home, even though they do not directly participate in the fighting. This lesson was carved on the nose of the Pentagon in the latter stages of the Vietnam war.

The argument that the Bolsheviks were able to take power without the masses (a coup) is usually linked to the idea that power was seized, not by the working class, but by a party. Again, this argument is entirely false. Without organisation – the trade unions and the party – the working class is only raw material for exploitation. This was already pointed out by Marx long ago. True, the proletariat possesses enormous power. Not a wheel turns, not a light bulb shines, without its permission. But without organisation, this power remains as just potential. In the same way, steam is a colossal force, but without a piston box, it will be harmlessly dissipated in the air. In order that the strength of the working class should cease to be a mere potential and become a reality, it must be organised and concentrated in a single point. This can only be done through a political party with a courageous and far-sighted leadership with a correct programme. The Bolshevik Party under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky was such a party. Basing themselves on the movement of the masses – a magnificent movement that represented all that was alive, progressive and vibrant in Russian society, they gave it form, purpose and a voice. That is its cardinal sin from the standpoint of the ruling class and its echoes in the labour movement. That is what lies behind their hatred and loathing of Bolshevism, their vitriol and spiteful attitude towards it, which completely conditions their attitude even three generations later.

Without the Bolshevik Party, without the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, the Russian workers would never have taken power in 1917, despite all their heroism. The revolutionary party cannot be improvised on the spur of the moment, any more than a general staff can be improvised on the outbreak of war. It has to be systematically prepared over years and decades. This lesson has been demonstrated by the whole of history, especially the history of the twentieth century. Rosa Luxemburg, that great revolutionary and martyr of the working class, always emphasised the revolutionary initiative of the masses as the motor force of revolution. In this, she was absolutely right. In the course of a revolution the masses learn rapidly. But a revolutionary situation, by its very nature, cannot last for long. Society cannot be kept in a permanent state of ferment, nor the working class in a state of white-hot activism. Either a way out is shown in time, or the moment will be lost. There is not enough time to experiment or for the workers to learn by trial and error. In a life and death situation, errors are paid for very dearly! Therefore, it is necessary to combine the ‘spontaneous’ movement of the masses with organisation, programme, perspectives, strategy and tactics – in a word, with a revolutionary party led by experienced cadres. There is no other way.

It is necessary to add that at every stage the Bolsheviks always had before them the perspective of the international revolution. They never believed that they could hold power in Russia alone. It is a striking testimony to the vitality of the October Revolution that, in spite of all the vicissitudes, all the crimes of Stalinism and the terrible destruction of the Second World War, the basic conquests were maintained for so long, even when the revolution, deprived of aid from the rest of the world, was thrown upon its own resources. Even in the last period, the collapse of Stalinism was not the result of any inherent defect of the nationalised planned economy, but flowed from treachery and betrayal of the bureaucracy which, as Trotsky brilliantly predicted, sought to reinforce its privileges by selling out to capitalism.

All power to the soviets!

As a corollary of the slanders against October, we have the attempt to paint the February Revolution in glowing colours. The ‘democratic’ regime of Kerensky, it is alleged, would have led Russia into a glorious future of prosperity, if only the Bolsheviks had not spoilt it all. Alas! The idealisation of the February Revolution does not stand up to the least scrutiny. The February 1917 Revolution – which had overthrown the old tsarist regime – had not solved one of the tasks of the national-democratic revolution: land reform, a democratic republic, the national question. It was not even capable of bringing about the most elementary demand of the masses – for an end to the imperialist slaughter and the conclusion of a democratic peace. In short, the Kerensky regime in the course of nine months gave ample proof of its total inability to meet the most basic needs of the Russian people. It was this fact, and this alone, which enabled the Bolsheviks to come to power with the support of the decisive majority of society.

Emerging from the ravages of the first world war, tsarist Russia was a semi-colony particularly of France, Germany, and Britain. Russia produced less than 3 per cent of world industrial output. It could not compete on a world scale. For every hundred square kilometres of land, there were only 0.4 kilometres of rail track. Around 80 per cent of the population eked out a bare existence on the land, which was fragmented into millions of smallholdings. The Russian bourgeoisie had entered onto the stage of history too late. It had failed to carry out any of the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution that had been solved in Britain and France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. On the contrary, the Russian capitalists leaned on imperialism on the one hand and the tsarist autocracy for support on the other. They were linked by a thousand threads to the old landlords and aristocrats. Horrified by the 1905 Revolution, the bourgeoisie had become more conservative and suspicious of the workers. They had no revolutionary role to play. “Whereas in the dawn of its history it was too unripe to accomplish a Reformation,” states Trotsky, “when the time came for leading a revolution it was overripe.” (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. 1, p. 28.)

The only revolutionary class in Russia was the young, small, but highly concentrated proletariat. Arising from the law of uneven and combined development, a backward country assimilates the material and intellectual conquests of the advanced countries. It does not slavishly reproduce all the stages of the past, but skips over a whole series of intermediate stages. This gives rise to a contradictory development, where the most advanced features are superimposed upon extremely backward conditions. Foreign investment had meant the creation of highly advanced concentrated factories and industries in Russia. The peasants were uprooted, thrown into industry, and proletarianised overnight. It fell to this youthful proletariat – which had none of the conservative traditions of its counterpart in the West – to take Russian society out of the impasse it faced. The attempt to counter-pose the February regime to October has no foundation whatever. Had the Bolsheviks not taken power, the future that faced Russia was not one of prosperous capitalist democracy, but fascist barbarism under the jackboot of Kornilov or one of the other White generals. Such a development would have signified, not advance, but a terrible regression.

In the October Revolution, the victorious proletariat first had to tackle the basic problems of the national-democratic revolution, then went on, uninterruptedly, to carry out the socialist tasks. This was the very essence of the permanent revolution. Capitalism had broken at its weakest point, as Lenin explained. The October Revolution represented the beginning of the world socialist revolution. The revolution of February had spontaneously thrown up committees of workers and soldiers, as had the revolution of 1905. The committees, or soviets, became transformed from extended strike committees into political instruments of the working class in the struggle for power, and later into administrative organs of the new workers’ state. They were far more democratic and flexible than the territorially elected bodies of bourgeois democracy. To paraphrase Marx, capitalist democracy allows the workers every five years to elect parties to misrepresent their interests. In Russia, with the establishment of peasants’ soviets, they embraced the overwhelming majority of the population.

Throughout the nine months between February and October, the soviets represented a rival power to the capitalist state. It was a period of ‘dual power’. One of the key demands of the Bolsheviks throughout this time was: “All power to the soviets!” Months of patient explanation and the harsh experience of events won over the overwhelming majority of the workers and poor peasants to Bolshevism. The October Revolution brought to power a new revolutionary government, which took its authority from the Congress of Soviets. Contrary to common belief, it was not a one-party regime but originally a coalition government of Bolsheviks and Left Social Revolutionaries. The urgent task facing the government was to spread the authority of Soviet power – the rule of the working class – throughout all Russia. On the 5th January 1918, the government issued a directive which declared that the local soviets were from then on invested with all the powers held by the former administration and added: “The entire country must be covered with a network of new soviets.”

The system of soviets was not, as the reformists claim, an exclusively Russian phenomenon. The November 1918 Revolution in Germany spontaneously threw up similar bodies. They were the embodiment of workers’ self-organisation. In every German port, town and barracks, workers’, soldiers’ and sailors’ councils were established and held effective political power. Soviets were established in Bavaria and during the Hungarian Revolution of 1919. In Britain also, Councils of Action were established in 1920, which were described by Lenin as “soviets in all but name”, as well as during the 1926 General Strike (committees of action and trades councils). Although the Stalinists and reformists tried to prevent the reappearance of soviets, they re-emerged in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, with the creation of the Budapest Workers’ Council.

In its origins, the soviet – the most democratic and flexible form of popular representation yet devised – was simply an extended strike committee. Born in mass struggle, the soviets (or workers’ councils) assumed an extremely broad sweep, and ultimately became transformed into organs of revolutionary direct government. Beside the local soviets, elected in every city, town and village, in every large city there were also ward (raionny) soviets as well as district or provincial (oblastny or gubiernsky) soviets, and finally delegates were elected to the Central Executive Committee of the All-Russian Soviets in Petrograd. The delegates were elected at every unit of labour to the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies, and subject to immediate recall. There was no bureaucratic elite. No deputy or official received more than the wage of a skilled worker.

The Soviet government issued a whole series of economic, political, administrative and cultural decrees in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. At a grassroots level, there was a mushrooming of soviet organisation. Everywhere attempts were made to do away with the distinction between legislative and executive functions, to allow individuals to participate directly in the application of decisions they had made. As a consequence, the masses began to take their destiny into their own hands. In November 1917 Lenin wrote an appeal in Pravda: “Comrades, working people! Remember that now you yourselves are at the helm of state. No one will help you if you yourselves do not unite and take into your hands all affairs of state… Get on with the job yourselves; begin right at the bottom, do not wait for anyone.” (LCW, Vol. 26, p. 297.) He was anxious for the masses to involve themselves in the running of industry and the state.

In December 1917 Lenin wrote:

One of the most important tasks of today, if not the most important, is to develop [the] independent initiative of the workers, and of all the working and exploited people generally, develop it as widely as possible in creative organisational work. At all costs, we must break the old, absurd, savage, despicable and disgusting prejudice that only the so-called upper classes, only the rich, and those who have gone through the school of the rich, are capable of administering the state and directing the organisational development of socialist society. (LCW, Vol. 26, p. 409.)

The myth of the Constituent Assembly

Among all the numerous legends put into circulation in order to portray the October Revolution in an unfavourable light, that of the Constituent Assembly is perhaps the most persistent. According to this, the Bolsheviks before the revolution had advocated a democratically elected parliament (Constituent Assembly), yet after the revolution they disbanded it. Since they were in a minority, the argument goes, they decided to dissolve the democratically elected parliament and resort to dictatorship. This argument overlooks a number of fundamental questions. In the first place, the demand for a Constituent Assembly – which undoubtedly played a progressive role in mobilising the masses, especially the peasantry, against the tsarist autocracy – was only one of a series of revolutionary-democratic demands, and not necessarily the most important one. The masses were won over to the revolution on other demands, notably ‘Peace, Bread and Land’. These, in turn, became a reality only because they were linked to another demand – all power to the soviets.

The February Revolution failed precisely because it was not capable of satisfying these most pressing needs of the population. The complete impotence of the Kerensky regime was not accidental. It reflected the reactionary character of the Russian bourgeoisie. The capitalist class of Russia was a very weak class, tied hand and foot to the landlords, and subordinate to world imperialism. Only the revolutionary transfer of power into the hands of the most resolutely revolutionary part of society, the working class, made possible the ending of the war and the distribution of land to the peasants. This was the function of the October Revolution.

The calling of elections to the Constituent Assembly the following year was almost in the nature of an afterthought. The Bolsheviks intended to use this to try to mobilise the majority of the peasantry and rouse them to political life. But above all from the standpoint of the peasantry, formal parliamentary democracy is worse than useless if it does not carry out policies that solve their most pressing needs. Under certain circumstances, the Constituent Assembly could have played a progressive role. But in practice, it became clear that this Constituent Assembly could only be an obstacle and a rallying point for the counter-revolution. Here, the slow-moving mechanism of parliamentary elections lagged far behind the swift current of revolution. The real attitude of the peasantry was revealed in the civil war, when the right Social Revolutionaries (SRs) and most of the Mensheviks collaborated with the Whites.

At the time of the October Revolution, the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies represented all that was alive and dynamic in Russian society. The working class voted for the Bolsheviks in the soviets, which were much more democratic than any parliament. At the same time, the soldiers, of whom a big majority were peasants, also voted overwhelmingly for the Bolsheviks.

The figures in table 1.1 show, on the one hand, a growing polarisation between the classes, to the right (note the vote of the bourgeois Kadet party) and the left, and a collapse of the parties of the ‘centre’, the Mensheviks and SRs. But the most striking feature is the sweeping victory of the Bolsheviks, who, from a mere 12 per cent in June were now in an absolute majority. What this shows is that the Bolsheviks had the support of the overwhelming majority of the workers, and a sizeable section of the peasants. In November 1917, the Menshevik leader Y.O. Martov himself had to admit that “almost the entire proletariat supports Lenin”. (Quoted in Liebman, op. cit., p. 218.) Precisely on this basis, the Bolsheviks were able to overthrow the discredited Provisional Government and take power with a minimum of resistance. These facts alone give the lie to the myth of the October Revolution as a coup.

(1.1) Election results in the Soviets in June and September 1917



Percentages %


























Thus, the democratic legitimacy of the October Revolution was clearly established. But this was not reflected in the elections to the Constituent Assembly, where the Bolsheviks only got 23.9 per cent of the votes (to which must be added the votes of the Left SRs).

Despite this, the Bolsheviks remained firmly in power. Why? The Right SRs had traditionally led the peasants, going back to the time of the Narodniks at the turn of the century. These middle-class elements were the traditional village aristocracy – teachers, lawyers, and the ‘gentlemen who spoke well’. During the First World War, many of them became army officers. At the time of the February Revolution, these democratic revolutionaries exercised a considerable influence among the peasant soldiers. Their vague and amorphous ‘revolutionism’ corresponded to the first stirring of consciousness among the peasantry. But the tide of revolution flows fast. Soon after the February Revolution, the Right SRs betrayed the peasantry by abandoning the programme of peace and the revolutionary struggle for land.

(1.2) 1917 Constituent Assembly (in votes)

Peasant Parties

Russian SRs


Ukrainian SRs


Ukrainian socialist coalition


Total SRs and allies


Workers Parties





Other socialists


Bourgeois and other right-wing Parties



Conservative Russian groups


Nationalist groups


(1.3) 1917 Constituent Assembly (in seats)

Russian SRs


Ukrainian SRs


Left SRs






Other socialists






Nationalist groups


Where could the peasants in uniform turn for support? Once awakened to political life, the peasant masses, especially the most active layer in the army, whose experience of the war raised them to a higher level of understanding than their brothers in the villages, soon came to understand the need for a revolutionary overturn in order to conquest peace, bread and land. This could only be achieved by a revolutionary alliance with the proletariat. The realisation of this fact was registered in the Soviet elections by a sharp swing to the left. By the autumn of 1917, the old Right SR leaders had lost their base among the soldiers, who went over in droves to the Left SRs and their Bolshevik allies.

The elections to the Constituent Assembly were organised in a hurry after the revolution on the basis of electoral lists drawn up before October. The peasantry had not yet had time to understand the processes that were taking place. The split between the left and right SRs had not yet taken place. There was not time for the peasantry as a whole to grasp the meaning of the October Revolution and Soviet power, particularly in the vital fields of land reform and peace. The dynamics of a revolution cannot be easily translated into the cumbersome mechanism of parliamentarism. In the elections to the Constituent Assembly, the inert masses of the backward countryside were thrown into the balance. Weighed down by the ballast of a thousand years of slavery, the villages lagged behind the towns.

These right SRs were not the political representatives but the political exploiters of the peasantry. Implacably hostile to the October Revolution, they would have handed back power to the landlords and capitalists in the kind of democratic counter-revolution which robbed the German working class of power in November 1918. There were two mutually exclusive centres of power. The reactionaries rallied around the slogan: ‘All Power to the Constituent Assembly.’ Faced with this situation, the Bolsheviks, with the support of the Left SRs, did not hesitate to place the interests of the revolution before constitutional niceties. Basing themselves on the soviets, the Bolsheviks dissolved the Constituent Assembly. There was no resistance. This incident now causes an indignant reaction in some quarters. And yet, we are left with a self-evident contradiction. If the Constituent Assembly really represented the will of the masses, why did nobody defend it? Not a hand was raised in its defence, precisely because it was an unrepresentative anachronism. The reason for this was very well explained by the celebrated English historian of the Russian Revolution, E.H. Carr:

The SRs had gone to the polls as a single party presenting one list of candidates. Its election manifesto had been full of lofty principles and aims but, though published on the day after the October Revolution, had been drafted before that event and failed to define the party attitude towards it. Now three days after the election the larger section of the party had made a coalition with the Bolsheviks, and formally split away from the other section which maintained its bitter feud against the Bolsheviks. The proportion between Right and Left SRs in the Constituent Assembly – 370 to 40 – was fortuitous. It was entirely different from the corresponding proportion in the membership of the peasants’ congress, and did not necessarily represent the views of the electors on a vital point which had not been before them. “The people,” said Lenin, “voted for a party which no longer existed.” Reviewing the whole issue two years later Lenin found another argument which was more cogent than it appeared at first sight. He noted that in the large industrial cities the Bolsheviks had almost everywhere been ahead of the other parties. They secured an absolute majority in the two capitals taken together, the Kadets here being second and the SRs a poor third. But in matters of revolution the well-known principle applied: ‘the town inevitably leads the country after it; the country inevitably follows the town.’ The elections to the Constituent Assembly, if they did not register the victory of the Bolsheviks, had clearly pointed the way to it for those who had eyes to see. (E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923, Vol. 1, pp. 121-2.)

This was admitted in so many words by Kerensky himself, who wrote the following in his memoirs:

The opening of the Constituent Assembly ended as a tragic farce. Nothing happened to give it the quality of a memorable final stand in defence of freedom. (Alexander Kerensky, The Kerensky Memoirs – Russia and History’s Turning-Point, p. 470.)

The peasantry and the soviets

The October Revolution was almost peaceful because no class was prepared to defend the old order, either the Provisional Government or the Constituent Assembly, as Kerensky here acknowledges. The peasants were not prepared to fight to defend the Constituent Assembly. By contrast, in the civil war which followed, the majority of the peasants rallied to the Bolsheviks once they had experienced the rule of the White Guards, and saw the role of the right SRs and Mensheviks who invariably paved the way for the White counter-revolution. Under the dictatorship of the various White generals, the old landlords returned. The peasants maybe did not understand much about politics, but they understood that the Bolsheviks alone were prepared to give them the land – which they did by decree on the day after the revolution – whereas the so-called peasant parties were merely a fig leaf for the return of the old slave owners. And that was enough to decide the issue.

In his recently published book A People’s Tragedy – The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 which, for some reason or other, purports to be a serious study of the Russian Revolution, Orlando Figes loses no opportunity to display a particularly poisonous hostility to Bolshevism. This is typical of the new style – one might almost call it a genre of ‘academic’ histories, the sole intention of which is to slander Lenin and identify the October Revolution with Stalinism. Yet even this author is compelled to admit that:

There was an even more profound indifference among the peasantry, the traditional base of support of the SR Party. The SR intelligentsia had always been mistaken in their belief that the peasants shared their veneration for the Constituent Assembly. To the educated peasants, or those who had long been exposed to the propaganda of the SRs, the Assembly perhaps stood as a political symbol of ‘the revolution.’ But to the mass of the peasants, whose political outlook was limited to the narrow confines of their own village and fields, it was only a distant thing in the city, dominated by the ‘chiefs’ of the various parties, which they did not understand, and was quite unlike their own political organisations. It was a national parliament, long cherished by the intelligentsia, but the peasants did not share the intelligentsia’s conception of the political nation, its language of ‘statehood’ and ‘democracy,’ of ‘civic rights and duties,’ was alien to them, and when they used this urban rhetoric they attached to it a specific ‘peasant’ meaning to suit the needs of their own communities. The village soviets were much closer to the political ideals of the mass of the peasants, being in effect no more than their own village assemblies in a more revolutionary form. Through the village and volost soviets the peasants were already carrying out their own revolution on the land, and they did not need the sanction of a decree by the Constituent Assembly (or, for that matter, the Soviet government itself) to complete this. The Right SRs could not understand this fundamental fact: that the autonomy of the peasants through their village soviets had, from their point of view, reduced the significance of any national parliament, since they had already attained their volia, the ancient peasant ideal of self-rule. To be sure, out of habit, or deference to their village elders, the mass of the peasants would cast their votes for the SRs in the election to the Constituent Assembly. But very few were prepared to fight the SR battle for its restoration, as the dismal failure of the Komuch would prove in the summer of 1918. Virtually all the resolutions from the villages on this question made it clear that they did not want the Assembly to be restored as the ‘political master of the Russian land,’ in the words of one, with a higher authority than the local soviets. (O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy – The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924, pp. 518-9.)

And as an illustration of this fact, Figes quotes the words of the Right SR Boris Sokolov, who was closely acquainted with the opinions of the rank and file peasant from his work as an SR agitator in the army:

The Constituent Assembly was something totally unknown and unclear to the mass of the front-line soldiers, it was without doubt a terra incognita. Their sympathies were clearly with the soviets. These were the institutions that were near and dear to them, reminding them of their own village assemblies… I more than once had occasion to hear the soldiers, sometimes even the most intelligent of them, object to the Constituent Assembly. To most of them it was associated with the State Duma, an institution that was remote to them. “What do we need some Constituent Assembly for, when we already have our soviets, where our own deputies can meet and decide everything?” (Ibid., p. 519.)

Incidentally, the indignant protests of bourgeois historians on this subject reveal either complete ignorance of history, or else a highly selective memory. The leader of the English Revolution, Oliver Cromwell, used his Model Army to disperse the Parliament for reasons very similar to those that convinced the Bolsheviks of the need to close down the Constituent Assembly. The moderate Presbyterians who dominated the Parliament represented the first unclear incoherent awakening of the Revolution. At a certain stage, they became transformed into a conservative force, blocking the road of the radicalised petty bourgeois masses who wanted to go further. There is no doubt that the removal of this obstacle was fundamental to the victory of the Roundheads.

Analogous processes occurred in the French Revolution, when the most consistent revolutionary trend associated with the Jacobins repeatedly purged the National Convention and indeed sent its opponents to the guillotine. Again, it is clear that without such determined action, the revolution could never have triumphed against the powerful enemies ranged against it inside and outside the borders of France. All kinds of legalistic and moralistic arguments have been levelled against the Jacobins. But these miss the point. The essence of a revolution is that it is a decisive break with the old order. The ferocious resistance of the old possessing classes sometimes compels it to take drastic measures for its own self-preservation. But nobody has yet explained how Cromwell or Robespierre could have acted in any other way and succeeded in carrying out the Revolution. After dispersing the Long Parliament, Cromwell commented that: “There was not so much as the barking of a dog or any general and visible repining at it.” (Sir Charles Firth, Oliver Cromwell, p. 319.) The same could be said of the reaction of the masses to the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. At any rate, up to the imperialist intervention, the Bolshevik Revolution was infinitely more peaceable than either of its great precursors.

At the Third All-Russian Congress of Soviets in January 1918, Lenin said:

Very often delegations of workers and peasants come to the government and ask, for example, what to do with such-and-such a piece of land. And frequently I have felt embarrassed when I saw that they had no very definite views. And I said to them: you are the power, do all you want to do, take all you want, we shall support you… (LCW, Vol. 26, p. 468.)

At the Seventh Party Congress, a few months later, he emphasised that “socialism cannot be implemented by a minority, by the Party. It can be implemented only by tens of millions when they have learned to do it themselves”. (LCW, Vol. 27, p. 135.)

These statements of Lenin, which can be duplicated at will, reflected his deep-rooted confidence in the ability of working people to decide their own future. It contrasts sharply to the lies of the bourgeois historians who have attempted to smear the democratic ideas of Leninism with the crimes of Stalinism. This ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was in every sense a genuine workers’ democracy, unlike the later totalitarian regime of Stalin. Political power was in the hands of the masses represented through the soviets. At first even the capitalist parties (apart from the extremely reactionary and anti-Semitic Black Hundreds) were left free to organise. It was only the exigencies of the subsequent civil war and the dangerous activities of the saboteurs and counter-revolutionaries that forced the Bolsheviks to ban other parties, as a temporary measure. For instance, the Left Social Revolutionaries moved into opposition and threatened to sabotage the revolution by murdering the German ambassador Count Mirbach in order to push Russia into war with Germany. The Left SRs also carried out a failed assassination attempt against Lenin in 1918, but which eventually cut short his life six years later.

No sooner had the workers and peasants taken power, than they were faced with armed imperialist intervention to overthrow the Soviet power. Early in 1918, British and French naval forces occupied Murmansk and Archangel in northern Russia. Within days their forces were marching on Petrograd. In April, the Japanese landed at Vladivostok, and an “Omsk All-Russian government” was established. Within two months this government was overthrown by a coup which established Admiral Kolchak as dictator. Meanwhile, German imperialism occupied Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and the Ukraine in collusion with White Guard Generals Krasnov and Wrangel. The pretext used was to assist the “population struggling against Bolshevik tyranny”. In a pincer movement, the Bolsheviks were in danger of losing Petrograd in the autumn of 1919. “We were between hammer and anvil,” wrote Trotsky. (My Life, p. 411.)

A lot of noise is made about the so-called Red Terror and the violent means used by the Revolution to defend itself. But what is conveniently forgotten is that the actual October Revolution was virtually peaceful. The real bloodbath occurred in the civil war when the Soviet republic was invaded by 21 foreign armies. The Bolsheviks inherited a ruined country and a shattered army. They were immediately faced with an armed rebellion by Kerensky and the White officers, and later by the armies of foreign intervention. At one stage, the Soviet power was reduced to just two provinces, the equivalent of the ancient Principality of Muscovy. Yet the Bolsheviks managed to beat back the counter-revolution. Even if we assume (incorrectly) that Lenin and Trotsky somehow managed to seize power at the head of a small group of conspirators without mass support, the idea that they could go on to defeat the combined might of the White Guards and foreign armies on such a basis, is frankly absurd.

War necessarily involves violence, and civil war more than any other. The weak and embattled workers’ state was compelled to defend itself arms in hand, or else surrender to the tender mercies of the White armies, which, in common with all counter-revolutionary armies in world history, used the most bestial and bloodthirsty methods to terrorise the workers and peasants. Had they triumphed, it would have meant an ocean of blood. There is nothing more comical than the assertion that, if only the Bolsheviks had not taken power, Russia would have embarked on the road of a prosperous capitalist democracy. How does this idea square with the facts? As early as the summer of 1917, the rising of General Kornilov showed that the unstable regime of dual power established in February was breaking down. The only question was who would succeed in establishing a dictatorship – Kerensky or Kornilov.

To all the hypocritical attacks against the Bolsheviks for the so called Red Terror there is a very simple answer. Even the most democratic capitalist government on earth will never tolerate the existence of armed groups which attempt to overthrow the existing order by violent means. Such groups are immediately outlawed, and the leaders put in jail, or executed. This is regarded as perfectly lawful and acceptable. Yet the same standards are not applied to the embattled Bolshevik government, fighting for survival and attacked by enemies on all sides. The hypocrisy is even more nauseating if we bear in mind the fact that precisely these ‘democratic’ Western governments organised the most military offensives against the Bolsheviks at this time.

Already at the Versailles Peace Conference, the governments of the victorious Allies were preparing to overthrow the Bolsheviks:

Bullitt in his testimony before the Senate foreign relations committee thus described the prevailing mood at the Paris conference in April 1919: “Kolchak made a 100-mile advance, and immediately the entire press of Paris was roaring and screaming on the subject, announcing that Kolchak would be in Moscow within two weeks; and therefore everyone in Paris, including I regret to say members of the American commission, began to grow very lukewarm about peace in Russia, because they thought Kolchak would arrive in Moscow and wipe out the Soviet government”. (E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923, Vol. 3, p. 121, footnote no. 1.)

The anti-democratic nature of the Russian bourgeoisie was evident even before the October Revolution, when they yearned for a Napoleon to restore ‘order’. According to the capitalist Stepan Georgevich Lianozov:

Revolution is a sickness. Sooner or later the foreign powers must intervene here – as one would intervene to cure a sick child, and teach it how to walk… Transportation is demoralised, the factories are closing down, and the Germans are advancing. Starvation and defeat may bring the Russian people to their senses. (Quoted in Reed, op. cit., p. 34.)

Incidentally, the revolting slander that Lenin was a ‘German agent’, which is, incredibly, still in circulation, is at complete variance with the facts. It was not Lenin but the Russian bourgeoisie that were pro-German and wanted to sell Russia to the enemy in 1917, as Lianozov’s remarks show. This was not the exception but the rule after October. These ‘patriots’ actually longed for the arrival of the German army. They preferred the foreign jackboot to the rule of the Russian workers and peasants. This pro-German mood was widespread among the propertied classes. Louise Bryant recalled a conversation at the house of a well-to-do Russian family:

At the table the talk drifted to politics. Every one began to malign the Bolsheviki. They said it would be wonderful if the Germans would only come in and take possession… A discussion of the Germans followed and most of the company expressed themselves in favour of a German invasion. Just for a test I asked them to vote on what they really would rather have – the soldiers’ and workers’ government or the Kaiser. All but one voted in favour of the Kaiser. (Louise Bryant, Six Red Months in Russia, pp. 126 and 131.)

Naked reaction

In the civil war that followed October, one reactionary general succeeded another. But the idea that democracy would have been implanted on Russian soil on the bayonets of the White guard is self-evident nonsense. Behind the White’s lines, the old landlords and capitalists returned and took their revenge against the workers and peasants. The great majority of the peasants were not socialists, although they sympathised with the Bolsheviks for their revolutionary agrarian programme. But once they realised that the White armies were on the side of the landlords, any support they might have had melted away. The White generals represented tsarist reaction in its most naked form. They anticipated Fascism, although they lacked its mass base. But that would not have made their rule any more pleasant. In payment for the fright they had suffered, and in order to teach the masses a lesson, they would have unleashed a reign of terror on a massive scale. The Russian workers and peasants would have been subjected to the nightmare of a bourgeois totalitarian regime for years if not decades, on the lines of Franco or Pinochet. This would have been a regime of terrible social, cultural and economic decline.

The horrible atrocities of the White armies under A.I. Denikin, A.V. Kolchak, N. Yudenich, P.N. Wrangel, and others, reflected the panic of a doomed elite. Wrangel boasted that, after shooting one Red prisoner in ten, he would give the others the chance to prove their ‘patriotism’ and ‘atone for their sins’ in battle. Red prisoners were tortured to death, rebellious peasants hanged, and ghastly pogroms were organised against the Jews in the occupied areas. And everywhere the power of the landlords was restored. As a means of self-defence, the Bolsheviks resorted to taking hostages. Victor Serge recalls:

Since the first massacres of Red prisoners by the Whites, the murders of Volodarsky and Uritsky and the attempt against Lenin (in the summer of 1918), the custom of arresting and, often, executing hostages had become generalised and legal. Already the Cheka (the Extraordinary Commission for Repression against counter-revolution, speculation, and desertion), which made mass arrests of suspects, was tending to settle their fate independently, under formal control by the Party, but, in reality, without anybody’s knowledge. It was becoming a State within the State, protected by military secrecy and proceedings in camera. The Party endeavoured to head it with incorruptible men like the former convict Dzerzhinsky, a sincere idealist, ruthless but chivalrous… (V. Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1901-1941, p. 80, emphasis in original.)

In such a situation, excesses were inevitable, although Lenin and Dzerzhinsky did their best to prevent them. White atrocities provoked a violent backlash:

However, the massacres at Munich did reinforce the terrorist state of mind, and the atrocities committed at Ufa by Admiral Kolchak’s troops, who burned Red prisoners alive, had lately enabled the Chekists to prevail against those Party members who hoped for a greater degree of humanity. (Ibid., p. 83.)

The main defence of the Revolution did not lie in the Cheka, but in the revolutionary internationalist policies of the Bolsheviks. Their revolutionary propaganda was having an effect on the war-weary troops of the imperialist armies. Discontent and open mutiny in the armies of intervention forced the imperialists to withdraw. The international solidarity of the working class saved the Russian Revolution. The following extract gives a rough idea of the situation:

Serious mutinies in the first months of 1919 in the French fleet and in French military units landed in Odessa and other Black Sea ports led to an enforced evacuation at the beginning of April. Of the troops of several nationalities under British command on the Archangel front the Director of Military Operations at the war Office reported in March 1919 that their morale was “so low as to render them a prey to the very active and insidious Bolshevik propaganda which the enemy are carrying out with increasing energy and skill.” The details were disclosed much later through official American reports. On the 1st March 1919, a mutiny occurred among French troops ordered to go up to the line; several days earlier a British infantry company “refused to go to the front,” and shortly afterwards an American company “refused for a time to return to duty at the front”. (E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923, Vol. 3, p. 134.)

After the defeat of Kolchak, the Bolsheviks attempted to normalise the situation. In January 1920, with the approval of Lenin and Trotsky, Dzerzhinsky recommended the abolition of the death sentence throughout the country, except in districts where there were military operations. On the 17th January, the decree was passed by the government and signed by Lenin as president of the Council of People’s Commissars. But within three months the situation changed again. Supported by Britain and France, the reactionary Polish regime of Pilsudski attacked Soviet Russia. The Poles captured Kiev. The Revolution was in mortal danger. The death penalty was reintroduced and the Cheka was given enlarged powers. Here, yet again, we see how foreign intervention aimed at restoring the old order in Russia compelled the Revolution to use violent methods to defend itself.

Only a hypocrite would deny the right of a people to defend itself against the threat of bloody counter-revolution by all the means at its disposal. Of course, if one considers that it is better for the masses simply to turn the other cheek and meekly accept oppression, then the methods of the Bolsheviks must stand condemned. Such a philosophy can only mean the permanent acceptance of each and every reactionary regime that ever existed. It would, in fact, rule out the process of social progress in general. Not morality or love of humanity, but only the cowardly defence of the status quo, that is the rule of the exploiters, is the real motive of those who slander the October Revolution.

What crushed the White generals was not superior force of arms, but mass desertion, mutiny and constant risings in occupied areas. Under Trotsky, the Red Army was built into a revolutionary fighting force of more than five million soldiers. The White General Count Kidovstev could offer the masses very little: “To start with, it is clear that you must have a military dictatorship, and afterwards that might be combined with a business element…”

Only the Bolsheviks prevented this catastrophe, organising the revolutionary people on a war footing. Under the inspired leadership of Leon Trotsky, the shattered remnants of the old army were rapidly welded into a new force – the Red Army. The very fact that the Red Army could be so rapidly created out of nothing is sufficient proof of the mass base of the revolution. At the outset, few people would have given much for the survival of the new regime. Against all the odds, the Red Army beat back the enemy on all fronts.

Trotsky’s remarkable achievement was recognised even by the enemies of the revolution, as the following quotations from German officers and diplomats prove:

Max Bauer afterwards paid tribute to Trotsky as “a born military organiser and leader,” and added:

“How he set up a new army out of nothing in the midst of severe battles and then organised and trained his army is absolutely Napoleonic.”

And Hoffmann passed the same verdict:

“Even from a purely military standpoint one is astonished that it was possible for the newly recruited Red troops to crush the forces, at times still strong, of the White generals and to eliminate them entirely.” (E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923, Vol. 3, p. 326.)

This victory of the oppressed underdogs in open struggle against their former masters is without doubt one of the most inspiring episodes in the annals of human history, so rich in defeated slave rebellions and similar tragedies. Again, we are entitled to ask the question to the slanderers of October: How does it come about that this tiny, unrepresentative group of conspirators succeeded in defeating the powerful White guard armies, backed by 21 foreign armies? Such a feat was only conceivable on the basis that the Bolsheviks had the active support, not only of the working class, but also of broad layers of the poor and middle peasants. At this point, the whole myth of the conspiracy of a minority collapses under its own weight. The Bolshevik Revolution was no coup, but the most popular revolution in history. Only this explains how they were able, against all the odds, not only to take power, but to hold onto it firmly. And all this was done on the basis of a workers’ democracy, a regime which gave the working class far greater rights than even the most democratic bourgeois regime.

Lenin’s internationalism

The tide of revolution was sweeping throughout Europe. In November 1918, the German Revolution swept away the Hohenzollern dynasty, forcing Kaiser Wilhelm to seek safety in the Netherlands. The revolution put an end to the First World War, as soviets were formed throughout Germany. General Golovin reported on his negotiations with Winston Churchill in May 1919 concerning continued British military intervention as follows: “The question of giving armed support was for him the most difficult one; the reason for this was the opposition of the British working class to armed intervention…” Mutinies in the French Fleet off Odessa, and in the other Allied armies, finally sealed the fate of further military expeditions to Russia. In 1920, the dockers of London’s East India Docks refused to load the Jolly George with secret munitions for Poland – for use against Soviet Russia.

The British prime minister Lloyd George wrote in a confidential memorandum to Clemenceau at the Versailles Peace Conference:

The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent but of anger and revolt amongst the workmen against pre-war conditions. The whole existing order in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to the other. (E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923,Vol. 3, pp. 135-6.)

With the cessation of foreign intervention, the Red Army quickly mopped up the remnants of the White armies. The news of revolution in Europe led the Bolshevik Karl Radek to declare: “The world revolution had come. The mass of the people heard its iron tramp. Our isolation was over.” Tragically, this proved premature. The first wave of revolution handed power to the leaders of Social Democracy, who derailed and betrayed the movement. Lenin saw the defeat of the first wave of the European revolution as a terrible blow that served to isolate the Soviet republic for a period. This was no secondary matter, but a matter of life or death for the revolution. Lenin and the Bolsheviks had made it abundantly clear that if the revolution was not spread to the West, they would be doomed. On the 7th March 1918, Lenin weighed up the situation:

Regarded from the world-historical point of view, there would doubtlessly be no hope of the ultimate victory of our revolution if it were to remain alone, if there were no revolutionary movements in other countries. When the Bolshevik Party tackled the job alone, it did so in the firm conviction that the revolution was maturing in all countries and that in the end – but not at the very beginning – no matter what difficulties we experienced, no matter what defeats were in store for us, the world socialist revolution would come – because it is coming; would mature – because it is maturing and will reach full maturity. I repeat, our salvation from all these difficulties is an all-European revolution. (LCW, Vol. 27, p. 95.)

He then concluded: “At all events, under all conceivable circumstances, if the German Revolution does not come, we are doomed.” (LCW, Vol. 27, p. 98.) Weeks later he repeated the same position: “Our backwardness has put us in the front-line, and we shall perish unless we are capable of holding out until we shall receive powerful support from workers who have risen in revolt in other countries.” (Ibid., p. 232.)

The main task was to hold on to power for as long as possible. Lenin never envisaged the prolonged isolation of the Soviet state. Either the isolation would be broken or the Soviet regime would be doomed. Everything depended upon the world revolution. Its delay created enormous difficulties that were to have profound consequences. Instead of the withering away of the state, the opposite process took place. On the basis of destitution aggravated by the civil war and economic blockade, the “struggle for individual existence”, to use Marx’s phrase, did not disappear or soften, but assumed in succeeding years an unheard-of ferocity. Rather than building on the foundations of the most advanced capitalism, the Soviet regime was attempting to overcome pre-socialist and pre-capitalist problems. The task became “catch up with Europe and America”. This was very far from the “lowest stage of communism” envisaged by Marx. The Bolsheviks were forced to tackle economic and cultural problems that had long ago been solved in the West. Lenin once declared that socialism was “Soviet power plus electrification” to illustrate the basic task at hand.

This was no recipe for a ‘Russian road to socialism’. On the contrary, it was always linked to the perspective of world revolution. Nevertheless, it was an attempt to grapple with the isolation of the workers’ state encircled by hostile capitalist powers. This terrible backwardness of Russia, coupled with the isolation of the revolution, began to bear down on the Soviet working class. Civil war, famine and physical exhaustion forced them into political apathy and gave rise to increasing bureaucratic deformations in the state and party. International assistance was vital to ensure the survival of the young Soviet republic. All the Bolsheviks could do was to hold on to power – despite all the odds – for as long as possible until assistance came from the West.

History gives nothing free of cost. Having made a reduction on one point – in politics – it makes us pay the more on another – in culture. The more easily (comparatively, of course) did the Russian proletariat pass through the revolutionary crisis, the harder becomes now its socialist constructive work. (L. Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life, p. 20.)

It would not be difficult to establish beyond doubt Lenin’s position on the necessity for world revolution. Indeed, unless the Soviet state succeeded in breaking out of its isolation, he thought that the October Revolution could not survive for any length of time. This idea is repeated time after time in Lenin’s writings and speeches after the Revolution. The following are just a few examples. They could be multiplied at will:

24th January 1918:

We are far from having completed even the transitional period from capitalism to socialism. We have never cherished the hope that we could finish it without the aid of the international proletariat. We never had any illusions on that score… The final victory of socialism in a single country is of course impossible. Our contingent of workers and peasants which is upholding Soviet power is one of the contingents of the great world army, which at present has been split by the world war, but which is striving for unity… We can now see clearly how far the development of the Revolution will go. The Russian began it – the German, the Frenchman and the Englishman will finish it, and socialism will be victorious. (LCW, Vol. 26, pp. 465-72.)

8th March 1918:

The Congress considers the only reliable guarantee of the consolidation of the socialist revolution that has been victorious in Russia to be its conversion into a world working-class revolution. (LCW, from Resolution on War and Peace, Vol. 27. p. 119.)

23rd April 1918:

We shall achieve final victory only when we succeed at last in conclusively smashing international imperialism, which relies on the tremendous strength of its equipment and discipline. But we shall achieve victory only together with all the workers of other countries, of the whole world… (LCW, Vol. 27, p. 231.)

14th May 1918:

To wait until the working classes carry out a revolution on an international scale means that everyone will remain suspended in mid-air… It may begin with brilliant success in one country and then go through agonising periods, since final victory is only possible on a world scale, and only by the joint efforts of the workers of all countries. (LCW, Vol. 27, pp. 372-3.)

29th July 1918:

We never harboured the illusion that the forces of the proletariat and the revolutionary people of any one country, however heroic and however organised and disciplined they might be, could overthrow international imperialism. That can be done only by the joint efforts of the workers of the world… We never deceived ourselves into thinking this could be done by the efforts of one country alone. We knew that our efforts were inevitably leading to a worldwide revolution, and that the war begun by the imperialist governments could not be stopped by the efforts of those governments themselves. It can be stopped only by the efforts of all workers; and when we came to power, our task … was to retain that power, that torch of socialism, so that it might scatter as many sparks as possible to add to the growing flames of socialist revolution. (LCW, Vol. 28, pp. 24-5.)

8th November 1918:

From the very beginning of the October Revolution, foreign policy and international relations have been the main questions facing us. Not merely because from now on all the states of the world are being firmly linked by imperialism into one, dirty, bloody mass, but because the complete victory of the socialist revolution in one country alone is inconceivable and demands the most active co-operation of at least several advanced countries, which do not include Russia… We have never been so near to world proletarian revolution as we are now. We have proved we were not mistaken in banking on world proletarian revolution… Even if they crush one country, they can never crush the world proletarian revolution, they will only add fuel to the flames that will consume them all. (LCW, Vol. 28, pp. 151-64.)

20th November 1918:

The transformation of our Russian Revolution into a socialist revolution was not a dubious venture but a necessity, for there was no other alternative: Anglo-French and American imperialism will inevitably destroy the independence and freedom of Russia if the world socialist revolution, world Bolshevism, does not triumph. (LCW, Vol. 28, p. 188.)

15th March 1919:

Complete and final victory on a world scale cannot be achieved in Russia alone; it can be achieved only when the proletariat is victorious in at least all the advanced countries, or, at all events, in some of the largest of the advanced countries. Only then shall we be able to say with absolute confidence that the cause of the proletariat has triumphed, that our first objective – the overthrow of capitalism – has been achieved. We have achieved this objective in one country, and this confronts us with a second task. Since Soviet power has been established, since the bourgeoisie has been overthrown in one country, the second task is to wage the struggle on a world scale, on a different plane, the struggle of the proletarian state surrounded by capitalist states. (LCW, Vol. 29, pp. 151-64.)

5th December 1919:

Both prior to October and during the October Revolution, we always said that we regard ourselves and can only regard ourselves as one of the contingents of the international proletarian army… We always said that the victory of the socialist revolution therefore, can only be regarded as final when it becomes the victory of the proletariat in at least several advanced countries. (LCW, Vol. 30, pp. 207-8.)

20th November 1920:

The Mensheviks assert that we are pledged to defeating the world bourgeoisie on our own. We have, however, always said that we are only a single link in the chain of the world revolution, and have never set ourselves the aim of achieving victory by our own means. (LCW, Vol. 31, p. 431.)

End of February 1922:

But we have not finished building even the foundations of socialist economy and the hostile powers of moribund capitalism can still deprive us of that. We must clearly appreciate this and frankly admit it; for there is nothing more dangerous than illusions… And there is absolutely nothing terrible … in admitting this bitter truth; for we have always urged and reiterated the elementary truth of Marxism – that the joint efforts of the workers of several advanced countries are needed for the victory of socialism. (LCW, Vol. 33, p. 206.)

Lenin’s uncompromising internationalism was not the product of sentimental utopianism, but on the contrary, of a realistic appraisal of the situation. Lenin was well aware that the material conditions for socialism did not exist in Russia, but they did exist on a world scale. The world socialist revolution would prevent the revival of those barbarous features of class society which Marx referred to as “all the old crap” by guaranteeing at its inception a higher development than capitalist society. This was the reason why Lenin placed such strong emphasis on the perspective of international revolution, and why he devoted so much time and energy to the building of the Communist International.

Quite rapidly on the basis of a worldwide plan of production and a new world division of labour, this would give rise to a mighty impulse to the productive forces. Science and modern technique would be used to harness nature and turn deserts into fertile plains. All the destruction of the planet and the appalling waste of capitalism would be brought to an end. Within a generation or so the material basis for socialism would be laid. Over time, the tremendous growth of production would eliminate all material inequality and provide for a superabundance of things that would universally raise the quality of life to unheard-of levels. All the basic human needs would be satisfied by such a planned world economy. As a consequence, classes would dissolve into society, together with the last vestiges of class society – money and the state. This would give rise to genuine communism and the replacement of the domination of man by man with the ‘administration of things’, to use Engels’ expression.

Yet the overthrow of capitalism did not follow this pattern. Rather than the working class coming to power in the advanced industrial countries, the capitalist system was to break, in Lenin’s words, ‘at its weakest link’. Weak Russian capitalism paid the price for the bankruptcy of world capitalism. The Russian bourgeois had come on to the historic stage too late and was incapable of carrying through the tasks of the national-democratic revolution, which had been carried through long ago in the West. However, through the law of uneven and combined development[2] , foreign capital had established the largest and most modern industries in the cities of Russia, uprooting the peasantry and creating a proletariat virtually overnight. This new working class, on the basis of experience, was to look towards the most modern ideas of the workers’ movement that reflected its needs – Marxism – and was the first proletariat to carry through the socialist revolution to a conclusion.

The fact that Russia was a backward country would not have been a problem if such a revolution was a prelude to a successful world socialist revolution. That was the aim of the Bolshevik Party under Lenin and Trotsky. Internationalism was no sentimental gesture, but was rooted in the international character of capitalism and the class struggle. In the words of Trotsky:

Socialism is the organisation of a planned and harmonious social production for the satisfaction of human wants. Collective ownership of the means of production is not yet socialism, but only its legal premise. The problem of a socialist society cannot be abstracted from the problem of the productive forces, which at the present stage of human development are worldwide in their very essence. (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, p. 1237.)

The October Revolution was regarded as the beginning of the new world socialist order.

The price of isolation

The foregoing is sufficient to prove that Lenin and the Bolshevik Party never envisaged the Russian Revolution as a self-sufficient act, but as the beginning of the world socialist revolution. The Russian Revolution acted as a beacon to the workers of the world. In particular, it gave a mighty impetus to the German Revolution. But the cowardice of the Social-Democratic leaders in Western Europe led to the defeat of the revolution in Germany, Italy and other countries, and the isolation of the Russian Revolution in conditions of appalling backwardness. Under these circumstances, the Stalinist political counter-revolution became inevitable. The bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution did not emerge from some theoretical flaw in Bolshevism, but from crushing backwardness.

The young Soviet Republic had been saved by international working class solidarity, but isolation was the cause of enormous cost and suffering. The Russian working class was stretched to breaking point. Physically exhausted and numerically weakened, they were faced with insurmountable cultural, economic and social obstacles. Herculean efforts were needed simply to hold out against imperialist encirclement.

Lenin had an honest and realistic attitude to the terrible problems that the Russian proletariat faced as a result of isolation and backwardness. In January 1919, he explained in a speech to the Russian trade unions:

The workers were never separated by a Great Wall of China from the old society. And they have preserved a good deal of the traditional mentality of capitalist society. The workers are building a new society without themselves having become new people, or cleansed of the filth of the old world; they are still standing up to their knees in that filth. We can only dream of clearing the filth away. It would be utterly utopian to think this could be done all at once. It would be so utopian that in practice it would only postpone socialism to kingdom come. (LCW, Vol. 25, pp. 424-5.)

As a result of the civil war and the sabotage by the Russian capitalists, the Soviet government was forced to introduce a sharp change in policy. Originally, the Bolsheviks had intended to leave the bulk of industry in private hands until the small Russian working class had learned to manage industry themselves. This would take time. Given the cultural backwardness of Russia, it was thought that, through workers’ control, the proletariat would acquire the necessary knowledge, learn the art of management, and eventually take over completely the running of industry and the state. In the meantime, the workers’ state was forced to bide its time, maintain private industry under workers’ control, and rely to a large extent on the old state bureaucracy to run the state apparatus. This could be maintained, it was hoped, until help came from the workers in the West. The Russian workers could take power, but they could not hold onto power indefinitely: everything depended on the world revolution. Even in an advanced capitalist country, it would have been difficult at that time to have immediately introduced workers’ control and management of industry and the state. In that case, how much more so in backward Russia?

The military defence of the Revolution was paramount. The millions who enrolled into the Red Army had to be fed and clothed. Requisitioning was vital if the workers and soldiers were to survive. The whole of Soviet society was put on a war footing. The so-called policy of War Communism represented a desperate and heroic attempt to defend the revolution against all the odds. But the sabotage of big business, which looked to the counter-revolution to restore its position, the pressure of the workers themselves, as well as the needs of the civil war, forced the Bolsheviks to carry through the wholesale nationalisation of the key sectors of the economy sooner than they intended. Between July and December 1918, a total of 1,208 enterprises were taken into state ownership. These were the heavy industries, the decisive basis of the Russian economy.

The first years of the Soviet power were characterised by acute economic difficulties, partly the result of war and civil war, partly as a result of shortages of both materials and skilled manpower, and partly the opposition of the peasant small property owners to the socialist measures of the Bolsheviks. During the civil war nine million perished through famine, disease and freezing conditions. The economy was in ruins and on the verge of collapse. In order to put a stop to this catastrophic decline, drastic measures were introduced to get industry moving, to feed the hungry workers and to end the drift from town to country. For a temporary period, it meant the militarisation of labour. The critics of October point an accusing finger at Bolshevism for this policy, as if there was any alternative under conditions of war and famine. The real responsibility for this situation lies at the door of imperialism, which inflicted unspeakable horrors on the Russian people in its armed intervention against the Revolution.

There is no more disgusting distortion than the attempt to smear the memory of Lenin and Trotsky by linking the policy of War Communism and the harsh measures necessitated by the defence of the revolution in war with the monstrous totalitarian regime of Stalin. As a matter of fact, even the most democratic bourgeois government finds it necessary to restrict democratic rights in time of war. During the Second World War, the British workers temporarily accepted all kinds of limitations on their rights, and did so in the main willingly, in the belief that they were fighting against Nazism to ‘defend democracy’. To a far greater degree the Russian workers accepted the need for stern discipline to defeat the White armies. Power was in the hands of the workers’ soviets. Even in conditions of terrible civil war, there was more democracy than in any other period in history. One only has to glance at the minutes of the Congresses of the Communist Party and the Third International, which were held annually even in these conditions, to see the complete freedom to debate, discuss and criticise. Nothing could be further from a totalitarian regime than the atmosphere of freedom which characterised the workers’ state during the first five years of its existence. However, in the last analysis, the possibility of maintaining and deepening Soviet democracy depended on the material conditions.

A key question was the relation of industry to agriculture. This was just another way of expressing the relation of the proletariat to the peasantry. The mass of peasants supported the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks as a means of obtaining land. But after the revolution, the attitude of the peasants to the Soviet regime was determined more and more by its ability to provide the villages with cheap commodities in exchange for agricultural produce. Normally, the peasants’ food and grain surpluses would be exchanged for the products of industry. But with the collapse of production, there were no goods to exchange for the peasants’ product. To stave off starvation in the towns, armed detachments requisitioned grain to keep the war industries going. There was no alternative. That was the essential meaning of War Communism. Despite these measures, the period was one of economic disruption and falling production. The relations with the peasantry were being stretched to the limits. This system of regimentation, based upon strict centralisation and the introduction of quasi-military measures into all fields of life, flowed from the difficulties of the revolution isolated in a backward, war-shattered country, under conditions of civil war and foreign intervention.

The conditions of civil war, together with the chronic inflation of the period, brought trade between town and countryside to a virtual standstill. This meant the workers in the towns and cities were on the point of starvation, and famine was widespread. The ghastly conditions of the workers in the towns led to a mass exodus to the countryside in search of food. Already by 1919 the number of industrial workers declined to 76 per cent of the 1917 level, while that of building workers fell to 66 per cent, railway workers to 63 per cent. The figure for industrial workers generally fell to less than half from 3,000,000 in 1917 to 1,240,000 in 1920. The population of Petrograd alone fell from 2,400,000 in 1917 to 574,000 in August 1920.

Unprecedented collapse

In 1920, the production of iron ore and cast iron fell to 1.6 per cent and 2.4 per cent of their 1913 levels. The best record was for oil, which stood at 41 per cent of its 1913 level. Coal attained 17 per cent. The general production of fully manufactured goods in 1920 stood at 12.9 per cent of their 1913 value. Agricultural production dropped in two years (1917-19) by 16 per cent, the heaviest losses being sustained by those products exported from the villages to the town: hemp fell by 26 per cent, flax by 32 per cent, fodder by 40 per cent. Lenin described the period of War Communism as “communism in a besieged fortress”. In these years, there had been an unprecedented collapse of industry and agriculture. Inflation spiralled out of control. 1921 marked a year of further economic decline. The harvest reached a mere 37.6 million tons, only 43 per cent of the pre-war average. As a consequence, millions more perished of starvation and disease. According to Pierre Sorlin:

Epidemics spread easily. Contagious diseases that had not been brought under full control at the beginning of the twentieth century again spread rapidly. Between 1917 and 1922, about 22 million people contracted typhus; in 1918-19, the official mortality for this disease was 1.5 million, and the census was probably incomplete. Cholera and scarlet fever caused fewer deaths but affected 7 or 8 million Russians. The death rate was astronomical … and, in the country as a whole, … doubled. The birth-rate, on the other hand, declined considerably, barely reaching 13 per thousand in the important towns and 22 per thousand in the country. Between the end of 1918 and the end of 1920, epidemics, hunger and cold had killed 7.5 million Russians; world war had claimed 4 million victims. (Quoted by M. Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, p. 346.)

In July 1918, Lenin said: “The people are like a man who has been thrashed within an inch of his life.” In January 1919: “The hungry masses are exhausted, and [their] exhaustion is sometimes more than human strength can endure.” In December 1919: “We are suffering from a desperate crisis”: “a [further] scourge is assailing us, lice, and the typhus that is mowing down our troops… Either the lice will defeat socialism, or socialism will defeat the lice!” In December 1920 he spoke of the “frightful conditions…”; in April 1921 of “the desperate situation.” In June 1921 he said: “No country has been so devastated as ours”. (Ibid., p. 214, emphasis in original.)

War, hunger and disease wiped out millions. In 1920, cases of cannibalism were reported. Overall, the small working class was reduced to 43 per cent of its former size. Even these figures do not convey the full extent of the catastrophe since they leave out of account the decline in labour productivity of those ragged half-starved workers who remained in the factories.

The industrial proletariat… 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. (LCW, Vol. 33, p. 65.)

This unparalleled situation where the working class as a class had almost ‘ceased to exist’ had extremely serious consequences for the possibilities of establishing a viable regime of workers’ democracy. The workers’ state was resting upon an atomised working class. Whole layers of advanced workers, the bedrock of the revolution, had perished on the front lines during the civil war and in the famine conditions. Many starving workers were forced to scavenge for food in the countryside. This produced a chronic political problem. The Soviet structures simply ceased to operate. The soviets, as organs of workers’ rule, fell into disuse. How could it be otherwise given the economic and social conditions that prevailed?

The All-Russian Congress of Soviets, the supreme authority of the republic, only met annually between November 1918 and December 1922. The Executive Committee of the Soviets met less regularly and its power passed to its small presidium. Workers’ control disappeared when the factories ceased to function. Increasingly, power was concentrated and centralised in the hands of the government and the party apparatus, which in turn became more enmeshed in the state apparatus. The proletariat did not exist in a form that could carry on its shoulders the levers of political power. No government decree could alter this fact. Lenin recognised the dangers and took measures to at least partially alleviate the situation. But there was no solution outside of the world revolution.

“The country, and the government with it, were at the very edge of the abyss,” states Trotsky. The fate of the revolution was again in the balance. Peasant uprisings in Tambov and elsewhere brought matters to a head. Things could not continue as they had done any longer. With the end of the civil war, the need for a drastic change in policy was increasingly evident. The essential thing for the Bolsheviks was to hold out for as long as possible until assistance arrived from the West.

A most serious situation arose when the naval garrison at Kronstadt mutinied. Many falsifications have been written about this event, which has been virtually turned into a myth. The purpose, as ever, is to discredit Lenin and Trotsky and show that Bolshevism and Stalinism are the same. Interestingly enough, the hue and cry over Kronstadt unites the bourgeois and Social-Democratic opponents of October with anarchists and ultra-lefts. But these allegations bear no relation to the truth.

The first lie is to identify the Kronstadt mutineers of 1921 with the heroic Red sailors of 1917. They had nothing in common. The Kronstadt sailors of 1917 were workers and Bolsheviks. They played a vital role in the October Revolution, together with the workers of nearby Petrograd. But almost the entire Kronstadt garrison volunteered to fight in the ranks of the Red Army during the civil war. They were dispersed to different fronts, from whence most of them never returned. The Kronstadt garrison of 1921 was composed mainly of raw peasant levies from the Black Sea Fleet. A cursory glance at the surnames of the mutineers immediately shows that they were almost all Ukrainians.

Another lie concerns the role of Trotsky in the Kronstadt episode. Actually, he played no direct role, although as Commissar for War and a member of the Soviet government, he fully accepted political responsibility for this and other actions of the government. The seizure of the Kronstadt fortress by the mutineers placed the Soviet state in extreme danger. They had only just emerged from a bloody civil war. It is true that the negotiations with the garrison were badly handled by the Bolshevik negotiating delegation led by Kalinin, who inflamed an already serious situation. But once the mutineers had seized the most important naval base in Russia, there was no room for compromise.

The main fear was that Britain and France would use their navies to occupy Kronstadt, using the mutiny as a pretext. This would have placed Petrograd at their mercy, since whoever controlled Kronstadt controlled Petrograd. The only possible outcome was capitalist counter-revolution. That there were actual counter-revolutionary elements among the sailors was shown by the slogan ‘Soviets without Bolsheviks’. The Bolsheviks were left with only one option. The fortress had to be retaken by force. These events occurred during the 10th Party Congress which interrupted its sessions to allow the delegates to participate in the attack. It is interesting to note that members of the Workers’ Opposition, a semi-anarcho-syndicalist tendency present at the Congress, also joined the attacking forces. This nails yet another lie, which attempts to establish a clumsy amalgam between Kronstadt – anarchism – Workers’ Opposition – three things that have absolutely nothing in common.

Victor Serge, who had many sympathies with anarchism, was implacably opposed to the Kronstadt mutineers, as the following passage shows:

The popular counter-revolution translated the demand for freely-elected soviets into one for ‘soviets without Communists.’ If the Bolshevik dictatorship fell, it was only a short step to chaos, and through chaos to a peasant rising, the massacre of the Communists, the return of the émigrés, and in the end, through the sheer force of events, another dictatorship, this time anti-proletarian. Dispatches from Stockholm and Tallinn testified that the émigrés had these very perspectives in mind: dispatches which, incidentally, strengthened the Bolshevik leaders’ intention of subduing Kronstadt speedily and at whatever cost. We were not reasoning in the abstract. We knew that in European Russia alone there were at least 50 centres of peasant insurrection. To the south of Moscow, in the region of Tambov, Antonov, the Right Social Revolutionary school teacher, who proclaimed the abolition of the Soviet system and the re-establishment of the Constituent Assembly, had under his command a superbly organised peasant army, numbering several tens of thousands. He had conducted negotiations with the Whites. ( Tukhachevsky suppressed this Vendée around the middle of 1921.) (V. Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1901-1941, pp. 128-9.)

The New Economic Policy

Far from representing the interests of the working class, the Kronstadtites were reflecting the pressures of the peasantry, who were increasingly disaffected because of the constant requisitions and forced collections of grain, for which they received no manufactured goods in return. This can easily be proved. Among the demands of the mutineers was included the demand for a free market in grain. After the mutiny was put down, Lenin drew the conclusions and sounded the retreat. The introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) meant that the peasants were allowed to sell their grain on the market, in exchange for a tax to the state. After this measure, there were no more Kronstadts and Tambovs. The peasants had got what they wanted.

Was the NEP a step forward for the working class and the revolution? Far from it. The Bolsheviks were forced to retreat because of the potentially dangerous situation that arose from the opposition of the peasantry. Tambov and Kronstadt – and other uprisings in the rural areas – were only part of this. But the NEP in effect served to strengthen the rich peasants (the kulaks) and NEPmen (capitalist speculators) to the detriment of the proletariat. This was a big step back, although there was no alternative, given the delay of the European revolution. Together with the defeat of the German Revolution of 1923, the NEP was really the origin of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev based themselves on the kulaks and NEPmen to strike blows against Trotsky and the Left Opposition. But the NEP did give the revolution a breathing space by conciliating the peasants.

Faced with the implacable opposition of the peasant masses – exhausted by years of civil war and requisition – Lenin and Trotsky explained the need for a retreat from War Communism and the need to restore the market in order to heal the dislocation of town and countryside. In practise, this meant as far as possible developing a stable relation with the peasantry, which made up 80 per cent of the population. “It became clear to us,” reported Trotsky to the 12th Party Congress, “during 1920 and 1921, with absolute clarity, that the Union of Soviet Republics would have to go on existing, perhaps for a rather long time, in the midst of capitalist encirclement. We shall still not receive tomorrow any direct and immediate aid from a proletariat organised in a state, a state of a much higher type and with greater economic might than ours. That is what we told ourselves in 1920. We did not know whether it would be a matter of one, two, three, or ten years, but we knew that we were at the beginning of an epoch of serious and prolonged preparation. The basic conclusion from this was that, while awaiting a change in the relation of forces in the West, we must look very much more attentively and sharply at the relation of forces in our own country, in the Soviet Union.” (Trotsky, Leon Trotsky Speaks, p. 137.)

The New Economic Policy was born. This served to reintroduce market relations between town, country and the state. The requisition of grain was abolished and replaced by a tax in kind. The peasants were then allowed to dispose of any surplus themselves. The NEP favoured the richer elements in the countryside and allowed the buying and selling on the market and some accumulation of capital. The market was restored to encourage a measure of private trade and promote output. However, the commanding heights of the economy remained in state hands. Trade would establish the essential link between the mass of peasants and the nationalised industries.

Lenin characterised this as a retreat in the face of mounting difficulties. However, this retreat, which had been forced on the Soviet regime, was always described by Lenin as a temporary state of affairs, as a ‘breathing space’, before the next dramatic developments of the international socialist revolution. He was nevertheless also acutely aware of the dangers that lay on that road, especially the dangers of a revival of bourgeois and petty bourgeois elements that could provide the basis for counter-revolution. Lenin also understood the other dangers of a proletarian revolution isolated in a backward country.

At the Ninth Congress of Soviets in December 1921, Lenin remarked:

Excuse me, but what do you describe as the proletariat? That class of labourers which is employed by large-scale industry. But where is this large-scale industry? What sort of proletariat is this? Where is your industry? Why is it idle? (LCW, Vol. 33, p. 174.)

In a speech at the 11th Party Congress in March 1922, Lenin pointed out that the class nature of many who worked in the factories at this time was non-proletarian; that many were dodgers from military service, peasants and declassed elements:

During the war people who were by no means proletarians went into the factories; they went into the factories to dodge war. Are the social and economic conditions in our country today such as to induce real proletarians to go into the factories? No. It would be true according to Marx; but Marx did not write about Russia; he wrote about capitalism as a whole, beginning with the fifteenth century. It held true over a period of six hundred years, but it is not true for present-day Russia. Very often those who go into the factories are not proletarians; they are casual elements of every description. (LCW, Vol. 33, p. 299.)

It is impossible to understand the policies pursued by Lenin and Trotsky in this period unless we bear in mind the real position in Russia described above. Given the economic catastrophe, the extremely low cultural level of the masses, the atomisation of the proletariat, and the decay of the soviets – all consequences of the delay of the international revolution – how was the workers’ state to be preserved? The pressures of world capitalism, expressed through the petty bourgeois masses, were redoubled in the period of the NEP. This explains Lenin’s fear that alien class pressures might manifest themselves in a split in the Communist Party, which would lead inevitably to the downfall of the Soviet state and a capitalist counter-revolution. This is the reason why he advocated a temporary ban on factions in the Party as an exceptional measure.

At the time of Kronstadt, the relations between the Soviet state and the peasant masses reached an all-time low. The workers’ state did not exist in a vacuum, and was subject to the pressures of alien class forces expressing themselves through groups in the Party. It was this danger, heightened by the political monopoly of the Bolshevik Party, which led the 10th Party Congress in early 1921 to temporarily ban factions within the Party itself. This was a temporary measure brought in to deal with an exceptional situation, as Lenin made clear:

The banning of opposition in the Party results from the political logic of the present moment… Right now, we can do without an opposition, comrades, it’s not the time for it!… This is demanded by the objective moment, it is no use complaining… The present moment is one at which the non-party mass is subject to the kind of petty bourgeois wavering which in the present economic position of Russia is inevitable. We must remember that the internal danger is in certain respects greater than that which was threatened by Denikin and Yudenich[3], and we must show unity not only of a nominal but of a deep, far-reaching kind. To create such unity, we cannot do without a resolution like this. (Quoted by Roy Medvedev, On Socialist Democracy, pp. 62-3, emphasis in original.)

Moreover, Lenin favoured a flexible interpretation of this rule, and rejected all attempts to give it a wider application. When Ryazanov proposed that the elections to party congresses on the basis of factions be banned, Lenin opposed this:

I believe that comrade Ryazanov’s proposal is, however unfortunate that may be, unrealisable… The present Congress cannot make binding decisions that would in any way affect elections to the next congress. If circumstances provoke fundamental disagreements, how can one forbid their submission to the judgement of the party as a whole? We cannot! (Ibid., p. 63, emphasis in original.)

As a matter of fact, despite the formal ban on factions, these still continued to operate in the Party after the 10th Congress. Lenin himself broke the rules, as A.I. Mikoyan recalls in his memoirs, where he recalls an incident at the time of the 10th Party Congress, when Lenin organised a strictly conspiratorial meeting of his faction for which invitation tickets were privately printed. Ironically it was Stalin who voiced the fear that the opposition might get wind of it and accuse them of factionalism, to which Lenin replied, with his customary good humour: “What’s this I hear from an old dyed-in-the-wool factionalist?” (Ibid., note 16 on page 351.)

Lenin was afraid that, in a situation where there was only one party, the Communist Party might begin to reflect the pressures of alien classes, which could express themselves in factions and eventually a split on class lines. This would mean the overthrow of the Revolution, since, given the partial atomisation of the working class, it was only the Communist Party that guaranteed the existence of the workers’ state. However, under the given circumstances, this emergency measure, which circumscribed the democratic rights of the Party membership, increased the unhealthy bureaucratic tendencies within the Party. It was regarded as a ‘necessary evil’ imposed upon the Party by harsh necessity. As soon as conditions eased, full democratic rights would be restored. But in fact, after Lenin’s death what was intended as a temporary measure was made permanent through the manoeuvres of the triumvirate of Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev as part of their struggle against Trotsky. This was a violation of the whole historical tradition of Bolshevism, which was steeped in democracy.

As we have seen, immediately after the seizure of power, the only political party which was suppressed by the Bolsheviks was the Black Hundreds, a precursor of Fascism. Even the bourgeois Kadet party was not illegalised. The Soviet government itself was a coalition of Bolsheviks and Left SRs. But, under the pressure of the civil war, a sharp polarisation of class forces took place in which the Mensheviks, SRs and Left SRs came out on the side of the counter-revolution. Contrary to their intention, the Bolsheviks were forced to ban opposition parties and introduce a monopoly of political power. This monopoly, which was regarded as an extraordinary and temporary state of affairs, created enormous dangers in a situation where the proletarian vanguard was coming under increasing pressure from alien classes.

Within a short space of time industry began to revive. Production doubled in 1922 and 1923, although from a low base, and had managed to reach its pre-war level by 1926. More modestly harvests were increasing. The NEP had provided a breathing space, but the market had brought increasing social differentiation in its wake. This retreat was completely justified, with increased production as a consequence, but it also gave rise to restorationist dangers with the enrichment of those hostile to socialism in town and country. The growth of the nascent bourgeois elements – the NEPmen and kulaks – were a by-product of this new policy. Alongside the re-emergence of class divisions, the rising bureaucracy in the state and party began to flex its muscles, hoping to consolidate and extend its position and influence. Under these conditions, the growth of these alien class and bureaucratic elements represented a mortal danger to the Revolution. Out of the continued isolation of the workers’ state arose the threat of an internal bureaucratic degeneration.


[1] Editor’s note: Chapters 1 to 8 were written by Ted Grant in 1997, in the first edition of the present work. See the preface and introduction for further information.

[2] History develops not in a straight line, but according to the laws of uneven and combined development. A backward country assimilates material and intellectual conquests of the developed countries, not as a carbon copy, but in a contradictory fashion. The grafting of the most advanced technique and culture on to pre-capitalist formations leads to a peculiar combination of different stages in the historic process. Their development as a whole acquires a planless, combined character.

2. The Rise of Stalinism

The Marxist theory of the state

We shall now proceed to build, on the space cleared of historical rubbish, the airy, towering edifice of socialist society. ( Lenin, 8th November 1917)

In order to understand the evolution of the USSR and what is taking place today, it is necessary to first of all understand Karl Marx’s theory of socialism and how the Bolshevik government attempted to follow this conception. As opposed to the utopian socialist ideas of the likes of Robert Owen, Saint-Simon and Fourier, Marxism is based upon a scientific vision of socialism. Marxism explains that the key to the development of every society is the development of the productive forces: labour power, industry, agriculture, technique and science. Each new social system – slavery, feudalism and capitalism – has served to take human society forward through its development of the productive forces.

The prolonged period of primitive communism, humankind’s earliest phase of development, where classes, private property, and the state did not exist, gave way to class society as soon as people were able to produce a surplus above the needs of everyday survival. At this point, the division of society into classes became an economic feasibility. On the broad scales of history, the emergence of class society was a revolutionary phenomenon in that it freed a privileged section of the population – a ruling class – from the direct burden of labour, permitting it the necessary time to develop art, science and culture. Class society, despite its ruthless exploitation and inequality, was the road that humankind needed to travel if it was to build up the necessary material prerequisites for a future classless society.

In a certain sense, socialist society is a return to primitive communism but on a vastly higher productive level. Before one can envisage a classless society, all the hallmarks of class society, especially inequality and scarcity, would have to be abolished. It would be absurd to talk of the abolition of classes where inequality, scarcity and the struggle for existence prevailed. It would be a contradiction in terms. Socialism can only appear at a certain stage in the evolution of human society, at a certain development of the productive forces.

No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher reallocations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. ( Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 1, p. 504, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, by Marx. Henceforth referred to as MESW.)

In contrast to the utopian socialists of the early nineteenth century, who regarded socialism as a moral issue, something which could have been introduced by enlightened people at any time in history, Marx and Engels saw it as rooted in the development of society. The precondition for such a classless society is the development of the forces of production by which superabundance becomes feasible. For Marx and Engels, this is the task of the socialist planned economy. For Marxism, the historic mission of capitalism – the highest stage of class society – was to provide the material basis worldwide for socialism and the abolition of classes. Socialism was not simply a good idea, but was the next stage for human society.

The historical mission of capitalism was to eliminate feudal parochialism, to develop a modern industrial economy, and to create a world market with a new world division of labour. In so doing, it would create its own grave-digger, the modern proletariat. This scenario was sketched out by Marx and Engels 150 years ago, in the pages of the Communist Manifesto. The development of capitalism today bears out that prognosis. With the concentration of capital into the hands of a small group of capitalists, the peasantry has been largely eliminated, while the working class has assumed colossal proportions, becoming a majority of the population in the advanced and even many developing countries. Likewise, capitalism has created a world market to which all countries are inextricably bound. In reality the material basis for a socialist society, bequeathed by capitalism, has been in existence on a world scale since the outbreak of the First World War. Huge industries and factories that have grown into multinational corporations, if publicly owned and democratically planned nationally and internationally, could create a world of superabundance.

At present, the concentration of capital on a world scale is reflected by the fact that a mere 500 multinationals dominate 90 per cent of world trade. Today, just one company, ICI, has sufficient capacity to produce the world’s demand for chemicals. The same could be said of many branches of industry. However, capitalism has reached its limits as a progressive system. Private ownership and the nation state act as straitjackets which stultify the productive forces and serve to hold society back. Two world wars, which brought us to the verge of human extinction, organic mass unemployment and periodic slumps of over-production are testimony to this impasse. As an economic system capitalism had in the past revolutionised the productive forces; now it acts as a massive fetter on further progress. In its lust for profit, capitalism threatens to pillage the world’s natural resources and eventually destroy the planet. Only the international planning of the productive forces can take society out of this blind alley. Marx believed that the tasks of the socialist revolution would first fall on the shoulders of the working class of the economically and culturally advanced countries of Western Europe. In Trotsky’s words:

Marx expected that the Frenchman would begin the social revolution, the German continue it, the Englishman finish it; and as to the Russian, Marx left him far in the rear. (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 47.)

It is not feasible for society to jump straight from capitalism to a classless society. The material and cultural inheritance of capitalist society is far too inadequate for that. There is too much scarcity and inequality that cannot be immediately overcome. After the socialist revolution, there must be a transitional period that will prepare the necessary ground for superabundance and a classless society. Marx called this first stage of the new society “the lowest stage of communism” as opposed to “the highest stage of communism”, where the last residue of material inequality would disappear. In that sense, socialism and communism have been contrasted to the ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ stages of the new society. In describing the lower stage of communism Marx writes:

What we are dealing with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. (MESW, Critique of the Gotha Programme, by Marx, Vol. 3, p. 17.)

However, for Marx – and this is a crucial point – this lower stage of communism from its very beginning would be on a higher level in terms of its economic development than the most developed and advanced capitalism. And why was this so important? Because without a massive development of the productive forces, scarcity would prevail and with it the struggle for existence. As Marx explained, such a state of affairs would pose the danger of degeneration:

This development of the productive forces is an absolutely necessary practical premise [of communism], because without it want is generalised, and with want the struggle for necessities begins again, and that means that all the old crap must revive. (MESW, The German Ideology, Vol. 1, p. 37, my emphasis.)

The sole reason for the international character of socialism is the international character of the capitalist system itself. No one country has the material basis for a new classless society, or could guarantee the complete elimination of scarcity and want inherited from capitalism. Even a Soviet America, despite its colossal economic power, could not immediately accomplish the leap to socialist society. It could not provide everyone with as much as they needed. A transitional regime would be necessary – a democratic workers’ state – the key task of which would be to speed up the development of the productive forces and eliminate the vestiges of class society. This workers’ state was described by Marx as “the dictatorship of the proletariat”.

This much-abused term of Marx and Engels simply meant the democratic rule of the majority, which would take the necessary steps to overcome the resistance of a minority of exploiters. It was based on an historical analogy with the dictatorship of ancient Rome, when, for a temporary period (in time of war) exceptional powers were granted by the Republic to the government. After the experience of Hitler and Stalin, the word ‘dictatorship’ has become discredited. It is identified in people’s imagination with totalitarianism – something which was very far from the minds of Marx and Engels. In Marx’s day, it was free from such connotations and was synonymous with the rule of the working class. In fact, from the Marxist point of view, the dictatorship of the proletariat is synonymous with a workers’ democracy.

“Between capitalist and communist society,” states Marx, “lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” As all the greatest Marxist theoreticians explained, the task of the socialist revolution is to bring the working class to power by smashing the old capitalist state machine. The latter was the repressive organ designed to keep the working class in subjection. Marx explained that this capitalist state, together with its state bureaucracy, cannot serve the interests of the new power. It has to be done away with. However, the new state created by the working class would be different from all previous states in history.

The semi-state

The state, as an organ of class rule, arose with the emergence of class society. This was clearly explained by Engels in his book, The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State. In normal times, the state serves the interests of the dominant class in society. It was strengthened and perfected as an organ of class rule to maintain the power and interests of the ruling class. The state serves to keep the majority in subjection to the minority. A new workers’ state, however, unlike previous states, seeks not to hold down the majority of the population but only to keep in check a tiny handful of ex-capitalists and landlords. For this purpose, a mighty bureaucratic state machine is totally unnecessary. On the contrary, the workers’ state serves the interests of the majority of the population and is in reality a semi-state.

To the degree in which classes and inequality are eradicated, so too the semi-state begins to dissolve into society.

A special apparatus, a special machine for suppression, the ‘state’, is still necessary, but this is now a transitional state. It is no longer a state in the proper sense of the word… And it is comparable with the extension of democracy to such an overwhelming majority of the population that the need for a special machine of suppression will begin to disappear. (LCW, Vol. 25, p. 468.)

The state is a relic of class society, and will ‘wither away’ as a classless society comes into being. Therefore, the interest of the proletariat is to dissolve these left-overs of capitalism as quickly as possible. This comes about as soon as the productive forces reach a level that can do away with want and guarantee everyone their needs.

In Anti-Dühring Engels wrote:

When, together with class domination and the struggle for individual existence created by the present anarchy in production, those conflicts and excesses which result from this struggle disappear, from that time on there will be nothing to suppress, and there will be no need for a special instrument of suppression, the state.

In order that the state shall disappear, “class domination and the struggle for individual existence” must disappear. Society will have reached the stage where it can guarantee “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”.

The workers’ state from its inception begins to wither away. Despite the wishes of the anarchists, the state, money and the bourgeois family cannot be abolished overnight. Only when the material conditions are sufficiently developed can they be relegated to the “Museum of Antiquities” as Engels put it. They have to exhaust their historic mission. They cannot be administratively abolished. Prior to that, the task of the state is to bring about these conditions. In the first instance, the workers’ state cannot allow everyone to work “according to their abilities”, as much as he or she wishes, nor can it reward everyone “according to their needs”, regardless of the work they do.

To begin with, the workers’ state acts as a powerful lever for stimulating the growth of production. This can only mean the application of the methods of wage labour developed by capitalism. As all wants cannot be immediately satisfied and scarcities will remain for a period, people will be allocated their share of production on the basis of the wages they earn. In other words, the workers’ state will initially be forced to defend the inequalities of wage labour, i.e., bourgeois norms of distribution. After allocating a proportion to investment and the social services, the remainder will be shared out by society in the form of wages. On this point, Marx corrected Lassalle’s mistake that the new society would guarantee straight away “equal right of all to an equal product of labour”. Marx said that “equal right” is in reality a violation of equality and an injustice left over from a situation of scarcity, of class society:

… As far as the distribution of the latter [means of consumption] among the individual producers is concerned, the same principle prevails as in the exchange of commodity-equivalents: a given amount of labour in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labour in another form. Hence, equal right here is still in principle – bourgeois right. (MESW, Critique of the Gotha Programme, by Marx, Vol. 3, p. 18.)

This first phase of the new society cannot yet provide complete equality: differences in income will still continue to exist, although the gap between the highest and lowest paid will be drastically reduced.

One man is superior to another physically or mentally and so supplies more labour in the same time, or can labour for a longer time; and labour, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labour. It recognises no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognises unequal individual endowment and thus productive capacity as natural privileges. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right by its very nature can consist only in the application of an equal standard… (Ibid., Vol. 3, p. 18, emphasis in original.)

In other words, the effort of workers is rewarded by the wages they earn. This does not take into consideration their different needs. As Marx goes on to explain the differences between one worker and another: “One worker is married, another not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labour, and hence an equal share in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right instead of being equal would have to be unequal.

But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Law can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby. (Ibid., Vol. 3, pp. 18-9, my emphasis.)

In other words, the first stage of communism (socialism), cannot yet provide complete justice and equality: differences, and unjust differences, in wealth and income will still exist for a period, although general living standards will be massively raised. Society cannot at this moment permit everyone to work “according to their abilities”, nor can it reward everyone “according to their needs”, regardless of the work they do. The workers’ state will oversee the relation between these two antagonistic features, ensuring the final domination of the socialist tendencies and the liquidation of the state.

Thus, this new state assumes a dual character: socialist in as far as it defends nationalised property relations, and bourgeois in so far as the distribution of goods and services is carried out by capitalist methods of wage labour. However, by using bourgeois norms of distribution, the productive forces will be propelled forward and will serve socialist objectives in the last analysis. Nevertheless, as Lenin points out, the exploitation of man by man will have become impossible because the means of production will remain social property. This fact alone cannot remove the defects of distribution and the inequality of bourgeois law. The immediate abolition of capitalism does not provide the material basis for an immediate classless society. It is a means to an end. The state itself – although a semi-state – sees its role as to safeguard this bourgeois law, which still sanctifies a certain inequality in society. With the further development of the productive forces and the attainment of communism, the state and the other vestiges of capitalism disappear. “So long as the state exists there is no freedom,” says Lenin. “When there is freedom, there will be no state.” (LCW, Vol. 25, p. 473.)

Marx went on to explain how bourgeois law disappears in the higher stage of communism:

After the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs! (MESW, Critique of the Gotha Programme, by Marx, Vol. 3, p. 19.)

Lenin, who commented on these remarks in his classic work The State and Revolution, added in relation to the transition period:

Bourgeois law in regard to the distribution of consumer goods inevitably presupposes the existence of the bourgeois state, for law is nothing without an apparatus capable of enforcing the observance of the rules of law. It follows that under communism there remains for a time not only bourgeois law, but even the bourgeois state, without the bourgeoisie! (LCW, Vol. 25, p. 476.)

This seems an incredible remark to make. It certainly horrifies those who regard a workers’ state in an idealistic fashion. Having only the limited experience of the Paris Commune to go on, Marx was only able to anticipate the form of a future workers’ state in the most general outline. Lenin developed Marx’s thoughts on the subject, but did not deal in any great detail with the processes that could take place if the Russian workers’ state were to remain isolated in conditions of extreme backwardness. On many occasions, he made it clear that, without the help of the workers in the advanced capitalist countries, he did not expect the revolution to survive. However, he confidently expected that the victory of the world socialist revolution would reduce this early phase to a very short duration. It was left to Trotsky to analyse this phenomenon in greater detail, on the basis of the growing bureaucratism of the Soviet regime and the emergence of Stalinism.

What is clear is that the poorer the society that emerges from a revolution, the cruder, the more bureaucratic and more primitive the forms of the transitional state would be, and the greater the danger of power slipping out of the hands of the working class. This had a powerful bearing on the state that emerged from the Russian Revolution, which was isolated in a backward country, and faced with total economic collapse. In the words of Trotsky:

For the defence of ‘bourgeois law’ the workers’ state was compelled to create a ‘bourgeois’ type of instrument – that is, the same old gendarme, although in a new uniform. (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 55.)

Lenin was aware of the dangers in such a situation. He explained that the state is a relic of class society and can degenerate under certain conditions, and therefore has to be under the constant democratic control and check of the working class. That is why an essential measure for Lenin was the reduction in the working day to allow time for the masses to participate in the running of industry and the state. It was not for sentimental reasons, but was a defence to prevent the new Soviet state rising above and becoming divorced from the working class. In other words, to prevent its degeneration. To combat such a development Lenin put forward a series of measures designed to fight bureaucratism. These included: election and recall of all officials, no standing army, no official to receive more than a skilled worker, and rotation of jobs and responsibilities. “So that all may become ‘bureaucrats’ for a time and that, therefore, nobody may be able to become a ‘bureaucrat’,” concluded Lenin. (LCW, Vol. 25, p. 486.) These measures were to be introduced immediately to deal with bureaucratic deformations that would inevitably arise from the numerical and cultural weakness of the proletariat. The chronic backwardness of Russia, however, constituted an insurmountable obstacle to their full implementation. The working day was lengthened, not shortened, and competent administrators were extremely scarce.

The old state machine

Lenin, following in the footsteps of Marx and Engels, continuously grappled with the problems of revolutionary strategy and tactics, as well as the problems of socialist construction in a backward country. His 53 volume Collected Works (in the Russian edition) are testimony to the depth of his life-long contribution to Marxism. He always put matters honestly and refused to lull the Russian workers with ‘official’ illusions and smug pronouncements. Above all he based his whole outlook on the success of the international revolution. Lenin explained that the overthrow of capitalism and consolidation of a proletarian democracy in an advanced country would be difficult enough, but for backward Russia it was an impossible task without immediate help from the West. In all the writings of Lenin, and especially of this period, there is a burning faith in the ability of working people to change society, and a fearless honesty in dealing with difficulties. He always revealed unpalatable truths, in full confidence that the working class would understand and accept the need for the greatest sacrifices, provided the reasons for them were explained honestly and truthfully. The arguments of Lenin were designed, not to stupefy the Soviet workers with ‘socialist’ opium, but to steel them for the struggles ahead – for the struggle against backwardness and bureaucracy in Russia and for the struggle against capitalism and for the socialist revolution on a world scale.

Using the same scrupulous approach Lenin returned repeatedly to discuss the chronic deficiencies of the Soviet state and the terrible predicament that faced the Russian workers. The objective backwardness of Russia – with its high rates of illiteracy and weak working class – forced the Soviet government to rely heavily on the services of hundreds of thousands of ex-tsarist bureaucrats, who in thousands of ways were sabotaging the efforts of the new regime. This was no small matter, but one that threatened an internal degeneration of the whole revolution. Marx had already explained that the danger of bureaucratic degeneration was possible on the basis of material backwardness. However, he never developed this point, believing that such a problem would be resolved on the basis of the revolution in the advanced capitalist countries. In backward, isolated Russia it was another matter.

Marx and Engels were well aware of the danger of bureaucracy in a workers’ state and tentatively proposed methods for combating it. Basing himself on the experience of the Paris Commune, Engels had written: “In order not to lose again its only just conquered supremacy, this working class must … safeguard itself against its own deputies and officials, by declaring them all, without exception, subject to recall at any moment.” To ensure that the state will not be transformed “from servants of society into masters of society – an inevitable transformation in all previous states – the Commune made use of two infallible means. In the first place, it filled all posts – administrative, judicial and educational – by election on the basis of universal suffrage of all concerned, subject to the right of recall at any time by the same electors. And, in the second place, all officials, high or low, were paid only the wages received by other workers. The highest salary paid by the Commune to anyone was 6,000 francs. In this way, an effective barrier to place-hunting and careerism was set up, even apart from the binding mandates to delegates to representative bodies which were added besides”. (MESW, The Civil War in France, by Marx, Vol. 2, pp. 187-8.)

Taking as his point of departure Marx and Engels’ analysis of the Paris Commune, Lenin put forward four key points to fight bureaucracy in a workers’ state in 1917:

1) Free and democratic elections to all positions in the Soviet state,
2) Right of recall of all officials,
3) No official to receive a higher wage than a skilled worker and
4) Gradually, all the tasks of running society and the state to be performed by everyone in turn, or as Lenin put it: “Any cook should be able to be prime minister.”

We shall reduce the role of state officials to that of simply carrying out our instructions as responsible, revocable, modest paid ‘foremen and accountants’ (of course, with the aid of technicians of all sorts, types and degrees). This is our proletarian task, this is what we can and must start with in accomplishing the proletarian revolution. (LCW, Vol. 25, p. 431.)

Under Lenin, the maximum wage differential was to be kept to a ratio of 1:4, which he honestly described as a ‘capitalist differential’. This, however, was made necessary by the lack of skilled personnel needed to run industry and the state in a country where the cultural level of the masses was extremely low. As the dissident Soviet historian Roy Medvedev points out:

The first Soviet wage scale established a ratio of 1:2.1 between the lowest and the highest earnings. At the beginning of 1919, the gap between the two extremes was narrowed even more and became 1:1.75. This lasted until the beginning of NEP in the autumn of 1921; with the approval of the Central Executive Committee and the Party Central Committee, the Council of People’s Commissars passed a resolution that stated: “When setting wage rates for workers with different qualifications – office staff, middle-range technicians and senior administrative personnel – all thought of equality must be abandoned.” The new wage scale contained broad differentials according to qualifications, and divided staff into four groups: apprentices, workers with varying degrees of skill, accountants and office workers, and administrative and technical staff. The ratio between the lowest level and the highest (the 17th category) was set at 1:8.

The question of payment for employees of state administrative bodies was dealt with in a different way. In the first months after October, the minimum subsistence wage based on the exchange rate and the level of prices was calculated to be eight roubles a day; this was confirmed by a decree of the 16th January 1918. (Medvedev, On Socialist Democracy, pp. 221.)

About the same time, Lenin drafted a bill “On the Salaries of Senior Personnel and Officials”, which was approved by the Council of People’s Commissars with slight amendments. The text was as follows:

Since it is considered necessary to adopt the most energetic measures to lower the salaries of officials in all state, communal, and private undertakings and institutions, without exception, the Council of People’s Commissars decrees:

1. There shall be a maximum limit to the salary of a People’s Commissar of 500 roubles a month, with an allowance of 100 roubles for each child; the size of apartments is limited to one room per member of the family.

2. All local Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies are asked to prepare and implement revolutionary measures for the special taxation of senior personnel.

3. The Ministry of Finance and all individual Commissars shall make an immediate study of the accounts of ministries and shall reduce all excessively high salaries and pensions.

During the first months of Soviet rule the salary of a People’s Commissar (including Lenin himself) was only twice the minimum subsistence wage for an ordinary citizen. Over the next years, prices and the value of the rouble often changed very rapidly and wages altered accordingly. At times the figures were quite astonishing – hundreds of thousands and millions of roubles. But even under these conditions Lenin made sure that the ratio between lowest and highest salaries in state organisations did not exceed the fixed limit – during his lifetime the differential apparently was never greater than 1:5. Of course, under conditions of backwardness, many exceptions had to be made which represented a retreat from the principles of the Paris Commune. In order to persuade the ‘bourgeois specialists’ (spetsy) to work for the Soviet state, it was necessary to pay them very large salaries. Such measures were necessary until the working class could create its own intelligentsia. In addition, special ‘shock-worker’ rates were paid for certain categories of factory and office workers, and so on. Speaking at the Seventh Moscow Provincial Party Conference on the 29th October 1921, Lenin honestly explained this:

Even at that time we had to retreat on a number of points. For example, in March and April 1918, the question was raised of remunerating specialists at rates that conformed, not to socialist, but to bourgeois relationships, i.e., at rates that corresponded, not to the difficulty or arduousness of the work performed, but to bourgeois customs and to the conditions of bourgeois society. Such exceptionally high – in the bourgeois manner – remuneration for specialists did not originally enter into the plans of the Soviet government, and even ran counter to a number of decrees issued at the end of 1917. But at the beginning of 1918 our party gave direct instructions to the effect that we must step back a bit on this point and agree to a ‘compromise’ (I employ the term then in use). (LCW, Vol. 33, p. 88.)

However, such compromises did not apply to Communists. They were strictly forbidden to receive more than a skilled worker. Any income they received in excess of that figure had to be paid over to the Party. The chair of the Council of People’s Deputies received 500 roubles, comparable to the earnings of a skilled worker. When the office manager of the Council of People’s Deputies, V. D. Bonch-Bruyevich paid Lenin too much in May 1918, he was given ‘a severe reprimand’ by Lenin, who described the rise as ‘illegal’. Due to the isolation of the revolution, and the need to employ bourgeois specialists and technicians, the differential was increased for these workers – they could earn a wage 50 per cent more than that received by the members of the government. Lenin was to denounce this as a ‘bourgeois concession’, which should be reduced as rapidly as possible.

In the words of Roy Medvedev:

With respect to Communists, even those who held the highest posts, Lenin demanded moderation. He showed concern for their health and food and living accommodations, but insisted that their salaries, his own included, be kept within certain limits. No luxuries were allowed.

In April 1918, Lenin characterised the introduction of material incentives and differentials as “a step backwards on the part of our socialist, Soviet state power, which from the very outset proclaimed and pursued the policy of reducing high salaries to the level of the wages of the average worker”. (LCW, Vol. 27, p. 249.) Medvedev continued:

In general, Lenin opposed both the equalisation of wages and excessively high salaries, especially for party members. This policy resulted in the so-called party maximum – a wage ceiling for all Communists. Lenin considered any excessive inequality in pay or living conditions “a source of corruption within the party and a factor reducing the authority of Communists”. (Medvedev, Let History Judge, p. 841.)

There are many examples which show the living conditions of the leaders of the workers’ state. Writing about the civil war period, Victor Serge recalls the living conditions of the deputy chief of the Cheka:

All this time, Bakayev of the Cheka was going around with holes in his boots. In spite of my special rations as a government official, I would have died of hunger without the sordid manipulations of the black market, where we traded the petty possessions we had brought in from France. The eldest son of my friend Yonov, Zinoviev’s brother-in-law, an Executive member of the Soviet and founder and director of the State Library, died of hunger before our very eyes. All this while we were looking after considerable stocks, and even riches, but on the State’s behalf and under rigorous control. Our salaries were limited to the ‘Communist maximum,’ equal to the average wage of a skilled worker. (Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1901-1941, p. 79.)

The English writer Arthur Ransome, who was well acquainted with Russia and made several visits at this time, reports an extraordinary incident which he experienced first-hand while on an official delegation with Radek and Larin to the town of Yaroslavl in 1921. The Yaroslavl prison was a notoriously bad place under Stalin. But the Bolsheviks took prison reform seriously and tried to improve the conditions of the prisoners. In conditions of terrible food shortages, the food at the Yaroslavl prison was actually better than that available to the local soviet leadership!

It so happens, Rostopchin explained, that the officer in charge of the prison feeding arrangements is a very energetic fellow, who had served in the old army in a similar capacity, and the meals served out to the prisoners are so much better than those produced in the Soviet headquarters, that the members of the Executive Committee make a practice of walking over to the prison to dine. They invited us to do the same. Larin did not feel up to the walk, so he remained in the Soviet House to eat an inferior meal, while Radek and I, with Rostopchin and three other members of the local committee walked round to the prison. (Arthur Ransome, The Crisis in Russia, p. 56.)

The housing space at the disposal of government ministers or commissars was also restricted to one room for each person in the household. Lenin’s office was sparsely furnished with the bare essentials. According to Karl Idman, a member of the Finnish government who met Lenin in December 1917: “Lenin received us cordially, apologising for keeping us waiting. The room in which we found ourselves was divided into two by a board partition… The room was in no way different from any of the other rooms in Smolny. It was as simple as all the rest. The walls were painted white, there was a wooden table and a few chairs.” This policy was in stark contrast to the exorbitant privileges and luxurious life-styles of the masters of the Kremlin under Stalin and his successors. This is confirmed by Victor Serge:

In the Kremlin, he [Lenin] still occupied a small apartment built for a palace servant. In the recent winter, he, like everyone else, had had no heating. When he went to the barber’s he took his turn, thinking it unseemly for anyone to give way to him. (Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1901-1941, p. 101.)

The same applied to Trotsky, who was, in effect, Lenin’s second in command:

During the first days of the Bolshevik revolt I used to go every morning to Smolny to get the latest news. Trotsky and his pretty little wife, who hardly ever spoke anything but French, lived in one room on the top floor. The room was partitioned off like a poor artist’s attic studio. In one end were two cots and a cheap little dresser and in the other a desk and two or three cheap wooden chairs. There were no pictures, no comfort anywhere. Trotsky occupied this office all the time he was Minister of Foreign Affairs and many dignitaries found it necessary to call upon him there… Outside the door two Red Guards kept constant watch. They looked rather menacing, but were really friendly. It was always possible to get an audience with Trotsky. (Louise Bryant, op. cit., p. 103.)

This was no exception. The Bolshevik leaders were always accessible and close to the masses. They walked in the streets with no escorts. Lenin was shot and seriously wounded by a Left SR assassin while doing just that. When one considers the luxurious conditions and privileges of the bureaucracy under Stalin and his successors, shut off from the Soviet population behind high walls, or rushing at great speed in huge limousines accompanied by armies of bodyguards, we see what a gulf separated the democratic regime of Lenin from what replaced it. And it is necessary to emphasise the point that Lenin even considered the relatively small differentials of that time to be unacceptable capitalist differentials which would gradually be reduced as society progressed towards socialism.

Roots of bureaucracy

In February 1917, the Bolshevik Party had no more than about 8,000 members in the whole of Russia. At the height of the civil war, when Party membership involved personal risk, the ranks were thrown open to the workers, who pushed the membership up to 200,000. But as the civil war grew to a close, the Party membership actually trebled, reflecting an influx of careerists and elements from hostile classes and parties. These elements had to be rooted out. The necessary ‘purge’ initiated by Lenin in 1921 had nothing in common with the monstrous frame-up trials of Stalin; there were no police, no trials, no prison camps; merely the weeding out of petty bourgeois and Menshevik careerists in order to preserve the ideas and traditions of October from the poisonous effects of petty bourgeois reaction. By early 1922, some 200,000 members (one third of the membership) had been expelled.

As early as 1919 the Bolshevik government had also organised the People’s Commissariat of Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection (known as Rabkrin, from the acronym of its Russian name). Its task was to weed out careerists and bureaucrats in the state and party apparatus. Stalin, given his record as a good organiser, was put in charge of Rabkrin. However, in a short space of time, Stalin’s narrow, organisational outlook and personal ambition led him to occupy the post as the chief spokesman of the bureaucracy in the Party leadership, not as its opponent. Stalin used his position, which enabled him to select personnel for leading posts in the state and Party, to quietly gather round himself a bloc of allies and yes-men, political nonentities who were grateful to him for their advancement. In Stalin’s hands, Rabkrin became an instrument for building up his own position and eliminating his political rivals.

By the end of 1920 the number of state officials had mushroomed from a little over 100,000 to an astonishing 5,880,000. This was five times the number of industrial workers. In the Red Army, such was the shortage of military skill that former tsarist officers were enlisted to fight against the White armies. By August 1920, 48,409 former tsarist officers had been called up as military specialists. These layers had no deep-seated loyalty to the Soviet state. In order to persuade them to provide their services and prevent them from fleeing to the other side, the Bolshevik government was forced to grant them considerable privileges. Also, political commissars were appointed to oversee the loyalty of these officers and provide an essential instrument of workers’ control over these layers.

Lenin’s intention was gradually to involve the whole of the working class in the tasks of running the state: “Our aim is to draw the whole of the poor into the practical work of administration, … to ensure that every toiler, having finished his eight hours’ ‘task’ in productive labour, shall perform state duties without pay.” (LCW, Vol. 27, p. 273.) But under the prevailing conditions of backwardness, this proved impossible. The young Soviet state was forced to make use of whatever they could of the leftovers of the old state machine. In March 1918, Lenin told the Party Congress that “the bricks of which socialism will be composed have not yet been made”. (Ibid., p. 148.)

Given the low cultural level, every lever, every toehold would be used to further the revolution. As we have seen, the prevailing illiteracy forced the Bolsheviks to rely on the old tsarist bureaucracy (“slightly anointed with Soviet oil”), administrators, government functionaries, military commanders and factory managers. This was unavoidable, at least until assistance arrived from the West. This would have far reaching consequences later on. But, at that time, there was simply no alternative. When Lenin asked Trotsky during the civil war whether it was best to replace the old tsarist officers, which were controlled by political commissars, with other Communists, Trotsky replied:

“But do you know how many of them we have in the army now?”
“Not even approximately?”
“I don’t know.”
“Not less than thirty thousand.”
“Not less than thirty thousand. For every traitor, there are a hundred dependable; for everyone who deserts, there are two or three that get killed. How are we to replace them all?”

A few days later Lenin was making a speech on the problems of constructing the socialist commonwealth. This is what he said:

“When comrade Trotsky recently informed me that in our military department the officers are numbered in tens of thousands, I gained a concrete conception of what constitutes the secret of making proper use of our enemy… of how to build communism out of the bricks that the capitalists had gathered to use against us”. (Trotsky, My Life, pp. 464-5.)

In relation to the state itself, Lenin told the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in 1922:

We took over the old machinery of state and that was our misfortune. We have a vast army of government employees, but lack the educated forces to exercise real control over them… At the top, we have, I don’t know how many, but at all events no more than a few thousand… Down below there are hundreds of thousands of old officials we got from the Tsar and from bourgeois society… (LCW, Vol. 33, p. 430.)

As always Lenin explained the harsh truth about the Soviet state apparatus. He never entertained any idealised view of this wretched organ, which had been largely inherited from the past. It was a bureaucratic machine, coloured by a thin socialist varnish. He understood full well that this bureaucracy was not simply a matter of bureaucratic behaviour, excessive red tape, officialdom, etc. Such an approach has nothing in common with the Marxist method. Marxism explains bureaucracy as a social phenomenon, which arises for definite material reasons. In the case of Russia, it arose from the isolation of the revolution in a backward, illiterate peasant country.

Lenin explained the rise of bureaucracy as a parasitic, capitalist growth on the organism of the workers’ state. The October Revolution had overthrown the old order, ruthlessly suppressed and purged the tsarist state but, in conditions of chronic economic and cultural backwardness, the elements of the old order were creeping back everywhere into positions of privilege and power in the measure that the revolutionary wave ebbed back with the defeats of the international revolution. There was a real danger that the revolution could suffer a bureaucratic degeneration. As such, Lenin denounced the growing bureaucratic threat and demanded a ruthless struggle against it:

We threw out the old bureaucrats, but they have come back… They wear a red ribbon in their buttonholes and creep into warm corners. What to do about it? We must fight this scum again and again and if the scum has crawled back we must again and again clean it up, chase it out, keep it under the surveillance of Communist workers and peasants whom we have known for more than a month and for more than a year. (LCW, Vol. 29, pp. 32-3.)

Engels explained that in every society where art, science and government are the preserve of a privileged minority, then that minority will always use and abuse these positions in its own interests. And this state of affairs is inevitable, so long as the vast majority of the people are forced to toil for long hours in industry and agriculture for the basic necessities of life. After the revolution, with the ruined conditions of industry, the working day was not reduced, but lengthened. Workers toiled ten, twelve hours and more a day on subsistence rations; many worked weekends without pay voluntarily. But, as Trotsky explained, the masses can only sacrifice their ‘today’ for their ‘tomorrow’ up to a very definite limit.

Inevitably, the strain of war, of revolution, of four years of bloody civil war, of famine in which millions perished, all served to undermine the working class in terms of both numbers and morale. The disintegration of the working class, the loss of many of the most advanced elements in the civil war, the influx of backward elements from the countryside, and the demoralisation and exhaustion of the masses was one side of the picture. On the other side, the forces of reaction, those petty bourgeois and bourgeois elements who had been temporarily demoralised and driven underground by the success of the revolution in Russia and internationally, everywhere began to recover their nerve, thrust themselves to the fore, taking advantage of the situation to insinuate themselves into every nook and cranny of the ruling bodies of industry, of the state and even of the Party.

Victor Serge recalls his impression of the Soviet apparatus even in the early years:

Of this apparatus, which seemed to me to function largely in a void, wasting three-quarters of its time on unrealisable projects, I at once formed the worst possible impression. Already, in the midst of general misery, it was nurturing a multitude of bureaucrats who were responsible for more fuss than honest work. In the offices of Commissariats one came across elegant gentlemen, pretty and irreproachably powdered typists, chic uniforms weighed down with decorations: and everybody in this smart set, in such contrast with the famished populace in the streets, kept sending you back and forth from office to office for the slightest matter and without the slightest result. (Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1901-1941, p. 74.)

Lenin’s struggle against Stalin

As early as 1920, Trotsky criticised the workings of Rabkrin, which from a tool in the struggle against bureaucracy was becoming itself a hotbed of bureaucracy. Initially, Lenin defended Rabkrin against Trotsky’s criticisms. Later he came around to Trotsky’s view: “This idea was suggested by Comrade Trotsky, it seems, quite a long time ago. I was against it at the time… But after closer consideration of the matter, I find that in substance there is a sound idea in it…” At first Lenin’s illness prevented him from appreciating what was going on behind his back in the state and Party. In 1922, the situation became clear to him. “Bureaucracy is throttling us,” he complained. He saw that the problem arose from the country’s economic and cultural backwardness.

So how was this state of affairs going to be combated? Lenin stressed the importance of the workers’ organisation in keeping the bureaucratic menace in check:

Our Party Programme – a document which the author of the ABC of Communism [Nikolai Bukharin] knows very well – shows that ours is a workers’ state with a bureaucratic twist to it… We now have a state under which it is the business of the massively organised proletariat to protect itself, while we, for our part, must use these workers’ organisations to protect the workers from their state, and to get them to protect our state… (LCW, Vol. 32, pp. 24-5.)

Lenin argued, dialectically, that the trade unions in a workers’ state must be independent, in order that the working class can defend itself against the state, and in turn defend the workers’ state itself. Lenin was emphatic on this point because he saw the danger of the state raising itself above the class and separating itself from it. The workers, by themselves through their organisations, could exercise a check on the state apparatus and on the bureaucracy. However, with the atomisation of the working class by the end of the civil war, it was unable to effectively combat the growth of the bureaucratism of the state. The growing bureaucratic menace preoccupied Lenin’s attention throughout that year. At the 11th Party Congress in March-April 1922 – the last Congress in which he was able to participate – his main preoccupation was bureaucratism. At the Congress Lenin dealt firstly with the economic relations of the workers’ state as a form of ‘state capitalism’. That is the economic relations on which the NEP was based. Market relations were allowed, while the key sectors of the economy remained in state hands. Lenin said that traditionally state capitalism applied to a minority nationalised sector in a capitalist state. But he now used it differently to describe the NEP:

That is why very many people are misled by the term state capitalism. To avoid this, we must remember the fundamental thing that state capitalism in the form we have here is not dealt with in any theory, or in any books, for the simple reason that all the usual concepts connected with this term are associated with bourgeois rule in capitalist society. Our society is one which has left the rails of capitalism but has not yet got on to new rails. The state in this society is not ruled by the bourgeoisie, but by the proletariat. We refuse to understand that when we say ‘state’ we mean ourselves, the proletariat, the vanguard of the working class. State capitalism is capitalism which we shall be able to restrain, and the limits of which we shall be able to fix. This state capitalism is connected with the state, and the state is the workers, the advanced section of the workers, the vanguard. We are the state.

He then explains that this capitalism which exists alongside the workers’ state is essential “to satisfy the needs of the peasantry… [and] without it existence is impossible”.

Lenin then goes on to deal with the crux of the problem:

Well, we have lived through a year, the state is in our hands; but has it operated the New Economic Policy in the way we wanted in the past year? No. But we refuse to admit that it did not operate in the way we wanted. How did it operate? The machine refused to obey the hand that guided it. It was like a car that was going not in the direction the driver desired, but in the direction someone else desired; as if it were being driven by some mysterious, lawless hand, God knows whose, perhaps of a profiteer, or of a private capitalist, or of both. Be that as it may, the car is not going quite in the direction the man at the wheel imagines, and often it goes in an altogether different direction. (LCW, Vol. 33, p. 179.)

Then what is lacking? …If we take Moscow with its 4,700 Communists in responsible positions, and if we take the huge bureaucratic machine, that gigantic heap, we must ask: who is directing whom? I doubt very much whether it can be truthfully said that the Communists are directing that heap. To tell the truth, they are not directing, they are being directed. (Ibid., p. 288.)

Far from being the ‘semi-state’ envisaged by Lenin in his book State and Revolution, the state apparatus was bureaucratically deformed and deeply infected by the alien class outlook of the old regime. At the same Congress Lenin explained, in very clear and unambiguous language, the possibility of the degeneration of the revolution as a result of the pressures of alien classes. Lenin compared the relationship of the Soviet workers to the bureaucracy and the pro-capitalist elements to that of a conquering and conquered nation. History has shown repeatedly that for one nation to defeat another by force of arms is not, in and of itself, a sufficient guarantee of victory. Given the low level of culture of the weak Soviet working class, surrounded by a sea of small property owners, the pressures were enormous. They reflected themselves not only in the state, but inevitably in the Party itself, which became the centre of struggle of conflicting class interests.

“Sometimes one nation conquers another, the nation that conquers is the conqueror and the nation that is vanquished is the conquered nation. This is simple and intelligible to all. But what happens to the culture of these nations? Here things are not so simple,” stated Lenin. “If the conquering nation is more cultured than the vanquished nation, the former imposes its culture upon the latter; but if the opposite is the case, the vanquished nation imposes its culture upon the conqueror. Has not something like this happened in the capital of the RSFSR[1]? Have the 4,700 Communists (nearly a whole army division, and all of them the very best) come under the influence of an alien culture?” Lenin then asks pointedly: “Will the responsible Communists of the RSFSR and of the Russian Communist Party realise that they cannot administer; that they only imagine they are directing, but are actually being directed?”

Already by this time, the most far-sighted sections of the émigré bourgeoisie, the Smena Vekh (Change of Signposts) group of Ustryalov, were openly placing their hopes upon the bureaucratic-bourgeois tendencies manifesting themselves in Soviet society as a step in the direction of capitalist restoration. The same group was later to applaud and encourage the Stalinists in their struggle against Trotskyism. The Smena Vekh group, which Lenin gave credit for its class insight, correctly understood the struggle of Stalin against Trotsky, not in terms of ‘personalities’ but as a class question, as a step back from the revolutionary traditions of October.

“The machine no longer obeyed the driver” – the state was no longer under the control of the Communists, of the workers, but was increasingly raising itself above society. Referring to the views of Smena Vekh, Lenin said:

We must say frankly that the things Ustryalov speaks about are possible, history knows all sorts of transformations. Relying on firmness of convictions, loyalty, and other splendid moral qualities is anything but a serious attitude in politics. A few people may be endowed with splendid moral qualities, but historical issues are decided by vast masses, which, if the few do not suit them, may at times treat them none too politely. (LCW, Vol. 33, p. 287.)

In other words, the state power was slipping out of the hands of the Communists, not because of their personal failings or psychological peculiarities, but because of the enormous pressures of backwardness, of bureaucracy, of alien class forces which weighed down upon the tiny handful of advanced, socialist workers and crushed them.

Lenin’s correspondence and writings of this period, when illness was increasingly preventing him from intervening in the struggle, clearly indicate his alarm at the encroachment of the Soviet bureaucracy, the insolent parvenus in every corner of the state apparatus. Lenin was aware of the dangers of the degeneration of the workers’ state encircled by capitalism. After the 11th Party Congress in 1922, Lenin’s health deteriorated and in May of that year he suffered his first stroke. He recovered and was back on his feet by July and officially returned to work in October. On his return, he was deeply shocked by the growing bureaucratic tumour that was gnawing away at the state and Party. “Our bureaucratism is something monstrous,” Lenin commented to Trotsky. “I was appalled when I came back to work…” It was at this time that he offered to form a bloc with Trotsky against bureaucracy in general and against the Organisational Bureau in particular. Lenin also concentrated his attention on the entire problem of the leadership of the Party. The clashes with Stalin over the Georgian affair and other matters increasingly revealed Stalin’s role. Lenin began work on his Testament.

On the 30th December 1922, he dictated a note:

It is said that a united state apparatus was needed. Where did that assurance come from? Did it not come from the same Russian apparatus, which, as I pointed out in one of the preceding sections of my diary, we took over from tsarism and slightly anointed with Soviet oil?

There is no doubt that that measure should have been delayed until we could say that we vouched for our apparatus as our own. But now, we must, in all conscience, admit the contrary: the apparatus we call ours is, in fact, still quite alien to us; it is a bourgeois and tsarist hotchpotch and there has been no possibility of getting rid of it in the past five years without the help of other countries and because we have been ‘busy’ most of the time with military engagements and the fight against famine. (LCW, Vol. 36, pp. 605-6, my emphasis.)

Lenin only became fully aware of the bureaucratic reaction within the Party towards the end of 1922, when he discovered the truth about Stalin’s handling of relations with the Georgian Bolshevik leaders. The central role of Stalin in all this bureaucratic web became clear. Without the knowledge of Lenin or the Politburo (the highest body in the Party), Stalin, together with his henchmen Dzerzhinsky and Ordzhonikidze, had carried out a coup d’état in the Georgian party. The finest cadres of Georgian Bolshevism were purged and the Party leaders denied access to Lenin, who was fed a string of lies by Stalin. When he finally found out what was happening, Lenin was absolutely furious. From his sick-bed late in 1922, he dictated a series of notes to his stenographer on “the notorious question of autonomisation, which, it appears, is officially called the question of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics”. Lenin’s notes are a crushing indictment of the bureaucratic and chauvinist arrogance of Stalin and the clique surrounding him. But Lenin does not treat this incident as an accidental phenomenon – as a ‘regrettable mistake’ – but the expression of the rotten reactionary nationalism of the Soviet bureaucracy. Lenin thundered:

There is no doubt that the infinitesimal percentage of Soviet and Sovietised workers will drown in that tide of chauvinistic Great-Russian riff-raff like a fly in milk. (LCW, Vol. 36, p. 606.)

After the Georgian affair, Lenin threw the whole weight of his authority behind the struggle to remove Stalin from the post of General Secretary of the Party, which he had occupied for a short time after the death of Sverdlov. However, Lenin’s main fear now, more than ever, was that an open split in the leadership, under prevailing conditions, might lead to the break-up of the Party along class lines. He therefore attempted to keep the struggle confined to the leadership, and his notes and other material were not made public. Lenin wrote secretly to the Georgian Bolsheviks (sending copies to Trotsky and Kamenev) taking up their cause against Stalin “with all my heart”. As he was unable to pursue the affair in person, he wrote to Trotsky requesting him to undertake the defence of the Georgians in the Central Committee. In the last months of his political life, weakened by illness, Lenin turned repeatedly to Trotsky for support in his struggle against the bureaucracy and its creature, Stalin. On the question of the monopoly of foreign trade, on the question of Georgia, and, finally, in the struggle to oust Stalin from the leadership, Lenin formed a bloc with Trotsky, the only man in the leadership he could trust.

Lenin’s struggle against Stalin was directly linked to his determined struggle against the bureaucracy within the Bolshevik Party itself. In Better Fewer, But Better, written shortly before his Testament, Lenin commented: “Let it be said in parentheses that we have bureaucrats in our Party offices as well as in Soviet offices.” In the same work, he launched a sharp attack against Rabkrin, which was clearly meant for Stalin: “Let us say frankly that the People’s Commissariat of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection does not at present enjoy the slightest authority. Everybody knows that no other institutions are worse organised than those of our Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection and that under present conditions nothing can be expected from this Peoples’ Commissariat.” (LCW, Vol. 33, p. 490.)

Lenin began writing his Testament on the 25th December 1922, in which he critically assessed the qualities of the Bolshevik leadership. It contained his final recommendations. “Comrade Stalin, having become General Secretary, has concentrated enormous power in his hands; and I am not sure that he always knows how to use that power with sufficient caution.” He then deals with Trotsky’s qualities: “On the other hand comrade Trotsky, as was proved by his struggle against the Central Committee in connection with the question of the Peoples’ Commissariat of Communications, is distinguished not only by his exceptional abilities – personally he is, to be sure, the most able man in the present Central Committee – but also by his too far reaching self-confidence and a disposition to be too much attracted by the purely administrative side of affairs.” In relation to the others: “I will only remind you that the October episode of Zinoviev and Kamenev was not, of course, accidental, but that it ought as little to be used against them personally as the non-Bolshevik past of Trotsky.”

However, new and alarming manifestations of Stalin’s abuse of power caused Lenin to dictate a postscript ten days later, dated the 4th January 1923, entirely devoted to Stalin. This time it was direct and brutal.

Stalin is too rude, and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealings amongst us communists, becomes intolerable in a Secretary General. That is why I suggest that the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post and appointing another man in his stead who in all other respects differs from Stalin in having only one advantage, namely, that of being more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious… (LCW, Vol. 36, pp. 594-6.)

Two months later, Lenin broke off political and personal relations with Stalin, after he had verbally abused his wife, Krupskaya. Two days before his final stroke, he wrote to Stalin, with a copy to Zinoviev and Kamenev: “I have no intention of forgetting so easily what has been done against me, and it goes without saying that what has been done against my wife I consider having done against me as well.” (Quoted in Liebman, op. cit., p. 423.) On the 6th March, Krupskaya told Kamenev that Lenin had resolved “to crush Stalin politically”. (Ibid., p. 424.) Lenin told Krupskaya that the Testament was to be kept secret until after his death, and then it should be made public to the ranks of the Party. However, Lenin was seriously paralysed by a third stroke on the 9th March 1923. Power effectively fell into the hands of a triumvirate of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin. Nine months later, on the 21st January 1924, Lenin died. It was very convenient for Stalin. The triumvirate were determined to keep Trotsky from the leadership and therefore decided to keep Lenin’s Testament under lock and key. Needless to say, the documentary evidence of Lenin’s last fight against Stalin and the bureaucracy was suppressed for decades, and denounced as forgeries by the leaders of the Communist Parties internationally. Lenin’s last writings were hidden from the Communist Party rank and file. Lenin’s Testament, which demanded Stalin’s removal as General Secretary, despite the protests of his widow, was not read out at the Congress and remained hidden until 1956 when Khrushchev and Co. produced it, along with a few other items, as part of their campaign to throw the blame for all that had happened in the past 30 years onto Stalin’s shoulders. With Lenin’s death, the struggle against the growing bureaucratic reaction now fell to Trotsky and the Left Opposition.

The bureaucratic reaction

With each international defeat of the working class, and its accompanying mood of despair and disappointment amongst the Russian proletariat, the bureaucratic reaction in the Soviet Union assumed an increasingly menacing form. The terrible backwardness and low cultural level of the masses proved an insurmountable obstacle to the Russian proletariat, weakened, crushed and exhausted by years of civil war, deprivation and demoralisation. The bureaucracy fed on this mood of weariness and growing scepticism particularly amongst the older generation. Largely left over from the old tsarist state machine, this caste of officials began to flex its muscles and feel more conscious of its independence, importance and power.

The diminishing participation of the masses in political life reinforced this process. The bureaucracy soon revealed its own ideas, feelings and interests. It yearned for stability and the abandonment of international revolution. “On all sides the masses were pushed away gradually from actual participation in the leadership of the country,” remarked Trotsky.

The reaction within the proletariat caused an extraordinary flush of hope and confidence in the petty bourgeois strata of town and country, aroused as they were to new life by the NEP, and growing bolder and bolder. The younger bureaucracy, which had arisen at first as an agent of the proletariat, began to now feel itself a court of arbitration between the classes. Its independence increased from month to month. The international situation was pushing with mighty forces in the same direction. The Soviet bureaucracy became more self-confident, the heavier the blows dealt to the world working class. Between these two facts there was not only a chronological, but a causal connection, and one which worked in two directions. The leaders of the bureaucracy promoted the proletarian defeats; the defeats promoted the rise of the bureaucracy. (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 90.)

The defeat of the German Revolution of 1923, followed by the defeats in Bulgaria and Estonia, constituted a severe blow to the morale of the Russian proletariat. It condemned the Soviet state to a period of further economic and political isolation. Within the Communist Party the initiative and independence of the rank and file was being systematically stifled by bureaucratic ‘commandism’ at all levels. A hierarchy of appointed officials replaced the elected representatives. Trotsky, who had been urged by Lenin to take up the struggle against bureaucratism, formed the Left Opposition to meet this challenge. Their demands centred around the restoration of workers’ democracy within the Party and the co-ordination of industry and agriculture through a national plan. These ideas immediately met with furious opposition from the majority faction of Zinoviev- Kamenev- Stalin. Trotsky’s defence of Bolshevism was met with abuse and ridicule by the ruling apparatus.

In early 1924, the death of Lenin delivered a further blow to the morale of the Russian workers. Some historians have suggested that if Lenin had lived longer it would have resulted in a totally different development in Russia. But even if Lenin had lived it would not have made a fundamental difference. Lenin’s colossal personal prestige, in itself, would not have been sufficient to prevent the political counter-revolution. As early as 1926, Lenin’s widow Krupskaya, in a meeting of the Left Opposition, pointed out: “If Ilyich [Lenin] were alive, he would probably already be in prison.” At that time this was probably an exaggeration. Had Lenin lived a few more years, the process of degeneration might have been delayed, modifying the course of events. But as long as the revolution remained isolated in conditions of frightful backwardness, the fundamental process would have been the same. Without doubt, Lenin would have fought relentlessly against the bureaucracy but that, in and of itself, would not have been sufficient to have defeated the reaction. Only with the success of the revolution elsewhere, which would have broken the isolation and rekindled the revolutionary élan of the Russian masses, could the bureaucracy have been stopped in its tracks. The fact of the matter is Lenin did not survive his third stroke, which totally incapacitated him for nine months prior to his death.

Does this mean that those who struggled against Stalinism were doomed to defeat? To pose the question in this way would be abstract, schematic, and fatalistic. The emergence of Stalinism was a struggle of living forces, the outcome of which could not be determined in advance. Trotsky and the Left Opposition certainly realised that there were strong objective forces working on the side of the Stalinist bureaucracy. However, there was nothing fatalistic about their attitude. Everything would depend upon the international situation. As Trotsky explained: “The development of the struggle has shown, without any doubt, that the Bolshevik-Leninists would not have been able to win a complete victory in the USSR – that is to say, conquer power and cauterise the ulcer of bureaucratism – without support from the world revolution.” (Trotsky, Writings, 1935-36, p. 178.) That is why the Opposition fought for a correct Marxist policy in Britain, China and elsewhere.

The serious illness and subsequent death of Lenin put effective power in the hands of the ‘troika’ of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev. In reality, the central lever of power was already in Stalin’s grip, given his complete organisational domination of the apparatus as General Secretary of the Party. The troika conspired to prevent Trotsky taking over from Lenin. They deliberately suppressed Lenin’s Testament, which had directly called for Stalin’s removal. Another factor was the opening of the Party to a flood of raw, inexperienced new members after Lenin’s death – the so-called Lenin Levy. This swamped the revolutionary nucleus of the Party in a sea of politically backward elements, who were putty in the hands of the apparatus-men, hand-picked by Stalin’s machine. The weakening and isolation of the Party’s Old Guard was the necessary precondition for the victory of the apparatus. Suffice to say that 75-80 per cent of the membership were recruited after 1923. The number of Party members with pre-revolutionary service was less than 1 per cent.

Simultaneously, a campaign of calumny and falsification was opened up against Trotsky. This was precipitated by Trotsky’s publication The Lessons of October, which dealt with the reasons for the defeat of the German Revolution, laying particular responsibility on the failure of leadership. In doing so, Trotsky drew parallels with what had happened in October 1917 in Russia and the vacillation of the Right Wing of Zinoviev and Kamenev who both came out against the insurrection (although they were never mentioned by name). These important lessons were buried in the campaign against ‘Trotskyism’. All the old smears about Trotsky’s non-Bolshevik past (which Lenin had written off in his Testament), about the ‘permanent revolution’, Brest-Litovsk, and the rest, were dragged up by the ruling faction to discredit Trotsky and oust him from the leadership. A stream of literature was brought out against Trotsky, while reinforcing the idea of the Leninist Old Guard of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev: Trotskyism or Leninism (Stalin), Leninism or Trotskyism (Kamenev) and Bolshevism or Trotskyism (Zinoviev). Trotsky was subsequently removed from the post of Peoples’ Commissar of War in January 1925. The campaign against Trotskyism was then taken into the Communist Parties internationally, where votes were demanded supporting the Russian Party majority leadership.

Dialectical materialism has nothing in common with the kind of mechanical approach which sees history as a simple, linear process. Such a view is more in line with religious philosophies like Calvinism, with its fatalistic theory of predestination. Accidents play a role in history as in nature, but, as Hegel brilliantly explained, necessity frequently expresses itself through the medium of accidents. The efforts of Trotsky alone were insufficient to change the Party’s course. Ranged against him was the Old Guard of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin and Stalin. This played a certain part in the equation. Marxism does not deny the role of the individual or of accidents in history. On the contrary. Individuals can play a tremendous role – for good or ill. Kamenev and, particularly, Zinoviev played an important role in the turn towards reaction after Lenin’s death. Here personal motives played a role. Having worked closely with Lenin for many years, Zinoviev considered that he should inherit Lenin’s mantle. He was ambitious and jealous of Trotsky. As a result, he organised a parallel leadership, even before Lenin’s death, composed of all the members of the Politburo except Trotsky. Using methods entirely alien to Bolshevism, he resorted to manoeuvres and intrigues to discredit Trotsky and drive a wedge between him and Leninism.

By inventing the myth of Trotskyism after Lenin’s death, Zinoviev and Kamenev played a pernicious role, which deepened the disillusionment and increased the disorientation of the workers. Neither of them showed any understanding of the real processes at work. They imagined that they were using Stalin as a tool when in fact it was they who were being used. In this way, without realising it, Kamenev and Zinoviev laid the basis for Stalin’s victory over the Bolshevik Party and over themselves. They felt themselves superior to Stalin, and, in a moral and intellectual sense, they were right. But Stalin’s strength lay, not in his intellect, but in the fact that he reflected the pressure and the interests of millions of officials who were thirsting for power. In this struggle, Kamenev and Zinoviev were handicapped by the very same qualities that had earlier been their strength – their faith in the revolution and loyalty to the cause of the working class. By the time of his break with them, Stalin had none of this. He was motivated purely by ambition for himself, but unlike Kamenev and Zinoviev, was not burdened down by principles. He eagerly based himself upon the bureaucracy, first in the Party, the apparat, which he dominated, and later became the champion of the millions of former tsarist officials, who continued to function under the protective colouring of the Soviet state.

This process eventually ended in the slaughter of the Old Bolsheviks, who could not stomach Stalin’s destruction of the Revolution and the party of Lenin. Stalin thus played the role of the executioner of the Bolshevik Party. Nevertheless, it is necessary to see that if Stalin had not existed, or if he had refused to act in the interests of the bureaucracy, he would merely have been replaced by someone else. In the concrete conditions, it would almost certainly have meant the victory of Bukharin’s faction. This would have meant the victory of capitalist restoration even at that time. In a panic reaction, Stalin was later forced to adopt, in caricature form, many of the policies of the Left Opposition. Without this, the pressure of the kulaks in the countryside and the NEPmen in the towns would undoubtedly have led to the overthrow of the regime. The new policy was enthusiastically received by the working class, who nevertheless remained largely passive. The policy of ‘dekulakisation’ was carried out in a hooligan way by the bureaucracy, which simultaneously covered its rear by striking blows against the Left Opposition.

At the time of their bloc with Stalin, both Kamenev and Zinoviev were not consciously aware of the processes which were taking place in the Soviet state, and which they were unwittingly abetting. They did not realise in what direction their attacks on Trotsky and Trotskyism would lead them, any more than did Stalin, at that time. But in attempting to drive a wedge between Trotskyism and Leninism, they set in motion all the machinery of historical falsification and bureaucratic harassment, which marked the first decisive step away from the ideas and traditions of October towards the monstrous bureaucratic police state of Stalin. Thus, they were acting as the unconscious agents of processes outside their control and beyond their understanding.

Stalin also had no conscious plan of where he was going. He was utterly blind to the processes taking place. Even Trotsky commented at the time of the Purge trials: “Had Stalin been able to foresee where the struggle against ‘Trotskyism’ was to lead him, he would undoubtedly have stopped short, despite the perspective of defeating his opponents. But he foresaw nothing.” (Trotsky, Writings 1936-37, p. 70.) Stalin, with his narrow, administrative, ‘practico’ mentality, reflected the pressures of the rising Soviet bureaucracy: the layer of officials in the state, industry and, increasingly, the Party who had done quite well out of the revolution and were anxious to put a stop to the period of storm and stress, and to get on with the work of organising society, with themselves comfortably installed on top, naturally.

To this layer, the idea of the world socialist revolution was an irritating irrelevance. They had no faith in the Russian working class, let alone the Germans and British. Stalin privately shared their view, although he would never have dared to say so in public while Lenin was still alive. The anti-Marxist theory of ‘socialism in one country’, first expounded by Stalin in the autumn of 1924, went against everything the Bolsheviks and the Communist International had preached. How was it possible to construct a national socialism in a single country, let alone an extremely backward country like Russia? Such a thought never entered the heads of any Bolshevik, including Stalin’s up until 1924. In April 1924, in a speech to students at the Sverdlov University, later published under the title Foundations of Leninism, Stalin stated:

The overthrow of the power of the bourgeoisie and the establishment of a proletarian government in one country does not yet guarantee the complete victory of socialism. The main task of socialism, the organisation of socialist production, still lies ahead. Can this task be accomplished, can the victory of socialism in one country be attained, without the joint efforts of the proletariat of several advanced countries? No, this is impossible… For the final victory of socialism, for the organisation of socialist production, the efforts of one country, particularly of such a peasant country as Russia are insufficient. (Stalin, Lenin and Leninism, p. 40.)

Here without doubt the general position of the Bolshevik Party is correctly expressed. However, in the second edition, published a few months later, these lines were withdrawn and the exact opposite put in their place:

But the overthrow of the power of the bourgeoisie and the establishment of the power of the proletariat in one country does not yet mean that the complete victory of socialism has been assured. After consolidating its power and leading the peasantry in its wake the proletariat of the victorious country can and must build a socialist society… (Stalin, Collected Works, Vol. 6, p. 110, my emphasis.)

The United Opposition

Zinoviev and Kamenev, already worried about Stalin’s growing power, rudeness and disloyalty, were profoundly shocked by this development. Within a year, they had broken with Stalin and went over to the Left Opposition. This realignment at the top of the Party was due to the growing pressures from the workers of Leningrad, who were alarmed by the policy of enriching the kulaks and NEPmen. Zinoviev and Kamenev later admitted that the myth of Trotskyism had been deliberately invented to discredit Trotsky. In a typically Bonapartist fashion, Stalin now leaned on the right wing of Bukharin and Tomsky to attack the Left Opposition. The Left Opposition waged a heroic battle to maintain the original ideas of the Revolution against the growing bureaucratic reaction within the Party. Not only did they fight for the restoration of party democracy, but they argued for an economic plan that could harness the productive potential of the Soviet economy. The Opposition had understood early on that industry could not continue by resting upon equipment inherited from the past but needed, on the basis of ‘socialist accumulation’, to expand industry through national planning. Such a plan could increase the tempo of production far faster than in the capitalist West but the Stalin leadership chose to move with great caution, attacking the leaders of the Opposition as ‘super-industrialisers’.

Stalin’s belated reply to the Opposition proposals was a pessimistic draft Five-Year Plan published in 1927. Industrial production was projected to grow at a declining rate from 9 per cent to 4 per cent! Under the harsh criticism from the Opposition, the plan was finally revised upwards to 9 per cent annually, but was still far below the projections of between 15 per cent and 18 per cent growth rates of the Opposition. Stalin continued to attack Trotsky and the Opposition as super-industrialisers. As late as April 1927, he argued at the Central Committee that to build the Dnieperstroy hydroelectric power station would be the same as asking a peasant to buy a gramophone instead of a cow! The ruling group’s policy of support for the kulak and reliance on the market was leading to a growing differentiation in town and country. The increasing power and influence of NEPmen and kulaks was reaching dangerous proportions. The rising tide of capitalism was visible everywhere. These alien class pressures had earlier opened up a struggle in the Communist Party leadership. Those on the Right Wing – Bukharin, Rykov, Tomsky – wanted to give still greater concessions to the kulaks. Stalin balanced between the different factions in the Politburo, preferring to adopt a centrist position on questions and leaning for support, now on the left, now on the right. In his struggle with the Left Opposition he rested on Bukharin’s right wing. In 1925, Stalin even began to prepare for the denationalisation of the land. Bukharin, who in April 1925 urged the peasantry to “get rich”, envisaged these rich kulaks “growing into socialism”. He talked of “riding into socialism on a peasant nag”. This policy, which would have led to the restoration of capitalism in Russia, was bitterly opposed by Trotsky and the Left Opposition, which advocated a policy of voluntary collectivisation of agriculture and industrial planning.

Despite the hopes of the leadership, the kulaks moved, not to socialism, but to capitalist counter-revolution. By the spring of 1926, almost 60 per cent of grain for sale was in the possession of 6 per cent of the kulaks. And by early 1928, with the kulak blockade of grain, the spectre of famine in the towns became a serious threat. According to Alec Nove: “The shortfall in grain procurements may be seen from the fact that by January 1928 the state had succeeded in purchasing only 300 million poods [a pood is a Russian unit of measurement. 1 pood is approximately equal to 16.38 kilograms], as against 428 million on the same date in the previous year.” (Alec Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, p. 149.) The whole regime was shaken to its foundations by the impending crisis. Every town and city was faced with a food blockade. The kulaks had acquired tremendous power and were now determined to use it to overturn the regime.

On the 7th November 1927, the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, the United Opposition[2] intervened in the marches and demonstrations with banners proclaiming: “Strike against the kulak, the NEPmen and bureaucrat!” “Carry out Lenin’s Testament!” and “Down with opportunism!” Trotsky and the other Opposition leaders were given a tremendous reception by the workers of Leningrad, who voiced their dissatisfaction with the bureaucratic leadership. The workers and the youth were sympathetic to the Opposition, but exhausted and disheartened. As Trotsky warned the impressionistic Zinoviev, who took this as a sign that the situation had changed, this sympathy did not mean that the masses were prepared to take action. On the contrary, this demonstration convinced the ruling group of the need to take immediate measures against the Opposition. One week later, after a ferocious campaign of denigration, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rakovsky, Smilga and Yevdokimov were expelled from the Central Committee. In December, the entire Left Opposition was expelled from the Communist Party. As a consequence, those who lacked a political perspective and backbone capitulated. The Zinovievists deserted the Opposition. Demoralised and disoriented, Zinoviev and Kamenev surrendered to Stalin. The Trotskyists, in contrast, refused to submit.

Tens of thousands of Left Oppositionists were sacked from their jobs, their families hounded, and sent into exile. Now the campaign of repression against the Opposition began in earnest. After their break with Stalin, Kamenev, who knew Stalin very well, had warned Trotsky: “Do you think that Stalin is now busy thinking how best to refute our criticism? You are mistaken. He is thinking of how best to destroy you… First morally, and then, if possible, also physically. By covering you with slander, by organising a provocation, by laying a military conspiracy at your door, by staging a terrorist act. Believe me, this is not guesswork. In our triumvirate, we had many occasions to be frank with one another, although even at that time our personal relations more than once verged upon an explosion. Stalin wages a struggle on a totally different plane from yours…” (Trotsky, Writings, 1936-37, p. 43.) At the 15th Congress Stalin proclaimed the Opposition ‘liquidated’. Trotsky and his family were exiled to Alma-Ata, then deported to Turkey. This was a turning point in the consolidation of the power of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Why didn’t Trotsky take power?

Quite a few writers have raised the question: “Why didn’t Trotsky use his position, especially his authority in the Red Army, to seize power at the time?” In a recent book, The Ideas of Leon Trotsky, edited by H. Ticktin and M. Cox, we find the following assessment:

Trotsky has been attacked on the grounds that he was no politician. As we have argued above, there is an element of truth in the charge… The second charge against Trotsky is that he misunderstood the nature of the new regime under Stalin. This and the charge that he was no politician are linked in that it would have been his duty to have taken power from Stalin, if he had understood the nature of the counter-revolution that was to occur… he failed to understand the true nature of the beast in the crucial years when he could have prevented its rise. (H. Ticktin and M. Cox, The Ideas of Leon Trotsky, pp. 13-6.)

The whole episode is here reduced to the struggle of individuals and their particular qualities. These arguments are mere echoes of the arguments of the historians E.H. Carr, Richard B. Day, Moshe Lewin and Isaac Deutscher, who also saw the struggle largely in terms of personalities. Carr claims that Trotsky “failed to the last to understand that the issue of the struggle was determined not by the availability of arguments but by the control and manipulation of the levers of power.” Later, he argues:

He had no stomach for a fight whose character bewildered and eluded him. When attacked, he retreated from the arena because he instinctively felt that retreat offered him the best chance of survival. (E. H. Carr, Socialism in One Country, Vol. 2, p. 43.)

Moshe Lewin again makes a similar criticism:

He [Trotsky] also had the weakness of a man who was too haughty and, in a sense, too idealistic to indulge in the political machinations inside the small group of leaders. His position as an outsider, on account of his past and his style, prevented him from acting when the moment came – for him, it only came once – with the necessary determination. (M. Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle, p. 140.)

The fact is that the struggle was not an issue of personal power, of Trotsky versus Stalin, but a struggle of living forces. Those who argue that Trotsky only had to use the Red Army to take power display a complete lack of understanding of the nature of power itself. Power is not a product of the will of individual ‘great men’, as Nietzsche and others imagined, anticipating the ideology of Fascism. It is a reflection of the balance of forces between the classes in society. To use the army as a political force inevitably leads directly to Bonapartism. That is ABC for a Marxist. Bonapartism can only exist in certain conditions, normally when the contending classes in society are deadlocked. This creates conditions where the state apparatus lifts itself above society and acquires a certain degree of independence. Trotsky, just as Lenin before him, always placed his hopes in the working class. The workers sympathised with the positions of the Opposition, but were too exhausted and disappointed to do anything about it. They remained passive. The veteran Yugoslav Communist and Oppositionist Ante Ciliga, who was in Russia in the mid-1920s, comments on the mood of the workers at this time:

The impression that these meetings and private conversations left on me was favourable, on the whole; but I was struck by the passive attitude of many of the workers. One felt that they had neither interest nor enthusiasm, but on the contrary a frigidity of manner, an exaggerated reticence. It was depressing. The workers seemed to say by their silence: it is all very well but what does it mean to us? One had to pester each person to get a word out of him. (A. Ciliga, The Russian Enigma, p. 21.)

As Trotsky explained in one of his last writings:

On the side of the Opposition was the youth and a considerable portion of the rank and file; but on the side of Stalin and the Central Committee were first of all the specially trained and disciplined politicians who were most closely connected with the political machine of the General Secretary. My illness and my consequent non-participation in the struggle was, I grant, a factor of some importance; however, its importance should not be exaggerated. In the final reckoning, it was a mere episode. All-important was the fact that the workers were tired. Those who supported the Opposition were not spurred on by a hope for great and serious changes. On the other hand, the bureaucracy fought with extraordinary ferocity.

Passive support and sympathy was not enough to prevent the advance of the bureaucracy. Of course, a victory of the revolution in, say, China, would have completely transformed the situation, reviving the spirits of the Russian workers, and halting the bureaucratic counter-revolution in its tracks. But instead of victories there only came news of defeats, as a direct consequence of the policies of the Stalin- Bukharin leadership.

Ticktin and Cox state that:

We have to suspect that Trotsky at first was not prepared to lead. Later, of course, he refused to take power. He was the leader of the Red Army, and in 1924 Antonov-Ovseyenko, chief political commissar of the Red Army, actually proposed that Trotsky take over. (Ticktin and Cox, op. cit., p. 13.)

This is typical of the superficial approach to history, which reduces it to a struggle of individual personalities. In general, if you ask the right question, you stand a good chance of getting the right answer. If you ask the wrong question, you will invariably get the wrong answer. Messrs Ticktin and Cox do not even know what question to ask in the first place and therefore end in a mess. The Left Opposition were not Bonapartists but revolutionary Marxists. That being so, they could not look to the military for solutions to the problem. They based themselves on the working class – not for sentimental or arbitrary reasons, but because only the working class can bring about the socialist transformation of society. To base oneself on any other class or social group may achieve a change in society, but never in the direction of a healthy workers’ state.

People like Ticktin and Cox imagine themselves to be superior to Trotsky, who, they imply, was either too stupid or too cowardly to take power, whereas Stalin, one must assume, was more intelligent and more courageous. These ‘wise’ academics write glibly about ‘the question of power’ and at the same time show that they do not have the slightest idea of what power is. Trotsky explained that “power is not a prize which the most ‘skilful’ win. Power is a relationship between individuals, in the last analysis between classes”. (Trotsky, Writings 1935-36, p. 177.)

In the absence of the active participation of the workers, there were indeed conditions for Bonapartism in Russia. But the use of the military in politics is not a thing that can be disposed of like putting a sword back into its sheaf. To rely upon the Red Army to take power would have resulted, in the given conditions, not in the prevention of the political counter-revolution but, on the contrary, in enormously accelerating it. The sole difference would be that instead of a civilian bureaucracy, the military caste would be in power. The fact that Trotsky was at the head would have meant nothing. Either he would do the bidding of the officer caste (which was naturally ruled out), or he would be removed and replaced with someone who would. At that stage, the movement towards reaction had not yet acquired a definitive character. The bureaucracy was still feeling its way. Stalin’s cautious policy reflected that fact. A military coup would have led very quickly to the consolidation of proletarian Bonapartism. The faces would have been different, but the essence the same. The whole process of degeneration would have been enormously speeded up. That is all.

The role of the individual

Without doubt the role of individuals, with all their strengths and weaknesses, plays an important role, but we can only understand this role in the context of the struggle of social forces. The role of the individual in history is not more decisive than the objective conditions that they live in, although the personal ability, intellect and character of individuals certainly does affect the historical process, and, at critical points, may be decisive. Without Lenin and Trotsky, the October Revolution would never have taken place. This is a concrete fact. There can be no doubt that the policies of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin would have led to defeat and the triumph of reaction in 1917, after which we would have been treated to a large number of doctoral theses ‘proving’ beyond all doubt that the idea of a successful socialist revolution in Russia was completely utopian.

Historical materialism does not deny the role of the individual in history. It merely explains that individuals are not absolutely free agents, as idealists imagine, but must operate on the basis of given social and economic conditions which are not chosen by themselves and operate according to laws created independently of the will of men and women. Once we understand these laws, we are in a position to arrive at a scientific analysis of the real scope and significance of the actions of the individual player on the historical stage. The same Lenin and Trotsky who led the Russian workers to victory in 1917 remained isolated and powerless for decades before this. For all their personal abilities and theoretical knowledge, they did not stand above the general conditions of society. Just as Lenin and Trotsky set their stamp on the October Revolution and the regime that emerged from it, so the bureaucratic counter-revolution has become so closely linked with the name of Stalin that the two have become synonymous. But of course, the political counter-revolution in the USSR did not depend upon one man. That would be a mechanical interpretation of history. With or without Stalin, if the revolution remained isolated in a backward country, reaction was inevitable, sooner or later, in one way or another. This, however, does not exhaust the question. In politics, as in warfare, the question of ‘sooner or later’ and ‘one way or another’ is not at all secondary, and can be decisive.

In the first period Stalin had no idea where he was going. He did not want the defeat of the Chinese workers in 1927, or the German workers in 1923 or 1933, yet his policies guaranteed defeat in each case. This, in turn, meant the further isolation of the revolution in Russia, which was the real material basis for the victory of the bureaucratic counter-revolution, which Stalin had initially neither anticipated nor desired. Furthermore, the monstrous form which the counter-revolution took was certainly affected by Stalin’s personal character and psychology. Helvétius remarked long ago: “Every period has its great men, and if these are lacking, it invents them.” The apparatus was discovering that Stalin was the flesh of its flesh. He was a secondary figure in the October Revolution, narrow in vision, and a creature of the apparatus. Thus, in his whole mentality and outlook, Stalin embodied the views and aspirations of the rising layer of functionaries and administrators in the offices of the state, the trade unions and even the Communist Party.

These people had done quite well out of the Revolution, enjoyed certain privileges which, while very modest in comparison to the later life-style of the ruling caste, under the prevailing conditions of appalling misery, were important enough to set them apart from the masses. These functionaries – many of them recruited from the enemies of Bolshevism, Mensheviks, non-party elements and not a few tsarist officials – automatically gravitated to those elements in the ruling party who were closest to their outlook. In the ranks of the Bolsheviks there were many who, while sincerely devoted to the cause of socialism, were insufficiently steeped in the ideas and principles of Marxism. They were the notorious ‘committeemen’, the organisers, the Party practicos with their traditional contempt for theory and impatience with broad generalisations and inclination towards administrative solutions.

After the Revolution, there was a pressing need for able administrators to run the state. Many people were thrust into positions of responsibility without having the necessary preparation. Many of the best elements were killed in the civil war, and replaced by less able people. Once in positions of responsibility, they found themselves in close contact with the old tsarist officials who knew the ropes. Often it was difficult to know who was leading whom, as Lenin bitterly complained. The demobilisation of the Red Army after the civil war added to the problem. Although the Red Army had been thoroughly democratised, the low cultural level of the mass of peasant soldiers meant that many of the officers and NCOs had got used to the method of command. In the prevailing conditions of industrial collapse and the partial atomisation of the proletariat, the working class was no longer able to exercise the same degree of control. Gradually, the state apparatus slipped out of control.

It would be naïve to imagine that Stalin, previously unknown to the masses, suddenly issued from the wings fully armed with a complete strategic plan. No indeed. Before he felt out his own course, the bureaucracy felt out Stalin himself. He brought it all the necessary guarantees: prestige of an Old Bolshevik, a strong character, narrow vision, and close bonds with the political machine as the sole source of his influence. The success which fell upon him was a surprise at first to Stalin himself. It was the friendly welcome of the new ruling group, trying to free itself from the old principles and from the control of the masses, and having need of a reliable arbiter in its inner affairs. A secondary figure before the masses and in the events of the revolution, Stalin revealed himself as the indubitable leader of the Thermidorian bureaucracy, as first in its midst. ( Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 93.)

What was decisive here was the shift in the balance of class forces. The working class was exhausted and weakened by the years of war, revolution and civil war. The delay of the international revolution had a depressing effect on the Russian workers. On the other hand, the rising layer of bureaucrats increasingly felt themselves masters of the situation. The theory of socialism in one country was merely the ideological expression of a petty bourgeois reaction against October, which arose from the vague yearning of these elements for an end to the storm and stress of the revolution, for order which would allow them to get on with the tasks of administering society – from above. When a worker would occasionally protest against the arrogant behaviour of the officials, he would be asked ironically: “What year do you think this is? 1919?”

Even if Lenin had lived, it would not have made a fundamental difference. It required a favourable turn in the objective situation to alter the balance of forces within the party. It is entirely false, superficial, and, in fact, stupid, to believe that such a profound historical transformation could be explained in terms of the supposed cleverness or otherwise of intriguers at the top. This is merely a variant of the conspiracy theory of history, which has nothing in common with Marxism, which explains history in terms of the struggle between classes. As Trotsky explained: “Numerous critics, publicists, correspondents, historians, biographers, and sundry amateur sociologists have lectured the Left Opposition from time to time on the errors of its ways, saying that the strategy of the Left Opposition was not feasible from the point of view of the struggle for power. However, the very approach to the question was incorrect. The Left Opposition could not achieve power, and did not hope even to do so – certainly not its most thoughtful leaders.

A struggle for power by the Left Opposition, by a revolutionary Marxist organisation, was conceivable only under the conditions of a revolutionary upsurge. Under such conditions the strategy is based on aggression, on direct appeal to the masses, on frontal attack against the government. Quite a few members of the Left Opposition had played no minor part in a struggle and had first-hand knowledge of how to wage it. But during the early twenties and later, there was no revolutionary upsurge in Russia, quite the contrary. Under such circumstances, it was out of the question to launch a struggle for power. (Trotsky, Stalin, p. 403.)


[1] Prior to the creation of the USSR, the Federation was known as the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic (RSFSR).

[2] The United Opposition was formed in 1926 between Trotsky’s Left Opposition and the supporters of Zinoviev and Kamenev.

3. From Five-Year Plan to the Purges

Forced collectivisation

After years of pandering to the kulaks, the Stalin/ Bukharin leadership was taken completely by surprise by the crisis of 1927-28. All the warnings of the Left Opposition were proved entirely correct. Stalin panicked and ordered a complete turnaround in policy. After eliminating the Left Opposition, Stalin leaned on the workers to launch a series of blows against the Right Opposition. By 1930, Stalin had the Right Opposition leaders Bukharin, Tomsky and Rykov removed from the Party leadership. These individuals – the head of the Communist International, the head of the Soviet government and the leader of the Russian trade unions – were now all denounced as agents of the counter-revolution! Taking up some of the points of the Left Opposition, but in a twisted and bureaucratic fashion, Stalin swung in an ultra-left direction. Had it not been for the campaign of the Left Opposition, Stalin would have continued his pro-kulak policy, leading to the liquidation of all the gains of the October Revolution.

As explained by Trotsky:

Without the Opposition’s bold criticism and without the bureaucracy’s fear of the Opposition, the course of Stalin-Bukharin toward the kulak would have ended up in the revival of capitalism. Under the lash of the Opposition the bureaucracy was forced to make important borrowings from our platform. The Leninists could not save the Soviet regime from the process of degeneration and the difficulties of the personal regime. But they saved it from complete dissolution by barring the road to capitalist restoration. The progressive reforms of the bureaucracy were the by-products of the Opposition’s revolutionary struggle. For us it is far too insufficient. But it is still something. (Trotsky, Writings 1935-36, p. 179.)

Lenin always advocated the collectivisation of agriculture gradually and by voluntarily means. But he certainly never entertained the mad idea that millions of scattered peasant holdings could be forced to collectivise overnight at gunpoint. Collectivisation was to take place through example. The peasant was to be convinced by patient argument and through the setting up of model collective farms and the introduction of the latest modern technology, tractors, fertilizers, electricity, schools, etc. Such a perspective was obviously linked to the development of Soviet industry through five-year plans. The idea of collectivisation on the basis of wooden ploughs was self-evident nonsense. As Trotsky explained, this problem “is far from settled by these general historical considerations. The real possibilities of collectivisation are determined, not by the depth of the impasse in the villages and not by the administrative energy of the government, but primarily by the existing productive resources – that is, the ability of the industries to furnish large-scale agriculture with the requisite machinery. These material conditions were lacking. The collective farms were set up with an equipment suitable in the main only for small-scale farming. In these conditions an exaggeratedly swift collectivisation took the character of an economic adventure”. (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 38.)

To safeguard and entrench itself as a privileged caste, the Stalinist bureaucracy was forced to lean on the workers to smash the incipient bourgeois counter-revolution. Armed detachments were now sent into the countryside to release the grain stocks to feed the cities. The Stalinists veered from opportunism to an ultra-left position. This led to the insane policy of “liquidation of the kulaks as a class” and the complete collectivisation of agriculture “at the earliest possible date”. As a consequence, the proportion of collective farms rose in 1929 from 1.7 per cent to 3.9 per cent. In 1930 it increased dramatically to 23.6 per cent, in 1931 to 52.7 per cent, in 1932 to 61.5 per cent, in 1933 to 64.4 per cent, in 1934 to 71.4 per cent, in 1935 to 83.2 per cent, and in 1936 to 89.6 per cent. The percentage of crop area collectivised rose from 33.6 per cent in 1930 to 94.1 per cent in 1935.

The methods used by Stalin to collectivise the peasantry had nothing in common with the ideas of Lenin. “They collectivised not only horses, cows, sheep, pigs, but even new-born chickens,” noted Trotsky. “They ‘dekulakised,’ as one foreign observer wrote, ‘down to the felt shoes, which they dragged from the feet of little children.’ As a result, there was an epidemic selling of cattle for a song by the peasants, or a slaughter of cattle for meat and hides.” (Ibid., p. 39.) By 1932 grain production fell by nearly 250 million hundredweights; sugar beet fell by half; the number of horses by 55 per cent; horned cattle fell by 40 per cent; the number of pigs by 55 per cent; and sheep by 66 per cent. “Stock was slaughtered every night in Gremyachy Log. Hardly had dusk fallen when the muffled, short bleats of sheep, the death-squeals of pigs, or the lowing of calves could be heard,” writes Sholokhov in Virgin Soil Upturned. “Both those who had joined the kolkhoz and individual farmers filled their stock. Bulls, sheep, pigs, even cows were slaughtered, as well as cattle for breeding. The horned stock of Gremyachy was halved in two nights.” (Quoted in Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, p. 174.)

The human and economic consequences were appalling. Millions perished in the ensuing famine. The death-toll for the period 1931-33 has been estimated at around seven million. Unlike 1921, there was no relief for the starving. In fact, the existence of the famine was officially denied. Victor Kravchenko, then an officer in the GPU[1], recalls the position:

“I will not tell you about the dead,” she said. “I’m sure you know. The half-dead, the nearly-dead are even worse. There are hundreds of people in Petrovo bloated with hunger. I don’t know how many will die every day. Many are so weak that they no longer come out of their houses. A wagon goes around now and then to pick up the corpses. We’ve eaten everything we could lay our hands on – cats, dogs, field mice, birds – when it’s light tomorrow you will see the trees have been stripped of their bark, for that too has been eaten. And the horse manure has been eaten.” I must have looked startled and unbelieving. “Yes, the horse manure. We fight over it. Sometimes there are whole grains in it.” (Victor Kravchenko, I Chose Freedom, p. 67.)

Part of this insane collectivisation were measures to liquidate “the kulaks as a class”. According to N. Ivnitsky roughly 300,000 kulak households were deported. (Quoted in Alec Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, p. 167.) The whole of agriculture was reduced to a state of acute crisis. The bureaucracy was forced to beat a disorderly retreat. Consequently, they were forced to grant the peasantry, alongside the collective farms, small personal farm holdings. Nevertheless, Soviet agriculture was never fully able to recover from this debacle. This was a terrible consequence of the bureaucratic commandism of the Stalinist regime.

Economic zig-zags

On the industrial front, Stalin also ordered a complete about change in policy. The Stalin- Bukharin policy of slow, cautious growth of industry was abandoned. Industrialisation was now placed on the order of the day. Industrial growth was to be achieved a breakneck speed. In December 1929, a Congress of ‘shock brigades’ adopted a call to fulfil the Five-Year Plan in four years. On the 4th February 1931 Stalin spoke of fulfilling the plan “in three years in all the basic, decisive branches of industry”. In the same speech, he declared: “It is sometimes asked whether it is possible to slow down the tempo somewhat, to put a check on the movement. No, comrades, it is not possible. The tempo must not be reduced! On the contrary, we must increase it…” As Trotsky said: “All the old criteria were turned upside down; minuses and pluses changed place.” (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 36.)

This dramatic shift to the left created confusion amongst a layer of the scattered forces of the Left Opposition. Since 1928 the leading group of the Opposition had been separated through exile from one another by enormous distances. A mood of conciliation and capitulation developed amongst a layer of the former Oppositionists. First of all, Zinoviev and Kamenev recanted their ‘errors’, then others, like Radek and Preobrazhensky, followed suit. Trotsky condemned these actions as a betrayal, as they could not further the aims of reforming the Party or the Soviet Union. Commenting on these capitulations, he observed: “Revolution is a mighty devourer of people.” A layer had been worn out in the stormy events of the previous decade and more. Trotsky stood out firmly against this mood: “A capitulation of the Opposition would mean: (a) condemning ourselves to a Zinovievist vegetable existence – nature knows no more shameful state, and (b) an immediate swerving of the Stalinists to the right.” (Trotsky, Writings 1929, p. 136.) In any case, this capitulation of former Oppositionists did not save them. Most were framed and shot by Stalin as ‘enemies of the Soviet Union’ between 1936 and 1938.

In assessing what had happened, Trotsky commented:

The bureaucracy conquered something more than the Left Opposition. It conquered the Bolshevik Party. It defeated the programme of Lenin… not with ideas and arguments, but with its own social weight. The leaden rump of the bureaucracy outweighed the head of the revolution. That is the secret of the Soviet’s Thermidor. (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 94.)

With supreme confidence in the working class, he concluded:

We regret nothing and repudiate nothing. We are living with the same ideas and attitudes that moved us in the days of October 1917. We can see beyond these temporary difficulties. No matter how much the river bends, it flows to the ocean. (Trotsky, Writings 1929, p. 369.)

On the 5th September 1929, the principle of one-man management was introduced. The factory party organisation was told not to interfere with the director’s powers whereas the trade unions were to be “the energetic organisers of production activity and of the initiative of the labouring masses”. A series of decrees between 1930 and 1933 punished absenteeism with the sack and eviction from factory housing. On the 21st November 1931, the working-week was lengthened, which eliminated Sunday as a regular day of rest. Resources were channelled away from consumption to investment in heavy industry. Those who stood against the wildly exaggerated norms of production were denounced as Menshevik saboteurs. At the end of 1930 and early in 1931 two big trials – based upon false confessions – were held concerning economic sabotage and wrecking activities. A large number were shot.

The new ultra-left zig-zag now led to economic adventurism, and a drive in the 1930s to build ‘communism’ within the confines of the USSR. Draconian methods were used to catch up as rapidly as possible with the West. Stalin declared: “We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years.” This adventurist aim wrought havoc in the economy.

In January 1931, Stalin declared that the first Five-Year Plan had been completed in four years and three months. But the dash for growth hit deep crisis in 1933, as limits and bottlenecks were encountered throughout the economy. Agricultural production had reached its lowest point. Living standards suffered as a consequence. By 1934 things began to partially recover. Despite this dislocation, during the first Five-Year Plan about 1,500 big enterprises had been constructed. These included the Dneproges, the Magnitogorsk and Kuznetsk metallurgical complexes, the Ural machine factory, the Rostov agricultural-machinery plant, tractor factories at Chelyabinsk, Stalingrad, and Kharkov, car factories in Moscow and Sormovo, the Ural chemical works, the Kramatorsk factory of heavy machinery, and so on.

“Whatever the validity of certain official claims,” says Alec Nove, “it remains true beyond question that the second Five-Year Plan period was one of impressive achievement.” (Alec Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, p. 231.) In 1932, 338 million roubles’ worth of machine tools were imported, which represented 78 per cent of all machine tools installed that year. By 1937, however, all the basic tools of industrialisation, and of arms production, were made in the Soviet Union. The economic growth between 1935-36 was considerable. In 1934 gross industrial output rose by 19 per cent, in 1935 by 23 per cent, and in 1936 by 29 per cent. Agricultural production also steadily recovered.

New sectors of industry were established that never existed before, such as machine tools, car and tractor manufacturing, a chemical industry, motor works, aircraft factories, production of turbines and generators, high grade steel, ferrous alloys, synthetic rubber, artificial fibres, nitrogen, and other products. The construction of hundreds of thousands of kilometres of railroad and canals were undertaken. The eastern part of the country became the second metallurgical and oil centre of Soviet industry. Hundreds of new cities and settlements were founded. In the following years, while the capitalist world was paralysed by the worst slump in history, the USSR took giant strides forward.

The Stalin regime brought in piecework, and its corollary, the shock brigades of the Stakhanovite movement to increase the productivity of labour. New higher work norms were introduced across the board. In early 1936, norms were sharply increased by 30-40 per cent in engineering, 34 per cent in chemicals, 51 per cent in electricity generation, 26 per cent in coal mining, and 25-29 per cent in oil production. At the same time the Stalin regime proclaimed the “final and irrevocable triumph of socialism”. Piecework, described by Marx as “the most suitable to capitalistic methods of production”, was hailed as socialist piecework! It was applied in its most naked form and provoked bitter resentment in the Russian working class.

State ownership of the means of production does not turn manure into gold, and does not surround with a halo of sanctity the sweat-shop system, which wears out the greatest of all productive forces: man. As to the preparation of a ‘transition from socialism to communism’ that will begin at the exactly opposite end – not with the introduction of piecework payment, but its abolition as a relic of barbarism. (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, pp. 82-3.)

Only during the second Five-Year Plan did real wages begin to rise. Bread rationing was abolished from the 1st January 1935, and by October, the rationing of meat, fats, fish, sugar, and potatoes was also abandoned. In January 1936, rationing of industrial products for general consumption was also dropped. Money relations – after a period of chronic inflation – were restored. Also in 1935, the system of planned distribution gave way to trade. Bread and flour prices were reduced. In 1937, the average price of all non-food items fell by 3.8 per cent. According to Malafeyev, the retail price index rose by 80 per cent between 1932-37, while average wages rose by 113 per cent. Allowing for services, he concludes that real wages rose in this period by “at least 20 per cent”.

Alec Nove believes the increase was even greater given the greater availability of goods and better trading arrangements. Nevertheless, although life improved it was still very grim as real wages still trailed below the level of 1928. The comments of Stalin, “life has become easier, life has become happier, and when life is happy then work goes fast”, were an obviously exaggerated view of Soviet life. However, in marked contrast to the capitalist West, unemployment was abolished. In fact, the economic advance gave rise to a shortage of labour, which was overcome by millions of peasants entering Russian industry.

Increased social divisions

Stalinism meant the obliteration of basic workers’ rights – the right to strike, organise, freedom of speech, etc. – that exist in the ‘democracies’ of the capitalist West. Political counter-revolution had already begun in 1924 with the intrigues of Stalin and his domination of the Party and state apparatus. However, it was a protracted process. The old cadres of the revolution were gradually eliminated and replaced by the all-powerful bureaucracy. By the early 1930s, the defeat of the Left and then the Right Oppositions cleared the way for the complete domination by the Stalinist faction. “The Jacobins have been pushed out by the Thermidorians and Bonapartists,” Trotsky wrote. “Bolsheviks have been supplanted by Stalinists.”

From 1932 to 1947 no trade union congresses were held in the USSR. The trade unions were transformed into mere appendages of the state. The soviets had long ago changed into organs of bureaucratic rule. Stalin drew up a new constitution in 1936 and hailed it the “most democratic” in the world. On the eve of the 1937 general elections, Stalin declared: “Never before – no, really never – has the world ever seen elections so completely free, and so truly democratic! History has recorded no other example of the kind.” (J. V. Stalin, Speeches at Pre-election Meetings of the Stalin Election District in Moscow Province. 11th December 1937 and 9th February 1946 (Russian), Moscow 1946, p. 5. Quoted by T. Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia, p. 121.) However, this ‘democratic’ constitution did not prevent the rigging of all elections with the CP candidate getting around 99.9 per cent of the votes. At one election to the local soviets on 21st December 1947, Stalin polled 2,122 votes, despite the fact that the constituency only had 1,617 voters! This was explained by Pravda the following day: “The extra ballot papers were put into the urns by citizens of neighbouring constituencies anxious to seize the opportunity to express their gratitude to their leaders.”! (Ibid., p. 121.)

Blatant ballot rigging was clearly revealed in the referendum in Lithuania on the 12th July 1940 concerning the union of Lithuania with the USSR. Through bungling, Moscow announced the result after the first day of a two-day referendum! As one commentator explained: “It was an unfortunate slip by which a London newspaper published the official results from a Russian news agency twenty-four hours before the polls were officially closed.” (Ibid, p. 122.)

The bureaucracy, with Stalin at its head, was consolidating its hold over power. By the mid-1930s, the bureaucracy had secured for itself a privileged and powerful position far greater than any other bureaucracy in history. Using the whip of bureaucratic commandism, and its auxiliary in the Stakhanovite movement, the productivity of labour as a whole rose substantially in these years. This propelled industry forward, but it also provided greater privileges for the bureaucracy. The increase of production “on the basis of commodity circulation, means at the same time a growth of inequality”, noted Trotsky. “The rise in the prosperity of the commanding strata is beginning to exceed by far the rise in the standard of living of the masses. Along with an increase of state wealth goes a process of new social differentiation.” (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, pp. 115-6.) While rationing was abolished, and real wages increased for the majority, the privileges of the bureaucracy grew enormously. With economic growth came, not growing equality, but increased social division. There thus occurred a division not only between the workers and bureaucracy, but also between the lower and higher paid workers.

As the economy leapt forward, the wages and perks of top officials grew much faster than the real wages of the workers. Some bureaucrats held several positions, thereby drawing several salaries. A system of subsidies for officials was also introduced from the level of chairman of a city soviet upwards. As Marx explained, on the basis of “generalised want”, the struggle for existence threatens to revive “all the old crap”. Under the Stalin regime, this took an aggravated form. “Always and in every regime,” notes Trotsky, “the bureaucracy devours no small portion of the surplus value.”

The rule preventing Communist Party officials receiving more than a skilled worker (the ‘party maximum’) was formally abolished on the 8th February 1932. The bureaucracy was eager to share in the growing surplus produced by the labour of the Russian working class. It devoured, wasted and embezzled a considerable proportion of the national income. A small group of top officials were receiving privileges as early as the first Five-Year Plan by the creation of a system of special shops, distributing centres and dining-rooms, where goods could be obtained at fixed prices – a great privilege in a period of high inflation. Other privileges were gradually built up: special hospitals, holiday homes, dachas, etc. Extra perks were also received by Party officials for conferences, congresses and so on. As parasites, the bureaucracy sought a bigger and bigger share of the national wealth. To prevent collapse, this corruption had to be curtailed or limited in order to preserve the well-being of the bureaucratic caste as a whole. This was the role of the chief arbiter, Stalin.

Before the Second World War, Trotsky calculated that the Soviet bureaucracy – made up of the officials of the state apparatus, the party, trade unions, co-operatives and the military-industrial complex – together with their families and dependants, constituted as many as 20-25 million people, which was 12-15 per cent of the population. However, the bureaucracy was not a homogeneous grouping, unlike the proletariat or peasantry. The ruling caste in the proper sense of the word, was likely to be made up of around 500,000 persons, resting upon a “heavy administrative pyramid with a broad and many-faceted foundation”. It was a heterogeneous grouping ranging from Kremlin dignitaries to local Party and state officials. Trotsky was very careful not to describe these parasitic strata as a new social class.

Exiled to Alma-Ata and then expelled from the borders of the Soviet Union, Leon Trotsky undertook the organisation of an international Left Opposition to continue the defence of the ideas and traditions of Bolshevism. In order to defeat Stalinism, it became essential to define and understand the nature of the bureaucratic reaction within the Soviet Union. With the degeneration of the Comintern, Trotsky devoted the remainder of his life to organising and theoretically rearming the young revolutionary cadres of the Marxist movement. At a time when the world was mesmerised by the startling advances of the Soviet Union under the original Five-Year Plans, Trotsky was the only one to provide an exhaustive scientific analysis of Stalinism. For this achievement alone, his place in history as one of the great pioneers of Marxist thought would be guaranteed. Yet he did not immediately arrive at a fully-fledged conclusion. This flowed from the nature of the phenomenon itself. The bureaucratic degeneration did not take place overnight. It was a contradictory process, which unfolded over a period of more than a decade. This explains the on-going nature of Trotsky’s evaluation of Stalinism. Scrupulously following the dialectical method, he carefully charted all the twists and turns, laying bare at each stage the contradictory tendencies, and showing how the process was likely to unfold.

In their drive against ‘Trotskyism’ from 1924 onwards, the Stalinists carried through a purge of the Communist Parties internationally in the name of Bolshevisation. These organisational methods had caused splits and divisions in all the national sections. It resulted in a layer of members and ex-members of the Communist Parties who opposed Stalinism moving in all kinds of political directions. Some moved towards Menshevism and accepted that capitalism had been restored in Russia. Others defined it as ‘state capitalism’ or some kind of new exploitative society, which for them meant the total eradication of the Soviet regime. Others simply renounced the revolutionary movement altogether. Trotsky took issue with these ‘new’ theories which abandoned the USSR as a workers’ state. Such ideas even began to surface within the international Left Opposition itself, reflecting the prevailing moods of pessimism and despair in the face of the apparently irresistible advance of the Stalinist political counter-revolution. Trotsky, in an article written in 1929, entitled Defence of the Soviet Republic and the Opposition, took up sharply a leading German Oppositionist, Hugo Urbahns, for misinterpreting his views on the class nature of the Soviet state and asserting that the capitalist counter-revolution had been completed and everything had been lost. Trotsky argued that, while a degeneration had taken place, the basic gains of the revolution were still intact:

We fight against the Stalinist course. But Soviet Russia is something quite different from Stalin. Despite all the degeneration, which we fight and will continue to fight most resolutely, so long as the class-conscious workers are armed, Soviet Russia remains for us a proletarian state, which we defend unconditionally in our own interests, in peace as in war, in spite of Stalin, and precisely in order to defeat Stalin, who is incapable of defending it with his policy. Whoever is not absolutely firm on this question of the proletarian character of Soviet Russia hurts the proletariat, hurts the revolution, hurts the Communist Left Opposition. (Trotsky, Writings 1929, pp. 284-5.)

Trotsky at that time described the Soviet bureaucracy as a form of bureaucratic centrism, reflecting Stalin’s shift from left to right and back again. It reflected the attempts of the bureaucracy to regulate the antagonisms in Soviet society, between the workers’ state and world imperialism, but in an increasingly Bonapartist manner. For Trotsky, the task facing the Left Opposition was not to form another party, but to fight for the reform of the Communist Party as a faction within it; and to struggle not for a new revolution, but for reform of the USSR. This position was staunchly defended by the International Left Opposition up until 1933, when events in Germany forced Trotsky to re-evaluate his position. He regarded the catastrophe in Germany, culminating in the victory of Hitler, as the historical equivalent of the betrayal of Social Democracy in August 1914. This time, the part played by the leaders of the German Communist Party and the Comintern was even more disastrous. With their mad policies of ‘Social Fascism’, and the so-called united front from below, the German Communist leaders, together with the miserable role of the Social-Democratic leaders, split the working-class movement and delivered it without a struggle into the hands of Fascism. The theory of ‘Social Fascism’ held that all political parties, with the exception of the Communist Party, were fascist. This idea was summed up in Stalin’s notorious phrase “objectively, Social Democracy and Fascism are not antipodes, but twins”.

Soviet foreign policy

Everywhere we issue the call for a world workers’ revolution… Russia will become mighty and abundant if she abandons all dejection and all phrasemaking, if, with clenched teeth, she musters all her forces and strains every nerve and muscle, if she realises that salvation lies only along the road of world socialist revolution upon which we have set out.
( Lenin, LCW, Vol. 27, pp. 160-1.)

Howard: Does this statement of yours mean that the Soviet Union has to any degree abandoned its plans and intentions to bring about a world revolution?
Stalin: We never had any such plans or intentions.
Howard: You appreciate, no doubt Mr Stalin, that much of the world has long entertained a different impression?
Stalin: This is the product of misunderstanding.
Howard: A tragic misunderstanding?
Stalin: No, comic. Or perhaps tragicomic…
(Roy Howard, Stalin interview, Communist International, March/April 1936.)

US right-wing forces and propaganda portray our interest in Latin America as an intention to engineer a series of socialist revolutions there. Nonsense! The way we have behaved for decades proves that we don’t plan anything of the kind.
(Mikhail Gorbachev, Perestroika – New Thinking for Our Country and the World, pp. 187-8.)

Foreign policy is the continuation of domestic policy. When the Bolsheviks came to power their whole perspective was based upon the world revolution. The key issue was to hold out for as long as possible, while promoting the socialist revolution abroad. Immediately the Soviet government issued a decree for peace without annexations. This appeal, in the words of Lenin, “must be addressed both to the governments and to the peoples. We cannot ignore the governments, for that would delay the possibility of concluding peace, and the people’s government dare not do that”. (LCW, Vol. 26, p. 252.) And he added: “Nor must our proposal for an armistice have the form of an ultimatum, for we shall not give our enemies an opportunity of concealing the whole truth from the peoples, using our irreconcilability as a pretext.” (LCW, Vol. 29, p. 256.)

As a consequence, the Russian Revolution sent a wave of revolutionary fervour through the ranks of the working class throughout the world. To the war-weary, disillusioned and embittered masses, it came as a message of hope, of inspiration and courage, it showed the way out of the bloody chaos into which capitalism had plunged society.

However, Soviet Russia was surrounded by hostile powers, and was forced into a humiliating peace with German imperialism at Brest-Litovsk. Soon afterwards, the Soviet republic was faced with civil war and foreign intervention sent to crush her. However, by November 1918, revolution had broken out in Germany. The Soviet government had received the message: “Greetings of peace and freedom to all. Berlin and the surrounding districts are in the hands of the Council of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies…” As soon as the news of the German Revolution reached Russia there were spontaneous demonstrations, which were described by Karl Radek:

From every corner of the city demonstrations were marching towards the Moscow Soviet… Tens of thousands of workers burst into wild cheering. Never have I seen anything like it again. Until late evening workers and Red Army soldiers were filing past. The world revolution had come. (Karl Radek, The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power, p. 35.)

Lenin wrote to Trotsky and Sverdlov that:

The international revolution has come so close in one week that it has to be reckoned with as an event of the next few days… We are all ready to die to help the German workers advance the revolution which has begun in Germany. In conclusion: (1) Ten times more effort to secure grain (clean out all stocks for ourselves and for the German workers). (2) Ten times more enrolments for the army. We must have by the spring an army of three million to help the international workers’ revolution. (LCW, Vol. 28, pp. 364-5.)

The breakdown of imperialism and capitalism was signalled by revolutions in Germany, Austria, Hungary, revolutionary situations in Italy, France and even in Britain. Unfortunately, the German Revolution was derailed by the Social-Democratic leaders who conspired with the Junkers and capitalists to destroy the revolution, and handed back power from the workers to the capitalists. This was to result in a series of bloody defeats for the German workers and the murder of its two finest representatives, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. A Soviet Republic was declared in Bavaria and in Hungary but was defeated by the counter-revolution. Social Democracy saved capitalism. The powerful trade union and socialist bureaucracies placed themselves at the head of the upsurge of the masses to divert it into harmless channels.

But precisely because of the breakdown of international socialism in the Second International, which had betrayed Marxism, the new Third Communist International was formed in March 1919, in Moscow, made up of groups which supported the Bolshevik Revolution. Its declared aims and objectives were the overthrow of world capitalism and the construction of a world chain of united Soviet Socialist Republics to join up with the USSR; which itself was not conceived as an independent entity but merely as the base for the world revolution. Its fate would be determined and was bound up with the fate of the world revolution. The revolutionary wave that swept across Europe, through Austria to Italy, France and Britain, gave rise to great expectations of the workers coming to power elsewhere. The spectre of revolution hung all over Europe. The memoirs and writings of nearly all the capitalist politicians of that time bear witness to the despair and the lack of confidence of the bourgeoisie in the face of developing revolution. In Italy, by 1920, the workers had seized the factories. Instead of leading the workers to the conquest of power, the Socialist Party bade them cease this ‘unconstitutional’ procedure. So it was throughout Europe.

The failure of the revolution outside of Russia was primarily due to the betrayals of the old leaders and also the weakness of the Communist Parties and groups that existed. Only in 1920, after the formation of the Third International, did mass Communist Parties emerge in Germany, France, Italy and Czechoslovakia, out of the splits and turmoil within the traditional mass organisations. Yet, compared to the Russians, these parties were very young and inexperienced. This led to tragic mistakes in the period 1920-23. Many of these newly formed parties suffered from ultra-leftism and sectarianism. In 1920, Lenin was forced to take issue with these ‘childish’ illnesses at the Second Congress of the Comintern, and also wrote a work on this question entitled “Left Wing” Communism, an Infantile Disorder.

The resolutions of the first four Congresses of the Communist International forged in the years 1919-22 are a worked out set of strategy and tactics with which to guide the communist movement. The success of the world revolution seemed to be assured by the development of events. Everything was in place for the impending revolutionary wave. However, the correct positions of Lenin were undone by Zinoviev and Stalin. Their bureaucratic policies had a particularly disastrous effect in Germany, where the Communist Party leadership was disoriented by the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in 1919. First Paul Levy took charge. Levy displayed opportunist leanings which were bitterly criticised by the Party’s ultra-left wing (Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow). Lenin and Trotsky were also critical of Levy, but defended him against the ‘Lefts’. They never had the policy of bureaucratically removing leaders, even when they made mistakes. Lenin once warned Bukharin that “if you want obedience, you will get obedient fools”. They preferred to educate the membership through patient explanation, discussion and friendly criticism.

When, against Lenin’s advice, the ‘Lefts’ finally removed Levy, and the latter moved to the right, Lenin commented: “Well, he lost his head. But he had a head to lose.” His scepticism of the new ‘left’ leadership was soon shown to be correct. In March 1921, under Fischer and Maslow, the inexperienced German Communist Party embarked on an ill-prepared insurrection with no mass support, which culminated in a heavy defeat for the Communists. The so-called revolutionary offensive of the ‘March Action’ led to the loss of 200,000 members and the isolation of the Party. As a result of this debacle, Lenin and Trotsky had to open up a sharp struggle with the ultra-lefts who defended this adventure, for such actions, if they were allowed to continue, would have wrecked the communist movement. In place of impatience and adventurism, the Communists needed to ‘patiently explain’, and win the majority of the working class to its side. Pursuing his usual methods, Zinoviev had Fischer and Maslow removed and replaced by the ‘Rights’, Brandler and Thalheimer. Instead of attempting to re-educate both the party and the leadership in the course of common action and discussion, these Zinovievite methods of manoeuvres and the use of the apparatus to ‘solve’ inner party disputes had the effect of demoralising sections of the Party and disorienting the leadership.

German Revolution 1923

The world war had not solved any of the problems of world capitalism. In fact, it had aggravated them. Capitalism had broken at its weakest link. The attempts to destroy the young Soviet Republic by the wars of intervention had completely failed. German capitalism, the mightiest in Europe, found itself stripped of its assets and resources, part of its territory, burdened with staggering reparations payments, and generally placed in an impossible position. British and French imperialists, the ‘victors’ in the war, fundamentally, were not in a much better position. Encouraged by the Russian Revolution, the colonial and semi-colonial masses were stirring and preparing to revolt. The masses at home were restless and uneasy and the economic position of Anglo-French imperialism had worsened considerably in comparison with that of Japanese and American capitalism. It was against this international background that the crisis broke out in Germany in 1923. Germany, with her high productive capacity, was crippled by the restrictions imposed by Versailles and had now become the weakest link in the chain of world capitalism. The failure of Germany to pay the instalments on the reparations resulted in the French capitalists marching into the Ruhr. This helped to complete the collapse of the German economy, and the German bourgeoisie endeavoured to unload the burdens onto the shoulders of the working and middle classes. This produced an acute crisis and a growing revolutionary situation throughout the country.

The success of revolution does not depend exclusively upon the objective conditions which exist in a country at a given time. It also depends crucially on the existence of what Marxists call the subjective factor – a mass revolutionary party with a clear-sighted and determined leadership. Old Engels long ago explained that, at times, a single day can seem like 20 years, whereas at other times, the history of 20 years can be summed up in 24 hours. That is to say, it can take decades for a revolutionary situation to develop, but the opportunity can be lost in a few days, unless the revolutionary leadership is prepared to take advantage of the moment. If they fail, the revolutionary opportunity may take decades to return. There are good reasons for this, which are evident for anyone who thinks about them for a moment. How does it come about that a tiny handful of exploiters can impose its rule over millions of men and women? The capitalist system does not usually have to resort to violence to maintain itself (although it will use the most brutal means if necessary). The secret consists in the tremendous force of habit and routine which predominates in ‘normal’ periods. The masses become habituated to the life of slavery and submission to their ‘betters’ from the moment they become conscious. This ‘normality’ is sanctioned by religion, morality, law and custom, and is not questioned by the overwhelming majority, who regard it as something eternal and natural. Only in certain critical moments, when great events shake the masses out of their torpor, do they begin to free themselves from the dead hand of custom and begin to seek a way out along new and untried paths. Such periods are exceptional by their very nature.

For this reason, it is necessary to prepare the revolutionary party in advance. It is not possible to improvise it on the spur of the moment. This, in essence, is the message of Trotsky’s book Lessons of October, written in 1924, with the aim of acquainting the cadres of the young Communist Parties, especially the German party, with the real experience of Bolshevism in 1917. The Russian Revolution was not an exception. True, like every revolution, it had certain concrete peculiarities. True, it took place in a backward country, very unlike industrialised Germany or Britain. But there are many features that are common to all revolutions, and this means that parallels can be drawn and lessons learned. If the Russian Revolution demonstrates the correctness of Bolshevism positively, the German events of 1923 demonstrate the same thing, only negatively. In both cases the leadership played the decisive role. But whereas the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky led the Russian workers to victory, the German CP leaders, acting on advice from Stalin and Zinoviev, led the revolution to defeat.

In 1923, the collapse of the Mark and the seizure of the Rhineland by the armies of French imperialism gave rise to a revolutionary situation in Germany. Had Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht not been murdered in 1919, there is little doubt that they would have provided the necessary leadership to ensure the victory of the working class. This assertion may seem paradoxical, given the fact that Rosa Luxemburg always insisted on the central role of the spontaneous self-movement of the proletariat in the revolution. In reality, there is no contradiction. Even the stormiest mass movement requires organisation and leadership in order to overcome the power of the bourgeois state and transform society. The events of 1923 are the clearest proof of this. In the absence of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, there was a crisis of leadership in the German party. The subsequent chopping and changing, in which the Communist International under Zinoviev’s inspiration played a most harmful role, effectively beheaded the party. The policy of removing leaders who were out of favour with Moscow set a very bad precedent, which was later used to Stalinise the Communist International and, ultimately, destroy it. It was entirely alien to the methods of Bolshevism. The workers had no possibility of learning by experience, of debating the issues, and deciding for themselves which leaders were right and which wrong. This process is necessarily slow. It takes years and decades to develop cadres and allow a genuine revolutionary leadership to emerge. But there is no other way. This was just how the Bolshevik Party developed over a long preparatory period before 1917. They also made all kinds of mistakes. But through mistakes – provided they are honestly admitted and evaluated – one learns and develops. By bureaucratic manoeuvres and the attempt to establish the infallibility of the leadership, it will not be possible to build a genuine revolutionary party even in a thousand years.

By these means, Zinoviev and his supporters completely undermined the German leadership. The result was that, when the revolutionary wave broke in 1923, they were disoriented. Brandler went to Moscow to seek advice on what to do. Here accident played a role. Both Lenin and Trotsky were ill, and unable to see him. He was met instead by Stalin and Zinoviev, who gave him completely wrong advice. Repeating his error of October 1917, when he and Kamenev opposed the insurrection, Zinoviev expressed his open scepticism about revolutionary prospects in Germany. As always, the verbal radicalism of people with bureaucratic tendencies is only the reverse side of their innate conservatism and distrust of the masses. Zinoviev urged caution, and, in effect, advised the Germans to do nothing. Stalin was even more crudely opportunist. He differed from Zinoviev only in that he was not even interested in the problems of the German Revolution, which was only a distraction from his manoeuvres in the apparatus. Narrow minded and parochial, he had a deep-seated contempt for the workers of Western Europe, who he believed would never make a revolution. With his organic opportunism, Stalin urged the German party not to take any action. His advice to the German leaders was astonishing – “Let the fascists try first!”

The leadership of the International and the German party failed to stand up to the test and take advantage of the opportunity. Success in Germany would inevitably have led to victory throughout Europe. But as in Russia in 1917, so in Germany of 1923, sections of the leadership vacillated. Brandler and the German leadership were in effect restrained by Stalin, Radek and Zinoviev. They dismissed Trotsky’s proposal for a schedule for an insurrection and blundered into a belated and botched attempt to take power that turned into a fiasco. Because of this, the opportunity was allowed to slip, and the German Revolution was aborted. Alarmed and scandalised, Trotsky wrote The Lessons of October in an attempt to get the leaders of the Communist Parties to draw the necessary conclusions from the German events. But the Stalin-Zinoviev-Kamenev clique, which, behind the scenes, was jockeying for power, could not accept an honest discussion of the German events which would damage its prestige. Trotsky’s work was taken as the signal for a furious onslaught against so-called Trotskyism, and its central message was buried under a mountain of slander and abuse. The methods of Lenin were already being substituted for the alien methods of a commanding bureaucracy which demands uncritical acceptance of its ‘all-seeing’ leadership and Papal infallibility.

Socialism in one country

The defeat reinforced the bureaucratic reaction in Russia. With Lenin dying, Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev intrigued against Trotsky. These moves simply served to reinforce Stalin’s position and strengthen the grip of the bureaucracy. Never particularly interested in the broader international perspectives, Stalin now became increasingly sceptical about the prospects of international revolution. This began to manifest itself in the Soviet Union with the theory of ‘socialism in one country’, the shift to the right in economic policy and the pandering to the kulaks and NEPmen. This ‘theory’ sprang directly from the defeat which the revolution had suffered in Germany. It indicated a turning away from the principles of revolutionary internationalism on which the Russian Revolution had been based and on which the Third International was founded.

At that time, Stalin had not the slightest notion of where the theory of socialism in one country would lead the Soviet Union and the Comintern. The transition from the policy of world revolution to that of socialism in one country expressed a sharp turn to the right in the Comintern. The young and immature leaders of the International were quickly brought under the control of the Stalin clique in the Kremlin which cynically used them as agents of its foreign policy. Those who showed resistance were purged.

In 1928, Leon Trotsky predicted that the acceptance by the Communist International of the theory of socialism in one country could mark the beginning of a process which would inevitably culminate in the national-reformist degeneration of every Communist Party in the world – whether in or out of power. In a brilliant prediction, Trotsky warned the leaders of the Communist Parties:

If it is at all possible to realise socialism in one country, then one can believe in that theory not only after but also before the conquest of power. If socialism can be realised within the national boundaries of backward Russia, then there is all the more reason to believe that it can be realised in advanced Germany. Tomorrow the leaders of the Communist Party of Germany will undertake to propound the theory. The draft programme empowers them to do so. The day after tomorrow the French party will have its turn. It will be the beginning of the degeneration of the Comintern along the lines of social patriotism. (Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin, p. 73.)

Foreign policy became dominated by Stalin, who had lost complete confidence in the working class internationally, and was desperate to find allies to “defend the Soviet Union from attack”. The Comintern was already being reduced to the role of a border guard and the passive tool of Moscow’s foreign policy. In regard to the Chinese Revolution during 1925-27, where millions were being stirred into action in Asia, the Comintern, instead of relying on the workers and peasants to carry through the revolution, as was the Leninist policy in Russia, preferred to subordinate itself to the Chinese capitalists and generals around Chiang Kai-shek in the nationalist Guomindang. Stalin described the Guomindang as a revolutionary “bloc of four classes”. In early 1926, it was admitted as a member of the Communist International. Chiang was elected, against the solitary vote of Trotsky, an honorary member of the Executive Committee of the Comintern. The Left Opposition warned about the consequences of this Menshevik policy. The Chinese Communist Party was the sole workers’ party and had a dominating influence over the working class; the peasantry was looking towards the example of Russia to show them the way out of their centuries-long suffering at the hands of the landlords, through the seizure of the land.

Under Stalin’s orders, and for fear of alienating the capitalists and landlords of the Guomindang, the Chinese Communists were prevented from putting themselves at the head of the agrarian revolution. The Comintern stubbornly refused to take the road of working class independence, which Lenin had insisted on as a prerequisite for communist policy in relation to the revolutionary-democratic and anti-imperialist revolutions in the East. On the 20th March 1926, the militarist leadership of the Guomindang under Chiang Kai-shek staged a counter-revolutionary coup. Chiang then proceeded to arrest leading Communists and trade unionists. In order to shield Stalin’s authority, all news of this right-wing coup was suppressed in the Soviet Union. Inprecor (the organ of the Third International at the time) dismissed the coup reports as “an invention of the imperialists”. Chiang staged a further coup in the revolutionary stronghold of Shanghai, carrying through a massacre of Communist workers. Only when the defeat of the revolution was complete did Stalin order a bloody insurrection in Canton – a pure adventure – that beheaded the proletarian vanguard. Stalin drew the conclusion that “Chiang Kai-shek’s coup is one of those zigzags in the course of the Chinese Revolution, one that was needed in order to cleanse the revolution of dross and to impel it forward…” (Stalin, Collected Works, Vol. 9, p. 265.)

Meanwhile, a similar opportunist policy was pursued in Britain where the masses were undergoing a process of intense radicalisation. As a means of combating intervention against the Soviet Union the Russian trade unions entered into an agreement with the General Council of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) to co-operate through an Anglo-Russian Committee. The tendency towards revolutionary developments in Britain is seen in the fact that a million members, a quarter of the trade union membership, were organised in the Minority Movement. Trotsky, analysing the situation in Britain, had predicted the outbreak of a general strike. The task of the Communist Party and the Communist International should have been to prepare the workers for the inevitability of a betrayal on the part of the trade union leadership. Instead, they sowed illusions in the minds of the workers, especially as the British trade union bureaucrats had covered themselves with the prestige of the Anglo-Russian Committee. After the betrayal of the 1926 General Strike by the trade union bureaucracy, Trotsky demanded that the Russian trade unions break off relations with the British TUC. This Stalin and the Comintern refused to do. After using the Anglo-Russian Committee for as long as they needed, more than a year after the General Strike, the British trade union leadership took the initiative to break off relations. The Comintern let out a howl that they had been betrayed.

The young British Communist Party should have increased its membership and influence by leaps and bounds as a result of these great events. Unfortunately, following the line of the International, it trailed behind the ‘lefts’ on the TUC General Council, who in turn, trailed behind the likes of right wingers, Citrine and Thomas. It was disoriented by the opportunist policy of the International, and proved unable to take advantage of the opportunities that had opened up. Their outlook was summed up by J. T. Murphy, a Central Committee member, who wrote on the eve of the strike:

Our party does not hold the leading positions in the trade unions. It is not conducting the negotiations with the employers and the government. It can only advise and place its forces at the service of the workers led by others… To entertain any exaggerated views as to the revolutionary possibilities of this crisis and visions of new leadership ‘arising spontaneously in the struggle’, etc., is fantastic… (Quoted in The History of Communism in Britain, by Brian Pearce and Michael Woodhouse, p. 99. London, 1995.)

These defeats for the Communist International in China and Britain, due directly to the policy of Stalin and the bureaucracy, paradoxically, increased the power of the bureaucracy within the Soviet Union. The Left Opposition led by Trotsky, which had correctly analysed and forecast these developments, was now expelled from the Communist Party and from the International.

The Third Period

Stalin had burned his fingers badly in his attempts to lean on the capitalist elements in China and to conciliate the trade union bureaucracy in Britain. Now he turned the Comintern sharply in the opposite direction. In violation of its statutes, the International had not held a conference for four years. A new Congress was called in 1928 which introduced officially the programme of socialism in one country into the programme of the Communist International. It also proclaimed the end of capitalist stability and the beginning of what was termed the ‘Third Period’. In contrast to the period of revolutionary upheavals following 1917 (the First Period), and the period of relative capitalist stability after 1923 (the Second Period), this so-called Third Period was supposed to usher in the final collapse of world capitalism. At the same time, Social Democracy, according to the once famous (but now buried) theory of Stalin, was supposed to have transformed itself into ‘Social Fascism’. No agreement was now possible between the Communists and the ‘social fascists’ who constituted the main danger confronting the working class.

It was just at this period that the unprecedented slump of 1929-33 affected the capitalist world. In particular, it hit Germany especially hard. Living standards collapsed. The German workers faced degradation and misery, while the middle classes were also ruined. Germany’s figures of unemployment rose steadily. At the peak, it reached six million. The middle class, having failed to receive anything from the revolution of 1918, and disappointed with the failure of the Communists in 1923 to take power, now in anguish and despair began to look for a solution to their problems in a different direction. Subsidised and financed by the capitalists, the Nazis began to secure a mass basis in Germany. In the elections of September 1930, they secured nearly six and a half million votes. The policies of Stalin had a disastrous effect in the Communist International. The lurch to the left in the USSR, expressed in the policy of forced collectivisation and the madness of ‘Five-Year Plans in four years’, found its reflection internationally in the ultra-left theory of the ‘Third Period’ and ‘Social Fascism’. This had the most terrible consequences in Germany, where it was directly responsible for splitting the working class and allowing Hitler to come to power without a fight.

The German working class was one of the strongest in the world, with powerful labour organisations and hundreds of thousands of workers organised in communist and socialist militias. The German Communist Party, together with the Social Democracy constituted the mightiest force in Germany. At the time of Hitler’s first big electoral advance in 1930, when the Nazis got six and a half million votes, the Communist Party had won four and a half million, and the Social Democracy eight and a half million – taken together, more than twice the Nazi’s. The combined strength of the Communist and Social-Democratic forces was more than sufficient to defeat the fascists, had they been united around a serious programme of struggle. Yet in 1933 Hitler could boast that he had come to power “without breaking a window pane”.

The reason for this monstrous state of affairs was the paralysis of the German proletariat as a result of the policies of both the Social-Democratic and Stalinist leaderships. In 1931, the Stalinists went so far as to form an unofficial united front with the Nazis to bring down the Social-Democratic government in Prussia (the so-called Red Referendum). At one point, they issued the slogan “Beat the little Scheidemanns in the school yard” – an invitation to the children of Communists to beat up those of the Social Democrats. Jan Valtin, at that time a Communist Party activist in Germany, recalled his experience of this policy:

It was a weird alliance, never officially proclaimed or recognised by either the Red or the Brown bureaucracy, but a grim fact all the same. Many of the simple Party members resisted stubbornly; too disciplined to denounce openly the Central Committee, they embarked on a silent campaign of passive resistance, if not sabotage. However, the most active and loyal communist elements – I among them – went ahead energetically to translate this latest Parteibefehl [Party order] into action. A temporary truce and a combining of forces were agreed on by the followers of Stalin and Hitler whenever they saw an opportunity to raid and break up meetings and demonstrations of the democratic front. During 1931 alone, I participated in dozens of such terroristic enterprises in concert with the rowdiest Nazi elements. I and my comrades simply followed Party orders. I shall describe a few of such enterprises to characterise this Dimitrov-Hitler alliance and to illustrate what was going on all over Germany at that time.

In the spring of 1931, the socialist Transport Workers’ Union had called a conference of ship and dock delegates of all the main ports of western Germany. The conference took place in the House of Labour in Bremen. It was public and the workers were invited to listen to the proceedings. The Communist Party sent a courier to the headquarters of the Nazi Party, with a request for co-operation in the blasting of the trade union conference. The Hitlerites agreed, as they always did in such cases. When the conference opened, the galleries were packed with two to three hundred Communists and Nazis. I was in charge of operations for the Communist Party and a storm troop leader named Walter Tidow – for the Nazis. In less than two minutes, we had agreed on a plan of action. As soon as the conference of the Social Democrats was well under way, I got up and launched a harangue from the gallery. In another part of the hall Tidow did the same. The trade union delegates were at first speechless. Then the chairman gave the order to eject the two troublemakers, me and Tidow, from the building. We sat quietly, derisively watching two squads of husky trade unionists advance toward us with the intention of throwing us out. We refused to budge. As soon as the first trade union delegate touched one of us, our followers rose and bedlam started. The furniture was smashed, the participants beaten and the hall turned into a shambles. We gained the street and scattered before ambulances and the Rollkommandos of the police arrived. The next day, both the Nazi and our own Party press brought out front page accounts of how ‘socialist’ workers, incensed over the ‘treachery’ of their own corrupt leaders had given them a thorough ‘proletarian rub-down’. (J. Valtin, Out of the Night, pp. 252-3.)

By these means, the mighty German working class was handed over, bound hand and foot, to the Nazis. The workers’ organisations were destroyed. Communists and Social Democrats alike ended up in Hitler’s concentration camps. And the USSR was placed in terrible danger. This was the balance sheet of the policy of ‘Social Fascism’.

Despite their expulsion from the Communist International, Trotsky and his followers still considered themselves as part of it, and insistently demanded that they be allowed to return to the ranks. At the same time, they subjected the suicidal theory which had now been adopted by the Comintern to sharp criticism. In place of it they demanded a return to the realistic Leninist policy of the United Front as a means of winning the masses in action and through their own experience, to communism. With the victory of Hitler at the polls Trotsky sounded the alarm. In a pamphlet entitled The Turn in the Communist International and the Situation in Germany, he issued a signal for a campaign, which was carried on for three years by the International Left Opposition of the Comintern, as the Trotskyists looked on themselves. In Germany, France, USA, Britain, in faraway South Africa, and in all countries where they had groups, the Trotskyists conducted a campaign demanding that the German Communist Party set into motion a campaign for a united front with the Social Democrats to prevent Hitler from coming to power.

The victory of Hitler

At the direct instructions of Stalin and the Comintern, the German Communist Party denounced this policy as a counter-revolutionary ‘social fascist’ one. They insistently fought against Social Democracy as the main enemy of the working class and argued that there was no difference between democracy and fascism. In September 1930, the Rote Fahne, organ of the German Communist Party proclaimed: “Last night was Herr Hitler’s greatest day, but the so-called election victory of the Nazis is the beginning of the end.” Throughout these years, the Comintern continued its fatal course. As late as May 1932, the British Daily Worker could proudly indict the Trotskyists for their policy in Germany thus: “It is significant that Trotsky has come out in defence of a united front between the Communist and Social-Democratic Parties against Fascism. No more disruptive and counter-revolutionary class lead could possibly have been given at the time like the present.” Meanwhile Trotsky had written four pamphlets and dozens of articles and manifestos. Everywhere the international Trotskyists explored every avenue to exert pressure on the Comintern to change its policy. In vain. In January 1933 Hitler was able to take power without any organised opposition whatsoever in a country with the most highly organised working class and with the strongest Communist Party outside of Russia. For the first time in history, reaction was permitted to conquer power without any resistance on the part of the working class.

By this betrayal, the German Communist Party was doomed forever. But the Comintern was far from recognising the nature of the catastrophe. Instead it solemnly endorsed the policy of the German Communist Party and of the International as having been perfectly correct. Rather than recognise the episode as a massive defeat for the German workers, the Comintern declared it a victory, with the slogan “After Hitler, Our Turn!” This provoked not a ripple of protest or opposition within the ranks of the Communist Parties internationally, so politically degenerate had they become. The only conclusion that could be drawn, as with the Second International in 1914, was that the Third (Communist) International was politically dead and could no longer be considered a vehicle for socialist revolution. In March 1933, Trotsky changed the perspectives for the reform of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union. Rather than fight for the reform of the German Communist Party, he now called for a new party to be built in Germany to replace the Communist Party. In July, Trotsky wrote:

With the further impotence of the Comintern, with the paralysis of the international proletarian vanguard, and, under those conditions, with the inevitable growth of world fascism, the victory of the counter-revolution in the USSR would be inevitable. Naturally, the Bolshevik-Leninists will continue their work in the USSR regardless of the conditions. But the workers’ state can be saved only by the intervention of the world revolutionary movement. In all of human history, the objective conditions for this regeneration and redevelopment have never been so favourable as now. What is lacking is the revolutionary party. The Stalinist clique can rule only by destroying the party, in the USSR as in the rest of the world. Escape from this vicious circle is possible only by breaking with the Stalinist bureaucracy. It is necessary to build in a fresh place, under a clean banner. (Trotsky, Writings 1933-34, p. 21.)

An organisation which cannot learn from the lessons of history is doomed. As a force for world socialism, the Communist International was dead. The International Left Opposition broke away and proclaimed the necessity of a new International. But what was apparent to the vanguard who had abandoned the attempt to reform the Comintern, could not be apparent to the broad masses. Only great events could teach them. On the basis of these events Trotsky came to the conclusion that new revolutionary parties and a new Fourth International had to be built. This was a task to which he dedicated himself until his assassination by a Stalinist agent in August 1940.

In the Soviet Union, it became clear that the Stalinist bureaucracy had become increasingly independent from the working class. The last vestiges of workers’ control had been eliminated. Stalin had boasted that the “cadres could only be removed by civil war”. Quantity had changed into quality. This led Trotsky to the conclusion that the Stalinist counter-revolution had reached a new turning-point and that a new supplementary revolution – a political revolution – was needed to remove the bureaucracy and re-establish a regime of genuine workers’ democracy.

“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,” stated Trotsky. “In reality, the last congress of the Bolshevik Party took place at the beginning of 1923, the 12th 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.” (Trotsky, Writings 1933-34, pp. 117-8.) He concluded: “What will be involved is not an armed insurrection against the dictatorship of the proletariat but the removal of a malignant growth upon it.” The previous position of reform of the party and Soviet state was now obsolete. This analysis was soon confirmed by the bloody experience of the Purges.

The Communist International continued to carry on this false policy right up to 1934. When the fascists in France, encouraged by the successes of fascism in Austria and Germany, conducted armed demonstrations for the overthrow of the Liberal government and parliament, the Communist Party issued orders to demonstrate with them. But now the full danger which Hitler represented to the Soviet Union was apparent to everyone. Stalin and the bureaucracy became panic-stricken. Contemptuous and cynical of the capacity of the Comintern as an instrument of world revolution, Stalin more openly converted it into an instrument of Russian foreign policy. An organisation in class society which ceases to represent the working class inevitably falls under the pressure and influence of the bourgeoisie. Stalin, in his search for allies, now turned to the bourgeoisie of Britain and France. The Popular Front policy was initiated and endorsed at the last Congress of the International held in 1935. This policy of coalition with the Liberal capitalists is one against which Lenin had struggled all his life. It represented a new stage in the degeneration of the Comintern and the first workers’ state.

Popular Frontism

Although the 1930s saw the consolidation of Stalin’s personal power, the bureaucratic regime was not a stable phenomenon. Bonapartism by its very nature is a regime of social crisis. Stalin became obsessed with internal security and therefore attempted to establish ‘normal’ diplomatic relations with the capitalist powers. After 1933, Stalin hoped to establish closer relations with Hitler’s Germany. “Of course, we are far from being enthusiastic about the fascist regime in Germany,” stated Stalin. “But fascism is not the issue here, if only for the reason that fascism in Italy, for example, has not prevented the USSR from establishing the best relations with that country.” But after being rebuffed by Hitler, and alarmed by the rapid rearmament of Germany that was taking place, Stalin began searching for other allies. He quickly joined the League of Nations, which had been previously denounced as a ‘thieves’ kitchen” by Lenin. In order to counter the military threat, the Comintern was called upon to promote ‘collective security’. This was part and parcel of a sharp change in policy announced at the Seventh Congress of the Comintern in 1935: the policy of Popular Frontism. In 1943, as a further gesture to the imperialist allies, Stalin dissolved the Comintern altogether.

The policy of Popular Frontism was based upon alliances between workers’ parties and bourgeois parties. This was entirely alien to the method of Lenin and Marx, who always insisted on a policy of class independence. The notion that it is possible to arrive at an agreement between the working class and the so-called democratic wing of the bourgeoisie is false to the core. This type of ‘unity’ is like the unity between horse and rider! It overlooks the class conflict between wage labour and capital. The policy of the capitalists, whether the Liberal or Conservative variety, is always dictated by their economic interests. In times of crisis, the bourgeois may try to lean on the labour leaders in order to keep the workers under control, only to kick them in the teeth once they have served their purpose.

The Popular Front was merely the resurrection of the old ‘Lib-Lab’ policy of class collaboration, which was implacably criticised by Marx, and still more so by Lenin, who all his life fought against illusions in the liberal bourgeoisie. While, under certain conditions, it might be permissible to enter into episodic blocs with the liberals for practical purposes, all history shows that programmatic blocs with the liberals end in disaster. In the writings of Marx and Engels, and especially those of Lenin, the liberal bourgeoisie was always portrayed as a cowardly and reactionary class, incapable of carrying through the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution.

The counter-revolutionary nature of the bourgeoisie was already understood and explained by Marx and Engels in 1848-49, in writings such as Revolution and counter-revolution in Germany. In 1904, in his book Results and Prospects Trotsky pointed out that the bourgeoisie in backward, semi-feudal, countries like tsarist Russia had arrived on the stage of history too late to carry out its historical mission. Tied to the banks on the one hand, and linked by a thousand threads to the landowning class and imperialism on the other, the bourgeoisie was organically incapable of fighting against the monarchy and feudalism. The capitalists invested in land, and the landowners in industry. They formed a reactionary bloc against progress. No matter what differences might exist between them (and the Russian liberals did clash with the autocracy frequently, up to 1905-06), they would always close ranks when threatened with a movement of the revolutionary workers and peasants. The whole thrust of Lenin’s argument was that democracy in Russia would not be brought about by the liberals, but only by the revolutionary unity of the proletariat and poor peasants against the liberals, as well as the autocracy. This was shown to be correct in 1905-06, when the liberals sold out the revolution and did a deal with the autocracy at the expense of the workers and peasants.

Even in the period when Lenin did not believe that there could be a socialist revolution in Russia before Western Europe, he was always implacably hostile to deals or alliances with the bourgeois (except for episodic blocs on secondary issues). The idea of any kind of programmatic bloc with the liberals was an anathema to him. He knew that they would inevitably betray the struggle. A fact which has been amply borne out, not only by the experience of the Russian Revolution, but by the role of the national bourgeoisie in the colonial revolution in the entire period following the Second World War. The idea of entry into a coalition government with the liberal bourgeoisie was not the policy of Lenin, but the Mensheviks. Opposition to this policy constituted the central point of difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism from 1904 onwards. It reached its clearest expression in the Provisional Government of 1917.

This Provisional Government was a classic example of a popular front, in which the ruling class, through its ‘left’ representatives ( Kerensky), leans on the leaders of the workers’ organisations in a coalition, in order to head off a revolution. Behind the facade of the popular front, the reaction regroups its forces, and prepares a counter-stroke. Once the masses have been demoralised by the experience of Popular Frontism, which, having left the basic system of exploitation untouched, passes from reforms to counter-reforms. Lenin subjected the Menshevik and SR leaders to a withering criticism for entering the Provisional Government, demanding a break with the ten capitalist ministers and the formation of an independent workers’ government based on the soviets. This was the basis upon which the October Revolution was prepared.

In essence, the policy now adopted by the Comintern in 1935 was, to quote Trotsky, “a malicious caricature of Menshevism”. The Popular Front governments formed in France and Spain allegedly to prevent the danger of fascism, had the opposite effect. Under conditions of extreme economic and social crisis, only the overthrow of landlordism and capitalism, and a radical transformation of society could show the way out. The alliance with the bourgeoisie (or, more correctly, with the shadow of the bourgeoisie) was a recipe for disaster. In every case, under the pressure of big business and the liberal allies, the living standards of the workers, peasants and middle class were cut. The promises of reform were soon turned into their opposite, preparing the ground for reaction. The most terrible example was what happened in Spain.

The Spanish Revolution

In July 1936, the heroic proletariat of Spain rose up against the fascist coup of General Franco. In Catalonia and elsewhere the workers took power into their own hands. The state collapsed as the bulk of the army officer caste went over to Franco. The Spanish workers made one attempt after another to take power. In Barcelona, the workers of the anarchist trade union CNT and the left-wing POUM stormed the barracks, armed with nothing more than kitchen knives, clubs and old hunting rifles. They smashed the fascists and power was in the hands of the working class. This would have been possible throughout Spain, but for the policies of the leaders of the workers’ organisations, who clung to their alliance with the bourgeois Republicans, in effect the shadow of the Spanish bourgeoisie.

Even the CP leaders had to admit that the revolutionary movement had already gone far beyond the limits of a bourgeois republic:

The destruction of the old ruling order, as José Díaz observed, had already been achieved; the revolution had not limited itself to ‘defending the Republic established on 14 April and revived last 16 February’ as the Communist Party had maintained at the start of the war. Communist militants in the front lines around Madrid, like Miguel Nuñez, an education militiaman, were well aware of the depth of the popular explosion.

– It was a thorough-going revolution. The people were fighting for all those things which the reactionary forces of this country had so long denied them. Land and liberty, an end to exploitation, the overthrow of capitalism. The people were not fighting for a bourgeois democracy, let’s be quite clear about that… (Ronald Fraser, Blood of Spain – An Oral History of the Spanish Civil War, p. 324.)

Power is, in the last expression, armed bodies of men. Whoever controls these holds power. But in July 1936, the workers of Spain rose against the fascists in reply to Franco’s military uprising. The old army was effectively destroyed and replaced by workers’ militias. These were the only armed forces that existed in the territory of the Republic. The only thing that prevented the working class from taking power was the leadership of their own organisations. They had smashed the fascist reaction, but the leaders of all the workers’ parties – anarchists, socialists, communists, and even the POUM, entered the bourgeois popular front government and became the main stumbling block in the path of the revolution.

In one way or another they betrayed the heroic spontaneous reaction to the fascist uprising. They blocked the elementary class movement of the workers by collaborating with the rotten Republican bourgeois leaders, who by this time represented nobody but themselves. As a matter of fact, this was not an alliance with the bourgeoisie, but the shadow of the bourgeoisie. The great majority of the landlords and capitalists supported Franco and had fled to the National zone. But the Republicans acted as a reactionary brake on the movement of the masses. They feared the workers and peasants much more than the fascists, to whom they were quite prepared to capitulate.

By this time most of the leaders of the parties of the Communist International had become agents of the foreign policy of the Russian bureaucracy. They unquestioningly carried out the instructions of Stalin. The latter was terrified that a successful socialist revolution in Spain, or in any other country of Western Europe, would undermine the power of the bureaucracy and lead to its overthrow. The workers of Russia were enthusiastic about the revolution in Spain, which stirred them more than any event since the usurpation of power by Stalin. In attempting to maintain their power through the Stalin regime, the bureaucracy was compelled to launch the modern equivalent of the medieval witchcraft trials, to annihilate practically all the leaders of the revolution and the Old Bolsheviks, to murder hundreds of thousands of the rank and file of the Communist Party. This was due partly to the repercussions of the revolution in Spain. The victory of the Spanish Revolution would have sounded the death knell for the Moscow bureaucracy.

In addition to this, the bureaucrats were not concerned with revolutionary diplomacy, as under Lenin, but were guided by purely nationalist considerations. They wanted at that time to placate the capitalists of Britain and France, to gain an alliance against Germany. They did not wish to upset this by a revolutionary conflagration, which would have spread to France and destroyed entirely the world political and social equilibrium. But by destroying the Spanish Revolution, they ensured the victory of Franco, and, in so doing, made the Second World War inevitable. For their part, the so-called democracies of Britain and France did all in their power to help Franco, while masquerading under the hypocritical banner of non-intervention. Stalin’s counter-revolutionary policy in Spain did not persuade the British and French imperialists to become allies of the Soviet Union but, on the contrary, placed it in the gravest danger.

A rank and file Communist Party member is quoted as saying:

Fighting and dying, we sometimes thought: “All this – and for what?” Was it to return to what we had known before? If that was the case, then it was hardly worth fighting for. The shamefaced way of making the revolution demoralised people; they didn’t understand. I think the Communist Party demonstrated the most correct understanding of what the war was about… (Ibid., p. 328.)

The workers of Spain strove time and again for a period of seven years, from 1931 to 1937, to take power into their own hands, but at every stage found themselves blocked by their own organisations. The last opportunity was in May 1937. The Stalinists, acting as the shock troops of the counter-revolution, attempted to seize the telephone exchange in Barcelona, which was under the control of the CNT. In reply to this betrayal, the anarchists and POUMist workers staged an insurrection in May 1937. This movement had the overwhelming support of the workers of Barcelona, even the rank and file communists and socialists. For four days, power was in the hands of the workers. But once again the POUM and the CNT refused to take power.

Despite the Stalinist propaganda, the POUM was not a Trotskyist organisation but contained elements who had once been Trotskyist such as Nin and Andrade. In the space of six weeks, it had grown rapidly from one thousand to 70,000 members, on the strength of its left-wing image and the radical-sounding declarations of its leaders. It had its own radio station and daily newspaper. But Trotsky warned that, without a correct policy, a class policy directed against the bourgeois Republicans, all the gains of the POUM would turn to dust. This remarkable prediction was soon shown to be correct. At the decisive moment, they led the workers to defeat. Lacking a consistent revolutionary policy, the CNT and POUM leaders demanded that the workers abandon the struggle and return to work. This call was obeyed, but that did not save them, and was disastrous for the revolution. Within six weeks, the main leaders of the POUM were murdered in the dungeons of the GPU. The POUM was illegalised and the CNT disarmed. The road was now clear for the bourgeoisification of the armed forces and the reconstruction of the state under bourgeois leadership.

In March 1937 José Díaz, PCE General Secretary, called for the elimination of those “agents of fascism – Trotskyists disguised as POUMists” – a reflection of the accusations being made at the Moscow show trials. But the real force behind the purge in Spain was Stalin’s GPU which was now present on all the leading bodies of the Spanish Communist Party. For example, the notorious Hungarian Stalinist Ernö Gerö, one of Stalin’s agents, always attended meetings of the leading body of the PSUC. The leaders of the Communist Party and the PSUC, however, actively participated in these activities. Pere Ardiaca, editor of the PSUC newspaper Treball, while denying the Party’s participation in the murder of Andreu Nin, admits that the Party supported the persecution of the POUM: “Though we had nothing to do with the POUM’s persecution, we regarded it with favour. Later, at the POUM trial, we were stupefied by the evidence given, but at the same time it never occurred to us to protest because we shared the prosecution’s opinion…” (Ibid., p. 390.)

Ardiaca and his comrades were ‘stupefied’ because they knew perfectly well that the accusations directed against the POUM militants were entirely false, as he admits: “I had been in the BOC [workers’ and peasants’ bloc, one of the main component parts of the POUM] before joining the Communist Party, so I knew that its militants were honest and sincere in their revolutionary beliefs, even if those were different to ours…” (Ibid., p. 390.) No wonder Ardiaca describes Nin’s assassination as “a heavy legacy indeed”. But nothing can change the fact that the Spanish and Catalan leaders at the very least were active accomplices of Stalin’s GPU in Spain.

The liquidation of the revolution led inevitably to the disaster that Trotsky had predicted. The Stalinists backed the so-called government of victory of Negrín, the right-wing socialist, which in fact presided over the most terrible defeats. That was inevitable once the bourgeois counter-revolution had triumphed behind the Republican lines. The working class was disillusioned and demoralised. In revolution, even more than in war, morale is the key factor. In purely military terms, the revolution can never triumph against the professional army with trained officers and military experts. The sole factor which gives the masses the advantage is their revolutionary élan. Without this, the victory of reaction is inevitable. The precondition for victory in Spain was political – the confidence of the masses in the cause for which they were fighting.

This assertion can be proven by many historical examples. The victory of the Bolsheviks in Russia was due above all to political factors. Power was in the hands of the workers, who defended it ferociously. Likewise, in the countryside, the peasants fought for the land which they had won thanks to the October Revolution. Some years later in China, Mao Zedong waged a semi-revolutionary war against the Guomindang. In the Chinese civil war, Mao’s forces were tiny when compared to the army of Chiang Kai-shek, armed by the USA. Basing himself on a simple revolutionary slogan – “land to the peasants” – Mao succeeded in winning over the rural masses. He even offered plots of land to the soldiers of Chiang’s army. Whole divisions came over to the Reds, and the forces of reaction simply melted away. A similar result was possible in Spain, but it would have required a genuinely revolutionary policy.

The Spanish Revolution constituted a deadly threat to Stalin and the bureaucracy. Here for the first time, Moscow carried out a policy deliberately aimed at preventing revolution. Previously, in China and Germany, it was a question of mistakes. But this was different. A victorious revolution in Spain would have meant the end of Stalin’s rule. The movement of the Spanish workers aroused hope in the minds of the Russian workers that a new workers’ state would be established at the other extreme of Europe. They were moved in a way not seen since the Revolution. This was dangerous for the bureaucracy, which responded by launching the Purge trials.

The Purge trials

“The First Five-Year Plan and the great rumblings in Germany which preceded Hitler’s rise (1931-33) once again threatened the bureaucracy’s domination,” stated Trotsky.

Finally, can we doubt for an instant that if the Spanish Revolution had been victorious and if the French workers had been able to develop their May-June offensive of 1936 to its conclusion, the Russian proletariat would have recovered its courage and its combativity and overthrown the Thermidorians with a minimum of effort? (Trotsky, Writings 1937-38, pp. 39-40.)

The growing Soviet working class, enthused by the successes of the Five-Year Plan, began to sense again the dramatic effects of world revolution and to resist the bureaucratic encroachments. Stalin was terrified that a new revolutionary wave in the West would stir the revolutionary feelings of the Soviet masses. That was why the Stalinist terror was unleashed to entrench the totalitarian state.

The Purge trials were organised as a result of panic at the effects of the Spanish Revolution on the Russian working class, and even in the Russian Communist Party. The spontaneous movement towards socialist revolution in Spain began to rekindle the flame of international revolution in the hearts of the Soviet working class. Fearing the success and spread of the Spanish Revolution, and looking to a deal with the Western ‘democracies’, Stalin deliberately strangled the Spanish Revolution. This was not the case in either Germany in 1930-33 or China in 1925-27. It is true that Stalin’s policies led to defeat in these cases also. But this was not the intention. On the contrary. Stalin wanted successes on the international stage at that time. But by 1936, the new ruling caste had been consolidated, and was anxious to defend its privileges against any real or perceived threat. The Spanish Revolution was seen as a very real threat by the leading clique. Stalin felt that a successful revolution would give rise to a new opposition within the Communist Party around those figures that still had direct links with the October Revolution. He therefore set out to eliminate such a threat by framing Old Bolsheviks on charges of counter-revolution and having them shot.

These were the biggest frame-up trials in history. The initial excuse for the trials was the assassination of Sergei Kirov, the Leningrad Party boss, by a young Communist on the 1st December 1934. This was a provocation organised by Stalin himself. Evidently there were grumblings in the leading clique against Stalin at this time, and Kirov, a leading Stalinist, was seen as a possible replacement. After the Kirov assassination frame-up, a series of ghastly trials and confessions was staged. The fact that this assassination was the work of Stalin and had been prepared at a high level was exposed by Khrushchev in his reports at the 20th and 22nd Congresses:

The mass reprisals began after the assassination of Kirov. Great efforts are still needed to find out who really was to blame for this death. The deeper we study the materials connected with Kirov’s death the more questions arise. Noteworthy is the fact that Kirov’s killer had twice before been detained by Chekists (security men) near the Smolny and that arms had been found on him. But he was released both times on someone’s instructions. And the next thing this man was in the Smolny, armed, in the corridor through which Kirov usually passed. And for some reason or other at the moment of assassination Kirov’s chief bodyguard was far behind him, although his instructions did not authorise him to be such a distance away from Kirov.

Equally strange is the following fact: When Kirov’s chief bodyguard was being escorted for questioning – and he was to be questioned by Stalin, Molotov and Voroshilov – the vehicle, as the driver said afterwards, was deliberately involved in an accident by those who were taking the man for interrogation. They said that he had died as a result of the accident, although he was in fact killed by those who were escorting him.

In this way, the man who guarded Kirov was killed. Later, those who had killed him were shot. This was no accident, apparently, but a carefully planned crime. Who could have done this? A thorough inquiry is now being made into the circumstances of this complicated case. (The Road to Communism – Report of the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, p. 111.)

The Moscow trials were described by Trotsky as a “one-sided civil war” against the working-class vanguard. In August 1936, he stated that “the present purge draws between Bolshevism and Stalinism not simply a bloody line but a whole river of blood. The annihilation of the entire old generation of Bolsheviks, an important part of the middle generation, which participated in the civil war, and that part of the youth which took seriously the Bolshevik traditions, shows not only a political but a thoroughly physical incompatibility between Bolshevism and Stalinism”. (Trotsky, Writings 1936-37, p. 423.)

An entire generation of Old Bolsheviks was wiped out. The old tsarist state machine, which Lenin had repeatedly warned against, asserted its supremacy through the Purges, which aimed at exterminating the revolutionaries and obliterating the whole heritage of Bolshevism. The link with October became, in effect, a death warrant. This applied to anyone, not just Trotskyists, although they were the first and principal victims. But the followers of Bukharin soon joined them in the camps, followed by anyone else who provided a link to the past, including many Stalinists. This was a one-sided civil war against Bolshevism, which was launched by the ruling elite for two main purposes.

Firstly, in order to consolidate the rule of the Leader (the Vozhd in Russian, which, incidentally, is an exact translation of ‘Führer’ or ‘Duce’), Stalin wanted to cover up the fact that the role he had played in the revolution was quite insignificant, a fact which was well known in Party circles. Even members of his own leading faction, such as Sergo Ordzhonikidze, could not take seriously the idea of Stalin as the great Leader and Teacher, for which crime, either they were murdered or driven to suicide. Stalin did not want any uncomfortable witnesses. Already at this time, Stalin was showing signs of megalomania. But it would be wrong to see this as a personal or psychological phenomenon. Psychological deviations cannot explain a massacre on such an immense scale, which disrupted the economy, caused tremendous social upheaval, and even put the existence of the USSR in jeopardy, especially when it spread to the army.

The peculiar nature of the bureaucracy as a usurping ruling caste gave rise to all sorts of contradictions. The bureaucracy, which had politically expropriated the working class, nevertheless based itself on the nationalised property forms established by the revolution. It was compelled to speak in the name of Bolshevism, while systematically trampling underfoot all the traditions of Bolshevism. This is not the first time that such things have happened. After 1794, the leaders of the Thermidorian reaction in France still continued to speak in the name of the Revolution, while persecuting the Jacobins and restoring the customs and privileges of the old regime. To silence all criticism, it was essential to eliminate all those who could point an accusing finger and remind the masses – or even the bureaucrats themselves – of how things used to be.

The usurpatory character of the ruling caste, the illegitimate nature of its perks and privileges, the evident contradiction between the ‘socialist’ proclamations and the growing inequality, all meant that the upstart bureaucrats felt insecure. Their insecurity and fear of the masses meant that they sought safety in the shade of a Strong Man who would silence all opposition. The Strong Man (the Vozhd) was not to be questioned, for to question the Leader was to question the bureaucracy itself. The physical wiping out of all opposition, actual or potential, and the implantation of a totalitarian regime, was thus the prior condition for the consolidation of the ruling bureaucracy. Stalin’s psychological peculiarities, his psychopathic cruelty and megalomania, can explain the grotesque, monstrous character which he imparted to the Purges, but not the phenomenon itself.

Old Bolsheviks exterminated

We thank thee, Stalin!
Sixteen scoundrels,
Sixteen butchers of the Fatherland
Have been gathered to their ancestors!
Today the sky looks blue,
Thou hast repaid us for the sorrows of many years!
But why only sixteen?
Give us forty,
Give us hundreds,
Make a bridge across the Moscow river,
A bridge without towers or beams,
A bridge of Soviet carrion –
And add thy carcass to the rest!

The above lines were published in the Paris White Guard paper Vozrozhdenye on the 29th August 1938, following the announcement of the executions after the first trial. The enemies of October had good reason to rejoice. All the main defendants in the Trials were close associates of Lenin before, during and after the October Revolution. The defendants were originally charged with attempting to restore capitalism in Russia, which was then discarded in the 1936 trial and replaced by “lust for power” and pursuing a terrorist plan to exterminate Stalin and other Soviet leaders.

One of the foulest slanders now aimed at Lenin and Trotsky is that Stalin’s Purges were only the continuation of the Red Terror waged by the Bolsheviks after the Revolution. Apart from the fact that it is impossible to compare the monstrous methods used by Stalin with those employed by the embattled workers’ government defending itself against powerful and ruthless enemies, this argument overlooks the most important question: against whom was the terror waged and for what purpose? In the same hypocritical way, the Pharisees throw up their hands in horror at the Terror of the French Revolution. But unfortunately, all history shows that a ruling class or caste does not normally give up its power and privileges without a fight.

From a revolutionary point of view, it is impossible to consider the question of violence in the abstract. Of course, every sane person abhors violence and will attempt to avoid it. But when one is attacked and in danger of being murdered, most people will fight to defend themselves. The revolutionary Terror, both in France and Russia, was a response to the violence of the reaction. Without the most energetic measures of self-defence, the revolution in both cases would have been smothered in its own blood. How can one seriously condemn such measures of self-defence of the revolution against those who wish to destroy it? The case is completely different with the violence of the counter-revolution. After Thermidor, terrible violence was directed against the Jacobins, but very little is said about this. The Pharisees pass over it in silence, or read us hypocritical morality lessons about the “Revolution devouring its own children” and so on. But the violence of the French Revolution in the period of its ascent was directed against the counter-revolution – aristocrats, priests, speculators and the like. The Thermidorian and Bonapartist terror was directed against the revolutionaries. There is a qualitative difference between the two. Not to see this is to understand nothing.

In 1922 the leaders of the SRs were put on trial charged with acts of terrorism against the leaders of the Soviet state. But there was absolutely nothing in common between this and Stalin’s frame-ups. The first difference is that the SRs were guilty of the crimes they were charged with. They not only admitted them, but proudly proclaimed their actions. That is not surprising. Unlike the Russian Marxists who were always implacably opposed to individual terror, the SRs (both the Right and Left) were the inheritors of the traditions of the Narodnaya Volya party which openly espoused the method of terrorism. There was not the slightest doubt that they were responsible for the assassination of Bolshevik leaders like Uritsky and Volodarsky and the attempted assassination of Lenin. They did not have to be forced to confess, since they regarded their actions as correct and legitimate. In tsarist times, they frequently handed themselves over to the authorities after perpetrating an assassination. There was yet another fundamental difference. Not only were the SR leaders allowed a legal defence, but they were able to employ lawyers from abroad, specifically the Belgian Social-Democratic leader Emile Vandervelde, who was also a prominent lawyer. The crimes were punishable by death, but the sentences were suspended. None of the accused was executed (although some were later to be shot by Stalin). They were not required to renounce their views, let alone slander themselves in court.

In the Purge trials things were different. The accused were compelled to confess to the most monstrous crimes which they did not commit, and before they were delivered to the executioner, forced to pour dirt over their own heads. Only one of the defendants, Krestinsky, attempted to repudiate his confession in court. He was sent back to the GPU torturers and when he returned 24 hours later confessed to everything. Bukharin attempted to fend off the most atrocious accusations, such as the fantastic charge that he had attempted to assassinate Lenin. He was helped by the courageous stand of an SR, Boris Kamkov, who was called as a prosecution witness but refused to substantiate the charge, although he had nothing to lose since he was already a prisoner of the GPU and Bukharin was a political opponent. He undoubtedly paid a terrible price for his defiance. Bukharin left his defence to posterity, making his wife, Anna Larina, learn his last letter by heart to pass on to future generations. She repeated it every day for 20 years “like a prayer” in Stalin’s concentration camps, which she survived by a miracle.

In this letter, Bukharin points out the fundamental difference between the old revolutionary Cheka under Dzerzhinsky and Stalin’s GPU:

To a Future Generation of Party Leaders

I am leaving life. I bow my head, but not before the proletarian scythe, which is properly merciless but also chaste. I am helpless, instead, before an infernal machine that seems to use medieval methods, yet possesses gigantic power, fabricates organised slander, acts boldly and confidently.

Dzerzhinsky [head of the secret police, or Cheka, under Lenin] is no more; the wonderful traditions of the Cheka have gradually receded into the past, those traditions by which the revolutionary idea governed all its actions, justified cruelty toward enemies, safeguarded the state against any counter-revolution. For this reason, the organs of the Cheka won a special trust, a special honour, an authority and respect. At the present time, the so-called organs of the GPU are in the main a degenerate organisation of unprincipled, dissolute, well-kept functionaries who, enjoying the former authority of the Cheka, seeking to satisfy the pathological suspiciousness of Stalin (I fear to say more), pursuing rank and glory, perform their foul deeds without, incidentally, understanding that they are simultaneously destroying themselves: history does not tolerate the witnesses to dirty deeds!

These ‘wonder-working’ organs can grind any member of the Central Committee, any member of the Party, into dust, turn him into a traitor-terrorist, saboteur, spy. If Stalin doubted in himself, confirmation would follow in an instant.

Storm clouds hang over the Party. My death alone, guilty of nothing, will implicate thousands more of the innocent. For, after all, an organisation must be created, a ‘Bukharinist organisation,’ that in reality not only does not exist now, when I am in my seventh year without a shadow of disagreement with the Party, but did not exist then, in the years of the Right Opposition. I knew nothing about the secret organisations of Ryutin and Uglanov. Together with Rykov and Tomsky, I expounded my views openly.

Since the age of 18, I have been in the Party, and always the goal of my life has been the struggle for the interests of the working class, for the victory of socialism. These days the newspaper with the hallowed name Pravda prints the most contemptible lie that I, Nikolai Bukharin, wanted to destroy the achievement of October, to restore capitalism. That is an unheard-of obscenity. This is a lie that in its obscenity could only be matched by the story that [Tsar] Nikolai Romanov devoted his whole life to the struggle against capitalism and the monarchy, to the struggle for the realisation of the proletarian revolution. (Quoted in Anna Larina, This I cannot forget, pp. 343-4.)

Let us recall when reading these lines that the man who wrote them was described by Lenin as “the Party’s favourite”, and one of its main theoreticians. True, Bukharin made many mistakes, some of them serious, but he was an honest revolutionary unlike those who murdered him. The main purpose of the Purges was to draw a line of blood between the bureaucracy and the real traditions of Marxism-Leninism. It was necessary to break the knot of history, to destroy utterly the old traditions of workers’ democracy and internationalism, to leave nothing behind that could remind future generations of the real meaning of October. Thus, it was not enough to torture and murder the Old Bolsheviks. They had to be made to cover themselves in filth, to publicly renounce their ‘crimes’, and to sing the praises of Stalin. Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, Rykov, Radek, Rakovsky and a number of other revolutionaries confessed to being life-long imperialist agents. Their accuser, the chief prosecutor, Vyshinsky was an old Menshevik lawyer who had collaborated with the White counter-revolution.

Practically the entire Bolshevik Old Guard was exterminated. Among the victims was A.V. Shotman, an old Party member who was put in charge of protecting Lenin’s life when he was forced underground after the July days in 1917. In 1918, Lenin wrote: “Shotman is an old Party comrade whom I know quite well. He deserves absolute trust.” Yet he was arrested and died in 1939. A large number of foreign Communists perished. Fritz Platten, the Swiss revolutionary who had collaborated with Lenin and organised the famous sealed train which took him from Switzerland to Russia in 1917, survived tsarist, Swiss, German and Rumanian prisons but died in one of Stalin’s camps. The entire leadership of the Polish Communist Party was liquidated, including I.S. Ganetsky, whom Lenin had personally recommended for membership of the Russian Party.

The Purges effectively liquidated what was left of the Soviet Communist Party. Between 1939 and 1952 there was not a single Party Congress, although even during the most difficult period of the civil war this supreme body had met annually. By the beginning of 1939, out of the 139 members elected at the 17th Party Congress, where Stalin celebrated his victory over the Opposition, 110 had been arrested. Out of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party of October 1917, only two survived: Alexandra Kollontai, who was sent away to be ambassador to Sweden, and Joseph Stalin. Among the entire Party membership, only a few of Stalin’s hand-picked protégés and hatchet men were left – the Molotovs, Kaganoviches, Mikoyans and Voroshilovs.

The history of the Party was re-written. The notorious History of the CPSU (Bolsheviks) Short Course, reduced it to a series of lies and legends, designed to glorify the role of Stalin. John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, which Lenin praised as a truthful account of the Revolution, was banned. Not only was the name of Trotsky erased, and his image removed from photographs, but even such figures as Krassin, Nogin, Chicherin and Lunacharsky were blotted out. The transformation of the Party from the vanguard of the revolutionary workers to a lever in the bureaucratic apparatus was at last complete. This is the final answer to all the slanderers of Lenin and Trotsky. Those who try to prove that Bolshevism and Stalinism are one and the same phenomenon have yet to explain how it comes about that, in order to triumph, the bureaucratic totalitarian regime was obliged to annihilate the Bolshevik Party, to uproot every vestige of Leninism, to rewrite history and to bury the old traditions of workers’ democracy and internationalism under a mountain of corpses. Surely, if Leninism and Stalinism were all the same, it ought to have been possible to arrive at a compromise? This would have been not only rational, but infinitely more economical. The enemies of October have no answer to this, other than the usual stale clichés about “Revolutions devouring their children” which explain nothing at all. Yet the answer is clear and undeniable to any genuinely objective observer: Bolshevism and Stalinism are as incompatible as revolution and counter-revolution. To those who are incapable of distinguishing between these things we have really nothing more to say.

Families wiped out

So deep was the gulf between Stalinism and Bolshevism, so great Stalin’s need to eliminate all vestiges of the past and all witnesses, that the slaughter extended far beyond the ranks of active Oppositionists. In this long and bloody nightmare, not only politically active people were affected. Stalin extracted his spiteful revenge on the families of his victims, their wives, children and grandchildren, even their neighbours. The children of arrested Oppositionists were taken from them and put in special orphanages from which most of them disappeared. In the concentration camps, the prisoners were not even allowed to keep photographs of their children. The son of Bukharin’s wife, Anna Larina, was taken from her when he was only one year old and she did not see him again until 20 years later. At least she survived and was eventually reunited with her son. But this was the exception.

Sverdlov escaped the executioner by dying a natural death in 1919, but his brother was killed. Sergo Ordzhonikidze had been a close companion of Stalin for years, but although a close ally of the General Secretary, was horrified by the Purges and attempted to shield some of the victims. He committed suicide in 1937, driven to this act by Stalin.

An older brother, Papuliia, was arrested and shot after terrible tortures, and a falsified record of the interrogation was sent to Ordzhonikidze. Some of Ordzhonikidze’s closest friends and associates were shot, while many executives in heavy industry, appointed by Ordzhonikidze, were arrested. Stalin sent him the false depositions extracted from the prisoners by torture, with the comment “Comrade Sergo, look what they’re writing about you.” (R. Medvedev, Let History Judge, p. 193).

Ordzhonikidze knew too much about Stalin. Like the other victims, his crime was that he was a reminder of the past. Many other Stalinists perished for the same reason.

In the whole history of the world labour movement, there is nothing similar to the persecution suffered by Trotsky and his followers. Trotsky’s entire family was wiped out in this murderous terror. His two sons-in-law, Platon Volkov and Nevilson were arrested as Oppositionists in the 1920s. After Trotsky’s deportation to Alma-Ata, his two daughters, Nina and Zinaida were deprived of all help, although Nina was seriously ill with tuberculosis. The persecution of her father and the imprisonment of her husband hastened her death at the age of 26 in June 1928. Both Nina’s and Zinaida’s husbands were later shot. Nina’s daughter Volina, born in 1925, was looked after by her grandmother, Trotsky’s first wife Alexandra Sokolovskaya. However, when Sokolovskaya was arrested, the child was taken into custody and disappeared without trace. Trotsky’s elder daughter Zinaida, who was also ill with tuberculosis and deeply depressed at the arrest of her husband and the death of her sister, applied for permission to join her father in Prinkipo, together with her small son, Vsevolod Volkov who was ill. This was granted, but when she was abroad, Stalin’s government treacherously revoked her citizenship. This blow, which cut her off from all prospects of ever seeing her husband and daughter again, finally unbalanced the mind of this unhappy woman who was already under treatment for deep depression. Zinaida committed suicide.

Her daughter Alexandra, whom she had left behind in the USSR, was sent to a concentration camp as soon as she was old enough. The fate of her mother Sokolovskaya was particularly tragic. Despite all the terrible suffering and adversity, she remained steadfast in her revolutionary activity, and paid the price. Exiled to Siberia in 1935, where the average life expectancy was two to three years, she died, having previously lost not only her children but her grandchildren also. By a miracle, Alexandra survived many years in the camps, although with her health undermined, and died in 1989. Only Vsevolod Volkov remains alive in Mexico, having survived one assassination attempt. Trotsky’s eldest son Leon Sedov, who played a crucial role in the International Left Opposition, was murdered by Stalin’s agents in Paris, while recovering from an operation in February 1938, on the eve of the trial of Bukharin. But the bitterest blow to Trotsky was the arrest of his younger son Sergei, who was not politically active and had stayed behind in the USSR when his father was exiled. Although not himself an active Oppositionist, Sergei conducted himself courageously. He refused to condemn his father, and was shot in 1937, although nobody knew about it at the time.

Trotsky had two sisters. One died a natural death in 1924. The other, Olga Kamenova, the wife of Kamenev, was first exiled after Kamenev’s arrest, then arrested again in 1935 and sent to prison and then a concentration camp. Together with thousands of other Oppositionists she was shot on Stalin’s orders in 1941. The persecution of the Trotsky family did not stop there. His nephews Boris Bronstein, and Yuri and Alexander Kamenev were all shot. His elder brother Alexander was another one of Stalin’s victims. Dimitri Volkogonov’s relatively recent biography of Trotsky is written from a blatantly anti-revolutionary point of view, and is generally of little value. However, he has had access to material from the KGB archives and other sources not previously available which serves to confirm everything Trotsky and the Left Opposition wrote about the Purges at the time. It is worth quoting what he says in this context:

Trotsky’s elder brother Alexander worked during the 1920s and 1930s as an agronomist in the Novokislyaevsk sugar mill in the province of Voronezh. As I was told by an inhabitant of the district, A.K. Mironov, Alexander was a learned expert who enjoyed the respect of the villagers. He apparently rode in a beautiful phaeton drawn by two fine horses. When Trotsky came under attack, Alexander was expelled from the Party, exiled, and made publicly to repudiate his brother. He underwent a marked change, shrinking into himself as if from the pangs of conscience. The recantation did not help him, however, and in the summer of 1936 he was suddenly arrested at night and the following year shot in Kursk prison as ‘an active, un-disarmed Trotskyist.’ Stalin’s long arm had reached them all, except the main target himself, his wife and his two sons.

After the deaths of Nina and Zina there was real fear for the safety of Trotsky’s sons, especially Sergei. He had not wanted to leave the country with his father, preferring to devote himself to his scientific interests. Uninterested in politics, Sergei had first wanted to be a circus performer, but then became interested in technology, completed polytechnic and became a teacher there. He was a professor before he reached the age of 30. He married twice and his daughter from his second marriage, Julia, is still alive in the USA. His first wife, Olga Grebner, a lively and intelligent elderly woman when I spoke to her in 1989, naturally endured Stalinist camp and exile. She recalled Sergei only fragmentarily: he had been a mischievous boy, and an amusing and talented man. Plainly, in the family it was the elder boy, Lev, who was the favourite. Olga and Sergei had married when he was 20 and she was 19.

“When the family was kicked out of the Kremlin to Granovsky Street,” she recalled, “we had nowhere to live. We took shelter in any corner we could find. Lev Davidovich was always welcoming. I was especially impressed by his lively, clever blue eyes. Outwardly, Natalia Ivanovna was not an interesting woman. She was short, fat and unattractive. But it was obvious how much they meant to each other. As I said, Sergei was talented, whatever he turned his hand to, he succeeded. When Trotsky was deported, Natalia Ivanovna said to me: ‘Look after Seryozha.’ He was arrested on the 4th March 1935. It seemed like a tragic play. Five of them arrived. The search took several hours. They took Sergei’s books and a portrait of his father. My husband was taken to the Lubyanka. He was there two or three months. They told him the charges: espionage, aiding and abetting his father, wrecking. Anyway, they sent him to Siberia. He was doomed.”

In January 1937, Pravda published an article under the heading ‘Trotsky’s Son, Sergei Sedov, Tries to Poison Workers with Exhaust Gas.’ At a meeting at the Krasnoyarsk Engineering Works, a foreman called Lebedev declared: “We have working here as an engineer the son of Trotsky, Sergei Sedov. This worthy offspring of a father who has sold himself to Fascism attempted to poison a large number of workers at this factory with gas.” The meeting also discussed Zinoviev’s nephew Zaks and the factory manager Subbotin, who was alleged to be protecting him and Sergei. All three were doomed. “Sergei was soon sentenced,” Olga Grebner recalled. “Some time that summer I received a postcard which he had somehow managed to send. It said: ‘They’re taking me to the North. For a long time. Goodbye. I embrace you.’” There were rumours that he was shot in 1941 somewhere in Kolyma, but Olga Grebner was not sure. In fact, he had been executed on the 29th October 1937. (D. Volkogonov, Trotsky, pp. 354-5.)

The slaughter of the general staff

Every murder had to be covered up with ten more. The Stalinist police butchers Yagoda and Yezhov were themselves purged. For every economic bungle, and they were inevitable without the democratic control of the workers, scapegoats had to be found. Every day another group of officials branded themselves as paid counter-revolutionaries. Bolshevik workers and light-fingered bureaucrats perished alike in the bloodbath. Beloved figures like the writer Maxim Gorky, whose constant pleading for victims of the Purges were inconvenient for Stalin, disappeared mysteriously. Since people were later accused of poisoning him, we may safely assume that his death was not natural. Literature (and especially drama in conditions of mass illiteracy) which had played an important role in mass communication since the revolution, was brutally suppressed. Anybody who had even the most tenuous connections with October was liquidated, even some of Stalin’s aides and accomplices, as was the case with Ordzhonikidze.

Denunciations and informers were encouraged and every friend or relative of any suspected malcontent was imprisoned. In the mass paranoia, every zealous policeman found as many victims as could be manufactured, to avoid denunciation himself. Children were encouraged to denounce their parents. General Petro G. Grigorenko recalls how he was almost denounced by his own wife. The scope of the repression was vast. No one can say how many perished. According to one estimate, one person in five in Leningrad was either killed, imprisoned or exiled. Not a single genuine letter, not a single document, not a single impeccable piece of evidence was presented at the trials. The only ‘evidence’ was the self-confessions of the defendants – extracted under torture. Kamenev and Zinoviev, already morally broken by capitulation, actually demanded their own execution, having been promised that they would be spared. But Stalin betrayed them. They were the first to be shot.

Not since the witchcraft trials and the Spanish Inquisition had such methods been used to break people and force them to admit to the most appalling crimes of which they were entirely innocent. In his autobiography, the former Soviet general and dissident Petro G. Grigorenko details the kind of tortures used on those who fell into the hands of the GPU, as witnessed by his own brother:

He talked about trumped-up sabotage, terrorism, and espionage charges, the biographies the ‘enemies’ were forced to write, and the tortures used – beatings, crushed fingers and sex organs, cigarette burns on the face and body, standing tortures, and torture by bright lights and with thirst.

And again:

Standing torture consisted of forcing a man to stand for a very long time in a special small locked closet in which he could not turn or change his position. Gradually, from a lack of air and from fatigue the prisoner would lose consciousness and sink downward. Then he would be taken out of the closet, aroused, and once again locked in. From standing up for so long the circulation in his legs would be interrupted and they would swell with stagnant blood. This man had those horribly swollen legs. He spoke in a whisper. “Do not be afraid of people here. I know what you are thinking: ‘They are all fascists, enemies of the people, and I got here by accident, by mistake’… I thought that too. But now I know: there are no enemies here. Someone is compelling us to call ourselves ‘enemies of the people’.” He told Ivan about his interrogation. He was an engineer from the Zaporozhye Steel Works; subsequently he signed a confession saying that he had been planning to bomb the factory. After subsequent interrogation, the man said to Ivan, “They are not yet torturing you. That means you may be released. They need that for some reason, too. If they let you out, try not to forget anything you’ve seen here”. (P.G. Grigorenko, Memoirs, p. 96.)

The methods used by Stalin in these and later trials, according to Khrushchev at the 20th Congress was as follows:

Stalin personally called the investigative judge, gave him instructions, advised him on which investigative methods should be used; these methods were simple – beat, beat and, once again, beat.

He continued:

Confessions of guilt of many arrested and charged with enemy activity were gained with the help of cruel and inhuman tortures.

In his report to the 22nd Congress, he refers to the methods used to extract confessions from the leaders of the Red Army:

Many excellent commanders and political workers in the Red Army were destroyed. There are comrades among the delegates here – I don’t want to give their names so as not to cause them pain – who have spent many years in prison. They were ‘persuaded,’ persuaded in certain ways, that they were German, British or some other spies. And some of them ‘confessed.’ Even when they were told that the charges of espionage against them had been withdrawn, they themselves insisted on their earlier depositions as they felt that it would be better to abide by their false statements in order to have done with the torture, to die the quicker. (The Road to Communism – Report of the 22nd Congress CPSU, p. 113.)

The Purges, which touched every level of life, served to create havoc as leading Party cadres, army officers, technicians, statisticians, planners, managers and workers were swept away. A frenzy was unleashed against what Stalin termed the “enemies of the people”. After the initial successes of the Five-Year Plans, the 17th Party Congress in January 1934, called the “Congress of Victors”, was where Stalin sought to consolidate his power. Years later Khrushchev, in his famous ‘secret speech’, pointed out that out of the 1,966 delegates to this Congress, no less than 1,108 were later charged with counter-revolutionary crimes! In the words of Khrushchev, Stalin “chose the path of repression and physical annihilation”.

Just before the war, the whole of the General Staff was arrested and brilliant military strategists like Tukhachevsky, Yakir and Gamarnik, from the civil war days, were executed by Stalin who evidently feared a coup d’état. Hundreds of thousands were shot and millions sent to concentration camps, while Stalin solemnly condemned them all as spies, assassins and wreckers – and worst of all Trotsky-Fascists.

The Purges decimated the Red Army. Between 1937 and 1938, 20,000 to 35,000 Red Army officers were liquidated. 90 per cent of the generals and 80 per cent of all colonels were murdered by the GPU. 3 marshals, 13 commanders, 57 corps commanders, 110 divisional commanders, 220 brigade commanders, and all the commandants of the Military Districts were executed by GPU firing squads. The number of arrests carried out at this time included 3 out of 5 marshals; 3 out of 4 of the first-rank army commanders; 60 of the 67 corps commanders, 136 of 199 division commanders, and 221 of 397 brigade commanders; both first-rank fleet admirals (flagman), both second-rank fleet admirals, all 6 first-rank admirals, 9 of the 15 second-rank admirals, both first-rank army commissars, all 15 second-rank army commissars, 25 of the 28 corps commissars, 79 of the 97 division commissars, and 34 of the 36 brigade commissars.

Of this Roy Medvedev says:

There were also huge losses among the field-grade and junior officers. The shocking truth can be stated quite simply: never did the officer staff of any army suffer such great losses in any war as the Soviet army suffered in this time of peace.

Years of training cadres came to nothing. The Party stratum in the army was drastically reduced. In 1940 the autumn report of the Inspector General of Infantry showed that, of 225 regimental commanders on active duty that summer, not one had been educated in a military academy, 25 had finished a military school, and the remaining 200 had only completed the courses for junior lieutenants. At the beginning of 1940 more than 70 per cent of the division commanders, about 70 per cent of regimental commanders, and 60 per cent of military commissars and heads of political divisions had occupied these positions for a year only. And all this happened just before the worst war in history. (Roy Medvedev, Let History Judge, pp. 213-4. 1976 edition.)

Countless people disappeared without trace in the prisons of the GPU, having died under torture or been shot. In fact, many more died without confessing than those who were broken by torture. Millions more perished in Stalin’s camps, where they were starved or worked to death, froze, or were shot. The food ration in the camps was always close to starvation level, in some cases as low as 400 grams of bread a day, and not every day. On such rations, the prisoners were put to work on heavy construction and mining, in freezing Arctic conditions. The following is a description of one of the camps:

I will not repeat all the things I heard but did not see myself. I will tell only about how people died before my eyes, every day, by the dozens, sent ‘over the hill,’ dying in the tents, freezing and crowding around the iron stoves, dropping from hunger and cold, from dysentery and malnutrition…

The high rate of illness and death at Adak was caused by the fact that when the people from Vorkuta arrived, not only were the tents not ready – so that people caught cold from sleeping on the frozen ground under the open sky – but also no food had been provided and there was no kitchen, bakery, or bathhouse. Out of desperation the starving people pounced on frost-bitten potatoes that were rotting out in the open. Because they were rotten, they caused dysentery and diarrhoea to all who ate them, after which the weaker ones began dying like flies. In kettles over open fires, a kind of foul-smelling codfish, some that had gotten frozen and some that had frozen and thawed, was boiled and then served in this boiled form right into people’s dirty hands. There was no bread. Instead they boiled lumps of dough in the same kettles over open fires. One of these, half-wet and boiling hot, would be doled out to each person to last the whole day. The starving people would bolt these down greedily and the next moment be clutching at their stomachs in pain. (George Saunders (editor) Samizdat: Memoirs of a Bolshevik-Leninist, p. 170.)

Even in these hellish places, the Trotskyists maintained their organisation and revolutionary faith. They held political discussions, and attempted to follow events in the Soviet Union and internationally. Finally, under intolerable pressure, they organised a hunger strike, something without a precedent in Stalin’s labour camps. In October 1936, the prisoners declared themselves on strike. In the barracks occupied by the Trotskyists, the strike was 100 per cent solid. Even the orderlies struck. About one thousand prisoners participated in the strike in the Vorkuta mines which lasted more than four months, and only ended in March 1937 when the strikers received a radiogram from the headquarters of the GPU conceding all their demands. But later the prison regime got worse. Finally, in March 1938, the Trotskyists of Vorkuta were taken out into the tundra in groups and shot:

The executions in the tundra lasted the whole month of April and part of May. Usually one day out of two, or one day out of three, thirty to forty prisoners were called. It is characteristic to note that each time, some common criminals, repeaters, were included. In order to terrorise the prisoners, the GPU, from time to time, made publicly known by means of local radio, the list of those shot. Usually broadcasts began as follows: ‘For counter-revolutionary agitation, sabotage, brigandage in the camps, refusal to work, attempts to escape, the following have been shot…’ followed by a list of names of some political prisoners mixed with a group of common criminals.

One time, a group of nearly a hundred, composed mainly of Trotskyists, was led away to be shot. As they marched away, the condemned sang the Internationale, joined by the voices of hundreds of prisoners remaining in camp.

At the beginning of May, a group of women were shot. Among them were the Ukrainian Communist, Chumskaya, the wife of I.N. Smirnov, a Bolshevik since 1898 and ex-peoples’ commissar; (Olga, the daughter of Smirnov, a young girl, apolitical, passionately fond of music, had been shot a year before in Moscow); the wives of Kossior, of Melnais, etc. … one of these women had to walk on crutches. At the time of execution of a male prisoner, his imprisoned wife was automatically liable to capital punishment; and when it was a question of well-known members of the Opposition, this applied equally to any of his children over the age of twelve. (Ibid., pp. 215-6.)

The mark of Cain

The horror of the Purges was such that for a time the Soviet working class was stunned. All the Old Bolshevik leaders, Lenin’s comrades in arms, were accused of being agents of the Gestapo. In this way, the living links with October were broken. This prepared the way for reaction at a later stage. A particularly pernicious role was played by the leaders of the Communist Parties internationally. Despite the monstrous nature of the charges and the history of the defendants, the leaders of the Communist Parties lost no time in condemning the accused and vindicating the hangman. So Stalinised had they become, that not one leader of the Communist Parties of the world spoke out against the horrors of the Purges. They had become the yes-men and -women of Moscow. The complicity of these ‘Communist’ leaders in Stalin’s crimes is one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the world labour movement. They participated in every zig-zag of Moscow’s policy, justifying the murder of the Old Bolsheviks, and praising Stalin. By dishonestly covering up all the crimes of the bureaucracy, they prepared the way for the collapse of the USSR decades later, and must bear a heavy responsibility for the present catastrophe.

According to the English Stalinist Andrew Rothstein in a book written while Stalin was still alive: “The citizens of the Soviet Union felt the strength of their country, during these years, in a way that they had never felt before.” He went on:

In the late spring of 1936, a series of arrests of Nazi agents and Trotskyist conspirators revealed the existence of a much wider organisation – a central terrorist committee which included, not only Zinoviev and Kamenev, but several leading Trotskyists. Preliminary investigations and evidence given at the trial revealed that, through Germans who had been sent to the USSR by Trotsky himself, the organisation was in close contact with the German Gestapo. Zinoviev, Kamenev and their associates were sentenced to be shot. (A. Rothstein, A History of the USSR, pp. 239-42.)

In a book published in 1939, another member of the CPGB ridiculed the idea that torture had been used to extract false confessions. J.R. Campbell quotes a passage from the official transcript of the trial of the Trotskyist and civil war hero Muralov:

Vyshinsky: Were you badly treated?
Muralov: I was deprived of my liberty.
Vyshinsky: But perhaps rough methods were used against you?
Muralov: No. No such methods were used. I must say that in Novosibirsk and here I was treated very decently and politely. (J.R. Campbell, Trial of Anti-Soviet Trotskyite Centre, pp. 231-2.)

This was a period when repressive measures in Stalin’s jails acquired the cruellest expression. With the replacement of Yagoda by Yezhov at the top of the GPU, torture was permitted in interrogation for the first time. Yet Campbell could write:

We are asked by Trotsky to believe that one of his more outstanding followers, a man who never made his peace with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, not only confessed to crimes of which he was guiltless, but actually falsely declared that he was treated most politely. (Campbell, Soviet Policy and its Critics, p. 250.)

Elsewhere he describes Trotsky’s comments on the case of Muralov as “a hypothesis from the padded room”. (Ibid., p. 252.) Campbell says: “Some of these activities were carried out on the direct instructions of the German Intelligence Service.” (Ibid., p. 220.) And again: “It is unfortunate that these people were in important positions. It is not unfortunate that those who were traitors have been executed and those who were degenerate and inefficient removed. The Trotskyist traitors also believed in a purge, a purge possible only on the basis of a fascist victory… The purge is the final and crushing answer to this fantasy. It reveals, not the triumph of bureaucracy, but the triumph of Socialist Democracy. It reveals the people of the Soviet Union against faint-hearts, renegades and deserters.” (Ibid., p. 236.)

The foul accusation that well-known revolutionists collaborated with Hitler to overthrow the Soviet Union was decisively disproved when the German archives were opened after the war:

The great mass of new material which has emerged since the defeat of Germany in 1945 has produced some evidence of conspiracy between the NKVD and the Gestapo, but none of any contacts between the Germans and the Oppositionists. Finally, wherever the evidence adduced at the trial related to past events, the distortion and falsification to which these events were subjected by the prosecution can easily be exposed by anyone in possession of the sources available to the historian. (L. Schapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, p. 424, my emphasis.)

The British Daily Worker carried articles demanding the execution of the accused with slogans such as “Shoot the reptiles”. During the Second World War the British Communist Party actually published a pamphlet directed against the British Trotskyists with the title “Hitler’s Secret Agents”. They even demanded that we be illegalised. This was typical of the hooligan methods which were the stock-in-trade of the Stalinists in the international labour movement at the time. Yet there was no substance whatsoever in the accusations. Every one of the victims was innocent of the crimes imputed to them. This was one of the vilest crimes committed in the whole of history. And the ‘mark of Cain’ will be forever branded not only on the perpetrators, but also on those who applauded them from the side-lines.

It cannot be argued that they were ignorant. Throughout this period, Leon Trotsky and his son Leon Sedov published a vast amount of material showing conclusively that the charges were false. The CP leaders had access to this material. In one of the trials great stress was laid on an alleged meeting of Trotsky with one of the defendants who was supposed to have flown to Norway. Trotsky proved that no aircraft had landed at the relevant airport on or near the date alleged. There were many other similar discrepancies. In 1937, an impartial International Commission of Enquiry, under American philosopher John Dewey, conducted hearings into the Kremlin charges made against Leon Trotsky and his son, Leon Sedov. After extensive examination of detailed evidence presented to the Commission, it concluded that the Moscow trials were frame-ups and Trotsky and Sedov were not guilty of the 18 specific charges of the prosecution against them. In 1956, in the secret session of the 20th CPSU Congress, Khrushchev admitted the trials were a frame-up, and that those shot were innocent of the crimes of which they were accused.

Khrushchev attempted to put the blame for these crimes against socialism on the shoulders of one man – as if one man could be responsible for such a monstrous regime! Leopold Trepper, who became the leader of the Soviet intelligence network in occupied Europe during the Second World War, refutes this idea. “How could they have looked on while their comrades in arms were sentenced without proof?” asks Trepper.

After the 20th Congress in 1956, all these leaders feigned astonishment. To hear them, Khrushchev’s report was a real revelation. In reality, they had been knowing accomplices of the liquidations, including those of members of their own Parties.

He continues:

I still have memories from this dark period that time has not erased… The fear for tomorrow, the anguish that we might be living our last hours of freedom, dictated our actions. Fear, which had become our second skin, induced caution, guided us towards submission. I knew that my friends had been arrested and I said nothing. Why them? Why not me? I waited for my turn, and prepared myself for this end. (L. Trepper, The Great Game – Memoirs of a Master Spy, p. 54.)

Despite Khrushchev’s revelations, very few victims of the Purge trials were rehabilitated. With the coming to power of Gorbachev, some progress was made as part of glasnost (openness). In July 1987, a decision was taken to rehabilitate Bukharin and Rykov, who were shot in 1938. In February 1988, the Soviet Supreme Court reversed the verdict of its Military Collegium in the case of the Right Trotskyite Bloc of 1938. However, the trials of 1937, 1936 and 1935 as well as earlier show trials from 1928 to 1932 were left in abeyance. Gorbachev had a vested interest in rehabilitating Bukharin as he had drawn close to a number of his ideas, particularly the need to re-establish the market. Whereas in November 1987, Gorbachev denounced Trotsky as “a cunning politician”, and Trotskyism as “a current, whose ideologies… in essence occupied capitalist positions”, whilst “the political centre of the Party, headed by Stalin, defended Leninism in the ideological struggle” squarely against the Trotskyist Opposition.

Although the Purge trials were completely exposed as frame-ups, Trotsky was not rehabilitated, and there were renewed attempts to demonise him. This showed that the ruling elite still feared his ideas, the genuine ideas of Bolshevism-Leninism. As late as October 1988, Pravda published an article on Trotsky entitled The Demon of the Revolution, which accused Trotsky of causing the wave of political terror within the USSR by his propaganda activity outside of the country!

“Specifically in regard to Leon Trotsky,” says Medvedev, “his activities and tragic fate require a precise and carefully weighed political and legal evaluation.” He says, nevertheless, “Trotsky was never a spy for the Gestapo. And, we must remember, the death sentences passed against Trotsky in absentia at the three major Moscow trials did not remain a dead letter. The ‘verdict’ was carried out in 1940 in Mexico by an NKVD group ‘for special assignments abroad’.” (Medvedev, Let History Judge, pp. 18-9.)

We will give the final word to a man who, while never a Trotskyist, was well able to judge what happened in the light of his own tragic life. Examining his conscience decades later, Leopold Trepper recalled his harrowing experience in the university in Moscow at the time of the Purges:

Yugoslavs, Poles, Lithuanians, Czechs – all disappeared. By 1937, not one of the principal leaders of the German Communist Party was left, except for Wilhelm Pieck and Walter Ulbricht. The repressive madness had no limits. The Korean section was decimated; the delegates from India had disappeared; the representatives of the Chinese Communist Party had been arrested. The glow of October was being extinguished in the shadows of underground chambers. The revolution had degenerated into a system of terror and horror; the ideals of socialism were ridiculed in the name of a fossilised dogma which the executioners still had the effrontery to call Marxism.

And yet we went along, sick at heart, but passive, caught up in machinery we had set in motion with our own hands. Mere cogs in the apparatus, terrorised to the point of madness, we became the instruments of our own subjugation. All those who did not rise up against the Stalinist machine are responsible, collectively responsible. I am no exception to this verdict.

But who did protest at the time? Who rose up to voice his outrage?

The Trotskyites can lay claim to this honour. Following the example of their leader, who was rewarded for his obstinacy with the end of an ice-axe, they fought Stalinism to the death, and they were the only ones who did. By the time of the great Purges, they could only shout their rebellion in the freezing wastelands where they had been dragged in order to be exterminated. In the camps, their conduct was admirable. But their voices were lost in the tundra.

Today, the Trotskyites have a right to accuse those who once howled along with the wolves. Let them not forget, however, that they had the enormous advantage over us of having a coherent political system capable of replacing Stalinism. They had something to cling to in the midst of their profound distress at seeing the revolution betrayed. They did not ‘confess,’ for they knew that their confession would serve neither the party nor socialism. (L. Trepper, op. cit., pp. 55-6, my emphasis.)

The end of the Comintern

In its heyday, the Communist International moved hundreds of millions. Apart from the early Christians who led the oppressed masses against the Roman Empire, and Islam which roused the Arab nation, this was the biggest revolutionary movement in human history. Lenin and Trotsky had anticipated that the Russian Revolution would be followed by a wave of revolutions which would put an end to the isolation of the Russian workers’ state. To this end, they established the Communist International (Comintern). The first four Congresses of the Communist International were an extraordinary compendium of revolutionary theory, for the purpose of educating the newly formed and inexperienced Communist Parties of Western Europe, the USA and Asia. Even today these writings remain a rich mine of Marxist ideas and theory.

Had the Communist International remained on these lines, it would undoubtedly have ended in victory in one or more countries, thus changing the fundamental relationship of forces. But the Stalinist reaction made a fundamental difference, not only in Russia, but in all the Communist Parties. Here we see the superiority of the Marxist method over empiricism. As early as 1928, at a time when the leaders of the Communist Parties were genuinely trying to act as a revolutionary Marxist international, Trotsky predicted that, if the Communist International adopted the theory of socialism in one country, this would inevitably be the beginning of a process which could only end in the national-reformist degeneration of every Communist Party in the world. Trotsky’s prediction was greeted with derision by the leaders of the Communist Parties. But now, history has taken a cruel revenge. Seventy years later, the mighty Communist International is no more, and the Communist Parties have everywhere degenerated on nationalist and reformist lines, just as Trotsky predicted.

This process did not begin yesterday. Even before the Second World War, under the pernicious influence of Stalin, the Communist Parties had been steeped in opportunism of the worst sort. There was one zig-zag after another – from conciliating the Social Democrats to the ultra-left madness of the Third Period. Today, not one of the basic ideas of Marxist-Leninism are defended by the Communist Party leaders. Before the war, the Communist Parties developed the ‘anti-fascist alliance’ between the Soviet Union and the so-called democracies. Under this banner, they betrayed the revolution in Spain and France in 1936, when the working class could have come to power. Slavishly following the dictates of Stalin’s foreign policy, the revolution had to be sacrificed on the altar of the ‘alliance’.

With the rise of Hitler, again due to the policies of Stalin, the stranglehold of the bureaucracy within the Soviet Union was further increased. Higher and higher over the Soviet masses the bureaucratic caste raised itself, increasing its power. But this progressive degeneration has had qualitative changes. From merely being incapable of insuring anything but defeats for the world working class, Stalinism has become opposed to the workers’ revolution in other countries. The Moscow trials, the murder of the Old Bolsheviks, the Purges, the murder and exile of tens of thousands of the flower of the Russian Communist workers, completed the Stalinist counter-revolution within the Soviet Union.

Events in France and Spain were fresh in every revolutionary’s mind. The Comintern played the main role in destroying the revolution which could have been accomplished. Indeed, it revealed itself as the fighting vanguard of the counter-revolution. The defeats of the world working class inevitably led to the new world war. Ironically, the war was ushered in by a pact between Hitler and Stalin. Thus, Stalin dealt new blows to the world working class and the Comintern. It now executed a somersault and conducted a campaign for peace in the interests of Hitler, with a skilful counterfeit of a ‘revolutionary’ policy. As Trotsky forecast in his prediction of the Stalin-Hitler agreement in an article written in March 1939:

“The fundamental trait of Stalin’s international policy in recent years has been this: that he trades in the working-class movements just as he trades in oil, manganese and other goods.” In this statement, there is not an iota of exaggeration. Stalin looked upon the sections of the Comintern in various countries and upon the liberating struggle of the oppressed nations as so much small change in deals with imperialist powers.

When he requires the aid of France, he subjects the French proletariat to the Radical bourgeoisie. When he has to support China against Japan, he subjects the Chinese proletariat to the Guomindang. What would he do in the event of an agreement with Hitler? Hitler, to be sure, does not particularly require Stalin’s assistance to strangle the German Communist Party. The insignificant state in which the latter finds itself has moreover been assured by its entire preceding policy. But it is very likely that Stalin would agree to cut off all subsidies for illegal work in Germany. This is one of the most minor concessions that he would have to make and he would be quite willing to make it.

One should also assume that the noisy, hysterical and hollow campaign against fascism which the Comintern has been conducting for the last few years will be slyly squelched. (Trotsky, Writings 1938-39, pp. 202-3.)

These prophetic lines were strikingly confirmed by the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939.

After five years of vociferous demands for an agreement between the Soviet Union and the ‘democracies’ of Britain, France and the USA, Stalin did a 180 degree turn to reach an agreement with Hitler in 1939. Trotsky warned that this would prepare the way for big fascist victories, as it would disorient the workers of Britain, France and other countries. This ushered in the Second World War, which Stalin thought he could avoid by this diplomatic trick of switching alliances. The Communist Parties then reversed the position of ‘collective security’ and begun attacking the ‘allied warmongers’. The British Daily Worker for example, in the so-called phoney war of 1939-40 was demanding peace on Hitler’s terms. Even the illegal German Communist Party had this position. After the German invasion of France, the French Communist Party (PCF) sent a delegation to the Germans asking permission to publish L’Humanité legally under the German occupation. They were shot. In Norway, however, the CP was actually allowed to publish legally for some months under the Nazi occupation, demanding ‘peace’, etc., while the Social Democrat papers were suppressed. Naturally, having done the dirty work, they in turn were suppressed when Hitler was preparing his invasion of Russia.

This policy of Stalin and the ‘stinking corpse’ of the Comintern suffered irretrievable ruin when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. After 1941, the line was changed again. After Hitler’s invasion of Russia, the Communist Parties were once again mobilised to support the ‘Democracies’ in their ‘war against fascism’. The British Daily Worker published a two-inch headline with the words: “The only good German is a dead one.” The Comintern had to execute a right about turn and convert itself once again into a doormat for Roosevelt and British imperialism. But with the increased dependence of Stalin on American and British imperialism, had come the increased pressure on the part of the capitalist allies. In particular, American imperialism was demanding the dissolution of the Comintern as a final guarantee against the danger of social revolution in Europe after the downfall of Hitler.

The long-drawn-out pretence was over. In 1943, Stalin dissolved the degenerate Comintern, in an attempt to gain the ‘good will’ of the imperialists. This criminal policy did not have the effect that Stalin wanted. The rank and file of the Communist Parties did heroic work in the resistance throughout occupied Europe after 1941. But when the Communist Party had the possibility of coming to power in France, Italy, Belgium, etc., they entered coalition governments. Having saved capitalism, they were then unceremoniously booted out. This opened up the cold war – a period of heightened superpower tensions and rivalries between Stalinism and the West.


[1] The name of Stalin’s secret police was changed several times – GPU, OGPU, NKVD, etc. For the sake of simplicity we have used GPU throughout, until the more recent period where it is referred to as the KGB.

4. The Nature of Stalinism

The controversy over the class character of the USSR

According to Lenin, the state:

… has always been a certain apparatus which separated out from society and consisted of a group of people engaged solely, or almost solely, or mainly, in ruling. People are divided into ruled and into specialists in ruling, those who rise above society and are called rulers, representatives of the state.

This apparatus, this group of people who rule others, always takes command of a certain apparatus of coercion, of physical force, irrespective of whether this coercion of people is expressed in the primitive club or – in the epoch of slavery – in more perfected types of weapons, or in the firearms which appeared in the Middle Ages or, finally, in modern weapons which, in the twentieth century, are marvels of technique and are entirely based on the latest achievements of modern technology.

The methods of coercion changed, but whenever there was a state there existed in every society a group of persons who ruled, who commanded, who dominated and who, in order to maintain their power, possessed an apparatus of physical coercion, an apparatus of violence, with those weapons which corresponded best to the technical level of the given epoch. And by examining these general phenomena, by asking ourselves why no state existed when there were no classes, when there were no exploiters and no exploited, and why it arose when classes arose – only in this way shall we find a definite answer to the question of the essence of the state and its significance.

The state is a machine for maintaining the rule of one class over another. (LCW, The State, Vol. 29, p. 477.)

Why is it, as Marx stated, that the working class cannot take over the ready-made capitalist state machine and use it for its own ends? Not for mystical reasons but because of certain very concrete facts. In the modern state, all the key positions are in the hands of those people who are under the control of the ruling class: they have been specially selected by education, outlook, and conditions of life, to serve the interests of the bourgeoisie. The army officers, particularly the higher ranks, the civil servants, and the key technicians, are moulded in their ideas and outlook to serve the interests of the capitalist class. All the commanding positions in society are placed in the hands of people whom the capitalist class can trust. That is the reason the state machine is a tool in the hands of the capitalists which cannot be used by the working class and must be smashed and swept away by them. Now, what does the smashing of the state machine mean?

It is possible that many, perhaps even the majority of the officials of the capitalist state, will be used by the working class once it comes to power. But they will be subordinate to the workers’ committees and organisations. For example, in the Soviet Union, in the early days after the tsarist army had been dissolved, the Red Army was forced to employ the services of ex-tsarist officers, under the control of the political commissars. Likewise, in the Soviet state apparatus a considerable proportion of the officials were made up from ex-tsarist officials. Because of unfavourable historical factors this was later to play an important role in the degeneration of the Russian regime. Not for nothing did Lenin say that the Soviet state is “a bourgeois tsarist machine … thinly varnished with socialism”.

The proletariat, according to the classical concept, smashes the old state machine and proceeds to create a semi-state. Nevertheless, it is forced to utilise the old technicians. But the state, even under the best conditions, say in an advanced country with an educated proletariat, remains a relic of class society, and implicit within it is the possibility of degeneration. For that reason, Marxists insist on the control of the masses, to ensure that the state should not be allowed to develop into an independent force. As speedily as possible, it should be dissolved into society. For the very reasons given above, under certain conditions, the state can gain a certain independence from the base which it originally represented. Engels explained that though the superstructure – state and ideology – is dependent on the economic base, it nevertheless has an independent movement of its own. For quite a lengthy period, there can be a conflict between the state and the class which that state represents. That is why Engels speaks of the state normally or in typical periods directly representing the ruling class. Thus, one can only understand class society if one takes into account the many-sided dialectical interdependence and antagonisms of all the factors within it.

When considering the development of society, economics must be considered the dominant factor. The superstructure which develops on this economic base separates itself from the base and becomes antagonistic to it. After all, the essence of the Marxist theory of revolution is that the gradual changes in production, at a certain stage, come into conflict with the old form of superstructure in both property and state. According to Marx: “From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.” A profound contradiction develops which can only be resolved by abolishing the superstructure and reorganising society on the base of the new mode of production which has developed within the old.

Although it does not exhaust the question of the class nature of the state, which at different times is defined in different ways, economy and property relations are decisive in the long run. Because of this, as all the Marxist teachers were at pains to explain, in the last analysis the superstructure must come into correspondence with it. “With the change of the economic foundation, the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed,” as Marx expressed it. If one abandons this criterion, all sorts of superficial and arbitrary constructions become possible. One would inevitably be lost in the maze of history, like Perseus in the mythology of ancient Greece who was lost in the Palace of Minos, but without a thread to lead one out. The thread of history is the basic economic structure of society, or the property form, its legal reflection. In the words of Engels: “We regard economic conditions as that which ultimately conditions historical development.” (MESW, Engels to W. Borgius in Breslau, Vol. 3, p. 502.)

In 1793 the French Jacobins seized power. As Marx and Engels pointed out, they went beyond the framework of bourgeois relations and accomplished in a few months what would have taken the bourgeoisie decades to accomplish: the complete cleansing from France of all traces of feudalism. Yet this regime remained rooted in bourgeois property forms. It was followed by the French Thermidor and the rule of the Directory, to be followed by the classic dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon reintroduced many feudal forms, had himself crowned Emperor and concentrated the supreme power in his hands. But nevertheless, we still call this regime bourgeois. With the restoration of Louis XVIII, the regime still remained capitalist. And then we had not one but two revolutions – 1830 and 1848. These revolutions had important social consequences. They resulted in significant changes even in the personnel of the state itself. Yet we characterise them both as bourgeois political revolutions in which there was no change in the class which held power: the bourgeoisie.

Let us proceed further. After the Paris Commune of 1871 and the shake-up of the social relations which this involved, we had the organisation of the Third Republic with bourgeois democracy which lasted for decades. This was followed by Pétain, then the de Gaulle regime, and then a whole array of governments up to the present time. Consider for a moment the amazing diversity of these regimes. To a non-Marxist it would seem absurd to define in the same category, shall we say, the regime of Robespierre and that of de Gaulle or Chirac. Yet Marxists do define them as fundamentally the same – as capitalist regimes. What is the criterion? Only the one thing: the form of property, the private ownership of the means of production. Take, similarly, the diversity of regimes in more modern times to see the extreme differences in superstructures which are on the same economic base. For instance, compare the regime of Nazi Germany with that of British parliamentary democracy. They are so fundamentally different in political superstructure that many theorists of the non-Marxist or ex-Marxist school have found in fascism a new class structure and a new system of society entirely. Why do we say that they represent the same class and the same regime? The answer is: despite the difference in superstructure, the economic base of these given societies remains the same.

The transitional state after October

As we have seen, it is impossible to pass directly from capitalism to socialism. Even in an advanced society, a transitional period would be necessary in which the state would continue to exist for a time, along with money and the law of value. But, as Marx explains, the working class would not require the kind of monstrous state that exists under capitalism, but a very simple state, a workers’ state, which would begin to disappear from the first day. Two months before the seizure of power, Lenin wrote in The State and Revolution:

The proletariat needs a state – this is all the opportunists can tell you, but they, the opportunists, forget to add that the proletariat needs only a dying state – that is, a state constructed in such a way that it immediately begins to die away and cannot help dying away.

A transitional state inevitably has a contradictory character. The Soviet regime was based on the new property relations that issued from the October Revolution, but still had many elements taken over from the old bourgeois society. The nationalisation of the means of production is the prior condition for moving in the direction of socialism, but the possibility of really carrying society onto a higher stage of human development depends on the level of the productive forces. Socialism presupposes a higher level of technique, labour productivity and culture than even the most developed capitalist society. It is impossible to build socialism on the basis of backwardness.

In The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky explains the dual character of the transitional state:

The bourgeois norms of distribution, by hastening the growth of material power, ought to serve socialist aims – but only in the last analysis. The state assumes directly and from the very beginning a dual character: socialistic, insofar as it defends social property in the means of production; bourgeois, insofar as the distribution of life’s goods is carried out with a capitalistic measure of value and all the consequences ensuing there from. Such a contradictory characterisation may horrify the dogmatists and scholastics; we can only offer them our condolences. (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 54.)

Only the victory of the revolution in Western Europe, particularly Germany, could have changed this state of affairs. The union of German industry and technique with the huge natural and human resources of Russia in a socialist federation would have created the material conditions for the reduction of the working day, the prior condition for the participation of the working class in the running of industry and the state. But the betrayal of the Social Democrats shipwrecked the German Revolution and doomed the Russian Revolution to isolation in a backward country. The victory of the bureaucracy flowed directly from this. From 1920 onwards, the bureaucracy legally or illegally absorbed part of the surplus value produced by the working class.

This would be the case to some extent even in a healthy workers’ state. The officials and managers would receive part of the surplus value, but they would only be entitled to what Marx called “the wages of superintendence”. We would have, to use Lenin’s expression, “a bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie” or, in Trotsky’s expression, a state without Mandarins, a general staff without Samurai. In such a state, the officials would have no special privileges. But given the extremely low level of the productive forces and culture in Russia, the working class was unable to run the state without the aid of the old tsarist officials and army officers who from the beginning demanded, and got, salaries far in excess of the average. Given the isolation of the Revolution in a backward country, this was inevitable. This was the fundamental reason why the proletariat was unable to maintain its hold on power. After the end of the civil war, the workers were gradually pushed aside by the upstart officials who felt themselves to be indispensable to the running of society.

Lenin and Trotsky did not envisage a situation where the Revolution could survive for long in the absence of the victory of the workers of the advanced capitalist countries. They assumed that, under such conditions, the capitalist elements would liquidate the gains of October. This did not take place, although it was possible in the 1920s, particularly in the period of the NEP, when the Bolsheviks were compelled to make big concessions to the rich peasants and the nascent bourgeoisie. Shortly before his last illness, Lenin proposed a bloc with Trotsky to fight against the bureaucracy, which he feared was creating the conditions for the victory of open bourgeois counter-revolution.

In January 1921, Lenin wrote:

I stated, “our state is in reality not a workers’ state but a workers’ and peasants’ state.… On reading the report of the discussion, I now see that I was wrong … I should have said: “The workers’ state is an abstraction. In reality we have a workers’ state with the following peculiar features, (1) it is the peasants and not the workers who predominate in the population and (2) it is a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations. (LCW, Vol. 32, p. 48.)

The question of the class nature of Russia continued to occupy Trotsky’s attention right up to his death. How could this type of reaction develop on the basis of a proletarian revolution? Shortly before his expulsion from the Soviet Union, Trotsky grappled with this question:

We must say clearly and distinctly: The five years after the death of Lenin were years of social and political reaction. The post-Lenin party leadership became an unwitting, but all the more effective, expression of this reaction, as well as its instrument.

Periods of reaction, as distinct from those of counter-revolution, arise without changing which class rules. Feudal absolutism knew periods of ‘liberal’ reform and periods of counter-reform strengthening serfdom. The rule of the bourgeoisie, beginning with the epoch of the great revolutions, knew alternating periods of stormy advance and periods of retrogression. This among other things determined the succession of different parties in power during various periods of the domination of one and the same capitalist class.

Not only theory but also the living experience of the last 11 years shows that the rule of the proletariat can go through a period of social and political reaction as well as through a period of stormy advance. Naturally, it is not a matter of reaction ‘in general’ but of reaction on the basis of the victorious proletarian revolution, which stands opposed to the capitalist world. The alternation of these periods is determined by the course of the class struggle. The periods of reaction do not change the basis of class rule – that is, they do not signify the passage of power from one class to another (that would mean the counter-revolution) – but they signify that there is a change in the relation of class forces and a regrouping of elements within the class. In our country, the period of reaction that followed the period of powerful revolutionary advance was called forth chiefly by the fact that the former possessing classes, defeated, repulsed, or terrorised, were able, thanks to objective conditions and to the errors committed by the revolutionary leadership, to gather their forces and pass gradually to the offensive, using mainly the bureaucratic apparatus.

On the other hand, the victorious class, the proletariat, not supported from without, encountered ever new obstacles and difficulties; it lost the strength and spirit of the first days; differentiation set in, with a bureaucracy emerging at the top and acting more and more in its own interests, and with tired or completely despairing elements breaking off down below. Correlative to the decreased activity of the proletariat came the growing activity of the bourgeois classes, above all, those strata of the petty bourgeoisie striving to advance by the old ways of exploitation.

It is unnecessary to demonstrate that all these processes of internal reaction could develop and gain in strength only under conditions of cruel defeats of the world proletariat and an ever-stronger position of the imperialist bourgeoisie. (Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1928-29, pp. 304-5.)

Thermidor and Bonapartism

There are broad similarities between the processes that occur in revolutions, even when their class nature is different. The comparison between the Russian Revolution and the Great French Revolution of 1789-94 can shed light on some of the fundamental processes within certain limits. This applies to the use of terms like ‘Thermidor’, which refers to the episode on the 27th July (9th Thermidor, in the old revolutionary calendar) 1794, when the right wing of the revolutionary Jacobins combined with the opportunist Centre (the ‘Swamp’) to overthrow Robespierre, thus beginning the slide towards political reaction which ended in Napoleon’s Bonapartist dictatorship. It signified the end of the period of revolutionary ascent and the beginning of a downturn. This is reflected in the fact that, whereas in the period of ascent (from 1789-94) the Terror was directed almost entirely against the enemies of the revolution and those who wanted to compromise with reaction, after Thermidor, it was directed against the revolutionary wing.

By extension, Thermidor can be taken to signify a point in the revolution where a certain weariness and exhaustion sets in, reflected in a retreat which paves the way for open reaction. In France, this occurred when a section of the ‘Mountain’ (the revolutionary wing of the National Convention) became tired of the Terror and the storm and stress of revolution in general. The split in the ‘Mountain’ led to the Thermidorian reaction. In the same way, the origins of the Stalinist reaction in Russia can be traced to a vague mood among the Soviet officials and petty bourgeois after the end of the civil war that it was time to call a halt to revolutionary innovations and set about ‘re-establishing order’. This mood of reaction was summed up in the theory of socialism in one country. Of course, like every historical analogy, the use of the term Thermidor was only an approximation, and as such had a conditional character. Trotsky in his 1929 articles explained his position as follows:

I am referring here primarily to the question of Thermidor, and by this very reason, to the question of the class nature of the Soviet state. The formula of Thermidor is of course a conditional formula, like every historical analogy…Thermidor signalises the first victorious stage of the counter-revolution, that is, the direct transfer of power from the hands of one class into the hands of another, whereby this transfer, although necessarily accompanied by civil war, is nevertheless masked politically by the fact that the struggle occurs between the factions of a party that was yesterday united… It indicates the direct transfer of power into the hands of a different class, after which the revolutionary class cannot regain power again except through an armed uprising. The latter requires, in turn, a new revolutionary situation, the inception of which depends upon a whole complex of domestic and international causes. (Trotsky, Writings 1929, pp. 278-9.)

Some years later, in an article entitled The Workers’ State and the Question of Thermidor and Bonapartism, Trotsky re-evaluated this position on Thermidor. He explained that the analogy of Thermidor had been open to misinterpretation. The ultra-left group of the late Vladimir Smirnov, the Democratic Centralism group, in opposition to the Left Opposition, had stated in 1926 that the proletariat had already lost power and that capitalism had been restored in Russia. For Trotsky, this was totally false and was burying the revolution while it was still alive. Without historical analogies, we cannot learn from history. But we must also understand their limits, their similarities and their differences. Such was the case with Thermidor.

Thermidor in 1794 produced a shift of power from certain groups in the Convention to other groups, from one section of the victorious ‘people’ to other strata. Was Thermidor counter-revolutionary? The answer to this question depends upon how wide a significance we attach, in a given case, to the concept of ‘counter-revolution.’ The social overturn of 1789 to 1793 was bourgeois in character. In essence it reduced itself to the replacement of fixed feudal property by ‘free’ bourgeois property. The counter-revolution, corresponding to this revolution, would have had to attain the re-establishment of feudal property. But Thermidor did not even make an attempt in this direction. Robespierre sought his support among the artisans – the Directory among the middle bourgeoisie. Bonaparte allied himself with the banks. All these shifts – which had, of course, not only a political but a social significance – occurred, however, on the basis of the new bourgeois society and state.

Of the very same import was the Eighteenth Brumaire of Bonaparte [this was the new date for 9th November 1799, when Napoleon Bonaparte seized power and created a military dictatorship], the next important stage on the road of reaction. In both instances, it was a question of restoring neither the old forms of property, or the power of former ruling estates; but of dividing the gains of the new social regime among the different sections of the victorious ‘Third Estate.’ The bourgeoisie appropriated more and more property and power (either directly and immediately, or through special agents like Bonaparte), but made no attempt whatever against the social conquests of the revolution; on the contrary, it solicitously sought to strengthen, organise and stabilise them. Napoleon guarded bourgeois property, including that of the peasant, against the ‘rabble’ and the claims of the expropriated proprietors. Feudal Europe hated Napoleon as the living embodiment of the revolution, and it was correct according to its standards. (Trotsky, Writings 1934-35, pp. 168-9, my emphasis.)

What we are dealing with here are a series of political counter-revolutions on the same bourgeois property relations. Using this analogy by comparison, Trotsky reveals the character and dynamics of Stalinism, not as a new class system of exploitation, but as a social parasitism on the workers’ state. A political counter-revolution had taken place on the basis of nationalised property forms. The working class had lost political power, but the counter-revolution had not restored the bourgeoisie. The Stalinist bureaucracy itself had usurped political power. It was a product of social contradictions emerging from a workers’ state isolated in chronically backward conditions.

The political counter-revolution carried out by the bureaucracy completely liquidated the regime of workers’ Soviet democracy, but did not destroy the new property relations established by the October Revolution. Raising itself above the workers, the bureaucracy sought to regulate these internal contradictions in its own interests. It based itself on the nationalised, planned economy and played a relatively progressive role in developing the productive forces, although, in the words of Trotsky, at three times the cost of capitalism, with tremendous waste, corruption and mismanagement. Far from eradicating these social contradictions, the bureaucracy accumulated new ones. In the end, it raised itself above the proletariat and established a regime of bureaucratic absolutism, where the working class was politically expropriated, without rights or a say in the running of society.

What is Bonapartism?

On the basis of events, Trotsky was able to extend and deepen his analysis of the class nature of the USSR even further, making his definitions more precise. By 1935, he had abandoned the term ‘centrism’ to describe the bureaucracy, and adopted a more suitable definition of its nature: a form of proletarian Bonapartism. In order to understand Trotsky’s reasoning, it is first necessary to restate the Marxist theory of the state.

According to Marxists, the state arises as the necessary instrument for the oppression of one class by another class. The state can be defined in various ways. One of the most common ways for Marxists to do so is by referring to the state as “armed bodies of men in defence of private property”. In the last analysis, all forms of state are reduced to this. But in practice, the state is much more than the army and the police. The modern state, even under capitalism, is a bureaucratic monster, an army of functionaries absorbing a huge amount of the surplus value produced by the working class. From that point of view, there is a germ of truth in the arguments of the monetarists, whose demand for cutting down the state is a modern echo of the demand of the nineteenth century liberals for ‘cheap government’. Of course, as Marx explains in The Civil War in France, the only way to get cheap government is by the revolutionary abolition of the bourgeois state, and the setting up of a workers’ state, or semi-state, like the Paris Commune.

Marx, Engels and Lenin all explained that the state is a special power, standing above society and increasingly alienating itself from it. As a general proposition, we can accept that every state reflects the interest of a particular ruling class. But this observation does not at all exhaust the question of the specific role of the state in society. In reality, the state bureaucracy has its own interests, which do not necessarily and at all times correspond to those of the ruling class, and may even come into open collision with the latter. The state in the last analysis, as explained by Marx and Lenin, consists of armed bodies of men and their appendages. That is the essence of the Marxist definition. However, one must be careful in using their broad Marxist generalisations, which are undoubtedly correct, in an absolute sense. Truth is always concrete but if one does not analyse the particular ramifications and concrete circumstances, one must inevitably fall into abstractions and errors. Look at the cautious way in which Engels deals with the question, even when generalising. In The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels writes:

But in order that these antagonisms, classes with conflicting economic interests, shall not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, a power, apparently standing above society, has become necessary to moderate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order,’ and this power, arisen out of society, but placing itself above it and increasingly alienating itself from it, is the State. (MESW, The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, by Engels, p. 194.)

And later he adds:

…It is enough to look at Europe today, where class struggle and rivalry in conquest have brought the public power to a pitch where it threatens to devour the whole of society and even the state itself.

Engels goes on to show that once having arisen, the state within certain limits, develops an independent movement of its own and must necessarily do so under given conditions:

In possession of the public power and the right of taxation, the officials now present themselves as organs of society standing above society.

As the state arose from the need to keep class antagonisms in check, but also arose in the thick of the fight between the classes, it is normally the state of the most powerful, economically ruling class, which by its means becomes also the political ruling class, and so acquires new means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class… Exceptional periods, however, occur when the warring classes are so nearly equal in forces that the state power, as apparent mediator, acquires for the moment a certain independence in relation to both… (Ibid., p. 196, my emphasis.)

Again, Engels says that:

The central link in civilised society is the state, which in all typical periods is without exception the state of the ruling class, and in all cases continues to be essentially a machine for holding down the oppressed, exploited class… (Ibid., p. 201, my emphasis.)

Note the extremely careful, scientific way in which Engels expresses himself. “In all typical periods”, “it is normally the state of the most powerful, economically ruling class”, etc. Engels clearly understood that there were untypical and abnormal situations in which this general principle of Marxist theory could not be applied. This dialectical approach to the question of the state was developed by Marx in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, where he explains the phenomenon of Bonapartism, in which the relationship between the state and the ruling class does not correspond to the norm. Marx pointed out how the drunken soldiery of Louis Bonaparte, in the name of “the law, order and the family”, shot down the bourgeoisie whom they presumably represented. Were the bourgeoisie under Louis Bonaparte the ruling class? It does not require a profound knowledge of Marxism to answer this question. The bare generalisation “armed bodies of men” does not take into account either bourgeois or proletarian Bonapartism. If we take the history of modern society, we get many examples where the bourgeoisie is expropriated politically and yet remains the ruling class. This is what we call Bonapartism, or as Marx calls it, “the naked rule by the sword over society”. Let us consider some examples.

In China after Chiang Kai-shek had crushed the Shanghai working class with the aid of the dregs of the Shanghai gangs in 1927, the bankers organised banquets in his honour, and applauded him as the benefactor and saviour of civilisation. But Chiang wanted something more material than the praise of his masters. Unceremoniously, he clapped all the rich industrialists and bankers of Shanghai in jail and extracted a ransom of millions before he would release them. He had done the job for them and now demanded the price. He had not crushed the Shanghai workers for the benefit of the capitalists, but for what it meant in power and income for him and his gang of thugs. Yet who will presume to say that the bankers who were in jail were not still the ruling class though they did not hold political power? The Chinese bourgeoisie must have reflected sadly on the complexity of a society where a good portion of the loot in the surplus value extracted from the workers had to go to their own watchdogs and where many of their class were languishing in jail.

The bourgeoisie is politically expropriated under such conditions; naked force dominates society. An enormous part of the surplus value is consumed by the top militarists and officials. But it is in the interests of these bureaucrats that the capitalist exploitation of the workers should continue, and therefore while they squeeze as much as they can out of the bourgeoisie, nevertheless, they defend private property. That is why the bourgeoisie continues to be the ruling class, although it has lost direct political power. Here lies the answer to those advocates of state capitalism who assert that it is sophistry to claim that Russia was a deformed workers’ state, and the Soviet working class could be a ruling class when they were under the heel of Stalinism and a proportion of them were in labour camps. Unless we are guided by the basic property forms of society we will lose our bearings completely.

Many examples could be given in history of the way in which one section of the ruling class has attacked other sections and the state has risen above society. For example, in the wars of the Roses in Britain, the two factions of the ruling barons virtually exterminated one another. At one time or another big sections of the ruling class were either in jails or were executed, and the throne occupied by adventurers of one gang or another. Finally, a new dynasty emerged, the Tudors, which balanced between the classes to establish an absolutist regime. Analogous processes occurred in other countries. What was the class nature of absolutism? These absolute monarchs, in an attempt to consolidate themselves as a power standing above society, and increasingly alienating themselves from it, frequently leaned on the nascent bourgeoisie to strike blows against the feudal nobility. Yet the class nature of the regime remained feudal. It was determined by existing property relations, not by the political configuration of the government. A similar situation existed in the period of decay of slave society. The Roman emperors rose above society and viciously oppressed the ruling class, the slave owners, who found themselves looted by taxation, arrested, tortured and murdered by the emperors, who were ‘elected’ by the Praetorian Guard. In fact, Marx originally used the term ‘Caesarism’ to describe this phenomenon. Yet this fact did not change one iota the class nature of the Roman state as a slave state. And the slave owners remained the ruling class even under the iron heel of Caesarism.

As Trotsky explains, following the classical analysis of Marx, Engels and Lenin:

Caesarism, or its bourgeois form, Bonapartism, enters the scene in those moments of history when the sharp struggle of two camps raises the state power, so to speak, above the nation, and guarantees it, in appearance, a complete independence of classes – in reality, only the freedom necessary for a defence of the privileged. (L. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 277.)

In the present century, in the period of capitalist decay, we have seen the phenomenon of fascism, which differs from Bonapartism in its origins, but also has many things in common with it. A fascist regime, unlike Bonapartism, comes to power on the backs of a mass movement composed of the enraged petty bourgeoisie and lumpen-proletariat. Once in power, however, it rapidly loses its mass base and becomes a Bonapartist regime, leaning on the army and the police. Trotsky likened the Nazi bureaucracy in Germany to the ‘Old Man of the Sea’ who sits on the shoulders of the bourgeoisie, and, in return for guiding it on the road to safety, at the same time abuses it, spitting on its bald patch and digging its spurs in its sides.

In In Defence of Marxism, Trotsky outlines the difference between Bonapartism and fascism:

The element which fascism has in common with the old Bonapartism is that it used the antagonisms of classes in order to give to the state power the greatest independence. But we have always underlined that the old Bonapartism was in a time of an ascending bourgeois society, while fascism is a state power of the declining bourgeois society. (Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, p. 227.)

One has only to consider Hitler’s treatment of his capitalist opponents. The Nazis, who defended capitalist property relations, not only robbed the bourgeois and confiscated their property, but also occasionally executed them. Of course, there is no doubt that the class nature of the Nazi state was bourgeois. But, on the other hand, the German bourgeoisie lost control of the state, which fell into the hands of Hitler’s irresponsible and criminal adventurers, who used it for their own advantage. Here the relation between the state and the ruling class is dialectical and contradictory. In fact, by 1943, the interests of the ruling class in Germany were in open conflict with the state. By that time, Germany had already lost the war. It was in the interests of the ruling class to arrive at a peace with Britain and America, in order to wage war against the Soviet Union. But surrender would have been the death sentence for the Nazi clique that controlled the state. The German bourgeoisie tried, and failed, to remove Hitler by a military coup (the generals’ plot). Hitler fought the war to the bitter end and Germany paid the price with the loss of its eastern half to Stalinist Russia.

Stalinism: a form of Bonapartism

In dealing with the role of the state, the most important question that must be answered is this: which class does it represent? The state must be an instrument of a class – which class did it represent in Russia? It could not represent the capitalist class because they were expropriated in 1917. It cannot be argued that it represented the interests of the peasant class, or the petty owners in the cities. It clearly represented the interests of the Stalinist bureaucracy. But as a special form of proletarian Bonapartism, in the last analysis, it represented the working class in so far as it defended the nationalisation of the means of production, planning and the monopoly of foreign trade.

Under a fascist or Bonapartist regime, as we have seen, even though these gangsters might have the bourgeoisie by the throat, nevertheless there remains a capitalist class in whose interests the economy as a whole operates and on to which this parasitic excrescence clings. Some formalists say that the Soviet bureaucracy constituted a new ruling class in Russia. But serious consideration would show that this could not be the case. What they are saying is that the state is a class. The bureaucracy ‘owned’ the state, the state ‘owned’ the means of production, therefore the bureaucracy ‘owned’ the means of production, and was therefore a ruling class. But this is simply dodging the issue. The premise is false. The bureaucracy does not own the state. They are saying, in effect, that the state owns the state. Thus, the attempt to solve the matter through the method of formal logic ends in a pure tautology, which solves nothing at all.

Was the bureaucracy then the ruling class in Soviet society? This argument is clearly unsound. In capitalist society, or in any class society, no matter how privileged the top officials may be, they wield the instrument to protect the ruling class which has a direct relationship to the means of production, through their ownership. We know who Napoleon represented. We know who Louis Bonaparte, Bismarck, Chiang Kai-shek, Hitler, Churchill and de Gaulle represented. But who did the Stalinist bureaucrats represent? Themselves? This is clearly false. The state by its very nature is composed of bureaucrats, officers, generals, heads of police, etc. But these individuals do not constitute a ruling class; they are the instrument of a class even if they stand in antagonism to that class. They cannot themselves be a class. The bureaucracy consists of millions of individuals at different levels in the state apparatus. There is the petty local official and there are the high-ranking dignitaries. So, which section of the bureaucracy would ‘own’ the state? It cannot be all the bureaucrats, because they (the bureaucracy itself) are hierarchically divided. The little civil servant is part of the bureaucracy as much as the big bureaucrat.

In his work Germany, the Only Road, Trotsky deals with this question of Bonapartism as follows:

In its time, we designated the Brüning government as Bonapartism (‘a caricature of Bonapartism’), that is, as a regime of the military police dictatorship. As soon as the struggle of two social strata – the haves and the have-nots, the exploiters and the exploited – reaches its highest tension, the conditions are given for the domination of bureaucracy, police, soldiery. The government becomes ‘independent’ of society. Let us once more recall: if two forks are stuck symmetrically into a cork, the latter can stand even on the head of a pin. That is precisely the schema of Bonapartism. To be sure, such a government does not cease being the clerk of the property owners. Yet the clerk sits on the back of the boss, rubs his neck raw and does not hesitate at times to dig his boots into his face.

It might have been assumed that Brüning would hold on until the final solution. Yet, in the course of events, another link inserted itself: the Papen government. Were we to be exact, we should have to make a rectification of our old designation: the Brüning government was a pre-Bonapartist government. Brüning was only a precursor. In a perfected form, Bonapartism came upon the scene in the Papen- Schleicher government. (Trotsky, Germany, The Only Road, in The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, p. 276.)

The Bonapartism in the epoch of decay and crisis differs from the Bonapartism of capitalism’s youth. It can take many forms, involving different combinations, depending on the concrete conditions. The rule of Napoleon or Oliver Cromwell – a classical Bonapartism – was based upon the emergence of bourgeois society. The Bonapartism at the stage of capitalism’s rise is strong and confident. Under the conditions of a powerful development of the productive forces, it attains a certain stability. But the Bonapartism of capitalism’s decline is affected by senility. Rising out of the crisis of capitalist society, it cannot solve any of the problems with which it is faced. The crisis of the inter-war period gave rise to a whole host of Bonapartist regimes, attempting to balance between the forces of revolution and counter-revolution. In the ex-colonial world, given the weakness of bourgeois democracy, again many of these regimes are Bonapartist in character. Here we see periods of weak parliamentary rule giving way to military dictatorship.

In contrast, fascist rule represents the complete political expropriation of the bourgeoisie. All democratic rights are crushed. The capitalist class hands over all power into the hands of the fascist upstarts, which use the mass forces of the frenzied petty bourgeois as a battering ram against the working class. The proletariat, on the basis of fascist rule is completely atomised.

There is an element of Bonapartism in fascism. Without this element, namely, without the raising of state power above society owing to an extreme sharpening of the class struggle, fascism would have been impossible. But we pointed out from the very beginning that it was primarily a question of Bonapartism of the epoch of imperialist decline, which is qualitatively different from Bonapartism of the epoch of bourgeois rise… The ministries of Brüning, Schleicher, and the presidency of Hindenburg in Germany, Pétain’s government in France – they all have proved, or must prove, unstable. In the epoch of imperialist decline a pure Bonapartist Bonapartism is completely inadequate; imperialism finds it indispensable to mobilise the petty bourgeois and to crush the proletariat under its weight. (Trotsky, Writings 1939-40, p. 410.)

Innumerable references could be given to show that a capitalist state presupposes private property – individual ownership of the means of production. The state is the apparatus of rule: it cannot itself be the class which rules. The bureaucracy is merely part of the apparatus of the state. It may ‘own’ the state, in the sense that it lifts itself above society and becomes relatively independent of the economically dominant class, i.e., the ruling class. That was the case in Nazi Germany, where the bureaucracy dictated to the capitalists what they should produce, how they should produce it, etc., for the purposes of war. So, with the war economy of Britain, USA and elsewhere, the state dictated to the capitalists what and how they should produce. This did not convert them into a ruling class. Why? Because these measures were in defence of private property and in the interests of the capitalist class as a whole.

Clearly, the bureaucracy manages and plans industry. But whose industry do they manage and plan? In capitalist society, the managers plan and manage industry in the individual enterprises and trusts. But it does not make them the owners of those enterprises and trusts. The nationalised industries in Britain, for instance, were run by a managerial bureaucracy, but they were not the owners of these industries. They were owned by the state – the capitalist state – and run in the interests of the capitalist economy as a whole. The bureaucracy in the USSR managed the entire industry. In that sense, it is true that it had more independence from its economic base than any other bureaucracy or state machine in the whole of human history. But as Engels emphasised and we must re-emphasise, in the final analysis, the economic basis is decisive.

Bourgeois sociologists resort to arbitrary definitions in order to characterise all sorts of social groupings and sub-groupings as classes, obscuring the real class basis of society. By contrast, Marxism defines a class in terms of property relations. To argue that their function as managers somehow makes the bureaucrats into a ruling class makes no sense at all. It certainly has nothing in common with the Marxist definition of a capitalist class. The bureaucracy, in its role as a managerial stratum, did play a role in production, in the same way as managers in capitalist enterprises do. But there is a fundamental difference. Managers in the West work for private owners of industry (or for the bourgeois state, which operates as the handmaiden of the private sector). They do not own industry, and do not constitute a separate social class.

As managers, they are entitled to what Marx called “the wages of superintendence”, and nothing more. Exactly the same is true of the managers in a workers’ state, including a healthy workers’ state for that matter, where in the transitional period there would still be a differential between the wages of skilled and unskilled labour. But what characterised the Stalinist bureaucracy was that it devoured a colossal part of the wealth produced by the working class. This had nothing whatever to do with its managerial functions, or the “wages of superintendence”.

If they take more, it is in the same way as the fascist or Bonapartist bureaucracy consume part of the surplus value produced by the workers. But they are not a class in the Marxist sense of the word, but a parasitic caste. “In its intermediary and regulating function,” states Trotsky, “its concern to maintain social rank, and its exploitation of the state apparatus for personal goals, the Soviet bureaucracy is similar to every other bureaucracy, especially the fascist. But it is also in a vast way different. In no other regime has a bureaucracy ever achieved such a degree of independence from the dominating class.” (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 248.)

The privileges of the Stalinist bureaucracy began precisely where its productive functions (such as they were) ended. In fact, they arose, not in the sphere of production at all, but in that of distribution. Under conditions of general poverty, it was necessary to decide who received what. Trotsky compares this to a queue outside a baker’s shop. If there is a shortage of bread, and the queue is a long one, it can become unruly. A gendarme is necessary to keep the queue in order, and make sure everyone gets his share. In the process, it often happens that the gendarme takes more than anyone else. This may not create the most favourable attitude towards the gendarme. But it certainly does not make him into a ruling class in the Marxist sense of the word!

The Stalinist bureaucracy was not a new ruling class, as argued by J. Burnham, M. Shachtman, M. Djilas, J. Kuroń and T. Cliff (in company with the bourgeois and the Labour Right Wing), but a parasitic caste, which plays no necessary role in the production process. Precisely for this reason, meaningful reform from the top is ruled out. The ignorant Polish ‘dissident’ intellectuals reasoned that if free trade unions were possible under capitalism, why should they not be allowed by ‘state capitalism’? Indeed, for the capitalists under normal circumstances, bourgeois ‘democracy’ (i.e. formal democracy, in which the workers are permitted certain rights, but where the banks and monopolies ultimately decide what happens) is the most economic and secure form of government, far preferable to the monstrous waste and looting of the state which occurs under fascism or Bonapartism. But under Stalinism, democratic rights immediately threaten the position of the bureaucracy. Formal democracy and Stalinism are incompatible.

Trotsky was very firm in his view that the bureaucracy was not a new ruling class. In a polemic with a French supporter Yvan Craipeau in 1937 he explains:

This time he draws his smashing argument from a statement in The Revolution Betrayed to the effect that ‘all the means of production belong to the state, and the state belongs, in some respect, to the bureaucracy.’ Craipeau is jubilant. If the means of production belong to the state, and the state to the bureaucracy, the latter becomes the collective proprietor of the means of production and by that alone, the possessing and exploiting class. The remainder of Craipeau’s argument is almost purely literary in character. He tells us once again, with the air of polemicising against me, that the Thermidorian bureaucracy is evil, rapacious, reactionary, bloodthirsty, etc. A real revelation! However, we never said that the Stalinist bureaucracy was virtuous! We have only denied it the quality of a class in the Marxist sense, that is to say, with regard to ownership of the means of production. (Trotsky, Writings 1937-38, p. 36.)

The state is the instrument of class rule, of coercion, a glorified policeman. But the policeman is not the ruling class. The police can become unbridled, can become bandits, but that does not convert them into a capitalist, feudal or slave-owning class. The character of the bureaucracy as a parasite is shown by the fact they are forced to pretend they do not exist as a privileged stratum. In the words of Trotsky: “Its appropriation of a vast share of the national income has the character of social parasitism.” It enjoys its privileges under the form of an abuse of power. It conceals its income. “The biggest apartments, the juiciest steaks, and even Rolls Royces are not enough to transform the bureaucracy into an independent ruling class,” commented Trotsky. (Trotsky, Writings 1933-34, p. 113.)

The workers’ democracy under Lenin and Trotsky was replaced by the bureaucratic regime of Stalin. Although the political forms are radically different from those of the initial years of the revolution, what remained was the nationalised property relations. It was this fact – the existence of a nationalised planned economy – that defined the basic class nature of the Soviet Union. It was a workers’ state that had become horribly deformed by a bureaucratic counter-revolution. “A tumour can grow to tremendous size and even strangle the living organism, but a tumour can never become an independent organism,” remarked Trotsky. (Ibid., p. 19.)

The Soviet bureaucracy was similar to other bureaucracies, especially the fascist bureaucracy, with one very important difference. The fascist bureaucracy rested on the private ownership of the means of production, and was the most monstrous expression of a regime of decline. The Stalinist bureaucracy rested on the new property forms established by the revolution, which for a whole period demonstrated a colossal vitality. It was compelled to defend state property as the source of its power and income. This fact alone enabled it to play a relatively progressive role in developing the productive forces. However, even in the best period, it remained a parasitic growth on the workers’ state, the source of endless waste, corruption and mismanagement. It had all the vices, but none of the historical virtues of a ruling class.

As Trotsky put it: “If the Bonapartist riff-raff is a class this means that it is not an abortion but a viable child of history. If its marauding parasitism is ‘exploitation’ in the scientific sense of the term, this means that the bureaucracy possesses a historical future as the ruling class indispensable to the given system of economy.” (Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, p. 24, New York, 1970.) This is clearly not the case. Without doubt, the Soviet economy has taken massive strides forward, but this impulse was not due to the bureaucracy as such, but the nationalised planned economy. The bureaucracy has become a massive brake on the technical and cultural development of Russia. At best, the Soviet bureaucracy played a relatively progressive role in developing heavy industry, but with tremendous wastage.

The state under Stalin had nothing in common with that of October, except state ownership and planning. Every gain of the revolution aimed at the introduction of workers’ administration and control of industry and the state was abolished. The bureaucracy had complete control. The so-called elections were a farce, in which the candidates of a single party were regularly elected with 99 per cent of the votes – something which is even technically impossible (people sometimes move house, and even die). The working class was at the mercy of the bureaucracy, subject to arbitrary dismissal, exile, arrest, confinement in mental hospitals, and all the other methods whereby a totalitarian state maintains its people in a state of all-pervading fear. In addition to the usual organs of repression, the bureaucracy had the services of an army of spies, informers and trusties, present in every workshop, office, classroom or block of flats.

It is true that in later years, especially after Stalin’s death, big reforms were introduced, which led to rising living standards, better social services and so on. But at all times, control remained firmly in the hands of the bureaucracy. Such reforms that were made always came from the top and did not in any way modify the fundamental relationship between the working class and the ruling caste. There was no element of workers’ democracy whatsoever.

‘Bureaucratic collectivism’?

Did Stalinist Russia represent some new form of society not envisaged by Marx or Lenin? Clearly if Stalinism is not socialism, a society based upon the harmonious satisfaction of human needs, what does it represent? Some have looked at the Soviet Union, been repulsed by the Purge trials, the labour camps, the monstrous frame-ups, and the general totalitarian nature of the regime and drawn the conclusion that Stalinism is a new exploitative society with its own bureaucratic ruling class. There have been many descriptions given to this conclusion from ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ (Bruno Rizzi and Max Shachtman) to ‘state capitalism’ (Tony Cliff). In reality, these conceptions are all false from beginning to end.

The theory of state capitalism was based on the idea that the Stalinist political counter-revolution in Russia signified a new stage in capitalism. This did not differ in any essential way from ‘ordinary’ capitalism. The bureaucracy was alleged to be a new ruling class. The Soviet economy was supposed to obey the normal laws of capitalism, and so forth. However, such an argument immediately found itself entangled in a host of contradictions. To look no further, we must point out that, if the Soviet Union was capitalist (or state capitalist, it makes no real difference to the substance of the argument), then it had to have the same law of motion as capitalism – i.e., booms and slumps. However much you twist and turn, you will not find any such phenomenon. Thus, the adoption of a false theory necessarily leads to the abandonment of the basic standpoint of Marxism. Here we have a kind of capitalism which has succeeded in eliminating the fundamental contradiction of a market economy – a capitalism without unemployment, capable of developing the means of production at unheard-of rates of growth, uninterrupted by crises of overproduction.

Such a conclusion would inevitably require us to revise all the basic postulates of Marxism – if it were true. But it is not true. The whole conception rests upon a complete misunderstanding of the Marxist theory of the state, the class nature of society and the transitional period. The general schema of Marx and Lenin as to how the transition from capitalism to socialism would unfold is undoubtedly correct, in general. But the truth is always concrete. It is not possible to understand complex and contradictory social phenomena on the basis of theoretical generalities alone. These can provide a useful framework and starting-point, but one can only grasp the nature of the thing itself by a careful analysis of the facts and processes, in an all-rounded way, bringing out all the contradictory tendencies. By contrast, the attempt to marshal facts to justify a preconceived definition necessarily ends in an abortion.

What strikes one about the theory of state capitalism in all its varieties is its completely arbitrary character. Far from solving anything, it leads to a mass of new contradictions. Trotsky’s explanation of Stalinism as a deformed workers’ state, a form of proletarian Bonapartism, so much simpler and completely in accord with Marxist theory, closely corresponds to everything which we have witnessed in the USSR from the death of Lenin to the fall of the Berlin Wall. By accepting this standpoint, we do not need to revise the basic ideas of Marxism, which alone provide us with a scientific understanding and a guide to action in the new situation.

It is not possible to grasp a living, developing process by means of abstract definitions and formal logic. As Trotsky explained:

The fundamental flaw of vulgar thought lies in the fact that it wishes to content itself with motionless imprints of a reality which consists of eternal motion. Dialectical thinking gives to concepts, by means of closer approximations, corrections, concretisation, a richness of content and flexibility; I would even say a succulence which to a certain extent brings them close to living phenomena. Not capitalism in general, but a given capitalism at a given stage of development. Not a workers’ state in general, but a workers’ state in a backward country in an imperialist encirclement, etc. (Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, pp. 65-6.)

The theories of state capitalism in Russia go back a long way. The theory of bureaucratic collectivism to describe the USSR was put forward by Bruno Rizzi and Max Shachtman more than 50 years ago. In his book La Bureaucratisation du Monde, Bruno Rizzi explains: “In our opinion, the USSR represents a new type of society led by a new social class: that is our conclusion. Collectivised property actually belongs to this class which has introduced a new – and superior – system of production. Exploitation is transferred from the individual to the class.” (B. Rizzi, La Bureaucratisation du Monde, p. 31.)

Again: “In our opinion, in the USSR, the property owners are the bureaucrats, for it is they who hold force in their hands. It is they who direct the economy as was usual amongst the bourgeoisie; it is they who appropriate the profits to themselves, as was usual amongst all exploiting classes, and it is they who fix wages and the prices of goods: once again, it is the bureaucrats.” (Ibid., p. 56.) Rizzi concludes: “Exploitation occurs exactly as in a society based on slavery… The Russian working class are no longer proletarians; they are merely slaves. It is a class of slaves in its economic substance and in its social manifestations.” (Ibid., pp. 72-4.) Ironically, he later concludes that on the basis of increased productive development this bureaucratic collectivism will end up in a “classless society and socialism”.

For good measure, he also lumps in Hitler’s Germany as bureaucratic collectivist. The whole of Bruno Rizzi’s argument is completely unscientific. The Soviet bureaucrats were not property owners, in the sense of owning the means of production. They owned no stocks or shares. Nor could they hand down any property as such through inheritance. They certainly did not own the working class as the slave-owners of Rome owned their slaves. How such a class society could then develop into socialism remains a mystery. However, these outlandish ideas were taken up by James Burnham, who achieved fame as the author of The Managerial Revolution, which equated Stalinism with Fascism and the New Deal. Burnham also gained notoriety as an open advocate of atomic war against the USSR. At bottom, all this reflected the deep pessimism and despair of a layer of middle class intellectuals as a result of the defeats of the working class. The notion of bureaucratic collectivism, was more than a theory, it was the expression of the mood of this layer, which was most vividly conveyed by the nightmarish vision of the future in the pages of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Max Shachtman also adopted the theory of bureaucratic collectivism after breaking from the Trotskyist movement in 1940. “It is a cruel realisation of the prediction made by all the great socialist scientists, from Marx and Engels onwards, that capitalism must collapse out of an inability to solve its own contradictions and that the alternatives facing mankind are not so much capitalism or socialism as they are: socialism or barbarism. Stalinism is that new barbarism,” states Shachtman. (Max Shachtman, The Bureaucratic Revolution, p. 32.) Shachtman also went so far as to maintain that the workers of the USSR were not workers at all, but slaves of the bureaucratic state. Despite this, at the time, he regarded this bureaucratic collectivism as more progressive than capitalism.

According to the resolution on Russia passed at the 1941 Convention of his organisation, the Workers’ Party: “From the standpoint of socialism, the bureaucratic collectivist state is a reactionary social order; in relation to the capitalist world, it is on an historically more progressive plane.” This was really an attempt by Shachtman to justify his accommodation to American petty bourgeois public opinion which had become deeply anti-Stalinist after 1939. Eventually, he shifted further to the right and ended up as a supporter of US foreign policy. The theory of bureaucratic collectivism subsequently fell into disuse as a description of the USSR.

The theory of state capitalism, on the other hand, continued to be put forward in certain quarters. Its most recent contemporary exponent is Tony Cliff in his book Russia: A Marxist Analysis (1964) republished as State Capitalism in Russia (1974). This work is based upon an earlier version entitled The Nature of Stalinist Russia published in June 1948. Given its theoretical weaknesses, and the criticism of this work made by ourselves at the time, its arguments were later modified. Initially, Cliff argued that Russia had undergone a transformation in 1928, the first year of the Five-year Plans, from a deformed workers’ state to state capitalism because it can conclusively “be said that with the introduction of the Five-Year Plans, the bureaucracy’s income consisted to a large extent of surplus value”. (T. Cliff, The Nature of Stalinist Russia, p. 45.)

However, this key argument was dropped after it was made clear to Cliff that from 1920 onwards, the bureaucracy had consumed a great part of the surplus value produced by the working class, legitimately and illegitimately. As Marx had correctly explained, in a workers’ state in the transitional period, the production of surplus value would be used for the speedy building up of industry and so prepare the way for the quickest possible transition to equality and then complete communism. No Marxist could maintain that the class nature of the Soviet state had changed because of this. Tony Cliff unceremoniously abandoned this argument without any explanation and subsequently developed new ones in an attempt to strengthen his theory of state capitalism. This summed up his whole eclectic approach to this question for the past 40 odd years.

Trotsky on ‘state capitalism’

The theories of bureaucratic collectivism and state capitalism were demolished by Trotsky in the 1930s. Trotsky used the Marxist method to understand the nature of Stalinism. Far from being rigid and formalistic, as Tony Cliff claimed, Trotsky was scrupulously dialectical in his analysis of Stalinism, meticulously examining the contradictory features of the process unfolding at each stage. For him, the process was not simply black or white, but far more complicated and complex. He was not looking for nice neat categories to satisfy the laws of formal logic, but sought out the contradictory reality of what was actually taking place within the Soviet Union.

Cliff’s method was totally different. In a most shallow way, he examined the surface characteristics of Stalinism in Russia and then drew a superficial analogy with certain aspects of capitalism, without understanding the real nature of the Soviet Union and the contradictory processes taking place within it. Without doubt, there were similarities with capitalism, but there were also fundamental differences. “In Russia, the horrors of forced industrialisation, of brutal collectivisation of the peasantry, the deprivation of workers’ rights to organise in trade unions or to strike, the police terror, all were by-products of an unprecedented rate of capital accumulation,” states Cliff. (Binns, Cliff and Harman, Russia: From Workers’ State to State Capitalism, p. 11.) These features of Stalinism existed, but they were not due to the primitive accumulation of some alleged state capitalist society.

Trotsky explained these developments, not as the result of the workings of capitalist economic laws, but arising from the actions of the Stalinist bureaucracy attempting to consolidate its privileged position by catching up with the West. Other bureaucracies have acted in a similar ruthless fashion – for example, the Nazi bureaucracy, which sought world domination. However, this fact did not change the class nature of the regime. Given Cliff’s fundamentally different approach, he rightly concludes: “Our analysis of the class nature of Russia under Stalin, and today, differs from that made by Leon Trotsky.” (Ibid., p. 12) The point is that Trotsky was correct in his method and analysis, and Cliff is wrong.

Tony Cliff asserts that the Stalinist bureaucracy is a new ruling class, but nowhere in his writings is a real analysis made or evidence adduced as to why and how such a class constitutes a capitalist class. This is not accidental, it flows from his method. Starting off with the preconceived idea of state capitalism, everything is artificially fitted in to that conception. Instead of applying the theoretical method of Marxism to Russian society in its process of motion and development, he has scoured the works of the great Marxists to gather quotations and attempted to compress them into a new theory.

The main criterion for Marxists in analysing social systems is this: Does the new formation lead to the development of the productive forces? Cliff skirts around this question by false comparisons of individual capitalist growth rates and the fact that world industrial production has actually grown since 1891. But what needs to be compared is the growth rate of the Soviet Union and the rest of the capitalist world. The theory of Marxism is based on the material development of the forces of production as the moving force of historical progress. The transition from one system to another is not decided subjectively, but is rooted in the needs of production itself. It is on this basis and this basis alone that the superstructure is erected: of state, ideology, art, science and government. It is true that the superstructure has an important secondary effect on production and even within certain limits, as Engels explained, acquires its own independent movement. But in the last analysis, the development of production is decisive.

Marx explained the historical justification for capitalism, despite the horrors of the industrial revolution, despite the slavery of the blacks in Africa, despite child labour in the factories, the wars of conquest throughout the globe – by the fact that it was a necessary stage in the development of the forces of production. Marx showed that without slavery, not only ancient slavery, but slavery in the epoch of the early development of capitalism, the modern development of production would have been impossible. Without that the material basis for socialism could never have been prepared. In a letter to P.V. Annenkov, 28th December 1846, Marx wrote:

Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery, you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry, it is slavery that has given the colonies their value; it is the colonies that have created world trade, and it is world trade that is the precondition of large-scale industry. Thus, slavery is an economic category of the greatest importance.

Without slavery, North America, the most progressive of countries, would be transformed into a patriarchal country. Wipe out North America from the map of the world, and you will have anarchy – the complete decay of modern commerce and civilisation. (MESW, Letter – Marx to P.V. Annenkov in Paris, Vol. 1, pp. 523-4.)

Of course, the attitude of Marx towards the horrors of slavery and the industrial revolution is well known. It would be a gross distortion of Marx’s position to argue that because he wrote the above, therefore he was in favour of slavery and child labour. Similarly, no more can it be argued against the Marxists that because they supported state ownership in the USSR that they therefore justified the slave camps and other crimes of the former Stalinist regime. Marx’s support of the German ruler Bismarck in the Franco-Prussian war was dictated by similar considerations. In spite of Bismarck’s ‘blood and iron’ policy and the reactionary nature of his regime, because the development of the productive forces would be facilitated by the national unification of Germany, Marx gave critical support for the war of Prussia against France. The basic criterion was the development of the productive forces. In the long run, all else flows from this.

Any analysis of Russian society must start from that basis. Once Cliff admits that while capitalism was declining and decaying on a world scale, yet preserving a progressive role in Russia in relation to the development of the productive forces, then logically he would have to say that state capitalism is the next stage forward for society, or at least for the backward countries. Contradictorily, he shows that the Russian bourgeoisie was not capable of carrying through the role which was fulfilled by the bourgeoisie in the West and consequently the proletarian revolution took place.

If we say that there was state capitalism in Russia (ushered in by a proletarian revolution), then it is clear that the crisis of capitalism is not insoluble but only the birth pangs of a new and higher stage of capitalism (state capitalism). The quotation that Cliff himself gives from Marx – that no society passes from the scene till all the possibilities in it have been exhausted – would indicate that if his argument is correct, a new epoch, the epoch of state capitalism, would have opened up before us. The idea of Lenin that imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism would be false. The whole of Marxism would have to be revised from beginning to end.

‘A trade union in power’

In dealing with ‘state capitalism’, we see the kind of fetishism of which Marx spoke and which can even affect the revolutionary movement – change the name of a thing and you change its essence! Trotsky described it as ‘terminological radicalism’. But sticking these labels on to the phenomenon of Stalinism does not change the character of the regime. Such a method has nothing in common with Marxism. As a matter of fact, if the idea of state capitalism or bureaucratic collectivism is correct, then the whole theory of Marx becomes a Utopia. Let us proceed from fundamental propositions. According to the theory of Marx, no society passes from the scene of history until it has exhausted all the potentialities within it. For a whole historical period, the Soviet regime made unexampled strides forward, much greater than anything seen in the West. We have the absurdity of a new revolution, according to the advocates of state capitalism, a proletarian revolution in 1917, changing the economy into – state capitalism. As Trotsky explained: “An attempt has been made to conceal the enigma of the Soviet regime by calling it ‘state capitalism’. This term has the advantage that nobody knows exactly what it means.” (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 245.)

Where Trotsky found proof of a workers’ state in the transformation of the forms of property, the supporters of the theory of state capitalism find proof of the reverse. They may argue that unless the working class has direct control of the state, it cannot be a workers’ state. In that case, they will have to reject the idea that there was ever a workers’ state in Russia, except possibly in the first few months after October. Even here it is necessary to reiterate that the dictatorship of the proletariat is realised through the instrument of the vanguard of the class, i.e. the Party, and in the Party through the Party leadership. Under the best conditions this will be effected with the utmost democracy within the state and within the Party. But the very existence of the dictatorship, its necessity to achieve the change in the social system, is already proof of profound social contradictions which can, under unfavourable historical circumstances, find a reflection within the state and within the Party. The Party, no more than the state, can automatically and directly reflect the interests of the class. Not for nothing did Lenin think of the trade unions as a necessary factor for the defence of the workers against their state, as well as a bulwark for the defence of their state.

Here again, we see the results of substituting formalistic thinking for dialectical analysis. The advocates of this theory base themselves on pure abstractions – a workers’ state in general, as opposed to the real workers’ state formed under conditions of frightful backwardness, poverty, illiteracy. A materialist approaches the subject in an entirely different way. While it is the most homogeneous class in society, the proletariat is not entirely homogeneous. There are important differences between different layers of the class – skilled and unskilled, backward and advanced, organised and unorganised, and so on. The same processes can take place in the working class as in other classes, according to the concrete conditions.

The history of the workers’ organisations under capitalism, which can experience a process of bureaucratisation under certain conditions, especially where the workers are not participating actively, is a useful analogy. Trotsky in the last analysis compared a workers’ state to a trade union which has conquered power. After a long strike, with no victory in sight, the workers tend to lapse into inactivity and apathy, beginning with the most backward elements. Likewise, in Russia, after years of war, revolution and civil war, the workers were exhausted. Gradually, they fell into inactivity. The soviets, the unions and other organs of workers’ power became bureaucratised over a period as a result. A similar process can be seen in the French Revolution, although with a different class content. If it was possible for the party of the working class (the Social Democracy), especially through its leadership, to degenerate under the alien pressures of capitalism, why is it impossible for the state set up by the workers to follow a similar pattern? Why cannot the state gain independence from the class, and at the same time (in its own interests) defend the new economic forms created by the revolution? In reality, the transition from one society to another was found to have been far more complex than could have been foreseen by the founders of scientific socialism.

No more than any other class or social formation has the proletariat been given the privilege of inevitably having a smooth passage in the transition to its domination, and thence to its painless and tranquil disappearance in society, i.e., to socialism. That was a possible variant. But the degeneration of both Social Democracy and the Soviet state under the given conditions was not at all accidental. It represented in a sense the complex relations between a class, its representatives, and the state, which, more than once in history the ruling class, bourgeois, feudal and slave-owning, had cause to rue. It mirrors in other words, the multiplicity of historical factors which are the background to the decisive factor: the economic.

Contrast the broad view of Lenin with the mechanistic view of the exponents of state capitalism. Lenin emphasised over and over the need to study the transition periods of past epochs especially from feudalism to capitalism, in order to understand the laws of transition in Russia. He would have rejected the conception that the state which issued from October would have to follow a preconceived norm, or thereby cease to be a workers’ state. Lenin knew very well that the proletariat and its party and leadership had no God-given power which would lead, without contradictions, smoothly to socialism once capitalism had been overthrown. That is necessarily the only conclusion which must follow from the Kantian norms categorically laid down by proponents of state capitalism. That is why in advance Lenin emphasised that the dictatorship of the proletariat would vary tremendously in different countries and under different conditions.

However, Lenin hammered home the point that in the transition from feudalism to capitalism the dictatorship of the rising bourgeoisie was reflected in the dictatorship of one man. A class could rule through the personal rule of one man. Ex post facto Tony Cliff is quite willing to accept this conception as it applies to the bourgeoisie. But one could only conclude from his schematic arguments that such a development would be impossible in the case of the proletariat. For the rule of one man implies absolutism, arbitrary dictatorship vested in a single individual without political rights for the ruling class whose interests, in the last analysis, he represents. But Lenin only commented thus to show that under certain conditions the dictatorship of the proletariat could also be realised through the dictatorship of one man. Lenin did not develop this conception. But today, in the light of the experience of Russia and Eastern Europe, China, Cuba and the other deformed workers’ states, we can deepen and understand not only the present but the past developments of society as well.

Under certain circumstances, the dictatorship of the proletariat can take the form of the dictatorship of one man. We are not talking about a healthy workers’ state, but a distortion that can arise from the separation of the state from the class it represents. This means that the apparatus will almost inevitably tend to become independent of its base and thus acquire a vested interest of its own, hostile and alien to the class it represents. That was the case in Stalinist Russia. When we study the development of bourgeois society, we see that the autocracy of one individual, with the given social contradictions, served the needs of the development of that society. This is clearly shown by the rule of Cromwell and Napoleon. But although both stood on a bourgeois base, at a certain stage bourgeois autocracy becomes, from a favourable factor for the development of capitalist society, a hindrance to the full and free development of bourgeois production.

However, the dictatorial regime of absolutism does not then painlessly wither away. In France and England, it required supplementary political revolutions before bourgeois autocracy could be changed into bourgeois democracy. But without bourgeois democracy a free and full development of the productive forces to the limits under capitalism would have been impossible. If this applies to the historical evolution of the bourgeoisie, how much more so to the proletariat in a backward and isolated country where the dictatorship of the proletariat degenerated into the dictatorship of Stalin – of one man?

In order that the Russian proletariat should take the path of socialism, a new revolution, a supplementary political revolution was necessary to turn the Bonapartist proletarian state into a workers’ democracy. This entirely fits in with the experience of the past. Just as capitalism passed through many stormy contradictory phases (we are far from finished with them yet, as our epoch bears witness), so in the given historic conditions did the rule of the proletariat in Russia. So also through a mutual reaction, Eastern Europe and China passed through this proletarian Bonapartist phase.

The peculiar notion that a workers’ state is always born as immaculate as the Virgin Mary, and must under all conditions appear in the classical form of a perfect workers’ democracy, or else must be damned as a ‘new class state’, is a mystical idea which has nothing whatever to do with the materialist method of Marxism. It is the product of thinking in abstract, formal categories. In point of fact, it is in the interrelation between the class and its state under the given historical conditions that we find the explanation of Stalinist degeneration, not in supra-historical abstractions.

As a matter of fact, even now the class nature of the Russian state has not been decisively determined. But the protagonists of the empty and superficial theory of state capitalism are least of all capable of shedding light on the processes that are unfolding in the former Soviet Union. If the present move in the direction of capitalist restoration proves unsuccessful, in the long run, the economic factor (property relations), after many upheavals and catastrophes, will prove decisive. It is a question of which property forms will ultimately prevail – nationalisation or private property. This struggle is still unfolding, but the result is not yet decided. Of course, if we accept that Russia has been capitalist (even if ‘state capitalist’) for the past 60 or 70 years, then this is just a little detail, about which we should not concern ourselves too much.

The Russian working class, through painful experience, has come to understand that there is indeed a fundamental difference between a nationalised planned economy and capitalism. At the moment of writing, the Russian miners are striking against the bourgeois government in Moscow. An increasing number of workers are learning the need to defend what is left of nationalised industry against the depredations of the nascent capitalist class. Does this mean some kind of capitulation to the bureaucracy? Not at all. The Russian workers will fight against the nascent bourgeoisie with their own methods, strikes, demonstrations, general strikes. In so doing they will soon rediscover the great revolutionary traditions of the past. But the prior condition for this is the realisation of the need to wage an all-out struggle against the immediate threat of capitalist counter-revolution.

Having blocked the road to capitalist counter-revolution in struggle, they will acquire a sense of their own strength and the necessary consciousness that will enable them to overthrow the bureaucracy and organise a healthy workers’ democracy on a higher level. Such a development will not be a return to the position of the weak and impoverished Soviet state of 1917. On the basis of the technological and scientific advances made possible by the achievements of the nationalised planned economy in the past, they will be able to decree immediately a general reduction of the working week. Within one or, at most two, five-year plans, with the democratic control and participation of the masses, the whole situation will be transformed. Given the present level of development, it should be possible quite soon to introduce the 32-hour week, followed by a further reduction of hours and a general raising of living standards and culture. Then the workers’ state will, more or less, correspond to the ideal norm worked out by Marx and Lenin.

The theory of ‘state capitalism’ today

The debate over the class nature of the USSR is not an academic exercise, but has very serious practical consequences. Trotsky had previously warned that the tendency that adopts the false theory of state capitalism runs the risk of becoming “the passive instrument of imperialism”. But at the very time of a move to restore capitalism in Russia and Eastern Europe, the theories of state capitalism play the most pernicious role imaginable. The thinness and lack of theoretical insight of Cliff and his supporters is shown by their complete inability to explain the processes that are unfolding before our eyes in Russia. The whole thing is dismissed with the threadbare, flippant phrase that the bureaucracy just took a ‘step sideways’ (!), which, typically, explains nothing about the social regime in Russia either before or after. It tells us nothing about the relations of production, the class nature of the state, or the social content of the counter-revolution that is taking place. This is logical. Having denied the revolutionary significance of state ownership, the defenders of the theory of state capitalism are, in effect, compelled to deny that a counter-revolution is taking place at all! Thus, the concept of state capitalism stands revealed in the moment of truth as not merely theoretically bankrupt, but disastrous in practice.

In arguing his case Cliff dismissed Trotsky’s analysis of the class character of the Soviet Union as ‘contradictory’ to Marxism. According to him, Trotsky’s analysis “suffered from one serious limitation – a conservative attachment to formalism, which by its nature is contradictory to Marxism that subordinates form to content”. (Cliff, Russia: A Marxist Analysis, p. 145.) This view is also upheld by another prominent colleague of Cliff, Duncan Hallas, who states: “ Trotsky’s analysis of the class struggle in the USSR after 1927 has clearly been shown to be erroneous.” (T. Cliff and others, The Fourth International, Stalinism and the Origins of the International Socialists, p. 8.) Again, “there can be no doubt that by 1928 a new class had taken power in Russia…” says another supporter of Cliff’s theory, Chris Harman. “The Left Opposition was far from clear about what it was fighting. Trotsky, to his dying day, believed that the apparatus that was to hunt him down and murder him was a degenerated workers’ state.” (Binns, Cliff and Harman, op. cit., p. 35.) Trotsky and his supporters resisted Stalinism, but, claims Harman, their “own theories about Russia made this task more difficult…” (Ibid., p. 36.)

As early as 1936, Trotsky, in a brilliant deduction, predicted that the bureaucracy would inevitably turn to individual ownership of the means of production, if the workers did not take power. How about the advocates of state capitalism? The move to restore individual ownership caught these ladies and gentlemen completely by surprise. What alternative could they offer to the denationalisation of industry and the abolition of the plan? This is not merely a theoretical question, but a vital one for the interests of the Russian working class. It is necessary to give a concrete answer. How does this square with state capitalism?

Despite the fact that all the bourgeois commentators in the West and the bourgeois press are expressly behind the moves for capitalist restoration, Chris Harman claims that, “the move from the command economy to the market is neither a step forward nor a step backwards, but a step sideways, from one way of organising capitalist exploitation to another”! (C. Harman and E. Mandel, The Fallacies of State Capitalism, p. 79.) For Tony Cliff, “privatisation was an irrelevant question”.

This position is, of course, quite logical if you accept that the capitalist counter-revolution had happened decades ago. Belatedly they now say they are opposed to privatisation in the ex-Stalinist states, in the same way they are opposed to privatisation in the West, although why they should do so remains a mystery. Is ‘state capitalism’ progressive after all? In this way, the advocates of this position proceed from bad to worse! The resulting contradictions are not lost on at least some of them. A leading speaker at their summer school in 1990 put forward the view that Trotsky “had a fetish about the nationalised economy”. To call into question the very notion of a nationalised planned economy as the prior condition of a movement in the direction of socialism is, indeed, implicit in their whole position. But what conclusions are we supposed to draw from this?

If nationalisation is ‘irrelevant’ and what has taken place in Russia is only a ‘step sideways’, then why oppose it? Surely it should be a matter of indifference whether the nascent bourgeoisie takes over from state capitalism? Of course, for the workers threatened with privatisation, things do not look so simple! But from the standpoint of the theory of state capitalism, there is absolutely nothing to choose between the two, and thus the only consistent position would be complete neutrality. (This would also apply to the question of privatisation in the West.) However, the last thing the proponents of this theory can be accused of is consistency!

Whether East or West, it is the elementary duty of every class-conscious worker to defend the gains of the past. The only remaining historic gain of the Russian Revolution is the nationalised planned economy. The pro-bourgeois government of Yeltsin, backed and promoted by Western imperialism, is attempting to destroy the nationalised economy, break it up, and sell if off through privatisation. If they succeed in this, it will represent the complete elimination of the gains of the October Revolution. It will mean the destruction of the deformed workers’ state and the establishment of a new capitalist state. That is after all the aim of the nascent bourgeois in Russia and the Western imperialists. The situation could not be clearer. And yet the theory of state capitalism seeks to turn things on their head and sow the maximum confusion.

Since the success of the October Revolution, Marxists have consistently defended the nationalised property rights that issued from the revolution. We did not support the Stalinist reaction or the policies of the Stalinist regime. These policies, far from defending the revolution, were assisting to weaken and undermine it. Eventually, as envisaged by Trotsky, the bureaucracy would move to consolidate its position by capitalist restoration. That is what has been taking place for the last six years or so in Russia and Eastern Europe. For Cliff and his supporters, state capitalism not only existed in the USSR, Eastern Europe and other Stalinist states where private property has been abolished, but apparently was also widespread in Asia, Africa, and Latin America during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. In the words of Harman, “state intervention went further in many so-called developing countries, where the individual capitalist groups were too weak to stop the state dominating the industrial sector of the economy”. He gives the examples of Egypt, Syria, Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Ireland and South Korea as varied forms of state capitalism.

“It [the state] behaved very much as the East European states did…” states Harman. “It was an expression of a tendency throughout the world, from the 1930s through to the mid-1970s to resort to administrative, state capitalist interventions in economies prone to crisis. That phase of capitalist history is, however, drawing to a close. The state still intervenes, but with decreasing effectiveness. In the West that has meant a return to the classic slump; and in the East, it means that the bureaucracies find it increasingly difficult to avoid going down the same path.” (C. Harman, Class Struggles in Eastern Europe 1945-83, p. 327.)

Harman tortuously twists the facts to fit the theory of state capitalism. Countries like Argentina under Perón and Egypt under Nasser, were not new state capitalist societies, but were capitalist economies that used state intervention, which is characteristic of all capitalist countries in the epoch of imperialism, to protect the interests of the national bourgeois against competition from the big imperialist powers. Given the extent of state intervention, using Harman’s logic, the system of state capitalism would be practically universal! It appears that the cold war and the hostile relations between the USSR and the West was simply a big misunderstanding as state capitalist countries were on either side of the Iron Curtain, instead of a fundamental antagonism between two social systems. If they were basically the same, why all the fuss, the diplomatic and military tensions and the arms race?

“How are we to view the end of the cold war, the collapse of the USSR and Russia’s initial orientation on the US?” asks Dave Crouch, Cliff’s co-thinker in Moscow. According to him, the collapse of Stalinism was no victory for US imperialism – despite what all the bourgeois commentators internationally said. “There was no ‘capitulation’ to the Americans. When the Russian ruling class stopped reeling from the defeats inflicted on it by the population after 1989 it set about strengthening its position both at home and abroad. The big show of post-cold war friendship between Russia and the US was necessary to both sides. The Kremlin needed to persuade its people that the bad old days were over and that reform would take them to an affluent market future.” (International Socialism, No. 66, Spring 1995, pp. 12-4.)

How muddled can you get? According to Dave Crouch, the collapse of Stalinism has resulted in strengthening of state capitalism “both at home and abroad”! Crouch, despite being based in Moscow, evidently lives on another planet. He does not see the collapse of the productive forces, the chaos, the misery of the masses, the political convulsions, the military catastrophe that has overtaken the Russian people. No. Not only has there been no real change, but by some mysterious means which only Dave Crouch understands, the former regime has actually strengthened itself! Here we take leave of Marxism altogether and enter the realm of science fiction.

Apparently, the ‘state capitalists’ of Russia and Eastern Europe, in an attempt to overcome their problems, were forced to move towards a more conventional form of market capitalism. In other words, the upheavals in Russia and Eastern Europe are purely ‘tactical’ problems for different sections of the capitalist class to sort out. Privatisation, the key note of the bourgeois counter-revolution, is considered a trick of some kind because ownership was not really being transferred at all; selling shares was merely a ‘device’ by which the ‘state capitalists’ could raise revenue! According to these gentlemen, socialists could not defend one form of capitalism against another. In the early 1950s, this position resulted in Tony Cliff remaining neutral during the Korean war when the deformed workers’ state of North Korea was under imperialist attack. But in the Vietnam war, due to the pressure of the students and petty bourgeois in their ranks, it was fashionable to support ‘state capitalist’ North Vietnam against American imperialism. Today it is unfashionable to defend the planned economies of the former USSR and Eastern Europe against counter-revolution, but is fashionable to support the Romanian student’s demands for capitalist restoration.

Life always takes its revenge on a false theory. The whole artificial construction of state capitalism lies in ruins. Yet instead of honestly admitting their mistake, they attempt to cling to the wreckage by their fingernails. They now try to maintain that no real change has taken place. This immediately leads them into a small error – that of being unable to distinguish between revolution and counter-revolution! According to the theory of Tony Cliff and others, capitalist counter-revolution in Russia today is impossible. Since the bureaucracy ‘owned the state’ and played the same role as the capitalist class, where is the difference? From this point of view, it is a matter of indifference whether state property is privatised or not, since it is all ‘capitalism’! Thus, the so-called theory of state capitalism, if it were accepted by the Russian workers today, would completely disarm them in the face of the nascent bourgeoisie. This fact alone is sufficient to underline the vital importance of theory, which, sooner or later must be manifested in practice.

Trotsky made the Marxist position clear in the Manifesto of the Fourth International:

To be sure, the nationalisation of the means of production in one country, and a backward one at that, still does not insure the building of socialism. But it is capable of furthering the primary prerequisite of socialism, namely, the planned development of the productive forces. To turn one’s back on the nationalisation of the means of production on the ground that in and of itself it does not create the well-being of the masses is tantamount to sen tencing a granite foundation to destruction on the grounds that it is impossible to live without walls and a roof. The class-conscious worker knows that a successful struggle for complete emancipation is unthinkable without the defence of conquests already gained, however modest these may be. All the more obligatory therefore is the defence of so colossal a conquest as a planned economy against the restoration of capitalist relations. Those who cannot defend old positions will never conquer new ones. (Trotsky, Writings 1939-40, p. 199.)

5. From War to ‘De-Stalinisation’

Once again: The advantages of the planned economy

The Second World War was a continuation of the first imperialist war. German imperialism needed to carry through a redivision of the world. In the dictum of Clausewitz: war is the continuation of politics by other (violent) means. As early as 1931, Trotsky had predicted that if Hitler came to power, then Germany would declare war against the Soviet Union. Despite joining the League of Nations (the ‘thieves’ kitchen’ to use Lenin’s words), the diplomatic efforts of Stalin to reach an agreement with the Western ‘democracies’ came to nothing. After the Munich accord in 1938, and with the minimum of force, Hitler carried through Anschluss with Austria, annexed the Sudetenland and then occupied Czechoslovakia in March 1939. In a desperate bid to avoid war with Germany, Stalin undertook a complete volte face and signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler on the 23rd August 1939. The commissar of foreign affairs, Maxim Litvinov (who was Jewish) was replaced by Vyacheslav Molotov.

“In point of fact,” declared Trotsky, “the signing of the treaty with Hitler supplies only one extra gauge with which to measure the degree of degeneration of the Soviet bureaucracy, and its contempt for the international working class, including the Comintern.” (Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, pp. 4-5, New York, 1970.) In addition to the Pact was an ‘Additional Secret Protocol’ whereby Poland was divided into German and Soviet spheres of influence and ceased to exist as a unified country. This policy would obviously have been embarrassing for the Polish Communist Party. Fortunately for Stalin, the Polish CP had been dissolved in 1938 on the pretext that it had been penetrated by fascists! Nearly all its leaders, in exile in Moscow, were shot. On the 9th September 1939, the Soviet foreign minister sent the following message to the Nazi ambassador in Moscow: “I have received your communication regarding the entry of German troops into Warsaw. Please convey my congratulations and greetings to the German Reich Government. Molotov.” Britain and France were prepared to accept German aggression as long as German imperialism’s interests lay eastwards. The attack on Poland, however, provoked war with these imperialist powers.

Trotsky had predicted that the Second World War would decide the fate of the Soviet Union: it would either lead to a successful political revolution against the Stalin regime, or the victory of capitalist counter-revolution. The former variant would flow from the revolutionary upheavals arising from the war – as took place in 1917. The latter was likely if the capitalist powers succeeded in conquering Russia. This prognosis was falsified by the unforeseen developments of the war, which resulted in the victory of the Red Army. The process of the revolution had been far more complicated than even Trotsky’s genius had foreseen. The revolutionary tide that followed the war was derailed by the Stalinist and reformists leaders.

Despite the slanders against Trotsky by the Stalinist press, which accused him and his followers of being fascist agents, Trotsky was far from holding a neutral position in the imperialist war. While standing for a political revolution to overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy, he raised the need for the unconditional defence of the USSR in face of imperialist attack. Some leaders of the American Trotskyists, most notably the advocates of the theory of ‘bureaucratic collectivism’, Max Shachtman and James Burnham, came out against defence of the Soviet Union. They reflected the pressures of petty bourgeois public opinion, which had swung against Stalinism after the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Burnham was shortly to abandon the Trotskyist movement completely, proclaiming in his book The Managerial Revolution, that the world was moving towards a new form of society ruled by a managerial elite, of which Stalinism, Nazism, and New Dealism were simply “different stages of growth” of “managerial ideologies”.

On the 25th September 1939, a month after the signing of the Pact and the opening of the Second World War, Trotsky made his position absolutely clear:

Let us suppose that Hitler turns his weapons against the east and invades territories occupied by the Red Army. Under these conditions, partisans of the Fourth International, without changing in any way their attitude towards the Kremlin oligarchy, will advance to the forefront, as the most urgent task of the hour, the military resistance against Hitler. The workers will say: ‘We cannot cede to Hitler the overthrowing of Stalin; that is our own task.’ During the military struggle against Hitler, the revolutionary workers will strive to enter into the closest possible comradely relations with the rank and file fighters of the Red Army. While arms in hand they deal blows to Hitler, the Bolshevik-Leninists will at the same time conduct propaganda against Stalin preparing his overthrow at the next and perhaps very near stage… We must formulate our slogans in such a way that the workers see clearly just what we are defending in the USSR (state property and planned economy), and against whom we are conducting a ruthless struggle (the parasitic bureaucracy and its Comintern). We must not lose sight for a single moment of the fact that the question of overthrowing the Soviet bureaucracy is for us subordinate to the question of preserving state property in the means of production in the USSR. (Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, pp. 20-1, emphasis in original.)

The Hitler-Stalin Pact, which Trotsky had predicted as early as 1934, was undoubtedly a betrayal of the international working class. But the outrage of the governments of London and Paris was entirely hypocritical. Anyone who studies the diplomatic papers of this period will see at a glance that the policy of British and French imperialism was to isolate the Soviet Union and make concessions to Hitler in the East (Czechoslovakia) in the hope that he would forget about them and attack Russia instead. They dreamed of a position where Germany and the USSR would exhaust themselves, whereupon they could step in and mop them both up. Stalin merely pre-empted them by signing a deal with Berlin, thus freeing Hitler to turn west instead.

As a general rule, even a healthy workers’ state would have to engage in manoeuvres with capitalist regimes, making skilful use of the contradictions between them. In order to avoid a war, it might be necessary to sign an agreement even with the most reactionary regime, while continuing to support and encourage the movement to overthrow it. That was the case, for example, with the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918. But in the first place, it was the policies of Stalin which allowed Hitler to come to power and placed the USSR in grave danger. In the second place, the way in which Stalin carried out this policy had absolutely nothing in common with the internationalist methods of Lenin. Yet again, the international working class was sacrificed to the narrow national interests of the Russian bureaucracy. Moreover, as we shall see, this tactic did not save the Soviet Union, but only placed it in still greater danger.

Ilya Ehrenburg in his memoirs recalls his shock when, on returning to Moscow from France, he discovered that any critical reference to the Nazis was censured and that he was expected to deliver lectures on the premises of the German embassy. Nothing was said about Nazi atrocities. Trade with Germany was booming and everyone was given to understand that relations with Berlin were good and friendly. (See A. Nove, Stalinism and After, p. 81.) From the autumn of 1939 there was a complete halt to anti-fascist propaganda by the USSR. France and Britain now became the enemy. As Molotov put it:

During the last few months such concepts as ‘aggression’ and ‘aggressor’ have acquired a new concrete content, have taken on another meaning… Now… it is Germany that is striving for a quick end to the war, for peace, while England and France, who only yesterday were campaigning against aggression, are for continuation of the war and against concluding a peace. Roles, as you see, change… Thus it is not only senseless, it is criminal to wage such a war as a war for ‘the destruction of Hitlerism,’ under the false flag of a struggle for democracy. (Quoted in Medvedev, Let History Judge, p. 730.)

Stalin and his clique went to the most incredible extremes to ingratiate themselves with Berlin. The following extract from the diary of a German diplomat describing the banquet which celebrated the signing of the Pact shows the lengths to which Stalin was prepared to go to conciliate Hitler:

Toasts: In the course of the conversation, Herr Stalin spontaneously proposed to the Führer, as follows: “I know how much the German nation loves its Führer; I should therefore like to drink to his health.” Herr Molotov drank to the health of the Reich Foreign Minister and of the Ambassador, Count von der Schulenburg. Herr Molotov raised his glass to Stalin, remarking that it had been Stalin who – through his speech of March of this year, which had been well understood in Germany – had brought about the reversal in political relations. Herren Molotov and Stalin drank repeatedly to the Non-Aggression Pact, the new era of German-Russian relations, and to the German nation. The Reich Foreign Minister (Ribbentrop) in turn proposed a toast to Herr Stalin, toasts to the Soviet government, and to a favourable development of relations between Germany and the Soviet Union… Moscow, 24th August, 1939. Hencke. (A Nazi diplomat) (Nazi-Soviet Relations, pp. 75-6, reproduced in Robert Black, Stalinism in Britain, p. 130.)

This goes far beyond what would be permissible for a genuine Leninist government in its dealings with a reactionary foreign regime for the purpose of self-defence. Far worse was to follow. To show his ‘good will’ Stalin obligingly handed over German anti-fascist fighters, Jews and Communists to the tender mercies of the Gestapo. At least one of them, Margarete Buber-Neumann, survived by some miracle, to write books comparing the concentration camps of Stalin with those of Hitler. Lavrenty Beria, head of Internal Affairs, even gave a secret order to the Gulag administration forbidding camp guards to call political prisoners fascists! This was only rescinded after Hitler’s invasion of the USSR in 1941. All this was no way to prepare the Soviet people and the workers of the world for the terrible conflict that was to come.

In what was clearly a defensive move to secure its Western borders, the Soviet Union swiftly moved to incorporate Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bessarabia, and Northern Bukovina. But it failed to take Finland in a disastrous campaign, which revealed to the whole world how the Red Army had been weakened by the Purges. Hitler took due note of this fact, which he commented on to his generals. He was already preparing to attack Russia. But Stalin refused to admit this even as a possibility and continued to collude with Germany. When Hitler marched into Yugoslavia, Stalin closed the embassies of Yugoslavia, Greece, and Belgium, which signalled his approval to the German authorities.

When Germany invaded France in 1940, Stalin was convinced that his manoeuvring had induced Hitler to turn West instead of attacking the Soviet Union. Molotov even sent the Führer a message of congratulations! All sections of the Comintern were ordered to follow the same line. This policy led the French Communist Party leaders to hope for a legal existence and the publication of L’Humanité in occupied France. This was only dispelled when rank and file Communist Party members were rounded up and shot en masse. Meanwhile, Pravda quoted statements from the Nazi press saying that the accord with Russia had allowed the German “offensive in the West to develop successfully”. (Pravda, 26/8/1940.)

The masters of the Kremlin really thought that they were going to sit back and enjoy the spectacle of Germany and Britain slugging it out. Having abandoned every trace of a revolutionary internationalist perspective, they were drunk with illusions, while Hitler was preparing a devastating blow against them. This is what disarmed the Soviet Union in the face of its most terrible foe. From the outbreak of the Second World War right up until June 1941 when Hitler attacked Russia, Nazi Germany received a large increase in exports from the USSR. Between 1938 and 1940, exports to Germany rose from Rbs85.9 million to Rbs736.5 million, which greatly assisted Hitler’s war efforts.

Consequences of the Purges

By contrast, in 1941, the USSR was in a very poor state for war. The Purge trials had exterminated the bulk of the general staff, including its most talented officers. Nor was the damage done by Stalin’s Purges limited to the military potential of the USSR. It dealt a terrible blow against the economy also. This is now recognised even by those who yesterday justified the Purges and everything else Stalin did. In a study published by Yale University about the same time, attention was drawn to the damaging effects of the Purges on the Soviet economy. This was reported without comment in the daily paper of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the early 1980s:

“Moreover, in the Purges of 1937-38 many of the most able administrators and scientists in the chemical industry were imprisoned or executed,” writes Robert Amann. “For those who did not suffer directly the Purges had a numbing effect. The penalties for failure were so extreme that decisions involving risk, novelty and personal initiative were avoided at all costs.”

“It would be hard to exaggerate the extent to which these lingering attitudes have exerted a detrimental effect on the long-term development of the chemical industry, and on other Soviet industries.” Nor were defence industries immune: “For all that Stalin’s policies had built up Soviet military and industrial power, the Purges and repression of the 1930s greatly weakened the Soviet Union’s ability to defend itself,” writes David Holloway. (Morning Star, 5/8/82, my emphasis.)

The main factor that undermined the Red Army’s capacity to fight at the start of the war was the destruction of its finest generals and cadres in the Purges. The October Revolution had thrown up a whole layer of talented young officers, some of whom, like Tukhachevsky, Yakir and Gamir were brilliantly original military thinkers. It is not generally known that the theory of the Blitzkrieg (‘lightning war’) was not a German invention. The Wehrmacht copied it from the Russians. Long before the war, when the British and French army chiefs were still convinced that the next war would be a war of position, like the First World War, Tukhachevsky’s genius led him to conclude that the Second World War would be fought with tanks and aeroplanes. When Tukhachevsky and his comrades were murdered in the Purges, their places were taken by Stalin’s cronies like Voroshilov, Timoshenko and Budyonny, who thought that the coming war would be fought with cavalry! The second-rate and inept Voroshilov was put in charge of the Defence Commissariat, surrounded by others of the same ilk. These creatures of Stalin were promoted to key positions, not for their personal abilities, but for their servile loyalty to the ruling clique.

Former General Grigorenko, who served at the time as a lecturer in the central Soviet military academy, recalls the disastrous effects of the Purges on the quality of military training:

No sooner had the academy taken its first halting steps than the trumped-up trial of Tukhachevsky, Uborevich, Yakir, and others cast suspicion on all things planned by Tukhachevsky. Stalin saw the academy as an ‘anti-Stalinist military centre,’ and the pogroms commenced. Arrests began in winter 1936 and intensified in 1937. The highly-qualified teaching staff assembled by Tukhachevsky was almost totally annihilated.

Positions were taken by untalented or inexperienced people. In turn, some of the new teachers were arrested, which frightened the rest and left them with little enthusiasm for their new jobs. Texts that had been written by ‘enemies of the people,’ the first teachers, now could not be used. The new teachers wrote a hasty conspectus of each of their lectures, but fearful of being accused of proffering views hostile to Stalin, they filled their lectures with faddish dogmas. The theory of battle in depth worked out by Tukhachevsky, Yegorov, Uborevich and Yakir was cast aside. (Grigorenko, op. cit., pp. 91-2.)

All this was admitted by Khrushchev in 1956:

Very grievous consequences, especially in reference to the beginning of the war, followed Stalin’s annihilation of many military commanders and political workers during 1937-1941 because of his suspiciousness and through slanderous accusations. During these years, repressions were instituted against certain parts of military cadres, beginning literally at the company and battalion commander level and extending to the higher military centres; during this time the cadre of leaders who had gained military experience in Spain and in the Far East was almost completely liquidated.

The policy of large-scale repression against the military cadres led also to undermined military discipline, because for several years officers of all ranks and even soldiers in the party and Komsomol cells were taught to ‘unmask’ their superiors as hidden enemies. (Movement in the hall.) It is natural that this caused a negative influence on the state of military discipline in the first war period.

And, as you know, we had before the war excellent military cadres which were unquestionably loyal to the party and to the Fatherland. Suffice it to say that those of them who managed to survive, despite severe tortures to which they were subjected in the prisons, have from the first war days shown themselves real patriots and heroically fought for the glory of the Fatherland; I have here in mind such comrades as Rokossovsky (who, as you know, had been jailed), Gorbatov, Meretskov (who is a delegate at the present Congress), Podlas (he was an excellent commander who perished at the front), and many, many others. However, many such commanders perished in camps and jails and the army saw them no more. All this brought about the situation which existed at the beginning of the war and which was the great threat to our Fatherland. (Special Report on the 20th Congress of the CPSU by N.S. Khrushchev, 24-25 February 1956.)

There are still many misconceptions about the Second World War, especially concerning the role of Stalin. According to Alec Nove (normally quite an astute commentator on Russia):

Germany’s colossal power was greater than Russia’s and she had at her disposal the industries of occupied Europe. Her armies were well equipped, and the equipment had been tested in the battlefield. Despite the very greatest efforts and sacrifices in the preceding decade, the Soviet Union found itself economically as well as militarily at a disadvantage. (A. Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, p. 273.)

As a matter of fact, at the time of the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union, the combined fire-power of the Red Army was greater than that of the Wehrmacht. Yet the Soviet forces were rapidly encircled and decimated. This unprecedented catastrophe was not the result of objective weakness, but of bad leadership. Having destroyed the best cadres of the Red Army, Stalin placed such blind confidence in his ‘clever’ manoeuvre with Hitler, that he ignored numerous reports that the Germans were preparing to attack. The Minsk fortified area, a mighty defensive line which had been built on the western border of the USSR in anticipation of a German attack was actually demolished on Stalin’s orders, presumably as a gesture of good faith to Berlin. Grigorenko, who had worked before the war on the building of these fortifications, describes his feelings of indignation when they were demolished:

[These] fortifications were to have reliably shielded the deployment of assault groups and repelled any attempts by the enemy to break up the deployment. When the army attacked, the fortified areas were to have supported the troops with fire-power. Instead, our western fortified areas did not fulfil any of these tasks. They were blown up without having fired once at the enemy.

I do not know how future historians will explain this crime against our people. Contemporary historians ignore it. I cannot offer an explanation myself. The Soviet government squeezed billions of roubles (by my calculations not less than 120 billion) out of the people to construct impregnable fortifications along the entire western boundary from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Then, right before the war in the spring of 1941, powerful explosions thundered along the entire 1,200-kilometre length of these fortifications. On Stalin’s personal orders reinforced concrete caponiers and semi-caponiers, fortifications with one, two, or three embrasures, command and observation posts – tens of thousands of permanent fortifications – were blown into the air. No better gift could have been given to Hitler’s Barbarossa plan. (Grigorenko, op. cit., pp. 46-7, emphasis in original.)

Had it not been for the criminal actions of Stalin, the USSR would not have been caught unawares by the German onslaught, as Khrushchev explained:

Did we have time and the capabilities for such preparations? Yes, we had the time and the capabilities. Our industry was already so developed that it was capable of supplying fully the Soviet army with everything that it needed. This is proven by the fact that, although during the war we lost almost half of our industry and important industrial and food-production areas as the result of enemy occupation of the Ukraine, Northern Caucasus and other western parts of the country, the Soviet nation was still able to organise the production of military equipment in the eastern parts of the country, install there equipment taken from the western industrial areas, and to supply our armed forces with everything which was necessary to destroy the enemy.

Had our industry been mobilised properly and in time to supply the army with the necessary material, our wartime losses would have been decidedly smaller. Such mobilisation had not been, however, started in time. And already in the first days of the war it became evident that our army was badly armed, that we did not have enough artillery, tanks and planes to throw the enemy back.

Soviet science and technology produced excellent models of tanks and artillery pieces before the war. But mass production of all this was not organised, and, as a matter of fact, we started to modernise our military equipment only on the eve of the war. As a result, at the time of the enemy’s invasion of the Soviet land we did not have sufficient quantities either of old machinery which was no longer used for armament production or of new machinery which we had planned to introduce into armament production.

The situation with anti-aircraft artillery was especially bad; we did not organise the production of anti-tank ammunition. Many fortified regions had proven to be indefensible as soon as they were attacked, because the old arms had been withdrawn and new ones were not yet available there. This pertained, alas, not only to tanks, artillery and planes. At the outbreak of the war we did not have sufficient numbers of rifles to arm the mobilised manpower. I recall that in those days I telephoned Comrade Malenkov from Kiev and told him, “People have volunteered for the new army and demand arms. You must send us arms.”

Malenkov answered me. “We cannot send you arms. We are sending all our rifles to Leningrad and you have to arm yourselves.” (Movement in the hall.)

Such was the armament situation. (Special Report on the 20th Congress of the CPSU by N.S. Khrushchev, 24-25 February 1956.)

Despite the fact that the combined fire power of the Red Army was greater than that of the Germans, the Purges had effectively crippled it. This was the decisive element which persuaded Hitler to attack in 1941. At the Nuremberg trial, Marshal Keitel testified that many German generals had warned Hitler not to attack Russia, arguing that the Red Army was a formidable opponent. Rejecting these Hitler gave Keitel his main reason – “The first-class high-ranking officers were wiped out by Stalin in 1937, and the new generation cannot yet provide the brains they need.” On the 9th January 1941, Hitler told a meeting of generals planning the attack on Russia: “They do not have good generals.” ( Medvedev, Let History Judge, p. 214.)

“Our initial defeat,” writes Grigorenko, “was caused by those in the very highest positions. Thousands of capable army commanders had been purged, our border air-dromes were poorly developed, we had inadequate anti-aircraft defence, our tank units and anti-tank defence had been sharply reduced (at Stalin’s whim) immediately before the war, our fortified areas had been blown up, and our troops had been trained on a peacetime basis. We were not prepared. We paid for this criminal unpreparedness both during and after the war. I pointed to Stalin as the chief culprit, but I also mentioned Voroshilov, Timoshenko, Golokov, and Zhukov. Our failures could not be blamed on the fascists but on ourselves.” (Grigorenko, op. cit., p. 332.)

‘For the archives’

By the middle of June 1941, Hitler had moved enormous military resources to the Soviet border. Four million German troops were amassed on the border ready to invade. There were also 3,500 tanks, around 4,000 planes, and 50,000 guns and mortars. Attempts were made to keep this mobilisation secret, but given its size, numerous reports from border units, the Soviet intelligence service, even officials of the British and US governments, were passed on to the Soviet government. Stalin refused to act on these reports, instead wrote on them “For the archives”, and “To be filed”. This was all confirmed by General Zhukov in his Reminiscences and Reflections. When the Soviet military command asked for permission to put the Soviet troops on alert, Stalin refused. He refused to believe Hitler would invade. “German planes increasingly broke into Soviet airspace,” reports Air Marshal A. Novikov, “but we weren’t allowed to stop them.” (Quoted in Medvedev, Let History Judge, p. 332.)

In his speech at the 20th Congress of the CPSU, Khrushchev pointed out that on the 3rd April 1941, Churchill, through his ambassador to the USSR, the British minister Stafford Cripps personally warned Stalin that the Germans had begun regrouping their armed units with the intent of attacking the Soviet Union. Churchill affirmed in his writings that he sought to “warn Stalin and call his attention to the danger which threatened him”. Churchill stressed this repeatedly in his dispatches of the 18th April and on the following days.

However, Stalin took no heed of these warnings. What is more, Stalin ordered that no credence be given to information of this sort, in order not to provoke the initiation of military operations.

We must assert that information of this sort concerning the threat of German armed invasion of Soviet territory was coming in also from our own military and diplomatic sources; however, because the leadership was conditioned against such information, such data was dispatched with fear and assessed with reservation.

Thus, for instance, information sent from Berlin on May 6, 1941, by the Soviet military attaché, Captain Vorontsov, stated: “Soviet citizen Bozer … communicated to the deputy naval attaché that, according to a statement of a certain German officer from Hitler’s headquarters, Germany is preparing to invade the USSR on May 14 through Finland, the Baltic countries and Latvia. At the same time Moscow and Leningrad will be heavily raided and paratroopers landed in border cities…”

In his report of May 22, 1941, the deputy military attaché in Berlin, Khlopov, communicated that: “…the attack of the German army is reportedly scheduled for June 15, but it is possible that it may begin in the first days of June…”

A cable from London Embassy dated June 18, 1941, stated: “As of now Cripps is deeply convinced of the inevitability of armed conflict between Germany and the USSR, which will begin not later than the middle of June. According to Cripps, the Germans have presently concentrated 147 divisions (including air force and service units) along the Soviet borders…”

Despite these particularly grave warnings, the necessary steps were not taken to prepare the country properly for defence and to prevent it from being caught unawares. (Special Report on the 20th Congress of the CPSU by N.S. Khrushchev, 24-25 February 1956.)

And again:

In this connection, we cannot forget, for instance, the following fact: shortly before the invasion of the Soviet Union by the Hitlerite army, Kirponos, who was chief of the Kiev Special Military District (he was later killed at the front), wrote to Stalin that the German armies were at the Bug River, were preparing for an attack and in the very near future would probably start their offensive. In this connection, Kirponos proposed that a strong defence be organised, that 300,000 people be evacuated from the border areas and that several strong points be organised there: anti-tank ditches, trenches for the soldiers, etc.

Moscow answered this proposition with the assertion that this would be a provocation, that no preparatory defensive work should be undertaken at the borders, that the Germans were not to be given any pretext for the initiation of military action against us. Thus, our borders are insufficiently prepared to repel the enemy. When the fascist armies had actually invaded Soviet territory and military operations began, Moscow issued the order that the German fire was not to be returned. Why? It was because Stalin, despite evident facts, thought that the war had not yet started, that this was only a provocative action on the part of several undisciplined sections of the German army, and that reaction might serve as a reason for the Germans to begin the war.

The following fact is also known: on the eve of the invasion of the territory of the Soviet Union by the Hitlerite army, a certain German citizen crossed our border and stated that the German armies had received orders to start the offensive against the Soviet Union on the night of June 22 at 3 o’clock. Stalin was informed about this immediately, but even this warning was ignored.

As you see, everything was ignored: warnings of certain army commanders, declarations of deserters from the enemy army, and even the open hostility of the enemy. Is this an example of the alertness of the chief of the party and of the state at this particularly significant historical moment? And what were the results of this carefree attitude, this disregard of clear facts? The result was that already in the first hours and days the enemy had destroyed in our border regions a large part of our Air Force, artillery and other military equipment; he annihilated large numbers of our military cadres and disorganised our military leadership; consequently, we could not prevent the enemy from marching deep into the country. (Ibid.)

Incredibly, there were no defence plans prepared in the event of a German attack. Many Soviet tanks were without their crews. Even when Hitler actually launched his offensive, Stalin ordered the Red Army not to resist. Thus, the mighty Soviet armed forces were paralysed for the critical first 48 hours. The Red Air Force was destroyed on the ground. Due to this confusion and paralysis at the top, huge swathes of territory were lost in the first few weeks. Millions of Soviet soldiers were captured with little resistance. With proper leadership, there is no doubt that the German invaders could have been pushed back into Poland at the beginning of the war. A decisive defeat could have been inflicted on Hitler as early as 1941. The war could have been brought to an end far earlier, avoiding the horrific losses suffered by Belarus, western Russia and the Ukraine. The nightmare suffered by the peoples of the USSR were the direct result of the irresponsible policy pursued by Stalin and his clique.

Stalin feared war with Germany because he was afraid that this could lead to his overthrow. He was particularly afraid of the military. After the disastrous Finnish campaign of 1939-40, he ordered the release of thousands of officers who had been imprisoned in the Purges, but Medvedev points out that as late as “1942, Stalin ordered a large group of leading Red Army officers to be shot in the camps; he considered them a threat to himself in the event of unfavourable developments on the Soviet-German Front”. (R. Medvedev, Let History Judge, p. 312.)

After the war, strenuous attempts were made by the Kremlin to spread the myth of Stalin as a ‘great war Leader’. This does not stand up to the slightest scrutiny. We have already seen how Stalin’s policies left the Soviet Union at the mercy of Hitler. When Hitler invaded, the Soviet leaders were in disarray. Stalin initially panicked and went into hiding. His actions amounted to total capitulation. Despite this he gave himself the title of ‘Generalissimo’ and embellished his role in the Great Patriotic War. The true position was expressed by Khrushchev in the following terms:

It would be incorrect to forget that, after the first severe disaster and defeat at the front, Stalin thought that this was the end. In one of his speeches in those days he said: “All that which Lenin created we have lost for ever”. After this Stalin for a long time actually did not direct the military operations and ceased to do anything whatever. He returned to active leadership only when some members of the Political Bureau visited him and told him that it was necessary to take certain steps immediately in order to improve the situation at the front.

Therefore, the threatening danger which hung over our Fatherland in the first period of the war was largely due to the faulty methods of directing the nation and the party by Stalin himself. However, we speak not only about the moment when the war began, which led to serious disorganisation of our army and brought us severe losses. Even after the war began, the nervousness and hysteria which Stalin demonstrated, interfering with actual military operations, caused our army serious damage.

Stalin was very far from an understanding of the real situation which was developing at the front. This was natural because, during the whole Patriotic War, he never visited any section of the front or any liberated city except for one short ride on the Mozhaisk highway during a stabilised situation at the front. To this incident were dedicated many literary works full of fantasies of all sorts and so many paintings. Simultaneously, Stalin was interfering with operations and issuing orders which did not take into consideration the real situation at a given section of the front and which could not help but result in huge personnel losses.

I will allow myself in this connection to bring out one characteristic fact which illustrates how Stalin directed operations at the front. There is present at this Congress Marshal Bagramyan, who was once the chief of operations in the headquarters of the south-western front and who can corroborate what I will tell you.

When there developed an exceptionally serious situation for our army in 1942 in the Kharkov region, we had correctly decided to drop an operation whose objective was to encircle Kharkov, because the real situation at that time would have threatened our army with fatal consequences if this operation was continued. We communicated this to Stalin, stating that the situation demanded changes in operational plans so that the enemy would be prevented from liquidating a sizeable concentration of our army. Contrary to common sense, Stalin rejected our suggestion and issued the order to continue the operation aimed at the encirclement of Kharkov, despite the fact that at this time many army concentrations were themselves actually threatened with encirclement and liquidation.

I telephoned to Vasilevsky and begged him: “Alexander Mikhailovich, take a map” – Vasilevsky is present here – “and show Comrade Stalin the situation which has developed.” We should note that Stalin planned operations on a globe. (Animation in the hall.) Yes, comrades, he used to take the globe and trace the front line on it. (Special Report on the 20th Congress of the CPSU by N.S. Khrushchev, 24-25 February 1956.)

Hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers were captured in the first days of the war. The losses later suffered by the Red Army were made far worse by Stalin’s insistence on frontal attacks, irrespective of the cost in lives. When the Red Army counter-attacked at the end of 1941 instead of trying to outflank the enemy with tactical manoeuvres, Stalin demanded the capture of one village after another. “Because of this,” Khrushchev explained, “we paid with great losses – until our generals, on whose shoulders rested the whole weight of conducting the war, succeeded in changing the situation and shifting to flexible-manoeuvre operations, which immediately brought serious changes at the front favourable to us.” (Ibid.)

By the end of November 1941, the Soviet retreat had lost ground that contained 63 per cent of all coal production, 68 per cent of pig iron, 58 per cent of steel, 60 per cent of aluminium, 41 per cent of railway lines, 84 per cent of sugar, 38 per cent of grain, and 60 per cent of pigs. Some major centres, notably Leningrad, were effectively isolated. Huge supplies of basic materials and equipment were suddenly cut off, and much more was put at risk by the swift German advance. Faced with the prospect of imminent defeat and overthrow, Stalin reluctantly replaced his talentless and incompetent stooges with other more able commanders, some of them having been released from jail for the purpose:

After fearing for his life and being threatened by a total loss of power, he understood that he needed specialists to conduct the war successfully, and in his search for them he even turned to those he had arrested. Men were freed from prison and sent to high command posts – Rokossovsky and Gorbatov, among others; but this did not, of course, solve the entire problem. It was impossible to fill with individual bricks the enormous gaping hole that Stalin’s insane terrorist activity had made in the leadership of the armed forces. ( Grigorenko, op. cit., p. 211.)

The tide turns

Under war conditions, a new general staff was rapidly developed. The new generation of Soviet officers was trained under fire. These were drawn from the junior officers who had been brought up in the traditions of the October Revolution and the civil war. The Voroshilovs and Budyonnys were quietly shunted into the side-lines. Men who had been arrested during the Purges were released from prison to take over the leadership of the Red Army. These talented officers were the product of the revolutionary school of the military genius Tukhachevsky. They led the Red Army in the most spectacular advance in the entire history of warfare. Thus, not only in the economic sphere, but in the field of military talent, the Revolution showed what it was capable of. It is sufficient to compare the performance of the Red Army with that of the tsarist forces in 1914-17 to see the difference. The brilliant victory of Russia in the war was, in itself, the most outstanding confirmation of the superiority of a nationalised planned economy over capitalist anarchy.

After initially dragging its feet, the Soviet government evacuated human and material resources on a gigantic scale. From July to November 1941, no fewer than 1,523 industrial enterprises, of which 1,360 were described as large-scale, were uprooted and physically removed from threatened areas. This was an incredible feat, unequalled in the history of war. With the German advance, tens of millions of people were moved eastwards. The Soviet economy, however, suffered heavy blows. By November 1941, over three hundred armament factories were captured by the Germans. In the same year, industrial production totalled only 51.7 per cent of the output of November 1940. Between 1940 and 1942, there was a massive fall in production. The production of pig iron fell from (in million tons) 14.9 to 4.8; steel from 18.3 to 8.1; rolling mill products from 13.1 to 5.4; coal from 165.9 to 75.5; oil from 31.1 to 22.0; and electricity (milliard kWhs) from 48.3 to 29.1. In 1942, the Germans had occupied the north Caucasus and the Don basin, which cost the USSR the best of its remaining grain areas and the Maikop oilfield, and for a period the crucial oil from Baku was stopped. Harvests were devastated. Only by March 1942 – despite continuing defeats and retreats – did production show a steady upward trend.

Engels once pointed out that in a siege economy, the laws of capitalism no longer apply. Faced with a life-or-death dilemma, the bourgeoisie will resort to measures of planning, centralisation and nationalisation. This fact in itself is a crushing answer to all those who trumpet the supposed superiority of the market. Incidentally, during the Second World War, living standards actually rose in Britain and the United States, despite the fact that a huge amount of production went on the war effort. Thus, even in the West, the advantages of central planning (partial, of course, since real planning is not possible in a capitalist economy) were not seriously disputed during the war. But in the case of the Soviet Union, the overwhelming superiority of a nationalised planned economy was crushingly demonstrated, especially when subjected to the most serious test of all, the bloody equation of war.

A spectacular turnaround was effected which was the key to victory. The war industry was reorganised and put on a more effective footing. Specialists were released from Stalin’s labour camps to work in the war industries. In 1940, 15 per cent of the national income was devoted to military purposes. In 1942 this had increased to 55 per cent. According to Nove, “perhaps the highest ever reached anywhere”. The nationalised economy made all the difference. As Nove further explained: “No doubt the experience of centralised planning in the previous ten years was a great help. In the process of tightening control over resources the government resorted to quarterly and even monthly plans, in far greater detail than in peacetime.

The practice of material balances was used successfully to allocate the materials and fuel available between alternative uses in accordance with the decisions of the all-powerful State Committee on Defence. An emergency war plan was adopted in August 1941, covering the rest of that year and 1942. There were annual economic-military plans thereafter, as well as some longer-term plans, including one for the Urals region covering the years 1943-47. (A. Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, pp. 278-9.)

These few facts are sufficient to demonstrate the enormous superiority of the Soviet economy.

Not only was Soviet industry capable of producing a vast quantity of military equipment, but the tanks, planes and guns were of a very high quality and more than a match for the German equivalents. This, plus the determination of the Soviet working class to defend the gains of the Revolution, was what determined the outcome of the conflict and, ultimately, the Second World War in Europe, which was really a titanic duel between the USSR and Nazi Germany. Although Hitler had a big advantage at the start of the war and had all the resources of occupied Europe behind him, he was defeated. Before the astonished eyes of the world, the Red Army recovered from what for any other country would have been a mortal blow, regrouped, and counter-attacked, pushing the German army all the way back to Berlin.

Although the military tide began to turn at the very end of 1942, the recaptured territory sometimes added little to Soviet economic strength. The Nazis had conducted a scorched earth policy. Thus, in 1943 the gross output of industry in the (Soviet) Ukraine was just 1.2 per cent of the total of 1940. Despite this the Soviet masses were fighting a war of liberation against the Nazi invaders. If the Nazi armies had been victorious, it would have been a horrific outcome for the Russian people. These facts provided the Red Army with the fighting morale to defeat Hitler. The German army was finally halted at Stalingrad. The Battle of Kursk was a turning-point on the Eastern Front. This was undoubtedly the most decisive battle of the war. In a titanic struggle, with no fewer than 10,000 tanks deployed on either side, the Red Army was victorious.

Incidentally, throughout all this a large British army was stationed in Persia, just across the border of the USSR. Stalin asked Churchill to send in the British troops who were doing nothing to help the Red Army on the Eastern Front. His British ‘ally’ amiably counter-proposed to the Generalissimo that the Russian troops which were facing them on the other side of the border might be withdrawn to the front, while the British army would then kindly look after the border for them. In point of fact, Churchill was waiting for the Red Army to be defeated, so that he could order the British army to seize oil-rich Baku, pursuing the same policy as when the British army invaded the Caucasus during the civil war. Even Stalin could understand this!

The end result was that both sides remained in their positions, while the most decisive battles of the war were being fought out on Soviet soil. Unfortunately for Churchill, the battle ended in the victory of the Red Army, which rapidly advanced into the heart of Europe. The Germans were gradually pushed back but, as a result of Stalin’s insane policies, the Russian losses were frightful. The explanation for this is more political than military. Had the Soviet Union adopted an internationalist policy, appealing to the German workers to overthrow Hitler, this would have had enormous repercussions, especially after the first German defeats. The perspective of a socialist Germany united in a fraternal federation with Soviet Russia would undoubtedly have found an echo in the hearts and minds of the German workers and soldiers.

In this way, it would have been possible to avoid the terrible losses suffered by the Red Army in its advance towards Berlin. Victory could have been achieved sooner and at a far smaller cost. But the policy pursued by Stalin bore a completely chauvinist character. Reflecting this policy, Ilya Ehrenburg announced that “if the German workers meet us with red flags, they will be the first to be shot”. Such a policy guaranteed that the German army would fight desperately every inch of the way. This explains the ghastly loss of life suffered by both sides.

As a result of a monumental miscalculation by the imperialist powers, the Russians and not the Allies arrived first in Berlin. Trotsky explained that the main danger to the nationalised planned economy was not so much a military defeat as the cheap consumer goods that would arrive in the baggage train of an imperialist army. As it happened, Hitler’s armies brought, not cheap commodities, but gas chambers. As a result, not just the working class, but the peasants fought like tigers to defend the Soviet Union.

The victory of the USSR in the war was one of the main factors that allowed the Stalinist regime to survive for decades after 1945. To the workers of Russia and the world, it appeared that the bureaucracy was playing a progressive role, not just in defending the planned economy against Hitler, but in extending the nationalised property forms to Eastern Europe, and later China. In reality, these revolutions began where the Russian Revolution finished – as monstrously deformed regimes of proletarian Bonapartism. The installation of such regimes, far from weakening the Moscow bureaucracy, enormously strengthened it for a whole historical period.

Stalin’s manoeuvres

The plans of all the imperialist powers had backfired. Churchill had completely miscalculated, but so had Stalin, Hitler and Roosevelt. Hitler believed Soviet resistance could easily be broken. General Halder, chief of the German General Staff, expected the USSR to be defeated within four weeks. Von Ribbentrop, German foreign minister, thought eight weeks, and the US War Department between four and 12 weeks. The British military gave Russia six weeks at most. Yet the war – despite the Stalin regime and the terrible sacrifices – demonstrated beyond question the viability of the new property relations established by the October Revolution.

The victory of the USSR shattered the perspectives of the Allies, who had originally hoped that Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia would slug it out until mutually exhausted. They would then march in and clean up. In the words of Harry Truman: “If we see that Germany is winning the war, we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning, we ought to help Germany, and in that way let them kill as many as possible.” (Quoted in D. Horowitz, The Free World Colossus, p. 61.)

On May Day 1945 the Red flag was flying over the Reichstag in Berlin. A few days later, the German High Command surrendered. But already the imperialists were manoeuvring against the Soviet Union. The dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans at a moment when Japan was clearly defeated and already suing for peace, served no military role and was a clear warning to the USSR from its ‘allies’.

Stalin had attempted to come to an accommodation with the imperialist powers between 1944 and 1945 at the Big Three Conferences at Tehran, Moscow, Yalta and Potsdam. Churchill noted down his conversation with Stalin in October 1944:

The moment was apt for business, so I said, “Let us settle about our affairs in the Balkans. Your armies are in Romania and Bulgaria. We have interests, missions, and agents there. Don’t let us get at cross-purposes in small ways. So far as Britain and Russia are concerned, how would it do for you to have 90 per cent predominance in Romania, for us to have 90 per cent of the say in Greece, and go 50-50 about Yugoslavia?” While this was being translated, I wrote out on a half sheet of paper:

Romania: Russia 90 per cent – The others 10 per cent

Greece: Great Britain (in accord with USA) 90 per cent – Russia 10 per cent

Yugoslavia: 50-50 per cent

Hungary: 50-50 per cent

Bulgaria: Russia 75 per cent – The others 25 per cent

I pushed this across to Stalin, who had by then heard the translation. There was a slight pause. Then he took his blue pencil and made a large tick upon it, and passed it back to us. It was all settled in no more time than it takes to set down… After this there was a long silence. The pencilled paper lay in the centre of the table. At length I said, “might it not be thought rather cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues, so fateful to millions of people, in such an off-hand manner? Let us burn the paper.” “No, you keep it” said Stalin. (W. Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy, pp. 227-8.)

Thus, certain countries would fall under the spheres of influence of either Stalinism or the imperialists. Stalin washed his hands of the revolution in Greece. He told the Yugoslav partisan leader Milovan Djilas: “The uprising in Greece will have to fold up … [it] must be stopped, and as quickly as possible.” (M. Djilas, Conversations with Stalin, p. 140-1.) And according to Churchill, “Stalin adhered strictly and faithfully to our agreement of October and in all the long weeks of fighting the Communists in the streets of Athens not one word of reproach came from Pravda or Izvestia”. He wanted Mao to make a modus vivendi with Chiang Kai-shek. In Yugoslavia Stalin favoured the restoration of the monarchy under King Peter.

As predicted by Trotsky, the war ended in a revolutionary upheaval, with the workers in the advanced countries moving in the direction of socialist revolution and the tremendous awakening of the colonial masses. But this mighty movement of millions was headed off, on the European continent by the Stalinists, and in Britain by the Labour government. In many parts of occupied Europe, the Communist Parties had gained mass support as a result of the courageous role of the Communist Party workers in the resistance to the Nazis after 1941.

The masses looked to the Communist Parties for a revolutionary way out after the bloody lessons of the war. But Stalin had other ideas. On instructions from Moscow, the Communist Party leaders entered bourgeois coalition governments in France, Italy, Belgium and Finland as a means of blocking the revolutionary movement of the workers. This failure of the working class of the advanced capitalist countries to take power was the political premise for the subsequent recovery and post-war upswing. It also shaped and predetermined the fate of the revolutions that occurred in the colonial countries.

Eastern Europe after the war

As Trotsky had tentatively suggested in his last work, the proletarian Bonapartist regime in Russia lasted for decades. This was a result, firstly, of the victory of the USSR in the Second World War, an event which radically changed the correlation of forces on a world scale. Secondly, the extension of the revolution to Eastern Europe by Bonapartist means meant the establishment, not of healthy workers’ states like that of October 1917, but of monstrously deformed workers’ states in the image of Stalin’s Moscow.

In Europe, the victory of Russia in the war and the upsurge of the masses following the defeat of German-Italian fascism also developed a tremendous revolutionary wave which threatened to sweep capitalism away over the entire continent. However, the victory also had complex and contradictory consequences. Temporarily, but nevertheless for an entire historical period, Stalinism had been enormously strengthened. The terrible destruction and blood-letting to which the USSR had been subjected left her in an exhausted and weak state, while the US economy was intact, and indeed America had reached the apex of her power militarily and economically. But because of the mood of the peoples and the relationship of class forces on a world scale, the imperialists were impotent to start a new war against Russia.

Intervention even on a scale following that of the First World War was impossible. On the contrary, the Allies were forced to swallow the Russian hegemony of Eastern Europe and parts of Asia which they would never have agreed to concede even to reactionary tsarism. The Russian bureaucracy had achieved the domination of the region beyond the wildest dreams of Russia under the tsars.

The process whereby capitalism was overthrown in Eastern Europe and Stalinism extended, took place in a peculiar way, as explained by the author of the present work in documents published at that time. The vacuum in the state power in Eastern Europe, following the defeat of the Nazis and their quislings, was filled by the forces of the conquering Red Army. The weak bourgeoisie of these areas had been largely exterminated, absorbed as quislings by German imperialism or reduced to minor partners of the Nazis during the years of the war. They had been relatively weak in Eastern Europe even before the war, as the states of this region were largely semi-colonies of the great powers on the lines of the South American states. The pre-war regimes suffered from a chronic crisis due to the Balkanisation of the area and the incapacity of the ruling class to solve the problems of even the bourgeois democratic revolution. They were nearly all military police dictatorships of a weak character without any real roots among the masses.

The victory of Russia during the war undoubtedly provoked an upsurge among the masses, which in some cases occurred rapidly and in others was delayed for a time. The socialist revolution was on the order of the day. This was dangerous not only for the bourgeoisie but also the Kremlin, which saw any independent movement of the workers as a threat. In order to prevent the workers from carrying through the socialist revolution on the lines of October, they had their agents proclaim that the time was not ripe. Instead, they proclaimed the establishment of a ‘People’s Democracy’. The bureaucracy achieved their aims by skilfully veering between and manipulating the classes in typically Bonapartist fashion. The trick was to form a popular front between the classes and to organise a government of ‘national concentration’. However, this popular front had a different basis, and different aims from the popular fronts of the past.

In Spain, the aim of the popular front was to destroy the power of the workers and the embryonic workers’ state by liquidating the workers’ revolution. This was achieved by making an alliance with the bourgeoisie, or rather the shadow of the bourgeoisie, strangling the control which the workers had established in the factories and the armed workers’ militia and re-establishing the capitalist state under the control of the bourgeoisie. As a consequence of this policy, towards the end of the war there was a military police dictatorship on both sides of the lines.

The aim of the coalition with the broken bourgeoisie or its shadow in Eastern Europe had different objectives than that of handing control back to the capitalist class. In previous popular fronts the real power of a state – armed bodies of men, police and the state apparatus – was firmly in the hands of the bourgeoisie with the workers’ parties as appendages. In Eastern Europe, with one important variation or another, the real power, i.e. control of the armed bodies of men and the state apparatus, was in the hands of the Stalinists. The bourgeoisie occupied the position of appendage without the real power. Why then the coalition? It served as a cover under which a firm state machine on the model of Moscow, could be constructed and consolidated.

By introducing land reform and expropriating the landlord class, they secured for the time being the support or acquiescence of the peasants. Having consolidated and built up a strong state under their control, they then proceeded to the next stage. Mobilising the workers, they turned on the bourgeoisie, whom they no longer required, to balance against the workers and peasants, and step by step they proceeded to their expropriation. The bourgeoisie without the support of outside imperialism was incapable of decisive resistance. A totalitarian regime approximating more and more to the Moscow model was gradually introduced. After the elimination of the bourgeoisie, and the beginning of a large-scale industrialisation, the bureaucracy turned against the peasants and started on the road of the collectivisation of agriculture.

The establishment of bureaucratically deformed workers’ states in Eastern Europe, and shortly after in China, had the effect of strengthening world Stalinism for a whole historic period. The strengthening of the USSR and the enfeeblement of European capitalism created a dangerous situation for American imperialism, which was forced to shore up and underwrite the European powers, France, Germany, Italy, Britain, as well as Japan. In 1947, the Marshal Plan was proclaimed to rebuild European capitalism. The price paid for this assistance was the domination of American imperialism within the Western Alliance. The entire course of international relations was dominated by the two superpowers, American imperialism on the one hand and the Russian bureaucracy on the other. In March 1946 at Fulton, USA, Churchill talked of an Iron Curtain running from the Baltic to the Adriatic. It signalled the beginning of an intense diplomatic, political and strategic rivalry between the two social systems – the cold war. The Stalinists were unceremoniously thrown out of the governments of Italy and France in 1947, and within two years NATO had been formed and Germany divided between East and West.

Victory in China

An analogous process unfolded when Mao took power in China at the head of a peasant army in 1949. Up to the Russian Revolution, even Lenin denied the possibility of the victory of the proletarian revolution in a backward country. The Revolution of 1944-49 did not proceed on the model of 1917 or of the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27. It was a peasant war, which took place because of the complete incapacity of the bourgeoisie to carry out the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution – the ending of landlordism, national unification and the expulsion of imperialism – and ended in victory for the Chinese Stalinists. This was a gigantic step forward for the Chinese people and for the oppressed workers and peasants of the entire world. Indeed, after the Russian Revolution, the revolution in China represents the second greatest event in human history. A mighty nation of 800 million people, who had been treated by their foreign masters as dumb pack animals, was suddenly propelled to the forefront of world history, which it still occupies.

For all its world-shaking significance, the 1949 Revolution was not at all like the October Revolution. The programme of the Chinese Stalinists in 1949 was not fundamentally different to that of Castro a decade later in Cuba: 50 or 100 years of national capitalism and an alliance with the national bourgeoisie. Hence the belief of many American bourgeois that they were ‘agrarian reformers’. Only the Marxist tendency in Britain argued against the Stalinists and others when we explained not only the inevitability of Mao’s victory and the establishment of a deformed workers’ state, but also the inevitability of a split at a certain stage between the Chinese bureaucracy and Moscow. This was at a time when Mao and the Chinese Communist Party had the programme of capitalism and ‘national democracy’.

Power was gained through the peasant war by giving land to the soldiers in Chiang Kai-shek’s army. Then, once military victory was achieved, landlordism and capitalism were abolished, but in a peculiar Bonapartist fashion, without the direct conscious participation of the working class. This was later accepted as something normal, and even taken as the model for the revolution in colonial countries. But it was completely removed from the conceptions of Marx and Lenin. Never before in history had it even been theoretically posed that a peasant war on classical lines could lead to a workers’ state, however deformed.

The workers in China were passive throughout the civil war for reasons we will not enter here. In fact, what we have here is a perfect example of one class – the peasants in the form of the Red Army – carrying out the tasks of another – the working class. It is not the first time that this has happened in history. The German Junkers carried out the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution in Germany, and the same tasks were carried out by the feudal regime in Japan. But when one class carries out the historical tasks of another, inevitable distortions arise. Certain things flow from this fact.

In the past the peasant army was the classical instrument, not of socialist revolution, but of (bourgeois) Bonapartism. In typical Bonapartist fashion, basing himself on the peasant Red Army, Mao balanced between the classes in order to consolidate himself in power. He leaned on the workers and peasants to perfect a state in the image of Moscow, after which he could snuff out the bourgeoisie quite painlessly. As Trotsky put it, to kill a lion you need a gun, for a flea, a fingernail will suffice! Having balanced between the bourgeoisie, workers and peasants to prevent the workers from taking power, Mao and the Stalinist leadership could then expropriate the bourgeoisie. They could then turn on the workers and peasants to crush whatever elements of workers’ democracy had developed.

The bureaucracy then developed a totalitarian one-party dictatorship, centred round the Bonapartist dictatorship of a single individual – Mao. Of course, such a regime had nothing in common with a healthy workers’ state, let alone socialism. It had nothing in common with the methods of the proletarian revolution in Russia in 1917, where power was exercised by the proletariat through the elected workers’ and soldiers’ soviets. The Maoist regime was deformed from the outset, as a hideous one-party totalitarian state. The Chinese Revolution of 1949 began where the Russian Revolution had ended.

Not for nothing has Marxist theory given the task of achieving the socialist revolution and the transition to socialism to the working class. The emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves! This is not an arbitrary affirmation. It is a product of the unique role in production of the proletariat which gives it a specific consciousness possessed by no other class. Least of all can the peasant small proprietor develop this consciousness. A revolution based on that class by its very nature would be doomed to degeneration and Bonapartism. It is precisely because a proletarian Bonapartist dictatorship protects the privileges of the elite of state, party, the army, industry and the intellectuals of art and science that it succeeded in so many underdeveloped countries in the post-war period.

From a Marxist standpoint, it is an aberration to think that such a process is normal. It can only be explained by the impasse of capitalism in China, the paralysis of imperialism, the existence of a strong deformed Bonapartist state in Stalinist Russia, and most important of all, the delay in the victory in the industrially advanced countries of the world. The colonial countries could not wait. The problems were too crushing. There was no way forward on the basis of capitalism. Hence the peculiar aberrations in colonial countries. But the price for this, as in the Soviet Union, would be a second political revolution to put the control of society, industry and the state in the hands of the proletariat. Only thus could the first genuine beginnings of the transition to socialism, or rather steps in that direction, commence.

A similar process occurred later in Cuba, where Castro came to power on the basis of a guerrilla war. The wide support for ‘socialism’ not only among the working class, but among the peasants and wide layers of the petty bourgeoisie in the cities in colonial countries, was the expression of the complete blind alley of landlordism and capitalism in the ex-colonial world in the modern epoch. It was also a result of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions and their achievements in developing industry and the economy. It was these factors that laid the groundwork for the development of proletarian Bonapartism. In the last analysis, the state can be reduced to armed bodies of men. With the defeat and destruction of the police and army of Chiang Kai-shek, with the destruction of the army of Batista in Cuba, power was in the hands respectively of Mao and Castro. The fact that nominally Mao was a ‘Communist’ and Castro a petty bourgeois democrat altered nothing.

The rule of the Russian bureaucracy would have been swiftly undermined by the coming to power of the workers along classical lines in these countries. But in Eastern Europe and China, the old bourgeois state was destroyed, and replaced by a regime of proletarian Bonapartism. They began where the Russian Revolution had ended. The establishment of such regimes presented no threat to Moscow. On the contrary, it strengthened the stranglehold of the bureaucracy for a whole period.

Given the delay of the socialist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe, Japan and the USA, the colonial masses could not wait. They waged a heroic struggle against imperialism, which inevitably tended to turn into a revolutionary war against landlordism and capitalism, as in Vietnam. The barefoot army of Vietnamese peasants inflicted the first real military defeat on the USA in history. The Algerian workers and peasants succeeded, after a long and bloody struggle, in forcing French imperialism into abandoning direct rule. The failure of imperialism to crush the revolutions of the former colonial countries was to a large degree a result of the opposition of the masses in the USA and Europe. When an army has had enough of fighting, when the workers in uniform say ‘no’, no power on earth can move them. This fact explains the granting of independence to India and the inability of US imperialism to send troops to fight on the side of Chiang Kai-shek, although they did send large quantities of arms, most of which ended up in the hands of the Red Army.

The Chinese peasant revolt, which culminated in the peasant war of 1944-49 led by Mao Zedong, was in a sense derived from the defeated revolution of 1925-27. However, the role of the working class was entirely different. It was a peasant war carried out first as a guerrilla war, and culminating in the conquest of the cities by the armies of the peasants. The socialist revolution, in contrast with all previous revolutions, requires the conscious participation and control of the working class. Without it, there can be no revolution leading to the dictatorship of the proletariat as understood by Marx and Lenin, nor can there be a transition in the direction of socialism.

A revolution in which the prime force is the peasantry cannot rise to the height of the tasks posed by history. The peasantry cannot play an independent role, either they support the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. Where the proletariat is not playing a leading part in the revolution, the peasant army, with the impasse of bourgeois society, can be used, especially with the existence of ready-made models, for the expropriation of bourgeois society, in the Bonapartist manoeuvring between the classes and the construction of a state on the model of Stalinist Russia. Such was the case in China, Yugoslavia, and later in Cuba, Vietnam, Burma and in the other countries of proletarian Bonapartism.

However, the victory of the Chinese Revolution, which was initially opposed by Stalin, and the overthrow of capitalism in Eastern Europe fundamentally changed the world balance of forces to the disadvantage of world imperialism. At the same time, these revolutions did not have the same effect as the October 1917 Revolution in producing a wave of revolutionary radicalisation in the advanced countries. In each case, capitalism was overthrown, but in a distorted Bonapartist manner, with the workers playing a subordinate role. In each case the regimes which were set up were closely modelled on Stalinist Russia – with all the monstrous bureaucratic deformations, police terror, inequalities and lack of freedom. Such regimes had no basic attraction for the workers of the advanced capitalist countries.

From Stalin to Khrushchev

The victory of Stalinist Russia in the war, followed by the Chinese Revolution of 1949 and the establishment of new Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe meant the strengthening of the regime for a whole historical period. Flushed with success, the Stalinists were able to present their system as the ‘only form of socialism possible’. The main reason for the apparent endurance of the Stalinist bureaucracy, however, was the fact that, throughout this period, it actually succeeded in developing the productive forces. From a backward, agricultural country, Russia had become transformed into the second industrial power on earth and the first military power.

For a long time, it was fashionable to talk of the ‘German miracle’ and the ‘Japanese miracle’ after 1945. But these achievements, while undoubtedly real, pale into insignificance when compared with the colossal advances made by the Soviet Union in the period of post-war reconstruction. No country on earth had suffered such devastation as this. Twenty-seven million dead and the wholesale destruction of its industry and infrastructure – this was the balance-sheet of four and a half years of bloody war on Soviet soil. Moreover, unlike Germany and Japan, the USSR did not enjoy the benefits of Marshall Aid. Yet the war devastation was overcome within five years, not with foreign aid, but by the planned use of resources and the colossal efforts of the population.

As a former officer of British Intelligence in Moscow, the writer Edward Crankshaw cannot be considered a sympathiser of the Soviet Union in any shape or form. Therefore, his evaluation of the achievements of the Soviet economy can be taken as fairly objective. Moreover, these views were widely shared by Western observers at the time. Only now, in their indecent haste to bury the memory of October, do they resort to a blatant falsification of the historical records to show that nothing was really achieved by the planned economy. The following figures, cited by Crankshaw in his book Khrushchev’s Russia, graphically illustrate the situation:

On the eve of the first Five-Year Plan, in 1928, the production of steel was 4.3 million tons; of coal 35.5 million tons; of oil 11.5 million tons; of electric power 1.9 million kilowatts. At the end of the first Plan, in 1934, production had increased as follows: steel 9.7 million tons; coal 93.9 million tons; oil 24.2 million tons; electric power 6.3 kilowatts.

By 1940, on the eve of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, production was as follows: steel 18.3 million tons; coal 166 million tons; oil 31 million tons; electric power 11.3 million kilowatts. At the end of the war, in 1945, production had declined as follows: steel 11.2 million tons; coal 149.3 million tons; oil 19.4 million tons; electric power 10.7 million kilowatts. This in spite of the fact that much heavy industry had been shifted East, and that it had absolute priority.

In 1946 Stalin gave new target figures. First the country had to be restored, then the economy had to be sharply expanded, to make the Soviet Union, as he said, “proof against all accidents.” He envisaged a series of at least three Five-Year Plans. And his new target figures for 1960, at the earliest, were: steel 60 million tons; coal 500 million tons; oil 60 million tons. This was as far as Stalin’s imagination could stretch. The achievement of these targets in 15 years seemed not only to all outside observers, but also to the Russians and to Stalin himself, to mean at least another 15 years of privation and unrewarding toil for the Soviet people.

And when the target was reached, in 1960, Soviet production would still be far behind American production as it was in 1950: steel 90 million tons; coal 700 million tons; oil 250 million tons.

What in fact has happened? In all cases Stalin’s 1960 targets have been surpassed: in 1958 the output of steel was only 2 million tons short of the 1960 total; the 1960 figure for coal was reached; the 1960 figure for oil almost doubled – 113 million tons.

So, although we can see that Dmitri Yershov’s confident boasting was a little wild (the Soviet Union was producing a good deal less than 60 million tons of steel in 1956, and in fact is scheduled to produce well under Yermeshov’s 100 million tons (86-91 million tons) in 1965) yet things are moving very fast indeed. More important, they are moving against a background of increased well-being throughout the country and increased freedom of thought, above all in the economic sphere.

The presentation of the new Seven-Year Plan in January 1959 was a paean of confidence, which, as expressed by Khrushchev, might be summed up as boom or bust. The new targets make the post-war dreams of Stalin look shabby and old-fashioned: steel 91 million tons; coal 609 million tons; oil 240 million tons. This is treading on America’s heels with a vengeance. (Crankshaw, Khrushchev’s Russia, pp. 25-7.)

Another commentator, Leonard Schapiro, who also cannot be remotely suspected of being a Friend of the Soviet Union concludes:

In 1948 again the country had reached the point where it was beginning to overcome the ravages which wartime destruction had inflicted on it. The recovery after 1947 was indeed remarkable. In 1947 overall industrial production had still not attained the level of 1940. By 1948 it had already exceeded it, and by the last year of Stalin’s life, 1952, exceeded it two and a quarter times. In accordance with the well-established policy, the main advance was in the production of the means of production; thus, in 1952, production in this category was more than two and a half times that of 1940, whereas production of consumer goods had only increased by slightly over one and a half times. (L. Schapiro, op. cit., p. 510.)

Can these figures be the result of rigged statistics? The same writer adds in a footnote:

The official figures may be exaggerated [and he refers the reader to another study which makes ‘minor criticisms’] but all Western experts agree that the rate of industrial recovery after 1947 was remarkable. (Ibid., p. 511, my emphasis.)

True, living standards remained low. The policy of the leadership was to concentrate on heavy industry at the expense of consumer goods, although to some extent this was inevitable given the massive destruction caused by the war. But so long as the productive forces were being developed, the workers felt that society was going forward. The country was flush with military triumph and jubilation at the tremendous blow struck against fascism and the overthrow of capitalism in Eastern Europe and China. There were further advances in health and education. A whole new correlation of forces emerged within the USSR, with the advance of the economy and the near complete elimination of illiteracy. However, the lion’s share of the wealth created by the workers was taken by the bureaucracy, while the working class had no say on how the resources of the USSR should be allocated.

Despite the low standard of living and the material hardships (the problem of housing was particularly acute), there was a general feeling of optimism. This is in stark contrast to the present position, where the collapse of living standards associated with the movement in the direction of capitalism produces no optimism, but only fear and lack of confidence in the future. This can easily be demonstrated with reference to the level of population growth. After the war, the birth rate grew rapidly. In the mid-1990s, the birth rate slumped, not only in Russia, but throughout Eastern Europe. This most elementary of human responses tells us far more about people’s real attitude to society than any amount of election statistics.

With these successes at home and abroad, the bureaucracy looked to the future with great optimism. Their power and prestige increased in the same degree as that of the Soviet Union itself. The ruling caste looked forward to continuing its ‘historical mission’ for centuries. At the same time, the gap between the privileged officials and the masses continued to increase far faster than the growth in production.

After the war, differentials continued to widen. Direct bribes were introduced called pakety (packets) in the higher state and party institutions. On a monthly basis, higher officials received a packet containing a large sum over and above their salary. These were special payments paid through special channels, not subject to tax, and kept totally secret.

As for members of the Politburo and Stalin himself, the cost of keeping them does not submit to calculation. The numerous dachas and apartments, the huge domestic staff, the expenses for their staff and guards rose to millions of roubles yearly. As for the cost of maintaining Stalin, that nearly defies calculation. (Medvedev, Let History Judge, p. 843.)

The income of the bureaucracy is derived from ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ means.

The bureaucracy enjoys its privileges under the form of an abuse of power. It conceals its income; it pretends that as a special social group it does not even exist. Its appropriation of a vast share of the national income has the character of social parasitism. ( Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, pp. 249-50.)

This fact does not contradict the numerous demagogic campaigns by Stalin and other Soviet leaders against ‘bureaucracy’, which were carried out as a means of periodically curbing the excesses of the caste. It was not to weaken the bureaucratic elite, but to strengthen it.

In the post-war years, the ratio between the real wages of an industrial worker and the salary of the highest official became incredibly wide. The wage differential between workers and the managers were in general greater than even in the capitalist West.

In a small research institute concerned with the problems of training manual and professional workers where I was employed for 10 years, the difference between the lowest salary for research assistant, 60 to 70 roubles a month, and that of the most highly paid section head was in order of 1:13. In the larger institutes of the academy of sciences the ratio between the salary of a laboratory assistant or a junior research worker with no degree and that of a top academic in charge of a department is 1 to 15 or 1 to 20.

In the Soviet ministries and the important military establishments, the ratio between the highest and the lowest rates of pay is also 1 to 20 or even 1 to 30, but if one takes into consideration the many services available to officials at public expense (food coupons, medical treatment, holidays, personal transport, etc.) the total value translated into monetary terms would make the ratio of 1 to 50 or sometimes even 1 to 100. (R. Medvedev, On Socialist Democracy, pp. 224-5.)

This differential was greater than in the capitalist West.

This situation could not last indefinitely. The working class is willing to make sacrifices under certain circumstances, particularly when it is convinced that it is fighting to transform society along socialist lines. But the prior condition for such a conviction is that there should be equality of sacrifice. But when the sacrifices and efforts of the workers are abused to create monstrous privileges for a few, sooner or later the fraud will lead to an explosion. This is all the more true in a society which purports to speak in the name of socialism and communism.

Stalin’s last purge

“Power tends to corrupt,” wrote Lord Acton in a celebrated phrase, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Certainly, totalitarian regimes of all kinds seem to have this effect. By blurring the difference between reality and the will of the individual, a regime of absolute power, in which all criticism is prohibited, serves eventually to unbalance the mind. This almost certainly happened with Hitler. And towards the end, Stalin’s mind was clearly unhinged. In the absence of any check or control he believed himself to be omnipotent. Fear of the masses drove the bureaucracy to close ranks still more fervently around the Leader who guaranteed their privileges. The growth of the economy was paralleled by a sharp increase in repression and in the cult of Stalin. At the 19th Party Congress, the cult of Leader attained its most grotesque expression. Here are just a few examples from Malenkov’s closing speech:

Of cardinal importance to Marxist-Leninist theory and to all our practical activity is the work of Comrade Stalin just published: Economic Problems of socialism in the USSR. (Loud and prolonged applause) …

Thus, the Party’s plans for the future, defining the prospects and ways of our advancement, are based on a knowledge of economic laws, on the science of the building of communist society worked out by Comrade Stalin. (Loud and long continuing applause.) …

A major contribution to the Marxian political economy is Comrade Stalin’s discovery of the basic law of modern capitalism and the basic economic law of socialism (!)…

Comrade Stalin’s discovery… Comrade Stalin shows… Comrade Stalin has shown us… Comrade Stalin discovered… Comrade Stalin has revealed…

The works of Comrade Stalin are graphic testimony to the paramount importance our Party attaches to theory… Comrade Stalin is constantly advancing Marxist theory… Comrade Stalin has disclosed the function of language as an instrument of social development, and indicated the prospects for the future development of national cultures and languages…

And finally, after numerous interruptions by “applause”, “prolonged applause”, and “loud and long continuing applause”:

Under the banner of the immortal Lenin, under the wise leadership of the great Stalin, forward to the victory of Communism!…

(On the conclusion of the report, all the delegates rise and greet Comrade Stalin with loud and prolonged cheers. There are cries from all parts of the hall: “Long live the great Stalin!” “Hurrah for our dear Stalin!” “Long live our beloved leader and teacher, Comrade Stalin!”) (Report of 19th Congress of the CPSU, pp. 134-44.)

Not satisfied with this, Stalin was preparing to launch a further series of bloody purges in Russia on the lines of 1936-38. He no longer trusted anyone. Lifelong Stalinists were rounded up and imprisoned. In 1952, Stalin accused his faithful puppets Voroshilov and Molotov of being British spies, and banned them from attending meetings of the leadership. Mikoyan was denounced as a Turkish spy and even Beria was banished from Stalin’s presence! At the 22nd Congress, Khrushchev described the paranoid atmosphere in Stalin’s leading circle: “Stalin could look at a comrade sitting at the same table with him and say: ‘Your eyes look shifty today.’ It could be taken for granted that afterwards the comrade, whose eyes were supposedly shifty, would be under suspicion.” (The Road to Communism – Report on the 22nd Congress CPSU, p. 111.)

In January 1953, Pravda announced the so-called Doctor’s Plot, a “group of saboteur-doctors” who had been arrested for murder and attempting to “wipe out the leading cadres of the USSR”. Most were Jews and were accused of links with the Jewish organisation Joint, which was under the direction of US imperialism. Three of those arrested were accused of working for British intelligence. A campaign against the Jews was conducted under the guise of “cosmopolitanism and Zionism”. Pravda began to whip up a campaign against threats of “counter-revolution”. It looked like the prelude of another mass purge, which sent a shudder through the ruling circle. There is no doubt that Stalin intended to liquidate them all. “All the signs pointed to another 1937”, states Medvedev (R. Medvedev, Let History Judge, p. 558). But it was not simply self-interest that motivated them, but a mass purge would endanger the whole position of the bureaucracy.

Stalin’s actions were endangering the position of the whole bureaucracy. It was not only that he was threatening to murder the top layer. The Soviet Union was only just recovering from the devastation of the war. To plunge it again into the chaos and lunacy of another purge would have had the most catastrophic effects. However, on the 5th March 1953, Stalin suddenly died. Even if he was not murdered – and all the evidence suggests that he was – his death could not have come at a more opportune time. Shortly afterwards, the Doctor’s Plot was declared a fabrication. Rather than a bloody purge that threatened the whole basis of the regime, reforms from the top were needed to maintain bureaucratic rule intact.

Stalin’s death provoked a power struggle within the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy were forced to loosen their control. Reforms were needed from above to prevent revolution from below. Huge protests had already rocked the regime in East Germany. Mass uprisings had taken place in the labour camps, which were bloodily suppressed. Ferment among the workers and intelligentsia reached new heights. Those that favoured ‘reform’, headed by Khrushchev, succeeded in taking the reins of power. As Khrushchev himself explains in his memoirs, the bureaucracy were terrified of the movement the ‘thaw’ may unleash. But they had no alternative.

We in the leadership were consciously in favour of the thaw, myself included… We were scared – really scared. We were afraid the thaw might unleash a flood, which we wouldn’t be able to control and which could drown us. How could it drown us? It could have overflowed the banks of the Soviet riverbed and formed a tidal wave which would have washed away all the barriers and retaining walls of our society. From the viewpoint of the leadership, this would have been an unfavourable development. We wanted to guide the progress of the thaw so that it would stimulate only those creative forces which would contribute to the strengthening of socialism. (Khrushchev, N., Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament, pp. 78-9.)

For “socialism”, read “the rule of the bureaucracy”. As a consequence, a purge of the top hard-line Stalinists was carried through. The state secret police were brought to heel and Beria was shot. The most draconian laws were removed and the forced-labour camps were reduced in number, following strikes and uprisings of the prisoners in Vorkuta and other camps. An amnesty was granted to all, except political prisoners.

The imbalances of the Soviet economy, where everything was sacrificed to the building of heavy industry, was now partially corrected towards the production of consumer goods. Khrushchev introduced a whole series of price reforms and measures to increase production. General concessions were made to the workers. The regime in the factories was loosened up. The average wage rose from Rbs715 a month in 1955 to Rbs778 in 1958. The official price index showed little change from 1954 to 1980. Many prices were cut. In 1957 the campaign began to catch up with the United States in the production of meat, milk and butter. The combined income in cash and kind from collective work rose from 47.5 billion in 1952 to 83.8 billion in 1957. Real consumption per head increased by 66 per cent between 1950 and 1958, by which time it had reached a level of three times that of 1944.

The USSR was no longer the primitive economy of the past, but was emerging as the second world superpower. Around half the population now lived in the towns. The number of workers rose dramatically from 3.8 million in 1928 to 17.4 million in 1955. As opposed to this, the numbers in the USA rose by only a third over the same period. The Soviet industrial working class in 1928 was roughly a third of the US; in 1955 it was slightly larger. The Soviet proletariat had grown every year since the Second World War by two to three million a year. There was a massive concentration of the proletariat in factories that dwarfed those in the West. For example, there was a staggering 200,000 workers in the Gorky car plant. In the Togliatti factory, there were some 170,000 workers. It was the biggest and most powerful working class in the world.

Shorter hours were introduced for young workers without loss of pay, longer holidays, and a shorter working week by two hours, with further reductions to come, a seven-hour day to be introduced in stages; paid maternity leave to be extended to 112 days, increased pensions and disability benefits – which increased the average pension by 81 per cent. A huge house building programme was undertaken. In the 20 years between 1950 and 1970, Soviet food consumption per head doubled, disposable income quadrupled, and purchases of consumer durables rose 12 times. (Quoted in F. Halliday, The Making of the Second Cold War, pp. 138-9.)

In 1956, at the 20th Party Congress, Khrushchev made his famous ‘de-Stalinisation’ speech. Every crime was placed at the door of Stalin. The problem was alleged to be the ‘cult of the personality’. Stalin was held responsible for the frame-ups, the murders, the persecutions, the concentration camps, and the other horrific crimes against the Soviet working class and the national minorities. But how could a single individual carry through these acts? Such a position has no relation to Marxism, which does not explain history in terms of ‘Great Individuals’. The materialist conception of history explains that, if an idea is put forward (even an incorrect idea) and gets mass support, then that idea must represent the interests of some class or group within society. So, if Stalin did not represent the proletariat, who did he represent? Himself? No. Stalin represented the bureaucratic caste, the millions of privileged officials who dominated the Party and government, and who ran industry, society and the state in their own interests.

After castigating Stalin, Khrushchev turned to ‘comrade’ Beria, who he described as an “abject provocateur and vile enemy… who murdered thousands of Communists and loyal Soviet people… It has now been established that this villain had climbed up the government ladder over an untold number of corpses”. This was certainly true, but it is applicable not only to Beria, but to all the other bureaucrats who eagerly participated in Stalin’s crimes as a means of furthering their careers and feathering their nests.

Soviet imperialism?

It is not correct to maintain, as the bourgeois and the supporters of the theory of state capitalism do, that the relationship between the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was of an imperialist sort. It is not generally realised that, apart from the initial period just after the war when Moscow bled Eastern Europe, the terms of trade were actually extremely favourable to the countries of Eastern Europe. As a rule, Russia bought their products at prices higher than world market levels, and in return sold them oil and natural gas below world prices. In effect, Eastern Europe was being subsidised by the USSR – the exact opposite of an imperialist relationship.

In the period immediately after the war, it is true, the Russian bureaucracy looted Eastern Europe. They stripped whole industries and carted them off to Russia, not only from Germany and Hungary, but even from Yugoslavia. After the war, Milovan Djilas, at that time a prominent leader of the Yugoslav League of Communists, was sent to Moscow to negotiate, among other things, the return of Yugoslav rolling stock which had been shipped to Russia. In his memoirs, Djilas reproduces his conversation with A.I. Mikoyan, the Soviet minister of foreign trade:

Mikoyan received us coldly, and betrayed his impatience. Among our requests was that the Soviets deliver to us the railway wagons from their zone of occupation which they had already promised us – for many of these cars had been taken out of Yugoslavia, and the Russians could not use them because their track gauge was wider than ours.

“And how do you mean that we give them to you, under what conditions, at what price?” Mikoyan asked coldly.

I replied. “That you give them to us as gifts.”

He replied curtly, “My business is not giving gifts, but trade”. (M. Djilas, op. cit., p. 130.)

Far more than any statistics, this little incident reveals the haughty, overbearing attitude of the Moscow bureaucracy to its ‘brothers’ in Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, the relationship was not at all an imperialist one, in the Marxist sense of the word. This was revealed later, when the relation was reversed.

The introduction of a regime of nationalisation and planning enabled the economies of these countries to register very high rates of growth, transforming themselves from formerly backward agricultural economies into developed modern countries. In the Soviet Union, they found a big market for their products, guaranteed against the violent swings of the world capitalist economy, and a source of cheap raw materials.

Far from exploiting Eastern Europe as an imperialist power exploits its colonies, if we exclude this period immediately after the war, the USSR actually subsidised them for decades. Living standards in the Soviet Union were generally lower than in the countries of Eastern Europe. In the period under consideration, there was a shift in the trade of the USSR away from Eastern Europe, and towards the rest of the world. In 1960, 52 per cent of its trade was with Eastern Europe. By 1979, the figure was 44 per cent – still very high.

Soviet oil was sold to Eastern Europe at this time at a discount of 17 per cent on world market prices. In the previous period, it had been even greater, but this still represented a huge advantage, especially if we bear in mind that the whole Western world was then reeling from the shock increase in oil prices following the six-day war between Israel and Egypt. This discount on oil alone represented a subsidy of $2.9 billion a year. In addition to this, the USSR paid for imports above world market prices from its Comecon partners (the East European equivalent of the European Union).

Cuba alone received a subsidy of $1 million a day from the 1960s until the collapse of the USSR. In 1978, for example, the USSR bought Cuban sugar at 40 cents a pound, when world prices were only 18 cents a pound. In 1977, Cuba bought Russian oil at $7.40 a barrel, when world prices stood at $20.50 – a discount of no less than 60 per cent! In the period 1966-78, Soviet aid to Cuba totalled $13 billion, an important amount for a small island. This included interest-free loans, in contrast to the bleeding of the third world through ‘aid’ from the West – loans with crippling rates of interest – which has led to a massive transfer of wealth from the former colonies to the wealthy imperialist countries in the last decades. One only has to compare the two cases to see the complete falsity of the description of the USSR as an ‘imperialist’ power.

Of course, this does not mean that there was no national oppression. Robespierre once made the profound remark that nobody welcomes missionaries with bayonets. The long history of the suppression of, say, Polish and Hungarian freedom by tsarist Russia meant that relations between the Soviet Union and these countries had to be handled with great sensitivity – as Lenin had always advocated in relation to Georgia and the other non-Russian peoples of the USSR. Instead, the Russian bureaucracy rode roughshod over the national aspirations of the peoples of Eastern Europe. Everywhere Moscow implanted a regime in its own image. Puppet governments were imposed, which slavishly carried out the dictates of the Kremlin. No dissidence was tolerated. The leaderships of the Communist Parties were ruthlessly purged, with show-trials modelled on the infamous pre-war Moscow trials.

Together with absolute power came paranoia. Seeing enemies in every corner, Stalin launched a bloody purge in the Communist Parties of Eastern Europe, which led directly to the split with Yugoslavia. In his struggle with Tito, Stalin staged a number of show trials against imaginary Titoists throughout Eastern Europe. It was the period of the Slánský trial in Czechoslovakia, Rajk trial in Hungary, and the Kostov trial in Bulgaria. Slánský and ten others were found guilty of “spying and sabotage” and shot. In 1963 the Prague Supreme Court squashed the verdicts. Rajk and his comrades were hanged by the regime as Gestapo agents. They were rehabilitated in 1956 due to “trumped-up charges”. Traicho Kostov was charged with sabotaging Bulgarian-Soviet trade and executed. Georgi Dimitrov, who had considered forming a bloc with Tito to create a Balkan Federation, was also probably murdered by the GPU. This stored up bitterness and resentment that finally burst through in the uprisings of 1953 and 1956.

The Hungarian Revolution

In the summer of 1953, shortly after Stalin’s death, there was a revolutionary movement of the East German workers. It started with a spontaneous strike of the building workers in Berlin. Protesting against the intolerable conditions and impossibly high norms of production, they downed tools and marched along the Stalinallee, shouting slogans which soon acquired a political character. The demonstration triggered off a mass movement which could have led to the overthrow of the Stalinist regime in East Germany. The regime was powerless. But Moscow could not tolerate such a development, and sent in the tanks to put down the uprising.

In 1956, the movement flared up again, this time in Poland, the beginning of a long-drawn-out struggle of the Polish working class to free itself from bureaucratic rule. Time after time for a period of over three decades, the Polish masses moved into action to throw off the Stalinist yoke, which was all the harder to bear because it was identified with the historical oppression of the Polish people by Russia. In an unclear fashion, the Polish proletariat was striving for a regime of workers’ democracy, which would enable it to live with honour and dignity, as masters in their own house, not slaves of hated foreign rule.

As the bureaucracy had feared, the denunciation of Stalin’s crimes by Khrushchev at the 20th Congress was the immediate spark which ignited the powder keg. The ‘thaw’ had opened up the floodgates. In June 1956, taking advantage of the disarray in Moscow, the Polish masses rose. A general strike in Poznań rapidly spread throughout the country. Workers’ councils were set up in the factories, the embryo of soviets which could have meant the transfer of power to the workers. But the movement was taken over by the Communist Party, which, under the leadership of Władysław Gomułka (who had been imprisoned under Stalin) proclaimed reform and independence.

The so-called ‘Polish road to socialism’ served as a fig leaf for the continued rule of the bureaucracy. But it succeeded in temporarily derailing the movement on nationalist lines. 800,000 demonstrated their support for Gomułka, the representative of the Polish bureaucracy, which in effect was leaning on the Polish masses to gain concessions from Moscow. Realising that an invasion would signify a bloodbath, Khrushchev bowed to the inevitable and arrived at a compromise with Gomułkaa, satisfied that the ‘fraternal’ Polish bureaucracy would hold the line, and prevent the working class from coming to power.

No sooner had Khrushchev denounced Stalin, when in October the Hungarian Revolution broke out. The Hungarian Revolution of October 1956 was an attempt by the working class to turn Hungary into a healthy workers’ state. The workers organised revolutionary committees, which they did not call soviets, because the rule of the Stalinists had made the word stink. Nevertheless, instinctively they attempted to go back to the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky. Had the Hungarian Revolution succeeded, it would have meant the collapse of the bureaucratic regime in Russia. For this reason, Khrushchev had it put down in blood. The Stalinist press denounced the movement of the Hungarian working class as ‘fascists’ and ‘counter-revolutionaries’. However, those Russian soldiers who had been based in Hungary viewed the revolution with sympathy and fraternised with the population. A section went over and joined the fight against the hated AVO (secret police). If a conscious revolutionary leadership with an internationalist programme had been present, it could have been the starting point for a complete transformation in the whole of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The same year had witnessed a general strike in Poland, and Russia itself was in a state of ferment following Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Congress of the CPSU.

Because they could not rely on the Soviet troops in Hungary, Moscow had to withdraw them and replace them with backward troops from the Soviet Far East, who were told that they were being sent to put down a fascist revolt in Berlin. They were moved straight into action in tanks, with no possibility of meeting and fraternising with the population.

Despite overwhelming odds, the Hungarian workers fought like tigers, staging two general strikes and two armed insurrections, both before and after the Russian invasion – hardly the weapons of fascism, as the Stalinists maintained! Years later a Russian army officer who had fought in the Second World War told Alan Woods that he had never seen such ferocious resistance, even in the taking of Berlin in 1945. But inevitably, without an internationalist leadership capable of winning over the Russian troops, the Hungarian workers were defeated.

There are many lessons in the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Firstly, as Trotsky had foreseen, when faced with a general uprising of the proletariat, the bureaucracy split. Only a tiny handful of the most corrupt and degenerate elements, mainly those connected with the AVO, were prepared to resist. Thousands of ordinary members of the Communist Party tore up their cards and joined the revolution. The government of Imre Nagy was suspended in mid-air. All power was in the hands of workers’ councils, especially the Budapest workers’ councils, which consisted exclusively of elected delegates from the factories. The programme of the workers’ councils was broadly similar to the four points worked out by Lenin in 1917 as the preconditions for workers’ power. To these points, significantly, the Hungarian workers added a new one – no more one party state! After the experience of Stalinist totalitarianism, never again would the working class entrust power to a single party.

“Today, 14 November 1956, the delegates from the District Workers’ Councils formed the Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest”, reads the Council statement. “The Central Workers’ Council has been given the power to negotiate in the name of the workers in all the factories of Budapest, and to decide on the continuation of the strike or return to work. We declare our unshaken loyalty to the principles of socialism. We regard the means of production as collective property which we are at all times ready to defend.” (Quoted in Eyewitness in Hungary, by Bill Lomax (editor), p. 177.)

In a short time, the workers learned fast. This is shown by the fact that the first broadcast of radio Budapest was an appeal for help to the United Nations, but the last appeal was to the workers of the world. This was a heroic episode, similar to the Paris Commune. It showed what could have happened in Russia if the movement had spread, which was a real possibility above all if there had there been a conscious leadership, like that of the Bolshevik Party in 1917. From the very beginning, they would have made a revolutionary appeal to the workers of Poland, of the whole of Eastern Europe, and above all to the workers of the USSR. Either the greatest of victories or the greatest of defeats. There was never any other alternative for the Hungarian workers in 1956.

The delay of the political revolution in Russia, and the fact that the bureaucratic regime lasted another 35 years, had a very negative effect on the consciousness of the masses. It has meant that the impasse of Stalinism has, at least for the time being, led to a movement in the direction of capitalism. The lesson is clear. There is no substitute for the revolutionary party and leadership. No automatic mechanism exists whereby the lessons of one generation can be transmitted to the next. Without the party, every generation must painfully relearn the lessons of the past through their own experience. That is why Lenin always insisted on the need for a vanguard party composed of cadres, as the memory of the class. All subsequent history, that of 1956 included, has shown this to be absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, the working class of Eastern Europe and Russia will have to learn all the lessons over again. But learn they undoubtedly will.

On the 4th October 1957 Russia launched the first Sputnik, followed by the first man into space in 1961. More than twice the number were employed on the Soviet space programme as on the American. Such was the confidence of the Russian bureaucracy, that at the 21st Congress of the CPSU the goal was proclaimed of “building communism” (!) within 20 years. In October 1961, at the 22nd Congress Khrushchev announced Russia’s intention of overtaking the United States by 1980. Accordingly, “labour productivity in Soviet industry will exceed the present level of productivity in the USA by roughly 100 per cent”. (The Road to Communism – Report of the 22nd Congress of the CPSU, p. 515.) Khrushchev announced: “We will bury you!”

Nowadays, this is ironically dismissed as an idle boast. On the contrary. On the basis of Soviet growth rates of 10 per cent the target of overtaking America in 20 years would have been entirely possible. That, of course, would not have meant that socialism had been built in the USSR, let alone communism, a classless society, in which inequality, the state and money had become distant memories of the past, and laws and coercion are replaced by an association of free producers. Nevertheless, under the planned economy, formerly backward Russia had developed industry, science and technique to a point where the material conditions now existed for beginning to move in the direction of socialism, which, as Marx explained, requires a level of development at least as high as the most advanced capitalist country. Now the Soviet Union was within striking distance of drawing level with the USA. Only the bureaucracy stood in the way. And the bureaucracy had shown in Hungary that it had no intention of withering away.

Despite what they now say, the meteoric advance of the Soviet economy seriously alarmed the ruling class of the West. Russian industrial production had reached 75 per cent of the US level during the 1960s. The bureaucracy believed it could rule forever. It seemed the Stalinist regime thought things could only go forward. Nothing could stand in their way. The continuous high rate of growth served to explain the stability enjoyed by the bureaucratic regime for the last period. Under Stalin, the bureaucracy ruled by naked terror. But for the last three decades or more, it was able to maintain its rule mainly because of the inertia of the working class. This, in turn, was explained by two factors: on the one hand, the fear of imperialist intervention, and on the other because the masses felt that, in spite of everything, the bureaucracy was still capable of carrying society forward. All the factors which enabled the bureaucracy to survive for so long dialectically turned into their opposite.

Agriculture remained the weakest point of the regime. Food shortages and rising prices were a major cause of discontent. The 1963 grain harvest was bad, and Russia was forced to import large amounts of wheat from the West. There was difficulty in supplying bread, especially flour. Discontent was growing. Khrushchev’s policy had been to carry out a controlled reform from the top, in order to prevent a social explosion from below. The events in Hungary served a serious warning on the regime of what they might expect. However, this policy was not without dangers. The French historian-sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out in his classic study The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution, that the most dangerous moment for an autocracy is precisely when it attempts to loosen the screws after a long period of repression. This was underlined in an episode that has been generally passed over in silence – the Novocherkassk events.

The Novocherkassk uprising

On the 2nd June 1962, the army opened fire on the strikers and inhabitants of the south Russian city of Novocherkassk during a mass rally in the central square. A large but unknown number of men, women and children were killed. Even at the time, news of the rebellion was suppressed so thoroughly that even the local radio station failed to report it. Only many years later, during the period of glasnost did reports begin to circulate from survivors of the camps. Even then, they were not always believed. Such is the power of a totalitarian state to conceal information so as to prevent a movement from spreading.

The ferocity of the repression and the total suppression of information shows that the authorities were seriously alarmed by these events. This strike was part of a wider protest movement against the increase in prices announced by the government the same month. There had been other movements, in Karganda, Temirtau, Alexandrov, Murom and other cities. But none reached the same proportions as Novocherkassk. Here were all the elements of a political revolution at least in embryo.

The most detailed eyewitness report was written by one of the participants, Piotr Siuda, a worker and the son of an old Bolshevik who had perished like so many others in Stalin’s Purges. After several years in KGB prisons and labour camps, Siuda painstakingly collected all the available information which was published in the underground press (samizdat) in the 1980s. Although at the end of his life, Siuda turned towards anarchism, at the time of the events and for most of his life he considered himself a Leninist and a “non-Party Bolshevik”.

From this account, it is clear that the strike had an entirely spontaneous character. How could it be otherwise, when the workers were denied all rights to organise outside the Communist Party and the official state unions, which defended management not the workers? On the 1st January, wages at the big electro locomotive plant at Novocherkassk (NEVZ) were lowered by 30 to 35 per cent. On the same day, the government announced that the price of meat and dairy produce would go up by up to 35 per cent. This was the last straw for the workers, who had many other grievances, particularly the housing shortage. The stupidity and insensitivity of the management when confronted with the workers’ complaints added oil to the flames. Siuda recalls:

There was no need to campaign for the strike among the workers of the plant. It was enough for the group which called for a strike to appear, and work stopped immediately. The mass of strikers was growing like an avalanche. At that time, there were about 14 thousand workers at the plant. The workers went out to the plant grounds and filled the square near the plant management office. The square could not hold all the strikers. (Russian Labour Review, no. 2, 1993, p. 45.)

The immediate demands were economic in character, slogans appeared like: “Give us meat and butter!” and “We need apartments!” The movement spread but maintained a disciplined character. Instinctively, the workers fraternised with the soldiers. The local garrison was sympathetic and could not be used:

By the end of the work day the first military detachments of the Novocherkassk garrison arrived at the square but they were not armed. Having approached the people, the soldiers were immediately absorbed by the crowd. The soldiers and the strikers began to fraternise, to embrace and kiss each other. Yes, they kissed each other. It was difficult for the officer to separate the soldiers from the people, to gather them and to take them away from the strikers. (Ibid., p. 46.)

As in Hungary, Moscow had to draft in backward peasant troops (in this case from the Caucasus) to use against the workers. The strikers’ anger was increasingly directed against the government. There were demands to seize government offices. Then for the release of arrested strikers. The size of the movement kept growing:

Columns of marchers were converging on the city from everywhere and there appeared red flags, portraits of Lenin. The demonstrators were singing revolutionary songs. Everybody was excited, full of belief in their power and in the fairness of their demands. The column of demonstrators was becoming larger and larger.

While approaching the bridge across the railway and the Toozlov river, the demonstrators noticed a cordon of two tanks and armed soldiers on the bridge. The column slowed to a standstill and the revolutionary singing died down. Then the dense mass of people moved slowly forward. Outcries were heard: “Give way to the working class!” Then the shouts merged into a powerful, unified chant. The soldiers and the tank-men not only did not try to stop the column of marchers, but actually helped the people get over the tanks. The stream of people flowed on both sides of the bridge cordon. The excitement grew. The revolutionary songs grew louder, more harmonious and more powerful. (Ibid., p. 48)

Finally, the strikers brushed aside the soldiers and occupied the CPSU committee building. At this point, the order was given to fire on the demonstrators. Even at this point, there was wavering among the troops. One officer committed suicide rather than issue such an order:

Several witnesses reported that the officer who had been ordered to open fire, refused to give the order to the soldiers and shot himself in front of the formation. But nevertheless, the soldiers opened fire. First upwards, at the trees, then at the children who fell down, killed, wounded, frightened. In such a way, the party, the state and the army were eradicating different trends of thought, asserting the unity of the party and the people, proving the democratic character of the socialist state. Then the machine guns were pointed at the crowd. (Ibid., p. 49.)

In the secret trials that followed, seven people were accused of ‘banditry’ and ‘mass riot’ and sentenced to be shot. The number of those sent to labour camps for between ten and fifteen years is unknown, as is the number of people killed and crippled. Those arrested were forbidden all links with the outside world. Novocherkassk was placed under curfew. All news of the uprising was strictly suppressed. That the Kremlin took these events very seriously was shown by the fact that A.I. Mikoyan, Khrushchev’s number two, was sent to the city. In the absence of leadership and a clear plan of action, the uprising could not succeed. But it undoubtedly played a role in hastening the overthrow of Khrushchev.

6. The Period of Stagnation

The fall of Khrushchev

A good harvest the following year came too late to save Khrushchev. The bureaucracy decided that things had gone too far, and that the policies of the present leader were putting the whole system in danger. They were terrified that the reforms from the top would indeed open the floodgates, just as de Tocqueville had predicted. And they acted just as one would expect a threatened autocracy to act. They organised a conspiracy to put an end to the ‘irresponsible reformist adventure’.

In October 1964 Khrushchev was dismissed. Typically, there was no congress, no explanations, no votes. The “beloved leader Nikita Sergeyevich” was removed by a coup organised by his closest colleagues. No gratitude in politics – at least of the bureaucratic kind! Overnight the man who had been lionised by the world communist press suddenly became transformed into a non-person. Without a murmur, with no questions asked, the leaders of the Communist Parties immediately fell into line. This reminds one of something that Maxim Gorky once wrote:

Question: What do you do when you see a man falling?
Answer: Give him a push.

The bureaucracy hoped a change at the top would lead to better times. Leonid Brezhnev rose to power. He immediately blamed Khrushchev for the past failings, reversed a number of his reforms, and even went so far as to hide the improved 1964 statistics because they proved too favourable. But under Brezhnev, the crisis of Stalinism intensified with the rate of growth steadily declining to about 3 per cent or less. New measures were needed to reverse the slow-down.

To begin with, Brezhnev was forced to abandon in practice the reactionary utopia of economic autarky (‘socialism in one country’). In a desperate attempt to stimulate the economy, the bureaucracy decided to participate in the world market. In fact, amazingly, this was written into the text of the Brezhnev constitution, the first time in history that participation in world trade has ever been elevated to the level of a constitutional principle! Probably this fact reflected internal conflicts within the ruling elite.

Lenin and Trotsky argued in favour of the participation of the Soviet Union in world trade. However, they did not regard it as a panacea, but a means of obtaining a temporary breathing space until the victory of the workers in the advanced capitalist countries would come to the aid of the USSR. The Soviet Union then was a very backward country. Trotsky predicted that, as the Soviet economy developed, it would be forced to abandon autarky and participate more and more in the world economy. But precisely because of that, the crisis in the West would have a bigger effect than in the past, albeit a marginal effect in terms of a fall of production. Far more important however, were the political consequences. Lenin correctly insisted on the need to integrate the Soviet economy as much as possible with the world economy, to get the maximum benefit from the world division of labour. The short-sighted Stalinist bureaucracy was eventually compelled, under Brezhnev, to abandon autarky and embark on at least a limited participation on the world market.

Participation on world markets could have partially provided a check on the irresponsible and uncontrolled bureaucracy. Under the capitalist system, the working out of the law of value through the market to some extent provides a check. It is true that the big monopolies distort and mangle the operation of the market in their own interests. The 500 biggest companies which presently account for something like 90 per cent of world trade use their muscle, immense strategic stocks, the speculative movement of funds, political pressure and outright corruption to obtain a bigger share of the labour of the working class than would be ‘normal’ through the working of the law of value. Nevertheless, they too are ultimately compelled to operate on the basis of the law of value.

From a Marxist point of view, the participation of the Soviet Union in the world economy was not only inevitable, but progressive. Already in the pages of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels explained that capitalism develops the world economy as a single, interdependent whole. It is impossible to separate off one of its component parts without introducing the gravest distortions. The experience of the USSR over half a century is sufficient proof of this assertion. By participating on the world market, the Soviet economy could have benefited from the world division of labour. Its scientists and technicians could have access to the most modern techniques and ideas. But by the same token, it was compelled to compare itself to the most advanced economies in the world and in this mirror, it was compelled to see all its defects shown up in the cruellest light.

The total trade turnover of trade for the USSR at the end of the 1970s stood at $123 billion, a big increase, but still insufficient in proportion to the size of the Soviet economy. If we bear in mind that the equivalent figure for little Holland (which, admittedly, devotes an exceptionally high proportion of its GDP to exports) was $132 billion, the discrepancy is immediately revealed. In the 1960s and 1970s, the foreign trade of the USSR went up from 4 per cent to 9 per cent of GDP. However, since world trade was growing still faster at that time, its actual share of the total decreased from 4.3 per cent to 3.8 per cent in this period. Table 6.1 shows the amount of the USSR’s share of world trade in 1979 and how it compared to other main countries.

(6.1) 1979 share of world trade













West Germany






It should be added that, although the USA held 12.3 per cent of world trade, this represented a mere 6 per cent of its gross domestic product. Subsequently, however, this situation changed. With the squeezing of living standards, and the consequent reduction of internal demand, the USA adopted an aggressive policy of increasing its exports at the expense of its rivals, in the first place, Japan. In the 1980s, it pushed up the portion of its GDP devoted to world trade from 6 per cent to 13 per cent, and planned to increase it to a staggering 20 per cent by the year 2000. This is tantamount to a declaration of war (at least, a trade war) against its main rivals, who were all equally determined to increase their share of world markets. It goes without saying that in such a context, the outlook for a Russian capitalist regime is not very bright.

There was immense potential in the Soviet bloc itself if it had been organised as a harmoniously integrated whole. The Comecon was a unit of 450 million people, with a developed industry, a huge number of scientists and technicians, a vast area of agricultural land, and access to almost limitless mineral resources. The population of Comecon was 180 million more than the European economic community as then constituted. If to this we add over one billion Chinese, the staggering potential for economic development immediately becomes clear. But the prior condition for this was the formation of a socialist federation of the USSR, Eastern Europe and China.

The only obstacle for realising this was the narrow national interests of each bureaucracy bent on defending its frontiers against its ‘socialist’ neighbours. In fact, the degree of economic integration between the countries of Comecon was even less than that between the member states of the EEC. Thus, the pursuit of socialism in one country materially held back the progress of all these countries. Instead of pooling their resources in a rational way, each national bureaucracy insisted in constructing its own heavy industry – even tiny Albania, with predictably disastrous results. The final bankruptcy was the spectacle of Soviet and Chinese troops killing each other over an artificial and irrational frontier drawn up in the nineteenth century by the Russian Tsar and the Chinese emperor.

The Soviet Union lags behind

The important advances in absolute terms did not exhaust the issue. In relative terms, although progress was made, the gap with the most developed capitalist countries remained, as the figures in table 6.2 show.

Nevertheless, if the USSR had maintained the average growth rate of 10 per cent, this gap could have easily been closed. Even if it had maintained a growth rate of 3 per cent per annum, by 1990 it would have attained the level of the EEC and Japan for 1980. This, in itself, would have been a remarkable success. It would undoubtedly have been sufficient to prevent the breakup of the USSR and the subsequent disaster which has befallen all the peoples of the former Soviet Union. All that would have been necessary was to reach at least the average rates of growth attained by the West at this time. Given the potential of the planned economy, this should have been easily possible. In fact, such a target is far below the real possibilities, as the period of the 1950s and 1960s graphically show. Yet, shamefully, criminally, the bureaucracy was incapable even of reaching this miserable target.

(6.2) GDP per capita 1979 (in US$)

West Germany












East Germany












By the 1960s, growth rates had begun to decline, and with this the growth of living standards. In the period 1951-60, the growth of industrial production was more than 10 per cent and the average for the decade was around 12 per cent per year. But in 1963 and 1964, officially claimed industrial growth rates fell below 8 per cent, the lowest peacetime figures except 1933. It is no accident that in May 1961 the death penalty was introduced for a range of economic offences. Only in 1967 did industrial production increase by 10 per cent, while the average annual growth rate for the decade fell to 8.5 per cent.

The fall in Soviet economic growth was not due to the lack of new investment. In an article written in October 1966 by the Soviet economist V. Kudrov, he reveals the colossal investment that took place:

As regards overall investments, the USSR is close to the US level (roughly 90 per cent) and for the production investments and overall accumulation it has already achieved noticeable superiority. But since this superiority is observed in conditions where the national income is only 62 per cent of the US national income, a certain strain is felt in the Soviet economy. (World Marxist Review, October 1966. Quoted by R. Black, Stalinism in Britain, pp. 383-5.)

Despite the strains, this mighty investment still failed to bring about comparable increases in labour productivity.

He continues:

During the Seven-Year Plan over one million metal cutting machine tools, over 200 forge and die presses, and many automatic and continuous-flow lines were put into operation, but their productivity was, as a rule, rather low. By and large machine tools in the USSR are younger than in the USA in age … but older in design. As a result, the USSR is catching up with the USA more rapidly in volume of capital invested per worker than it is in actual productivity.

In the realm of agriculture things were much worse:

Agricultural production depends considerably on technical equipment and labour productivity. In this respect the Soviet Union is still considerably behind the United States. We have in the USSR 13.7 tractors per 1,000 hectares of cultivated land compared with 40.8 in the USA; for combine harvesters the figures are 3.9 and 15.7 respectively.

The impasse of the bureaucracy was graphically revealed by the figures of economic growth of the Soviet Union. Before the war, under the first Five-Year Plans, Russia had an annual growth rate of a staggering 20 per cent. Even by the 1950s and early 1960s, the growth rate was still around 10-11 per cent. This figure was still vastly superior to that of the other main capitalist powers. While it is true that Japan, on occasions, reached figures as high as 13 per cent, this was exceptional. The Soviet Union’s growth in the period under consideration was a consistent growth rate every year, uninterrupted by recessions. The main capitalist economies obtained at most 5-6 per cent (the rate of Britain, already in decline, was much lower), but not every year. Japan was able to achieve a higher rate largely because, under the American nuclear umbrella, it spent little on arms (1 per cent of its GNP), and was able to plough back most of its surplus in investment.

To all the other problems must be added the monstrous burden of arms expenditure. About 11-13 per cent of Soviet GDP went on arms, compared to about 8 per cent in the USA. Thus, a huge proportion of the wealth produced by the working class in both countries was wasted on what amounted to the production of scrap metal. This was also determined by the fact that the USSR was unable to extricate itself from the rest of the world and constitute itself as a self-contained, self-sufficient entity. In these figures, the bankruptcy of socialism in a single country are cruelly revealed.

Technological advance

In the 1930s, when the economy was still quite primitive and the tasks related to the building up of heavy industry were relatively simple, the method of autocratic command from above could still get results, although at a terrible cost. Later, however, one million different commodities were produced in the USSR, with the sensitive interrelationships of a complex modern economy, the bludgeon of bureaucratic control, without the participation of the masses, led to absolute chaos.

The laws of motion of capitalism are fundamentally different to those of a nationalised planned economy. Under capitalism, at least in the past, the mechanism of the market served as a rough and ready check on inefficiency (although the big monopolies nowadays are able to manipulate the market, in their own interests, distorting the entire process). But in a society where the entire economy is in the hands of the state, the automatic mechanism of the market no longer applies. The only check possible is the conscious checking and control of the masses at every phase of the drawing up and implementation of the plan.

Trotsky explained that a nationalised planned economy requires democracy as the human body requires oxygen. Without workers’ control and management, without free trade unions and the right to discuss and criticise without fear, there had inevitably been rampant corruption, waste and nepotism. Theft and swindling flourished on an unimaginable scale. The Soviet Union was a subcontinent, with huge numbers of enterprises. Under Stalin, all economic decisions, from the most important to the most insignificant, were taken by 15 ministries in Moscow. Even if these ministries were staffed by geniuses, all kinds of bungling and mismanagement would be inevitable without the necessary check of workers’ democracy. While the economy was more or less primitive, the overheads caused by the bureaucracy, though still staggeringly wasteful, could be tolerated because the economy was going forward at a very fast rate.

A modern, sophisticated economy, such as Russia had become by this time, is a delicate mechanism. The precise relations between heavy industry, light industry, agriculture, science and technique, cannot be established by arbitrary administrative fiat. In the absence of competition, the only way to avoid colossal bungling and corruption is through the conscious control of society, by means of the democratic administration of the working class. The crisis in the USSR and Eastern Europe was not the same as the crisis of capitalism in the West, which is fundamentally a crisis of overproduction manifesting itself as a crisis of overcapacity, inherent in the capitalist system of production. The crisis of Stalinism was a crisis of the bureaucratic system of control and planning which was undermining the advantages of the planned economy. In the West, the productive forces have come up against the barrier of private ownership and the nation state, while in Russia and Eastern Europe, the productive forces were constricted by the straitjacket of the nation state plus bureaucratic control. This was starkly revealed in the crucial field of technology. Thus, for socialism, democracy is not an optional ‘extra’ but a fundamental precondition. The limits of bureaucratic planning had been reached. This fact manifested itself in a steady fall in the rate of growth, not only in the USSR but also in Eastern Europe.

(6.3) Growth rates


























In the 1970s, growth fell further, and by 1979 the economy of the USSR only grew by a mere 3.6 per cent. This meant that the relatively progressive role played by the bureaucracy in building up the productive forces of the Soviet Union had been exhausted. It had become an absolute fetter on the further development of the economy. The annual average increase in labour productivity was still rising in the 1960s and early 1970s. But from 1975 to 1980, this slumped to 3.4 per cent and by 1982 it was 2.5 per cent per year. In 1979, the Gross National Product grew by a mere 0.9 per cent and by 1980 by 1.5 per cent. The advances made on the basis of the nationalised economy and the plan were now being cancelled out by the bureaucratic stranglehold of Stalinism. The rate of growth – which was once the highest in the world – became hardly different to the sluggish growth rates of the capitalist West. The bureaucracy had now exhausted any progressive role it may have played in the past.

During the first Five-Year Plans, capitalism showed itself to be an absolute fetter on the productive forces, with mass unemployment and the great depression. The USSR was a beacon of hope for millions. Not only workers but the best of the intellectuals were attracted to the Soviet Union. By the 1970s this was no longer the case, at least as far as the advanced capitalist countries were concerned. The bureaucratic totalitarian system with its sclerotic economy was not attractive to the masses in Western Europe, America and Japan. How could it be, when they were developing the productive forces at a lower rate than capitalism in boom periods like the 1980s?

Nowadays it has become fashionable to deny that the Soviet Union achieved anything worthwhile in the field of technology. That is a lie. The scientists and engineers produced by the Soviet Union were as good as anything in the West, if not better. This was demonstrated, not only in the space programme and armaments, but in engineering, especially on difficult large-scale projects. More than ten years ago, the Financial Times (18/2/86) wrote that “the development of Siberia’s wasteland in an appalling climate over the past 15 years is an engineering achievement which matches the construction of the Panama Canal in scale and difficulty”. (My emphasis.) There were many such projects. An amazing number of inventions and discoveries were made by Soviet scientists and technicians, a field in which they had caught up with the USA, and actually outstripped Japan, Britain and France:

The Soviet Union and the US are neck and neck in the patenting of inventions, each registering about 80,000 a year, a long way ahead of Japan’s 50,000 registrations, and far ahead of the 10,000 of Britain and France. There are currently over 20,000 Soviet patents registered abroad, and the country earns about $100 million a year from foreign license fees. That figure is going to rise sharply as the new generation of Soviet inventions becomes available. This month, they seem to have perfected their 1,500-kilowatt electricity transmission line, the world’s most powerful. (The Guardian, 19/11/86.)

But the enormous promise of Soviet science and technology was never allowed to materialise. Just as in agriculture, they could not get the same results as the West although investment was higher, so they could not make use of the inventions and technology at their disposal. The bureaucratic system acted as a gigantic brake at all levels. By the early 1980s, the Soviet economy was a highly complex organism, with 50,000 plants producing 20 million products. The old methods of bureaucratic control were now strangling production. In a 526-page study produced in 1982, prominent Soviet academics attempted to analyse the problems of the economy, based on case studies of eight Soviet industries, including chemicals, machine tools, industrial process control and branches of the defence industry:

They focus attention on over-rigid planning and management structures and procedures, and on problems caused by the separation of science from industry, its bureaucratisation and organisational fragmentation. They speak of widespread conservatism and inertia which sees innovation as more trouble than it’s worth, the absence of competitive elements, the existence of a ‘seller’s market’ and the lack of long-term relationships between producers and customers. (Morning Star, 5/8/82, my emphasis.)

Writing in Pravda, the Academician Vadim Trapeznikov, senior vice-chairman of the State Commission for Science and Technology, observed that:

Soviet plants can often do better by going on turning out outdated products on outdated machines than by installing new machines and launching new products. Innovation – the speedy application on the shop floor of the latest research achievements – is today a key issue confronting Soviet planners and managers and is widely discussed in the Soviet press. The Soviet Union has more scientists and engineers than any other country in the world, and is in the forefront in many fields of theoretical research, with achievements with regard to its practical application to its credit in a number of fields. But the general level of Soviet technology and the rate of absorption of new advances lags behind that of the most advanced capitalist countries, and most Soviet goods cannot yet compete in export markets with the best that capitalism can offer. (Quoted in the Morning Star, 5/8/82.)

The same was true of the other fields of advanced technology, such as industrial robots. In 1980, the Comecon was only operating 3.6 per cent of the world’s stock of 14,000 industrial robots compared to 9.3 per cent in West Germany and 43 per cent in Japan. However, Comecon then envisaged the installation of no fewer than 200,000 industrial robots in the Five-Year Period up to 1990, of which more than half were to be in the Soviet Union. Other plans were made to mass produce microprocessors, micro and macro computers as well as developing new fields of electronics, robotics, atomic power engineering and other areas of new technology.

There was no objective reason why these targets should not have been met. But they were not. Despite the enormous number of scientists and technicians in Russia and Eastern Europe, they could not get the same results as in the West. Throughout this entire period, in a whole series of fields like computers, the gap between East and West continued to grow. This fact alone indicated that, whereas in the past it had played a relatively progressive role in developing the means of production, the bureaucracy had now become an absolute barrier.

To these thoughts, it is necessary to add one more. The movement towards capitalism, far from aiding the development of science and technology in Russia has had the most ruinous effects. It suffices to give just one example from the jewel in the crown of Soviet technological achievement – the space programme. Here the superiority of the USSR was not in doubt. It led the world. But not anymore. Although the remarkable Mir programme with its space stations still bears eloquent testimony to the achievements of the past, the movement towards capitalism has meant deep cuts which shamefully undermined a great Soviet success story. For lack of funds, in 1996, out of 27 planned space launches, only 11 got off the ground. In the world ranking of expenditure on space programmes, Russia is now 19th.

Lenin explained many times that the future of the Soviet Union could not be separated from the position of world capitalism, and particularly its most advanced countries, beginning with the USA. Despite the extraordinary advances, the USSR remained relatively backward in comparison with the US economy in a whole series of areas. For instance, the US railway network, despite a much smaller area, was two and a half times as great as in Russia. The USSR lagged further behind in relation to computers and automated equipment. A book published by Medvedev in 1972 pointed out that:

Electric power and production of electricity in the USA is still more than twice that of the USSR. The United States produces within its own borders almost one and a half times as much oil and three times as much natural gas as the Soviet Union. At the end of the 1960s, the Soviet Union manufactured a quarter of the number of trucks produced in the United States and Japan. We produce far fewer passenger cars than countries like Italy, France, Japan and West Germany. The United States manufactures almost 20 times as many as we.

We make half as many radios as the United States and one quarter as many as Japan. As to refrigerators we are about on the level of the US in 1950. In the production of synthetic resins and plastics we remain behind almost all the European countries including Italy; the US produces six times as much as we do. In 1970 Japan manufactured five times and the US ten times as much synthetic fibre as we did. (R. Medvedev, On Socialist Democracy, pp. 5-6.)

The main weakness was the inability to raise the productivity of labour sufficiently. Marx pointed out that in the last analysis the success of a given economic system can be reduced to the productivity of labour, or economy of labour time. Productivity did increase, but the gap with the most advanced capitalist economy – the USA – remained great. The difference was narrowed considerably between the two countries as a result of the successes of the Five-Year Plans. It must be remembered that before the revolution, tsarist Russia was at the level of a third world economy today, and not one of the more developed ones. In 1913, the productivity of Russian industry was estimated at 25 per cent of the Americans. In 1937-39, it had closed to 40 per cent of the United States.

Although labour productivity increased in the post-war period its rate of increase slowed down: between 1956 and 1960, the average annual rate of growth of industrial productivity was 6.5 per cent; between 1961 and 1965 it had slowed to 4.6 per cent. In 1980, one American worker in industry produced as much as 2.8 Soviet workers, that is to say, the overall productivity of labour in the USSR was about one-third of the level in the USA. Far more than the volume of production, these figures show the actual difference between the level of economic development attained, and are therefore of crucial significance. For the bureaucracy, this lagging behind the West, especially in the vital field of the productivity of labour, remained the key question. With a larger working class, and over twice the number of technicians and engineers, the USSR produced only 65 per cent of American output in the mid-1960s. Two thirds of workers were not able to work efficiently, and one-third at least of production was wasted through mismanagement, swindling, sabotage and theft.

Agriculture – the Achilles’ heel

The situation in agriculture was far worse. Under Brezhnev, it took four Soviet agricultural workers to get the same results as one American farmer. Soviet agriculture had still not yet recovered from the forced collectivisation of the early 1930s, when peasants destroyed crops and slaughtered livestock. The number of horses and pigs fell by 55 per cent, sheep by 66 per cent and so on. Between 1930 and 1955, per head of population, agricultural production (excluding technical crops) and the number of farm animals (for pigs this applies only to 1953) were lower than in 1916, and for horned cattle and cows the figure had not reached the level of 1913 nor that of 1928. The productivity on the land remained very low. In 1982 it was reported that one agricultural worker fed six people in the USSR compared to 40 in the USA. Despite all the investment and resources, the Soviet economy was unable to take advantage of these factors. Nor was Brezhnev able to solve the problems of Soviet agriculture. On the contrary, they got steadily worse. Agriculture remained the Achilles’ heel.

This had a direct bearing on living standards. The following figures for diet illustrate the difference in living standards between USA and the Soviet Union. In the USSR 48 per cent of calories were derived from grain (mainly bread), as opposed to 22 per cent in USA. On the other hand, only 8 per cent were derived from meat and fish, against 20 per cent in the USA. Soviet citizens consumed one half the meat eaten in the United States, and less than in Poland. Even on this elementary plane, Russia lagged behind. The USSR had to import grain. This cost $6.5 billion in 1984 alone. Yet potentially Russian agriculture could feed the world. Why?

Agriculture is a more complicated question than industry because here one is dealing with the elements – both natural and human. There are only two ways of securing a lasting improvement in productivity in agriculture – either by the general application of better techniques and machinery, or by securing a greater motivation of the workforce. In fact, the two things go together. Even if modern machinery is made available, unless the rural workers are motivated to work properly and get the best out of the instruments in their hands, it will not be possible to get the desired results. Such human motivation can only be secured in one of two ways – either if the peasant or rural proletarian is morally inspired and convinced of the need for socialism, or else by material incentives. The Russian bureaucracy was unable to do either. On a socialist basis, the problem could easily be solved. But the task of introducing a different consciousness into the peasant means changing his relation to society, contact with other producers, participation in the life of society, democratic decision-making, co-operatives and so on. This is impossible on the basis of a bureaucratic system.

In the extreme conditions of War Communism, the Bolsheviks were compelled to resort to the forced delivery of grain in order to feed the starving workers in the cities, at a time when the collapse of industry meant that it was impossible to provide the peasants with goods in exchange for their products. But this was never seen as anything but a temporary measure forced upon the workers’ state in an exceptional situation when the existence of the revolution was in danger. The policy was soon abandoned in favour of a free market in grain and the New Economic Policy. Lenin and Trotsky were in favour of gradual collectivisation by example, and, in the meantime, encouraged co-operatives. But they never considered the possibility of forcing the peasants into collectives at gunpoint, as Stalin did in the 1930s. This monstrous policy led to the collapse of Soviet agriculture, a terrible famine and the deaths of millions of people. Soviet agriculture never recovered from this insane and criminal policy of Stalin.

Nowhere was the dead hand of bureaucracy clearer than here. They tried to blame the weather. True, the Russian winter poses problems unknown in more benign climes, but with modern technology it would have been possible to overcome this to a large extent. The problem was not the weather but the disaffected attitude of the rural population. Even where silos were built, the harvested grain was often left out in the rain to rot on the ground. A tractor driver was paid in terms of the area that was ploughed, so more would be gained the greater the shallow ploughing. All the evils of a bureaucratic system were here multiplied a hundred-fold – mismanagement, swindling, chaotic conditions of transport – combined with the still backward conditions of the Russian countryside – all combined to produce sabotage on a vast scale.

In the past, agriculture had been neglected, but this was no longer true. The problem was not now lack of investment. The bureaucracy was investing vast sums in agriculture, which now amounted to one-third of the total civilian investment. Yet they could not get the desired results. The USA, for example, spent only 5 per cent of Gross National Income on agriculture but obtained much better results. Despite large-scale investment and tractor production on the collective farms, agricultural productivity of labour was officially about a quarter – actually it was much less – than the USA. With almost one-third of the population (27 million) still working on the land – six times the American figure – the Soviet Union had 20 times as many agricultural workers per tractor as the US. The average income of a Russian collective farmer was half of an industrial worker. Youth were leaving the villages at the rate of two million a year. There was a huge subsidy to agriculture, which received 27 per cent of total investment.

The USSR was the biggest producer of tractors in the world. Its harvested area was two thirds bigger than that of the USA. However, owing to poor quality and inefficient repairs, the average life of a Soviet tractor was only five or six years. This meant that about 300,000 tractors had to be replaced every year. Despite the increased number of tractors, the annual yield per tractor on collective farms in the 1960s, far from rising, actually went down – in the period 1960-67, by 17 per cent. The Soviet Union was a vast subcontinent. Yet only a third as many trucks were used in agriculture as in the United States. Medvedev wrote in 1972:

At the present time, an agricultural worker in the United States is in effect as well equipped with the means of production as an industrial worker and, in some respects, is even ahead of him. In 1960, each American agricultural worker had 39 horsepower at his disposal, compared with a mere 5.4 for his Soviet opposite number. By 1967 the supply of power to an agricultural worker in the United States had increased to 78 hp – it had exactly doubled. The equivalent figure in the USSR for the same period was only 8.8 hp, an increase of about 65 per cent. (Roy Medvedev, On Socialist Democracy, p. 12.)

Between 1966 and 1970, 1.5 million tractors were delivered to the collective farms, but 1,150,000 were written off from existing stock. Half a million combine harvesters were also delivered, but more than 350,000 were written off. This explains the worried tone of Brezhnev’s speech at the 23rd Party Congress in 1966:

The Central Committee considers it necessary to draw attention to yet another problem, that of utilising machinery at collective and state farms. The countryside is steadily receiving and increasing the number of tractors, lorries, harvester-combines and other machines. Labour there is acquiring the features of industrial work. Yet, in recent years, there has been a drop in many key indicators of the utilisation of the fleet of machines and tractors. Machine operators tend to leave their jobs, causing fluidity in the labour force. All this creates difficulties. Facilities for repairing farm machinery must be enlarged to the utmost, the Selkhoztehnika enterprises and the collective and state farms supplied with modern equipment, and machine operators given better training and bigger material incentives. (Report of the 23rd Congress CPSU, pp. 89-90.)

Reading between the lines of this report, we get a picture of collective farms equipped with old, out of date machinery, or machines of poor quality which continually break down, and an ill-prepared workforce with no motivation, which does not look after or repair this machinery, and which has to be bribed with more material incentives in order to perform the most basic tasks. The picture had changed little since Trotsky wrote:

The tractor is the pride of Soviet industry. But the coefficient of effective use of the tractors is very low. During the last industrial year, it was necessary to subject 81 per cent of the tractors to capital repairs. A considerable number of them, moreover, got out of order again at the very height of the tilling season. (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 12.)

In the 1950s, as a result of Khrushchev’s reforms, agricultural output improved. But under Brezhnev, the position worsened again. In the 1950s, the annual growth rate of agricultural production was 4.9 per cent. In the 1960s, it fell back to 3 per cent, and later to a miserable 2 per cent. And in the 1970s there was actually a decline in agricultural productivity. Yet investment in agriculture had enormously expanded. Agriculture absorbed 20 per cent of total national investment – twice the pre-war level. The production of fertiliser increased greatly. Yet the value of net farm output was four-fifths less than that of the USA. Productivity of labour in agriculture remained stubbornly low. This was partly connected to the outflow of youth from the villages, and the resulting manpower shortage. By 1980 only 20 per cent worked on the land, and they were mainly old people. But this cannot explain everything. In Western Europe, there was an even bigger shift from country to town yet the productivity of labour in agriculture enormously increased.

The real root cause was the passive resistance and sabotage of an alienated agricultural workforce, plus the colossal waste, mismanagement, inefficiency and corruption of the bureaucratic system. Brezhnev attempted to increase the motivation of the rural workforce by allowing small private plots in the kolkhozy. He actually included this in article 13 of the new constitution. Such a measure was not incorrect, given the situation. Until such time as the development of the means of production is sufficient to guarantee the rural population a decent standard of life, until the collective farms, properly equipped with modern machinery, have demonstrated in practice their superiority over small-scale individual production, it is necessary to make concessions to small businesses in both the town and, especially, in the countryside. Under Brezhnev, small private plots accounted for only 3 per cent of the total, but produced one-third of meat, milk and vegetables, more than one-third of eggs, and, surprisingly, almost one-fifth of the wool.

The authorities were concerned at the serious problems in the countryside because there is a direct link between agriculture and the production of consumer goods, and therefore the standard of living. In his economic report to the 1966 Party Congress, Alexei Kosygin pointed to the slowdown in the growth rate of real incomes, which he linked, in part, to the low productivity of labour, but also to agriculture:

As a result of the lag in agriculture, the food and light industries fell short of their targets and this could not help but slow down the growth of the national income and of the nation’s prosperity. (Report of the 23rd Congress CPSU, p. 175.)

A series of bad harvests culminated in the disaster of 1972. In March 1974, the regime then hailed a big turnaround when 225 million tons had been produced. However, there was a shortage of storage facilities and only 180 million tons were saved. This catastrophe was directly linked to bureaucratic mismanagement, the scourge of Soviet agriculture. Grain was left to rot on the ground for lack of silos, transport dislocation or simple bungling. Later Soviet leaders attempted to overcome the problems of agriculture but to no avail. The problem was inherent in the bureaucratic regime itself.

Living standards in the 1970s

Before the war, when Stalin announced the dawn of ‘a happy life’, Trotsky pointed out that in the Soviet Union there was only half a pair of shoes for every worker. Under Brezhnev this was no longer the case. In 1979, the USSR was producing more shoes than any other country and there were five pairs of shoes per person. For a period of 30 years after the death of Stalin the rate of consumption grew by an average 3.6 per cent per annum. Living standards more than doubled. True, living standards in the USSR at the end of the 1970s still lagged far behind the West. Nevertheless, consumption continued to rise under Brezhnev, as table 6.4 shows.

However, the growth in living standards gradually slowed down in the 1970s, as the figures in tables 6.5 and 6.6 show.

Marx assumed that the starting point of a movement in the direction of socialism would be a high level of living standards. Only by completely satisfying all the material aspirations of men and women will it be possible to arrive at a level where such aspirations cease to dominate people’s lives and thoughts, preparing the way for a qualitatively superior level of human civilisation. So long as scarcity exists, and with it the humiliating struggle for material things, class barbarism, and all its attendant evils, will never be overcome. The vision of a classless society will remain a tantalising phantom, like a horizon which recedes further into the distance as you approach it. This explained the growing mood of scepticism and even cynicism among layers of Soviet society in relation to the hypocritical speeches of the bureaucrats who lived in luxury while the ordinary Soviet citizen had to stand in endless queues to obtain scarce goods.

(6.4) Soviet Living Standards




Monthly wage

96.5 rubles

159.9 rubles

Number of doctors



Families with TV sets



Families with refrigerators



Living space per person



Consumption of meat products per person



Consumption of vegetables per person



Consumption of potatoes per person



Consumption of bread/grain per person



(6.5) Increase in consumption 1966-78







(6.6) Increase in food consumption 1966-78







Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the living standards of the Soviet population did experience a dramatic improvement in comparison to the past. According to a report in The Guardian in the mid-1980s:

Almost every home now has a TV set and a refrigerator. Seventy per cent of households have a washing machine, and 40 per cent have a vacuum cleaner and about 15 per cent have a car. Nearly half have a motorbike or a moped. (The Guardian, 7/2/86.)

Moreover, these figures do not tell the whole story. The growth in living standards was achieved with virtually no inflation. Above all, the prices of basic necessities were kept low. Bread was so cheap that the peasants would feed it to their livestock instead of grain. A particularly important gain was low rents. Whereas a worker in the West spends anything between a third and a half of his wage on rent, the situation in the USSR was totally different. Out of a 200-rouble monthly wage, only 10 roubles a month went on rent, and this included hot water, central heating, and, at least in Moscow, free local phone calls. There was a completely free education and health service, no unemployment and a month’s free holiday at resorts run by the trade unions. The Soviet Union probably had the best public transport system in the world, with extremely low fares – five kopecks for any distance in Moscow, for example.

However, despite these improvements, living standards still lagged behind those of at least the most advanced capitalist countries. The housing shortage remained serious. Living conditions for the great majority were still very cramped, and in many cases intolerably bad. One quarter of families shared a bathroom and/or kitchen. The workers no longer suffered from the privations of the earlier period. There was no real shortage, at least of the basic commodities. There were queues, of course, but eventually people got what they were waiting for. But the quality of the goods produced under the bureaucratic system was another matter. Trotsky already pointed out before the war that quality escaped the bureaucracy like an elusive phantom. The nearer the product stood to the consumer, as a rule, the poorer the quality. The lack of democratic control revealed itself most glaringly in the field of consumer goods. Above all in a society which claimed to have built ‘socialism’, the material well-being of the population cannot be measured purely in terms of how much bread and potatoes are consumed, or, for that matter, how much meat and butter.

There is an intimate connection between economic growth and living standards. Above all, the correct balance between heavy and light industry, and between industry and agriculture, is a fundamental question. In 1971, the Ministry of Light Industry received complaints about 7.6 million pairs of shoes, 1.5 million pairs of hosiery, 1.7 million items of knitwear, and 175,000 suits. In the first half of 1971, the retail network in Moscow alone rejected 33 million roubles’ worth of industrial goods. In the same year, total losses from rejected industrial output were estimated at over Rbs600 million, but the journal Finansy USSR commented that “such losses were actually much larger”. In 1970 and 1971, 50 per cent of the goods checked by the Inspectorate of the Trade Ministry of the Russian Soviet Republic did not meet official minimum standards. This resulted in the stockpiles of unsold goods in the warehouses increasing yearly. From 1968 to 1971, the unsold surplus came to 32-52 per cent of sales. By early 1972, the surplus totalled Rbs3,400 million.

Here we see the fundamental defect of bureaucratic planning. Without the democratic control and participation of the working class, it inevitably leads to an uncontrolled flourishing of waste, corruption and mismanagement. This was always true – even in the best period in the USSR – but under the conditions of a sophisticated modern economy, producing a million different commodities each year, it became a nightmare. The Soviet press in the period under examination was full of the most appalling examples of bureaucratic bungling. The following is a typical example:

The more expensive the material is, the fewer clothes required to fulfil the plan!… The cheaper the model, the more cars needed to be manufactured in order to fulfil the plan, and that would require additional capacity and manpower… A power engineer once praised me for leaving the electric light on: “Good for you! The more energy you consume, the bigger our bonus!” The director of the Riga Electro-Mechanical Plant commented: “Any quantitative index used as the basis for planning and evaluation will inevitably be one-sided and ultimately damaging. If the ton is the measure, output will get heavier. If the rouble is the measure, it will get costlier. If consumer satisfaction were used as the base, then production volume would certainly never be the measure”. (Managers quoted in Literaturnaya Gazeta, November 1976.)

The purely quantitative approach to planning inevitably produced the most grotesque distortions in the absence of the democratic control and participation of the working class:

If the director can get away with producing only a few styles of shoes, he will have long production runs and be able to cut costs. If he can bias his production toward small-size shoes and away from large ones, he can save on leather inputs. Finally, although the state sets the prices for his shoes, different styles will yield him different profit mark-ups. The director can try to specialise in those styles which offer the highest profit.

How far the director can go in all this depends on his bargaining position. In the past, this position has been good, indeed. Always less has been produced than the customers would buy. Thus, wholesalers have been fairly easy to deal with; since they could sell anything, why antagonise the producer in a sellers’ market? Only the final customer complained bitterly about the results of this system. (David Granick, The Red Executive, p. 34.)

Trotsky pointed out that to portray economic growth purely in terms of volume is like attempting to demonstrate the strength of a man on the basis of chest measurement alone. The purely quantitative approach to targets led to the production of the most heavy and cumbersome vehicles, so that a given number of tonnes would meet the target; or so many thousands of shoes would be produced, but all left-footed. Of course, such ‘mistakes’ would be noticed by the workers, but, in the absence of free speech and independent trade unions, there was no way of denouncing them. Too outspoken criticism would only lead to problems, dismissal, imprisonment or confinement in a mental home. It was better to keep your head down and your mouth shut, get your pay packet at the end of the month, and hope that things would get better, which in many ways seemed to be happening.

In a speech at the Party Congress in 1986, Gorbachev described the position in Soviet light industry:

Last year millions of metres of fabrics and millions of pairs of leather footwear and many other consumer goods were returned to the factories or marked down as inferior grade goods. The losses are significant: wasted raw materials and the wasted labour of hundreds of thousands of workers. Bureaucracy is today a serious obstacle… Bureaucratic distortions manifest themselves all the stronger where people are held less accountable for what they do. (The Times, 27/2/86.)

Freed from all popular controls, the bureaucracy behaved in an absolutely irresponsible manner. They showed the same short-sightedness, the same criminal disregard for the broader interests of society as the big monopolies. In general, they were just as bad as the bourgeois in relation to the environment. This was shown by the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, by the destruction of the Aral Sea, the poisoning of the Caspian Sea and Lake Baikal and the sinking of nuclear vessels in the Arctic Ocean.

The absolute mess and chaos was indicated by the crazy proliferation of ministries of all kinds. In the machine-tool sector alone there were no fewer than 11 separate ministries – the Ministry of General Machine Building, the Ministry of Heavy Machine Building, etc. In transport, there were five ministries, and so on. There were many examples of the problems caused by this situation. For example, natural gas was discovered in Central Asia. But in order to commence exploitation, they had to obtain the signatures of 27 different ministries and departments. This took seven years, after which the gas had been lost.

The problem of quality

The quality of Soviet consumer goods was not as bad as the pro-bourgeois press now likes to make out. At any rate, there was no reason in principle why the quality of these goods should be any worse than those produced in the West. In those sectors where quality received due attention, very good products were made. This was the case in the defence industry, where the generals insisted on high quality and got it. The same was true of the space programme. But not only that. An article that appeared in The Guardian in 1986 revealed surprising data about the success of certain Soviet exports to the West:

When we think of Soviet excellence in technology, we are accustomed to their achievements in space, and to the high quality of many of their military products. The titanium armour in the Hind combat helicopter, or the titanium hull of their new submarines, for example, are said to be significantly ahead of Western metallurgical skills.

But somehow space and military hardware can be tuned out of our appreciation of Soviet technological capacity. We can file it all under the general heading of military superpower, and continue with our cosy and complacent belief in a general Western superiority in the things that really matter, like computers and cars and consumer goods.

Maybe we should think again. In the first six months of last year, Britain imported 30,000 Snow-cap refrigerators and 32,000 TV picture tubes from the Soviet Union. Belgium bought TV sets and electric razors, and France bought coffee grinders, electric irons and air conditioners. The Dutch bought 60,000 cameras and electric hair clippers, and even the Japanese bought Soviet TV sets. In the third world, the Chaika sewing machines and Orbita electric fans are steadily creeping into traditional Western and Japanese markets.

In fact, the picture was contradictory. For example, the actual recorded sound of Soviet LP records was very good – as good as anything in the West, if not better – but was let down by poor pressing. In an article in Pravda (28/11/95), one Russian commentator pointed to the greater durability of certain Soviet products when compared to Western equivalents. The author correctly ascribes the difference to the contrast between a planned economy, essentially based on production for need, and a market economy, based on profit, which includes such phenomena as conspicuous consumption, advertising, and all kinds of waste:

What our economy produced as a final product suited precisely the Soviet society and was absolutely unsuitable in principle for the Western market, for the ‘consumer society.’ For instance, efforts were directed into achieving product durability rather than design. The market, on the contrary, aims at shortening product life, thus forcing people to ‘consume’ both goods and services.

And he continues:

Look at the difference between two cars of the same class – one produced for a thrift economy, the other for a chrematistic one. In a Zhiguli, all the main engine components where problems usually arise are positioned in such a way that they are accessible without the aid of an auto shop. One can use the car for a decade without turning to a mechanic – you fix the problems yourself. In a Citroen – a car of the same class – the same components are completely inaccessible. You have to pay for a service for every little thing. If you need to replace the breaker contacts – it costs $80; if a generator brush is worn out – you pay $300 for a new generator; if you need to replace a pump belt – you have to take out the engine.

As is known, exactly half of the effort and cost in the production of consumer goods in the West goes into packaging (also a part of design). What does it mean to create in Russia industries capable of competing on the ‘market’? It means creating production oriented to the criteria of strangers, people of a different lifestyle, which in itself is absurd (or means consciously turning Russia into a colony). Without a doubt, 90 per cent of the Russian population would prefer to bring their own bags to buy sugar and their own bottles to buy unbottled oil rather than buying a ‘competitive’ product at twice the price because of the packaging.

However, undoubtedly, the general level of quality lagged far behind Western standards. Colour television sets had to be taken back for repairs on average twice in their first year of use. They also had a tendency to explode. Shoes were, for some reason, of a particularly poor quality, and so on. For the privileged officials, who had access to special shops, this was not a problem. The quality of goods destined for the consumption of ordinary working people was a matter of indifference to them, while the factory managers were interested only in meeting the targets of the plan in terms of volume. If that meant cutting corners on quality, so what?

Additionally, in other respects the conditions of life left a lot to be desired. Even in Moscow there was a shortage of places of recreation such as decent bars, cafés and restaurants. There were queues for all these, and this actually made the problem of drunkenness worse. It was common to see men drinking in the street. The situation in the provinces was worse still. Nizhnevartovsk in Siberia, a town of 200,000 inhabitants, still did not have a single cinema in the early 1980s. Town planners did not pay much attention to the recreational needs of ordinary people. Needless to say, the officials had no such problem.

The situation in the USSR could not be separated from that existing on a world scale. The reactionary notion of socialism in one country was bound to fail. Despite all the efforts to shut the Soviet people off from the rest of the world, they would inevitably find out about the level of life in the West and compare their own position to it. This was what Lenin warned of when he said that the future of the USSR would ultimately be determined on a world scale (‘Who shall prevail?’). To the degree that people became aware that Western consumers had access to better quality goods at cheaper prices, discontent would inevitably grow. The difference was underlined by the fact that people with access to Western currency could, without standing in queues, obtain superior Western goods in the so-called diplomatic shops (diplomaticheskye magaziny).

The official figures on living standards, in fact, conceal almost as much as they reveal. They tell us nothing about the different levels of wages enjoyed by different layers of the population. In general, Soviet statistics were always very coy about this question. Averages in general can be very misleading. They remind us of the story of the two peasants, one with nine cows, the other with one. ‘On average’ they had five cows each! In practice, the growth of the Soviet economy, which, in a healthy workers’ state should have meant a steady reduction in wage differentials and privileges, here signified the opposite.

Rather than narrowing under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, the gap continued to widen. While the living standards of the masses undoubtedly rose, the income and perks of the bureaucracy (both legal and illegal) increased still faster. This was above all true of the top elite. Brezhnev was well known for his luxurious lifestyle and fondness for expensive cars. When Nixon, who one assumes to have enjoyed a reasonably prosperous existence, went to visit Moscow, he professed to be astonished at the ostentatious luxury of Brezhnev’s lifestyle, with a swimming pool in the basement of his house, and so on.

In a study of Nixon’s fall from power, The Final Days by Woodwood and Bernstein, a small glimpse is given of the life-style of Brezhnev and the top bureaucrats:

The President [Nixon] had his usual present for Brezhnev – an American automobile for the Secretary’s extensive collection. Their first two summits, in 1972 and 1973, had yielded two $10,000 models, a Cadillac limousine and a Lincoln Continental. This time it was a $5,578 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, not very impressive in a garage that already housed a Citroen-Maserati speedster, Rolls Royce and Mercedes sedans, and Brezhnev’s favourite, a new Mercedes 300SL roadster. But Brezhnev had learned that the Monte Carlo was named ‘Car of the Year’ by Motor Trend magazine, and he had let it be known that he would like one.

According to Jan Šejna, a top Czech bureaucrat, who defected to the West and published his memoirs We Will Bury You:

Brezhnev is very fond of vodka, and pilsner beer, which we used to send to him direct to Moscow. He also loves Western clothes… Whenever he came to Prague, the Director of our Politburo shop – where the elite could buy luxuries unavailable to lesser men – would have to fly to Italy and West Germany before his arrival, to lay in a special stock for him.

The same was true of the bureaucratic rulers of Eastern Europe. Writing about his own predecessor, Alexej Čepička, Šejna explains:

He had a huge personal fortune, worth millions of dollars, for which he never accounted, and which he spent on magnificent luxuries – villas, cars, jewellery – for himself and his friends. His wife, for example, owned 17 mink coats.

The Soviet press was full of examples of corruption and economic crime. But it was only the tip of the iceberg. Apart from grossly inflated salaries, Party and state functionaries at all levels were engaged in plundering public resources. In 1974, Mrs Furtseva, the minister of culture, was sacked for misappropriation of state funds. In July 1976, according to Finansy USSR, investigations were made into 300 state enterprises. This revealed that in Belan, “a group of thieves ensconced in the city department store, led by former managers” had stolen Rbs116,500. In Tomsk, Rbs463,000 had been embezzled. In Georgia “thieves in leadership positions” were exposed. When the police raided the flat of one official “…they found his property included 12 cars, 47 tape recorders and colour televisions and 3,000 bottles of cognac and wine. He had three Volga cars, 23 dinner services with 380 settings, 74 suits and 149 pairs of shoes. ‘He had hidden some things away for emergencies,’ reported Moscow Radio, ‘including Rbs735,000 (£668,000) in cash. Rbs18,300 worth of 3 per cent loan bonds, 450 gold coins and 39 gold wrist watches’.”


The deputy minister of fisheries was executed in 1982 because of his involvement in a swindle whereby caviar was exported from the Soviet Union in tins labelled as containing salted herring…He had dealt with over 30 cases involving the theft of 3m roubles-worth of goods by some 100 management personnel from the capital’s best-known shops. He said officials received 1m roubles in bribes ‘and paid three-quarters of this sum in bribes themselves’ … They found that in 156 of 193 purchases they were cheated. The profits were then systematically passed up in line. (Financial Times, 2/7/86.)

The same lifestyle was common to Brezhnev’s children, and to the ruling elite in general. In 1980, after the arrest of 300 officials in the ‘Sochi caviar’ scandal, Brezhnev’s family was investigated for involvement in corruption. A vast amount of the wealth created by the Soviet workers was being used up in this way. One textile bureaucrat had actually accumulated the astonishing amount of seven million pounds – although this sum now pales in insignificance beside the billions looted from the state by the nascent bourgeoisie. The parasitism of the bureaucracy was undermining the very foundations of the planned economy. Simultaneously, the gulf between the bureaucracy and the masses was getting ever wider. The whole psychology of the ruling caste was becoming transformed. The consequences of this were to be seen in the next phase.

The state under Brezhnev

When Brezhnev introduced the new 1978 constitution of the USSR, he dismissed suggestions (as Stalin had done) that the Soviet state showed no signs of withering away. On the contrary, he insisted that “our statehood is gradually being transformed into communist self-government. This is, of course, a long process, but it is proceeding steadily. We are convinced that the new Soviet constitution will contribute effectively to the attainment of this important goal of Communist construction”. But behind all this rhetoric stood, not a state in transition to communism, but a vast bureaucratic apparatus that dominated all aspects of life. Far from ‘withering away’ it was getting more powerful and grotesque – not the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, but the dictatorship over the proletariat of a vast and repressive bureaucratic apparatus.

Lenin envisaged that, as the productive capacity of society increased, and with it the standard of living and cultural level of the population, the functions of running the state and society would gradually be performed by the working class on a rotating basis. Thus, the state itself would become more and more absorbed into society. Instead, the totalitarian monstrosity that was the state under Brezhnev became ever more oppressive, corrupt and divorced from the mass of the population.

This fact cannot be explained by ‘imperialist encirclement’ or by the existence of the ‘remnants of the old regime’ (the usual excuses employed by the apologists of Stalinism). The weak and embattled workers’ state under Lenin and Trotsky, invaded by 21 armies of intervention, maintained a scrupulously democratic regime which protected all the rights of the working people. By the late 1960s, the USSR was the second most powerful country on earth, with a modern economy and a mighty army. Yet the regime could not permit even the slightest concession to democratic rights. This was not because of the external threat, but because the bureaucracy was at war with its own people.

As for the other excuse, what ‘remnants’ are we talking about here? Half a century after the October Revolution, to talk about a threat from ‘capitalist remnants’ was plain nonsense. These had long since disappeared – mainly absorbed into the bureaucratic machine itself. The heirs of the old tsarist state were effectively in control of Russia! Subsequent experience has shown that the real danger to the conquests of October did not come from this quarter, but precisely from that voracious caste which had undermined the planned economy through its bungling, swindles and theft, and a section of which is striving to convert itself into a new class of mafia capitalist oppressors.

Under Lenin and Trotsky, a certain amount of repression against class enemies was made necessary by the extreme backwardness and primitiveness of the state and economy, imperialist intervention and the threat of capitalist counter-revolution. The very weakness of the workers’ state meant that, at times, the struggle assumed very harsh forms. Today, as part of the campaign to discredit Bolshevism, unscrupulous writers exaggerate this repression and try to link it to the horrors of Stalin’s Purges. But even under these conditions, there was an unparalleled flowering of workers’ democracy, which was only destroyed during Stalin’s fight against the Left Opposition, which stood for the defence of Lenin’s ideas of democracy and internationalism.

In place of the democracy and freedom which the working class enjoyed in the period immediately after the October Revolution, there was a system of rigged elections, where everything was decided in advance from the top, i.e. from the privileged ruling elite. Lenin envisaged the gradual withering away of the state from the very beginnings of workers’ power. Instead, we had an enormous growth of the state machine. This had a material basis. The new Tsars jealously protected their swollen privileges and loot. At the same time as they talked about ‘building communism’ and the ‘new Soviet Man’, they clamped down on all forms of dissent and free speech.

State repression assumed new and more refined (though not less cruel) forms. Under Brezhnev the criminal code, already sufficiently draconian, was further tightened up to combat dissidence. The addition of sections 193-1 and 193-3 multiplied the possibilities of repression. Arrest no longer had to be tied to an intent to subvert the Soviet government. Demonstrations (though the articles did not use that word) and the dissemination of any form of material aimed at disrupting the state were punishable, respectively, by three years’ imprisonment and three years’ labour camp.

This measure met with the protests of, among others, the celebrated Soviet composer Dimitri Shostakovich and a group of Old Bolsheviks. All to no avail. The protests went unanswered, and the decree was confirmed by the Supreme Soviet in December 1966. By January 1967, a wave of arrests were carried out against dissident writers who were tried in kangaroo courts and sent to labour camps. Those who protested about such trials were sacked from their jobs and persecuted. Academics were deprived of their degrees and titles.

Every manifestation of free and independent thought was looked upon as suspicious. Authors were not allowed to publish anything without the authorities’ permission. Any attempt to do so was punishable by long terms of imprisonment with hard labour (seven and five years in a severe regime camp). The horrific picture of these camps in Anatoly Marchenko’s Testimony shows that, while in some ways the conditions in the camps were better than in Stalin’s day, in some respects they were even worse. Moreover, upon arrival in camp, the prisoners often found that their sentences had been increased by a few more years, and at the end of the period, they would be informed that a new case had been prepared and that if they refused to confess they would get another seven or ten years. In this way, the prisoners could be, in effect, buried alive in the camps, with no prospect of ever getting out alive.

Far worse than this, however, was the ghoulish practice of incarcerating political prisoners in mental hospitals. In an attempt to avoid criticism in the West, they began to send dissidents to mental hospitals. Among other advantages, this meant that the accused did not have to be placed on trial. Perfectly sane people were locked up in this way, simply on the basis of two doctors’ signatures. Of course, anyone who complained about the ‘socialist paradise’ had to be insane! Among others, the former General Petro Grigorenko and Zhores Medvedev were subjected to this inhuman treatment which blackened the name of socialism throughout the world. This phenomenon had already existed under Stalin, but it was developed and perfected in the Brezhnev period, when it became widespread. Grigorenko, who spent years in these awful places, recalls that:

A special psychiatric hospital was opened in Sychyovka in Smolensk province. Then another in Chernyakhovsk. Things moved swiftly. In the late sixties and seventies, the special psychiatric hospitals sprouted like mushrooms after a rain. I know about more than ten: Kazan, Leningrad, Sychyovka, Chernyakhovsk, Dnepropetrovsk, Oryol, Sverdlovsk, Blagoveshchensk, Alma-Ata, and a ‘special psychiatric sanatorium’ in the Poltava-Kiev area. In addition, departments for forced treatment were set up in all of the provincial psychiatric hospitals. Thus were created wide scale opportunities to scatter mentally stable political prisoners among a mass of seriously ill patients. (Grigorenko, op. cit., pp. 408-9.)

And he gives a nightmarish glimpse into the conditions in these hell-holes:

This is the horror of our inhuman system of forced treatment. A healthy person confined among the insane knows that in time he may become one of those he sees suffering around him. This is particularly frightening for people with sensitive psyches who suffer from insomnia, who are incapable of isolating themselves from a hospital’s sounds.

The Special Psychiatric Hospital is located in the building of a former women’s prison, alongside the notorious ‘Kresty’ – Leningrad’s principal prison for political prisoners. Here, as in regular prisons, there is a normal partition only on the ceilings of the cells. The middle of the building is hollow. From the corridor of the first floor you can see the glass skylight of the roof over the fifth floor. Sounds intensify and reverberate as they travel up and down this well. During Stalin’s time, this fact was used to carry our psychic torture.

Luckily I was able to ignore most of what went on in the hospital. I could get used to and not notice the incessant tap-dancing over my head for whole days at a time – with intermissions coming only when the dancer fell into total insensibility. The one thing that I cannot forget and that sometimes awakened me at night was a wild night-time cry, mingled with the sound of breaking glass. In sleep, evidently the nerves are not protected from such stimuli. I can only imagine what a person must suffer whose nervous system takes in everything around him.

A patient in a Special Psychiatric Hospital does not have even the wretched rights of a prisoner. He has no rights. The doctor can do whatever they please to him and no one will interfere, no one will defend him. None of his complaints will ever leave the hospital. He has left only one hope – the honesty of the doctors. (Ibid., p. 295.)

Some of the doctors were indeed honest, and attempted to shield the patients from the worst abuse. But since the whole system was under the control of the KGB, and the chief doctors like the notorious Professor Lunts, were in fact serving KGB officers, such attempts were doomed to impotence. The entire conception of the system deprived the prisoner of all rights. “They are entirely in the power of the personnel of these ‘hospitals’.” (Ibid., p. 407.)

All these horrors took place at a time when the government of the USSR was still proclaiming that it was ‘building communism’, that is, the highest form of human civilisation, a classless society in which the state has withered away and the need for coercion has been replaced by a free and voluntary co-operation between the members of society. The leaders of the Communist Parties now wring their hands and express their belated criticisms of all these horrors of which they alone appear to have been ignorant. But nowhere do they offer an explanation of how such monstrosities could occur under ‘real socialism’. Thus, the whole thing is mystified and presented as merely arbitrary actions on the part of individuals. But that relegates them to the status of accidents (that is something which cannot be explained). And that means that this kind of thing can happen in any society, including a socialist one. That is a fine advertisement for socialism! In fact, it can easily be explained by a Marxist as a means whereby a privileged ruling caste tried to defend its power and wealth against the majority of society. Once this fact is grasped, there is nothing mysterious or accidental about it. It merely reproduces a pattern of behaviour which is very familiar to any serious student of history who knows that, in the words of old Engels, in any society where art, science and government are the monopoly of a minority, that minority will use and abuse its position in its own interest.

Capitalists are necessary to capitalism. They are the repositories of the means of production. The capitalist system cannot function without private profit – the only source of the investment fund. The greed for surplus value is thus the driving-force of the system. The workers see this as quite normal. A worker may demand a larger slice of the surplus value derived from his labour, but it would never occur to him to demand that the bosses should receive no profit. But where does the material wealth of the bureaucracy come from? All they were entitled to from an economic point of view were what Marx called the wages of superintendence. Anything more they got, not as productive agents, but as thieves, parasites and gangsters.

Even the most basic of democratic rights was therefore too dangerous to concede, since the very first point which would be raised was the cutting down of privileges. Of course, from an economic point of view this was absolutely correct. But from the caste standpoint of the bureaucracy, it was the kiss of death. This is the real material basis of the totalitarian regime.

Far from the administration becoming more simplified, with the increased participation of the masses, a monstrous bureaucratic machine had been consolidated, with a far greater rate of officials to workers than in any capitalist nation. Compared to this, even the American state with its vast military-industrial complex seemed small beer. Far from assisting the forward movement of society, the mass of ministries, departments and sub-departments and its mountains of paperwork, directives and red tape constituted one of the main impediments to the development of the productive forces. Not the interests of society and the working class, but the vested interests of the swelling army of functionaries determined policy.

The most criminal thing of all is that, under Brezhnev, the material conditions existed for the Soviet Union at least to begin to move in the direction of socialism. The division of society into classes is historically determined by the division of labour, above all the division between mental and manual labour. But now the material basis existed for the abolition of this division. In 1917, there were only four million workers in Russia. In the Soviet Union in 1980, there were 120 million workers. This was the biggest and probably the most educated working class in the world.

On the basis of the massive development of industry, science and technology, there was no reason why there should not have been the fullest flowering of workers’ democracy. The prior condition for this was that the running of industry and the state be in the hands of the working class. There should have been full rights for all parties and trends to defend their opinions even including those few cranks who wanted to go back to capitalism. Such a regime of real workers’ democracy would have been a preparation for beginning to move towards socialism. But the prior condition for this was the overthrow of the bureaucracy, which was determined to hold onto power by all the means at its disposal.

This contradiction became increasingly clearer, more blatant and more insufferable, not less, as the Soviet Union overcame its backwardness and developed into a modern economy. The rule of the bureaucracy remained an insurmountable obstacle, blocking the road towards socialism. That is why the level of repression increased, instead of decreasing as Lenin had envisaged, and as should have been the case as the material basis for social conflict disappeared. In fact, the Soviet Union was moving further away from socialism, the differentials were growing ever greater, the social antagonisms ever sharper, the rule of the bureaucracy ever more intolerable. The totalitarian state was only the most palpable manifestation of this fact, not its cause.

Art and science

I am surprised that you are surprised that a poet speaks out against bureaucracy because the words poet and bureaucrat are mutually exclusive. (Yevgeny Yevtushenko).

The October Revolution had a tremendously liberating influence on art and culture. A whole new generation of artists, poets and musicians were inspired to new heights by the revolution. But this inspiration did not survive the ebb of the revolution and the suffocating atmosphere of spiritual and artistic repression that accompanied the Stalinist regime. Art and science, more than any other sphere of social life, require freedom to stretch their wings. They thrive in an atmosphere of free thought, debate, discussion and controversy. But they will wither under the dead hand of conformism, routine and bureaucratic rigidity.

The Stalinist attitude to the arts cannot be separated from the mode of operation of the totalitarian state in general. This applies as much to fascism as Stalinism, although the socio-economic base is quite different. No doubt a bureaucratic caricature of Marxism is preferable to the poison of racism, the master race and the distilled essence of imperialism which forms the basis of fascist ideology, just as a regime of nationalisation and planning is preferable to the rule of the banks and monopolies. Nonetheless, in their treatment of art and science, there are clear similarities that are not accidental. A totalitarian state can accept no area of social life which it does not control utterly. Hitler not only banned the Socialist and Communist Parties and the unions, but even closed down the workers’ chess clubs.

The Stalinist bureaucracy kept the artists and writers under the strictest control, because, in the absence of parties and unions, the opposition of the workers and intellectuals could be expressed in other ways. Literature was particularly dangerous. But the pictorial arts, and even music, might also be used for subversive purposes. Hence the zeal with which the paid hacks of the state in the leadership of the Writers and Musicians’ ‘Unions’ pursued each and every deviation from the officially approved norms of ‘socialist realism’. Just compare this suffocating atmosphere with the bubbling cauldron of artistic life in the 1920s, with its myriad schools of thought and style – Futurism, Acmeism, Symbolism, Imagism, Constructivism, and many other ‘isms’ with the soulless conformism of later decades, and we see how a great opportunity was lost.

The great Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky was one of the few well-known writers who had actively sympathised with the Bolsheviks before the Revolution (Maxim Gorky was another). Whereas other famous poets like Sergei Yesenin and Alexander Blok sympathised with the revolution as fellow travellers (a term invented by Trotsky in the 1920s), Mayakovsky identified with it heart and soul, and this was reflected in his poetry, earning him the nickname the drummer-boy of the revolution. In later years, his poetry and plays frequently contained biting satirical attacks against the Soviet bureaucracy. In 1930 he committed suicide, which was almost certainly a protest against the slide towards bureaucratic reaction.

Many others did not take their own lives but were swept up in the Purges and perished in Stalin’s camps. This was the fate of another great Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam. From 1932 on, the regime demanded complete submission from the writers and artists. Boris Pasternak stopped writing for a period of ten years. During the war, he published some poetry, but then fell silent again in protest against Zhdanov’s Purges, writing nothing until the publication of Doctor Zhivago which was awarded the Nobel Prize in Sweden, and promptly banned in Russia.

In the field of music, great Soviet composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev found themselves humiliated in public, their works denounced by ignorant bureaucrats such as Zhdanov, the equivalent of Vyshinsky in the world of culture. As in the Purge trials, they were compelled to engage in ritual confessions. Even then, some of their best works were banned. This was the fate of Shostakovich’s opera The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Prokofiev’s sixth symphony, both banned by Stalin and not performed in Russia until many years later.

Under Stalin, science was in the hands of a bureaucracy that decided which theories were acceptable to the ruling elite and which were anathema. Thus, in the field of genetics, Soviet research was held up for decades by the acceptance of the false theories of Lysenko who enjoyed the protection of Stalin. A similar situation existed in the field of linguistics, where the bogus theories of Marr were imposed on scholars for years, until the Boss shortly before his death, unexpectedly intervened with his work on linguistics, whereupon it was a question of About Turn! in 24 hours.

Worse still, such a key science as cybernetics was denounced as bourgeois reactionary nonsense and virtually banned. This step alone set the Soviet Union back many years in the vital field of computer research. The same was true of resonance theory, for some reason or other. Einstein too was regarded with suspicion, although the physicists generally escaped lightly, since Stalin was anxious to get the atom bomb as soon as possible. Only pure mathematics seemed to get off scot-free, presumably because the bureaucrats could not make head or tail of it! Those who dared to protest found themselves cold-shouldered, passed over for promotion, or even arrested. In such a climate, no one dared to make a move before looking over their shoulder first. Hardly the kind of atmosphere to encourage great advances and innovative thinking.

Add to this the fact that Soviet scientists were largely cut off from contact with the most advanced currents of scientific thought on a world scale, except by reading the digests made available to them, and a discouraging picture emerges. This explains why, despite having a large number of good scientists, they were unable to get the same results as in the West. The freedom to criticise, to experiment, to make mistakes, is essential to the progress of science.

The same situation existed in philosophy. It is a condemnation of the Stalinist regime that for seventy years not one original work of Marxist philosophy or economics came out of the Soviet Union. With all the resources of a subcontinent at their disposal, they were not able to match the achievements of one man sitting alone in the reading room of the British Museum. That alone is a sufficient commentary on the so-called Marxism-Leninism of the Stalinist regime. Small wonder that the rigid, lifeless dogmas that were fed to generations of students under this heading provoked aversion, and only served to discredit the very idea of Marxism in the eyes of a large number of serious intellectuals and youth.

It is no accident that the first stirrings of revolt against the bureaucracy in Eastern Europe were felt among the intellectuals. The intelligentsia is not capable of playing an independent role in society, but it is an extremely sensitive barometer which can reflect the tensions that are building up in the depths of society at a very early stage. This often gives rise to the illusion that students can cause a revolutionary movement, whereas in reality they merely act as the spark which ignites the combustible material accumulated in the previous period. This was the case in France in 1968, and also with the Crooked Circle in Poland and the Petöfi Circle in Hungary in 1956.

This ferment among the intellectuals also existed in the Soviet Union. From the death of Stalin, a section of Soviet writers, cautiously at first, began to assert their rights against the palsied hand of official censorship. The official Soviet literature was dying on its feet. The poetess Vera Inber boldly stated that nobody read Soviet poetry and nobody ever would so long as it was about “the same old dam, the same old steam shovel”. In a play published during the so-called Thaw, the dramatist Zorin portrays the conflict between an old revolutionary veteran, Kirpichev, and his son, the Party bureaucrat and careerist, Pyotr:

“The country has become stronger,” says old Kirpichev, “and the people have become richer. But alongside the toilers and the willing horses there have appeared, imperceptibly, yet now in great numbers, such people as you; white collar aristocrats, greedy and conceited, far from the people.”

…“I simply worked side by side with the great toilers of our lands,” old Kirpichev exclaims. “I worked. And I did not know the taste of power. But you have known its taste since childhood; and it has poisoned you”. (Quoted in Edward Crankshaw, op. cit., p. 108.)

Zorin’s play was too much for the authorities. Sovietskaya Kultura protested:

Only a person totally ignorant of the facts of life and intentionally closing his eyes to what goes on every day in front of us all could talk such pernicious nonsense. Where is the person who does not know that the aim and content of the whole activity of the Soviet organs – ministries, departments, and the rest – is daily concern for the vitally important interests of the working people, and that the very word ‘power’ has become here, because of this, something lustrous, gladdening, the embodiment of the finest hopes and aspirations of every Soviet man and woman, and that our people regard their popular power with unshakeable trust and warm, filial love?

It was not enough for the artist or writer to accept the totalitarian state. It was necessary to look upon it with “unshakeable trust” and “warm, filial love”. In other words, the artist was expected to prostitute himself, to sing the praises of the state and the bureaucracy, and moreover do so sincerely, with all his heart – or else be condemned as a traitor dealing in “pernicious nonsense”. Is it any wonder that such a regime alienated the best of the artists and intellectuals? The so-called unions of writers, composers and artists were no more than auxiliary arms of the police, run by trusties and agents of the bureaucracy like the old Stalinist Fadeyev, chairman of the Writers’ Union.

Zorin fell into disgrace and, by the summer of 1954, all the major literary magazines were heavily censured and the editors of three of them dismissed. The reaction of the regime was not dictated by literary considerations. They feared that the opposition of the intellectuals could provide a point of reference for the accumulated discontent of the masses. And they were right. The appearance of Dudintsev’s novel Not by Bread Alone sparked off a new wave of criticism and opposition among the youth which spread to the factories:

Authority was alarmed. All over Russia students at universities and technical colleges were launching wall-newspapers and duplicated manifestos expressing and demanding revolt – not against the Soviet system itself but against the corruption, the philistinism, and the dreary and oppressive conventions of the Establishment. When the mood spread to the factories, when in the Naval barracks at Kronstadt and Vladivostok wall-newspapers started to appear and official agitators began to be heckled at factory meetings, the situation was clearly serious. (Crankshaw, op. cit., pp. 115-6.)

The young poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko was hostile to the bureaucracy, but always defended the Revolution. In October 1956, he dared to publish verses which called into question the so-called de-Stalinisation campaign:

Certainly, there have been changes; but behind the speeches
Some murky game is being played.
We talk and talk about things we didn’t mention yesterday;
We say nothing about the things we did ourselves.

Yevtushenko was expelled from the Komsomol (the Young Communist League) in 1957, when the government cracked down on the students who sympathised with the Hungarian Revolution. With great courage, he hit back in a poem which was somehow published in Novy Mir:

How terrible never to learn,
To claim the right to sit in judgement
To charge pure-hearted youth, rebellious,
With impure designs.
There is no virtue in the zealotry of suspicion.
Blind judges do not serve the people.

Trials of writers

Years later in 1988, Yevtushenko made a courageous speech against the bureaucracy at the Writers’ Union, in which he denounced the privileges of the Party elite, quoted at the beginning of this chapter. Under Brezhnev, the position of artists and writers got steadily worse. At least under Khrushchev the ‘de-Stalinisation’ campaign left the window of artistic expression half open. But, for reasons we have already explained, a totalitarian regime cannot tolerate the slightest concessions to free speech. The experiments of Khrushchev proved to the ruling caste that this was dangerous terrain. The window was slammed shut. A series of notorious trials of writers like Sinyavsky and Daniel were a grim warning to the whole artistic community not to step out of line. They were once more compelled to grit their teeth and keep their heads down – or suffer the consequences. The result of this persecution was to push a section of the artists and intellectuals into anti-Soviet attitudes, thus further undermining the system.

Scandalously, the Party hacks attempted to attribute to Lenin the doctrine that writers must only put forward ideas which reflect the ‘General Line’. This is false from start to finish. A simple glance at the articles by Lenin show that they have been taken completely out of context. Lenin was referring to the party press, which is entirely different from general literature. A party is a voluntary union. Nobody is obliged to join it. But it is reasonable to expect that articles in the public journals of the party should in general reflect the ideas of the party. But Lenin never dreamed of applying this principle to the state.

As a matter of fact, Lenin wrote little on art and literature, being absorbed by other matters. His literary tastes were generally rather conservative, mainly the classics. For example, he did not like Mayakovsky’s poetry, which was too modern for his liking. On one occasion, after the Revolution when paper was in very short supply, he was appalled to discover that Mayakovsky’s verse was to be published in a large edition, but it never entered his mind to use his influence to stop it. Under Lenin and Trotsky, the artists and writers enjoyed the widest freedom to work and experiment. This explains the extraordinary blossoming of art and literature in the early period of Soviet power.

Stalinist totalitarianism had a baneful influence on art and literature. It succeeded in pushing a section of the cultural intelligentsia into the arms of the pro-capitalist reaction. The demand for ‘freedom’ struck a responsive chord. But the movement towards a market economy has meant that the world of Russian culture jumped from the frying pan into the fire. In the world of the jungle, culture has no place. The crooks, Mafiosi and get-rich-quick merchants are no less philistine than the old bureaucrats. The slashing of state expenditure on education and culture has the character of blatant vandalism. The effects were immediate and predictable.

Unemployment and poverty affects the intelligentsia as well as the workers. National institutions like the Bolshoi theatre saw artistic standards plummet. Promising young musicians emigrated abroad to find a living in second-rate provincial orchestras in Spain and Ireland. It was even possible to see professors from Ukrainian conservatories busking for a few francs before the tourists on the streets of Paris. Thus, in place of the old chains, the world of culture found itself bound fast with new ones. For it is just as easy to enslave, oppress and silence the individual using the monopoly of wealth as it is through control of the state. It means the exchange of one slavery for another. That is all.

Meanwhile, a new generation of cultural spivs and opportunists cater for the tastes of the mafia capitalists. Some became millionaires, like the Georgian sculptor Zural Tsereteli who, for obscure reasons appears to have a monopoly on contracts for putting up monumental sculptures in public places in Moscow. His work is of such dubious value that the managers of one park decided to quietly shunt it into a corner where it could go unnoticed. Tsereteli now lives in what used to be the German embassy. On this road, there is no real future for art, science and literature. Only a genuine regime of socialist democracy offers a fertile ground for the free flourishing of culture. Socialism was once defined by Trotsky as “human relations without greed, friendship without envy and intrigue, love without base calculation”. The struggle for such a society is a worthy objective for men and women who have dedicated their lives to the search for harmony, truth and beauty.

Trotsky, unlike Lenin, did write a great deal on art and literature. He somehow found time to participate in the lively debates between the different schools of literature in the 1920s. His writings, which defend a Marxist, class attitude to art, appeared under the title Literature and Revolution. But, while giving his opinions on each school from a Marxist standpoint, he never attempted to foist his views, or those of the Bolshevik Party on artists, much less demand “filial love” and “unshakeable trust” of them. Love and trust must be earned, not demanded or imposed by laws and censorship.

Years later, when Trotsky was in exile in Mexico trying to regroup the forces of Bolshevism-Leninism, he did not forget the creative intelligentsia. In a letter dated 1st June 1938, he wrote the following:

The dictatorship of the reactionary bureaucracy has stifled or prostituted the intellectual activity of a whole generation. It is impossible to look without physical repugnance at the reproductions of Soviet paintings and sculpture, in which functionaries armed with brushes, under the surveillance of functionaries armed with guns, glorify as ‘great’ men and ‘geniuses’ their chiefs, who in reality are without the slightest spark of genius or greatness. The art of the Stalinist epoch will go down in history as the most spectacular expression of the most abysmal decline that the proletarian revolution has ever undergone.

Only a new upsurge of the revolutionary movement can enrich art with new perspectives and possibilities. The Fourth International obviously cannot take on the task of directing art, that is to say, give orders or prescribe methods. Such an attitude toward art could only enter the skulls of Moscow bureaucrats drunk with omnipotence. Art and science do not find their fundamental nature through patrons; art, by its very existence, rejects them. Creative revolutionary activity has its own internal laws even when it consciously serves social development. Revolutionary art is incompatible with falsehood, hypocrisy, and the spirit of accommodation. Poets, artists, sculptors, musicians will themselves find their paths and methods, if the revolutionary movement of the masses dissipates the clouds of scepticism and pessimism which darken humanity’s horizon today. The new generation of creators must be convinced that the face of the old Internationals represents the past of humanity and not its future. (Trotsky, Writings 1937-38, pp. 351-2.)

7. The Meaning of Perestroika

An absolute fetter

The bureaucracy imagined it would rule, like tsarism, for a thousand years. Yet, in a very short space of time, all its dreams turned to dust. In only two and a half generations, the bureaucracy had utterly exhausted any progressive role it may have played in the past. From a relative fetter on the development of society, it had become transformed into an absolute fetter. Thus, what was beginning to look like a fixed and permanent order of things now stood exposed for what it always was – a temporary historical aberration which was doomed to be swept away in the coming period. By the late 1970s, all the chickens came home to roost.

Just take the following example from a key sector of the Soviet economy. The old gas and oilfields were becoming depleted, but the USSR had almost unlimited resources in west Siberia alone, which they could not develop. Why? In one year alone, in 1983, 20 per cent of Soviet oil wells were out of action because of lack of repairs, incompetent management and shortage of labour. This was 2,000 more wells than anticipated. Why was there a labour shortage for work on the oil rigs? Bureaucratic planning concentrated everything on production but often neglected housing and recreation facilities for workers. Such things were usually given low priority. Given the fact that the oil and coal in Russia is often situated in the most remote and inhospitable regions, it is not surprising that many workers did not want to go there. In spite of high wages, there was a high labour turnover.

In the last decades, the ruling clique tried all manner of combinations involving decentralisation, recentralisation, re-decentralisation. To no avail. Some, like Isaac Deutscher, imagined that the bureaucracy was going to reform itself out of existence. Vain hope! The privileged ruling caste was prepared to do anything for the working class – except get off its back! A modern economy producing one million different commodities each year could not be organised properly without the conscious control and participation of the majority of society. But the introduction of a regime of workers’ democracy would have immediately spelt the end of the power and privileges of the bureaucracy, which they could not accept.

More than 30 years ago, we explained that every year anything between 30 and 50 per cent of the wealth produced by the Soviet workers was lost through bureaucratic mismanagement, theft and corruption. By the mid-1970s, as we have seen, the rate of economic growth had been lower than the major capitalist powers in the period of the world economic upswing or even in some years of economic decline. In 1979 the GDP grew by 0.9 per cent, in 1980 1.5 per cent, and about 2.5 per cent in 1981 and 1982. The bureaucracy acted as a gigantic brake on the economy, which had been slowing down for decades, weighed down by the burden of parasitism, chaos and outright sabotage.

Rampant corruption and crime represented a cancer which riddled the body of Soviet society from top to bottom. The shameless looting of the state by the bureaucracy was well documented and numerous examples appeared in the Soviet press. In 1984 the manager of Gastronom Number One, a high-class food store in central Moscow, was shot for corruption. When police dug up his garden they found bundles of rotting roubles he had not had time to spend. By the late 1970s, things had gone so far that there was a black market, not only in blue jeans and ballpoint pens, but in steel, coal and oil. This was known in the West as ‘the parallel market’. And woe betide the manager who tried to ignore it!

There was a case reported in the Soviet press of the manager of a department store, a model member of the Komsomol, who announced to his assembled staff on the first day that he would not tolerate any stealing, corruption or blat[1], and that only the official state prices must be paid for deliveries. Within a week, the store faced bankruptcy. No goods were delivered and the shelves were empty. The manager drew the necessary conclusion and fell into line with the accepted practices. There were millions of such examples.

In the early 1980s, Soviet society had reached a complete blind alley. The whole of the bureaucratic system was on a knife edge. Not only in social relations but in the development of industry too, the contradictions between the economic basis of the Soviet Union and the role of its bureaucratic leadership had become extreme. The ruling bureaucracy was split in several directions over which path to take. The mass movement of the Polish workers around Solidarity in 1980-81, with its clear revolutionary potential, was a warning of the processes that could take place in Russia if nothing was done. Even the aged Brezhnev, hoping to dissipate the discontent that was beginning to build up, was stirred into berating the so-called Soviet trade union leaders for not ‘representing’ the interests of their workers. The ruling elite was clearly worried.

The sclerotic nature of the system was graphically reflected in the geriatric leadership which became a standing joke. Brezhnev was artificially kept alive by the Kremlin doctors and specialists when he was clearly a walking corpse. This was no accident. The ruling elite was deeply divided and worried about the future. They feared that the death of Brezhnev would open up the floodgates. When he finally went the way of all flesh, they first settled on Yuri Andropov, who appeared to be a substantial figure, with his background in the KGB. Paradoxically, this meant that he was more in touch with reality, since in a totalitarian state the secret police are almost the only ones who are well informed. It is probable that he realised how dangerous the situation had become and was planning some kind of reform from above. But Andropov died unexpectedly in 1984. The ruling elite then settled on Konstantin Chernenko as a compromise candidate, but he let them down by dying only one year later. The succession was thus left open to the younger Mikhail Gorbachev, who had been promoted by Andropov.

This consummate representative of the ruling elite was quite prepared to strike blows against a section of the bureaucracy upon which he rested in order to preserve the power, perks and prestige of the ruling caste as a whole. In the same way, for more than a century, Russian tsarism frequently attempted to preserve itself by administrative reforms, such as the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, balancing between the classes, at times attacking the interests of sections of the bureaucracy and the gentry and even attempting to lean on the ‘people’ in order to do so.

The election of Gorbachev as Party secretary in 1985 proved to be a turning point. Gorbachev’s speech at the 27th Congress of the Communist Party, together with his speech to the January 1987 plenum of the Central Committee, marked a new stage in the process. Speeches by Kremlin leaders attacking corruption, waste and inefficiency were nothing new, but Gorbachev’s reforms went much further than anything put forward in the previous 30 years. He called for a loosening of the bureaucratic stranglehold in the economy and in Russian society generally. Gorbachev advocated greater ‘democracy’, the election under certain conditions of factory managers, elections within the Communist Party and other such reforms. These attempts to reform the Stalinist system were seen as necessary to loosen up the economy and provide an impetus to economic growth. This process took place under the banner of glasnost, and perestroika.

These proposals were nothing to do with genuine workers’ democracy, which is incompatible with the bureaucratic system, but were simply aimed at removing the worst log jams in the stagnant Soviet economy. The crisis of the Soviet economy, the split in the bureaucracy that these measures of ‘reform’ represented, were symptomatic of the turbulent period that was unfolding in the Soviet Union. In his campaign to reform the system, Gorbachev partially lifted the lid off a seething cauldron of corruption, crime and discontent throughout all the Republics of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev realised that the situation could not continue without the danger of a social explosion. Enormous discontent had accumulated within Soviet society. Thousands of examples of corruption had been given in the Soviet press.

In his report to the 27th Party Congress, Gorbachev justifiably boasted that in the last 25 years:

The fixed production assets of our economy have increased seven times over. Thousands of enterprises have been built and new industries created. The national income has gone up nearly 300 per cent, industrial production 400 per cent and agriculture 70 per cent. Before the war, and in early post-war years, the level of the US economy appeared to us hard to attain, but it was really in the 1970s that we have come substantially close to it in terms of our scientific, technical and economic potential and had even surpassed it in the output of certain key items. These achievements are the result of tremendous effort by the people. They enabled us to enhance considerably the well-being of Soviet citizens…

However, Gorbachev was compelled to admit:

At the same time difficulties began to build up in the economy in the 1970s, with the rates of economic growth declining visibly. As a result, the targets for economic development set in the CPSU programme and even the lower targets of the 9th and 10th Five-Year Plans were not attained. Neither did we manage to carry out fully the social programme charted for this period. A lag ensued in the material basis of science, education, health protection, culture and every day services … the economy, which has enormous resources at its disposal, ran into shortages. A gap appeared between the needs of society and the attained level of production, between the effective demand and supply of goods.

Gorbachev also exposed the chronic bureaucratic waste in the agricultural sector:

Reducing crop and livestock produce losses during harvesting, transportation, storage and processing is the most immediate source of augmenting food stocks. We have no small potentialities in this respect; the addition to consumption resources could amount to as much as 20 per cent, and in the case of some products, to as much as 30 per cent. Besides, eliminating the losses would cost only between a third and one half as much as raising the same amount of produce.

He concluded:

Today the prime task of the party and the entire people is to resolutely reverse the unfavourable tendencies in the developing of the economy, to impart to it the due dynamism and to give scope to the initiative and creativity of the masses, to truly revolutionary change.

In an attempt to lean on the workers, demagogic attacks were made on the bureaucracy:

Owing to a slackening of control, and a number of other reasons (?), groups of people have appeared with a distinctive property mentality (?) and a scornful attitude to society. Working people have legitimately raised the question of rooting out such things. It is considered necessary in the immediate future to carry out additional measures against parasites, plunderers of socialist property, bribe-takers and all those who embark on a path foreign to the work-oriented nature of our system.

And again:

We are justifiably exasperated by all sorts of shortcomings and by those responsible for them … hack writers and idlers, grabbers and writers of anonymous letters, petty bureaucrats and bribe-takers. (Quoted in The Times, 26/6/86.)

It was admitted that Party leaders had “lost touch with life”, and that they encouraged “toadyism … and unbridled praise for people of rank”. (Daily Telegraph, 26/2/86.)

Cautiously, moving from above, Gorbachev encouraged an element of freedom of criticism, but always within the prescribed limits. The Soviet press was full of the most outrageous examples of the rapacity of these gangsters with their bloated salaries, official limousines and unchecked expense accounts. Slavishly the foreign Communist Party press had reprinted these stories without comment. The same people who for decades justified every crime of Stalinism, talking about the ‘wonders of socialism’ in the USSR now said precisely the opposite without so much as blinking.

Gorbachev and Stalin

It is not generally remembered that Stalin himself also tried to lean on the masses to strike blows against the bureaucracy. During the period of the first two Five-Year Plans, Stalin was compelled to try and curb the greed of the bureaucrats, who were tending to devour an excessive amount of the surplus produced by the working class. By introducing the secret ballot, Stalin intended to lean on the masses to cow the officialdom he represented. There was a mock-up of a bourgeois parliament, but with only one party. This was a farce. Even if there had been more than one candidate, only the candidates vetted and accepted by the Party would be allowed to win anyway. However, Stalin did not dare to introduce his reforms in practice. The Spanish Revolution caused Stalin to back away from his intended reforms and launch the Purges, as we have seen. The sole method which remained to keep the greed of the officials in some kind of check was police repression and terror. But this engenders a new and even more monstrous corruption, dislocates and disorganises society, and represents a movement away from socialism, not towards it.

Trotsky explained how the Stalin constitution, which on paper seemed very democratic, was intended as a “whip against the bureaucracy”. Bonapartist rule involves, among other things, balancing between different groups and classes – between the workers, the peasants, and the bureaucrats themselves – playing off one section against another. In the same way, Gorbachev was compelled to lean on the working class to strike blows at a section of the bureaucratic caste which had gained enormously from its parasitic grip on the economy and the state. Gorbachev wanted to introduce controlled reforms from above, but it was, as we predicted at the time, impossible. As soon as the grip of the bureaucracy was loosened all sorts of pent-up forces were released.

Whereas in the 1930s the working class made up around 20 per cent of Russian society, the figure in the mid-1980s was nearer to 70 per cent. Russia was no longer a backward country, but a sophisticated economy with the largest working class in the world. These reforms could trigger the Russian workers to take independent action. Despite the limited character of Gorbachev’s aims, they could set the masses in motion. Inevitably, once the workers managed to get a certain measure of control they would inevitably lead to a striving for workers’ democracy: why does the bureaucracy get more than the wages of superintendence? Why must the bureaucracy have their perks, country houses, special cars, special food shops, and so on, which can only be used by party and state bureaucrats?

A man who rides on the back of a tiger finds it difficult to dismount. Once he had embarked on the road of so-called reform, Gorbachev found it impossible to reverse the process he had set in motion. Like Stalin, Gorbachev took measures against the lower and middle bureaucrats, and even some of the higher bureaucrats, as scapegoats for the sins of the entire system. Thus, in his first 11 months Gorbachev purged 46 out of 156 of the regional Party hierarchy.

At bottom, the reforms were aimed at raising the productivity of labour through cost efficiency. By a mixture of stick and carrot (discipline and incentives) the regime hoped to get the Soviet workers to produce more. While trying to lean on the working class, Gorbachev also attempted to revive the old Stalinist method of Stakhanovism, named after a miner who allegedly produced over 100 tonnes of coal per shift (six times more than the norm!). This was an extreme version of what used to be called Taylorism in the USA – payment by results, involving extreme exploitation. In Stalin’s time, this involved the creation of a special elite of shock workers (udarniki) who were responsible for setting the norms of production at abnormally high levels.

Trotsky pointed out at the time that it was easier to motivate a minority of shock workers than the mass, but explained the contradiction between a society allegedly ‘building socialism’, which aped the worst and most exploitative features of capitalism. Instead of moving towards greater equality, this meant far greater inequality, and the establishment of a privileged layer within the working class. While some Stakhanovites were honest workers, the majority were careerists and toadies, who were hated by their workmates, who attacked, beat and sometimes killed them. This was a retrograde step even in the 1930s. But in the context of an advanced modern economy, which was supposed to be moving towards ‘communism’, the contradiction was still more glaring.

Trotsky explained that:

Wage labour does not cease, even under the Soviet regime, to wear the humiliating label of slavery. Payment ‘according to work’ – in reality payment to the advantage of ‘intellectual’ at the expense of the physical, and especially unskilled, work – is a source of injustice, oppression and compulsions for the majority, privileges and a ‘happy life’ for the few.

Instead of frankly acknowledging that bourgeois norms of labour and distribution still prevail in the Soviet Union, the authors of the constitution [the new constitution introduced by Stalin in 1936] have cut this integral communist principle in two halves, postponed the second half to an indefinite future, declared the first half already realised, mechanically hitched on to it the capitalist norm of piecework payment named the whole thing ‘principle of socialism’ and upon this falsification erected the structure of their constitution!

Trotsky went on to explain:

At the same time – and this is of no small importance – a protection by law of the hut, cow and home furnishings of the peasant, worker or clerical worker, also legalises the town house of the bureaucrat, his summer home, his automobile and all the other objects of personal consumption and comfort, appropriated by him on the basis of the ‘socialist’ principle: ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his work.’ The bureaucrat’s automobile will certainly be protected by the new fundamental law more effectively than the peasant’s wagon. (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, pp. 259-60)

In his desperation to find a way out of the impasse, Gorbachev tried to inject some spark of life into the economy by appealing to the workers and making an example of the most malignant cases of bureaucratic control. Nevertheless, Gorbachev did not represent the interests of the workers. His reforms were intended to wage war on the ‘illegal’ privileges and perks of the officials, while steadily increasing the ‘legal’ ones. Already under his rule, income differentials steadily increased – the exact opposite of Lenin’s conception.

In fact, Gorbachev’s proposals had nothing in common with the democracy of Lenin nor of genuine socialism. The bureaucracy feared the working class. The legal and illegal perks, bribery and theft had to be curtailed. Nevertheless, in doing so, Gorbachev did not want to interfere fundamentally with the privileges of the bureaucratic caste. The ‘legitimate’ privileges had to be maintained, if not increased. In fact, Gorbachev was very careful to put forward the erroneous definition of Stalin: “We are fully restoring the principle of socialism: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his work’.” (Gorbachev, Perestroika – New Thinking for Our Country and the World, p. 31, my emphasis.) The original formulation of Marx was deliberately distorted. Marx explained that under communism there would be no compulsion to work, each member of society giving “according to their ability”. The superabundance of this classless society would allow its members to take “according to their needs”. This concept had nothing whatsoever to do with the situation under Gorbachev, and was nothing more than window dressing for his policies.

Bureaucratic mismanagement

Bureaucratic bungling had given rise to all kinds of distortions in the Soviet economy. While some sections were very modern, others had been starved of investment, like the Likino bus manufacturing plant in the Urals which was producing the same model as in 1970 with machine tools built 40 years earlier. And yet Gorbachev insisted that the workers must produce quality goods and be penalised if they did not. But with outdated machinery and hamstrung by red tape and mismanagement, it was virtually impossible to comply with the standards laid down. Thus, for many workers, perestroika meant a worsening of wages and conditions. In effect, the bureaucracy, like the Western bosses, was trying to get out of the crisis by putting pressure on the workforce, trying to increase productivity at the cost of the workers’ sweat, muscle and nerves.

Significantly, the only time Gorbachev attempted to deal with ‘theoretical’ questions in his book Perestroika is when he tried to justify wage differentials as being consistent with socialism! Under conditions of poverty, deprivation and backwardness, with a semi-literate working class, and an illiterate peasantry, the Bolsheviks were compelled to concede to the bourgeois specialists salaries far in excess of the Party maximum. But for an advanced country to tolerate such inequalities would have been regarded by Lenin and Trotsky as quite unpardonable. Lenin envisaged that, as the Soviet economy advanced, so the inequalities would gradually be reduced. When the Soviet Union developed into an industrial nation with a highly-educated working class, the existence of differentials of this sort was completely anti-socialist and anti-Marxist. Yet far from disappearing, seven decades after October, inequality was increasing all the time. Far from standing on Lenin’s position of greater and greater equality, and the progressive abolition of differentials, Gorbachev was increasing them.

Like Stalin, Gorbachev attempted to broaden the base of the bureaucracy by creating a special privileged layer of labour aristocrats, on high bonuses linked to productivity. The problem was that the growth of differentials and inequalities within the workforce, setting worker against worker and factory against factory, would only serve to stoke the fires of resentment. It was no accident that Gorbachev, in his speech on the anniversary of the October Revolution, spoke of opposition to his reforms not only from the bureaucracy, but also in “work collectives”. This indicated the growing alarm of the bureaucracy at the spate of strikes which for the first time were widely reported in the Soviet press. For instance, the workers at the Likino bus manufacturing plant went on strike for three days in protest at having a wage cut of Rbs60-70 a month because of non-payment of bonuses. Moving towards socialism would mean a lessening of inequality, not a reinforcement of inequality as Gorbachev was undertaking. Thus, the argument that ‘socialism’ had been achieved in the Soviet Union, when the state had reached such monstrous proportions was a total mockery. Despite this, Gorbachev received the praise of the Stalinist leaders internationally, together with the left reformists, for his ‘socialism with a democratic face’.

Yet the USSR was no longer the weak, impoverished, embattled state of Lenin’s day. As Gorbachev himself had commented, the Soviet Union was now a vast and wealthy country. If the workers were really to take into their hands the running of the state, industry and society, all the bottlenecks produced by the bureaucracy could have been quickly eliminated. Freed from the dead hand of bureaucracy, the planned economy would soar ahead. In the space of one Five-Year Plan, the wealth of society could be enormously increased on the basis of unleashing the initiative and enthusiasm of the masses.

In 1919 when the workers took power in Saxony and Bavaria, Lenin immediately appealed to them to introduce the seven-hour working day so that the workers would have time to run industry and the state. Gorbachev claimed to stand for a return to the ideas of Lenin, but in reality, he was as far away as Stalin from genuine Leninism. If an appeal was made to the Russian workers and peasants to take control of society and industry into their own hands, it would have been possible immediately to move to a reduction of the working day, the prior condition for establishing a genuine regime of workers’ democracy.

This is true even today, although as a result of the ghastly chaos caused by mafia capitalism, it is probable that initially the advance will be slower than what would be warranted by the real possibilities created by the planned economy. But within one or, at most two, Five-Year Plans, with the democratic control and participation of the masses, the whole situation will be transformed. Given the present level of development, it should be possible quite soon to introduce the 32-hour week, followed by a further reduction of hours. Such a measure would transform the situation, not only in Russia, but throughout the world.

The material conditions for beginning a move towards socialism had been built up in Russia over the previous six or seven decades. In fact, the scientific and technical resources necessary to begin the move towards socialism, absent in 1917, were now present. Even on the most conservative estimate, the Soviet economy in the 1980s, under these conditions, could have attained two or three times the then rate of growth, far exceeding even the best results under capitalism. On a sustained basis, within ten years, the Soviet Union could have overtaken the USA not only in absolute terms but in terms of the productivity of labour – the most fundamental index of economic progress. On such a basis, it would really have been possible to begin to move towards socialism, with an unparalleled flowering of art, science and technique.

Gorbachev’s solution was to carry through “all-round democratisation of management, heightening the part played in it by work collectives, strengthening control from below, and ensuring accountability and publicity in the work of economic bodies”. But his declared intentions proved to be pure demagogy as a serious move in such a direction would strike at the very heart of bureaucratic control. He certainly had no intention of going that far. The changes were really only cosmetic, although a certain consultation was allowed with workers in an endeavour to involve them in some decisions, without introducing genuine workers’ control and management. Nevertheless, Gorbachev continued to hammer away in the same demagogic manner:

The elective bodies should be more exacting and strict towards their own apparatus. One cannot overlook the fact that executives who remain in offices for long periods tend to lose their feel for the new, to shut themselves off from the people by institutions they have concocted themselves, and sometimes even hold back the work of elective bodies. It is obviously time to work out a procedure which enables soviets, and all social bodies in general, to evaluate and certify the work of responsible executives of their apparatus after each election making desirable personnel changes.

Ever more active involvement of social organisations in governing the country is needed in our time. When the work of our social organisations is considered from this angle, however, it becomes obvious that many of them are lacking in sufficient initiative. Some of them try to operate above all through their regular staff, in a bureaucratic way, and lean only a little on the masses. In other words, the popular collective, independent nature of social organisations is not being fully realised by far.

Gorbachev even came out in his speech to the 27th Party Congress for the “electivity principle for all team leaders and then gradually to some other categories of managerial personnel – foremen, shift, sector or shop superintendents, and state-farm department managers”. He was stretching things to the limit in order to propel the economy forward, but he was playing with fire. Once you introduce ‘electivity’, as far as the workers were concerned, where would it end?

The fact that he was compelled to raise the question in his January 1987 speech of the election of all the posts in the ‘Communist’ Party was an indication that not much success was achieved in the election of foremen and the rest. The bureaucracy blocked the development of this so-called principle. Gorbachev was attempting to use these ‘reforms’ as a whip against the bureaucracy within the Party itself. The real situation in Soviet society was indicated by the desperate attempt of Gorbachev to use the secret ballot, as Stalin had done, in elections from lower to higher levels of the Communist Party, as a means to break the will of the more reactionary sections of the bureaucracy, who wanted to continue their unhindered looting of the Soviet state.

In a capitalist society, the secret ballot is meant to defend the exploited from the terror of the exploiters. If the bourgeoisie finally adopted such a reform, obviously under pressure from the masses, it was only because it became interested in protecting its state at least partially from the demoralisation introduced by itself. But in a socialist society there can be, it would seem, no terror of the exploiters.

From whom is it necessary to defend the Soviet citizens? The answer is clear: from the bureaucracy. Stalin is frank enough to recognise this. To the question: Why are secret elections necessary? He answered verbatim: ‘Because we intend to give the Soviet people their freedom to vote for those they want to elect.’ Thus, humanity learns from an authoritative source that today the ‘Soviet people’ cannot yet vote for those whom they want to elect. It would be hasty to conclude from this that the new constitution will really tender them this opportunity in the future. ( Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 264-5, emphasis in original.)

The bureaucratic system under Gorbachev remained in essence what it had been during the course of the rule of the bureaucracy. The attempt to hold a whip over the bureaucracy was doomed to fail. “It is not a question of sociology, but material interest,” as Trotsky put it. The economy could not develop without the participation and control of the working class. Gorbachev was gambling on maintaining control with some elements of participation and control by the workers. However, there is no such thing as a partial control by the mass of the population. Either the workers get control or control is taken back from them. Partial control could never succeed.

A parasitic caste

This was the fundamental flaw in Gorbachev’s position. To encourage greater initiative and therefore greater productivity from the workers, while simultaneously defending the privileges and perks of the bureaucracy, was to attempt to square the circle. In order to get the Soviet economy moving again, in order to eliminate corruption and motivate the working class, it would have been necessary to grant freedom to the workers to organise, discuss and criticise. But this was impossible. The very first point the workers would have raised would be the parasitic nature of the privileges of the millions of officials, their wives, dependants and hangers-on. From an economic point of view, this argument remains unanswerable. But Gorbachev could not allow this question to be put, for the simple reason that he represented the material interests of the ruling caste.

The big majority of the 19 million or so officials who made up the bureaucracy were now the children and grandchildren of bureaucrats. They now had all the attributes of a special ruling caste, like the dominant caste in ancient India, increasingly divorced from the life and thought of ordinary workers. The bureaucracy itself, despite the new Gorbachev image, was profoundly demoralised, divided and pessimistic. After more than 70 years, all links with the ideas and traditions of October had been severed. In his famous satire, Animal Farm, George Orwell depicts the pigs and farmers in a meeting where it is impossible to distinguish one group from the other. Two generations of bureaucratic rule produced a layer of privileged functionaries utterly divorced from the working class and the ideas of the October Revolution.

Apart from their inflated salaries and privileges, they lived a life totally apart from the masses, with special shops, restaurants, clinics, rest-homes, and even beaches. Their wives did not have to queue in the cold. Unlike their fellow citizens, they could travel abroad and had access to foreign currency and all the luxury items denied to the rest. Although not officially admitted, there were even the equivalent of private schools under the thin disguise of special foreign language schools, where the children of the bureaucracy had a virtual monopoly. The outlook of this group had nothing to do with the working class or socialism, as the following quotations point out:

The jet-set are what one would expect: the sons and daughters of the very rich and the very privileged, who have no intention of working, believe in nothing at all (not even in revolt), and do their best to turn their fathers’ Sochi villas into imitations of Palm Beach. They dress in imported European clothes; they drink themselves silly; they philander and fornicate; they gamble and they dance. Regarding the mass of the people as cattle and the intelligentsia as prigs and bores, they live almost entirely to themselves, in and out of each other’s houses, and are thus rarely seen. ( Crankshaw, op. cit., p. 134.)

And again, in The Guardian, (19/2/86):

But there have been so many of these children of the party elite that even out of mainstream politics they constitute a new class of their own. And their children are now also going to the privileged schools. There is today a Soviet middle class, urbane and sophisticated with its own old-boy network and that is entirely separated from the nomenklatura. ( My emphasis.)

The luxurious living conditions of the elite were no secret. The special Kremlin supermarket in Granovsky Street was conveniently situated next door to the special Kremlin clinic:

The special hospitals for top Party officials are unique in their access to Western drugs and they have the use of country estates and lavish flats that go with their jobs.

…He [ Brezhnev] lived well, he agreed, but earned no more than a top factory manager, who could expect, with bonuses, about £200 a week. Even the Soviet press found it difficult to keep a straight face at that statement. (Ibid.)

For the bureaucracy, the revolution had served the purpose of giving it unheard-of power and privileges. In the words of Kirpichev in Zorin’s play, they were “white collar aristocrats, greedy and conceited, far from the people”. The old Stalinist officials were corrupt gangsters, but at least had some link with the old traditions. Here we had a new generation of aristocrats ‘born in the purple’, used to French perfume, expensive foreign suits and Cadillacs. Raisa Gorbachev was a classical specimen of these creatures. Pierre Cardin described Raisa as “one of the most charming wives of foreign dignitaries that has ever visited my salon”. By some strange irony, Mrs Gorbachev had been a lecturer in Marxism-Leninism at Moscow University, though what kind of Marxism that would have been defies the imagination.

In the 1920s, the Left Oppositionist Sosnovsky coined the phrase ‘the automobile-harem factor’ in relation to the rise of the bureaucracy. Aspiring bureaucrats would marry the daughters of bourgeois and aristocrats and imitate their outlook and habits. The big cars of the officials and their ‘painted ladies’ recalled the protest of Gracchus Babeuf at a similar phenomenon in the period of Thermidorian reaction of the French Revolution, when former Jacobins took to wining and dining with aristocrats, and marrying their daughters: “What are you doing, small-hearted plebeian? Today they are embracing you and tomorrow they will strangle you.” Nothing expressed more graphically the reactionary petty bourgeois character of the new clique of sleek bureaucrats represented by Gorbachev than their wives.

The rulers of the Soviet Union were, in fact, even more remote from the population than the ruling class in the West. This fact was expressed in an outburst from one of the delegates at the special conference of the CPSU held in 1988. (Incidentally, this was the first such conference since 1941):

We know more about the position of President Reagan and the Queen of England than we know about our own leaders. (Quoted in The Wall Street Journal, 5/7/88, my emphasis.)

The ruling elite fell more and more under the influence of capitalism, the more alienated and remote they became from Soviet society. Here we have a graphic example of what Engels meant when he referred to the state as a “power standing above society and increasingly alienating itself from it”. In particular, the elite of the diplomatic corps got used to hobnobbing with bourgeois circles in the West, and clearly enjoyed the experience. Eduard Shevardnadze was typical of this layer. Unlike the old crude and ignorant bureaucrats who could not even speak a foreign language, the new layer was educated, sleek, cosmopolitan – and with the mentality of petty bourgeois upstarts, which is the hallmark of reformist leaders in their dealings with the big bourgeois, where fear and envy struggle with a secret and slavish admiration.

Nowhere was the rottenness of the bureaucracy more evident than in the period of so-called perestroika (or katastroika, as the Soviet workers soon dubbed it). Gorbachev was smart enough to realise that, unless drastic measures were taken by the leadership, the whole thing would seize up. At this point, there is no reason to suppose that he intended to return to capitalism. The pro-capitalist elements in the bureaucracy were almost certainly in a minority at this time. But Gorbachev had set in motion processes which had a logic of their own.

Ferment of discontent

Gorbachev’s reforms – like those of Khrushchev – gave an initial fillip to the economy. Even so, the target of 4 per cent was a miserable travesty of what could have been achieved by the economy under a regime of workers’ democracy. Soviet industrial output rose 5.6 per cent by September 1986 compared to a year earlier, largely as a result of Gorbachev’s ‘efficiency drive’. This was an improvement on the figures achieved under Brezhnev, but still did not even reach the growth of the capitalist economies in times of boom. This was in a country with 25 per cent of the world’s engineers, technicians and scientists, and the resources of a sixth of the world at its disposal! The relative improvement was achieved in part by chopping away some of the dead wood, eliminating the most scandalously inefficient and corrupt officials. About 50 per cent of government ministers and chairpersons and 30 per cent of Party secretaries were removed. Some 200,000 officials were sacked. Compared to a total of 19 million bureaucrats, this was chicken feed. Yet it provoked a fierce resistance on the part of that section of the bureaucracy, headed by Ligachev, which opposed the reforms. Without the check of workers’ democracy, the bureaucrats had a thousand and one ways of getting around perestroika.

In fact, the reforms, far from solving the problems of the bureaucracy, exacerbated and intensified them. Gorbachev was forced to balance between the different wings of the bureaucratic elite to move along the ‘reform’ road. On a number of occasions, he threatened resignation if his reforms were blocked. This was intended as a warning to the more conservative layers of the bureaucracy. But the bureaucracy would never de-bureaucratise itself. On the contrary, they were trying to reinforce their privileged position.

As for ‘democracy’, apart from some secondary concessions, nothing much had changed. The masses were well aware that everything was rigged from top to bottom. The introduction of more than one candidate in elections was an attempt to camouflage the existence of a one-party totalitarian system. But all candidates either belonged to the Communist Party or else had to agree to the programme of the Party, which amounted to the same thing. Instead of proceeding from bottom to top, the system worked from top to bottom, like an inverted pyramid. Gorbachev leaned upon the growing discontent of the masses with the system, which was tolerated as long as there was no revolutionary pole of attraction in the West. But Gorbachev’s appeasement of US imperialism had far reaching consequences at home. The ‘threat from without’, which for decades had been used by the bureaucracy to paralyse any opposition on the part of the workers, was undermined.

The impasse of the bureaucratic regime, manifested in the slowdown of the economy, had an effect on the psychology of all strata of Soviet society beginning with the bureaucracy itself. The ruling elite became conscious of the fact that it was no longer able to carry society forward. Increasingly it felt itself to be a brake on progress, and this malaise pervaded the whole of society. There was a constant ferment of discontent among the intellectuals. The youth, who were the standard bearers of the October Revolution, had been the most heroic fighters in the civil war, and had flung all their energies into the first Five-Year Plans, were now completely disaffected. Discontent manifested itself by an epidemic of hooliganism and drunkenness, reflecting the despair of the most inert layers. The situation of the youth in the Soviet Union up to the recent period constituted an annihilating commentary on the role of Stalinism. After more than three generations, we saw all the signs of demoralisation: drunkenness, lumpenisation, thieving, hooliganism and anti-social behaviour of all kinds.

Of all the barbarous features of tsarism, one of the most retrograde was the fact that half of the state budget was derived from the vodka monopoly. There is, of course, a long history of hard drinking in Russia going back to a surprisingly remote period. In the Chronicle of Bygone Days, written in the twelfth century, Vladimir prince of Kiev, in rejecting Islam in favour of Christianity, is supposed to have said “drink is the joy of the Russian people”. But the role of vodka in Russian life is all too often associated with phenomena that are far from joyful. The excessive consumption of hard alcohol is more a reflection of hopeless demoralisation. The Bolsheviks at first attempted to combat the consumption of vodka. But the state vodka monopoly was reintroduced under Stalin as a useful source of revenue, a measure which was openly in contradiction with the assertion that ‘socialism’ had been built in Russia.

The consumption of alcohol quadrupled in the four decades after the Second World War: one in seven of the population was classified as alcoholic; heavy drinking was starting in the schools; the numbers of babies born with mental and physical defects increased – which was drink related. In 1985 Izvestia reported that as many as 27 million workers had serious problems with alcohol. They were so drunk, or ill from drinking, that at least two days a week they did not show up for work. An investigation into 800 Moscow factories found that in the last hour of each shift, only 10 per cent of workers were still at their job.

Gorbachev ordered a crackdown. In 1986, nine out of ten vodka shops in the capital were closed and alcohol consumption initially fell by 40 per cent. However, in the absence of a genuine regime of workers’ democracy, even measures that in themselves might have been correct, had the opposite result to what was intended. The attempt to curb the consumption of alcohol actually did result in an improvement of health, but it proved a two-edged sword, leading to a collapse in the state’s revenues. There was a 30 per cent drop in taxes in 1985. Nor did this measure totally remove the scourge of alcoholism, an evil rooted in the conditions of a bureaucratic totalitarian regime, which provoked increasing frustration and alienation in broad layers of society. In these years, the Soviet press was full of cases of people who had been made ill by consuming cologne. The number of arrests for illicit distilling doubled in 1987 compared with the year before, to reach 440,000. By 1988, the illicit stills were producing 40 to 50 per cent more spirits than the state plants. There were reports of pilots stealing alcohol-based fuel and anti-freeze to use as drink. This was a clear indication of demoralisation and despair on a massive scale.

The weight of the repressive regime bore down hardest on the youth, who displayed an open cynicism and frustration at the totalitarian rule of the so-called Communist Party. The Soviet Weekly (8/11/90) published a poll which claimed that only 14 per cent of young people in the USSR trusted the CPSU. Having had a formalistic parody of Marxism-Leninism rammed down their throats at school, they reacted against it. Scandalously, the same poll concluded that only 15-20 per cent believed in socialism. The widespread scepticism and disillusionment among people was reflected in political jokes such as “have we reached real communism yet, or is there worse to come?” Of course, these young people had never had access to the real ideas of socialism and Marxism, only a lifeless and mind-numbing caricature. The only ‘socialism’ they ever knew was a totalitarian monstrosity. Given the lack of any alternative, they tried to find a way out through escapism.

An article in the trade union paper Trud presented this phenomenon in an exasperated but semi-jocular tone. But the subject matter is too grim to provide much real humour:

Hair lotion is particularly popular among Moscow alcoholics, but if this is not available, there is Kara Nova eau de cologne, at 65 kopeks a bottle. Avoid at all costs a perfume known as Carmen which makes the customer feel as if his throat has been cut.

Gorbachev’s measures in the end fooled no one. The universal scepticism was reflected in the following anecdote:

A man walks into a shop and asks for a bottle of beer which the day before cost 50 kopeks. The shop assistant charges him one rouble.
“But it was only half that price yesterday.”
“Yes, but you have to pay 100 per cent extra for glasnost.”
The man reluctantly pays the rouble, and is astonished when he is given 50 kopeks change.
“But didn’t you say it cost one rouble?”

“That’s right. The 50 kopeks are for glasnost. We don’t have any beer.”

A gigantic zero

The economic situation was in a mess. Even the niggardly target of 4 per cent had not been met. Since the launching of the new Five-Year Plan in 1986, growth had been about 2 per cent a year. The economist Abel Aganbegyan revealed that economic growth in 1989-90 was practically zero. But per capita income actually declined. This was the death sentence of perestroika. Moreover, participation on world markets had not helped but made things worse. The bureaucracy imagined that participation on the world market would solve their problems. Foreign trade increased in a decade from 4 per cent to 9 per cent of Soviet GDP. For a while it did help them, particularly in the field of technology. But it also gave rise to new contradictions which the narrow-minded empiricists in Moscow had not foreseen. The USSR’s debt to the West, which was only £9 billion in 1983, had now doubled to £18 billion. This was still quite small in proportion to the size of the Soviet economy, but gave an alarming answer to the question “who shall prevail?”

The economic crisis made itself felt in a fall in living standards, queues and food shortages. Out of 1,000 basic goods, only four were consistently available in the shops. This was a result of bureaucratic chaos. There had been a record harvest and plenty of grain and potatoes, but they did not reach the shops. Large amounts of goods were being held back in anticipation of price rises. One million tons of food was rotting in the ports. The trade union paper Trud gave an example of shop shelves which should have been full of fresh fruit and vegetables, but which only contained tins of Bulgarian apricots. This was in spite of increased agricultural production in 1984. Subsequently the situation got worse. According to the Soviet Weekly (8/11/90): “A staggering 70 million people – a quarter of the population are now living on the breadline.”

An article in Pravda on the 18th October 1990 painted an alarming picture of social and economic disintegration:

The situation continues to worsen. Output is falling, economic supply links are being broken. Separatist tendencies are growing stronger. The consumer market is in a shambles. The budget deficit and the state’s credit-worthiness has reached critical levels. Anti-social behaviour and crime have grown. Life is becoming more difficult, incentives to work have weakened, faith in the future is collapsing. The economy is in a highly dangerous condition.

Shortages of food and other goods were endemic. The discontent of the population was fuelled by the realisation that these shortages were artificial – the result of bungling and sabotage. Vodka stolen from the shops was being sold on the black market at inflated prices. There were no cigarettes in the shops but plenty in the factories. Meat was left rotting in the warehouses. Demand was only satisfied by 66 per cent. The moment goods appeared in the shops people bought them up to hoard, thus adding to the shortages. The official press admitted that “over the past four years 13,000 separate items have disappeared from the shelves”. (Soviet Weekly, 1/11/90.)

The anti-alcohol policy broke down and once again there were long queues for vodka. On the 22nd August 1990, the accumulated anger and frustration boiled over. There was a riot in Chelyabinsk provoked by the breakdown of alcohol supplies. When the militia arrived, the crowd attacked them and forced them to withdraw:

The militia then closed shields in the ancient Roman testudo-fashion, but even that handmade fortress could not resist the onslaught of the furious mob. Surrounding the militia on all sides, the hooligans rained cobblestones at the troops from close range. (Ibid.)

The situation in Chelyabinsk was made worse by the scandal that subsequently emerged, involving the local Communist Party – “Public catering inspectors uncovered a secret warehouse full of delicacies at the Communist Party headquarters”. The same article admitted that: “The social and political situation at the time of the vodka riot was typical of that existing in several Soviet cities today.” In other words, the temper of the masses was reaching breaking point, and that any incident could provoke an explosion. It also showed that the masses were beginning to lose their fear of the repressive forces of the state. But in the absence of a serious alternative, a revolutionary party and a programme, the discontent of the masses found no effective outlet.

Faced with the blind alley of the regime, a growing section of the bureaucracy looked for a way out to the West, which was still passing through a temporary and artificial boom. The representatives of the bureaucratic elite had occasion to rub shoulders with millionaires, diplomats and presidents on their ever more frequent visits to the West. They contrasted this glittering spectacle with the picture of impasse and stagnation they had left behind, and the comparison did not appear very flattering. In this way, gradually the idea of the West as a model began to take firm root in a section of the bureaucracy.

This showed the complete ideological bankruptcy of the leaders of the Soviet Union and the CPSU. Shallow impressionists like Gorbachev and Shevardnadze were taken in. Like all bureaucrats, they had picked up bits and pieces of the garbled nonsense which passed for Marxism-Leninism in the USSR in their student days. But real Marxism was for them a closed book. Their complete lack of a class standpoint was shown by Gorbachev’s typically philistine remarks that the capitalists were ‘also human beings’. In other words, one could converse with the Western leaders ‘man to man’ and iron out one’s differences round the fireplace, as if it was all a question of ‘personal chemistry’ and not the irreconcilable differences between two incompatible social systems!

They were not the only ones who had jumped ship. The Bulgarian ‘Communist’ leader Todor Zhivkov admitted in 1990 that he had believed for a long time that socialism was dead and impractical. Jaruzelski, the author of the Stalinist coup, now said that it was all a terrible mistake and apologised to the Polish people! He too suddenly realised that “capitalism was the only way”. Such apostasy was only a logical step for these people. After all, they had broken with socialism in practice a long time before. This had been predicted by Trotsky half a century before, when he wrote that the bureaucracy would not be satisfied with their usurped power and privilege, but would seek to secure their position, and that of their children, by transforming themselves into private capitalists.

At first, Gorbachev attempted to resist the radicals’ demands for a quick movement towards capitalism. Ryzhkov had a similar position, in favour of maintaining the basic core of the economy in state hands but with elements of a market. Gorbachev continually vacillated between the opposing wings of the bureaucracy. In the meantime, the generals were getting increasingly restless about the Union treaty, and the threat to the USSR. Finally, towards the end of 1990, Gorbachev published the outlines of his plan. This was a hopeless mishmash of good intentions and contradictory ideas.

The stabilisation of the currency was to be achieved by a hard currency fund to finance foreign trade. There would be denationalisation, but only of small businesses, and only by degree; price flexibilisation; decentralisation (but maintaining the USSR); and, of course, deregulation of wages. Last but not least, a balanced budget of less than 3 per cent of GDP (this is what the Maastricht conditions stipulate for the EU states, who are finding it all but impossible to meet) through stringent credit controls. His conclusion was typically optimistic – “A balanced economy should emerge, with a market saturated with consumer goods and services”. But it was the optimism of a man walking off the edge of a cliff.

Gorbachev continued to pay lip service to ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’, but his entire conduct indicated that he did not believe a word of it. This was shown by one interview which he gave on British television when he repeated the absurd myth that all would have been well in Russia, if only the February Revolution had succeeded! This shows his complete lack of understanding of either the February or the October Revolution. We have dealt with this question elsewhere, so it is not necessary to expand on it. But what a condemnation when 70 years after October, the General Secretary of the CPSU could repeat such arrant nonsense.

While publicly lionising Gorbachev, Reagan and the other Western leaders must have had a good laugh behind his back. The cold, calculating American politicians and diplomats must have rubbed their eyes in disbelief! This accidental petty bourgeois element was rapidly drawn into the logic of capitulation by these nice human beings, who were intent on throttling the Soviet Union, and bringing it to its knees. To this day, Gorbachev continues to harbour illusions in ‘Western democracy’, or, to be more accurate, in ‘democracy as such’, typical of a middle-class reformist who imagines he can reconcile antagonistic class interests. And as with the latter, the appearance of ‘practical realism’ is only a fig leaf to cover the most pathetic impotence.

In all probability, Gorbachev did not want the restoration of capitalism in Russia, yet he prepared the ground for it and was duly thrown to one side by the faction of the nascent bourgeoisie, led by his protégé Yeltsin, once he got into the saddle. Nevertheless, he is quite prepared to accept the fait accompli of the so-called reform, while impotently whimpering about its ghastly consequences. In this respect, also he is a faithful copy of the Social-Democratic leaders in the West, who are ready to embrace capitalism, but do not like the things which inevitably flow from it.

Yeltsin’s demagogy

We had predicted from the beginning that Gorbachev’s reforms could have a temporary effect for a few years, before running out of steam. It was clear to us that Gorbachev would either do a U-turn back to centralisation and repression, or he might even be removed, as happened with Khrushchev. The fundamental flaw in Gorbachev’s reforms was that economic advance was to be achieved, as in the West, mainly at the expense of the working class, through speed-ups, productivity deals, cuts in subsidies and even factory closures. The abysmal mess in which Soviet political economy found itself was shown by the irony that Gorbachev’s economic advisers tried to ape the Western witch doctors advocating the introduction of elements of market economy at the very moment when the system on a world scale was beginning to break down. Lacking any Marxist understanding, they were impressed by the temporary boom of 1982-90, which, by an accident of history, coincided with the crisis in the USSR.

At this time, there was a section of the bureaucracy which hankered after a return to the ‘good old days’, of capitalism. Disillusioned by the impasse of Stalinism, they were increasingly impressed by the economic boom in the West. At this point, bureaucratic chaos and sabotage had brought about a situation where, according to the official economists, 13 per cent of Soviet factories actually ran at a loss. The reply of elements like the economist Abel Aganbegyan, echoing the Thatcherite monetarists in the West, was to allow thousands of factories to go to the wall! The same people argued that subsidies on food and rent were too costly and should be removed, allowing prices to find their own level. A few years later this advice was carried into practice with devastating results for the Russian people. But, for the time being, Gorbachev was not prepared to go down that road, fearing the reaction of the masses.

Boris Yeltsin, an ambitious apparatchik from Sverdlovsk, tried to make a name for himself as the most outspoken advocate of perestroika. A natural demagogue, with a flair for theatrical gestures, Yeltsin made a point of travelling on public transport and visiting markets. He even took the metro to the Kremlin, dispensing with the services of his official chauffeur and limousine, and protested loudly against bureaucratic privileges. This undoubtedly, at that time, gave him a certain popularity in Moscow, where his demagogic attacks on corruption received a big echo.

Such was the damage done by the suffocating bureaucratic control that, without wholesale corruption and black marketeering (or blat as the Russians call it), the economy would have ground to a halt earlier. This was well-known to the workers, and openly admitted by Gorbachev who stated shortly after becoming leader: “Try to get your flat repaired – you will definitely have to find a moonlighter to do it for you, and he will have to steal the materials from a building site.” (Financial Times, 2/7/86.)

Even in Moscow, it was impossible to get such elementary services as plumbing done without recourse to blat. The same is true of other cities and regions, as was indicated by Yeltsin’s speech to the 1986 Party Congress.

He [Yeltsin] asked why the CC secretariat at the centre of power in the Soviet Union had done nothing about widespread corruption in Uzbekistan and Kirgizia. (Two Central Asian Republics where the entire Party leadership was removed.) “Why?” asked Mr Yeltsin, “were the same problems brought up over five years at Party congresses? Why after so many years have we not succeeded in tearing out of our life the roots of bureaucracy, social injustice and abuses?”… Mr Yeltsin said Moscow, a city of eight million people, had a stagnant economy and inadequate public transport, shopping centres and health care. He blamed this squarely on the city’s previous leaders. (Financial Times, 28/2/86.)

In another aside to the Congress, Yeltsin said:

For a number of years, the whole retail sector has lived through a period of corruption and we are eating the fruits of that today. If we cannot solve the problem of personnel, if we cannot get rid of the dishonest people, and clean up the whole sector we will have shortages, there will be regular artificial deficits. (The Guardian, 29/1/86.)

Yeltsin sacked no less than 40 per cent of the Moscow local Party workers, but that did not help to solve the chaotic situation he described at the Congress, nor did it prevent a large number of those sacked for bribe-taking from being surreptitiously readmitted with other jobs in no time at all. At the same time, Yeltsin’s campaign actually worsened the economic situation in Moscow because corruption and black marketeering were the oil which kept the bureaucratically-run economy working. Even the supply of raw materials to the factories often depended upon black market wheeling and dealing to get around the obstacles of the bureaucratic system.

This experience proved once again that the brick wall which the anti-corruption drive ran into could only be smashed by the complete dismantling of the bureaucratic state and the creation of a workers’ democracy. That meant a political revolution. And rather than contemplate such a thing, Yeltsin and his cronies preferred to move towards capitalism. However, Yeltsin’s ‘populist’ measures offended the conservative section of the bureaucracy who feared that glasnost was getting out of hand. The sacking of Yeltsin in November 1987 was a clear indication that the Gorbachev reforms were running into difficulties.

Yeltsin demagogically pretended to stand for equality as a means of boosting his popularity. But what happened afterwards? At the present time, this gentleman and his friends have looted the Russian state. Under the reign of this ‘egalitarian’, seven fabulously wealthy gangsters own and control half the country, while tens of millions of Russians live in poverty and wages are not paid for months on end. Some equality! In fact, the inequality in present-day Russia is greater, not only than before, but it is far greater than the developed capitalist countries. It is much more similar to the state of affairs that existed in the ‘crony capitalist’ regime of Marcos in the Philippines than in the genteel capitalist regimes of Western Europe, America or Japan. This fact is not lost on the working class, which is drawing its own conclusions. And let no one forget how the Marcos regime ended up.

Illusions in Gorbachev

It was incredible how many on the Left were taken in by Gorbachev. Not just the right and left reformists, but even some self-styled ‘Trotskyists’ fell over themselves in their haste to pay tribute to this ‘great reformer and statesman’. These people were incapable of differentiating between shadow and substance. In reality, Gorbachev stood for the interests of the ruling caste. True, his image was different from that of the old Stalinist leaders. But the difference was more of style than content.

Gorbachev was an articulate, educated and well-travelled bureaucrat, quite unlike the coarse, narrow and ignorant upstarts of Stalin’s day. He realised the impasse in which the bureaucratic system found itself. Without the participation and enthusiasm of the masses, nothing can be done. Even under capitalism that is the case. Most big factories would grind to a halt if the workers did not apply their intelligence and initiative, sometimes bending the rules to keep the machinery running. Hundreds of millions of pounds are made out of the ‘suggestions boxes’ in Britain every year. That shows the enormous potential for a system based on workers’ control and management, which would give full reign to the workers’ creativity, intelligence and initiative.

There were many who nurtured illusions that the Russian bureaucracy could reform itself. One such was Roy Medvedev, a capable historian who, although he displayed great personal courage in standing up to the regime, failed to develop a really consistent Marxist analysis and fell into a trap. Roy Medvedev represented a ‘left’ wing of the bureaucracy. He wanted the regime to reform itself in a strictly legal and constitutional fashion.

As for ways and means of political struggle they must be absolutely legal and constitutional, there are certain extreme groups that believe in the use of illegal methods including for example the organisation of underground printing presses. (Medvedev, On Socialist Democracy, p. 314.)

He then quotes one of his opponents who evidently had a correct appraisal of the bureaucracy:

You believe that the leadership would support a certain degree of democratisation, but this would amount to the leadership liquidating itself and the whole of political history confirms the unreality of such an expectation. No government withdraws of its own free will. Your ideas are harmful as they create illusions about the ease with which your proposed programme of reforms might be realised. You suggest that because of a change in social and political conditions, fresh forces will become part of the ‘apparat’ and transform its bureaucratic style. But this only encourages the false idea of an automatic and spontaneous process – in reality these fresh forces will undoubtedly encounter fierce resistance. (Ibid., p. 313.)

Again, Medvedev gives the game away again by saying:

Overhasty reform can also cause problems with the Socialist bloc (as the experience of Czechoslovakia has shown.) (Ibid., p. 314.)

Clearly, any movement of the working class to throw off the yoke of the bureaucracy would ‘cause problems’. But to imagine that the ruling caste would give up without a fight was just wishful thinking.

Another example was Isaac Deutscher. His name is frequently linked to Trotsky’s on the strength of his three-volume biography of the great revolutionary. But politically, the two could not be further apart. In fact, in his political biography of Stalin, Deutscher attempts to glorify Stalin’s role. Rather than being portrayed as the leader of the counter-revolutionary bureaucracy, he is built up as some kind of great misunderstood revolutionary:

Stalin has been both the leader and exploiter of a tragic, self-contradictory but creative revolution. Like Cromwell he embodies the continuity of the revolution through all its phases and metamorphoses, although his role was less prominent in the first phase. Like Robespierre he has bled white his own party; and like Napoleon he has built his half-conservative and half-revolutionary empire and carried revolution beyond the frontiers of his country… But in order to save it (‘the better parts of Stalin’s work’) for the future and to give it its full value, history may yet have to cleanse and reshape Stalin’s work as sternly as it once cleansed and reshaped the work of the English revolution after Cromwell and of the French after Napoleon. (I. Deutscher, Stalin: a political biography, pp. 569-70.)

Deutscher never understood Trotsky or his great contribution to Marxism – his analysis of Stalinism. What is correct in Deutscher’s trilogy on Trotsky he borrowed from Trotsky, but his attempts at theorising are of no value whatsoever. He dismisses Trotsky’s “fiasco with the Fourth International” and “his fumblings about reform and revolution in the USSR” as mere flights of fancy. (Ibid., p. 513.) In reality, without an understanding of Trotsky’s ideas on Stalinism, it is impossible to grasp what is taking place in the former Soviet Union today. Far from being mere “fumblings”, his ideas have been entirely borne out by events. The same cannot be said of Isaac Deutscher’s own prognosis.

After Stalin’s death, Deutscher hailed the so-called de-Stalinisation of Khrushchev as a great step forward. Here is Deutscher’s conclusion in his third volume of his biography of Trotsky:

It is clear that even under Stalinism Soviet society was achieving immense progress in many fields, and that the progress, inseparable from its nationalised and planned economy, was disrupting and eroding Stalinism from inside. In Trotsky’s time, it was too early to try to draw a balance of this development – his attempts to do so were not faultless; and the balance is not yet quite clear, even a quarter of a century later. But it is evident that Soviet society has been striving, not without success, to rid itself of the heavy liabilities, and to develop the great assets, it has inherited from the Stalin era. There has been far less poverty in the Soviet Union, far less inequality and far less oppression in the early 1960s than in the 1930s or the early 1950s. The contrast is so striking that it is an anachronism to speak of the ‘new totalitarian slavery established by the bureaucratic collectivism’… It is still a matter of argument whether the Soviet bureaucracy is ‘a new class’ and whether reform or revolution is needed to bring its arbitrary rule to an end. What is beyond question is that the reforms of the first post-Stalin decade, however inadequate and self-contradictory, have greatly mitigated and limited bureaucratic despotism and that fresh currents of popular aspirations are working to transform Soviet society further and more radically. (Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, pp. 511-2.)

All along, Deutscher had the illusion that the bureaucracy could ‘de-bureaucratise itself’, and introduce socialism. This was fundamentally false. No ruling class or caste in history has given away its power and privileges without a struggle. Trotsky was a thousand times more correct when he predicted that the bureaucracy would turn to capitalism as a means of reinforcing its privileges, rather than hand power to the working class. This was even more the case in the context of the temporary economic boom in the West which coincided with Gorbachev’s reforms.

Deutscher’s central thesis was entirely formalistic and un-Marxist in character. If the bureaucracy arose out of Russian backwardness, he reasoned, then as society advanced to a higher economic and cultural level, it ought to disappear painlessly of its own accord. This overlooks the basic class contradictions in society. In any class society, once the state arises, it acquires a momentum and a life of its own. The whole of history demonstrates precisely the opposite of Deutscher’s thesis. At a critical moment, when the productive forces have outgrown the existing property relations, the ruling class and its state by no means reconcile themselves to the logic of historical progress. They fight to maintain their power and privileges, even when these are in flagrant contradiction to the demands of progress. The capitalist system has long been a brake upon the development of the productive forces, which does not at all mean that the capitalist class will voluntary surrender to the proletariat!

The development of the productive forces does not automatically determine the nature of the state. If that was so, revolution would be unnecessary, and not just in Russia. The whole of human history would be a smooth, gradual evolution in the direction of progress – something that every schoolboy knows is not the case. The inevitability of revolution arises precisely from the fact that no ruling class or caste ever surrenders in this way. The Russian bureaucracy is no exception, particularly after Stalin had exterminated the representatives of October. The way in which the bureaucracy established its power – wading through a sea of blood in the Purges – was an indication that this ruling caste would stop at nothing to maintain itself in power. As Trotsky put it:

No devil ever yet voluntarily cut off his own claws. The Soviet bureaucracy will not give up its positions without a fight. The development leads obviously to the road of revolution. (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 287.)

Deutscher’s entire line of argument was entirely in the tradition of Menshevism. It reflects the same logic as reformism, which seeks to show that revolution in general is an unnecessary inconvenience. His brand of ‘realism’ was, in effect a crude empiricism with no understanding of history whatever. It is the same kind of mentality which leads the Social-Democratic leaders in the West to abandon socialism and finally go over to the market economy, that is, from reforms to counter-reforms. Thus, this alleged realism turns out to be the worst kind of utopia.

Deutscher’s vision of a self-reforming bureaucracy provided a comforting hope for the radical ‘Friends’ of the Soviet Union, the dream of a painless transition to socialism. In reality, this was impossible without a mass movement of the working class. Success or failure depended not on the wishes and good will of the bureaucracy, but exclusively on the willingness of the working class to fight for their emancipation. The experience of Hungary shows how a mass revolutionary movement of the working class could split the bureaucracy and win over large numbers to the side of the political revolution. By contrast, the so-called reforms of Gorbachev, which aimed to prevent a revolution from below and preserve the rule of the bureaucracy, merely prepared the ground for the going over of a big section of the bureaucracy to capitalism, rather than accept the abolition of their privileges. Nowadays, Deutscher’s theories do not even have an historical interest. In all fairness, it is necessary to add that Isaac Deutscher’s widow, Tamara Deutscher, in a BBC television programme shortly before she died had the courage to admit publicly that Trotsky had been correct all along on this question.

Looking back on this period, it was incredible how anyone with the most elementary knowledge of Russian history, let alone Marxism, could have entertained the slightest illusion in Gorbachev and his policies. Yet we had so-called Marxists praising Gorbachev, and even travelling to Moscow to witness the strange spectacle of the bureaucracy ‘abolishing itself’! Of course, the advocates of the theory of state capitalism, were unimpressed, since, as far as they were concerned, capitalism already existed in Russia. What was all the fuss about?

When every other tendency was praising Gorbachev as the great Saviour, we alone pointed out that his reforms were bound to fail, and characterised him as an accidental petty bourgeois figure, doomed to be swept away. Admittedly, we thought that this would come as a result of political revolution and not a movement in the direction of capitalism which, at that stage, we erroneously considered to be ruled out. The only way to solve the problem was to reintroduce a Leninist regime of workers’ control and management, which would easily have been possible on the basis of a developed economy that now existed in Russia. But that was the last thing Gorbachev had in mind! Instead of improving things, Gorbachev’s reforms introduced a further element of destabilisation, hastening the dissolution of the system. Only two alternatives were possible. In the abs ence of a movement of the working class in the direction of a political revolution, the balance tilted sharply in the direction of a move towards capitalism.


[1] An untranslatable Russian word, originally derived from thieves’ slang, in Soviet parlance it signified the use of personal connections to obtain illicit gains.

8. From Foreign Policy to the National Question

Arms expenditure

There was a remarkable symmetry between the crisis of world capitalism and Stalinism. Both the rule of the bureaucracy and the rule of the monopolies succumbed to arteriosclerosis. In both systems, we saw the proliferation of waste, chaos, and anarchy which held back the free development of the productive forces. Both sides pointed to the faults in each other’s systems. But neither was capable of playing a progressive role in developing society. In the West, the productive forces had grown beyond the limits of private ownership and the nation states. In the East, in the countries of proletarian Bonapartism, there was a crisis of bureaucratic control and planning. In addition, there was the aggravated crisis of imperialist exploitation of the impoverished countries of the third world. War and poverty are an inevitable accompaniment of the contradictions of the capitalist system.

The early Soviet state spent little on arms. The main strength of the Soviet Republic was in its internationalist policy and the support of the workers of the world, which destroyed the attempts to intervene militarily against the Bolsheviks in 1918-21. Whilst paying attention to the material requirements of the defence of the workers’ state, Lenin and Trotsky nevertheless insisted that the main priority was the improvement of the living standards and well-being of the mass of the population. In the last analysis, that was the real guarantee of the security of the workers’ state, in conjunction with the support of the international working class.

All this changed with the victory of Stalinist reaction. Limited and obtuse in its outlook, the bureaucracy looked to a massive programme of arms expenditure as a means of competing with imperialism in the world arena. It relied exclusively on diplomatic manoeuvres and military might. For the whole period of the cold war, military expenditure imposed a huge burden on the Soviet Union. Given the intensification of the arms race between Russia and the West, and the criminal conflict between the two rival bureaucracies in Moscow and Beijing, expenditure on arms rapidly rose, devouring an ever-increasing proportion of the wealth produced by the Soviet working class.

This resulted in the formation of a powerful military-industrial complex in the USSR, with its own interests. A staggering 60 per cent of industrial output was earmarked, directly or indirectly, for the military sector, a monstrous incubus on the Soviet economy. As in the USA, the Soviet equivalent of the military-industrial complex spent colossal amounts of money in maintaining the vested interests and prestige of the military wing of the bureaucracy.

If this expenditure – both East and West – had been used for productive purposes, it could undoubtedly have solved all the economic and social problems of the terribly impoverished underdeveloped countries, the capitalist countries and the Soviet Union itself. But to imagine that this antagonism could be resolved through mutual ‘good will’ was to hark back to the ideas of the utopian socialists who believed that capitalists could be convinced by appealing to their ‘good will’ to adopt socialism. Foreign policy, as with home policy, reflected the vested interests of the imperialists on the one hand and the Stalinist bureaucracy on the other.

In 1961 alone there was a sharp 30 per cent increase in the military expenditure of the USSR. Fearful about the increase of American strategic weapons under the Kennedy Administration, the Soviet production of intercontinental ballistic missiles was stepped up from 50 to 200 a year by the mid-1960s. More missile-carrying submarines were commissioned. The surface fleet began preparing to compete with US forces on the oceans. Increasingly, with the intensification of the cold war, the arms race absorbed a massive amount of precious resources, and constituted a serious drain on the economy.

In Europe, the USSR had always had conventional military superiority, in numbers of men under arms and tanks. The production and development of nuclear weapons were seen as a means of overcoming this imbalance by the West. Although the estimates of military expenditure vary enormously according to the USA and the USSR, the figures for 1980 indicate a colossal burden on the economy. The Soviet figure for military expenditure was Rbs17 billion, or about $26 billion; the US figure for Soviet spending was $185 billion. The USSR figure is far too low, but the US estimate is also inflated. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a more reliable independent source of information, for the year 1980, the USSR spent $107 billion, while the USA spent $111 billion on arms.

For the defence of the USSR, Lenin and Trotsky relied mainly on revolutionary propaganda and an internationalist appeal to the world working class. The bureaucracy could not do that, because a revolutionary movement of the workers in the West would threaten the very basis of their rule. In any case, the hideous totalitarian one-party regime, with a sluggish economy bogged down by bureaucracy, had no particular appeal to the workers of the advanced capitalist countries – although the same was not true of the masses in the third world.

As time went on, defence expenditure became a crushing burden on the economics of the West as well as on the Soviet Union and its satellites. Nevertheless, the imperialist powers were not prepared to cut down the production of armaments too much through any agreement with the Soviet Union. A massive cut would have affected the military-industrial complex in the NATO countries. It would have reduced a vital market for those capitalist enterprises, which were paid to produce scrap metal by developing new weapons as old ones became obsolete. Under capitalism, any substantial cutback would seriously aggravate any developing economic crisis. Under Stalinism, it would transgress the interests and prestige of the military bureaucracy.

Nevertheless, their growing contradictions forced the imperialist powers to seek a ‘compromise’. All the imperialist powers felt the burden of arms expenditure and would have liked to cut the arms bill to some extent. In the Soviet Union, particularly during the Brezhnev era, investment on defence was up to 15 per cent of GNP, reducing spending on other sectors and slowing down growth. The attempt to reach détente with US imperialism through the SALT and other agreements was intended partly to cut down on wasteful military expenditure, partly a vain attempt to achieve global stability. Despite the underlying contradictions between two incompatible socio-economic systems, the two sides, dialectically, recognised that they needed each other. In reality, they leaned upon each other. The capitalists attempted to justify their system by pointing an accusing finger at the dictatorial regimes in the East, while the bureaucracy attempted to justify its privileged caste rule by pointing to Vietnam, unemployment and racism in the West.

Neither side had any interest in taking any serious action against the other. They tacitly recognised each other’s spheres of influence. Increasingly, they traded with each other. But that did not alter the real relationship between them. They still hated and feared each other. The fundamental antagonism between the capitalist world and the nationalised property forms of the deformed workers’ states had not been removed. And despite all the efforts to arrive at a modus vivendi and freeze world relations, the situation remained tense and uneasy. At any moment, the whole set up could be upset by explosions in one part of the world or another, bringing the underlying antagonisms to the fore.

President Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski stated in an astonishing interview in the New Yorker, which was reminiscent of the mad nuclear scientist film Dr. Strangelove:

It’s inaccurate thinking to say that the use of nuclear weapons would be the end of the human race. That’s an egocentric thought. Of course, it’s horrendous to contemplate, but in strictly statistical terms, if the United States used all of its arsenal in the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union used all of its against the United States it would not be the end of humanity. That’s egocentric. There are other people on the earth. (Quoted by F. Halliday in The Making of the Second Cold War, p. 232.)

Even in the Reagan Administration, discussions took place within the military and government concerning the US capacity to destroy the USSR in the event of nuclear war. According to Colin Gray and Keith Payne:

Washington should identify war aims that in the last resort would contemplate the destruction of Soviet political authority and the emergence of post-war world order with compatible Western values… The USSR, with its gross over-centralisation of authority, epitomised by its vast bureaucracy in Moscow, should be highly vulnerable to such an attack. (Ibid., p. 52.)

These authors were later employed by the US government and their views became increasingly influential in the US defence establishment.

Of course, these opinions were not representative of the decisive sections of the ruling class, who understood that nuclear war is not a realistic option. Despite the widespread fears of a holocaust, there was no danger of a world war because under modern conditions a nuclear war between the superpowers would inevitably result in Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). The capitalist class does not wage war for the sake of amusement, but to conquer foreign markets, raw materials and spheres of influence. A nuclear war would have led to mutual destruction and the end of the planet, which is precisely why it did not take place.

Recognising that developing the productive forces is the key to the stability of any society, Gorbachev aimed to reduce arms expenditure, in order to produce more consumer goods and boost the living standards of the increasingly restive Soviet people. That is why Gorbachev was prepared to concede more in negotiations with imperialism than he was offered in return. Another reason for the temporary détente between imperialism and the Stalinist bureaucracies in the 1980s was the dangerous social consequences of the super-exploitation of the ex-colonial countries.

The debt of the colonial countries to imperialism had reached $1300 billion. Rising interest rates and the widening gap between the relatively low price of raw materials and foodstuffs, the dominant form of production for the under-developed economies, and the relatively high price of the capital goods and industrial products, which are produced in the metropolitan countries, intensified the exploitation of the labour of the masses of the third world. This remorseless exploitation pushed them down into levels of poverty which were greater than at any time in the last 50 years. This was a formula for explosions and revolutions.

‘Peaceful coexistence’

World history, since 1914 has been the history of attempts to arrive at agreements and compromises which end in further explosions. The temporary agreement between the so-called democratic powers and the Soviet Union during the course of the war against Hitler did not last long after the collapse of the Nazi regime and of Japan. Towards the end of the war there had been an agreement between the Allied powers for the Soviet Union to enter the war against Japan. But the imperialist powers changed that policy. The Japanese were ready to surrender but President Truman still ordered the dropping of two atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombs were a warning to the Soviet Union of what could happen to it, if it did not do what US imperialism wanted. However, Stalin realised that the troops of imperialism were war weary, and were demanding to be sent home as soon as the war was over. Russian troops invaded Manchuria and defeated the Japanese army in just ten days. So, the bombs failed in their purpose.

Very rapidly international relations entered the period of the cold war. This in its turn led to the arms race, dwarfing even the massive rearmament programme of Hitler between 1933-39. But the arms race cancelled itself out. One superpower’s attempt to gain an advantage in one sphere or another was immediately counteracted by the other. The cold war was followed by a period of relative détente but this was of a very shaky character. The arms race also served the purpose, for the West and the Soviet Union, of diverting the mass of people to look for an enemy outside the borders of their own country. Thus, American imperialism endeavoured to put all the blame for the explosions in the third world on to the shoulders of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bureaucracy. On the other hand, the Soviet bureaucracy portrayed itself (with more justification) as a beleaguered fortress threatened by imperialism.

‘Peaceful coexistence’ of different economic and social systems was Stalin’s, not Lenin’s idea. “We are living not merely in a state, but in a system of states,” Lenin said at the Eighth Party Congress in July 1919, “and it is inconceivable that the Soviet republic should continue to exist for a long period side by side with imperialist states. Ultimately one or the other must conquer. Until this end occurs a number of terrible clashes between the Soviet republic and bourgeois states is inevitable.” (Quoted by E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, Vol. 3, p. 123.) Again, only a year later, after the defeat of the foreign armies of intervention into the Soviet Union, Lenin said: “We have passed from war to peace but we have not forgotten that war will come again. So long as both capitalism and socialism remain we cannot live in peace. Either one or the other, in the long run, will conquer. There will be a funeral chant either for the Soviet Republic or for world capitalism. This is a moratorium in a war.”

Two years later, Lenin summarised the relations between the new Soviet state and the imperialists:

We have got a certain equilibrium, although extremely fragile, extremely unstable. Nevertheless, such an equilibrium can exist – of course not for long – in a capitalist environment.

Before the Eighth Congress of Soviets, Lenin repeated this idea:

We cannot for a moment believe in lasting trade relations with the imperialist powers: the respite will be temporary. The experience of the history of revolutions and great conflicts teaches us that wars, a series of wars, are inevitable. The existence of a Soviet Republic alongside of capitalist countries – a Soviet Republic surrounded by capitalist countries – is so intolerable to the capitalists that they will seize any opportunity to resume the war. (LCW, Vol. 31, p. 472.)

And Lenin’s prediction was proved right when ‘peaceful coexistence’ ended in the nightmare of the Second World War.

It is true that for relatively short periods ‘peaceful coexistence’ was maintained. But inevitably the contradictions between two conflicting social systems generated irreconcilable antagonisms. That explains the euphoria of the imperialists at the collapse of Stalinism and their support for capitalist counter-revolution in Russia and Eastern Europe. Periodic diplomatic crises and accords between imperialism and Stalinism went on throughout the post-war period. In 1955, Soviet bureaucrats and Western imperialists met at Geneva for the first time since Potsdam in 1945. Negotiations were again resumed when Khrushchev visited the USA in 1959. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961 led to a round of negotiations that led to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty the following year. In 1969, with the advent of the Nixon administration, relations led to détente and a series of arms reduction talks and agreements. With the Russian invasion of Afghanistan to prop up the pro-Moscow regime in Kabul, and the election of Ronald Reagan as US president, diplomatic relations between the superpowers began to deteriorate, leading to what some have called the ‘second cold war’.

The negotiations between Russia and the United States and its allies, including the Reagan- Gorbachev summit, were supposed to guarantee ‘world peace’. These summits attempted to breed illusions that world peace and international harmony (‘peaceful coexistence’) could be achieved through ‘good will’ between the imperialists and the Stalinist bureaucracies. This was fundamentally false. It was the boom in the capitalist countries in the 1980s, coupled with the contradictions within imperialism and the crisis in the Stalinist states, which led to a temporary desire by the superpowers to arrive at a mutual agreement. But the underlying reality was of two fundamentally opposed social systems which could not tolerate indefinitely the existence of the other. Their basic antagonism could be softened only temporarily.

In the 1980s, Gorbachev was desperate to arrive at some sort of an agreement with world imperialism. In an attempt to get an agreement with the capitalist powers, the Soviet leadership openly renounced the strategy of revolution and denied the relevance of class struggle. This was really only putting a stamp on what had been the position for a long time before. Erich Honecker, the ex-East German Stalinist leader, without blinking an eyelid, wrote in the British Morning Star that:

Human beings include people from different, even antagonistic classes in society. They extend from the working class to circles of monopoly capital itself. We are far from reducing international relations to a class struggle stereotype.

Similarly, at the time of Gorbachev’s visit to Britain, the Morning Star (5/4/1988) was happy to state that:

New thinking suggests that there are universal human values – peace, security and justice; values that are common to all of us irrespective of our nationality, religion, ideology or class; values that transcend all such differences.

These sentiments were utopianism of the worst character. Gorbachev claimed to have broken with Stalin, on whom he blamed all the crimes of the bureaucracy