The introduction to The Revolution Betrayed was written in August of 1936—as mentioned before, just two weeks before the start of the Moscow frame-up trials. The United States is still in the middle of the Great Depression. That year also sees the publication of The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money by John Maynard Keynes. Hitler rules in Germany, and in March of that year “pro-democratic militarist” Keisuke Okada is replaced as Japanese prime minister with radical militarist Koki Hirota, securing control of the government for that faction. Fascist Italy anexes Ethiopia. The Remington Rand strike begins in the US. The social democrats sell out the French General Strike, paving the way for military capitulation before Nazi Germany. The Spanish Civil War begins. In short: it is the final preparation for what will soon become the second World War.
As will become clear in the first two chapters, the Soviet Union is at this time a mass of contradictions–poor technique, terrible productivity of labor, agricultural poverty, cultural backwardness co-exist with the most incredible rate of growth of productive forces ever seen. “The learned economists of capital still often try to maintain a deeply cogitative silence about the unpredecented tempo of Russia’s industrial development, or confine themselves to remarks about the extreme ‘exploitation of the peasantry.’ They are missing a wonderful opportunity to explain why the brutal exploitation of peasants in China, for instance, or Japan, or India, never produced an industrial tempo remotely approaching that of the Soviet Union.”
Why? Why both the explosive tempo, and why the contradictory elements: famine, inefficiency, terrible productivity of labor? Is one dependent on the other? Would it be possible to have the one without the other? We will, of course, be getting into that–after all, the book would be largely pointless if we didn’t.
But there are some contextual things that I should mention as we consider the reason the book was written. For one, it is important to understand that the attitude of the working masses toward the Soviet Union was different in the 1930s than it was in the last half of the 20th Century. Stalinism had not discredited itself (using the name socialism), the murder and repression were only beginning and not generally known, and even more, the selling out of the Stalinist-controlled trade unions by signing no-strike pledges during WWII had not happened. Most of my readers are probably familiar with the virulent anti-communism of the McCarthy era; but fewer of you are, I would guess, aware that the seeds of McCarthyism fell on ground that had been prepared by the role of the Communist Party in the trade union movement during the war. This, in the United States in particular, left the working class already bitter toward the idea of communism.
My point is, none of this had happened yet, and millions of workers were looking toward the Soviet Union with hope, or at least with a friendly fascination. Playing on this, as opportunists inevitably will, there emerged various schools of pro-Soviet writing, marked by a refusal to be the least bit critical of the ruling clique.
Trotsky discusses the types of writing produced by “the friends of the Soviet Union.” He says, “What unites these three catagories, despite their differences, is a kowtowing before accomplished fact and a partiality for sedative generalizations . . . this kind of contemplative, optimistic and anything but destructive literature, which sees all unpleasantnesses in the past, has a very quieting effect on the nerves of the reader and therefore finds a cordial reception.”
In part, the book was in response to these nostrums that concealed more than they revealed. But that, in a sense, begs the question: why is it important to understand the Soviet Union in the first place? “The purpose of the present investigation is to estimate correctly what is, in order the better to understand what is coming to be.” It would, I hope, go without saying that an understanding, in 1936, of where the Soviet Union was headed would be of no small interest to socialists and to any class-conscious worker. And in the sense that I mentioned in my introduction to these posts, the prediction, and then the outcome, is of vital importance to us today.
“Whoever worships the accomplished fact is incapable of preparing for the future.”
This is a key element, and I would beg the reader to remember it, both as we proceed, and now, as we look at the “why” of the book’s being written. Ten thousand times in my life have I heard some form of, “Socialism failed in the Soviet Union. That is a fact, and you can’t deny it.” Indeed not. But…what is a fact? A fact is a first-order abstraction from reality. It is a fact that I have three computer monitors—this means that, in my mind, I have abstracted from my monitors everything about them except their quantity. I could have said, “My ACER monitor is six years old,” or, “My Samsung monitor has a power switch in the lower right-hand corner,” and so on. These are all facts. The monitors themselves are not facts, they are material objects, from which, in my mind, I may pull whatever abstractions are useful for my cognitive activity.
To “worship the accomplished fact” is to make a single abstraction, and fetishize it—remove it from its historical and sociological context, ignore all thought of how it came to be and where it is going, and invest it with weight that it cannot carry without its poor epistomological back breaking.
To worship the “fact” of the Soviet Union’s “failure to accomplish socialism” is as unscientific as to deny it. Without looking at context, processes, and the interrelation of this fact with others, there is no possibility of understanding.
Here is, in essence, what the book is going to be looking at: Was the USSR socialist? If it was not, does that tell us that socialism is impossible? Why or why not?
I think, in some measure at least, we can answer the first question right here in the introduction: “If you remember that the task of socialism is to create a classless society based upon solidarity and the harmonious satisfaction of all needs, there is not yet, in this fundamental sense, a hint of socialism in the Soviet Union. To be sure, the contradictions of Soviet society differ profoundly from the contradictions of capitalism. But they are nevertheless very tense. They find their expression in material and cultural inequalities, governmental repressions, political groups and the struggle of factions. Police repression stifles and distorts a political struggle, but does not eliminate it.”
Is that task Utopian? Are the Bolshevik methods—popular uprising led by a vanguard party—responsible for the degeneration of the workers state? And, above all, how do we make this determination? Those who are convinced it doesn’t matter, or who are too invested in cynicism and despair to consider the matter scientifically, are invited to stop reading now.