The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

TRB # 13: Chapters 5 – 9: The Nature of the Soviet Union


Potemkin Mutiny

The mutiny of the battleship Potemkin, 1905

One of the more interesting things I’ve realized as I’ve gone through the book is the degree to which Trotsky’s polemic was aimed in the opposite direction of mine. That is, I am attempting to show that the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet state is not an inevitable feature of proletarian revolution, but rather a response to the particular national and international conditions at the time. Trotsky was focused above all on showing that the Soviet state was deeply flawed, not the perfect realization of humanity’s dreams that Stalin’s apologists saw it as. Today, it would be hard to find 6 people who were still convinced of what was, at the time the book was written, an extremely common perception. This difference of intent is why, after going through the first half of the book with relative care, my notes are so much scantier in the second half.

“The revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat was in part devoured by the administrative apparatus and gradually demoralized, in part annihilated by the civil war, and in part thrown out and crushed.” (Page 90). Two pages later, we get to what I think is the real heart of the matter: “We may lay down approximately this sociological theorem: The strength of the compulsion exercised by the masses in a workers state is directly proportional to the strength of the exploitive tendencies, or the danger of a restoration of capitalism, and inversely proportional to the strength of the social solidarity and the general loyalty to the new regime.” And then, on page 96, “The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all.”

Much of the rest of the book details the repression and abuses of the masses under the Thermidorian regime, tracing the reasons for them, and tearing aside the lies that surround them, but that is beyond the scope of what I’m hoping to accomplish with this series of posts. However, I do want to spend a moment on Chapter 9, “What is the Soviet Union?” Page 203 poses the problem nicely: “If a ship is declared collective property, but the passengers continue to be divided into first, second, and third class, it is clear that, for the third class passengers, differences in the conditions of life will have infinitely more importance than that juridical change in proprietorship.”

On page 207 is, perhaps, the best summation of the state of the Soviet Union in 1936: “To the extent that, in contrast to decaying capitalism, it develops the productive forces, it is preparing the economic basis of socialism. To the extent that, for the benefit of the upper stratum, it carries to more and more extreme expressions the bourgeois norms of distribution, it is preparing a capitalist restoration.” And here is the key to answering the question, “what is (or, rather was) the Soviet Union?” It is natural to want to slap labels on things—we feel more comfortable with them, and when we know to what category something belongs, it helps us begin to address how to deal with it. This is reasonable, useful, so long as we are sufficiently flexible about what things belong in what categories, and when the categories themselves change. And here is the problem with the Soviet Union: it was neither one thing, nor another. It was not capitalism, because ownership of the means of production was held in common; it was not socialism, because the fruits of production were not divided equally. It was something “neither fish nor fowl,” but rather a society in transition between them. It is as if we were to see a tight-rope walker in the process of losing his balance and struggling to retain it and were trying to answer the question, “Is he on the wire, or is he falling?” Both of those conditions, balancing and falling, are real, and are different from each other, but there is a point where our acrobat is between them, and either answer is wrong. The Soviet Union maintained that condition for some 70 years.

The question has come up more than once, and has caused no small amount of confusion and disorientation: was the Soviet bureaucracy a ruling class? Obviously, it is impossible to answer this question without defining “class.” Without question, there are those who define class by the amount of money they have, which is tempting by its very vagueness: it is impossible, and therefore unnecessary, to put precise boundaries on such a thing, yet it does fit in well enough with our common perceptions of day-to-day life: we do see how the super-rich live, we see how the poor live, and it is obvious there is a huge difference, and we can assign “middle-class” to those in between, and thus have conversations about how unfair it is that the upper class is so much higher than the poor, and don’t you think we all ought to meet in the middle somewhere?

But if we understand that human society is a mechanism for creating and distributing articles of want, thus providing more than any of us could create individually, and if we want to understand a given society, then, above all, we need to understand how the process of production and distribution works through the activity of individuals in that society, and the place of those individuals within that process. When I use “class” I refer to this position. The slave-owner sells the products of the labor of human property, called slaves; the landlord or aristocrat sells the product of the labor of the peasant, who works and lives on land owned by another; the capitalist sells the product of the labor of those whose labor-power he has bought, ie, the proletarian. The petty or petit bourgeoisie usually refers to those who, if you will, exploit their own labor by producing value, and then sell the commodities thus produced (as a freelance writer, I fall neatly into this category myself).

In a factory, there are maintenance people of various sorts, who, while not directly involved in production, are necessary to keep operations going. Similarly, for a government to operate, it is necessary to employ people outside of the police and military forces that are the heart of the state, simply to permit the machinery to function. Just as the maintenance people in a factory are part of the working class, so too are the governmental functionaries. In some cases, the bureaucracy that handles governmental functions can become huge and powerful, Prussia being one example. Sometimes, these functions can even become hereditary and carry with them pomp, prestige, and wealth, just as in special cases a worker, such as an actor or a sports figure, can become a wealthy celebrity. To make it even clearer, a trade union is a working class organization. It is possible (actually, today, it is pretty much certain) for a trade union to be run by a non-democratic bureaucracy working in the interests of the capitalists, but that doesn’t change the nature of the union as a working class organization, and it doesn’t turn the bureaucrats into capitalists.

So, why does it matter? At the time the book was written, it mattered a great deal. The October Revolution was a political revolution, in that state power was transferred; and an economic revolution, in that a new class, the proletariat, was brought to power. The crushing of democratic rights within the party, the Soviet, and society, still left the economic change in place. This meant that half the job, if you will, was done: what was required was a political revolution, not an economic revolution. Whether that revolution could succeed depended on many factors: the growth of productive forces within the Soviet Union, which increasingly made the ruling clique obsolete; the activity of the international working class, each advance of which was a threat to the bureaucracy; and the actions of imperialism, which kept constant pressure on the workers state, drained resources from the country, and simultaneously coerced and encouraged the Stalinist gang to betray the working class in other countries.

Marxists call the transitional period between capitalism and socialism a “workers state”. The degenerated political leadership of the Soviet Union deformed it, but had not, at that time, destroyed it. This is why the term “deformed workers state” is used in Marxist literature to describe the Soviet Union.

ETA: Some excellent questions have come up, concerning what I mean by petty-bourgeois influences and Stalin’s role.  I think the questions are important enough that I want to address them here, rather than in the comments.

First of all, the issue is not why Stalin became General Secretary, but rather, how did what was essentially a clerical position in 1922, come to have so much power by 1924? It should be clear that this was a protracted process, no one, not Lenin, Trotsky, or anyone else, considered Stalin a representative of the petit bourgeoisie at the time of his appointment as General Secretary; he was a rather minor, unimaginative, short-sighted, but determined and uncompromising party operative.  As the forces alien and hostile to the revolution gained power, they needed someone who was unimaginative, short-sighted, but determined and uncompromising.   The process of gradually  taking on more and more of the decision-making, of course, coincided in part with Lenin’s illness and Trotsky’s absence from Moscow while at the front lines; but this is only answers one part: how did the technical, day-to-day procedures become placed in Stalin’s hands?  The larger questions, why was he permitted to make those decisions, why did he choose to make the decisions he did, and why were those who opposed him less effective, has to do with, well, really, everything I’ve been discussing in the preceding 12 posts.

The petty-bourgeois elements were largely the kulaks and the careerists in the bureaucracy (who were not, technically, petit-bourgeois, but had interests in common with them, just as the manager of a business may be a worker, but have more interests in common with the owners), as well as those who, under the NEP, had created capitalist enterprises.  These were actual forces in society, and so found someone to “speak” for them, in much the same way that, today, the elements in the ruling class that want to crush the proletariat right now have selected Trump as their spokesman, those who think it possible to fool the working class with the possibility of reform have selected Sanders, and the ones who hope to continue business as usual are backing Clinton.  The peculiarities of character in a given person make that person more or less suitable to represent different sections of society.   Once those forces were in play—the revolutionary forces represented by the Left Opposition, the reactionary forces by Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev—the development of world events was the determining factor in the fight for power between them.  It was a test of strength far, far more than a test of ideas or personality.  Or perhaps I can simplify by saying this: The class forces have far more of an effect on selecting who speaks for them, than the personality of that spokesman has on the class forces.  This is equally true of Stalin, of Lenin, and of Trotsky.

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Author: skzb

I play the drum.


  1. > Page 203 poses the problem nicely.

    Indeed, and I think this is one of the consolations of the failure of the Soviet Union, that through most of its existence it wasn’t really communist at all, and so does not serve as a refutation of the theoretical premises of the system.

    I think we disagree as to where the failure occurred, however. Stalin was certainly a monster who destroyed what was left of the communists’ hopes for Russia. As you say there is no longer any great need for Trotsky to argue this point as there was back in the mid-20th century when the extent of Stalin’s crimes was mostly unknown in the west.

    However I blame Lenin not just for creating conditions in which Stalin could seize power, not just for trusting Stalin personally for so many years, but also for bad policy and dreadful mistakes during his active tenure. I will grant good intentions on Lenin’s part and on Dzerzhinsky’s that I wouldn’t concede to Stalin and Beria, but in the end I think many millions died as a consequence of Lenin’s mistakes. The entire nation was consigned to a hundred-year dark age that is not over yet, and the consequences for Russia’s neighbors and for the world at large were even more dire.

  2. skzb

    I don’t think intentions count for very much. I’m not sure there is much point in arguing about Lenin’s mistakes, because I suspect there is very little overlap in what you think were his mistakes and what I do, In my judgment, it was not Lenin who created the conditions for Stalin to seize power, but the combination of objective conditions I’ve outlined in my earlier posts. And even in the case of Stalin, it isn’t that he was a “bad guy” who got into power, as much as, when the petty bourgeois elements and the forces hostile to the revolution gained influence, they found someone to represent them. To the extent that Lenin’s mistakes contributed, they were, in my opinion, tertiary factors at best.

  3. The tsars did not usually need to murder as many people (in short term bunches) as the Soviets did, but objectively I would have to say that Stalin, for all his faults, pulled the country OUT of a dark age economically. It is hard to imagine how bad the Russian economy was, particularly if most of what you see of Russia are Winter Palaces and great novels. To put it in perspective, the Russian partition was more developed than even Moscow or Petrograd. The Russian Partition was less developed than the Prussian Partition. The Prussian Partition was one of the least developed parts of Germany.

    As an example, twenty years later, the Red Army was more technologically advanced than the Wehrmacht. This reflects not just a few genius inventions, but a broad economic base to mass produce their designs. That accomplishment is at least as stunning as the rise of Japan and similar economic miracles that got more press in the Western world.

    So we have proof that a deformed worker’s state is capable of functioning better than a completely predatory capitalist one. (But we also have examples that it can be out performed by less pure forms of imperialist capitalism.)

    I don’t know enough about China to say if it was still a deformed workers state when it started to challenge other economies.

    As Billy Bragg said: you can borrow ideas, but not situations. So the few examples real history gives us cannot give us definitive answers to which system is best.

  4. Okay, Putin agrees with me. Possibly he’s even reading this blog because otherwise the timing is inexplicable. This is embarrassing. Fine. I take back everything bad I said about Lenin.

  5. I have to agree with Steven here. People do make individual choices, and those choices matter, but to a very large extent things get determined by “objective” conditions.

    Like, a politician starts to do something and he gets lots of feedback telling him it’s a bad idea. And then he doesn’t. Often when things go wrong it’s because those feedback loops are not working right, and it was lots of individual decisions which resulted in them not working — or maybe objective conditions prevented it.

    I think they could have done a lot better at agriculture if they had kept the tractors running. But they didn’t train or assign the people who would do that, so it didn’t get done, and the farmers didn’t have the connections to get the problem handled early. Why did they lack those connections? A lot of individual choices, when the people who made the choices had no idea about the implications of what they chose. And also objective conditions.

    Someone could have made choices that might have improved that. Like, design tractors around tank engines. Design farms that could use great big powerful tractors. Then the guys who maintain the tractors will be maintaining the tanks on the battlefield, and you notice if it isn’t working because everybody knows tanks are important. But you can’t depend on people to come up with things like that. If they do, it might turn out that most places the dirt is not compatible with giant plows etc, that would be suitable for tank engines. It’s a giant puzzle with too many interconnections for anybody to understand.

    Some people claim that free markets solve that problem, while central planning can’t. But when I look at it, free markets depend on institutional memory. You get a whole lot of people saying things like “We did pretty well last quarter, so let’s be ready to increase production 1% this quarter.” It can get 3% GDP growh if objective conditions allow it. When they try to grow fast, they do no better than central planning.

    So anyway, people make lots of choices and they don’t know what consequences they’ll get when they choose. Objective conditions tend to decide the results, and those objective conditions arise partly out of everybody’s previous ignorant choices. Their intentions aren’t very important when they don’t know what they’re doing.

  6. skzb

    PrivateIron: Yeah, there are huge and important things about the development of the peasant revolution in China, and the phases it went through, that I have to admit I just don’t get. I should put that on the “study someday” list.

    Miramon: *Splork*

  7. I’d say the US is well on the way to a “completely predatory capitalist” state. We are no longer the best in a lot of categories. A country cannot succeed by squandering it’s human capital.

    I don’t think it fair to blame many of Russia’s problems under Stalin, on pressure from the Capitalist West, unless you are referring specifically to Nazi Germany. We (the US) supplied Russia with materials and technology to help the Russian war effort. To be sure, we imposed some limits because we were afraid that Russia would become a new enemy once the war was over. And it was.

    After WWII, the American worker was treated fairly well. Both to build the economy and to reduce the incentive of the worker to go communist. Once we “won the cold war”, the kid gloves came off and 40 years of stealing from the workers began.

    It would seem that whenever a government is comfortable in its power over the people, regardless of the nominal form of the government, it gravitates to a select few profiting immensely from enslaving the workers.

  8. “…we were afraid that Russia would become a new enemy once the war was over. And it was.”

    The phrase “self-fulfilling prophecy” leaps to mind. Treat someone as an enemy, and they’ll usually return the favor.

  9. I understand. But I think it was destined to be in any case.

  10. “And even in the case of Stalin, it isn’t that he was a ‘bad guy’ who got into power, as much as, when the petty bourgeois elements and the forces hostile to the revolution gained influence, they found someone to represent them.”

    I don’t think asking about this violates my promise to stay off this thread, so out of curiosity, what do you base this view of Stalin on? Are there any particular biographers, histories or case studies that you recommend?

  11. Yeah, I think that comment could use some clarification too though it is really just a nitpick and an aside.

    Needless to say, Lenin chose Stalin as General Secretary in 1922 after Stalin’s bloody anti-Menshevik military campaign in Georgia, which may have been unprincipled but demonstrated strong support for the Bolshevik party. I can’t see how Stalin’s appointment could be characterized as the bourgeoisie finding Stalin to represent them. IMO that appointment was entirely due to Lenin choosing Stalin to act as a political supporter against Trotsky.

    So unless Lenin is characterized as a bourgeois champion, I’m not sure how that virtually destroyed class could manifest itself in Russia power politics in the early 20s. To be sure the bureaucracy and nomenklatura replaced the void left by the bourgeoisie (and the nobility too) in terms of stratified power and privilege in the Stalinist USSR. Also to be sure Stalin effectively created that class or societal system or whatever through his patronage program. But were those bureaucrats really former bourgeois landlords and businesspeople? That’s hard to believe given the anti-bourgeois fervor of Lenin and Dzerzhinsky. Or did the nomenklatura merely aspire to wealth and privilege and form the usual oligarchic support structures under Stalin’s mantle? That’s a lot more plausible to me.

    I would rather make Stalin the active agent of ruin than say he was a mere pawn of the somehow-resurgent bourgeoisie. Similarly I blame Lenin for appointing Stalin, not hidden or external capitalist forces.

  12. I agree. I do not see what influence the bourgeois could have in the normal sense. Walk up to Stalin with cash in hand to buy a post? He’d take the money and have you shot. Maybe if you had a particular business expertise?

    I’m guessing that many of Stalin’s problems were due to paranoia (real and imagined).

  13. skzb

    L. Raymond: Trotsky discusses some of this in his History of the Russian Revolution, and more in his biography of Stalin. Also, Russian historian Vadim Rogovin has done some good work on the subject. I can also recommend Back In Time by Nadezhda Joffe

    Miramon and David: I thought those questions important enough that I’ve added an answer to the original post. I hope it’s useful.

  14. Thanks for the suggestions. I have Trotsky’s book, but as you may have gathered I don’t regard him as a source of reliable fact. Joffe’s sounds interesting as memoirs generally do, but I’m afraid it wouldn’t be good source for this question. I’ve not heard of Rogovin, so I’ll definitely check to see what is said about his work.

    Do you have an opinion of Montefiore’s bios, “Court of the Red Tsar” & “Young Stalin”? I haven’t read either one, but they’re highly regarded and I’m considering getting one or both.

  15. skzb

    Not familiar with either, sorry.

  16. Thanks skzb.

  17. Miramon: “Also to be sure Stalin effectively created that class or societal system or whatever through his patronage program. But were those bureaucrats really former bourgeois landlords and businesspeople?”

    Yes! The classes they grew up in were no longer important. What mattered was their place in the current ecology.

    Before and during Stalin’s rise, many of the fervent believers had been killed. A lot of the survivors cared more about surviving, they wanted a system that produced enough food, and preferred to avoid more chaotic violence.

    Stalin offered them patronage. If he won, they won. Or at least they could hope so.

    Of course, they could still get in trouble for not being born proletarian, just like a few years later good Nazis could get in trouble for having a Jewish grandmother. But not being known to be born bourgeois was just one of the hoops to jump through, to be allowed into the in-group.

    If you aren’t too much worried about who’s truly right, doesn’t it make sense to try to join the team that looks like it will win?

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