TRB #2: Author’s Introduction

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.

The Revolution Betrayed Cover


Previous Post   Continue to next post

The Revolution Betrayed #1: Introduction by David North

David North, chairman of the editorial board of the World Socialist Web Site, wrote this introduction in December of 1990. A quick google of events in that year shows the Dow Jones hitting a new record at 2,800, Gen Noriega of Panama surrendering to US forces, China lifting the martial law imposed after Tienanmen Square, Romania banning the Communist Party, Soviet president Gorbachev sending troops into Azerbaijan to quell pro-independence demonstrations, a protest in Romania against the Illiescu government, and the first McDonalds opening in the Soviet Union—and that was just January.

By the time this introduction was written, Gorbachev would allow opposition parties, Germany would be reunified, the Soviet Union would withdraw troops from Czechoslovakia, Boris Yeltsin would resign from the Communist Party, White Russia and Bosnia-Herzegovina would declare independence, the U.S. would deploy troops to Saudi Arabia after provoking Saddam Hussein into attacking Kuwait, Lech Walesa would win a general election in Poland, the Dow Jones would set yet a new record high, and there would be the first test of what would become the World Wide Web.

The Soviet Union, in other words, was in the middle of disintegrating. North begins by comparing the prognosis in The Revolution Betrayed to that of academics and journalists. “Who among them predicted even after the accession of Gorbachev to power that the Soviet government would reject the principle of central planning, repeal all restrictions on private ownership of the means of production, proclaim the market to be the highest achievement of civilization, and seek the complete integration of the USSR into the economic and political structure of world capitalism?”

All of which happened within an incredibly short time—those of us who were around remember that it seemed practically every day there was another major chunk of what had been the USSR and the “Eastern Bloc” dissolving, to the unrestrained glee of the US stock market. (It is interesting to note, by the way, that when the stock market suddenly climbs, this means something good has happened for capitalism, which is almost inevitably bad for the working class. On the other hand, when the stock market suddenly dips, it means capitalism is facing a new crisis—which crisis will be taken out on the working class. But I digress).

Point being, The Revolution Betrayed predicted exactly this—that if the Russian and international working class could not find a way to remove the parasitic bureaucratic caste that was ruling the Soviet Union, the only alternative was capitalist restoration, accompanied by the harshest measures of repression and economic catastrophe. The years following 1990 bore this out, until today in Russia we have a government ruled by Putin, who is closer to a mafia Don than a political leader.

It is worth taking a moment to consider this prediction of Trotsky’s, because it stands in such sharp contrast to the prediction of the bourgeois academics and journalists. As a rule, they did indeed predict the fall of the Soviet government—in 1917.  The Soviet government was expected to last a few days, or maybe weeks. After the conclusion of the wars of intervention (1918-1922), their attitude, in general, was either that the Soviet system would remain in place forever, or that it could only be destroyed by external force, hence the fact that for its entire existence the Soviet Union was either engaged with or threatened by military forces of comparatively overwhelming power. This brings up the question of how it survived, which we’ll get into in the course of the book. For now, the point remains that Trotsky’s 1936 prognosis was verified by events.

How was he able to make this prognosis? North points out that this work was written in Norway in 1936, when Trotsky was all but isolated. He had at his disposal only newspapers, his books, and—his method. “What sets this book apart from all others written about the Soviet Union is the analytical method that its author employed.” This question of method is one we’ll be coming back to, not only in understanding the development of the Soviet Union, but in understanding developments in the world around us: how is it that we go about making sense of the development of an individual, a political tendency, a world-historic event. Much of the value of The Revolution Betrayed, in my opinion, lies in seeing it as an example of dialectical materialism in action, so as we go I expect to spend a fair bit of time on it. “Dialectical logic is not a form of clever argumentation employed by those who possess a talent for inventing brilliant, but contrived, paradoxes; it is, rather, the generalized expression in the domain of thought of the contradictions which lie at the base of all natural and social phenomena.”

Much of North’s introduction consists of a brief outline of Trotsky’s argument, which I’m not going to reproduce here. But in doing so, he is at times required to review history that, in Trotsky’s time, would have been fresh in everyone’s mind. This is from footnote 3: “That the choice confronting Russia in 1917 was between a proletarian revolution and a liberal democratic regime modeled on Britain, France, or the United States is a political fantasy. Had the Bolsheviks failed to seize power in October, the events of 1917 would have in all likelihood concluded with a successful replay of the counterrevolution which General Kornilov had attempted in August.” I will add that by counterrevolution, he means a restoration of the Romanov monarchy, or, at best, a brutal dictatorship that would have prostrated Russia before her imperialist “allies” leading to her existence as a colonial country not unlike India. “We might add that if Lenin and Trotsky had behaved in 1917 as ‘respectable’ social democrats, collaborated with the Provisional Government, cleared the way for Kornilov’s victory, and then perished in a fascist debacle, liberal historians today would no doubt write of them as sympathetically as they do of Salvador Allende.”

“Trotsky, living in Norway, completed the introduction of The Revolution Betrayed and sent the final portions of the manuscript to the publishers barely two weeks before the beginning of the trial of Zinoviev and Kamenev in Moscow…the Norwegian Social Democratic government, submitting to pressure from the Kremlin, demanded that Trotsky renounce the right to publicly comment on contemporary political events, ie, on the Moscow frame-up trial.” When he refused, he was arrested—all of which tells us a great deal about both Stalinism and the Social Democracy.

After a few months, Trotsky was deported based on the testimony of a fascist hoodlum who had failed to burglarize his apartment. Here, North quotes from Isaac Deutscher’s The Prophet Outcast: “Trotsky raised his voice so that it resounded through the halls and corridors of the Ministry: ‘This is your first act of surrender to Nazism in your own country. You will pay for this. You think yourselves secure and free to deal with a political exile as you please. But the day is near—remember this!—the day is near when the Nazis will drive you from your country, all of you together your Pantoffle-Minister-President.’ Trygve Lie shrugged at this odd piece of soothsaying. Yet after less than four years the same government had indeed to flee from Norway before the Nazi invasion….”

Let us now jump forward to 1990. “Today, the desperate crisis of the Stalinist regime has been seized upon by the bourgeoisie as final and conclusive proof that ‘socialism has failed.’ However, the value of these pronouncements may best be judged not by what they say as by what they leave out. It is virtually impossible to find in either the capitalist press or ‘respectable’ academic treatises any reference to the Trotskyist, ie, Marxist, critique of the Stalinist sabotage of the Soviet economy.”

I just want to take a moment to look at that: During the entire course of the existence of the Soviet Union, there was exactly one tendency, Trotskyism, that predicted what would happen, that anticipated essentially all of the problems—economic, political, and social—that caused the collapse, and this is the tendency that is never mentioned by those who gloat over the result. One of the things mentioned by Trotsky, and by North, is the “worship of the accomplished fact” divorced from all understanding of what produced this “fact” and the processes and movement it embodies. It seems that experience teaches these people nothing.

North goes on to discuss at some length the working out of the prognosis given in the book in the years immediately following its release—the Popular Front (“the alliance between the bourgeois democracy and the GPU”), the Stalin-Hitler pact that created such consternation among Leftists, and how confusion among socialists as to the class nature of the Soviet Union (confusion that still exists, and is largely why I’m writing these posts) led to disorientation, error, and outright betrayal within the workers movement (Pabloite revisionism, the Burnham and Schactman split, &c).

“Of all the services rendered by Stalinism to world imperialism, none is more important than its discrediting of socialism in the eyes of broad sections of the working class.”

In the quarter of a century since this introduction was written, this has been proven true over and over again. Yet, “the truth will out.” There really is no other way forward for the working class, for the oppressed, than socialism, and interest in socialism and Marxism, in spite of the predictions of cynics, has not only never died, but is now growing. There is the subjective element—the thinking of the individual—and the objective, the world crisis of capitalism. They are not independent; the former is always, however imperfectly, a reflection of the latter. The deeper the crisis and the greater the blows capital inflicts, the easier it becomes to bring our understanding closer to objective truth. We might miss the subtle, but it’s harder to miss the obvious. For the sake of illustration, speaking from bitter personal experience, it is possible to be unaware that one’s marriage is in trouble by denying to one’s self the meaning of the signs, clues, and remarks; but when one is told, “get out and don’t come back,” denial just can’t stand up. In the world today, to pick just one example out of many, for over 150 years Marxists have said that the police represent the armed might of the ruling class, and that their fundamental job is repression; how many more people understand that now, compared to even two years ago? However much the reactionary seethes and gnashes his teeth, however much the middle-class liberal tries to wriggle, the objective forces of capitalism are driving the masses toward revolution. And yet, if the history of the last hundred years has taught us nothing else, let it teach us this: the revolutionary will of the masses, however determined and self-sacrificing, is insufficient to overthrow capital without theoretical knowledge—knowledge that is exactly the job of the revolutionary party. The Revolution Betrayed was not an empty, academic work; it was the precursor to and an important part of the next stage of the struggle: the founding of the Fourth International.

“The two great lies of the post-World War II era—that Stalinism represents socialism and that capitalism, at least in its metropolitan centers, is compatible with peace and democracy—are being shattered by the force of events. Neither the pragmatic bourgeois nostrums broadcast by the mass media nor the insipid existential fatalism cultivated in the universities are capable of satisfying the demands of the working masses for a way out of the social catastrophe to which capitalism is leading.”

The working class must be armed politically before being armed with rifles. That it must and will arm itself with rifles is, in my opinion, a foregone conclusion, and not something anyone has any control over. The political arming is something we can do something about. With that in mind, let’s proceed to the book itself.

Previous Post:          Next post: Author’s introduction.

On Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed

In my opinion, there is no question today more important and simultaneously more difficult than understanding the degeneration of the workers state in the Soviet Union.  Interest in socialism is growing as capitalism produces greater and greater income disparity, and more open measures of police repression in response.  There are the “socialism is a good idea but—,” people, and there are the, “I’m in favor of it as long as it can be accomplished peacefully” people, and the “I’d be in favor except that it always turns into a dictatorship” people.  It is impossible to talk to any of them without the question of the Soviet Union coming up.  Only once in history has the working class taken and held state power; how can those with an interest in socialism not care about it?  With this in mind, I’m going to be rereading the classic work on the subject, The Revolution Betrayed by Leon Trotsky, and working through it here as I do.

In the course of discussing the Soviet Union with people, one will find a great range of assumptions, from the mystical (“It’s human nature that any group in power will want to keep that power, even if it means harsh measures of repression”) to the deeply ignorant (“Stalin simply continued what Lenin had started.”)  These, and all of the other quick and easy explanations, are natural and understandable.  If the Trotskyist position is wrong, that by itself explains why so few accept it; if it right, then it is a strong argument in favor of socialism, and so hardly in the interest of the educational system and capitalist propaganda to represent it fairly.

And, speaking of propaganda, if you want to follow along on these posts, be clear that that is what I am doing: propaganda, defined as conveying one’s opinion in an attempt to convince.  In my previous efforts at logging notes from books I was reading (The Wealth of Nations, Capital Volume 1, and Anti-Duhring) my agenda was, above all, trying to clarify my own understanding; as a result, I mostly ignored comments unless answering them helped me work through the issue.  In this case, my agenda is more polemical—I’m hoping to persuade you that I’m right.  Of course, I still won’t bother answering comments from those who seem only interested in taking shots, unless doing so gives me the opportunity to advance an argument in a positive way.  Reactionaries, and those who have an interest in preserving oppression, will obviously not be interested in giving my remarks a fair hearing: the view of the Soviet Union as proof that communism can never work is simply too important to them to relinquish it—just as, on my part, I have no interest in giving a “fair hearing” to avowed representatives of capital.  I am coming at this from being on a particular side (the working  class) and viewing things from a particular perspective (Marxism).  If I do this well, those of you who are already on my side, will, perhaps, come to see the value of my perspective.

My intention for these posts is that they’re designed for those who are reading along with them; in other words, I’m going to be attempting to comment on and explain the points I want to emphasize, not recapitulate Trotsky’s arguments.   I’m going to be using the Labor Publications edition, Copyright 1991, introduction by David North.  I hope some few of you, at least, will follow along with genuine curiosity, motivated by a sincere desire to make the world a better place.  That is all a propagandist can reasonably ask.

ETA:  Will Shetterly pointed out that the text is available free on-line.  Here’s the link.

Next Post: Introduction by David North.