I think that as many people will read this, they will be asking: “Socialism failed in the Soviet Union, how did that happen?” My problems with the question as it is formulated are, for the moment, beside the point. The approach Trotsky takes is to ask: “What exactly is the social, economic, and political nature of the Soviet Union, how did it get there, and where is it going?” I hope and believe the answer to the first question will be contained in the answer to the second.
In the previous post, I made mention of the law of combined development, and how, in many ways, Russia had leapfrogged the advanced capitalist countries. Here, I want to emphasize “in many ways.” At the time of the October Revolution, Russia was still mostly an agrarian country. Unlike the advanced Western countries, where farming produced enough to support a massive industrial proletariat, the number of people working in industry was tiny. That is one of the contradictions of Soviet society: a backward level of development, but extremely advanced levels within many industries. Over-all, the word is “uneven” is accurate, although not nearly strong enough.
As a Marxist, Trotsky takes as a starting point an objective assessment of the country as it was at the time of his writing (1936); unless we see what actually is as regards material conditions, aside from our wishes or prejudices, we have no basis for understanding. Marxists believe that the most basic function of society is to provide the necessities of life to the people of that society, and that, therefore, the most important determining factor is the productivity of labor—in other words, before we even ask how things are distributed, we must ask: to what degree is this society able to produce enough to meet the needs of the people? The question “what is enough” is actually significant at a certain point: those who observe that poverty today is generally better than poverty a thousand years ago are not wrong; “enough” is a question that is determined socially. But whatever definition we use, the ability of the society to produce is the issue, and, in the last analysis, that raises the question: how much can an individual make in a given time? Productivity of labor, in turn, is determined by several factors, including the level of infrastructure (roads, railroads, telephone lines, &c &c), the level of development of the productive forces (farm equipment, factories, tools), and technique—the skill with which workers are able to use all of the above.
Trotsky therefore begins with various metrics to measure what we might call the successes and failures of the Soviet economy, or, more precisely, where the economy currently (1936) stands. These metrics include things like miles of railroad, agricultural production per acre, production of steel, coal, &c &c. He is looking at this from two perspectives: one, compared to the pre-revolutionary condition of Russia, and two, compared to the major capitalist countries.
The first of these shows a resounding triumph; the second shows the reverse.
In order to understand the scope of what was accomplished, it is worth reviewing a few things. Russia entered World War I as the weakest of the major powers in terms of level of industrialization, and in both industrial and military technique. For anyone inclined to view the details, Trotsky presents them in chapters one and two of his History of the Russian Revolution.
Following the revolution came civil war, supported financially and militarily by the major imperialist powers. Between 1918 and 1923, armies from the following countries invaded the Soviet Union: Germany, Britain, Italy, Greece, the United States, Australia, China, Austria, Czechoslovakia*, Japan, and France. The loss of life—especially among the most dedicated, class-conscious workers—and the destruction of infrastructure and production capacity were staggering. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Russia emerged from this war utterly exhausted and with industry and infrastructure barely able to support itself. This map should give a general idea of the scope of the war.
There is dialectical relationship between industry and agriculture: improved agricultural technique requires support from industry, and at the same time produces sufficient surplus to support the industrial workers. In a capitalist country, this balance is anarchic, determined by the market, and in general results in massive debt for the farmer and his gradual conquest by agribusiness. But what happens when this relationship is confronted by the massive destruction of railroads and roads, as well as the factories that produce the machinery agriculture requires?
That is what Russia faced. On the other hand, it had two factors in its favor: socialized property relations (ie, State ownership of production), and the confidence of the working class and the poorest peasants. The advantage of State ownership was tremendous: it permitted decisions on production to be based on the over-all requirements of society, rather than personal profit, as well as directing the fruits of that production to where they were be most needed. The result of this was tremendous; it permitted advances on a level never before (or since) seen in history.
Let’s get specific and discuss what this produced by 1936. There are a lot of data in this chapter, but I’ll cut out what I can, because what’s important is to get the general idea, and because I’m addressing these posts mostly to those who are choosing to read along as we go. And the general idea is a deep, profound contradiction.
As I said above, the single most important metric in a society for the purpose of showing its potential to meet the wants of its citizens is the productivity of labor, and in this, the Soviet Union lagged far behind the western powers, both because of the undeveloped character of industry, and the lack of technique of the average Soviet worker. “In the best metal foundry, according to the acknowledgment of its director, the output of iron and steel per individual worker is a third as much as the average output of American foundries. A comparison of average figures in both countries would probably give a ratio of 1 to 5, or worse.”
That refers to basic, heavy industry–required by other industries. But the quality of goods produced gets worse from there. “A unique law of Soviet industry may be formulated thus: commodities are as a general rule worse the nearer they stand to the mass consumer.”
Quality is always an issue where poor technique meets underdeveloped infrastructure. He speaks of the abysmal quality of automobiles, as well as the poor condition of roads and railroads. The tractors—so vital in raising the level of agriculture—spend more time being repaired than they do working (literally). This is even more pronounced if we look at the results as they reach the worker or the poor peasant: there has been, up until this point, little or no improvement in his day-to-day condition, and this improvement is the foundation on which the promise of socialism rests.
And yet, there is the other side of the coin: Every capitalist country in the world saw either stagnation or decline of industrial capacity when comparing its state from the end of WWI to that in 1936. The exceptions were Germany and Japan, in which increased “industrial capacity” meant arming for war. Japan, which in addition to arming itself was busily plundering its neighbors, saw the biggest increase: 30%. During this time, the Soviet Union’s increase in industry was 250%! No country, before or since, has shown anywhere near that level of industrialization in that short a time. Those who believe it was simply making up for her impoverishment are invited to look at Turkey, India, China, and Greece, which were also impoverished, and remained that way until built up by investment of foreign capital—which, in essence, bought those countries.
“In 1920, when the first plan of electrification was drawn up, there were ten district power stations in the country with a total power production of 253,000 Kilowatts. In 1935, there were already ninety-five of these stations with a total power of 4,345,000 kilowatts. In 1925, the Soviet Union stood eleventh in the production of electroenergy; in 1935, it was second only to Germany and the United States.”
For now, I think the point is clear enough: “With the bourgeois economists we have no longer anything to quarrel over. Socialism has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of Das Kapital, but in an economic arena embracing one-sixth of the earth’s surface—not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of iron, cement, and electricity . . . thanks solely to a proletarian revolution, a backward country has achieved in less than twenty years successes unexampled in history.” I can only add that in the 80 years since the book was written, that remains the case.
I spoke above of a deep and profound contradiction. There were, in the Soviet Union, many, but this is the one I was speaking of above all: between the unprecedented advancement of industrial and agricultural development on the one hand, and the way the Soviet Union lagged behind the advanced capitalist countries on the other. As we study the development of the Soviet Union in order to understand how it arrived where it is, we must keep that contradiction firmly in mind.
*To be precise, Czechoslovakia didn’t invade—troops were already there at the time of the insurrection, and spent their time trying to leave. But they, in effect, took the side of the imperialists, so I include them on the list for that reason.