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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TRB #12: Sidebar on Revolution, Democracy, Repression, and Terror

Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of the Cheka

Reader Miramon made an interesting comment on my last post, raising some issues that I think are important to address, both for their own sake, and because it will allow me to put forward some ideas that deserve exploration.

He says:

“Seems to me that clause ‘full unity in action’ must necessarily lead to a habit of obedience in all party members, even without any corruption, even without a Dzerzhinsky ordering the mass-executions of traitors real and imaginary.”

There is a theoretical error here: looking at the Party that creates the society as if it had to be a model of the society it creates. At first glance, this is an attractive theory: how can a non-democratic party create a democratic society? In fact, the two have nothing to do with each other. In general, parliamentary democracy has been brought into being by force—revolutionary or military. The organs used for this process were anything but democratic. The party is not the society, it is the tool used by the working class to create the society. If the instrument of creation had to resemble the object created, every work of sculpture would look like a chisel.

However, even ignoring that, I believe the argument is flawed: The “habit of obedience” is an entirely different thing when one is following orders rather than when, as in the case of the Bolsheviks, one has a hand in crafting and deciding on those orders, in which case any “habit of obedience” is mutually dependent on the “habit of decision-making.”

And as for the meaning of obedience in this context, let us look at the Democratic Party of our own age. If you look at the Party Platform you will be struck at once by how little it actually says about anything. However, with some work, we can find a few things the Party appears willing to admit it is for. For example, “Maintaining the Strongest Military in the World.” Now, I’m sure we’ll agree that there are members of the Party who disagree with that, and would like to see the military de-prioritized, if not seriously cut. And it is not unlikely that they fight for this position within the Democratic Party. And yet, an official spokesman for the Party who stumped around the country attempting to rally support from the public against an element of the Democratic Party platform would soon enough no longer be an official spokesman. When a political party adopts a position, it is incumbent on members of that party to support it publicly, or remain mute, or leave the party when speaking in an official role. That is the essence of “full unity in action.”

Once the Bolshevik Party determined its course, voting after a full discussion, those who disagreed with the decision were expected to go along with it, or to remain mute, or leave the Party (although, certainly, they could continue fighting for their position within the Party). What Lenin insisted on, and fought for at the Party Congress of 1903 in which the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks split, was a party that would function as a weapon in action, rather than a loose society of generally like-minded people.

“But even so, under Lenin the security apparatus took advantage of the state of emergency to seek out and eliminate elements that were not treacherous or subversive but merely not in harmony with Bolshevik objectives.”

But… what were the Bolshevik objectives from 1917 to 1923? A workers state, and the prevention of a restoration of the monarchy or a Kornilovist fascist counter-revolution. The forces repressed by the Bolsheviks were those whose class interests were hostile to the working class, whether Black Hundred murderers, or the Mensheviks who were collaborating with Capital, or the Right Social-Revolutionaries who were attempting to assassinate leading Bolsheviks. Were the Bolsheviks too harsh in their suppression of the enemies of the working class within those first years? I would say just the reverse: if they can be held culpable, it was for excessive misplaced kindness: how many Czarist nobles and generals were released in the early days of the revolution, who then went on to fund, organize, and lead the Civil War against the workers’ state? Is it possible that members of the Cheka abused their power to settle personal scores? Absolutely. But let us remember that anyone caught doing so would have been immediately sent before a workers tribunal; even his enemies spoke of Dzerzhinsky as incorruptible. Yes, revolutionary force can be abused; but it also contains its own method of limiting and correcting the abuse—up to the point where the revolutionary masses are no longer in control of their own destiny. The question then becomes how and why the revolutionary masses lost that control, which goes back to what I addressed in the previous post.

“IMO you cannot found a state that aspires to the revolutionary virtues of liberty, equality and fraternity based on tactics of terror.”

In fact, I believe that is the only way to found such a state—or, indeed, any state that represents a new class coming to power. One of the contradictions in our world is that we want to live in a society of peace, of freedom, of equality; but the only way to achieve that involves violence and revolution and the class struggle. But this is not unique to proletarian revolution. Every advance in social form has been accomplished by violence and terror (to be sure, rarely using the word terror) or by war. From the first bourgeois revolution, which ended with Cromwell’s dictatorship, to the American Revolution, which at once turned into a bloody war and which (American myths to the contrary) was accompanied by extreme repression of “Loyalists,” to the Great French Revolution and the “Reign of Terror,” to the bloody and seemingly endless wars in which the German states failed to unify until the late 19th Century, to the string of uprisings in 1848 in which national bourgeoisies tried, with greater or lesser success, to win their independence, capitalism has accomplished its mission of creating parliamentary democracy through violence, terror, and repression. How could it be otherwise, without convincing the old order of kings and nobles to go quietly into that good night, which no ruling class has ever done if it still had any chance of fighting?

Underneath these arguments, notwithstanding the statement that “I grant that the USSR was under many forms of attack during the early years and so some harsh measures were necessary to preserve the state,” is a sort of idealized picture of revolution that has nothing to do with reality, as if the insurrection occurs on January 1st and you wish for complete freedom, full democracy, and all human rights restored on January 2nd. This, of course, could be accomplished if there were no danger of counter-revolution; but if there were no danger of counter-revolution, the revolution itself would be unnecessary. So, how long do you continue measures of repression? The answer is provided for us by every bourgeois state in history: As long as needed to secure power for the new ruling class, and no longer. When can a state reduce its police forces, surveillance systems, and prisons, and permit greater liberty?  In the case of the Soviet Union, surrounded by enemies for its entire existence, the answer was: never.

Finally, Miramon brings up the question of Trotsky’s attitude toward Dzerzhinsky.  Rather than taking up more blog post, those of you interested in the question may want to read this.

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TRB #11 Chapter Four Part 2: The Attack on Party Democracy

Michael Kitchen as Trotsky 1971
Michael Kitchen as Trotsky, 1971

I just watched a BBC series from the ’70s called Fall of Eagles in which Patrick Stewart plays Lenin. The version of Lenin presented by the writers has him fighting against party democracy, and insisting on control of the party by the “center.” This fits in well with the liberal bourgeois view of “original sin” regarding the Russian Revolution: ie, it was made by an anti-democratic group, so, naturally, the society created by the revolution was anti-democratic. There is, however, a problem with this view of Lenin (in addition to the reasoning itself, which is dubious). I look behind me at the book shelf and I see Lenin’s collected works in more than 40 volumes, of which most of them were written before the Revolution. These volumes have articles, polemics, pamphlets, notes, and, in general, huge amounts of material directed, not at the masses, but at the Party, in which Lenin fights for his political and theoretical positions. This forces one to ask: If he could merely dictate his decisions, why work so hard to convince the Party of his view of capitalism, of the role of the peasantry, of the State, of the tasks of the vanguard party? Why the need for the tremendous theoretical battle around the “April thesis”? Why did he, at one point in 1917, nearly resign from the Central Committee in order to take his case to the Party membership, so he could convince them of the correctness of his ideas and thus adjust the Bolshevik policy? It is a strange sort of absolutism that must bring weapons of reason to the rank & file members in order to determine policy.

As for the state, let us remember that a state does not require measures of repression against the class whose interests it serves. While the Soviet state was genuinely working in the interests of the masses, it did not need to repress them. A bureaucratic clique, on the other hand, operating for its own interests against the interests of the workers, soldiers, and peasants, had to depend on force. But then, how to take the power from the armed masses, who might(!) object to government functionaries allocating to themselves the best fruits of society?

The government established by the October Revolution was built on the Soviets, and Soviets remain the best form of representative democracy yet devised. They reflected, not the will of “the people” in an abstract sense, but rather the will of the working class and peasantry. The October Revolution was made at the point where the Bolsheviks had won a solid majority in the Soviets, which were the organs of the revolutionary masses, based on democratically-elected representatives. (I should note in passing that when I say democratic, I mean democratic within the revolutionary classes: the working class, the soldiers, the peasants; I am making no claim of universal suffrage. The nobility and the capitalists, not being represented in the Soviets, were disenfranchised; anything else would have been criminal light-mindedness.)

The unprecedented influence of the Bolshevik Party, based on the confidence of the armed masses, meant that democracy within the Party became the key point of attack. While the Bolshevik Party (in alliance with the Left Social-Revolutionaries) dominated the Soviets, who held the machinery of the state in their hands, the Party became the linchpin, as it were, to governmental positions which were the ticket to such limited luxuries as Soviet society was able to produce. While things do not fall into any sort of neat, orderly cascade (Party, to Soviets, to Government), it is the case that control of the Party became the key to privilege, and that thus internal Party democracy came into conflict with the needs of the bureaucratic caste.

In fact, the development of knowledge necessary to take on Czarism, much less capitalism, required freedom to argue and disagree–arguments and disagreements that more than once spilled over onto the pages of Pravda. The principle of democratic centralism, by which the Bolshevik Party was guided, is expressed in the phrase, “full freedom in discussion, full unity in action.” These two clauses are not accidentally juxtaposed; each depends on the other. The democratic discussion and decision-making within the Party gives the members confidence that the action is the will of the Party; the unity in action is what gives the free discussion meaning. That was democracy within the Bolshevik Party, but what of the Soviets, and of the country?

“The degeneration of the party became both the cause and the consequence of the bureaucratization of the state.” (Page 82) Insufficiency requires inequality; inequality requires a State to enforce the inequality. In capitalist countries, the state operates in the interest of the capitalist class—that is, the class with privileges to protect; for exactly the same reason, in the Soviet Union the State began to operate in the interest of the careerists in the growing bureaucracy, because that is where the privileges lay. Thus the Party had to be transformed from an instrument of working class revolution to an instrument of preservation of the privileges of the bureaucrats. In order to do this, obedience to the Central Committee had to become the highest virtue, and to do this, the party had to be opened to a massive influx of non-working class individuals: functionaries, career clerks, officials, ex-military officers, all of whom had, in Trotksy’s words, “the habit of obedience.”

The battle launched by the bureaucracy against Party democracy was protracted, carried out in polemics, pamphlets, and Party meetings from 1922 to 1928. But, as ought to be clear by this time, ideas and arguments take a back seat to events in the class struggle, and to the correlation of forces. The Bolsheviks (now the Communist Party) had the confidence of the Russian working class, the soldiers, and the poorest peasants. They held this confidence through the worst trials of the Civil War, of War Communism, and of the New Economic Policy. In an important way, confidence in the Bolshevik Party reflected the masses’ confidence in themselves. With the defeat of the working class throughout the world, especially in Germany, that confidence began to erode. The forces hostile to and afraid of the working class, those who were jealous of the privileges they had by being a part of the bureaucratic mechanism of the state, lifted their heads. Many of the waverers, in losing confidence in the ability of society to secure those privileges for everyone, became increasingly concerned to preserve those privileges for themselves.

The process of coming to an understanding of political and theoretical questions within the Party is one of conflict, of sharp disagreement, of argument. Stifling disagreement within the Party hindered the Party’s ability to understand the processes it needed to influence, just as without the freedom of disagreement within the scientific community, the development of knowledge is crippled. But we have seen in our own lifetimes efforts to stifle the development of scientific knowledge, in such areas as climate change, when that knowledge would contradict the material interests certain groups. And that is exactly what began to happen in the Soviet Union. As the bureaucracy, focused on Stalin, gained power, the first attacks on democracy were within the Party—disagreement with the party leaders (Stalin, Kamenev, Zinoviev) became identified as disloyalty.

The repression of freedom to disagree within the Party led inevitably to theoretical mistakes; theoretical mistakes led to catastrophic decisions, catastrophic decisions led to catastrophic events, both inside the Soviet Union in terms of economic policy, and internationally. Perhaps the two most important of these were the defeat of the German Revolution of 1923, and the massacre of the Shanghai working class in 1927. These defeats, though caused by the policies of the ruling clique, strengthened that clique by demoralizing the masses. This demoralization, combined with the truly appalling casualties of the most advanced, class-conscious workers in the Civil War, permitted the Stalin faction to solidify its hold and replace self-sacrifice and intellectual honesty with loyalty to the bureaucracy and blind obedience as the highest virtues. The doors of the Party were opened to career bureaucrats, managers, petty bourgeois elements: in short, to forces hostile to the working class. Even before his death, Lenin attempted to introduce measures to limit Party membership so as to insure domination by the working class.

And the “virtues” I mention above were, of course, not empty platitudes; those who proved their loyalty and obedience to Stalin were given the privileged governmental positions. In turn, they sided with the bureaucracy in the struggles against the Left Opposition. With the defeat of the Chinese Revolution in 1927, then, the way was cleared for the Opposition to be expelled and Trotsky exiled, which actions were carried out in 1928, thus securing for the Stalin gang an iron hold on the Bolshevik Party—a hold that could only be broken by further developments of the class struggle.

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TRB #10 Chapter Four Part 1: Conditions for Bonapartism

Poster advertising the NEP, 1921

I’m writing this on November 24th. Last night, at a Black Lives Matter protest here in Minneapolis, white supremacists shot and wounded several peaceful protesters. This took place at the 4th Precinct, where, as you’d guess, there was no shortage of cops. The police response was to mace the protesters. The protest had been triggered by the police shooting of an unarmed black man, who, according to witnesses, was handcuffed when he was shot. A few days ago, the head of the police union said that the witnesses who claimed he was handcuffed should be prosecuted. I bring this up to emphasize that the question of how and why a State moves from democracy to totalitarian dictatorship is not merely academic. Between police terrorism and NSA surveillance and persecution of whistle-blowers and a candidate for the Presidential nomination of a major party encouraging beating of dissidents at his rallies and calling for Muslims to be required to wear identification marks, we are seeing that process develop before our eyes.

How, then, did a Bonapartist dictatorship take hold of the proletarian revolution? “A political struggle is in essence a struggle of interests and forces, not arguments.”

This sentence not only holds the key to answering the question of how the Stalin faction came to power, but also addresses those who believe (as, of course, I do, and so do you) that their arguments are rational, and that therefore something is fundamentally wrong with those who don’t see things their way, and with those who want to abandon the whole notion of rational discourse and polemic on the basis that no one will be convinced anyway.

This question is so important, that I want to take a moment to look at it, even though it does not directly address the nature of the Soviet State, or the triumph of bureaucratic dictatorship over proletarian democracy. What, exactly, is the role of polemic, propaganda, discourse? How does it matter when it is so much less a question of argument than of interests and forces?

Consider a sheet of 440c steel that I want to turn into a knife blade. I can press it and bend it as much as I want, but I’m never going to produce a knife blade. In order to shape the steel, I have to heat it up. In this analogy, the steel represents the consciousness of the individual, and the heat is from the clash of objective forces. In other words, my assertion is that developments in the objective world—police terror, income disparity, war—make people question what they know, and encourage them to seek new answers. It is at this point that rational argument supported by facts can, indeed, make the critical difference. That’s why I don’t believe I’m entirely wasting my time by arguing for my beliefs, and why I try to be convincing. But I need to recognize that events in the world as they affect individuals are stronger than any argument I might make.

There was an incident that I remember reading about, though I haven’t been able to find it, where, following the betrayal of the Chinese Revolution of 1927, a fellow Left Oppositionist said that their movement would grow because their predictions had been proven correct. Trotsky replied that they may gain a few because of that, but that it was a defeat for the working class, and the program of the Left Opposition was based on working class victory, and the objective forces of the class struggle had greater effect than a correct prognosis. This proved true—the defeat gave impetus to the Stalin clique, which based itself on anti-working class forces, even though its policies had led to the defeat.*

The class struggle ebbs and flows. The post WWI era, the middle to late 1930s, and the post WWII era saw tremendous class battles. I believe we are on the verge of another such period as I write these lines. And, as capitalism is international, it is the international situation, the international correlation of forces as the working class measures its strength against capital, or retreats into demoralization and quiescence, that provide ground that, for the ideas of socialism, is fertile—or not.

“It is sufficiently well known that every revolution up to this time has been followed by a reaction, or even a counterrevolution. This, to be sure, has never thrown the nation all the way back to its starting point, but it has always taken from the people the lion’s share of their conquests.” (To those who will claim that the American Revolution is an exception to this rule, as to many others, I would assert that it is not, but that is the subject of its own post.) The point is, yes, it is part of the nature of revolution that it is followed, in some measure, by a drawing back, by a reconsideration; by putting a crown on Charles II, by removing the head of Robespierre, by abandoning Reconstruction of the southern states. Part of the reason for this is simply exhaustion—that is, the psychological, moral exhaustion of a people having gone through the trauma of revolution. This reaction, in the case of Soviet Union, set in after the Civil War, aided above all by the betrayals by the Social Democrats of the revolutions in Western Europe. Though Trotsky doesn’t mention it, in my opinion the death of Lenin in 1923 must also have been a factor in the declining sense of optimism among the revolutionary masses.

I’m talking about the mood of the masses because this is a key element in understanding what happened. I’ve talked about the impoverishment of the Soviet Union, the retreat of the international working class, and the death of the most theoretically advanced and self-sacrificing cadres during the Civil War. Add to this a widespread feeling of demoralization among the masses who had been counting on being rescued by the workers of the advanced countries, as well as the reaction that, as I said above, is part of the process of revolution. Consider all of this, and remember that the real guardian of proletarian democracy must be the armed masses themselves. It’s often been said that a working class strong enough to exercise its dictatorship over society will permit no dictatorship over itself; but what happens when it isn’t strong enough?

Into all of this we add the NEP, or the New Economic Policy, which recognized that, with the delay in the rescue of the workers state by the European working class, some capitalist property relations had to be reintroduced. Let us remember that, taking the long, historical view, the most important thing accomplished by capitalism is to build the productive forces up to the point where it permits its own destruction, and the destruction of class society as a whole. One thing the NEP did, in addition to building the productive forces and permitting the survival of the economy, was to increase the petty bourgeoisie–that class that benefited in particular from the reforms. And as they increased, like any social class, they pushed for political power.

Another thing that happened around this time was, with the end of the Civil War, a massive demobilization of the army. Many of the officers, used to command positions, naturally found their way into the growing bureaucracy, which began to acquire a more “careerist” character. The importance of the growth of the bureaucracy can’t be overstated: the running of the institutions of the state took on even greater importance than in a bourgeois society, as discussed in post #5 . Thus the forces were arrayed, as always, around class interests, but in this case, rather than bourgeois versus proletarian, it became petty bourgeois versus proletarian, as it was largely the middle class that benefited from the NEP, and that flooded the ranks of the bureaucracy.

Another way to express it is that there were those who were determined to move forward, and those who lacked confidence in a socialist future, and so were determined to entrench and preserve what they had. As always, the conflict of material interests played out through the decisions of individuals, and the decisions of individuals were determined by material forces.

I’ll go into more detail next time.


*This also provides an answer to the idiotic notion that revolutionaries want to make things worse.  It is the fight to make things better that unites the working class, and small successes, won by their own efforts, give them confidence and momentum.

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TRB #9 Chapter Four: The Productivity of Labor


Trotsky, Lenin, and Kamenev at the Party Conference in 1919


At the end of the previous chapter, Trotsky writes, “…the ‘root’ of every social organization is the productive forces, and … the Soviet root is just what is not mighty enough for the socialist trunk and for its crown: human welfare.” This correctly places human productivity at the center. To draw things to the point of absurdity, it is clear that in a society where the day’s labor of each individual is only sufficient to provide what is needed to sustain that individual for a day, there can be no question of everyone having plenty; whereas in a society where one individual’s labor for five minutes could sustain a hundred people for a year, the only question becomes: how much luxury should we create balanced with how much labor we feel inclined to engage in.

Of course, we are neither at the one extreme nor the other; my example is only to show the importance of productivity of labor. But the productivity of labor itself is complex and multi-faceted. It includes the average individual skill of workers in each of many industries, the level of technological development in each industry, the infrastructure that supports each and connects them, the quantity and quality of raw materials—and if that isn’t complex enough, each of these factors dialectically interconnects with all of the others.

“The deathblow to money fetishism will be struck only upon that stage when the steady growth of social wealth has made us bipeds forget our miserly attitude toward every excess minute of labor, and our humiliating fear about the size of our ration.” This is where a scientific, materialist approach to human society cuts through centuries of idealist rubbish. How much of the unhealthy, destructive attitudes toward each other and toward signs of wealth and other objects have at their root nothing more than the conditions of struggle to get by? Of course we get pissed off when our boss wants us to do extra work that we aren’t being paid for, and of course we need to scrape, and budget, and always be looking for how to get more for less; and of course these attitudes will naturally and painlessly vanish when labor is no longer a burden, and when satisfying our wants is no longer connected to arbitrary measures of how “valuable” we are, but rather dependent on the ever-increasing abundance of society and our own needs and wishes. Is there anyone who would deny that we have, today, the material and intellectual resources to make this happen? And the key element to it all is: the productivity of labor.

The point, however, is that the Soviet Union was most emphatically not in a position to do that, exactly because the productivity of labor had begun in such a handicapped position. So then, everything—the survival of the workers state, the creation of socialism—depended on raising it. The Soviet Union had many advantages in this campaign: public ownership of production, the capability for central planning, a state monopoly on trade, and so forth. It is hard to overstate the importance of these factors: consider that they provided the capability of going, in a mere 40 years, from one of the most backward countries on Earth to being the first to conquer space. But if one is to take a scientific approach to raising the productivity of labor, one important thing that is needed is a metric. Fortunately, a perfectly good metric had been inherited from the past: money. Money is many things at once: it is a commodity, it is an economic lubricant, and it is a measure of economic health. But in order to be useful for any of these, and especially the last, it must be stable. “For the regulation and application of [successful economic] plans, two levers are needed: a political lever in the form of real participation in leadership of the interested masses themselves, which unthinkable without Soviet democracy, and a financial lever, in the form of a real verification of a priori calculations with the help of a universal equivalent, which is unthinkable without a stable money system.”

Tying the value of money to a relatively stable commodity (ie, gold), in effect ties it to the value of labor-power, which, in the last analysis, actually determines its value. Hence the importance of tying the ruble to gold, and the reason the decision of the Stalin clique to break that connection made things so much more difficult. I mention this here mostly because it provides such a perfect example of the dialectical relationship between the two “levers” Trotsky speaks of. The lack of Soviet democracy leads to any number of other errors, because it removes the possibility of timely correction of policy errors.

And here, once again, we return to what I believe is, for contemporary readers, they key question: the failure of Soviet democracy. The simplistic notion of Stalin as a “bad guy” who overthrew the “good guys” answers exactly none of the questions. Unscientific nonsense about “revolutions always result in totalitarianism” tell us nothing, especially when we observe that essentially all of today’s democracies had their origin in revolution. We might, to be sure, spend a fair amount of time on the psychological characteristics of Stalin, distinguished by rigidity, lack of imagination, inability to generalize, and so on; but this also fails to address what I believe is the real question: how did an individual with these characteristics come to have so much power concentrated in his hands? Or, to put the question another way, how did it happen that an undemocratic bureaucracy usurped control of the Bolshevik Party, the Soviets, and the country?

That is the question I’ll be taking up next.


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