TRB #7 Chapter Three Part 1: Inequality and the State

Storming of the Winter Palace

The storming of the Winter Palace, October, 1917
There is so much confusion, vagueness, and even mysticism regarding the State that, in discussing it, I hardly know where to begin. Perhaps one of the most pernicious unfounded ideas is “there has always been a State.” In order to accept this, one must use such a broad definition of State that the term becomes meaningless. In particular, when we look at hunter-gatherer systems (according to the best information I’ve been able to find), we see a society without the fundamental element that, in my view, defines the State: compulsion. If there is no compulsion, and no threat of compulsion, and, above all, no organized force responsible for compulsion, then, whatever you’re going to call the social organization, it just isn’t a State.

The lack of compulsion was pretty clearly a product of egalitarianism—or, rather, egalitarianism meant there was no need for compulsion: no one had more than anyone else. In this write-up from Psychology Today, I was especially intrigued by the notion of “aggressive egalitarianism,” versus passive. The egalitarianism was, in turn, the result of scarcity. Lacking not only the means to produce a surplus, but (perhaps more important), the means to preserve what surplus nature might from time to time provide, meant no chance for an individual or a small group of individuals to accumulate wealth.

Before going further, a note on equality: I think the notion that “equality” refers to people being identical in every way is best left to reactionary science-fiction dystopias. But it is important to be precise about what is meant by the word, because it’s going to come up a great deal in this post. In brief, I mean equality in the sense that no one is entitled to a greater share of the products of human labor than anyone else, or a greater voice in how these products are distributed.

I’ve spoken before about the relationship between the State and class society, but this time let me look at it from the standpoint of its initial development: Once Man has invented the tools and technology (ie, agriculture) to regularly produce a sufficient surplus to permit the accumulation of wealth, and, thus, to support a leisure class, then the question at once comes up: how does this leisure class maintain its privileges, its luxuries, as against the rest of the population who, we might assume, would just as soon have some of the leisure and luxuries for themselves? If I am able to amass a certain amount of wealth from the labor of others—generally, at that stage of society, slaves of one form or another—then I can use some of it to pay for armed individuals to protect my privileges, and to enforce a monopoly on violence.

Once there is a group of armed individuals protecting the property and privileges of a leisure class, we have several things: First, we have a State, because that is exactly the definition I’m using. Second, we begin to have religious, philosophical, and moral injunctions to support the State. Third, we have, for the first time, the chance to hear someone say, “What do you mean leisure class? Do you know how hard I work?”

The question “when are two individuals part of different socio-economic classes, and when is one part a privileged layer of the same class as the other” is going to become very important, but I hope we can skip it for now. The point is, as long as there is socio-economic inequality, there must be a State. The State is a function of, and inevitably tied to, social inequality—in particular, inequality in the distribution of goods. As long as there is inequality, there must be a State; if there is a State, we know there must be inequality. The form of the State varies, but, in general, we can say that it always involves three aspects: a gendarmerie to maintain the property of the exploiting class, an army to deal with external threats, and a bureaucracy to handle the administrative details that inevitably come with the first two. These aspects may be larger, smaller, or combined in various ways, but they are always there. As society progresses, division and productivity of labor increases, relationships mediated by property become more diverse and powerful, and the State in general and the bureaucracy in particular becomes larger and more complex. Indeed, as capitalism advances through the industrial revolution, the bureaucracy becomes so large and complex that it begins to obscure the other functions, and make it appear as if the armed forces are secondary to it.

Another important function State begins to take on is that, except in unusual and extreme circumstances, it gives the appearance of standing apart from and above the contending classes, and mediating their conflict. Custom becomes codified into systems of laws that reflect the actual class relationships while giving the appearance of creating them—to identify the law as determining the relationship between classes is like saying thermometers cause changes in temperature, but it can sometimes look that way, if we ignore history and broader social context.

But with all of this complexity and fetishism, what always lies at the heart of it is the defense of inequality, of social privilege, and making certain those who create the material wealth of society are held in check and prevented from taking their share of it; in Trotsky’s words, “A special apparatus . . . for holding in subjugation the majority of the people.” And underneath the inequality is the inability of society to satisfy everyone’s wants.

So, then, two questions arise: 1) Once society is able to satisfy everyone’s wants, does that mean the elimination of inequality? And 2), Does the elimination of inequality necessarily mean the end of the State? In my opinion, the answer to both questions is yes. The first does not come without effort, without the overthrow of the State and placing it into the hands of the majority, and, even after that (as we’ll see in subsequent chapters) it is not an automatic result. The second is what I want to discuss here.

One argument for the Marxist view that the end of inequality will result in the withering away of the State was expressed by Hegel: “that which is rational is real, that which becomes irrational becomes unreal.” Or, in other words, once there is no reason for the State to exist, once it serves no purpose, why would it continue? Indeed, there are habits, customs, and expectations; but these by themselves aren’t powerful enough sustain a large bureaucratic institution of compulsion once there is no reason to compel. “The material premise of communism should be so high a development of the economic powers of man that productive labor, having ceased to be a burden, will not require any goad, and the distribution of life’s goods, existing in continual abundance, will not demand—as it does not now in any well-off family or ‘decent’ boardinghouse—any control except that of education, habit and social opinion. Speaking frankly, I think it would be pretty dull-witted to consider such a really modest perspective ‘utopian.'”

The money spent by the ruling class on preserving its rule is like the rake in poker; it’s what you need to pay in order to have the game. It is not, by itself, the determining factor in how profitable the game is, but you certainly want it as low as possible. Hence, we can rely on the ruling class spending as little as it can get by with. Prisons, police, secret police, surveillance are not things that come cheap. Your likelihood of spending your money on a security system is a function of, primarily, how worried you are about being burglarized. And if you must install it, you spend as little as is required to provide a sense of safety. As we study generally “liberal” societies (the Weimar Republic, the Second Spanish Republic, Italy under Giolitti), we see the rise of fascism in response to the intensity of the class struggle; whereas such oppressive regimes as Franco’s in Spain and Greece under the Junta gradually became more liberal as the class struggle eased under the influence of the post-war boom. The same phenomenon is repeated, only faster, in several South American countries.

This observation is hardly profound: Society is as repressive as necessary to protect itself under given conditions. It can be complicated by custom, ideology, paranoia, and simple miscalculation on the part of the ruling elite; and it, too, has its dialectical element: sometimes a less oppressive state can reduce class tensions, and a more repressive State exacerbate them. But the general rule still retains its power. If anyone can suggest a counter-example—that is, an extremely repressive State in a peaceful society, or the reverse—I’d be glad to hear it. I believe we can simplify the matter into the following two laws:

1. There is always a correspondence between how repressive the State is at a given time and place, and the intensity of the class struggle.

2. The intensity of the class struggle is a reflection of the degree of inequality at that time and place.

I beg to submit that we Americans have seen this process up close for the last few years.

Knowing this, what, then, is the program of the vanguard party of the proletarian revolution after seizing State power? The workers councils, or similar organs, that made the revolution, become the sovereign power, and are guided by the principles of free election, and, moreover, immediate recall. Should there be full-time functionaries, they must be paid no more than the workers they represent, and “immediate transition to a regime in which all will fulfill the functions of control and supervision so that all may for a time become ‘bureaucrats’ and therefore nobody can become a bureaucrat.” This is Trotsky, quoting Lenin.

The analogy of a workers state to a trade union has often been made, with the further comparison of a deformed workers state to a corrupt trade union. As a thought experiment, consider how much better would be the condition of rank and file workers today if they were represented by unions in which the above policies were enforced.

So, that was the Bolshevik program for the State; why didn’t it work out that way? That will be for next time.

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TRB #6 Chapter two Part 2: Planned Economy and Zig-Zags of the Leadership

The Left Opposition

The Left Opposition. Sitting: Serebryakov, Radek, Trotsky, Boguslavsky, Preobrazhensky. Standing: Rakovsky, Drobnis, Beloborodov, Sosnovsky

In 1626, Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus commissioned a ship. The Vasa began her maiden voyage on August 10, 1628. She was terribly designed, with serious balance problems, and horribly overloaded with decorations and brass cannon, and the first time she encountered a wind stronger than a mild breeze, she foundered and sank. The reasons for this disaster, which took the lives of 30 crew members, involved design errors combined with economic and political considerations. Scholars and engineers have learned a great deal about ship design since then, and studying the Vasa has been a useful part of that.

Taking the longest and most general view, human history can be seen as the gradual triumph of reason and planning over superstition and instinct. Where once we ducked into caves to protect us from a hostile environment, now we have the disciplines of engineering, architecture, and many related fields to build caves that are more suited to our needs, and climatology and other related fields to predict what those needs are liable to be at a given time and place. Where once we could only eat what nature provided, now we are able, thanks to agriculture, horticulture, genetics, and other fields to tailor food animals, fruits, and vegetables to provide more nutritious and digestible food in massively greater quantity and even with some consistency. And so on. This is not to argue that in any of the above-mentioned disciplines we are done learning—far from it. And all of them are to one degree or another limited by class society. But we have learned enough to make a difference in our lives, and in the last analysis, that is the point of the study of nature. It is also the point of the study of society, which, after all, is only a specialized division of the study of nature.

And this, in my opinion, is the importance of the study of history. Some say that we must study history to avoid repeating past mistakes, others that it is pointless because we never do seem to learn. Both are missing something important: this study, too, is a process. History itself—by which I mean, the collection of individual human decisions that determine general, long-term movements—is in theory as subject to conscious control as planting a row of corn. We know that planting corn crosswise on a hill will prevent erosion, but making that kind of conscious alteration in determining where we as species want to go, is still beyond us. Part of why we study history, or at least part of the effect of doing so, is to reach the point where we can subject our own destiny, our future, to planning and deliberate decision making.   And just as we do not solve the problem of excessive runoff and erosion from rows of corn on a hillside by ignoring the problem, so, too, we cannot hope to determine our own future without engaging with our past, without attempting to understand why things happened as they did, without making the effort to take control of what will happen next.

All of which is to ask a simple question: If we have understood the forces of nature well enough to intervene in them to make our lives better, and if it is possible to similarly intervene in deciding on the direction of our progress, why not do the same for the economy? I would assert that there is no reason why humanity is less capable of applying planning to the creation and distribution of human wants than to the questions of where to build a highway, how to build a windfarm, when to prepare for a hurricane. After all, in a limited, contradictory, anarchic way, any manufacturer engages in some form of this when beginning production of a new product.

One of the most important triumphs of the Russian Revolution was that it was the first sustained, large-scale effort at the creation of a planned economy. It was no more a finished product than the first time we built a bridge that required more planning than “drop a log over the stream” was the final culmination of the art of bridge building, but it was an important start that allows us to discover some of the difficulties we’ll be seeing in the future. As in all new techniques, the Bolsheviks began with an a priori scheme, then did their best to correct and adjust it. Even though (or perhaps because) it was attempted under difficult or impossible conditions, we can learn a great deal.

This is why, as we look at the chapter on the zigzags of the leadership, it worth also taking a look (call it extra credit) at The Platform of the Left Opposition. The Left Opposition was formed, informally at first, in 1923 and continued in spite of exile, imprisonment, torture, and murder, until the founding of the Fourth International in 1938. It was, from the beginning, engaged in all of the controversies of the day: the growth of bureaucracy, the suppression of democracy in the Communist Party and the Soviets, the program of the Third International (ie, the program for the world working class), and the economic choices that were so thoroughly intertwined with all of the others.

For this chapter, what I think it most important to establish, and the reason I bring in the program of the Left Opposition, is to show that there were alternatives to the major errors of the Stalin clique. No one would suggest that the economic proposals of the Left Opposition were “perfect,” and certainly no one would say they would have solved every problem confronting the workers state. But by looking at the bureaucracy’s decisions on the one hand, the Opposition’s proposals on the other, and especially the way the former had to hastily, spasmodically, and often brutally change direction and adopt the latter, it is possible to see that, even under the worst of conditions (or especially under the worst of conditions), one can see a way forward if one is looking.

What, then, were those decisions, those proposals? They involved every facet of economic life. The classic case regards the peasants. The Opposition saw the need for collectivization of peasant holdings, whereas the Stalin faction denied it, and instead turned itself toward the Kulak (the well-to-do peasant who employed farm labor), which was part of the middle class basis on which that faction rested. The result was that, instead of gradual collectivization driven by incentives, by an increase in quantity and quality of farm equipment, by education and by showing the actual advantages (and by making industrial decisions to help the peasant so there were actual advantages), the ruling group was suddenly, in panic, forced to collectivize by the most brutal, coercive means, turning massive sections of the peasantry against the workers state, and, at the same time, creating conditions where the collective farms, because they had been forced into existence ahead of the advanced machinery needed, were in fact less efficient in large numbers of cases, which increased the already dangerous dichotomy between city and village. “The blame for these sacrifices lies not upon collectivization, but upon the blind, violent, gambling methods with which it was carried through.” This same sort of denial-followed-by panic-stricken-reversal runs like a thread of devastation through all of the decisions of the ruling group from 1924 to 1936. Consider, for a moment, with all that Soviet industry and agriculture managed, how much greater these accomplishments could have been with a better approach to planning the economy. But this brings up the question: why didn’t they? Is it just that the bureaucracy did not have planning technicians as skilled as those of the opposition?

Well, to be sure, making decisions about how to run something as complex as the economy of 150 million people requires skill and learning and trial-and-error, but I would argue that the difference between the Stalin camp and the Opposition camp was not about who was “smarter”; it was, like everything else, about social forces: Trotsky represented those forces that had made the proletarian revolution, Stalin the forces that were reacting against it, distrusting it. They were not individuals who had “better” or “worse” ideas, they were the representatives of particular social groupings, and carried out their tasks as best they could in the interest of those groupings. This leads us directly and immediately to the question: which forces did they represent, and how is it that those of the Stalin camp came out on top? That is the key question in all of these posts, and we’re getting there.

For now, when considering the planned economy, there is one thing I want to emphasize: When the Vasa sank, no one said, “Well, I guess we’d better not build any more ships, then.” We experiment, we learn, we study, we do it better, because there is no other way that progress happens.


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TRB #5 Chapter Two Part 1: The State in a Planned Economy


I spoke before of bourgeois revolution, taking for examples the most classic cases: the English Civil War and the Great French Revolution. At this point, I want to make a couple of observations about them, that are true in the case of every sort of revolution.

1. The economic pressure that results in the overturn of the State begins building considerably before the revolution: by the time the actual insurrection takes place, the new (in this case, capitalist) content has been built up to the point the old form is historically absurd.

2. Nevertheless, the fact that the new, progressive class (in our example, the bourgeoisie) now controls the State in its own interest, does not, in that instant, remove each and every vestige of the old (feudal-monarchical) system. For a greater or lesser time, these vestiges in law, in property relations, in custom and culture, in individual psychology, and in habits, remain in place until, over the course of a generation or two, they are finally left behind, and the new class can fully exercise its power and establish its imprint in all areas of life.

(In passing, it is because of this phenomenon that impressionists believe that the violence of revolution is “unnecessary,” because they see the evolution both before and after it, and consider it a pointless bump in a smooth flow of evolution. By this logic, of course, given the development of the fetus and the subsequent development of the infant, the violence of childbirth is “unnecessary.” But I digress.)

The same evolution-to revolution-to evolution must occur in the transition to socialism. The results of the October revolution were massive and sweeping: The banks and the major industries were expropriated, control concentrated in the State. The State itself became an organ of the Soviets, elected by the workers, the soldiers, the peasants. But it would be a mistake to think this instantly meant socialism had been accomplished, either in popular consciousness, or, more important, in all of the economic relationships—in particular, distribution. To be precise: production of goods was concentrated in the hands of the State, while distribution of goods still took place in the old way: the worker received wages, the peasant sold his product, and these were exchanged at the market for commodities.

This was inevitable—even under the best of conditions, it would take a certain amount of time to work out exactly how to distribute goods evenly and fairly, “to each according to his need.” I hope it is obvious that even distribution of goods requires, more than anything else, a society that can produce plenty for everyone; when the society cannot produce enough, some can have enough, others not. What then to do, particularly in the period of 1918-1921, when an impoverished nation, which had just made a broadly-based revolution in order, in large part, to get out of a war, was faced with yet another war? The answer was, quite simply, to hold out. The Bolsheviks themselves, during this period, were confident of two things: first, that given a period of peace, the potential for industrial growth was tremendous, and, second, that rescue by the world working class was bound to follow. “The theoretical mistake of the ruling party remains inexplicable, however, only if you leave out of account the fact that all calculations at that time were based on the expectations of an early victory of the revolution in the West. It was considered self-evident that the victorious German proletariat would supply Soviet Russia, on credit against future food and raw materials, not only with machines and articles of manufacture, but also with tens of thousands of highly skilled workers, technicians and organizers.”

The first of these need not be justified as the facts and figures are there, as I mentioned in the previous post. As for the second—it did not fall out that way. This brings up what is, I think, a critical point in evaluating the economic and political decisions made by the Bolshevik Party: were they deceived in expecting this rescue? The prediction of a massive upsurge by the European working class was dead on. The prediction of revolutionary crises, in which the European worker had to confront the question of power, was also accurate. So where did it go wrong?  In Britain, France, Belgium, and especially in Germany where the working class had actually taken power, the infant Third International proved, in the event, too new and small to turn the tide of betrayal by the Social Democracy, which still held the trust of most of the working class in those countries. In 1919, the Social Democracy cooperated in the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht by the fascist Freicorps, and gave power back to the capitalists. The Third (Communist) International was building as quickly as possible—parties sprang up in every major capitalist country, and most of the minor ones, and its influence within the working class grew. The Communist Party of Hungary took power (or, more precisely, was handed it by an utterly demoralized capitalist class), and workers in other countries rose. But there was simply not enough time. Building a mass party happens quickly when the objective circumstances are right and the program reflects the needs of the working class, but not instantly, and when the revolutionary crisis arose the working class was still too trusting in its Social Democratic leaders (no doubt helped a bit by the petty bourgeois dilettantes who insisted the Communist Party spent too much time criticizing other tendencies).

Still the belief held firm. The workers state must hold out, and must remain a beacon of hope to the international working class while it awaited rescue.

But, then, how to hold out? By the time of the failure of the first German Revolution, the Soviet Union had already been invaded, and everything was focused on survival: building an army, equipping it, feeding it, all under intolerable circumstances. This was the period of “War Communism,” in which the regulation of distribution of commodities was aimed, not at improving the life of the individual, but at survival in the face of foreign powers and Russian counterrevolutionaries determined to crush the Russian working class. It is a testament to the vitality of socialist property relations, and to the fighting spirit of the Russian worker and peasant, and to the leadership skills of the Bolshevik Party, that it held out at all. But the strain was incredible.

I spoke before about the relationship between peasant and worker—the worker’s need for the products of the peasant (food, and much of the raw material of production), and that, in turn, only through an improvement in farm machinery could the level of production of the peasant be increased. Co-existing with this relationship was one of prices. Price controls, of course, are nothing new: all of the major capitalist countries, certainly including the United States, have resorted during wartime and other crises to prices fixed by the State. But the tremendous pressure of poverty and civil war made this task especially difficult. Set the prices too low, and the peasant would refuse to sow, or hide his grain. Set the prices too high, and the worker would face starvation, or at best an inability to increase the productive forces.

And it is here that we arrive at one of the important features of a socialized economy: the novel role of the State in making decisions of prices and production. “…the Soviet government occupies in relation to the whole economic system the position which a capitalist occupies in relation to a single enterprise.”

To the bourgeois economist or apologist for capitalism, of course, this is a weakness. Yet, we have seen from the growth of the productive forces how it is a strength, and is one of the things that permitted the Soviet Union to survive in nearly impossible circumstances. But this, too, has its reverse: to effectively direct the economy of an entire country requires studying and learning and a willingness to adapt to new circumstances; to experiment boldly and to analyze the results of the experiments honestly. For this to happen, Soviet democracy and freedom of discussion within the ruling party are among the most important features in order to ensure that the decision-making process is robust and flexible. For reasons that we’ll get to later, it was this democracy and freedom that was missing when, beginning around 1923—in other words, at the end of the Civil War—a bureaucratic clique gained more and more power. But before we study why this happened, we’re going to look at the results.

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TRB #4 Chapter One Part 2: Soviet Industrial Development: A Study In Contradition


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.

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TRB #3: Chapter One Part 1: The Law of Combined Development

wide young trotsky

I’ve tried to figure out a way to avoid this, but I just can’t. So much of the argument in the book is based on the opening paragraph of chapter one, and it contains such a vital concept, that I’m going to have to devote a post to it. Here is how the book starts:

“Owing to the insignificance of the Russian bourgeoisie, the democratic tasks of backward Russia—such as liquidation of the monarchy and the semifeudal slavery of the peasants—could be achieved only through a dictatorship of the proletariat. The proletariat, however, having seized the power at the head of the peasant masses, could not stop at the achievement of these democratic tasks. The bourgeois revolution was directly bound up with the first stages of a socialist revolution.”

The term “historical tasks” occurs a great deal in Marxist literature, and I’m afraid that, without some explanation, it will seem as if history is being seen as having agency, in exactly the way that certain casual references in discussions of evolution are sometimes seen by theists as implying that evolution has agency.

Society, driven by the production and distribution of necessities, has discovered various forms for managing that production and distribution. These forms—primitive communism (aka hunter-gatherer), slave-holding, feudal-monarchical, capitalist—are the product of several factors, including the climate and makeup of the land, the resources to be found on it, the history of the development of that culture, and, first and foremost, the development of the productive forces and its corollary, the productivity of labor.

Form and content, of course, are deeply interrelated.  Permit me to give an example. I’ll pick agriculture as the simplest and most classic case.  An improvement in agricultural technique—better seeds, for example, or a new plow design, or a new breed of draft animal—produces a greater surplus, which in a feudal society is appropriated by the landlord.  This increase permits, in turn, greater holdings for that landlord, which require a larger State (more gendarmes to keep the peasants in check, a standing army to fight off neighbors who want to appropriate the surplus for themselves) which, over time, leads to the growth of administrative cities that are centers of consumption (e.g., London).  The surplus is also used to purchase luxury items, which gives inspiration to crafts, leading to guilds and eventually to the growth of cities that are centers of production (e.g., Manchester).  As the guilds and craftsmen improve their own technique, and thus the productivity of their labor, they move us in the direction of more modern (i.e., capitalist) forms of production and exchange, which then find themselves held back by the very feudal forms in which they were developed.  A society whose content is based on commodity exchange cannot function well if the form is based on feudal law and land-ownership arrangements.  The inefficiency of trade in a society where each count or baron determines his own laws, taxes, and tariffs is ruinous to capitalism. The desire of a king to pull in as much wealth as possible and to preserve his power against the lesser nobles is antithetical to the need of capital for reinvestment to increase production. And, above all, peasants who are tied to the land by the force of law (serfdom) or economic necessity are unavailable for free labor needed in the workshops and, later, the factories.

Thus, at a certain point, the content overcomes the form; the capitalist class overthrows the feudal regime and re-creates society in its own image. The level of violence in this process is primarily the result of the relative strength of the contending classes.  The English Civil War  (1642-1651) and the Great French Revolution (1789 – 1799) are the classic types of capitalist revolution.  This comes about when a system has, in Marxist terms, exhausted itself-–in other words, reached the point where the old form is confining the new content and preventing its full development, and, indeed, threatening the strangulation of society.

But here’s the rule: A system never leaves the stage of history before it has reached that point of exhaustion. When Marxists speak of historic tasks, the term means first of all that the productive forces have been built up as much as they can without overthrowing the old arrangements. And, second, the society in question has completed the developments that go along with that, such as, in the case of capitalism, representative democracy, settling the “land question,” a more equitable justice system, and so on.

That’s the rule. Alas, history doesn’t have as a priority making things simple and straightforward. Cultures and countries don’t exist in isolation from each other, and they don’t all develop at the same tempo.

The law of combined development as regards industry states that, since technology doesn’t have to be developed independently every time,  advances in technique in backward companies will in some places surpass advanced companies exactly because of their backwardness.   Within an industry, there are many times when a company using older techniques of manufacture has surpassed a company using more modern techniques just because it was in a position, with greater credit and more available capital, to immediately take advantage of the newest discoveries that another cannot because it’s capital is still tied up in the last generation of technology.  This is especially true when there is a major breakthrough in the technique of manufacturing.  I remember working at a computer company (DNA/Avnet) in the late 70’s that was going through exactly that process with automated wire-wrap technology; it was on the wrong side, and eventually folded (there were other reasons, but that was a contributor).  Between countries this phenomenon is also not uncommon.   My favorite example is the way Hungary at a certain point in the 1980s became a leader in cell phone technology exactly because, when cell phones were introduced, Hungary was still using the old, WW II-era land line system. Instead of upgrading to an already obsolete technology, it leapfrogged and established a cell phone system that was, for a time, the most advanced in Europe.  Another example, just because I love examples that use Hungary, is that Hungarian orthography is the most logical, scientific, and rational in the world, because Hungarian literacy was so low for so long that they came late to the game and were thus able to see and avoid the ambiguities and inconsistencies that plague the orthographies of the more advanced languages.

But the same law also applies to the comparative overall technological level of countries.  Russia, which hadn’t yet abolished serfdom in the middle of the 19th Century (compared to the 14th in France, the 15th in most of Germany, and the 16th in England) was significantly “behind the times” for the creation of modern industry.  For that reason, when it started, it caught up quickly in certain ways (though not in others, as we will see). In his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky shows that the typical size of factories, for example, was considerably larger in Russia than in the advanced capitalist countries for exactly this reason—it didn’t need to start small and build, the techniques for large industry were already known, and their greater efficiency (and thus, profitability) were well established by the “American system of manufacture.”

Under these conditions, certain things that one would expect of a bourgeois nation—the settling of the land question, the creation of democratic forms, the establishment of certain sorts of equality before the law, the building of the modern nation-state—had not been addressed. Capitalism performs these “tasks” for its own self interest: Democracy and formal legal equality is better for the ruling class because it drastically reduces the cost in gendarmarie, secret police, prisons, and other expensive institutions of repression. The land question and the modern nation-state both serve to make trade more efficient, and to provide a pool of free labor for manufacturing.

By the early 20th Century, capitalism had so exhausted itself that it could only continue by massive destruction of capital and infrastructure to raise the rate of profit, and by using military (instead of economic) means to shift markets and resources among the major powers—this is exactly the significance of World War I.  But the exhaustion of capitalism in the major powers of Western Europe and the United States came at a time when Russia was still a feudal monarchy. Above, I gave the rule as, “A system never leaves the stage of history before it has exhausted itself.” But here’s the rub: capitalism is international. What happens when, on a world scale, it has exhausted itself before certain countries (Russia, India, China, a host of African and South American countries) have even started on the road? The answer, in every one of those countries, is that the bourgeoisie is unable to carry out the tasks of capitalism. This leaves those countries two choices: to fall victim to the colonial pretensions of one of the major imperialist powers and become in essence an enslaved nation, or turn the historical tasks of capitalism over to those who can carry it out: the proletariat.

From February to October of 1917, the Russian bourgeoisie held state power.   During this time they not only failed to give land to the peasant, but instituted measures of repression against peasants who demanded it. They not only failed to end the war, but launched a doomed offensive that even their own generals knew was pure adventurism.  They not only failed to provide bread, but pulled in a counter-revolutionary general to crush the working class for daring to ask. In other words, in 9 months, they proved conclusively—if not to the willfully blind bourgeois historian, at least to the worker, to the soldier, and to the peasant—that they were unable to carry out the tasks of capitalism.  In October, the proletariat seized power with those tasks still not accomplished.  And, holding power, rather than let itself be crushed by efforts to restore the monarchy, or permit Russia to become a colonial puppet of the imperialist powers, the working class chose, under the leadership of the Bolshevik party, to complete the tasks of capitalism in the only way it could: by moving forward in the direction of socialism.  This determined everything that followed

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