The Revolution Betrayed and the fate of the Soviet Union

Part one

By Peter Daniels
25 February 2009

Below is the first part of a lecture delivered at a summer school of the Socialist Equality Party in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in August 2007. The second part will be posted February 26. For other lectures from the 2007 school click here.

There are those who might say, in relation to our subject today, which takes up the class nature of the Soviet state and the question of our attitude toward it—why bother? What difference does it make? The USSR ceased to exist about 16 years ago.

While the pragmatist may see absolutely no purpose to this discussion, for Marxists the question is posed entirely differently. The 74-year history of the Russian Revolution is a major strategic experience of the international working class. October 1917 marked the first successful socialist revolution. Whatever one's attitude toward that revolution—unless it is regarded as some kind of freak accident—it must be studied and understood. Even though the USSR no longer exists, it leaves its imprint.

One cannot conceive of the 21st century world without the history of the Soviet Union. It inspired hundreds of millions, if not billions, throughout the world, both in the advanced capitalist countries and in the colonies and semi-colonies. Reforms were won through mass struggles inspired by the Russian Revolution. There were objective historical reasons for its occurrence, as there were for its subsequent degeneration and eventual dissolution. Understanding the nature of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet state is critical in politically arming the working class and in learning the lessons of the 20th century in order to prepare for the struggles of the 21st.

Revolution Betrayed - MehringLeon Trotsky, the first Marxist to theoretically anticipate the October 1917 Revolution in Russia, then the co-leader of that revolution, and later its historian, was also the author of the definitive and classic work on its betrayal. The Revolution Betrayed was published in 1936, with an introduction dated exactly 71 years ago last Saturday. It coincided with the first of the Moscow Trials, a new and bloody chapter in the crimes of Stalinism, and an event that was fully anticipated and explained in its pages.

Trotsky's analysis of the Soviet Union was the outcome and culmination of the whole struggle of the Left Opposition from 1923 onwards. This was a struggle that did not begin from Soviet conditions and was not confined to the Soviet Union. As Trotsky explained, it was the chain of world capitalism that broke at its weakest leak, but it was the chain that broke, not simply the link. The leaders of the revolution were well aware that it faced tremendous obstacles, obstacles that went far beyond the immediate challenge, enormous though it was, of defeating the Whites and the imperialist armies of intervention in the Civil War. In the wake of the Stalinist degeneration and the restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union, however, it is necessary to underscore that the revolution also presented enormous opportunities, inaugurating a period of revolutionary upheavals and creating numerous opportunities for the working class to take power in other more advanced parts of the capitalist world.

As David North explains in the very first paragraphs of his introduction to our 1991 edition of The Revolution Betrayed, this analysis could only have been made using the scientific weapon of the materialist dialectic, and it is itself an expression and development of that method of Marxism. In fighting to defend the Russian Revolution from imperialism and the ideological and political agents of imperialism within the Soviet Union and the Communist International, Trotsky was able to discover and demonstrate the essential contradictions of the revolution and the workers' state, to analyze it scientifically, in other words, as a living organism. This is elaborated especially powerfully in the chapter of this book entitled "Socialism and the State."

The dual character of the workers' state is explained both in its most general, universal significance, as well as concretely in relation to the USSR. It is not the problem of leadership and policies that imparts to the workers' state its dual character, but the very fact of its existence. Every workers' state (or socialist state, as Trotsky uses the term here somewhat more loosely), even in America, would have this dual character: socialized production combined with bourgeois norms of distribution.

Before we can understand Stalinism and how it destroyed the revolution, it is necessary to understand it as the rule of the privileged Soviet bureaucracy. And before we can understand the Soviet bureaucracy we must grasp the meaning of bureaucratism from a scientific, Marxist standpoint. Trotsky clearly spelled out the theoretical foundations of such an analysis.

"The proletarian dictatorship forms a bridge between bourgeois and socialist societies," he writes. "In its very essence, therefore, it bears a temporary character. An incidental but very essential task of the state, which realizes the dictatorship consists in preparing for its own dissolution...[along with] the construction of a society without classes and without material contradictions. Bureaucratism and social harmony are inversely proportional to each other.

"...[T]he trouble is that a socialization of the means of production does not yet automatically remove the ‘struggle for individual existence,'" Trotsky continues. "A socialist state, even in America, on the basis of the most advanced capitalism, could not immediately provide everyone with as much as he needs, and would therefore be compelled to spur everyone to produce as much as possible. The duty of stimulator in these circumstances naturally falls to the state, which in its turn cannot but resort, with various changes and mitigations, to the method of labor payment worked out by capitalism. It was in this sense that Marx wrote in 1875: ‘Bourgeois law...is inevitable in the first phase of communist society, in that form in which it issues after long labor pains from capitalist society....'"

Referring to this passage from Marx, Lenin noted, "Bourgeois law in relation to the distribution of the objects of consumption assumes, of course, inevitably a bourgeois state, for law is nothing without an apparatus capable of compelling observance of its legal norms. It follows that under Communism not only will bourgeois law survive for a certain time, but also even a bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie!"

And then Trotsky concludes, "Insofar as the state (the workers state) which assumes the task of the socialist transformation of society is compelled to defend inequality, that is, the material privileges of a minority, by methods of compulsion, insofar does it also remain a ‘bourgeois' state, even though without a bourgeoisie. These words contain neither praise nor blame; they merely name things with their real names."

These profound words explain the objective material roots of bureaucratism and demonstrate that a workers' state under revolutionary leadership must struggle, through the most far-sighted policies, to minimize bureaucratism, not to pretend it can simply be wished away or ignored. It means that the party, and the working class itself, must control the bureaucracy, and not the other way around. It means, above all, that the workers' state must reach out to the international working class and receive its aid in the form of the extension of the socialist revolution.  As Trotsky explains:

"The tendencies of bureaucratism, which strangle the workers' movement in capitalist countries, would everywhere show themselves even after a proletarian revolution. But it is perfectly obvious that the poorer the society which issues from a revolution, the sterner and more naked would be the expression of this ‘law,' the more crude would be the forms assumed by bureaucratism, and the more dangerous would it become for socialist development...."

Trotsky examines, in some detail, the transformation of quantity into quality, from bureaucratism into a bureaucratic caste alien to socialism. The whole struggle led by the Left Opposition against the conservative bureaucracy demonstrates how under concrete circumstances bureaucratism, which is inevitable, became bureaucratic rule, which is not. Bureaucratism was not checked, mitigated and increasingly minimized by harmonious economic development. On the contrary, it grew and metastasized, eventually strangling the Bolshevik Party, usurping political power from the working class, smashing workers democracy and betraying the struggles of the international working class, and eventually carrying out a genocidal campaign of mass murder against the revolutionary workers and intelligentsia.

The struggle against Stalinism

This was not an inevitable process. There was, of course, an alternative to Stalinism. There was a continuous struggle against Stalinism, and even when the odds were difficult, even after serious defeats, there were still numerous circumstances under which a revolutionary victory could have reversed the degeneration of the Soviet Union and placed the USSR once again on the road to socialism instead of on the road away from it.

Lenin called the Soviet state a workers' state with bureaucratic deformations. No one objected to this definition. On his sick bed Lenin launched a struggle against bureaucratism, the growth of which, particularly under Stalin, he saw as an increasing danger to the revolution. The struggle against bureaucratism became one against what Trotsky called the centrist bureaucracy, a ruling layer that had consolidated behind the Stalin faction, but which still balanced between left and right, between the working class, on one hand, and the kulak and nepman, on the other.

The political struggle was an uncompromising one, one that therefore necessitated political breaks with Zinoviev, Kamenev, Radek and others; but it was still a struggle for reform of the Soviet Party and the Comintern. Only later, after the defeat of the German and international working class with the Nazi victory in Germany, and after the Stalinists' defense of their criminal role, did Trotsky conclude that the bureaucracy had become a consciously counterrevolutionary force. This is a capsule summary of the different stages in this struggle of contending forces: the revolutionary Marxist tendency, representing the cause of the international working class and the world revolution, against the privileged layers that consolidated increasingly into a parasitic and counterrevolutionary caste that destroyed the Bolshevik Party while turning it into its instrument.

Still, however, it must be emphasized, as Trotsky does throughout this whole period, that the workers' state had not yet been destroyed. This bears repeating and examining, because it is precisely the crucial distinction between the party and state that numerous critics and deserters from the Trotskyist movement failed to grasp. As of 1933, Stalinism had become counterrevolutionary, not merely "centrist." Even then, however, Trotsky insisted that the Soviet Union remained a workers' state, although gravely weakened and degenerated. The counterrevolutionary character of the bureaucracy was manifested precisely in the fact that it was the gravedigger of the revolution, of the workers' state—and not that it had already buried it. 

Just as a revolutionary government does not translate into the overnight establishment of socialism, so a Thermidorian reaction, even the loss of power by the working class to a parasitic bureaucracy, does not mean the overnight or automatic destruction of the historic conquests of the revolution. These were gravely endangered, as Trotsky explained. Moreover, far from entertaining the slightest complacency about the alleged permanence of these conquests, the Left Opposition warned that the workers' state would inevitably be destroyed unless the bureaucracy was overthrown in a new, political revolution.

The continued existence of a degenerated workers' state did not mean that this status quo would lead eventually to socialism, but just the opposite. This is a crucial distinction that only the Fourth International was able to grasp. The ICFI was founded to defend this crucial theoretical conquest, and this is why only the ICFI can explain what happened to the Soviet Union.

Almost from the very beginning, the Left Opposition was obliged to wage a political and theoretical struggle against those, including within the Opposition itself, who prematurely pronounced the death of the revolution and the workers' state. Trotsky devoted The Class Nature of the Soviet State, dating from 1933, and The Workers' State, Thermidor and Bonapartism, from about 18 months later, to this struggle. He refers to heroic revolutionary figures, like the old Bolshevik V. M. Smirnov, and many others far less heroic, such as the ex-Communist Boris Souvarine, who claimed that the revolution had been completely destroyed.

First of all, as he later explained in some detail in the struggle against James Burnham and Max Shachtman (the leaders of a petty-bourgeois opposition in the American Socialist Workers Party who became the most prominent and notorious of those who renounced the defense of the Soviet Union), it is unscientific to state simply that "the dictatorship of the proletariat is excluded by the dictatorship over the proletariat."

To a formalist, whose sociological definitions do not go beyond A=A, it would seem to be obvious that one excludes the other. But, as Trotsky wrote in 1933, "Such enticing reasoning is constructed not upon a materialistic analysis of the process as it develops in reality but upon pure idealistic schemas, upon the Kantian norms."

Without minimizing for a moment the crimes of the Stalinist bureaucracy, Trotsky also insists that "dissertations upon ‘the dictatorship of the bureaucracy over the proletariat' without a much deeper analysis, that is, without a clear explanation of the social roots and the class limits of bureaucratic domination, boil down merely to high faluting democratic phrases so extremely popular among the Mensheviks."

The bureaucracy not a class

Thus Trotsky rejected the argument that the USSR represented a variety of "state capitalism" or a ruling class of a new type. "The class has an exceptionally important and moreover a scientifically restricted meaning to a Marxist. A class is defined not by its participation in the distribution of the national income alone, but by its independent role in the general structure of economy and by its independent roots in the economic foundations of society.... The bureaucracy lacks all these social traits. It has no independent position in the process of production and distribution. It has no independent property roots. Its functions relate basically to the political technique of class rule...."(emphasis in original)

"The privileges of the bureaucracy by themselves do not change the bases of the Soviet society, because the bureaucracy derives its privileges not from any special property relations, peculiar to it as a ‘class,' but from those property relations which have been created by the October Revolution...  Insofar as the bureaucracy robs the people, we have to deal not with class exploitation, in the scientific sense of the word, but with social parasitism, although on a very large scale.... [The bureaucracy is] an excrescence upon the proletariat. A tumor can grow to tremendous size and even strangle the living organism, but a tumor can never become an independent organism."

In other words, it is a caste, not a ruling class. The whole experience with bureaucratism within the workers' movement demonstrates both what the Soviet bureaucracy shares in common with its reformist predecessors, and also what is unique about its role. It is the first phenomenon of its kind, not merely a trade union or party apparatus, but a bureaucracy exercising enormous control through the entire state apparatus. At the same time, it is not a phenomenon without any historical precedent, or one that forces us to throw out everything that had been learned from earlier experiences.

In 1935, Trotsky concluded that he had erred in not recognizing earlier that the Soviet Thermidor, analogous to the counterrevolutionary overturn that took place in 1794 with the fall of Robespierre in the French Revolution, had already taken place in the USSR, but more gradually, beginning in 1924. In his essay The Workers State, Thermidor and Bonapartism, Trotsky stresses the crucial difference between the bourgeois and the workers' state:

"After the profound democratic revolution, which liberates the peasants from serfdom and gives them land, the feudal counter-revolution is generally impossible.... Once liberated from the fetters of feudalism, bourgeois relations develop automatically. They can be checked by no external forces: they must themselves dig their own grave, having previously created their own gravedigger." Thus the Thermidorian reaction in France eliminated the most extreme wing of the bourgeois revolution, but had no intention or ability to reverse the main conquests of the revolution. Even the restoration of the monarchy, though it might surround itself with medieval phantoms, in Trotsky's words, would be powerless to reestablish feudalism.

"It is altogether otherwise with the development of socialist relations," writes Trotsky. "While the bourgeois state, after the revolution, confines itself to a police role, leaving the market to its own laws, the workers' state assumes the direct role of economist and organizer.... In contradistinction to capitalism, socialism is built not automatically but consciously. Progress towards socialism is inseparable from that state power which is desirous of socialism, or which is constrained to desire it. Socialism can acquire an immutable character only at a very high stage of development, when its productive forces have far transcended those of capitalism...."

Thus, the Soviet Thermidor had a far different historical significance than that of the French Revolution. Thermidor in 1794 did not threaten the bourgeois revolution. The Thermidor that began in 1924 did threaten the socialist revolution. While it did not immediately eliminate the possibility of building socialism, it gravely endangered it; it called it into question. The ruling bureaucracy was increasingly hostile to the production relations on which it rested. 

This is crucial to an understanding of the struggle for socialism itself. This is why a revolutionary party is essential for both the taking of power and the building of socialism. Trotsky is refuting, many decades in advance, those superficial apologists for capitalism who proclaimed that the end of the USSR proved that there was no alternative to capitalism and the market. Marxists are well aware that the superiority of socialism over capitalism does not assert itself in the same semi-spontaneous way that capitalism supplanted feudalism.

The heart of The Revolution Betrayed is devoted to a painstaking examination, on the basis of statistics and facts, of the Soviet Thermidor. Trotsky explains, as he puts it, "why Stalin triumphed." This was not because the Stalin faction knew where it was going, not because it was more farsighted. Quite the opposite was the case. But the outcome was determined by the living struggle of contending class forces.

It is misleading to proceed rationalistically, "and see in politics a logical argument or a chess match. A political struggle is in its essence a struggle of interests and forces, not of arguments," writes Trotsky. "The quality of leadership is, of course, far from a matter of indifference for the outcome of the conflict," but the correct ideas, while necessary, are not in themselves sufficient. There are ruling classes and ruling groups that require at a certain stage leaders noteworthy for their ignorance and blindness [the current situation in the US is a prime example]. 

The Stalin faction was blind to many things, but it was also greatly strengthened by the isolation of the Soviet state. It was the pressure of imperialism that strengthened the bureaucracy, which gave it increasing self confidence, which enabled it to dismiss the Opposition's supposed "dreams" of world revolution. The Red Army was demobilized, the flower of the revolutionary working class was killed in the Civil War or absorbed into the necessary tasks of administering the party and state, and the New Economic Policy unavoidably gave rise to new petty bourgeois layers.

Above all, the international situation began to favor the bureaucracy. As Trotsky wrote: "The Soviet bureaucracy became more self-confident the heavier the blows dealt to the world working class. Between these two facts there was not only a chronological, but a causal connection, and one which worked in two directions. The leaders of the bureaucracy promoted the proletarian defeats; the defeats [in Bulgaria, Germany, Estonia, Britain, Poland, China, Germany again] promoted the rise of the bureaucracy." 

The bureaucracy became an agency of imperialism because its pragmatic yet ruthless outlook corresponded to the needs of world capitalism. Imperialism was not yet able to destroy the revolution, but more than willing to turn it into a perversion of socialism.

The rise of the bureaucracy found its expression in the doctrine of socialism in one country, in the vicious attacks on Trotskyism and the theory of permanent revolution, and in the falsification of Bolshevik Party history.

Trotsky insisted on a concrete definition of the USSR, which meant of necessity a complex one. Even the term "degenerated workers' state," while certainly accurate and correctly distinguished from "state capitalism" and "bureaucratic collectivism," does not exhaust the subject. We shall see later how a new repudiation of Marxism arose which still maintained its formal allegiance to Trotsky's definition but gave it an entirely different content.

"To define the Soviet regime as transitional, or intermediate," wrote Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed, "means to abandon such finished social categories as capitalism (including ‘state capitalism') and also socialism. But besides being completely inadequate in itself, such a definition is capable of producing the mistaken idea that from the present Soviet regime only a transition to socialism is possible. In reality a backslide to capitalism is wholly possible."

And he goes on to spell out as concretely as possible under the current conditions the nature of this society: 

"The USSR is a contradictory society halfway between capitalism and socialism, in which: (a) the productive forces are still far from adequate to give the state property a socialist character; (b) the tendency toward primitive accumulation created by want breaks out through innumerable pores of the planned economy; (c) norms of distribution preserving a bourgeois character lie at the basis of a new differentiation of society; (d) the economic growth, while slowly bettering the situation of the toilers, promotes the swift formation of a privileged stratum; (e) exploiting the social antagonisms, the bureaucracy has converted itself into an uncontrolled caste alien to socialism; (f) the social revolution, betrayed by the ruling party, still exists in property relations and in the consciousness of the toiling masses; (g) a further development of the accumulated contradictions can as well lead to socialism as back to capitalism; (h) on the road to capitalism the counterrevolution would have to break the resistance of the workers; (i) on the road to socialism the workers would have to overthrow the bureaucracy. In the last analysis, the question will be decided by a struggle of living social forces, both on the national and the world arena."

Certainly this nine-part definition gets closer than any other formulation to explaining the course of the revolution and the nature of the state, but for the Trotskyist movement, it never could be a matter of simply repeating a definition by rote. Decades later, as the Stalinist regime continued far longer than Trotsky had imagined possible, and the putrefaction of the bureaucracy continued and deepened, it was necessary, while remaining in fundamental agreement with this definition and the method underlying it, to take into account the enormous decline in "the consciousness of the toiling masses," in the USSR as elsewhere, and also the growth in inequality, the depth of the economic crisis of the autarchic Stalinist state.

The accumulated contradictions had reached the stage at which the forces fighting for the socialist road faced increasing difficulties, and the fate of the October Revolution rested more than ever before on a resurgence of revolutionary developments in the West. Certainly the USSR in the post World War II period moved progressively further from building socialism, the very opposite, as we shall see, of what the Pabloites would claim.

To be continued