Russia: How the Bureaucracy Seized Power

We republish a pamphlet (first released in 1987, during the twilight of the Soviet regime), which serves as an invaluable introduction to the events from the October Revolution to the rise of Stalinism in Russia ‒ from which innumerable lessons can be drawn for the class struggle today. It was written by George Collins, then a member of the South African section of the Committee for a Workers’ International.

The October Revolution

Petrograd, capital of Russia, on the night of October 25, 1917. With the First World War raging on the battlefields of Europe, the Russian Revolution has reached its deciding moment. Armed detachments of workers and soldiers, organized by the Bolshevik Party, have taken control in the city. The pro-capitalist Provisional Government, discredited and isolated, has ceased to exist.

In the Smolny Institute, formerly a girls' school, the Congress of Soviets [elected councils] of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies is in session.

Some delegates are professional politicians, left-wing intellectuals or radicalized army officers. But the vast majority are representatives of the ordinary working people: "great masses of shabby soldiers, grimy workmen, peasants ‒ poor men, bent and scarred in the brute struggle for existence" (John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World) ‒ but filled with a revolutionary vision of the future, and a passionate determination to end their oppression once and for all.

Petrograd Soviet Assembly in 1917 Image fair usePetrograd Soviet Assembly in 1917 / Image: fair use

Middle-class reformists denounce the Bolsheviks and demand that the congress break up! But delegate after delegate of the workers, peasants and soldiers drown them in the will and inspiration of the masses rising to their feet.

A soldier captures the mood: "I tell you, the Lettish soldiers have many times said: 'No more resolutions! No more talk! We want deeds ‒ the power must be in our hands!'"

The hall, reports John Reed, "rocked with cheering..." (pages 102-103)

Amidst tumultuous applause, the Bolsheviks announce the transfer of state power to the soviets of the working people. A "Proclamation to workers, soldiers and peasants", put forward by the Bolsheviks, is overwhelmingly adopted. It sums up the immediate tasks:

"The Soviet authority will at once propose an immediate democratic peace to all nations, and an immediate truce on all fronts. It will assure the free transfer of landlord, crown and monastery lands to the Land Committees [elected by the peasants as instruments for seizing the landlords' estates], defend the soldiers' rights, enforcing a complete democratization of the Army, establish workers' control over production...take means to supply bread to the cities and articles of first necessity to the villages, and secure to all nationalities living in Russia a real right to independent existence.

"The Congress resolves: that all local power shall be transferred to the Soviets of Workers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Deputies, which must enforce revolutionary order." (Quoted by John Reed, pages 115-116)

Under a government of the revolutionary workers' party, supported by the mass of the poor peasants, the Russian people were freeing themselves from centuries of enslavement. In doing so they were demolishing the conditions for the existence of the capitalist system.

Lenin addressed the Congress the following evening. When eventually he could make himself heard above the thunderous applause, his first words were to confirm the task which the democratic revolution had placed on the agenda:

"We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order."

Throughout the long, hard years of struggle leading up to this night, Marxists had explained in theory what this task would involve. Now the Bolshevik leaders needed to explain it in practical terms.

Leon Trotsky, next to Lenin the most authoritative leader of the Russian Revolution, spoke later that same night:

"We rest all our hope on the possibility that our revolution will unleash the European revolution. If the insurrectionary peoples of Europe do not crush imperialism, then we will be crushed...Either the Russian Revolution will raise the whirlwind of struggle in the west, or the capitalists of all countries will crush our revolution." (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, volume 3, page 315)

Red Guard of the Vulkan factory Image Wikimedia fair useRed Guard of the Vulkan factory / Image: Wikimedia, fair use

The delegates, wrote an observer, greeted these words "with an immense crusading acclaim". Clearly, Lenin and Trotsky had expressed the thoughts and feelings of the vast majority of revolutionary fighters present in the Smolny that night.

Thus, in its very first hours, the new proletarian regime reasserted two fundamental propositions of Marxism ‒ no longer as theoretical concepts but as the basis for state policy:

(a) democracy and a solution to the land question, in an underdeveloped country like Russia, is possible only under working-class rule, bringing with it the overthrow of capitalism and the transition to socialism.

(b) Socialist revolution cannot be confined within the borders of one country; it can only advance through the struggle to overthrow capitalism on a world scale.

The rest of this pamphlet will deal with the fate of the Russian Revolution over the following ten to twenty years, and the displacement of workers' democracy by a monstrous bureaucratic dictatorship. From studying these developments carefully, lessons can be learned that will be of vital importance to the struggle for the overthrow of capitalism today, and the construction of healthy regimes of workers' democracy in the next period.

The Counter-Revolution

Marx and Engels had thought it most likely that capitalism would be defeated first in the developed countries, where the working-class was most powerful, and the industrial basis existed for the transition to socialism.

Instead, in October 1917, the chain of world capitalism broke at its weakest link.

The Bolshevik government inherited a backward society in a state of disintegration, exhausted by three years of war and a series of crushing defeats by Germany.

The imperialists could not tolerate the challenge to their authority, and the threat to their interests in Russia, which the Bolsheviks presented. As a pro-capitalist historian openly admits: "They [the imperialist leaders such as Churchill and Foch] warned that Bolshevism was a dangerous threat to world society and should be crushed while it was still weak". (J.N. Westwood, Russia 1917 to 1964, page 38)

Within Russia the privileged and reactionary classes, as well as reformists in the labour movement, fought the revolution with every means at their disposal ‒ boycotts, economic sabotage, even the threat of a general strike.

Workers' control over production, through a system of factory, regional and national committees, was proclaimed to provide some check on the capitalists' activities. But there was no way of peacefully regulating the eruption of class struggle unleashed by the revolution.

On the one hand, the capitalists refused to submit to workers' control. On the other hand, where the workers asserted their power, they did not stop at ‘controlling’ the capitalists. They took over factories lock, stock and barrel, even before their government was able to provide them with back-up and resources.

These struggles in industry clearly confirmed the perspective explained by Trotsky in his theory of "permanent revolution" (see Section 11): once the working-class takes power, even in a backward country, it becomes impossible to confine their program to the limits of capitalism. The workers will inevitably be driven on to the expropriation of the capitalists and the program of socialist transformation.

Bolsheviks massacred by Czechoslovak legionaries Image Lt. William C JonesBolsheviks massacred by Czechoslovak legionaries / Image: Lt. William C Jones

A bourgeois historian describes the deepening paralysis of Russian society as the struggle between the classes intensified:

"In the spring of 1918 the Russian economy was approaching the point of complete collapse. Money lost all value, manufactured goods disappeared from the shops, the shops themselves closed down as the normal channels of trade ceased to function; speculation and corruption were rife." (Theodore H. von Laue, Why Lenin? Why Stalin? page 154)

Hunger worsened in the cities as food supplies came almost to a standstill: when manufactured goods could not be obtained even by barter, why should the peasants raise food for the urban market?

Revolutionary counter-measures were taken. The banks, in the face of their persistent sabotage, were occupied and nationalized in December 1917. The workers spontaneously took over more and more factories until the decree of June 1918 bringing every important branch of industry into state ownership.

Committees of the poor peasants, and armed detachments of workers, were organized to seize the grain supplies hoarded by the rich peasants (kulaks).

The irreconcilable struggle between the classes escalated into a full-scale trial of strength. Armed counter-revolution began to emerge, based on an alliance of the imperialist powers with the kulaks, the capitalists, and the remnants of the forces of Tsarism. The Russian civil war raged, with peaks and intervals, from May 1918 until the spring of 1921.

Civil war, like revolution, forces everyone to take sides ‒ for or against the government. Right-wing ‘socialists’, ex-revolutionaries and reformists, their hatred of Marxism (as always) stronger than their fear of reaction, in large numbers joined the onslaught against the workers' state.

Red Guard detachment during the Civil War Image Wikimedia fair useRed Guard detachment during the Civil War / Image: Wikimedia, fair use

In March 1918, British forces occupied the northern port of Murmansk, and in August they seized Archangel, cutting off Russia's outlets to the sea. In April, Japanese troops landed at Vladivostok in Eastern Siberia.

"Emboldened by the prospect of allied intervention," writes the leading bourgeois historian, E.H. Carr, "the right SRs [right wing of the so-called Socialist Revolutionary Party, based on the richer peasants] at their party conference in Moscow in May 1918 openly advocated a policy designed 'to overthrow the Bolshevik dictatorship and to establish a government based on universal suffrage and willing to accept Allied assistance in the war against Germany'" ‒ i.e. a pro-imperialist government! (The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923, page 170)

The Mensheviks, split in all directions, were "uncompromising only on one point ‒ their hostility to the [Bolshevik] regime". (Carr, page 170)

In Samara, the SRs set up an anti-Bolshevik ‘government’ and started to raise an army. In August they captured Kazan. The Left SRs (based on the poor peasantry) were in coalition with the Bolsheviks until March 1918, when they left the government because they opposed the peace treaty signed with Germany, calling it a "betrayal".

Now they plotted against the government and tried to provoke a German attack which, they believed, would be met with "revolutionary war". Totally misreading the situation, they staged an insurrection in July, which rapidly collapsed.

Lenin speaking in 1919 Image Goldshtein GLenin speaking in 1919 / Image: Goldshtein G

The Western powers, as their war against Germany neared its end, concentrated their attention on Russia. More British, French and US troops were landed in Murmansk and Archangel. American, Japanese, British, French and Italian troops occupied Vladivostok and advanced westward as far as the Ural mountains. Sizeable French forces were deployed in the Black Sea.

At the same time, the imperialists financed and armed the counter-revolutionary (‘White’) armies organized out of the most backward peasantry by ex-Tsarist officers.

Victor Serge, a Bolshevik at the time, vividly describes the desperate situation in October 1919:

"The Whites under Admiral Kolchak are masters of Siberia; they constitute the 'supreme government' of Ukraine under General Denikin who is preparing for a march on Moscow. In the North, thanks to the British battalions, they dominate a vaguely socialist government presided over by old Tchaikovsky, a veteran of the first struggles against Tsarism; and General Yudenich is preparing to take Petrograd, where the people are dying of hunger in the streets and dead horses are piled up in fromt of the Grand Opera." (From Lenin to Stalin, page 31)

Yet, a year later, Wrangel (Denikin's successor) had been crushed in the Crimea, and the military threat was effectively ended.

The Bolsheviks' victory over the combined forces of internal and external reaction, from a position of terrible weakness, most surely rank as one of the most brilliant military achievements of all time.

How was this victory won?

How the Bolsheviks Defeated the Counter-Revolution

The survival of the Russian workers' state was made possible, in the first place, by the support of the working-class internationally in the enormous movements following the October revolution.

Brilliantly confirming the Bolsheviks' perspective, Europe was plunged into a period of revolution. The road to victory opened up before the working-class in one country after another.

The imperialists, tied down by life-and-death struggles in their own countries, could not continue their attacks on Russia without provoking the workers even further, and driving their soldiers to mutiny.

A strike by Hungarian munitions workers in January 1918 spread like wildfire to Vienna, Berlin and throughout Germany, involving over two million workers. Their central demand, echoing the Russian workers' demand, was peace. In Finland an Independent Workers' Republic was proclaimed. After months of fighting it was crushed with the help of German troops.

Then, on 4 November 1918, mutiny broke out at the German naval base of Kiel, and ignited the German revolution. Within days every major city was in the hands of the workers' councils.

Images of the Civil War YanachkaImages of the Civil War / Yanachka

The effect on the Russian working-class was electrifying. The Bolshevik Ilyin-Shenevsky, taking an evening off in a Petrograd theatre, gives a glimpse of its impact throughout the country:

"Before one of the acts was about to begin, a man in jacket and high boots came on to the stage and said: 'Comrades! We have just had news from Germany. There has been a revolution in Germany. Wilhelm [the emperor] has been overthrown. A Soviet of workers' deputies has been formed in Berlin and has sent us a telegram of greeting.'

"It is hard to convey what followed... The announcement was met with a kind of roar, and frenzied applause shook the theatre for several minutes..." (The Bolsheviks in Power, pages 127-128)

In Austria, mass strikes and army mutinies finally smashed the imperial Hasburg regime. The empire disintegrated, and in Hungary a revolutionary soviet government took power in March 1919.

France was swept by mass strikes and naval mutiny. British soldiers mutinied, and the Red Flag was hoisted over the Clyde in the Scottish industrial heartland. Ireland was in armed revolt against British rule. Strikes involving four million workers convulsed in the USA in 1919.

These events, hardly mentioned in official history books, demonstrated a law which every socialist needs to understand: a successful workers' revolution has an incalculable impact internationally, provoking capitalist reaction but, at the same time, inspiring the workers in other countries to come to its defence and follow its example.

The spirit of international solidarity was the Russian workers' most potent weapon. Not by moral appeals to ‘democracy’ or the ‘conscience’ of the capitalist class, but by linking themselves to the working-class struggle for power internationally, the Bolsheviks won immeasurable support from every corner of the globe, and opened a ‘second front’ in the imperialists' rear.

Addressed in a comradely way, British and American troops in Russia began to mutiny. On the Black Sea, French sailors hoisted the Red Flag. The imperialists were compelled to withdraw their forces and abandon the Whites to their fate.

The early congresses of the Communist International (see Section 4 below) called on the workers' movement internationally to take action against any kind of support for the Whites in Russia. In July 1920, following the invasion of Russia by reactionary Polish forces, the Second Congress appealed:

"Stop all work, stop all transport, if you see that despite your protests the capitalist cliques of your countries are preparing a new intervention against Russia. Do not allow a single train, a single ship through to Poland." (Quoted in J. Degras, The Communist International 1919-1943 ‒ Documents, Volume 1, page 113)

In Britain, the London dockers rallied magnificently to their comrades in Russia when they refused to load the vessel Jolly George with arms for the Whites in Poland.

In July, with the Red Army driving back the invaders, the British government threatened to send troops to Poland. Council of action were set up by trade unionists throughout Britain, threatening a general strike if the intervention went ahead.

The British government ‒ 48 hours after rejecting the Soviet reply to its ultimatum ‒ backed down.

On the battlefields of Russia, as in the international arena, the workers' victory was only made possible by the Bolsheviks' uncompromising revolutionary policy.

A soldier, speaking at a mass meeting in Petrograd, makes clear the class program that the Red Army was built on:

"The soldier says: 'Show me what I am fighting for...Is it the democracy, or is it the capitalist plunderers? If you can prove to me that I am defending the Revolution, then I will go out and fight without capital punishment to force me'.

"When the land belongs to the peasants and the factories to the workers and the power to the Soviets, then we'll know we have something to fight for, and we'll fight for it!" (John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World, pages 45-46)

A key factor in the struggle is leadership ‒ in the first place, ideas and program; but following from this, the role of individuals in grasping those ideas, embodying the forward drive of their class, and showing others the way.

It would be impossible, for example, to deny the historic contribution of Marx and Engels in the development of the program of socialism, or of Lenin in preparing the way for the October revolution.

Trotsky addressing Red Guards during the Civil War Image fair useTrotsky addressing Red Guards during the Civil War / Image: fair use

It would be equally impossible to underestimate Trotsky's role as Commissar for War from 1918 to 1925 in building the Red Army and leading it to victory.

Trotsky organized the Red Army as a revolutionary army, motivated by political understanding, not by blind obedience. His unshakeable confidence in the workers, youth and peasants who made up its ranks is best expressed in his own words:

"What was needed for [saving the revolution]? Very little. The front ranks of the masses had to realize the mortal danger in the situation. The first requisite for success was to hide nothing, our weaknesses least of all; not to trifle with the masses but to call everything by its right name." (My Life, page 43)

Dedicated young workers were attracted to the army, and became its vanguard. Trotsky continues:

"The Soviets, the party, the trades unions, all devoted themselves to raising new detachments, and sent thousands of communists to the [front]. Most of the youth of the party did not know how to handle arms, but they had the will to win, and that was the most important thing. They put backbone into the soft body of the army."

The "will to win" was "the most important thing". How to use arms can be learned in a short time. But the will to win can only be born out of a sense of purpose, a clear goal to fight for, and the understanding of how it can be achieved.

Lenin Trotsky and Kamenev in 1920 Image Recuerdos de PandoraLenin, Trotsky and Kamenev in 1920 / Image: Recuerdos de Pandora

"Until Wrangel took over the remnants of the White Army [i.e., nearly at the end of the war], its officers set an example of drunkenness, looting and violence which their soldiers willingly followed. Outrageous treatment of the local population, the outspoken intention to restore the landlords, and the greater social cleavage between the Whites and the peasantry made the latter finally prefer the Reds." (Russia 1917 to 1964)

Thus the initial onslaught of the counter-revolution was defeated. The Bolsheviks, however, understood that their victory could bring no more than a respite in the struggle. As Lenin commented in 1920:

"We have now passed from war to peace. But we have not forgotten that war will come again. So long as both capitalism and socialism remain, we cannot live in peace. Either the one or the other in the long run will conquer." (Quoted by Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Volume 3, page 365)

Setbacks in the International Struggle

In the mighty class movements that followed the October revolution, the overthrow of capitalism throughout Europe was on the agenda.

The victory of the working-class in the developed countries, in turn, would provide a basis for overcoming Russia’s crippling economic backwardness, and remove the threat of imperialist attack.

International organization was essential to unite the workers moving into action in the different countries, and direct the struggle against the worldwide capitalist alliance.

The Second International had ceased to exist as an instrument of the workers’ struggle for power. A new International needed to be built.

The Crisis of Working-class Leadership

Prior to 1914, the Second International was committed to oppose imperialist war by every means, including the general strike. Yet, when war was declared, the vast majority of its leadership came out in active or passive support of their ‘own’ governments.

What were the root causes of this shattering betrayal?

The Second International was formed in 1889 as a federation of (mainly European) social-democratic parties, in general subscribing to Marxism. It was built during a period of imperialist expansion and generally stable growth in the developed capitalist countries. This had a decisive effect on its character.

Important struggles were fought under the banner of the International. Major concessions were won – democratic rights, better wages, better working conditions. A skilled and relatively well-paid ‘aristocracy of labour’ was created in the process. Out of this layer, increasingly, the leadership was drawn, together with intellectuals who decided to build their careers in the labour movement.

Remote from the workers’ daily struggles, these leaders became increasingly comfortable in well-paid jobs as parliamentarians or party and trade union officials. Inevitably their ideas became affected by their surroundings. Their general mood was summed up in the theory of ‘reformism’ put forward by the German social-democrat, E. Bernstein – the idea that capitalism could gradually be ‘reformed’ out of existence through peaceful, parliamentary methods.

This meant that the struggle to overthrow the capitalist state could quietly be pushed into the background. The ‘struggle’ could be led from the soft benches of parliament – at a high salary, paid by the state!

The reformist tendency assumed more and more monstrous proportions. Inevitably, it led to increasing collaboration with the capitalist class. Labour leaders became more and more involved with various organs of the state. Public positions gave them new privileges.

Through all these pressures a nationalist outlook was cultivated. The outlook of the social-democratic leaders was narrowed more and more to the institutions of national and local government. Their links with the international movement were reduced to mere sentiment and phrases.

The catastrophic consequences of this gradual process of political degeneration broke to the surface in August 1914, when the reformists almost unanimously came out on the side of the capitalist state. The workers’ struggle to overthrow capitalism, from this point onward, would be openly and furiously opposed by the reformist leaders.

Len at May Day rally in 1919 Image Flickr The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis LibraryLenin at May Day rally in 1919 / Image: Flickr, The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Library

A historic letter was sent out early in 1919 to the organizations of the revolutionary workers in different countries. It was signed by Lenin and Trotsky on behalf of the Russian Communist Party (the new name of the Bolshevik Party) and by workers’ leaders from other countries. It invited the organizations to a congress to be held in Moscow, and explained the purpose as follows:

“The Congress must establish a common fighting front for the purpose of maintaining permanent coordination and systematic leadership of the movement, a centre of the communist international, subordinating the interests of the movement in each country to the common interest of the international revolution.’ (Quoted in Degras, Volume 1, page 5)

At this congress, held from March 2 to 6, 1919, the Communist (Third) International was formed.

From the “Platform of the Communist International” Adopted at the Founding Conference

“The imperialist system is breaking down. Ferment in the colonies, ferment in the former dependent small nations, insurrections of the proletariat, victorious proletarian revolutions in some countries, dissolution of the imperialist armies…– this is the state of affairs throughout the world today…

“There is only one force that can save [humanity], and that is the proletariat…It must create genuine order, communist order. It must destroy the rule of capital, make war impossible, abolish State frontiers, change the entire world into one cooperative community…

“The growth of the revolutionary movement in all countries, the danger that the alliance of capitalist states will strangle this movement…finally, the absolute necessity of coordination of proletarian action – all this must lead to the foundation of a truly revolutionary, truly proletarian communist international.

“The International…will embody the mutual aid of the proletariat of different countries…[It] will support the exploited colonial peoples in their struggles against imperialism, in order to promote the final downfall of the imperialist world system.”

The inspiring advances by the working-class in 1918-1919, however, marked only the beginning of a drawn-out period of revolution and counter-revolution. In the ebb and flow of class battles flaring up across Europe, the workers were unable to hold on to their early gains.

Two main factors combined to produce a series of defeats: firstly, the deliberate treachery of the social-democratic leaders; secondly, the immaturity of the revolutionary currents in the workers’ movement outside of Russia – in other words, the weakness of genuine Marxist leadership even in the parties of the Third International.

In Germany, large sections of workers still had illusions in the reformist SPD leadership. In November 1918 the reformists, headed by Noske and Scheidemann, were pushed into government as conscious agents of counter-revolution.

Their strategy was to persuade the working-class to accept the authority of the ‘democratic’ capitalist parliament. Then they rebuilt the armed forces of the capitalist state to break up the workers’ councils.

Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the outstanding revolutionary leaders in the German workers’ movement, were murdered in January 1919 in the military counter-revolution unleashed by their former party comrades.

Rosa Luxemburg was a leading figure in the defeated German Revolution Image Rosa Luxemburg StiftungRosa Luxemburg was a leading figure in the defeated German Revolution / Image: Rosa Luxemburg-Stiftung

But the German capitalists remained weak, and the workers movement was far from crushed. Many more battles would have to be fought before the question of power would be settled for any length of time.

The membership of the Communist International (‘Comintern’) leaped explosively upward. Fifty-one national sections, with a total membership of 2.8 million (only 550,000 in the USSR) were represented at the Third Congress in 1921.

Many different political tendencies were drawn into the International, ranging from ‘centrism’ (i.e. in between Marxism and reformism: revolutionary in words but vacillating in practice) to ultra-leftism.

In Hungary, it was the ultra-left mistakes of the Communist leadership that led to the defeat of the Soviet republic. Refusing to divide the land amongst the peasantry, insisting dogmatically on collectivizing the landlords’ estates, they were unable to win the support of the peasant masses and unify the country.

When counter-revolution struck in the form of an invasion by Romanian and Czechoslovak armies, the peasants were unwilling to fight for a government which refused their most basic demand.

In August 1919, after four months of heroic resistance, the workers’ republic fell. The workers’ movement was subjected to a hideous bloodbath in the reactionary terror that followed.

In Italy, it was the centrist spinelessness of the workers’ ‘revolutionary’ leaders that made victory impossible.

A massive wave of factory occupations in 1920 created a revolutionary situation, with soviets controlling the factories and Red Guards defending them. The capitalist state was paralyzed. The task was to mobilize and arm the workers for the conquest of power.

The ‘Marxist’ leaders of the Italian Socialist Party were forced by pressure from below to profess support for the Comintern. In fact they were divided, and even the ‘maximalist’ (left) wing declined to lead the struggle. The initiative was allowed to pass to the reformists, who in turn handed power back to the capitalists – as usual, in return for some temporary concessions.

In France, in Ireland, in Britain, the Netherlands and many other countries the capitalist class managed to regain control with the assistance of the reformist labour leaders. In every case, this was possible only in the absence of a developed Marxist leadership able to seize the enormous opportunities and isolate the reformists, as the Bolsheviks had done in Russia.

By 1921 the workers’ struggle internationally was in a state of temporary ebb. A peculiar and dangerous correlation of forces was emerging: on the one hand, the capitalist class consolidating its position internationally; on the other hand, the Russian workers’ state isolated and exhausted.

The Exhaustion of Soviet Democracy

The Russian workers’ state survived the civil war, but at a terrible cost.

By 1920, the output of large-scale industry was down to 14 per cent of the 1913 level, and manufacturing output to less than 13 per cent. Agricultural production fell by a further 16 per cent between 1917 and 1921. Steel production stood at 5 per cent of the 1913 level.

Famine raged in east and south-east Russia during 1921 and 1922, killing five million people, reducing isolated communities to barbarism, even to cannibalism. The élan of 1917 was turned into despair, the drive to transform society into a grim struggle for survival.

Political democracy could not survive under these conditions. Every war demands a tight centralization of command over resources and manpower. A revolutionary civil war, moreover, is fought not only on the military front, but also against those sections of society who support the counter-revolution in the rear.

The October revolution had depended on an alliance between the working-class and the peasantry. The peasants had supported the workers’ state because it offered them peace and land.

But the deprivations of the war eroded the peasants’ support for the revolution. Manufactured goods became almost unobtainable, while food supplies were requisitioned from the peasantry to feed the Red Army and the cities.

Only the savagery of the White armies, and their intention of giving back to the landlords, prevented large sections of peasants from going over to the counter-revolution.

Freedom of speech and organization could not be maintained with society split into two and workers’ rule hanging by a thread. Hostile elements, agitating around the grievances of the masses, could have set the country on fire with rebellion and opened the door to counter-revolution. Trotsky explained:

“We are fighting a life-and-death struggle. The press is a weapon not of an abstract society, but of two irreconcilable armed and contending sides. We are destroying the press of the counter-revolution, just as we destroyed its fortified positions, its stores, its communications, and its intelligence system.” (Terrorism and Communism, page 80)

This was the period known as ‘war communism’. In the economy, the consumption of the country’s desperately scarce resources had to be strictly controlled. At the same time, anticipating the victory of the German working-class, the Soviet government hoped to pass from control over distribution to control over production, using the methods of war communism as the starting point for a planned socialist economy.

Reformists and ex-Marxists raised a great outcry at the ruthless measures the Bolsheviks were forced to take in crushing the counter-revolution. What is the difference, they asked, between the methods of Bolshevism and the old dictatorship of the Tsar [emperor]? Trotsky replied:

“You do not understand this, holy men? We shall explain to you. The terror of Tsarism throttled the workers who were fighting for the socialist order. Out Extraordinary Commissions shoot landlords, capitalists and generals who are striving to restore the capitalist order. Do you grasp this…distinction? Yes? For us communists it is quite sufficient.” (Terrorism and Communism, pages 78-79)

Repression, however, was seen by the Bolsheviks as an exceptional and temporary method, forced on them by the imminent danger of reaction. Even under these critical conditions they remained conciliatory towards their political opponents, on condition that they supported the workers’ state in practice, and campaigned for their policies on that basis.

At no stage did the Bolsheviks put forward the idea of a ‘one-party state’, for which there is no foundation in Marxism.

In practice, however, those who supported the revolution overwhelmingly joined the Bolsheviks. The opposition parties were increasingly abandoned to out-and-out enemies of the workers’ state. They struggled, and they lost.

In June 1918 the soviets excluded the Right SRs and Mensheviks from their ranks as a result of their involvement with the counter-revolution.

As late as August 1920 the Mensheviks held their party conference in Moscow, and received press coverage. But by 1921 most of the Menshevik leaders had left Russia, to conduct their campaign against the Soviet state from abroad.

The Communist Party congress of 1921 recognized that workers’ democracy needed to be rebuilt. But the basis for workers’ democracy – the unity, organization and revolutionary energy of the working-class – had been shattered by the superhuman effort of winning the war.

The collapse of industry meant the decimation of the workers’ ranks:

“By 1919 the number of industrial workers declined to 76 percent of the 1917 level…By 1920, the figure for industrial workers generally fell from three million in 1917 to 1,240,000, i.e., to less than half. In two years the working-class population of Petrograd was halved.” (A. Woods and E. Grant, Lenin and Trotsky: What They Really Stood For, page 75)

The workers’ political cadre – the class-conscious activists who had mobilized their workmates, led the strikes, taken up arms, created and led the soviets – was almost eradicated. As Ilyin-Zhenevsky recorded in Petrograd even in the opening days of the war:

“the front was calling for reinforcements – both rank-and-file Red Army and leading executives…the Petrograd Committee sent to the front about 300 such persons, members of our Party. We were having to sacrifice our best forces to the demands of the front.” (The Bolsheviks in Power, pages 116-117)

Thousands of these revolutionary cadres perished in the war. Most of the survivors were absorbed into the ministries of the workers’ state.

The workforce remaining in the factories was transformed into the opposite of the revolutionary vanguard of 1917. As early as 1919 a delegate to the congress of trade unions warned:

“We observe in a large number of industrial centres that the workers…are being absorbed in the peasant mass, and instead of a population of workers we are getting a half peasant or sometimes purely peasant population.” (Quoted by Woods and Grant, page 75)

With the class-conscious workers decimated and dispersed, with the raw, semi-peasant workforce in the factories struggling night and day to continue production with dilapidated equipment and constant shortages, the soviets ceased to function.

The All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which had been supposed to meet every three months, was meeting only once a year by 1918; and even those meetings were insufficiently prepared.

Through utter exhaustion the masses were no longer able to exercise power directly. This factor was decisive in the degeneration of the Russian workers’ state.

But, it might be asked, couldn’t the Bolsheviks have ensured that the state remained an instrument of working-class policy? They were in power – why could they not stamp out bureaucratism and carry out socialist policies?

This question is also important in clarifying why, today, genuine socialist policies are impossible without mass working-class participation in the running of every state organ.

The next three sections will examine in more detail the objective barriers the Bolsheviks were faced with, the limitations of their control over the state apparatus in the absence of functioning soviets, and the effects of the changing situation on the Communist Party itself.

Bureaucracy and the Workers’ State

Lenin, shortly before the October revolution, brilliantly explained the nature of the workers’ state in his book The State and Revolution:

“Alongside of an immense expansion of democracy, which for the first time becomes democracy for the poor…the dictatorship of the proletariat brings about a series of restrictions on the freedom of the oppressors, the exploiters, the capitalists. We must suppress them in order to free humanity from wage slavery; their resistance must be crushed by force…but it is now the suppression of the exploiting minority by the exploited majority. A special apparatus, a special machine for suppression, the ‘state’, is still necessary, but this is already a transitional state.” (see pages 107-110)

The “dying away” or “withering away” of the state as a specialized organ of repression and control, as armed bodies of men separate from the mass of people – this is the political measure of workers’ rule. Lenin sums up what it means:

“The exploiters are naturally unable to suppress the people without a highly complex machine…but the people can suppress the exploiters with a very simple ‘machine’…by the simple organization of the armed masses (such as the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers Deputies…)” (page 110)

How would this “simple machine” work in practice? How can the working people keep control over the state they had created, and prevent the growth of a military and bureaucratic elite? Lenin’s basic guidelines are as valid today as on the day they were written:

  1. “No official to receive a higher wage than that of the average skilled worker…”
  2. “Administrative duties were to be rotated amongst the widest strata of the population to prevent the crystallization of an entrenched caste of bureaucrats.”
  3. “All working people were to bear arms to protect the revolution against threats from any quarter, internal or external.”
  4. “All power was to be vested in the Soviets. The composition of the Soviets, lay delegates from the workplaces subject to instant recall, obliged delegates to report back to mass meetings of their workmates…and thus ensure maximum mass participation.” (R. Silverman and E. Grant, Bureaucratism or Workers’ Power?, page 3)

The revolution had smashed the old Tsarist state to the extent of driving out the most reactionary generals and nobles at the head of the ministries and the armed forces. Communists took their places wherever possible.

But a thoroughgoing transformation of the state apparatus was impossible with the resources of the isolated Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks numbered only 23,600 in February 1917. A minority of this number formed the cadre of the party, able to lead others in struggling for party policy. The state apparatus, on the other hand, numbered hundreds of thousands of officials.

‘Specialists’ and skilled administrators of the old regime could not be replaced; they had to be kept on, even at the cost of bribing them with privileges. In the town of Vyatka in 1918, for example, no fewer than 4,476 out of 4,766 officials were the same individuals who had previously served the Tsar.

Trotsky, in his book The Revolution Betrayed, explained the significance of what was taking place.

A workers’ state, he said, is “a bridge between the bourgeois [capitalist] and socialist society”. Its task is to create a society of abundance through the planned use of resources, through which class divisions – and the state itself as an organ of class rule – will disappear.

For the first period, the workers’ state has to operate with the economic means it has inherited from capitalism. It has to use the skilled people trained under capitalism and some of the methods of capitalism: the division of labour, the payment of wages, etc.

The whole development of the workers’ state is thus determined by “the changing relations between its bourgeois and socialist tendencies” (page 54) – i.e., between the remaining elements of the old bourgeois apparatus and its methods of control from above, and the development of working-class management from below.

Only the increasing command of the working people over society can eradicate the remnants of capitalism.

In backward Russia, however, the soviets had ceased to exist as organs of the armed people. Day-to-day administration was in the hands of an army of non-Communist officials, representing the outlook of the privileged layers in society.

Politbureau at 14th Conference of the All Union Communist Party Image fair usePolitbureau at 14th Conference of the All Union Communist Party / Image: fair use

Bureaucracy in a backward country, Trotsky explained, is a product of backwardness itself – the weakness of the working-class, its lack of skills, and the position of power which the state officials enjoy:

“The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all. When there are enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come when they want to. When there are a few goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the Soviet bureaucracy. It ‘knows’ who is to get something and who has to wait.” (The Revolution Betrayed, page 112)

Thus, the bureaucracy in an isolated, backward workers’ state does not simply become redundant and “die away”. To the extent that the “underdeveloped” working-class is unable to take over its functions, bureaucracy acquires – at least for a period – an objective basis for its existence.

Through the bureaucracy, the pressure of the reactionary classes were exerted upon and within the Russian workers’ state. This became more and more obvious as the exhaustion of the soviets left officials with greater freedom to act as they wished.

The political representatives of the working-class, organized in the Communist Party, were caught up in an increasingly hard-fought struggle against this bureaucracy.

Lenin, struck down by illness in the last two years of his life, became sharply aware of the dangers of the situation. At the fourth Comintern congress in 1922 he gave the international delegates this frank appraisal of the position in Russia:

“Undoubtedly, we have done, and will still do, a host of stupid things…Why do we do these foolish things? The reason is clear: firstly, because we are backward country; secondly, because education in our country is at a low level; and thirdly, because we are getting no outside assistance. Not a single civilized country is helping us. On the contrary, they are all working against us. Fourthly, our machinery of state is to blame. We took over the old machinery of state, and that was our misfortune. Very often this machinery operates against us…We now have a vast army of government employees, but lack sufficiently educated forces to exercise real control over them.” (Lenin, The Fourth Congress of the Communist International, page 19)

By “educated forces”, Lenin meant Communist workers, organized and able to control the “specialists”. Lenin could offer no immediate solution to the problem because, within Russia, there was none.

“In all our agitation,” Lenin said, “we must…explain that the misfortune which has fallen upon us is an international misfortune, that there is no way out of it but the international revolution.” (Quoted by Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, volume 3, page 367).

In other words, only the conquest of power by the working-class in the developed countries, and the provision of large-scale technical assistance to their brothers and sisters in Russia, could remove the basis for bureaucratic power.

Party Democracy

The exhaustion of the Soviet working-class placed a critical responsibility on the Communist Party and its leadership to defend the gains of the revolution.

War conditions destroyed the soviets, the basic organs of the workers’ state. By 1921, even the Executive of the Congress of Soviets was meeting only three times a year. ‘Sovnarkom’ (the Council of People’s Commissars, or government) remained as the effective organ of state power.

Sovnarkom consisted of leading Communists, elected to carry out party policy. Naturally they operated within the discipline of the party.

The party remained, in other words, as the nucleus and backbone of the workers’ state. Authority was necessarily concentrated in the hands of the central committee – and, later, the political bureau (‘Politbureau’) elected by the central committee – as a result of the extreme centralization required by the war.


Signing the Treaty of Brest Litowsk Image fair useSigning the Treaty of Brest Litowsk / Image: fair use

Trotsky gave an example of what this meant at the Comintern congress of 1920, in relation to the question of signing peace with Poland:

“Who decided this question? We have Sovnarkom, but it must be subject to a certain control. Whose control? The control of the working-class as a formless chaotic mass? No. The central committee of the party has been called together to discuss the proposal and decide whether to answer it.” (Quoted in E. H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, page 226)

But the centralization of power under Lenin and Trotsky, however uncompromising, at no stage degenerated into systematic bureaucratic imposition from above.

The party and its cadre had been built through the struggle to unite a large number of separate revolutionary groups, each with its own leadership and ideas, around a Marxist program. The method was that of debate. The right of members or groups (‘factions’ or ‘tendencies’) to question the leadership, and campaign for their ideas in an organized manner, was absolutely taken for granted.

In 1918, for example, the opposition of the ‘Left Communists’ arose out of sharp debates within the party over the question of peace with Germany. For a fortnight they published their own daily paper in Petrograd; in Moscow they won control of the party organization.

But, with the start of the civil war, the Lefts closed ranks with the rest of the party and threw themselves into the struggle.

The explosion of unbridled workers’ democracy during those early days is well captured by the account of Ilyin Zhenevsky:

“A People’s Commissar [Minister]…was obliged in some cases not to issue orders but to address requests to an administrative organ that was subordinate to him. And this own organ might not agree with the People’s Commissar, and might refuse his request. This sort of thing was a common occurrence. A broad democratism in the way affairs were conducted found expression in the slogan ‘power at a local level.'” (The Bolsheviks in Power, page 30).

Even in the Red Army, critics of Trotsky’s leadership – essentially supporters of guerrilla war – were able to organize themselves as a ‘military opposition’ and campaign for their views. They were defeated through argument and example.

In late 1920 there emerged the so-called Workers’ Opposition, with a program summed up by Carr as “a hotchpotch of current discontents, directed in the main against the growing centralization of economic and political controls”. (The Bolshevik Revolution, page 203)

Their views were carried in the party press, day by day, for months on end. A pamphlet stating their case was circulated at the party congress in March 1921, where the issues were to be fully debated.

The proceedings of the congress, however, were dramatically cut across by the uprising of sailors at the naval base of Kronstadt, an island in the Bay of Finland facing Petrograd.

The Kronstadt Uprising

In 1917 the Kronstadt sailors had been in the forefront of the revolution. By 1921 this generation had disappeared to the war fronts and been replaced with peasant conscripts, politically inexperienced, who came under Anarchist influence.

Affected by all the peasants’ grievances, demanding more freedom but without a program for solving the country’s problems, they staged an armed insurrection under the slogan “Down with Bolshevik tyranny!”

This presented a far more serious threat to the workers’ state than the bands of armed insurgents still roaming parts of the country. Kronstadt commanded the approach to Petrograd. With Kronstadt out of government control, Petrograd could not be defended. This gave the Whites and the imperialists a unique opportunity to attack a key centre of the revolution.

Kronstadt sailors in 1917 Image AnarkistimatruusejaKronstadt sailors in 1917 / Image: Anarkistimatruuseja

The Bay of Finland was still frozen, defended by heavy guns and by the Baltic Fleet, would become impregnable. Time to solve the crisis was very short.

The sailors refused to surrender. Trotsky with the unanimous support of the party leadership, ordered the attack. After days of bitter fighting, Kronstadt was taken by Bolshevik troops.

The survival of the Soviet Union once again hung by a thread. Would the rebellion spread? To delegates at the party congress it was clear that firm and united leadership was essential. Public divisions in the party, at this point, would have been seized upon by the enemy to disorient the workers and peasants. It was decided that organized factions within the party had to be dissolved.

Lenin, a year later, summed up the basis for this unprecedented position:

“If we do not close our eyes to reality we must admit that at the present time the proletarian policy of the party is determined not by the character of its membership, but by the enormous undivided prestige enjoyed by the small group which might be called the Old Guard of the party. A slight conflict within this group would be enough, if not to destroy this prestige, at all events to weaken the group to such a degree as to rob it of its power to determine policy.” (Collected Works volume 33, page 257)

The operative words were “at the present time”. The Bolsheviks knew that problems could not be resolved by organizational measures alone; in the longer run, unity could only be built on discussion, education and agreement. The denial of tendency rights could only be justified as an emergency measure in grappling with the immediate crisis, to be abolished as soon as the situation was once again under control.

The Struggle for Power in the Communist Party

The Kronstadt uprising underlined the explosive resentment that had built up among the peasantry at the sacrifices, shortages and forced requisitions imposed on them during the war years. There was no prospect of an immediate breakthrough by the working-class in the West. Clearly, it was impossible to continue the regime of war communism without risking a generalized insurrection.

Lenin, in a simple example, summed up the situation:

“If we could tomorrow give 100,000 first-class tractors, supply them with benzine, supply them with mechanics…the middle peasant would say: ‘I am for Communism.’ But in order to do this, it is first necessary to conquer the international bourgeoisie, to compel it to give us these tractors.” (Quoted in Woods and Grant, Lenin and Trotsky: What They Really Stood For, page 76)

The tenth party congress of March 1921 could see no alternative to abandoning war communism (first advocated by Trotsky the previous year) and adopting what was called the ‘New Economic Policy’ (NEP) – a series of concessions to the capitalists and richer peasants who dominated agricultural production. It provided them with profit incentives to step up production for the market, as a means of feeding the towns and reviving industry.

The NEP undoubtedly succeeded in restoring a measure of life to the economy. By 1922 industrial output had risen to 25 percent of the 1913 level, though mainly in the branches of light industry supplying the peasants’ demand.

On the other hand, the NEP marked a serious retreat in the workers’ fundamental drive to collectivization and central planning of the economy. It greatly strengthened the so-called ‘NEP-men’ – a breed of middlemen who took advantage of the continuing shortages to speculate and line their own pockets.

Chervonetz money bill used under the NEP Image fair useChervonetz, money bill used under the NEP / Image: fair use

The balance of forces in Russian society was tilting further and further against the working-class. The kulaks and NEP-men shared a position of privilege with the state bureaucracy. These layers were becoming more confident and determined to consolidate their position. Their pressure on the workers’ leaders was increasing.

Victor Serge describes the distortions that were coming into existence:

“Classes were reborn under our very eyes: at the bottom of the scale, the unemployed receiving 24 roubles a month; at the top, the engineer receiving 800; and in between the two, the party functionary with 222, but obtaining a good many things free of charge…There was squalid, heart-breaking poverty…while wealth was arrogant and self-satisfied…The young people drank, old people drank, drunkenness became a plague. And the worst of it was that we could no longer recognize the old party of the revolution.” (From Lenin to Stalin, page 39)

The bureaucracy did not form a class in the Marxist sense (i.e., a social grouping with a necessary function in the productive system). Already it was degenerating into a layer of parasites, exploiting the shortage of skills to extort privileges as of right.

Inevitably, tensions were increasing between the “arrogant, self-satisfied bureaucracy”, entrenched in the state apparatus, and the surviving Bolshevik cadre. The bureaucracy could not rest easy while power remained in the hands of the revolutionary Marxists. A struggle for control over the Communist Party was inherent in the situation.

In the party, the Marxist cadre was stretched to breaking point by the demands of public duties, while the ranks of the party were swelled by a massive influx of new members. Membership increased from 23,600 in February 1917 to 115,000 at the beginning of 1918, 313,000 a year later, and 650,000 in March 1922.

Many of those who joined, especially during the dark days of the civil war, were militant workers and youth attracted to the party of the revolution. But, increasingly, ex-Mensheviks, bureaucrats, NEP-men and other hostile elements, seeking a new vehicle for their political ambitions, began to turn their attention to the Communist Party.

As early as March 1919 the eighth party congress recognized the danger:

“Elements which are not sufficiently communist or even directly parasitic are flowing into the party in a broad stream. The Russian Communist Party is in power, and this inevitably attracts to it, together with the better elements, careerist elements as well…A serious purge is indispensable in the Soviet and party organizations.” (Quoted by Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, page 212)

The inner-party struggle was pushed into the background during the war years. The purge was eventually carried out in 1921-22. Unlike the ruthless bureaucratic attacks on opposition of later years, also known as ‘purges’, it consisted of a careful examination by local party organizations of their members, to decide which of them, through their commitment and activity, could in fact be counted as Communists.

A further decision by the eighth congress resulted in the establishment of a People’s Commissariat of Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection (‘Rabkrin’) in February 1920, with the task of fighting “bureaucratism and corruption in Soviet institutions”.

As People’s Commissar in charge of the new department, the congress had appointed Joseph Stalin – a party member of long standing; no theoretician but a good organizer, who was hardly known outside of the party itself. In 1922 Stalin was appointed to another important administrative position: that of general secretary.

Rabkrin failed totally in its task. In practice its members consisted, as Trotsky put it, of “workers who have come to grief in other fields.” Or as Lenin commented: “the best workers have been taken for the front,” (Quoted by Carr, pages 232-233).

But there were more fundamental reasons why the tide of bureaucratic encroachment could not be halted.

Russia’s backwardness was reflected, politically, in the weakness of the proletariat in relation to the peasantry and the reactionary classes, nationally and internationally. As Lenin put it:

“While we continue to be a country of small peasants, there is a more solid basis for capitalism in Russia than for communism.” (Quoted in The Platform of the Joint Opposition, page 6)

The social weakness of the Soviet working-class could not be overcome by administrative measures; bourgeois pressures within the state apparatus could not be eliminated through the creation of new bureaucratic structures. The solution lay in the political regeneration of the working-class through the advance of the revolution internationally.

Joseph Stalin in 1918 Image fair useJoseph Stalin in 1918 / Image: fair use

The influence of the bureaucracy increasingly pervaded the party. Many Communists, absorbed in complicated administrative work, were already being ‘led’ by the bureaucracy.

Even the party leaders were coming under pressure to adapt to the ‘practical’ demands of the bureaucracy, to concentrate on creating stability in Russia through organizational measures, and relegate the international revolution to the background.

Lenin, in his last period of active life, became increasingly aware of the dangers posed by the power of the bureaucracy. At the eleventh party congress in 1922 (the last he attended) he sounded this warning:

“The [state] machine refused to obey the hand that guided it. It was like a car that was going not in the way the driver desired but in a direction someone else desired: as if it were being driven by some lawless, mysterious hand…perhaps of a profiteer, or of a private capitalist, or of both.” (Collected Works, volume 33, page 279)

Stalin came to the fore in this period. It was not his own personality or abilities, or even his conscious intentions, that transformed this colourless individual into the tyrant of later years. Stalin’s rise to power was entirely a consequence of the changing balance of forces in society and the state.

The bureaucracy of the workers’ state was beginning to isolate the ‘socialist tendency’, and to corrupt elements in the workers’ leadership that were politically weak. Stalin was a key official who proved ‘most consistent and reliable’ to the bureaucracy. As Trotsky explains:

“(Stalin) brought (the bureaucracy) all the necessary guarantees: the prestige of an old Bolshevik, a strong character, narrow vision, and close bonds with the political machine…The petty-bourgeois outlook of the new ruling stratum was his own outlook. He profoundly believed that the task of creating socialism was national and administrative in its nature.” (The Revolution Betrayed, pages 93, 97)

The exceptional centralization of power brought about by the civil war was, to the bureaucracy, the natural method of government. It provided the means of protecting their privileges against the threat of future working-class control.

Stalin played a central role in the consolidation of the bureaucracy’s position within the party apparatus. From 1922, he systematically installed his own followers as branch, district and provincial secretaries. This gave him effective control over the day-to-day implementation of policy, the organization of meetings, the election of congress delegates, etc.

These manoeuvres paved the way for a head-on collision with Lenin, Trotsky and the remainder of the Bolshevik leadership.

The Turning Point

1923-1924 marked a turning point in the Soviet Union: a period when the contradictions in the state and the party erupted into a decisive political struggle.

By the end of 1922 Lenin was seriously ill after suffering a series of strokes. It was no longer certain when or if he would return to political activity.

The bureaucracy was hostile and fearful towards Trotsky – next to Lenin the most authoritative and implacable Marxist leader of the party. However, certain ‘old Bolshevik’ leaders – swayed by political narrowness, personal ambitions and loyalties – were also reluctant to see Trotsky, in Lenin’s absence, take his place at the head of the Politbureau.

In December 1922, Zinoviev (then president of the Communist International) and Kamenev (a close associate of Zinoviev) formed a secret faction with Stalin (later known as the ‘trio’ or ‘triumvirate’) for the specific purpose of conspiring against Trotsky. This gave them an effective majority in the six-member Politbureau and, as a result, a commanding authority over the central committee and the party as a whole.

It was Lenin, from his sickbed, who first sensed the significance of what was happening, and opened the struggle against Stalin and the bureaucracy.

In a brief note, later known as his 'Testament”, Lenin wrote on December 25, 1922: “Comrade Stalin, having become General Secretary, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure he will always be capable of using that power with sufficient caution…”

Ten days later he added:

“Stalin is too rude, and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst in dealing and among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a General Secretary. That is why I suggest that the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post and appointing another man in his stead who in all other respects differs from Comrade Stalin in having only one advantage, that of being more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and considerate to comrades, less capricious, etc. This circumstance may appear to be a negligible detail. But I think that from the standpoint of safeguards against a split…it is not a detail, or it is a trifle which may assume decisive importance” (Collected Works, vol. 36, pg. 594-596).

Lenin did not spell out the “decisive importance” which he feared that Stalin’s behaviour could acquire. But what could it mean except that Stalin, coming into conflict with the best representatives of Marxism in the party, would find himself the tool of hostile forces – the kulaks, the bureaucracy, the ‘capitalists’ and ‘profiteers’?

This insight alone could explain Lenin’s surprising demand that the general secretary be removed so quickly after his appointment.

But with Lenin on his deathbed, Stalin and his faction behaved with increasing arrogance, abusing their powers in defiance of all the traditions of the party.

Matters came to a head with Stalin’s bureaucratic incorporation of the Soviet Republic of Georgia into the USSR (formed on January 30, 1922) and his repression of the local Bolshevik leaders. Lenin, when he found out what had happened, felt that a struggle against this alien tendency in the party could no longer be postponed.

Too ill to attend the twelfth party congress in April 1923, Lenin entrusted Trotsky with the task of defending the Georgian Bolsheviks by delivering a “bombshell” against Stalin.

But Stalin retreated, accepting all Trotsky’s criticisms and correcting his formulations on the national question. Trotsky was reluctant at this point to press home a public attack on Stalin, which would have been seen as a ‘power struggle’ for Lenin’s position, and would have raised the danger of splitting the party.

Final photo of Lenin Image fair useFinal photo of Lenin / Image: fair use

Thus, a confrontation was postponed. Shortly afterwards Lenin suffered a further stroke, and was eliminated from political activity until his death in January 1924.

Over the next months the tensions in the party exploded around two central issues: party democracy, and economic policy.

At the congress Trotsky had drawn a balance sheet of the NEP, and pointed out the dangerous lag in industrial production. He used a diagram of price changes of industrial and agricultural products to illustrate his point. It had the appearance of an open pair of scissors: agricultural prices showing a downward line, and industrial prices a rising line.

By March 1923, industrial prices had reached 140 per cent of their 1913 levels, while agricultural prices had dropped to less than 80 per cent. The problem which this reflected was subsequently called the ‘scissors crisis’.

If industrial production continued to decline and prices continued to rise, Trotsky warned, a break between the peasantry and the proletariat, between the countryside and the towns, would become inevitable.

The congress accepted Trotsky’s arguments for a new turn within the framework of the NEP: to develop the state sector on the basis of a central plan, and to expand industry, to eventually absorb and eliminate the private sector.

But this policy change remained a dead letter. The bureaucracy, bound to the ‘private sector’ by ties of common privilege, had no desire to undermine it. In practice they continued as before to rely on the kulaks to increase production for profit.

In July and August there was a wave of strikes as workers vented their frustration against their harsh conditions. The leaders – many of them old Bolsheviks – were arrested on the orders of the bureaucracy. All the signs showed that the sickness in the party was reaching a dangerous level.

Trotsky sounded a warning. Imprisoning opponents, he explained, would solve nothing while the immediate causes of the conflict remained: lack of economic planning, and the hold of the bureaucracy over the party.

“This present regime”, Trotsky wrote to the Central Committee on October 8, “is much further from any workers’ democracy than was the regime under the fiercest period of war communism.” (Documents of the 1923 Opposition, page 2) The hierarchy of secretaries, appointed from above, “created party opinion”, dominated the rank and file workers, and ensured that critical views were given no genuine hearing.

Within days of Trotsky’s protest, a statement was issued by 46 other leading party members, expressing their criticism of the Politbureau’s course and various proposals to correct it.

Victor Serge, a member of the 1923 Opposition, explains the general position:

“The country was approaching an irremediable economic crisis, a crisis which might arouse a hundred and twenty million peasants against the socialist power and place it at the mercy of foreign capital by forcing it to import (on credit? and under what conditions?) great quantities of manufactured goods. To forestall this crisis certain measures had to be taken before it was too late.

“These measures were:

  1. “To restore democracy in the party, so that the influence of the workers might be felt; to ventilate the State bureaus. This was the obvious condition for the success of all economic measures.”
  2. “To adopt a plan for industrialization and appreciably rebuild industry within a few years.”
  3. “In order to obtain the resources necessary for industrialization, force the well-to-do peasants to deliver their wheat to the state.” (From Lenin to Stalin, page 40)

Thus, the lines of the inner-party conflict were being drawn more clearly. It was a struggle between opposing social forces: between a tendency basing itself on the working-class, and one defending the “well-to-do peasants” and other privileged sections.”

The ‘trio’ and their supporters were thrown into turmoil by the challenge. The statement by the 46, against all party precedent, was banned, and Trotsky was condemned for ‘initiating’ it.

But, under pressure from the majority of the party (including the army and the youth), the bureaucracy was forced to retreat. They accepted the demands of the Opposition in words, and proclaimed a ‘New Course’ of freedom and democracy in the party – but keeping all the strings of power in their hands.

Trotsky replied with an Open Letter to party members on December 8, warning that a ‘New Course’ on paper was not enough, that the party could not be turned back onto the road of Bolshevism unless the rank and file – and the youth in particular – acted to “regenerate and renovate the party apparatus”. (The New Course, page 71)

This letter was received with tremendous enthusiasm among the party workers – and by the bureaucracy as a declaration of war. The debate was to be resolved at the thirteenth conference, meeting in January 1924.

The struggle in the Soviet party, however, was decisively cut across by the developments in Germany during 1923.

The Defeat of the German Revolution

Germany’s precarious stability was shattered in January 1923 when French troops occupied the Ruhr industrial area to extract, at gunpoint, the ‘war reparations’ which the German imperialists were being forced to pay as the price of their defeat in the World War.

The German economy slumped. Inflation, already skyrocketing during 1922, became astronomical – probably in the region of 1,000,000,000,000,000 percent during 1922-1923!

The living standards of workers and the middle-class collapsed. The working-class swung sharply to the left. Factory councils sprang up in opposition to the reformist union leaders. The KPD (Communist Party of Germany) grew by tens of thousands. ‘Proletarian hundreds’ (workers’ militias) were formed, involving 60,000 workers by the autumn, with (by capitalist estimates) 11,000 rifles in their hands.

In two states, Saxony and Thuringia, left-wing SPD governments were in power, relying on KPD support.

On August 11 a general strike brought down the right-wing Cuno government in Berlin. Germany was in a revolutionary crisis.

The workers’ leadership was unprepared. The KPD leadership was divided between the ‘centre’, ‘left’ and ‘right’ factions, with the cautious Brandler at its head. Hesitation and uncertainty marked its policy throughout.

The Comintern was increasingly affected by the struggle in the Soviet party. The conservatism and short-sightedness of the bureaucracy, transmitted through the leadership of the Soviet party, was beginning to prevail.

The Comintern representative in Germany, Radek, gave his full backing to Brandler. As late as July Stalin advised that “the Germans should be restrained and not spurred on”. (Carr, The Interregnum 1923-1924, page 195)

Only with the fall of the Cuno government did the Executive Committee of the Comintern (ECCI) accept Trotsky’s argument that a struggle for power was on the agenda in Germany, that political and organizational preparations for armed insurrection urgently needed to be made.

KPD propaganda poster Image Flickr IISGKPD propaganda poster / Image: Flickr IISG

But tragically, this policy was not followed through. Trotsky sums up what happened:

“Why didn’t the German revolution lead to a victory? The reasons for it are all to be sought in the tactics, and not in the existing conditions. Here we had a classical example of a missed revolutionary situation. After all the German proletariat had gone through in recent years, it could be led to a decisive struggle only if it were convinced that this time the question would be decisively resolved and that the Communist Party was ready for the struggle and capable of achieving the victory. But the Communist Party executed the turn [to insurrection] very irresolutely and after a very long delay. Not only the Rights but also the Lefts…viewed rather fatalistically the process of revolutionary development up to September-October 1923.” (The Third International After Lenin, page 70)

The triumvirate was incapable of intervening and instilling a bold revolutionary understanding of the situation in the KPD leadership. Trotsky was deliberately isolated. The consequences were disastrous. As a close co-worker of Trotsky wrote in 1936 (quoted in Ted Grant, The Rise and Fall of the Third International, page 28):

“When the German bourgeoisie at last gathered its forces, proclaimed a state of siege, proceeded to take the offensive, the [KPD] capitulated without a struggle” – that is, they called off the insurrection. (Word of the capitulation did not reach Hamburg in time, and an isolated uprising took place, which was crushed after days of fighting.)

The failure of the KPD leadership cost the German working-class, and the European revolution, the chance of a victory that would have changed the course of world history. Instead, the KPD was declared illegal for some months. With massive US aid, the German economy was stabilized and capitalism pulled back from the brink.

A few months earlier the mass Bulgarian Communist Party after its leaders, dogmatically, refused to enter a united from with the Peasant Union government against a right-wing military coup. Also in Poland the workers, inspired into action by the German events, were defeated.

These setbacks had a critical effect on the inner-party struggle in Russia. Germany in particular had always been seen as the key to the European revolution. Now it became clear that no relief could be expected from Western Europe in the months or years ahead.

A vicious cycle was set in motion. The increasing grip of the bureaucracy on the Soviet party (and through it, on the Comintern) was becoming a serious obstacle to the development of revolutionary policies and leadership internationally. The setbacks resulting from this, in turn strengthened the currents of demoralization and conservatism which the bureaucracy thrived on.

Less politicized workers began to lose confidence in the Marxist perspective of international revolution. To backward layers, the scepticism and cynicism of the bureaucracy began to look ‘realistic’.

“A wave of depression passed over Russia,” Serge wrote, “and the bureaucracy had its own way for three years.” (From Lenin to Stalin, page 42)

The Invention of ‘Trotskyism’

The party bureaucracy resorted to vote-rigging to exclude Opposition delegates from the thirteenth conference in January 1924, where the inner-party debate was to be decided.

In Moscow, for example, the Opposition had majority support in most of the cells (branches). In the regional elections, despite ruthless weeding out of Opposition supporters by Stalin's appointed secretaries, 36 percent of the vote still went to the Opposition. Yet, at the provincial level, this vote was mysteriously halved.

From the whole of the USSR, only three Opposition delegates managed to get into the conference!

Zinoviev the inventor of Trotskyism Image public domainZinoviev: the inventor of Trotskyism / Image: public domain

Then came the news of Lenin's death. The mass of workers and youth were plunged into even deeper gloom, while the bureaucracy immediately felt themselves in a stronger position.

The triumvirate now set out to defeat the Opposition's power base among the party activists. Supposedly in tribute to Lenin, they threw the party open to workers – had not Trotsky criticized the fact that only 15 percent of the membership were workers?

Between February and May 1924 some 240,000 workers were admitted. This so-called ‘Lenin levy’ was, in fact, a mockery of the method of party-building that Lenin had developed.

As the party congress had explained in 1919:

"The Communist Party is the organization which unites in its ranks only the vanguard of the proletariat and the poorest peasantry – that part of these classes which consciously strives to realize in practice the communist program.

"The Communist Party makes it its task to win decisive all organizations of workers..."

Flooding the party with raw recruits went directly counter to this task – but it served another purpose. The ‘Lenin levy’, the trio calculated, would in the first place provide them with voting fodder to swamp the Opposition. Inexperienced members, confronted with unfamiliar problems, will tend to follow the lead they are given. Very few would feel able to challenge the Politbureau.

As in Russia, there was strong support for the Opposition in the Communist parties internationally. The central committees of the mass-based French and Polish parties, for example, protested against the attacks on Trotsky.

Zinoviev and Kamenev Image public domainZinoviev and Kamenev / Image: public domain

The triumvirate could not tolerate this. Zinoviev, as Comintern president, ruthlessly abused his position, disbanding the leading bodies of national parties to get rid of Trotsky's supporters – under the slogan of ‘Bolshevization’!

Yet the bureaucracy could not feel secure as long as Trotsky, with his giant authority as theoretician and co-leader of the October revolution, continued to subject their opportunism and blunders to merciless Marxist criticism. It was essential for the Zinovievites and Stalinists to rewrite history and cover Trotsky's name in mud.

Their tactic was to invent ‘Trotskyism’ (a phrase coined by Zinoviev in December 1923). This consisted of raking up each and every past difference between Lenin and Trotsky in order to insinuate that Trotsky had ‘always’ been opposed to Bolshevism.

Trotsky was reviled as a Menshevik (after the confusing split between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in 1903 he had, for a few months, found himself in the Mensheviks' camp before the political differences between them became clear) and also as an ultra-left! In particular his theory of permanent revolution was seized on to demonstrate his ‘petty-bourgeois deviation from Leninism’.

In fact, Trotsky's fundamental disagreement with the Mensheviks was precisely the basis for his political alliance with Lenin in 1917 and after.

The Mensheviks, Trotsky explained, "took as their point of departure the idea that to the liberal bourgeoisie...belonged the leading role in the bourgeois [democratic] revolution. According to this pattern, the party of the proletariat was assigned the role of Left Wing of the democratic front." (Introduction to The Permanent Revolution, page 3).

From this it followed that the revolution should be carried out in two stages: first, a "democratic" stage (on the basis of capitalism); and only at some point in the future would "socialism" be on the agenda.

Trotsky rejected this mechanical formula and developed his own analysis of the character of the revolution in a backward country such as Russia. This analysis, brilliantly confirmed by the October Revolution, became known as the theory of ‘permanent revolution’.

"In the event of a decisive victory of the revolution," Trotsky wrote in 1906, "power will pass into the hands of that class which plays a leading role in the struggle – in other words, into the hands of the proletariat...The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement. No matter under what political flag the proletariat has come to power, it is obliged to take the path of socialist policy." (Results and Prospects, pages 201, 233).

He added:

"Should the Russian proletariat find itself in will encounter the organized hostility of world reaction, and on the other hand will find a readiness on the part of the world proletariat to give organized support...It will have no alternative but to link the fate of its political rule, and, hence, the fate of the whole Russian revolution, with the fate of the socialist revolution in Europe." (page 247)

Lenin, in April 1917, came to identical conclusions. By 1924, the term ‘permanent revolution’ had not been an issue for years, and the debate about it was purely historical.

For the bureaucracy, however, the party's commitment to revolutionary internationalism – defended above all by Trotsky – was becoming an intolerable thorn in the flesh.

With the defeat of the German revolution it became clear that the Soviet Union faced a period of prolonged isolation. To the bureaucracy, the perspective of world revolution became more and more wishful thinking. They wrote off the working class in the west, and settled down to the ‘practical’ task of managing the Soviet Union in the midst of a capitalist world.

Material conditions call forth ideas. In the 1890s, Bernstein had developed the ‘theory’ of reformism to justify the real-life retreat from the program of class struggle by the right wing of social democracy.

Similarly, in 1924-25, Stalin produced a ‘theory’ which reflected the conservatism of the Soviet bureaucracy, expressing their opposition to the Marxist position that Trotsky represented, and attempting, in ‘Marxist’ terms, to justify their break with it: the ‘theory’ of ‘socialism in one country’.

‘Socialism in One Country’

On the strength of three quotations plucked from Lenin's voluminous writings, Stalin in December 1924 put forward the unheard-of idea that socialism could be built in Russia without the victory of the working class in the developed countries.

This idea went counter to everything Lenin had tried to explain, even in the documents Stalin quoted. Lenin went no further than to point out that in Russia the political conditions for socialist transformation (a workers' regime supported by the peasantry) had been created by the October Revolution. At no stage did Lenin entertain the illusion that the economic preconditions existed in backward Russia.

Stalins crude theory of socialism in one country had no basis in Marxism Image public domainStalin's crude 'theory' of 'socialism in one country' had no basis in Marxism / Image: public domain

As late as February 1924, Stalin himself had still preached the exact opposite of ‘socialism in one country’:

"...can the final victory of socialism in one country be attained, without the joint efforts of the proletariat of several advanced countries? No, this is impossible...For the final victory of socialism, for the organization of socialist production, the efforts of one country, particularly of such a peasant country as Russia, are insufficient. For this the efforts of the proletarians of several advanced countries are necessary." (Stalin, Foundations of Leninism)

Yet, within months, Stalin took a completely different line:

"If we knew in advance that we are not equal to the task [of building socialism in Russia by itself], then why the devil did we have to make the October Revolution? If we have managed for eight years, why should we not manage in the ninth, tenth or fortieth year?" (Quoted in Carr, Socialism in One Country, Volume 2, page 181)

What made Stalin turn his ideas upside-down?

Basically, it was the changing balance of forces that emboldened the non-theorist Stalin to throw down the gauntlet to all the theorists of Marxism. The Opposition, the ideas of Marxism and the class demands of the workers were being silenced while the bureaucracy, increasingly arrogant, was prevailing.

The idea of revolutionary struggle against capitalism internationally (‘permanent revolution’) was entirely alien to the new masters of the Soviet Union. Stalin's thoroughly dishonest argument was not a theory in the true sense of the word (an attempt at explaining reality). It was nothing more than an attempt at burying the program of permanent revolution, of Marxism itself.

To cover their tracks, the bureaucracy increasingly ‘altered’ party history, and Marxist textbooks, to make it appear to the workers that their policy was the consistent continuation of Bolshevism. By November 1926, for example, Stalin felt able to declare:

"The party always took as its starting point the idea that the victory of socialism in one country means the possibility to build socialism in that country, and that this task can be accomplished with the forces of a singly country"! (Quoted by Woods and Grant, page 109)

Taken to its conclusions, Stalin's ‘theory’ denied the need for a revolutionary International. Defence of ‘socialism’ in the Soviet Union, in contrast to the building of socialism through world revolution, now became the primary task of the Communist parties internationally.

In practice, this meant uncritical support for the policies and national interests of the Soviet bureaucracy. (In 1943, Stalin himself confirmed this in the most blatant manner when he dissolved the Comintern – by then a bureaucratic shell – at the stroke of a pen, in order to prove to his wartime allies, the imperialist leaders Roosevelt and Churchill, that the Soviet leadership had abandoned all thought of world revolution.)

The Opposition were denounced as ‘pessimists’ and ‘cynics’ for questioning the bureaucracy's crude, anti-Marxist ideas.

In reality it was the Opposition who had consistently explained the need for industrialization to strengthen the basis of workers' rule in the Soviet Union. (For this, in turn, they were denounced as ‘super-industrialisers’!) But they had also explained that this in itself would not be enough to complete the transition to socialism.

On the other hand, cutting loose from the program of internationalism meant writing off the perspective of reconstruction in Russia in any real sense – i.e., as part of a socialist Europe. The bureaucracy's alternative was to rely more openly on the kulaks as mainstay of the ‘national’ economy. Bukharin, in April 1925, went so far as to blurt out:

"To the peasants...we must say: Enrich yourselves, develop your farms, do not fear that constraint will be put on you." (Quoted in Carr, Socialism in One Country, Volume 1, page 280)

This slogan came under attack because it was too blatant and it was dropped by the central committee, but the general idea became party policy.

Stalin and Bukharin Image public domainStalin and Bukharin / Image: public domain

Before the year was out, Stalin was even considering whether to denationalise the land!

By this time the triumvirate was breaking up. Its purpose had been accomplished. Zinoviev and Kamenev had joined forces with the mediocrity Stalin out of hostility towards Trotsky; now they recoiled from the ruthless Stalin who had taken virtually all power into his own hands.

Political differences among the trio now began to surface.

At the party congress in December 1925, Zinoviev and Kamenev began to raise questions about Stalin's ideas. It was left to Trotsky, however, to develop a fundamental Marxist refutation of ‘socialism in one country’, and expose its inherent dangers.

Today the question has taken on even greater importance than in the 1920s. The powerful present-day Soviet regime has enormous influence in the mass movement internationally, especially in the underdeveloped countries. The bureaucracy's philosophy of ‘socialism in one country’ (or ‘national roads to socialism’) has become the conscious or unconscious starting point for many of the leaders.

Trotsky's reply to Stalin remains the clearest basis for answering these ideas and working out the Marxist way forward.

Why Marxism Stands for Internationalism

Trotsky demonstrated that the program of internationalism (now labelled ‘permanent revolution’) had never been challenged in the Bolshevik Party prior to 1924. Stalin's crude challenge, however, made it necessary to once again explain the question fundamentally.

Trotsky started with the basic ideas of Marxism. Civilization, he explained, advances through the development of the productive forces – through the struggle by people and classes in society to supply their material needs, in the process stimulating the development of science, technology, politics and culture.

It was left to Trotsky to make a principled defence of Marxist Internationalism Image public domainIt was left to Trotsky to make a principled defence of Marxist Internationalism / Image: public domain

Social systems come into existence on the basis of the organization of production. A social system can only be swept away when it has come to the limits of its development, and a new revolutionary class, with the capacity to reorganize and further develop the forces of production, is prepared to take power.

The necessity for socialism arises out of the obstacles created by the capitalist system to the further development of the productive forces. The historical purpose of socialism is to develop society beyond the economic and political limits of capitalism, to new levels of abundance and freedom.

"Socialist society", as Trotsky explained, "can be built only on the most advanced productive forces...on combining, generalizing and bringing to maximum development the highest elements of modern technology...Socialism, however, must not only take over from capitalism the most highly developed productive forces but must immediately carry them onward...and give them a state of development such as has been unknown under capitalism." (The Third International After Lenin, pages 40-41)

The struggle and sacrifice to end capitalism and build socialism, in other words, could have no justification – and no attraction for the mass of working people – if it represented no advance (or a step backward) from the standards of living that capitalism is able to offer.

Why does socialist transformation make possible a huge leap forward even from the highest achievements of capitalism? On the one hand, because it frees production from the anarchy of market forces, the distortions of private ownership and the limits of national states. On the other hand, it liberates the collective ingenuity and creativity of the mass of working people from the repressive discipline of capitalist production.

Workers' democratic rule, in other words, is an essential political precondition for the transition to socialism and communism.

Why can this transformation not be carried through within the borders of one country? Precisely because capitalism has developed as a world system. The ‘most advanced productive forces’ are not contained in any single country; they depend on the combined efforts of the working class in whole series of countries, tied together through world trade. Certainly they could not exist in an underdeveloped country, such as Russia in 1917.

The transition to socialism – for control of the ‘most advanced productive forces’ – can only be an international process, depending on the conquest of power by the working class in at least a number of industrialized countries (which would seal the doom of the capitalist class on a world scale).

As long as workers' rule remains confined to a single country, it will face the combined hostility of the capitalists of the world, with vast economic and military resources at their disposal.

Stalin's crude argument, that the October revolution could have no other aim than the construction of socialism in Russia, therefore completely missed the point. Lenin, in one of many statements on the question, answered him in advance:

"Single-handed, the Russian proletariat cannot bring the socialist revolution to a victorious conclusion. But it can give the Russian revolution a mighty sweep that would create the most favorable conditions for a socialist revolution, and would, in a sense, start it. It can facilitate the rise of a situation in which its chief, its most trustworthy and reliable ally, the European and American socialist proletariat, could join the decisive battles." (Collected Works, Volume 23, page 372)

What ‘Socialism in One Country’ Really Meant

The Soviet Union could not overtake capitalism and advance to socialism because it did not dispose over the ‘highest productive forces’ within its boundaries. Even basic necessities for survival could only be obtained through trade with the imperialist powers.

The immediate challenge was to catch up with capitalism, to conquer the ‘commanding heights’ of the world economy, and so lay the basis for constructing socialism as an international system.

The Soviet Union's fundamental weakness, in other words, lay in its economic and technical backwardness compared with the advanced capitalist countries. Backwardness was the root of bureaucratization (see Section 6); bureaucratic rule excluded workers' democracy, and formed an absolute barrier to socialist transformation.

The bureaucracy persisted in seeing the international problems of the revolution in essentially military terms, and gambled on the ability of the Soviet Union to defeat future imperialist invasions.

As Trotsky pointed out, even the military threat of imperialism resulted from its technical superiority. But, he added, "it is not so much military intervention as the intervention of cheaper capitalist commodities that constitutes perhaps the greatest immediate menace to the Soviet Union.” (The Third International After Lenin, page 37)

In other words: the Soviet masses would defend their gains, and fight the threat of open counter-revolution. But demoralized and disillusioned by bureaucratic rule, they could not be expected to defend their own backwardness against a capitalist enemy apparently offering them a superior way of life.

14th Conference of the All Union Communist Party Image public domain14th Conference of the All Union Communist Party / Image: public domain

In the event it was not the armies of capitalist democracies that invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 but those of Hitler. With them, instead of ‘cheaper commodities’ for the Russian masses, they brought barbed wire and the gruesome paraphernalia of slave labour and extermination camps.

Subjected to barbarous racial repression by the Nazis, the Russian workers rallied heroically in defence of the Soviet Union.

Today the balance of forces internationally have swung massively against the imperialist powers, and there is no longer any possibility of capitalist restoration in the Soviet Union. The bureaucracy have diverted huge resources into military development, and transformed the Soviet Union into a nuclear superpower. The threat of imperialist invasion has effectively been ended.

But even this spectacular economic progress, possible only on the basis of a state-owned and planned economy, could not overcome the distortions in Russian society created by the rule of a privileged elite.

Bureaucratic repression stifled all initiative from below. The workers were driven forward through a combination of bribes and compulsion. The bureaucracy's soothing phrase of building socialism “at a snail's pace” (in Bukharin's phrase) made a mockery of workers' aspirations.

All it meant, in real terms, was the laborious struggle to develop the state-owned economy in a backward country – under their own rule.

Marx and Engels, as early as 1845, had anticipated why socialism could not be built under conditions such as these:

"This development of productive an absolutely necessary practical premise [of socialism] because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced." (From The German Ideology, in Selected Works, Volume I, page 37)

This insight was starkly borne out by the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian workers' state. The bureaucracy could only build a society of inequality. With inequality came increasing corruption and police repression on the part of the bureaucracy and, among the masses, a grim battle of "each one for himself".

A letter from a kolkhoz (collective farm) worker, written in April 1930, summed up the new relations being created between the working people and their bureaucratic masters:

"The members of the kolkhoz have for two months received no pay...Fifty percent of the revenue goes to the kolkhoz treasury, fifty percent for taxes and rent. What remains for the workers? No one knows. The president pays himself several flour certificates each month and refrains from all physical labor..."

A factory worker in March 1930:

"They are squeezing us, and how! Twenty-five percent increase in the productivity of labour and 1.9 percent increase in wages. For three years wages have not varied, though production has very much increased. Five men to the brigade instead of six, without change of equipment. The system of bonuses is applied in such a way that...they should be paid every six months, but in reality no one hopes to receive any..." (Quoted by Serge, From Lenin to Stalin, pages 60, 61)

Socialism cannot be built under these conditions. The essential political condition for the development of socialism, created by the October revolution and destroyed by the bureaucratic counter-revolution, has still to be re-conquered: democratic working-class rule.

Zinoviev and Kamenev, with their supporters, joined forces with Trotsky and the Opposition in 1926 in a struggle to pull the party back from Stalin's increasingly anti-Marxist course. Stalin, for his part, joined forces with the extreme right, pro-kulak wing of the party, headed by Bukharin, for the purpose of defeating the United Left Opposition.

This struggle was cut across by new upheavals internationally.

In Britain, the general strike of May 1926 provoked a profound crisis. The small Communist Party was presented with the opportunity of leading hundreds of thousands of workers in opposition to the reformist TUC leadership, and prepare the transfer of power to the working class.

But the Stalinist leadership in Russia was tied in an opportunistic alliance with the 'lefts' on the TUC General Council, and permitted no struggle against them. The TUC right wing betrayed the strike at the first opportunity. Stalin's 'left' allies offered no resistance.

After 10 days, with the strike still spreading, the General Council unanimously called it off and surrendered to the bosses. This condemned the British working class to a historic defeat.

"The cause of the proletarian revolution in the West", wrote Serge, "seemed lost for many years to come. And now an immense light was rising in the East; the Chinese masses...were advancing from victory to victory." (From Lenin to Stalin, page 44)

The Chinese working class was moving independently of the nationalist movement, the Kuomintang, led by the reactionary Chiang Kai-shek. The Chinese Communist Party was becoming a mass force. Shanghai and Hankow were in the hands of the workers. A struggle for power was inevitable.

Chiang Kai Shek and wife with Lieutenant General Stilwell Image public domainChiang Kai Shek and wife with Lieutenant General Stilwell / Image: public domain

Again, Stalinist opportunism stood in the way of victory. Stalin and the Comintern leadership had dangerous illusions in Chiang Kai-shek, and declared the Kuomintang to be "a revolutionary bloc of the workers, peasants, intellectuals, and urban democracy [i.e. the capitalist class] on the basis of a community of class the struggle against the imperialists and the whole militarist-feudal order". (Resolution of ECCI, March 1926)

In practice this meant that the Communist Party had to submit to Chiang's authority. What was this except the old Menshevik idea of common struggle by the working class and the 'democratic capitalists' for democracy on a capitalist basis?

The Left Opposition fought this policy every inch of the way. They explained that Chiang was defending the capitalists and landlords; that a soviet (workers') government was needed to give land to the peasantry and establish democracy.

"We know that Chiang Kai-shek is preparing the open betrayal of the unions and his communist allies", wrote Serge, "We are not permitted to speak. And Stalin takes the floor in Moscow before thousands of workers and solemnly assures them that we have nothing to fear from Chiang Kai-shek." (From Lenin to Stalin, page 45)

Chiang used the opportunity that Stalin gave him to prepare a savage massacre of Communists and workers in April 1927. The Comintern (after flirting with a 'left' rival of Chiang, and suffering further defeats) swung over to an opposite, ultra-left course, and tried to engineer an insurrection in Canton. It was drowned in blood.

These events spelled the end of the Chinese Communist Party as a revolutionary workers' organization.

The Chinese Revolution set enormous shock waves in motion internationally.

"A wave of excitement swept over the [Soviet] party", Trotsky wrote. "The opposition raised its head...Many younger comrades thought the patent bankruptcy of Stalin's policy was bound to bring the triumph of the opposition nearer...

I was obliged to pour many a bucket of cold water over the hot heads of my young friends...The fact that our forecast had proved correct might attract one thousand, five thousand or even ten thousand new supporters to us.

But for the millions the significant thing was not our forecast, but the fact of the crushing of the Chinese proletariat. After the defeat of the German Revolution in 1923, after the break-down of the English general strike in 1926, the new disaster in China would only intensify the disappointment of the masses in the international revolution.

And it was this same disappointment that served as the chief psychological source for Stalin's policy of national-reformism [i.e. "socialism in one country"]." (My Life, pages 552-553)

Thus the international defeats, caused by the bureaucracy's shortsighted opportunism, at the same time strengthened the bureaucracy, and created conditions for the isolation and defeat of the Marxist opposition. Trotsky explains:

"The advanced workers were indubitably sympathetic to the Opposition, but that sympathy remained passive. The masses lacked faith that the situation could be seriously changed by a new struggle. Meantime the bureaucracy asserted: 'For the sake of an international revolution, the Opposition proposes to drag us into a revolutionary war. Enough of shake-ups! We have earned the right to rest. We will build the socialist society at home. Rely upon us, your leaders!' This gospel of repose...indubitably found an echo among the weary workers, and still more the peasant masses." (The Revolution Betrayed, page 92)

16. The defeat of the joint Left Opposition

In a major document entitled The Platform of the Joint Opposition (1927), Trotsky drew a balance sheet of ten years of Communist government, and reasserted the policies of Marxism in contrast to the blind opportunism of the bureaucracy.

The Platform called for the revival of the soviets, the restoration of workers' democracy, and a bold program of industrialization. Under pressure of the Opposition, the bureaucracy had put forward proposals for a limited five-year plan. But it was based on the kulaks' interests, and neglected the need for industrial development. The Platform explained the alternative:

"We must carry out in deeds a redistribution of the tax-burden among the classes - loading more heavily the kulak and Nepman, relieving the workers and the poor...

"we must steer a firm course towards industrialization, electrification and rationalization, based upon increasing the technical power of the economy and improving the material conditions of the masses." (pages 45-46)

The Opposition criticized Stalin's disastrous foreign policy of seeking "instant" support from left-reformist and nationalist leaders, rather than building the Comintern as a mass revolutionary force. The danger of imperialist attack, it explained, could only be defeated through an all-out struggle to mobilize the support of the mass of the working class internationally.

Trotsky and the Left Opposition in 1927 Image public domainTrotsky and the Left Opposition in 1927 / Image: public domain

The bureaucrats had no answer to these ideas. Their "reply" was to unleash a campaign of vicious intimidation against the Opposition.

On the central committee, now packed with Stalin's hand-picked yes-men, Trotsky, Zinoviev and others were sworn at and howled down when they tried to speak. It was no better in the rest of the party. Victor Serge describes the scene in meeting after meeting:

"I had occasion to speak, or rather to try to speak, before gatherings shaken with a sort of frenzy. We were given the floor for five minutes after three-hour harangues. And against each of us they unleashed five, six, sometimes ten 'activists' eager to procure the favour of the secretaries. The crowd looked on passively, with a certain anxiety; they were often on our side, but they were afraid." (From Lenin to Stalin, page 49)

On the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, in the face of this merciless witch-hunt, the Opposition heroically took their slogans to mass demonstrations in Moscow and Leningrad: "Let us turn our fire to the right - against the kulak, the nepman and the bureaucrat"; "Let us carry our Lenin's Will"; "Against opportunism, against a split, and for the unity of Lenin's party"!

The bureaucracy reacted with panic-stricken fury. They had seen, at a demonstration in Leningrad the previous month, how thousands of workers had flocked to listen to Trotsky and Zinoviev when, by mistake, the police had escorted them to a platform. Now the Opposition demonstrations were violently broken up. A shot was fired at Trotsky's car.

At the fifteenth congress, in December 1927, not one Oppositionist was permitted to attend as a delegate. 940 leading supporters of Trotsky were expelled. Yet the Opposition continued to fight for its ideas. The London Times, under the headline "Trotsky versus Stalin", reported:

"The views of the Opposition, in spite of all prohibitions and the efforts of the Ogpu [secret police] ... continue to be widely propagated by means of illegal pamphlets, which, according to Pravda, are each being printed in editions of tens of thousands..." (December 2, 1927)

Marxist opposition to the rule of the bureaucracy was from this point driven underground.

Zinoviev's and Kamenev's courage deserted them and, together with 2,500 supporters, they surrendered to Stalin. More expulsion of Trotskyists followed. Trotsky himself was expelled, exiled to Siberia [ed: it was actually Alma Ata], and then - because he remained a focal point for the Opposition - deported from the Soviet Union early in 1929.

In spite of these terrible blows, Trotsky and thousands of his supporters remained committed to the ideas of Bolshevism and the program of the October Revolution. In their propaganda they identified themselves as the Bolshevik-Leninists, to distinguish themselves from the upstart bureaucrats who had installed themselves at the head of the Communist movement.

From exile, Trotsky continued his theoretical work - his exposure of opportunism, pretences and treachery of the Stalinist bureaucracy, and his clarification of the Marxist alternative under rapidly changing conditions - that had formed perhaps his greatest contribution to Marxism. These ideas would serve as the guideline for a new revolutionary generation.

17. Proletarian bonapartism

From the late 1920s onwards the policies of the Soviet bureaucracy went through a series of bewildering zigzags, creating enormous confusion in the labor movement internationally.

The regime's supporters applauded each contradictory new turn as a 'correct' and 'necessary' measure to defend "socialism" in the USSR. Some opponents, despairing at the hideous travesty of 'Leninism' presented by the regime, claimed that the gains of the revolution had been destroyed, and that Russia could no longer be regarded as a workers' state in any sense.

Trotsky, grappling with these questions in the early 1930s, concluded that the Soviet workers' state had, in reality, degenerated into a regime of a new kind:

"As the bureaucracy becomes more independent, as more and more power is concentrated into the hands of a single person, the more does bureaucratic centrism turn into Bonapartism [named after the French military dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte]". (Writings 1934-35, page 180)

Bonapartism, Trotsky explained,

"was and remains the government of the bourgeoisie during periods of crisis... Bonapartism always implies political veering between classes; but under Bonapartism in all its historical transmigrations there is preserved one and the same social base: bourgeois [capitalist] property...

"It is absolutely correct that the self-rule of the Soviet bureaucracy was built upon the soil of veering between the class forces both internal and international. Insofar as the bureaucratic veering has been crowned by the... regime of Stalin, it is possible to speak of Soviet Bonapartism." (The Class Nature of the Soviet State, in Writings1933-34, pages 107-108)

The 'proletarian' character of this bonapartist regime arises from the fact that it is based not on 'bourgeois property', but on the state-owned and planned economy created by the October Revolution, reflecting the historical interest of the working class.

The regime's history from the 1920s onwards has been a graphic illustration of 'veering between class forces both internal and international'.

By 1927, precisely as the Opposition had warned, the kulaks were holding a gun to the head of the regime. To force prices up they withheld their grain from the marked, and hoarded gold and arms in preparation for a showdown.

The cities were threatened with hunger. The threat of capitalist restoration suddenly became real.

The bureaucracy reacted in panic, attempting to stamp out the danger by administrative decree and, where that failed, by force. They imposed compulsory requisitions of grain. The kulaks resisted; the bureaucracy responded with an all-out attack.

The Left Opposition had long explained the need for collectivization of the land, but stressed that this should be voluntary so as to keep the support of the peasants and minimize disruption. Stalin's declaration of war of the peasantry had nothing in common with Marxism; it was a blind reflex action, with disastrous results.

As late as 1929 Stalin maintained that "individual farming could continue to play a predominant role in supplying the country with food..." (Quoted by I. Deutscher, Stalin, page 320) Now, abruptly, the peasants' land was collectivized by decree. By 1930, 55 percent of peasant land had been turned into state farms, and 88 percent by 1934.

Rural Russia was convulsed by civil war. Famine broke out as the peasants slaughtered their animals sooner than give them to the regime. An estimated ten million people perished as a direct consequence of these bureaucratic excesses. Whole peasant communities and even whole national groups were murdered or deported. In the cities, bread rationing returned.

These events shattered NEP, ended Stalin's alliance with Bukharin and the party right wing, and formed the real basis for his plunge into violent ultra-leftism between 1927 and 1934.

Industrialization had long been argued for by the Opposition, and scornfully rejected under pressure from the right. Now Stalin could see no alternative to industrialization as a panic measure, under ruthless compulsion from above. In 1928, prompted by the Opposition, the bureaucracy had half-heartedly adopted a five-year plan of economic development. Now, abruptly, the order went out to complete the plan in four years!

Vast projects were launched dams, power stations, steel plants, mines which transformed the Soviet Union within the space of a decade. While the capitalist world was plunged into the Depression of the 1930s, Soviet industrial production leaped ahead by 250 percent. Amazingly, backward Russia by 1935 produced more tractors than any other country in the world.

Industrial production advanced in Russia but at terrible cost Image public domainIndustrial production advanced in Russia but at terrible cost / Image: public domain

Under capitalism, such concerted development would have been impossible. Russia, under capitalism, would have continued to languish in hopeless poverty like most of the third world to this day.

"Socialism", said Trotsky, "has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of Das Kapital... but in the language of steel, cement and electricity." (The Revolution Betrayed, page 8)

The Soviet Union's progress in the 1930s impressed working people the world over. But, under bureaucratic rule, it took place at a terrible cost.

Orders, often wildly unrealistic, were issued from bureaucrats' offices. Failure to execute them was treated as sabotage. Forced labour was used on a vast scale. Up to 15 million Soviet citizens peasants who opposed collectivization and, later, opponents of every description were herded into slave labour camps. Countless numbers perished.

The working class swelled from 11 million in 1928 to 23 million in 1932. Passes, called 'Labour Books', were introduced in 1931 to chain workers to their jobs. While the bureaucracy cultivated a labor aristocracy, the value of workers' wages dropped by two-thirds between 1928 and 1935.

Milk consumption per person dropped from 189 kilograms per year in 1927-28 to 105 kilograms in 1932; meat consumption from 27.5 kilograms to 13.5 kilograms while the bureaucracy became entrenched in their privileged lifestyle.

But in spite of the workers' superhuman sacrifices, the Soviet Union continued to lag far behind the industrialized capitalist countries in almost every aspect. Its cultural backwardness could not be overcome by bureaucratic dictate. Sophisticated new industries, requiring a high technical level, could not be built like railway lines.

To enforce industrialization on this bases, driving millions of workers to the limit and crushing all opposition, the most ruthless centralization of power was needed. The bureaucratic regime degenerated into out-and-out police dictatorship.

Stalin's faction, having crushed both the left and the right, remained as supreme arbiters in the bureaucratized 'Communist' Party. Stalin, once the scheming henchman of the bureaucracy, now became its master the top bureaucrat, dispensing privileges and positions to his hangers-on.

Trotsky sums up:

"Stalin guards the conquests of the October Revolution not only against the feudal-bourgeois counter-revolution, but also against the claims of the toilers, their impatience and dissatisfaction; he crushes the Left wing which expresses the ordered historical and progressive tendencies of the unprivileged working masses; he creates a new aristocracy, by means of an extreme differentiation in wages, privileges, ranks, etc.

Leaning for support on the topmost layers of the new social hierarchy against the lowest - sometimes vice versa - Stalin has attained the complete concentration of power in his own hands. What else should this regime be called, if not Soviet Bonapartism?" (Writings 1934-35, page 181)

18. From the "Third Period"...

Foreign policy flows from domestic policy, serving the same interests. The bureaucracy's violent break with the kulaks and the right wing of the party was accompanied by an equally violent swing to ultra-leftism in the international arena.

Recoiling from the opportunist line that had led to disaster in Britain and China, Stalin moved to salvage the regime's 'revolutionary' credentials by imposing an exact opposite course at the sixth Comintern congress in August 1928 (the first in four years).

Capitalism, Stalin proclaimed, had passed through two "periods" since 1918 - first, a revolutionary period until 1923; then, a "gradual and partial stabilization". Now a "third period" of intensive crisis was beginning, that would spell the "final collapse" of capitalism, and place the struggle for power on the order of the day.

Marxism explains that there is no such thing as a "final crisis" of capitalism. The capitalist class will always resolve their problems at the expense of the working class until their rule is overthrown.

Stalin's aim, however, was not to develop a Marxist position but to stampede the Comintern to the left. The Communist parties had to smash all other tendencies in order to capture the leadership of the movement; the time for debate was over!

As a recipe for civil war in the labour movement, Stalin put forward the insane argument that "objectively, Social Democracy is the moderate wing of fascism...They are not antipodes but twins." (Quoted in Deutscher, Stalin, page 401)

The most disastrous results of 'third-period Stalinism' were experienced in Germany, where it split the working class, allowed Hitler to take power, and made the Second World War inevitable.

For reasons unforeseen by Stalin, the collapse of the New York Stock Exchange in October 1929 led to a world-wide capitalist depression. Germany, in particular, was devastated. The crisis of leadership and sectarianism which paralyzed the labour movement, however, allowed Hitler's Nazis to build up growing support.

The ruined middle class, the unemployed, the workers and youth looked in vain to the SPD and KPD for a solution. The SPD leaders were married to capitalism; the KPD was obsessed with attacking the SPD and breaking up its meetings.

KPD military parade Image public domainKPD military parade / Image: public domain

The middle class and the most downtrodden layers in particular were drawn in increasing numbers to the 'National Socialist' rallies. The fascists' demagogic attacks on capitalists and Jews; their mystical promise to restore German 'greatness'; above all, their appearance of purposeful determination seemed the only alternative to these layers.

Among organized workers, support for Hitler was almost non-existent.

Trotsky explained the critical need for a united front of workers' organizations to crush the fascist menace and, in so doing, to prepare the working class for the conquest of power. But the Stalinized leadership of the Comintern was blind and deaf to reality.

The German labour movement was the most powerful in the world. Both the Social-Democrats and the Communist Party had military wings. But, on Moscow's instructions, the KPD leaders refused all cooperation with the 'social-fascists' even going so far, in 1931, as to join the Nazis in trying to bring down a Social-Democratic government in Prussia!

The German workers' movement, the hope of workers everywhere, was annihilated without any serious attempt at resistance by its leadership.

The Stalinists were incapable of drawing the conclusions. In April 1933, with Hitler in power, the Presidium of the ECCI declared that the KPD's policy had been "completely correct"!

This historical failure of leadership, and the absence of any criticism from the ranks of the Communist International, finally convinced Trotsky that the Cominterns like the Second International before it was dead as an instrument of workers' revolution.

The forces of genuine Marxism had been decimated by the savage blows of a decade. The perspective of a new world war, and new revolutionary upheavals, was opening up. Objectively, a new international was necessary to regroup, to build and prepare the Marxist tendency for the critical struggles ahead.

19. the 'people's front'

The changed alignment of class forces in Europe rapidly pushed the Soviet regime into a new u-turn.

Germany under Hitler posed a far more immediate threat to them than the western imperialist powers. Above all, Stalin feared war and the effect it would have on the Soviet masses. To avoid war, he calculated, it was essential to appease Hitler.

Throughout 1933, while Hitler liquidated the KPD, the SPD and the trade unions, and began the genocide of the Jews, Stalin uttered not a word of criticism. Throughout the 1930s the Soviet bureaucracy hoped to reach an agreement with Hitler.

But Hitler was relying on the 'Communist menace' as a pretext for rearmament in defiance of his 'Allied' imperialist rivals. He could not be seen to fraternize with Stalin at this stage. (Only in August 1939, when Hitler was preparing to strike to the west, was the notorious Stalin-Hitler pact of non-aggression signed.)

Surrounded by fascist and right-wing regimes, Stalin's 'revolutionary' ultra-leftism evaporated. Trotsky and the International Left Opposition explained (as the Comintern had explained a dozen years earlier) that the only real security for the USSR lay in revolutionary internationalism in supporting the workers' struggle for power in the capitalist states, carrying the war to the enemy and paralyzing reaction.

But the Russian bureaucracy were incapable of following this course; their own dictatorship would have been the first casualty if the Russian workers became infected with these ideas! Instead, quietly forgetting that capitalism was in its 'third period', they looked for support against Hitler to the western imperialist powers!

The imperialists were not unwilling to use Stalin for their own purposes. In September 1934 they accepted the Soviet Union's application to join the League of Nations (describe by Lenin as a "robbers' den"); in May 1935 French imperialism signed a pact of 'mutual assistance' with Stalin!

This turn by the Soviet bureaucracy marked a qualitative new stage in their degeneration. For the first time they entered openly and deliberately, into political alliances with the capitalist class itself. Their opportunist failures, from this point onwards, became transformed into a deliberate betrayal of the workers' revolution internationally as a condition for capitalist 'friendship'.

The writing had been on the wall at the 1928 Comintern congress, where the idea of 'socialism in one country' was swallowed without a murmur. Trotsky warned that this would be "the beginning of the disintegration of the Comintern along the lines of social-patriotism". (The Third International After Lenin, page 55) After 1934 this prediction rapidly became a fact.

The Soviet bureaucracy's entanglement with the 'progressive' capitalist powers was followed, inevitably, by the turn of the Communist parties internationally seeking alliances with 'progressive' capitalist and reformist parties in their own countries.

The Big Three Image public domainThe Big Three / Image: public domain

The slogan now became 'the people's front'. The workers' class demands were dropped from the programs which the Communist partied put forward - this would 'alienate' the 'progressive' bourgeoisie!

'Broad support' among the middle class, the Stalinists wisely proclaimed, could only be won through a program confined to bourgeois-democratic demands. Today the middle class is no longer a mass force in the industrialized countries; yet the same program and the same arguments are still used by the 'Communist' parties. This confirms that the real purpose, then as now, was not so much to win mass support as to build up a bargaining position in relation to the capitalist parties.

The full bankruptcy of this position was exposed in the revolutionary events that erupted in France and Spain during 1935 and 1936. First in France, then in Spain, 'Popular Front' governments swept to power with Communist support. In both countries, after the rigors of the depression and right-wing rule, this opened the floodgates of mass struggle.

In Spain, a military coup was launched against the 'People's Front' government in July 1936. The reformists, Stalinists and bourgeois Republicans dithered; the workers and peasants took up arms. Within days, most of the country was under their control. Spain was plunged into a full-scale revolutionary crisis, at a far higher level than Russia in 1917.

"Red rule in Barcelona - Extremists out of hand", headlined the London Times on August 1. Two days later its correspondent summed up the demands of the masses:

"a 36-hour week, unemployment pay, control of production, the seizure and distribution of land, ... the maintenance of the [workers'] militias in arms..."

and after another few days:

"'Committees of Workers' have taken over the big railway companies. It seems only a question of time for this to happen to the trams, the banks and other key establishments." (The Times, August 8, 1936)

Stalin, no less than the capitalist class, viewed the unfolding revolution with horror. All his hopes of stable ties with the Anglo-French imperialists were at risk. Worse still, the example of the Spanish workers threatened to infect the Russian workers with the same will to struggle for control of society. The Spanish Revolution had to be strangled at all costs.

Slavishly following Moscow's directives, the Communist Party of Spain waged an all-out struggle against the workers' revolutionary movement.

In the name of 'Bolshevism' they argued the Menshevik theory of 'two stages', confining their program to 'bourgeois democracy' in the futile hope of reassuring the capitalists that 'Communism' posed no threat to them. GPU death squads were sent to Spain to assist in the gruesome task of disarming the workers' militias and exterminating their vanguard.

Deferring to Stalin's wheeling and dealing with the imperialist powers, the 'Communists' shut their eyes to the first lesson of the Russian Revolution: capitalism cannot guarantee democracy and stability to the working class in the conclusive epoch of imperialism. The tasks of 'bourgeois democracy' in semi-developed countries such as Spain could only be carried out under the rule of the working class itself.

Tragically, Trotsky's sympathizers in Spain missed the golden opportunity of winning the Socialist youth to their program, establishing a mass base for Marxism and leading the movement to victory.

Without Marxist leadership the working class could not withstand the onslaught of the class enemy combined with that of their own reformist and 'Communist' leaders. Stalinism succeeded in dividing the movement, isolating the left and murdering its best fighters. This made the victory of fascism inevitable.

The last hope of working-class victory had been extinguished in Europe, at least until the conclusion of the imperialist war which now became unavoidable.

20. Rivers of blood

Inside the Soviet Union, the sharpening contradictions between the bureaucracy and the working class led to the liquidation of the remnants of the Bolshevik cadre.

The 'Communist' parties internationally were presenting the Soviet Union as the happy fatherland of socialism. Stalin's successor, Krushchev, at the 20th party congress in 1956, lifted a corner of the veil on what was really happening:

"Stalin acted not through persuasion, explanation and patient cooperation with people, but by imposing his concepts and demanding absolute submission to his opinion... He abandoned the method of ideological struggle for that of administrative violence, mass repressions and terror." (Quoted in The Moscow Trials, pages 17, 18)

Bureaucratic tyranny takes on a logic of its own. As repression intensifies, the rulers' fear of revenge increases. Opponents, driven from power, are mistrusted. Even if they recant, won't they become a threat again? Might they not provide the spark for insurrection from below?

Whole layers of the party came under intense suspicion from Stalin and the bureaucracy none more so than the surviving 'Old Bolsheviks', who could remember the party of Lenin, who kept silent about the bureaucracy's crimes only out of fear.

Bukharin, as early as 1928, shrank back from the monster he had helped to create. In a secret discussion with Kamenev he exclaimed in terror: "What can we do? What can we do in the face of an adversary of this sort, a debased Genghis Khan...?" (Quoted by Serge, From Lenin to Stalin, page 91)

While the old Bolsheviks kept their heads down, a younger generation was coming to the fore, eager to restore the ideals of October. Contradictions were sharpening between the regime and the growing working class. The whole party seethed with discontent. Expulsions in the early 1930s ran into hundreds of thousands.

Yet the old Bolshevik leaders, despite their capitulations, commanded vastly greater respect than Stalin and the ruling bureaucratic clique many of them disreputable ex-Mensheviks and former enemies of the October Revolution who had crossed to the winning side after the war.

These contradictions were brought to a head by the Spanish Revolution in 1936, sending shock waves through the workers' movement internationally, inspiring the Russian masses afresh with the example of workers' democracy in action.

The bureaucracy moved to nip the danger in the bud. With grisly irony, while protesting their commitment to bourgeois-democracy internationally, they unleashed a reign of purest nightmare in the Soviet Union itself.

There now took place the 'Moscow trials': incredible frame-ups where broken old Bolsheviks were accused of murder, sabotage, terrorism any fantastic crime to discredit them and terrorize others.

But the main charge against them was 'Trotskyism'. One after another they were accused of 'conspiring with Trotsky', now vilified as an 'agent of capitalism' and a 'German spy' since 1921!

In this way the regime betrayed the real motive for the 'purges': their obsessive fear of Marxism, of workers' democracy and the workers' revenge, and their hatred of the foremost representative of Marxism in the labour movement internationally Leon Trotsky.

As the Times correspondent in Russia admitted:

"The root of the matter is that Stalin never completely won the battle between his own policy and Trotsky's internationalist policy. Nor can final victory ever be his... Communism remains an international creed... lately, the discontent of zealot communists [revolutionaries] has increased... More still are alarmed at the great wage inequalities... It has been determined to silence the voice of opposition once and for all, and break the remnants of Trotskyism within the country." (August 21, 1936)

This there passed before Stalin's 'judges' a tragic parade of human wrecks who had once been Bolshevik leaders, blackmailed and cowed into admitting anything and everything demanded of them.

Three 'trials' were staged: in August 1936 (Zinoviev, Kamenev, Smirnov and others); January 1937 (Radek, Pyatakov and others); and February 1938 (Bukharin, Rykov, Rakovsky and others). Their accuser was the former Menshevik lawyer, Vyshinsky, who during the civil war had collaborated with the Whites. Now he could shriek the hatred of the bureaucracy against the former leaders of the revolution:

"Mad fascist police dogs!" "Despicable rotten dregs of humanity! Scum of the underworld! "Shoot the reptiles!"

No evidence was brought against the accused except their GPU-dictated 'confessions'. But, with one or two token exceptions, all were condemned to be shot.

Each of these murders, every curse by Vyshinsky, was admiringly reported and defended by the 'Communist' parties internationally.

Trotsky explained the logic of the whole grotesque performance:

"To justify the repressions, it was necessary to have framed accusations. To give weight to the false accusations, it was necessary to reinforce them with more brutal repressions. Thus the logic of the struggle drove Stalin along the road of gigantic judicial amalgams." (The Moscow Trials, page 129)

The Moscow trials were only the façade of what Trotsky termed "a one-sided civil war of the bureaucracy against the Bolshevik Party". Arrests followed waves of arrests. Countless old Bolsheviks, who refused to 'confess' in public, were assassinated in prison. Left Oppositionists in Siberian labour camps were taken out in groups to be shot. Altogether tens of thousands the flower of the Russian workers' movement were wiped out.

The Second Moscow Trial Image public domainThe Second Moscow Trial / Image: public domain

The Left Oppositionists remained revolutionaries to the end. An example of their unbending courage were the events at the Vorkuta labour camp in Siberia towards the end of 1936, when the Trotskyists led a massive fight-back by prisoners against the petty tyranny of the authorities with the only weapon still available to them the hunger strike. (See Militant International Review, no 33, page 43)

After four months, all their demands were conceded. But soon the executions began. When a male political prisoner was shot, his wife and any children over the age of twelve would normally be killed as well.

Of the 1,966 delegates to the 17th CP congress in 1935, 1,108 had been arrested by 1938 for 'anti-revolutionary crimes'. Of 139 central committee members, 98 were shot.

Of 1,558,852 CP members in 1939, only 1.3 percent had belonged since the October Revolution. Of Lenin's Central Committee of 1917, only Stalin survived as a leader (ed: Kollontai and Muranov also lived by occupied greatly diminished positions), surrounded by ex-Mensheviks and bootlickers. The last vestiges of the Bolshevik Party had been eradicated.

One of the leaders of 1917, Raskolnikov, survived during the 1930s as Soviet ambassador to Bulgaria. Recalled to Moscow in 1938 for 'promotion' (i.e., to be shot), he fled into exile instead and wrote an open letter to Stalin:

"With the help of dirty forgeries, you staged false trials and made up accusations which are more ridiculous than the witch trials of the middle ages... Inert pulp writers glorify you as a semi-deity born of the sun and the moon and you, like an Eastern despot, enjoy the incense of crude flattery. You mercilessly exterminate talented writers who are personally displeasing to you... sooner or later, the Soviet people will put you on trial as a traitor to socialism and the revolution." (Published for the first time in the USSR in the magazine Ogonyok in June 1987)

The total death toll under Stalin in the 1930s is estimated at 12 to 15 million. Survivors, such as Raskolnikov, were understandably embittered and filled with hatred towards Stalin. But it must not be forgotten that this slaughter was not simply the consequence of power-hunger, ruthlessness or (as Krushchev falsely explained it) the "cult of the individual". It was the culmination of the political counter-revolution by the bureaucracy against the revolutionary working-class tendency in the Russian workers' state.

The regime established under Stalin had nothing in common with the regime of Lenin and Trotsky, though the outward trappings (the 'Communist Party', the 'Politbureau', the title 'soviets', etc.) were preserved to give the opposite impression. Rivers of blood separate Marxism from the regime of the Russian bureaucracy.

Testimony as to the historical significance of Stalinism is contained in the gloating poem that appeared in a White magazine after the first Moscow trial:

"We thank you, Stalin!
Sixteen scoundrels,
Sixteen butchers of the Fatherland
Have been gathered to their ancestors...

"But why only sixteen?
Give us forty,
Give us hundreds,
Make a bridge across the Moscow river,
A bridge without tower or beams,
A bridge of Soviet carrion -
And add your carcass to the rest!"

21. Conclusion

Under the spreading terror of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and fascism in Western Europe, the forces of Marxism were decimated or extinguished during the 1930s. Only the genius and determination of Trotsky (murdered by a GPU agent in 1940), and a very small band of followers, remained to re-educate a coming generation in the ideas of the workers' struggle for socialism.

To the end of his life Trotsky continued to defend the gains of the October Revolution in essence, the state-owned and planned economy despite the monstrous bureaucratic deformation of the 'Soviet' regime, and rejected the idea that Russia had become 'state capitalist'.

At the same time, he explained that there was no possibility of 'reforming' the regime to re-establish workers' democracy. It would have to be defeated and overthrown by the mass movement of the working class, once again taking power into its own hands, to re-open the road to socialist transformation.

Outstanding among Trotsky's works is The Revolution Betrayed, providing a detailed and scientific explanation of the processes that have been outlined in this pamphlet.

Today the balance of forces in the Soviet Union is radically different. The working class is the most powerful and best-educated in the world. The bureaucracy has no role left; it had become an absolute obstacle to economic and social progress. Gorbachev's attempts to streamline the bureaucracy (like those of Brezhnev and Krushchev before him) cannot alter the historical bankruptcy of its rule.

Rather, it reflects a new stage in the crisis of Soviet Stalinism, in which the objective conditions are ripening for political revolution to overthrow the bureaucracy and restore the role of the working class.

Brilliant 'dress rehearsals' of the approaching political revolution have already been provided by the working class in Hungary in 1956, in Poland in 1980-81, etc.

Internationally, also, the conditions of the 1980s are the reverse of the late 1930s. Revolutionary movements are awakening in every sector of the world. The program of Marxism is once again gripping the minds of workers and youth from Liverpool to Sri Lanka, from South Africa to Spain.

The lessons of the triumph and degeneration of the Russian Revolution must be relearned in order to rise to the task that will face us in the next period: the conquest of power by the working class on every continent, the establishment of workers' democracy, and the socialist transformation of the world.