[Book] Russia: From Revolution to Counter-Revolution

Preface to the 2017 edition

About the present work

The present work was first published in London twenty years ago in March 1997. Its author was the veteran British Marxist Ted Grant. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Stalinism had led to widespread questioning of socialism and the October Revolution, not least of all in Russia itself. The purpose of this book was to clarify these questions, and answer the propaganda of the enemies of socialism, basing itself on facts, figures and arguments. It was a task that was long overdue.

This was no academic exercise, but a preparation for the future. What was the Soviet Union, why did it collapse and where was Russia now heading? Ted wanted to shed light on the nature of the regime that emerged from the October Revolution, to analyse its contradictory tendencies, to plot its rise and fall, and to point the way forward. The author spent most of his life studying the Russian question and was uniquely qualified to provide a Marxist analysis of it. An active follower of Trotsky since the days of the International Left Opposition, Ted Grant was a leading exponent of the ideas of Trotskyism. A large part of the present work is based on the wealth of material written by Ted over a period of more than 50 years.

Only the Marxists were capable of explaining the processes that were unfolding in Russia, not ex post facto but decades in advance. By contrast, the writings of both the bourgeois critics of the USSR and its Stalinist friends were characterised by the most complete absence of any understanding. From diametrically opposed points of view, they arrived at the same erroneous conclusion – that the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union was a virtually indestructible monolith, which could continue to exist for as long as one could see.

What happened in the Soviet Union can only be explained by using the Marxist method of analysis. Already in the pages of the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels explained that the motor force of human history is the development of the productive forces. From this point of view, the nationalised planned economy in the USSR furnished proof of the most extraordinary vitality for decades. Indeed, such a transformation is unprecedented in the annals of human history.

Needless to say, the method used here is that of Marxism, dialectical and historical materialism, because this alone provides us with the scientific tools necessary to analyse complex and contradictory processes, to separate the accidental from the necessary, to distinguish between what men and women think and say about themselves and the material interests which they ultimately represent. Only by such means is it possible to understand what occurred in the Soviet Union, and thus comprehend what is happening now, and, at least tentatively, establish a prognosis for future developments.

Even before the Second World War, when most capitalist pundits, as well as apologists for Stalin, saw no chink in the armour of the ‘monolithic’ regime in Russia, Leon Trotsky, the Bolshevik leader exiled by Stalin, argued that either Stalinism would be overthrown by a political revolution of the working class or, under certain conditions, it could revert to capitalism.

The question of the class nature of Russia

The question of the class nature of Russia has been a central issue in the Marxist movement for decades. Only the dialectical method, which takes the process as a whole and concretely analyses its contradictory tendencies as they unfold, stage by stage, can shed light on the situation. Although Ted was the only one to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union as early as 1972, neither he nor anyone else could have predicted the precise course of events that occurred subsequently.

That should not surprise us. The German poet Goethe once wrote: “Theory is grey, my friend, but the tree of life is evergreen.” The actual working out of the historical process is enormously complicated, not least because it involves what Marxists call the subjective factor, the conscious intervention of human beings. To predict in detail how the historical process develops would require not just scientific perspectives but a crystal ball, something which, alas, is not available to us.

Although he had predicted the collapse of Stalinism, Ted Grant had thought that the restoration of capitalism in Russia was ruled out. Indeed, for a whole period, it was ruled out. The necessity for a planned economy flows directly from the impasse of world capitalism. It is the only way in which the contradictions can be resolved. But the attempt to re-impose a capitalist regime in Russia by no means flowed as a natural conclusion from the crisis of Stalinism.

Ted’s view was strongly influenced by his conviction that, in spite of the brutal repression of decades of Stalinist totalitarianism, the fundamental ideas of Lenin and the October Revolution would remain alive in the Soviet Union. He did not believe that the capitalist counter-revolution would succeed. But all perspectives necessarily have a conditional character. At the time when Ted wrote this book the process of capitalist restoration in Russia had not yet acquired an irreversible character. It was not clear whether it would be completed or whether there could be a reversal. This was an open question, and we had to proceed with due caution, by a process of successive approximations. For that reason, Ted’s analysis of the process had an algebraic and not an arithmetical character.

An important element in Ted’s thinking was his over-estimation of the potential for the crystallisation of a Reiss faction (a section of the Stalinist bureaucracy moving towards a revolutionary position) and the possibility of a political revolution against the bureaucracy. The so-called Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) had degenerated to such an extent that it was completely alien to the ideas and principles of Lenin and the October Revolution. Although there was a certain element in the leadership of the CPSU that was in favour of a return to Lenin, and even looking towards Trotskyism, that faction was extremely weak and had no influence on the course of events. It was the pro-capitalist wing of the bureaucracy that proved to be the decisive force. In the moment of truth, the Stalinists were not even capable of defending Stalinism.

The problem that we faced two decades ago was comparable to that faced by Trotsky in the 1920s and 1930s, when he had the task of analysing the phenomenon of Stalinism. There were many turning points on the road of the bureaucratic counter-revolution in the period 1923-36. This was by no means a pre-ordained event. The final victory of Stalin was not determined in advance. As late as 1933, Trotsky held the position that it was possible to reform both the Soviet state and the Communist Parties, a position that led to frequent conflicts with the ultra-lefts.

Trotsky traced the process of the Stalinist counter-revolution through all its stages, laying bare all its contradictions, analysing the conflicting tendencies both within Soviet society and within the bureaucracy itself and showing the dialectical inter-relation between developments in the USSR and on a world scale. He painstakingly followed the process through all its stages, showing concretely the relation between the class balance of forces in Russia, the different tendencies in the Communist Party and their relationship to the classes, the evolution of the world situation, the economy, and the subjective factor. It is true that he varied his analysis at different times.

For example, he initially characterised Stalinism as bureaucratic centrism, a formula which he later rejected in favour of the more precise proletarian Bonapartism. These changes do not reflect any vacillations on Trotsky’s part, but only the way in which his analysis accurately followed the process of bureaucratic degeneration as it unfolded.

In just the same way the capitalist counter-revolution unfolded with many contradictions and cross-currents. Its success was by no means guaranteed. Only after some time did the process reach the critical point where quantity became transformed into quality. This took place after the economic collapse of 1998. A very important element was the subjective factor and the role of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF). In the 1930s Trotsky referred to the existence of contradictory tendencies within the Stalinist bureaucracy (the Butenko and Reiss factions). Butenko was a Stalinist functionary who defected to the camp of fascism, while Ignace Reiss was an officer of the GPU who broke with Stalin and came out in favour of Trotsky and the Fourth International before he was murdered in Switzerland.

Decades of Stalinist bureaucratic and totalitarian rule had a far greater effect than we realised in throwing back consciousness. Stalin had succeeded more than he could have hoped in liquidating the traditions of Bolshevism. The most advanced elements of the working class had been exterminated, and because the regime lasted far longer than Trotsky had anticipated, the very memory of the genuine traditions of October had been almost wiped out from the consciousness of the Soviet workers and youth.

This was the ground on which the seeds of capitalist counter-revolution were planted and then thrived. But its subjective causes lay deeper, in the contradictions between a nationalised planned economy and bureaucratic rule that was stifling every pore of the Soviet economy and society. The way in which this process unfolded, and the complex interplay between objective and subjective factors, is brilliantly explained in the present work.

What the book contains

The first part of the book deals with the Russian Revolution and draws an historical balance sheet of October, answering many of the criticisms, distortions and misconceptions that have surrounded it for decades. In the course of this section there are a number of chapters which provide a detailed exposition of the Marxist theory of the state in relation to the transitional regime that emerged from the October Revolution. The rise of the bureaucracy and the Stalinist political counter-revolution is traced through all its stages.

This part, especially the critique of the theory of ‘state capitalism’ (including a valuable appendix on the law of value in the transitional period) presents more difficulties for the reader than other parts of the book. But it is essential to grasp these points in order to understand the process as a whole. It should be pointed out that these sections were originally published in the late 1940s in an important work by Ted called The Marxist Theory of the State. In order to make this and other material available in book form, a considerable amount of editing was necessary. Any variations in style which the reader may notice are entirely due to this.

In the light of subsequent experience, it is not necessary to alter what was written at the time concerning the reasons for the crisis of Stalinism, and the inevitability of its collapse. When the book was written, the movement towards capitalism in Russia had not yet been carried to a definitive conclusion, and Ted strongly believed that it could be reversed. The movement towards capitalism still had an unfinished character. Different outcomes were possible. One might add that this view was also held by the bourgeois analysts.

When one reads today what the strategists of capital were writing at the time it is very clear that the question of the re-establishment of capitalism in Russia was not at all settled once and for all. On the contrary, in the period immediately following the collapse of 1998 it could easily have been reversed. This was clearly understood by the serious representatives of international capital.

The Independent on Sunday of 23rd August 1998 reported Marcel Cassard, a former International Monetary Fund official now working for Deutsche Bank in London, as saying, “the measures taken could lead to the re-nationalisation of the banks. If we get to that point, that’s not good.”

The most significant analysis was provided in the August 1998 issue of the magazine Transitions. This is a magazine that studies “Changes in Post-Communist Societies” published in the Czech Republic, but which also acknowledges support from such institutions as the General Marshall Fund of the United States. In one article analysing developments in Russia we read the following:

By autumn 1997, a banking war that became the main constituent of Russian internal politics began. The conflicts between different financial groups over attractive property, even if conducted with underhanded methods and with the deployment of compromising materials and the financiers’ personal contacts reflected, so it was believed, the growing power of the Russian bourgeoisie. It was reckoned that this bourgeoisie had enough resources not only to take over the property but to keep it in working order, ensuring the growth in the economy and the preservation of the state.

Today, it is clear that the role of the bourgeoisie was overestimated. The ‘new Russians’ and the rest of the economy live separate lives. It is also clear that the economy has still not reached a turning point, which it will have to do in the near future.

What is most interesting in the same article is a section called ‘Back to central planning’. There we read the following:

The long-term prognosis for the Russian economy does not look rosy. It is possible the country will be obliged to return to the system it left behind ten years ago, central planning.

An economy built on state property would probably also be highly inefficient as it was before, in Soviet times. But is there an alternative? Russia’s economic reformers believed that private property would magically produce a rise in efficiency and an increase in production . But as we have seen, this growth did not take place.

Despite these concerns, the movement towards capitalism swept all before it and the Stalinist regime was consigned to the dustbin of history. The final part of the book has therefore been completely revised in light of developments that occurred after the first edition had seen the light of day. Subsequent developments enabled us to fill in many gaps in our knowledge, correcting mistakes and making a definitive judgement concerning the class nature of Russia, which was still an unfinished process at the time of writing. Much of what was written then is now out of date, and has been replaced by a new afterword written by Alan Woods, who collaborated closely with Ted Grant for many years.

To this day, one would seek in vain for an explanation of the real causes of the crisis of Stalinism in all the writings of the bourgeois, reformists and ex-Stalinists, not to speak of the myriad sects on the fringes of the labour movement. Yet they were analysed in advance in the documents written by Ted in International Perspectives, as early as August 1972. Unfortunately, at the time this material was read by only a small number. The present work will make this detailed and profound analysis available to a wider public. The present work not only asks questions, but provides answers.