by Alan Woods
No matter what one thinks of Bolshevism, it is undeniable that the Russian Revolution is one of the greatest events in human history, and the rule of the Bolsheviki a phenomenon of worldwide importance. (J. Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, p. 13.)
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution. The apologists of capitalism, and their faithful echoes in the labour movement, try to comfort themselves with the thought that the collapse of the USSR signified the demise of socialism. But what failed in Russia was not socialism but a caricature of socialism. Contrary to the oft-repeated slanders, the Stalinist regime was the antithesis of the democratic regime established by the Bolsheviks in 1917.
The collapse of the USSR was presented by the defenders of capitalism as the equivalent of the final victory of the ‘free market economy’ over ‘Communism’. A quarter of a century ago it produced a wave of euphoria in the bourgeoisie and its apologists. They spoke of the end of socialism, the end of communism and even the end of history. Ever since then, we have witnessed an unprecedented ideological offensive against the ideas of Marxism on a world scale. This irrational exuberance knew no bounds.
The then American President, George Bush, triumphantly announced the creation of a ‘New World Order’ under the domination of US imperialism. “The Soviet Union is no more,” wrote Martin McCauley. “The great experiment has failed… Marxism in practice has failed everywhere. There is no Marxist economic model capable of competing with capitalism.” (M. McCauley, The Soviet Union 1917-1991, pp. XV and 378) “We Won!” exclaimed the editorial of The Wall Street Journal (24/5/89). It was at this point that Francis Fukuyama uttered his notorious prediction: “The period of post-history has arrived… Liberal democracy has triumphed, and mankind has reached its highest wisdom. History has come to an end.”
Twenty-five years later, not one stone upon another remains of these foolish illusions. Capitalism has entered into the most serious crisis since the Great Depression. Millions are faced with a future of unemployment, poverty, cuts and austerity. Wars and conflicts ravage the entire planet, the very future of which is placed in jeopardy by the depredations wreaked by the uncontrolled market economy. Now in the cold light of day, those triumphalist proclamations sound ironic. The global crisis of capitalism and its effects have falsified those confident predictions. All the lavish promises of milk and honey by the Western leaders, that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, have evaporated like a drop of water on a hot stove.
America’s dream of world domination lies buried beneath the smoking ruins of Aleppo. All the triumphalist pronouncements of the bourgeois strategists have been falsified. History has returned with a vengeance. The same Western observers who exaggerated every defect of the Soviet economy are now struggling desperately to explain the manifest failure of the market economy. Now there is only economic collapse, political instability, uncertainty, wars and conflict. The earlier euphoria has given way to the blackest pessimism.
It is for this very reason that the centenary of the Russian Revolution will inevitably be the occasion for an intensification of the vicious anti-Communist campaign. The reason for this is not difficult to understand. The worldwide crisis of capitalism is giving rise to a general questioning of the ‘market economy’. There is a revival of interest in Marxist ideas, which is alarming the bourgeoisie. The new campaign of slanders is a reflection, not of confidence, but of fear.
Fear of revolution
History shows that it is not sufficient for the ruling class to defeat a revolution; it is necessary to cover it with slanders, blacken the name of its leaders, and surround it with a cloud of malice and suspicion, so that not even the memory remains to inspire new generations. There is nothing new in this. In the 19th century when the historian Thomas Carlyle was writing a book about Oliver Cromwell he said that before he could begin he had to rescue Cromwell’s body from under a mountain of dead dogs.
After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, all the memories of Cromwell and the English bourgeois revolution had to be erased from the collective memory. The restored monarchy of Charles II officially dated its reign from the 30th January 1649, the date of the execution of Charles I, and all references to the republic and its revolutionary deeds were to be obliterated. The upstart Charles II was so carried away by the spirit of spite, hatred and revenge that he went so far as to dig up Oliver Cromwell’s corpse, which was then subjected to a public hanging at Tyburn.
The same malice and spite born of fear is what motivates the present efforts to deny the gains and revolutionary significance of the Russian Revolution, and blacken the memory of its leaders. The systematic falsification of history now being undertaken by the bourgeoisie, although somewhat more subtle than the posthumous lynchings of the English monarchists, is in no way morally superior to them. Ultimately it will prove no more effective. The locomotive of human progress is truth, not lies. And the truth will not remain buried for all time.
For the best part of three generations, the apologists of capitalism vented their spleen against the Soviet Union. No effort or expense has been spared in the attempt to blacken the image of the October Revolution and the nationalised planned economy that issued from it. In this campaign, the crimes of Stalinism came in very handy. The trick was to identify socialism and communism with the bureaucratic totalitarian regime which arose from the isolation of the Revolution in a backward country.
The hatred of the Soviet Union shared by all those whose careers, salaries and profits derived from the existing order based on rent, interest and profit, is not hard to understand. It had nothing to do with the totalitarian regime of Stalin. The same ‘friends of democracy’ had no scruples about praising dictatorial regimes when it suited their interests to do so. The ‘democratic’ British ruling class was quite happy to see Hitler coming to power, as long as he put down the German workers and directed his attentions to the East.
Winston Churchill and other representatives of the British ruling class expressed their fervent admiration for Mussolini and Franco, right up until 1939. In the period after 1945, the Western ‘democracies’, in the first instance the USA, actively backed every monstrous dictatorship. From Somoza to Pinochet, from the Argentine junta to the Indonesian butcher Suharto, who climbed to power over the corpses of a million people with the active support of the CIA. The leaders of the Western democracies grovel before the blood-soaked regime of Saudi Arabia that tortures, murders, flogs and crucifies its own citizens. The list of these barbarities is endless.
From the standpoint of imperialism such regimes are perfectly acceptable provided they base themselves on private ownership of the land, banks and big monopolies. Their implacable hostility to the Soviet Union was not based on any love of freedom, but on naked class interest. They hated the USSR, not for what was bad in it, but precisely for what was positive and progressive. They objected, not to Stalin’s dictatorship (on the contrary, the crimes of Stalinism suited them very well as a convenient means of blackening the name of socialism in the West), but to the nationalised property forms which were all that remained of the gains of October.
This re-writing of history reminds one forcibly of the old methods of the Stalinist bureaucracy which placed history on its head, turned leading figures into non-persons, or demonised them – as in the case of Leon Trotsky – and generally maintained that black was white. The present writings of the enemies of socialism are no different, except that they slander Lenin with the same blind hatred and spitefulness that the Stalinists reserved for Trotsky.
Some of the worst cases of this kind are to be found in Russia. This is not surprising, for two different reasons: firstly, these people have been raised in the Stalinist school of falsification, which based itself on the principle that truth was only an instrument in the service of the ruling elite. The professors, economists and historians were, with a few honourable exceptions, accustomed to adapt their writings to the current ‘line’. The same intellectuals who sang the praises of Trotsky, the founder of the Red Army and leader of the October Revolution, a few years later had no qualms about denouncing him as an agent of Hitler. The same writers who fawned on Joseph Stalin the great Leader and Teacher soon jumped the other way when Nikita Khrushchev discovered the ‘personality cult’. Habits die hard. The methods of intellectual prostitution are the same. Only the master has changed.
There is also another quite separate reason. Many of the capitalists in Russia not long ago carried a Communist Party card in their pocket and spoke in the name of ‘socialism’. In fact, they had nothing to do with socialism, communism or the working class. They were part of a parasitic ruling caste which lived a life of luxury on the backs of the Soviet workers. Now, with the same cynicism that has always characterised these elements, they have openly gone over to capitalism. But this miraculous transformation cannot be consummated so easily. These people feel a compelling need to justify their apostasy by heaping curses on what they professed to believe in only yesterday. By these means they try to throw dust in the eyes of the masses, while salving their own consciences – always supposing that they possess such a thing. Even the worst scoundrel likes to find some justification for his actions.
What the Revolution achieved
The regime established by the October Revolution was neither totalitarian nor bureaucratic, but the most democratic regime yet seen on earth. The October Revolution radically abolished private ownership of the means of production. For the first time in history, the viability of a nationalised planned economy was demonstrated, not in theory but in practice. Over one-sixth of the earth’s surface, in a gigantic, unprecedented experiment, it was proved that it was possible to run society without capitalists, landowners and moneylenders.
Nowadays, it is fashionable to belittle the results achieved, or even to deny them altogether. Yet the slightest consideration of the facts leads us to a very different conclusion. Despite all the problems, deficiencies and crimes (with which, incidentally, the history of capitalism furnishes us in great abundance), the most astonishing advances were achieved by the nationalised planned economy in the Soviet Union in what was, historically speaking, a remarkably short space of time. This is what provoked the fear and loathing which characterised the attitude of the ruling classes of the West. This is what compels them even now to indulge in the most shameless and unprecedented lies and calumnies (of course, always under the guise of the most exquisite ‘academic objectivity’) about the past.
The bourgeois have to bury once and for all the ideals of the October Revolution. Consequently, the collapse of the USSR was the signal for an avalanche of propaganda against the achievements of the planned economies of Russia and Eastern Europe. This ideological offensive by the strategists of Capital against ‘communism’ was a calculated attempt to deny the historical conquests that issued from the Revolution. For these ladies and gentlemen, the Russian Revolution was a historical aberration. For them, there can only possibly be one form of society. Capitalism in their eyes had always existed and would continue to do so. Therefore, there could never be any talk of gains from the nationalised planned economy. The Soviet statistics are said to be merely exaggerations or falsehoods.
‘Figures can’t lie, but liars can figure.’ All the colossal advances in literacy, health and social provision, were hidden by a Niagara of lies and distortions aimed at obliterating the genuine achievements of the past. All the shortcomings of Soviet life – and there were many – have been systematically blown up out of all proportion and used to ‘prove’ there is no alternative to capitalism. Rather than advance, there was decline, they now say. Rather than progress, there was regression. “It has been claimed that the USSR in the eighties was as far behind the United States as was the Russian Empire in 1913,” writes economic historian, Alec Nove, who concludes that “statistical revisions have had a political role in de-legitimising the Soviet regime…” (Alec Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, p. 438)
Against this unprecedented campaign of lies and slander, it is essential that we put the record straight. We do not wish to overburden the reader with statistics. However, it is necessary to demonstrate beyond any doubt the tremendous successes of the planned economy. Despite the monstrous crimes of the bureaucracy, the unprecedented advances of the Soviet Union represent not only a historic achievement, but are, above all, a glimpse of the enormous possibilities inherent in a nationalised planned economy, especially if it were run on democratic lines. They stand out in complete contrast to the crisis of the productive forces of capitalism on a world scale today.
The October Revolution of 1917 brought about the greatest advance of the productive forces of any country in history. Before the Revolution, tsarist Russia was an extremely backward, semi-feudal economy with a predominantly illiterate population. Out of a total population of 150 million people there were only approximately four million industrial workers. That means it was far more backward than Pakistan at the present time.
Under frightful conditions of economic, social and cultural backwardness, the regime of workers’ democracy established by Lenin and Trotsky began the titanic task of dragging Russia out of backwardness on the basis of a nationalised planned economy. The results have no precedent in economic history. Within the space of two decades Russia had established a powerful industrial base, developed industry, science and technology and abolished illiteracy. It achieved remarkable advances in the fields of health, culture and education. This was at a time when the Western world was in the grip of mass unemployment and economic collapse in the Great Depression.
The viability of the new productive system was put to a severe test in 1941-45, when the Soviet Union was invaded by Nazi Germany with all the combined resources of Europe at its disposal. Despite the loss of 27 million lives, the USSR succeeded in defeating Hitler, and went on, after 1945, to reconstruct its shattered economy in a remarkably short space of time, transforming itself into the world’s second power.
Such astonishing advances in a country must give us pause for thought. One can sympathise with the ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution, or oppose them, but such a remarkable transformation in such a short space of time demands the attention of thinking people everywhere.
In a period of 50 years, the USSR increased its gross domestic product nine times over. Despite the terrible destruction of the Second World War, it increased its GDP five times over from 1945 to 1979. In 1950, the GDP of the USSR was only 33 per cent that of the USA. By 1979, it was already 58 per cent. By the late 1970s, the Soviet Union was a formidable industrial power, which in absolute terms had already overtaken the rest of the world in a whole series of key sectors. The USSR was the world’s second biggest industrial producer after the USA and was the biggest producer of oil, steel, cement, tractors, and many machine tools.
Nor is the full extent of the achievement expressed in these figures. All this was achieved virtually without unemployment or inflation. Unemployment like that in the West was unknown in the Soviet Union. In fact, it was legally a crime. (Ironically, this law still remains on the statute books today, although it means nothing.) There might be examples of cases arising from bungling or individuals who came into conflict with the authorities being deprived of their jobs, but such phenomena did not flow from the nature of a nationalised planned economy, and need not have existed. They had nothing in common with either the cyclical unemployment of capitalism or the organic cancer which now affects the whole of the Western world and which currently condemns 35 million people in the OECD countries to a life of enforced idleness.
Moreover, for most of the post-war period, there was little or no inflation. The bureaucracy learned the truth of Trotsky’s warning that “inflation is the syphilis of a planned economy”. After the Second World War, for the most part, they took care to ensure that inflation was kept under control. This was particularly the case with the price of basic items of consumption. Before perestroika (reconstruction), the last time meat and dairy prices had been increased was in 1962. Bread, sugar and most food prices had last been increased in 1955. Rents were extremely low, particularly when compared to the West, where most workers have to pay a third or more of their wages on housing costs. Only in the last period, with the chaos of perestroika, did this begin to break down. With the rush towards a market economy, both unemployment and inflation soared to unprecedented levels.
The USSR had a balanced budget and even a small surplus every year. It is interesting to note that not a single Western government has succeeded in achieving this result (as the Maastricht conditions prove), just as they have not succeeded in achieving full employment and zero inflation, things which also existed in the Soviet Union. The Western critics of the Soviet Union kept very quiet about this, because it demonstrated the possibilities of even a transitional economy, never mind socialism.
From a backward, semi-feudal, mainly illiterate country in 1917, the USSR became a modern, developed economy, with a quarter of the world’s scientists, a health and educational system equal or superior to anything found in the West, able to launch the first space satellite and put the first man into space. In the 1980s, the USSR had more scientists than the USA, Japan, Britain and Germany combined. Only recently was the West compelled to admit grudgingly that the Soviet space programme was far in advance of America’s. The fact that the West still has to use Russian rockets to put men and women into space is sufficient proof of this.
Women and the October Revolution
The great French utopian socialist Fourier saw the position of women as the most graphic indicator of the progress or otherwise of a social regime. The attempt to introduce capitalism in Russia has had the most calamitous consequences in this regard. All the gains for women made by the Russian Revolution, which, incidentally, was begun by striking textile workers on International Women’s Day, are being systematically eliminated. The reactionary face of capitalism is graphically revealed in the position of women in Russia.
The Bolshevik Revolution laid the basis for the social emancipation of women, and although the Stalinist political counter-revolution represented a partial setback, it is undeniable that women in the Soviet Union made colossal strides forward in the struggle for equality. “The October Revolution honestly fulfilled its obligations in relation to woman,” wrote Trotsky. “The young government not only gave her all political and legal rights in equality with man, but, what is more important, did all that it could, and in any case incomparably more than any other government ever did, actually to secure her access to all forms of economic and cultural work.”
The October Revolution was a milestone in the struggle for women’s emancipation. Prior to that, under tsarism, women were regarded as mere appendages of the household. Tsarist laws explicitly permitted a man to use violence against his wife. In some rural areas women were forced to wear veils and were prevented from learning to read and write. Between 1917 and 1927 a whole series of laws were passed giving women formal equality with men. The 1919 programme of the Communist Party boldly proclaimed:
Not confining itself to formal equality of women, the party strives to liberate them from the material burdens of obsolete household work by replacing it by communal houses, public eating places, central laundries, nurseries, etc.
Women were no longer obliged to live with their husbands or accompany them if a change of job meant a change of house. They were given equal rights to be head of the household and received equal pay. Attention was paid to the women’s childbearing role and special maternity laws were introduced banning long hours and night work and establishing paid leave at childbirth, family allowances and child-care centres. Abortion was legalised in 1920, divorce was simplified and civil registration of marriage was introduced. The concept of illegitimate children was also abolished. In the words of Lenin: “In the literal sense, we did not leave a single brick standing of the despicable laws which placed women in a state of inferiority compared with men…”
Material advances were made to facilitate the full involvement of women in all spheres of social, economic and political life – the provision of free school meals, milk for children, special food and clothing allowances for children in need, pregnancy consultation centres, maternity homes, crèches and other facilities. True, the emergence of Stalinism ushered in a series of counter-reforms in the social sphere, which drastically affected the position of women. But with the death of Stalin, the post-war economic growth allowed a steady general improvement: retirement at 55 years, no discrimination in pay and terms of employment, and the right of pregnant women to shift to lighter work with fully paid maternity leave for 56 days before and 56 days after the birth of a child. New legislation in 1970 abolished night work and underground work for women. The number of women in higher education as a percentage of the total rose from 28 per cent in 1927, to 43 per cent in 1960, to 49 per cent in 1970. The only other countries in the world where women constituted over 40 per cent of the total in higher education were Finland, France and the United States.
There were improvements in pre-school care for children: in 1960 there were 500,000 places, but by 1971 this had risen to over five million. The tremendous advances of the planned economy, with the consequent improvements in health care, were reflected in an increase of the life expectancy for women from 30 to 74 years, and the reduction in child mortality by 90 per cent. In 1975 women working in education had risen to 73 per cent of the workforce. In 1959 one-third of women were in occupations where 70 per cent of the workforce were women, but by 1970 this figure had climbed to 55 per cent. By this time, 98 per cent of nurses were women, as were 75 per cent of teachers, 95 per cent of librarians and 75 per cent of doctors. In 1950 there were 600 female doctors of science, but by 1984 it had climbed to 5,600.
Capitalist restoration has rapidly reversed the gains of the past, pushing women back to a position of abject slavery in the hypocritical name of the ‘family’. The biggest part of the burden of the crisis is being placed on the shoulders of women.
Why the Soviet Union collapsed
Yet despite these extraordinary successes, the USSR collapsed. The question that must be addressed is why this occurred. The explanations of the capitalist ‘experts’ are as predictable as they are hollow. Socialism (or communism) failed. End of story. But the commentaries of the Labour leaders, both left and right, are not much better. The right-wing reformists, as always, merely echo the views of the ruling class. From the left reformists, we get an embarrassed silence. The leaders of the Communist Parties in the West, who yesterday uncritically supported all the crimes of Stalinism, now try to distance themselves from a discredited regime, but have no answer to the questions of the workers and youth, who demand serious explanations.
The achievements of Soviet industry, science and technology have already been explained, but there was another side to the picture. The democratic workers’ state established by Lenin and Trotsky was replaced by the monstrously deformed bureaucratic state of Stalin. This was a terrible regression, signifying the liquidation of the political power of the working class, but not of the fundamental socio-economic conquests of October. The new property relations, which had their clearest expression in the nationalised planned economy, remained.
In the 1920s Trotsky wrote a small book called Towards socialism or capitalism? That was always the decisive question for the USSR. The official propaganda was that the Soviet Union was moving inexorably towards the achievement of socialism. In the 1960s Khrushchev boasted that socialism had already been achieved and the USSR was going to build a fully communist society in twenty years. But the truth was that the Soviet Union was moving in another direction altogether.
The movement towards socialism should signify a gradual reduction in inequality. But in the Soviet Union inequality continually increased. An abyss opened up between the masses and the millions of privileged officials and their wives and children, with their smart clothes, big cars, comfortable apartments and dachas. The contradiction was still more glaring because it contrasted with the official propaganda about socialism and communism.
From the standpoint of the masses, economic success cannot be reduced to the amount of steel, cement or electricity produced. Living standards depend above all on the production of commodities that are of good quality, cheap and easily available: clothes, shoes, food, washing machines, televisions and the like. But in those fields the USSR lagged far behind the West. That would not have been so serious but for the fact that some people enjoyed access to these things while most did not.
The reason why Stalinism could last so long, despite all the crying contradictions it created, was precisely the fact that for decades the nationalised planned economy made extraordinary strides forward. But the suffocating rule of the bureaucracy resulted in corruption, mismanagement, bungling and waste on a colossal scale. It undermined the gains of the planned economy. To the degree that the USSR developed to a higher level, the negative effects of bureaucracy had even more damaging consequences.
The bureaucracy always acted as a brake on the development of the productive forces. But whereas the task of building up heavy industry was relatively simple, a modern sophisticated economy with its complex relations between heavy and light industry, science and technology cannot be run by bureaucratic fiat without causing the most serious disruption. The costs of maintaining high levels of military expenditure and the costs of maintaining its grip on Eastern Europe imposed further strains on the Soviet economy.
With all the colossal resources at its disposal, the powerful industrial base and the army of high-class technicians and scientists, the bureaucracy was unable to achieve the same results as the West. In the vital fields of productivity and living standards, the Soviet Union lagged behind. The main reason was the colossal burden imposed on the Soviet economy by the bureaucracy – the millions of greedy and corrupt officials that were running the Soviet Union without any control on the part of the working class.
As a result, the Soviet Union was falling behind the West. As long as the productive forces in the USSR continued to develop, the pro-capitalist tendency was insignificant. But the impasse of Stalinism transformed the situation completely. By the mid-1960s, the system of a bureaucratically controlled planned economy reached its limits. This was graphically expressed by a sharp fall in the rate of growth in the USSR, which declined continually throughout the 1970s, approaching zero under Brezhnev. Once the Soviet Union was not able to obtain better results than capitalism, its fate was sealed.
It was at this point that Ted concluded that the fall of Stalinism was inevitable, a brilliant prediction that he made as early as 1972. From a Marxist point of view, such a perspective was inescapable. Marxism explains that in the final analysis the viability of a given socio-economic system depends on its ability to develop the productive forces. This book explains the whole process in great detail, and shows how in the period after 1965, the growth rate of the Soviet economy began to slow down. Between 1965 and 1970, the growth rate was 5.4 per cent. Over the next seven-year period, between 1971 and 1978, the average rate of growth was only 3.7 per cent.
This compared to an average of 3.5 per cent for the advanced capitalist economies of the OECD. In other words, the growth rate of the Soviet Union was no longer much higher than that achieved under capitalism, a disastrous state of affairs. As a result, the USSR’s share of total world production actually fell slightly, from 12.5 per cent in 1960 to 12.3 per cent in 1979. In the same period, Japan increased its share from 4.7 per cent to 9.2 per cent. All Khrushchev’s talk about catching up with and overtaking America evaporated into thin air. The growth rate in the Soviet Union continued to fall until it was reduced to zero at the end of the Brezhnev period (the ‘period of stagnation’ as it was christened by Gorbachev).
Once this stage had been reached, the bureaucracy ceased to play even the relatively progressive role it had played in the past. This is the reason why the Soviet regime entered into crisis. Ted Grant was the only Marxist to draw the necessary conclusion from this. He explained that once the Soviet Union was unable to get better results than capitalism, the regime was doomed. By contrast, every other tendency, from the bourgeois to the Stalinists, took for granted that the apparently monolithic regimes in Russia, China and Eastern Europe would last almost indefinitely.
The political counter-revolution carried out by the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia completely liquidated the regime of workers’ Soviet democracy, but did not destroy the new property relations established by the October Revolution. The ruling bureaucracy based itself on the nationalised, planned economy and played a relatively progressive role in developing the productive forces. However, they managed this at three times the cost of capitalism, with tremendous waste, corruption and mismanagement, which Trotsky had pointed out even before the war, when the economy was advancing at 20 per cent a year.
But despite its successes, Stalinism did not solve the problems of society. In reality, it represented a monstrous historical anomaly, the result of a peculiar historical concatenation of circumstances. The Soviet Union under Stalin was based on a fundamental contradiction. The nationalised planned economy was in contradiction to the bureaucratic state. Even in the period of the first five-year plans, the bureaucratic regime was responsible for colossal waste. This contradiction did not disappear with the development of the economy, but, on the contrary, grew ever more unbearable until eventually the system broke down completely.
This is now common knowledge. But to be wise after the event is relatively easy. It is not so easy to predict historical processes in advance, but this was certainly the case with Ted Grant’s remarkable writings on Russia, which accurately plotted the graph of the decline of Stalinism and predicted its outcome. Here alone we find a comprehensive analysis of the reasons for the crisis of the bureaucratic regime, which even today remains a book sealed with seven seals for all other commentators on events in the former USSR.
The starting point of the present work was the brilliant analysis made by Leon Trotsky in his masterpiece The Revolution Betrayed written in 1936, which even today retains all its original vigour and relevance. No one who seriously wants to understand what has happened in Russia can ignore this great work of Marxist analysis. However, for understandable reasons, Trotsky did not provide a finished, once-and-for-all analysis of the class nature of the Soviet state, but left the question open as to which direction it would finally take.
The great Russian Marxist understood that the fate of the Soviet Union would be determined by the struggle of living forces, which was in turn inseparably connected with developments on a world scale: such developments could not be precisely predicted in advance. In fact, the peculiar way in which the Second World War unfolded had a decisive effect on the destiny of the Soviet Union, which was anticipated by nobody. Trotsky wrote:
It is impossible at present to answer finally and irrevocably the question in what direction the economic contradictions and social antagonisms of Soviet society will develop in the course of the next three, five or ten years. The outcome depends upon a struggle of living social forces – not on a national scale, either, but on an international scale. At every new stage, therefore, a concrete analysis is necessary of actual relations and tendencies in their connection and continual interaction. (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 49)
Trotsky was careful to place a question mark over the future of the Soviet state. His prediction that the Stalinist bureaucracy, in order to preserve their privileges, “must inevitably in future stages seek support for itself in [capitalist] property relations”, was shown to be absolutely correct. The disgusting spectacle of long-standing Communist Party leaders, managers and officials tearing up their Party cards and openly transforming themselves into ‘entrepreneurs’, with the same ease as a man moving from one compartment on a train to another, shows how far the Stalinist regime was from genuine socialism.
Trotsky did not expect the Stalinist regime to last as long as it did. True, in his last work Stalin, he did suggest that the regime might last for decades in its present form, but the book was unfinished at the time of his assassination and he was unable to develop this idea further. The Soviet Union emerged from the Second World War enormously strengthened. The Stalinist regime, which Trotsky regarded as a temporary historical aberration, survived for decades. This had a profound effect on everything, particularly the consciousness of the masses and the bureaucracy itself.
Trotsky had hoped that the Stalinist regime would be overthrown by a political revolution of the working class. But if that did not happen, he raised the possibility at a certain stage that the process of bureaucratic counter-revolution would lead to the overthrow of the property relations established by the October Revolution:
The counter-revolution sets in when the spool of progressive social conquests begins to unwind. There seems no end to this unwinding. Yet some portion of the conquests of the Revolution is always preserved. Thus, in spite of monstrous bureaucratic distortions, the class basis of the USSR remains proletarian. But let us bear in mind that the unwinding process has not yet been completed, and the future of Europe and the world during the next few decades has not yet been decided. The Russian Thermidor would have undoubtedly opened a new era of bourgeois rule, if that rule had not proved obsolete throughout the world. At any rate, the struggle against equality and the establishment of very deep social differentiations has so far been unable to eliminate the socialist consciousness of the masses or the nationalisation of the means of production and the land which were the basic socialist conquests of the Revolution. Although it derogates these achievements, the bureaucracy as not yet ventured to resort to the restoration of the private ownership of the means of production. (Ibid., pp. 405-6)
The perspective of capitalist restoration in Russia and its repercussions was explained with remarkable foresight by Trotsky in 1936:
A collapse of the Soviet regime would lead inevitably to the collapse of the planned economy, and thus the abolition of state property. The bond of compulsion between the trusts and the factories within them would fall away. The more successful enterprises would succeed in coming out on the road of independence. They might convert themselves into stock companies, or they might find some other transitional form of property – one, for example, in which the workers should participate in the profits. The collective farms would disintegrate at the same time and far more easily. The fall of the present bureaucratic dictatorship, if it were not replaced by a new socialist power, would thus mean a return to capitalist relations with a catastrophic decline of industry and culture. (Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, pp. 250-1)
What strikes one is the brilliant way in which Trotsky anticipated the main lines of what actually took place in Russia. In complete contrast to the clarity of Trotsky’s approach we see the theoretical and practical bankruptcy of the theory of ‘state capitalism’, which in different forms has occupied the minds of different ultra-left sects for decades. After the Second World War, Ted Grant developed and extended Trotsky’s analysis of proletarian Bonapartism, particularly in The Marxist Theory of the State, which comprehensively demolished the idea of state capitalism in Russia.
According to this ‘theory’, the regime in the USSR had been capitalist for a very long time. Thus, the workers need not bother to defend the old forms of state ownership (state capitalism) against the nascent bourgeoisie, since there was no difference between them. This line of argument, which would completely disarm the working class in the face of the capitalist counter-revolution, is a glaring example of how a false theory leads inevitably to a disaster in practice.
The crisis of Stalinism had nothing whatsoever in common with the crisis of capitalism (or ‘state capitalism’). The latter is the result of the anarchy of the market and private ownership. But there was no question of a crisis of overproduction in the case of the USSR, which was based on a nationalised planned economy, although one afflicted with all the evils of bureaucracy, corruption and mismanagement.
To this must be added the limiting character of the nation state, which has outlived its usefulness and become a gigantic fetter on the productive forces. This explains why every country, even the biggest superpower, is compelled to participate in the world market. This was predicted in advance by Marx. It is also the reason why the idea of socialism in one country is a reactionary utopia.
Caricature of socialism
What failed in Russia and Eastern Europe was not communism or socialism, in any sense that this was understood by Marx or Lenin, but a bureaucratic and totalitarian caricature. Lenin explained that the movement towards socialism requires the democratic control of industry, society and the state by the proletariat. Genuine socialism is incompatible with the rule of a privileged bureaucratic elite, which will inevitably be accompanied by colossal corruption, nepotism, waste, mismanagement, and chaos.
The nationalised planned economies in the USSR and Eastern Europe achieved astonishing results in the fields of industry, science, health and education. But, as Trotsky predicted as early as 1936, the bureaucratic regime ultimately undermined the nationalised planned economy and prepared the way for its collapse and the return of capitalism.
What is the balance sheet of the October Revolution and the great experiment in planned economy that followed it? What implications do they have for the future of humanity? And what conclusions should be drawn from them? The first observation ought to be self-evident. Whether you are in favour or against the October Revolution, there can be no doubt whatsoever that this single event changed the course of world history in an unprecedented way. The entire twentieth century was dominated by its consequences. This fact is recognised even by the most conservative commentators and those hostile to the October Revolution.
Needless to say, the author of these lines is a firm defender of the October Revolution. I regard it as the greatest single event in human history. Why do I say this? Because here for the first time, if we exclude that glorious but ephemeral event that was the Paris Commune, millions of ordinary men and women overthrew their exploiters, took their destiny in their own hands, and at least began the task of transforming society.
That this task, under specific conditions, was diverted along channels unforeseen by the leaders of the Revolution does not invalidate the ideas of the October Revolution, nor does it lessen the significance of the colossal gains made by the USSR for the 70 years that followed.
The enemies of socialism will reply scornfully that the experiment ended in failure. We reply in the words of that great philosopher Spinoza that our task is neither to weep nor to laugh but to understand. But one would look in vain in all the writings of the bourgeois enemies of socialism to find any serious explanation for what occurred in the Soviet Union. Their so-called analysis lacks any scientific basis because they are motivated by blind hatred that reflects definite class interests.
It was not the degenerate Russian bourgeoisie, but the nationalised planned economy that dragged Russia into the modern era, building factories, roads and schools, educating men and women, creating brilliant scientists, building the army that defeated Hitler, and putting the first man into space.
Despite the crimes of the bureaucracy, the Soviet Union was rapidly transformed from a backward, semi-feudal economy into an advanced, modern industrial nation. In the end, however, the bureaucracy was not satisfied with the colossal wealth and privileges it had obtained through plundering the Soviet state. As Trotsky predicted, they passed over to the camp of capitalist restoration, transforming themselves from a parasitic caste to a ruling class.
The movement towards capitalism has meant a big step backwards for the people of Russia and the former Republics of the USSR. Society was thrown back and had to learn all the blessings of capitalist civilization: religion, prostitution, drugs, and all the other ‘blessings’ of capitalism. For the time being the Putin regime has succeeded in consolidating itself. But its appearance of strength is illusionary. Russian capitalism, like the hut in the Russian fairy tale, is built on chicken’s legs.
The Achilles heel of Russian capitalism is that it is now linked with an umbilical cord to the fate of world capitalism. It is subject to all the storms and stresses of a system that finds itself in a terminal crisis. This will have a profound impact on Russia, both economically and politically. Sooner or later the Russian workers will recover from the effects of the defeat and move into action. When that happens, they will quickly rediscover the traditions of the October Revolution and the ideas of genuine Bolshevism. That is the only way forward for the workers of Russia and the entire world.
London 7th January 2017