2. The Rise of Stalinism
The Marxist theory of the state
We shall now proceed to build, on the space cleared of historical rubbish, the airy, towering edifice of socialist society. ( Lenin, 8th November 1917)
In order to understand the evolution of the USSR and what is taking place today, it is necessary to first of all understand Karl Marx’s theory of socialism and how the Bolshevik government attempted to follow this conception. As opposed to the utopian socialist ideas of the likes of Robert Owen, Saint-Simon and Fourier, Marxism is based upon a scientific vision of socialism. Marxism explains that the key to the development of every society is the development of the productive forces: labour power, industry, agriculture, technique and science. Each new social system – slavery, feudalism and capitalism – has served to take human society forward through its development of the productive forces.
The prolonged period of primitive communism, humankind’s earliest phase of development, where classes, private property, and the state did not exist, gave way to class society as soon as people were able to produce a surplus above the needs of everyday survival. At this point, the division of society into classes became an economic feasibility. On the broad scales of history, the emergence of class society was a revolutionary phenomenon in that it freed a privileged section of the population – a ruling class – from the direct burden of labour, permitting it the necessary time to develop art, science and culture. Class society, despite its ruthless exploitation and inequality, was the road that humankind needed to travel if it was to build up the necessary material prerequisites for a future classless society.
In a certain sense, socialist society is a return to primitive communism but on a vastly higher productive level. Before one can envisage a classless society, all the hallmarks of class society, especially inequality and scarcity, would have to be abolished. It would be absurd to talk of the abolition of classes where inequality, scarcity and the struggle for existence prevailed. It would be a contradiction in terms. Socialism can only appear at a certain stage in the evolution of human society, at a certain development of the productive forces.
No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher reallocations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. ( Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 1, p. 504, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, by Marx. Henceforth referred to as MESW.)
In contrast to the utopian socialists of the early nineteenth century, who regarded socialism as a moral issue, something which could have been introduced by enlightened people at any time in history, Marx and Engels saw it as rooted in the development of society. The precondition for such a classless society is the development of the forces of production by which superabundance becomes feasible. For Marx and Engels, this is the task of the socialist planned economy. For Marxism, the historic mission of capitalism – the highest stage of class society – was to provide the material basis worldwide for socialism and the abolition of classes. Socialism was not simply a good idea, but was the next stage for human society.
The historical mission of capitalism was to eliminate feudal parochialism, to develop a modern industrial economy, and to create a world market with a new world division of labour. In so doing, it would create its own grave-digger, the modern proletariat. This scenario was sketched out by Marx and Engels 150 years ago, in the pages of the Communist Manifesto. The development of capitalism today bears out that prognosis. With the concentration of capital into the hands of a small group of capitalists, the peasantry has been largely eliminated, while the working class has assumed colossal proportions, becoming a majority of the population in the advanced and even many developing countries. Likewise, capitalism has created a world market to which all countries are inextricably bound. In reality the material basis for a socialist society, bequeathed by capitalism, has been in existence on a world scale since the outbreak of the First World War. Huge industries and factories that have grown into multinational corporations, if publicly owned and democratically planned nationally and internationally, could create a world of superabundance.
At present, the concentration of capital on a world scale is reflected by the fact that a mere 500 multinationals dominate 90 per cent of world trade. Today, just one company, ICI, has sufficient capacity to produce the world’s demand for chemicals. The same could be said of many branches of industry. However, capitalism has reached its limits as a progressive system. Private ownership and the nation state act as straitjackets which stultify the productive forces and serve to hold society back. Two world wars, which brought us to the verge of human extinction, organic mass unemployment and periodic slumps of over-production are testimony to this impasse. As an economic system capitalism had in the past revolutionised the productive forces; now it acts as a massive fetter on further progress. In its lust for profit, capitalism threatens to pillage the world’s natural resources and eventually destroy the planet. Only the international planning of the productive forces can take society out of this blind alley. Marx believed that the tasks of the socialist revolution would first fall on the shoulders of the working class of the economically and culturally advanced countries of Western Europe. In Trotsky’s words:
Marx expected that the Frenchman would begin the social revolution, the German continue it, the Englishman finish it; and as to the Russian, Marx left him far in the rear. (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 47.)
It is not feasible for society to jump straight from capitalism to a classless society. The material and cultural inheritance of capitalist society is far too inadequate for that. There is too much scarcity and inequality that cannot be immediately overcome. After the socialist revolution, there must be a transitional period that will prepare the necessary ground for superabundance and a classless society. Marx called this first stage of the new society “the lowest stage of communism” as opposed to “the highest stage of communism”, where the last residue of material inequality would disappear. In that sense, socialism and communism have been contrasted to the ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ stages of the new society. In describing the lower stage of communism Marx writes:
What we are dealing with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. (MESW, Critique of the Gotha Programme, by Marx, Vol. 3, p. 17.)
However, for Marx – and this is a crucial point – this lower stage of communism from its very beginning would be on a higher level in terms of its economic development than the most developed and advanced capitalism. And why was this so important? Because without a massive development of the productive forces, scarcity would prevail and with it the struggle for existence. As Marx explained, such a state of affairs would pose the danger of degeneration:
This development of the productive forces is an absolutely necessary practical premise [of communism], because without it want is generalised, and with want the struggle for necessities begins again, and that means that all the old crap must revive. (MESW, The German Ideology, Vol. 1, p. 37, my emphasis.)
The sole reason for the international character of socialism is the international character of the capitalist system itself. No one country has the material basis for a new classless society, or could guarantee the complete elimination of scarcity and want inherited from capitalism. Even a Soviet America, despite its colossal economic power, could not immediately accomplish the leap to socialist society. It could not provide everyone with as much as they needed. A transitional regime would be necessary – a democratic workers’ state – the key task of which would be to speed up the development of the productive forces and eliminate the vestiges of class society. This workers’ state was described by Marx as “the dictatorship of the proletariat”.
This much-abused term of Marx and Engels simply meant the democratic rule of the majority, which would take the necessary steps to overcome the resistance of a minority of exploiters. It was based on an historical analogy with the dictatorship of ancient Rome, when, for a temporary period (in time of war) exceptional powers were granted by the Republic to the government. After the experience of Hitler and Stalin, the word ‘dictatorship’ has become discredited. It is identified in people’s imagination with totalitarianism – something which was very far from the minds of Marx and Engels. In Marx’s day, it was free from such connotations and was synonymous with the rule of the working class. In fact, from the Marxist point of view, the dictatorship of the proletariat is synonymous with a workers’ democracy.
“Between capitalist and communist society,” states Marx, “lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” As all the greatest Marxist theoreticians explained, the task of the socialist revolution is to bring the working class to power by smashing the old capitalist state machine. The latter was the repressive organ designed to keep the working class in subjection. Marx explained that this capitalist state, together with its state bureaucracy, cannot serve the interests of the new power. It has to be done away with. However, the new state created by the working class would be different from all previous states in history.
The state, as an organ of class rule, arose with the emergence of class society. This was clearly explained by Engels in his book, The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State. In normal times, the state serves the interests of the dominant class in society. It was strengthened and perfected as an organ of class rule to maintain the power and interests of the ruling class. The state serves to keep the majority in subjection to the minority. A new workers’ state, however, unlike previous states, seeks not to hold down the majority of the population but only to keep in check a tiny handful of ex-capitalists and landlords. For this purpose, a mighty bureaucratic state machine is totally unnecessary. On the contrary, the workers’ state serves the interests of the majority of the population and is in reality a semi-state.
To the degree in which classes and inequality are eradicated, so too the semi-state begins to dissolve into society.
A special apparatus, a special machine for suppression, the ‘state’, is still necessary, but this is now a transitional state. It is no longer a state in the proper sense of the word… And it is comparable with the extension of democracy to such an overwhelming majority of the population that the need for a special machine of suppression will begin to disappear. (LCW, Vol. 25, p. 468.)
The state is a relic of class society, and will ‘wither away’ as a classless society comes into being. Therefore, the interest of the proletariat is to dissolve these left-overs of capitalism as quickly as possible. This comes about as soon as the productive forces reach a level that can do away with want and guarantee everyone their needs.
In Anti-Dühring Engels wrote:
When, together with class domination and the struggle for individual existence created by the present anarchy in production, those conflicts and excesses which result from this struggle disappear, from that time on there will be nothing to suppress, and there will be no need for a special instrument of suppression, the state.
In order that the state shall disappear, “class domination and the struggle for individual existence” must disappear. Society will have reached the stage where it can guarantee “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”.
The workers’ state from its inception begins to wither away. Despite the wishes of the anarchists, the state, money and the bourgeois family cannot be abolished overnight. Only when the material conditions are sufficiently developed can they be relegated to the “Museum of Antiquities” as Engels put it. They have to exhaust their historic mission. They cannot be administratively abolished. Prior to that, the task of the state is to bring about these conditions. In the first instance, the workers’ state cannot allow everyone to work “according to their abilities”, as much as he or she wishes, nor can it reward everyone “according to their needs”, regardless of the work they do.
To begin with, the workers’ state acts as a powerful lever for stimulating the growth of production. This can only mean the application of the methods of wage labour developed by capitalism. As all wants cannot be immediately satisfied and scarcities will remain for a period, people will be allocated their share of production on the basis of the wages they earn. In other words, the workers’ state will initially be forced to defend the inequalities of wage labour, i.e., bourgeois norms of distribution. After allocating a proportion to investment and the social services, the remainder will be shared out by society in the form of wages. On this point, Marx corrected Lassalle’s mistake that the new society would guarantee straight away “equal right of all to an equal product of labour”. Marx said that “equal right” is in reality a violation of equality and an injustice left over from a situation of scarcity, of class society:
… As far as the distribution of the latter [means of consumption] among the individual producers is concerned, the same principle prevails as in the exchange of commodity-equivalents: a given amount of labour in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labour in another form. Hence, equal right here is still in principle – bourgeois right. (MESW, Critique of the Gotha Programme, by Marx, Vol. 3, p. 18.)
This first phase of the new society cannot yet provide complete equality: differences in income will still continue to exist, although the gap between the highest and lowest paid will be drastically reduced.
One man is superior to another physically or mentally and so supplies more labour in the same time, or can labour for a longer time; and labour, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labour. It recognises no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognises unequal individual endowment and thus productive capacity as natural privileges. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right by its very nature can consist only in the application of an equal standard… (Ibid., Vol. 3, p. 18, emphasis in original.)
In other words, the effort of workers is rewarded by the wages they earn. This does not take into consideration their different needs. As Marx goes on to explain the differences between one worker and another: “One worker is married, another not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labour, and hence an equal share in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right instead of being equal would have to be unequal.
But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Law can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby. (Ibid., Vol. 3, pp. 18-9, my emphasis.)
In other words, the first stage of communism (socialism), cannot yet provide complete justice and equality: differences, and unjust differences, in wealth and income will still exist for a period, although general living standards will be massively raised. Society cannot at this moment permit everyone to work “according to their abilities”, nor can it reward everyone “according to their needs”, regardless of the work they do. The workers’ state will oversee the relation between these two antagonistic features, ensuring the final domination of the socialist tendencies and the liquidation of the state.
Thus, this new state assumes a dual character: socialist in as far as it defends nationalised property relations, and bourgeois in so far as the distribution of goods and services is carried out by capitalist methods of wage labour. However, by using bourgeois norms of distribution, the productive forces will be propelled forward and will serve socialist objectives in the last analysis. Nevertheless, as Lenin points out, the exploitation of man by man will have become impossible because the means of production will remain social property. This fact alone cannot remove the defects of distribution and the inequality of bourgeois law. The immediate abolition of capitalism does not provide the material basis for an immediate classless society. It is a means to an end. The state itself – although a semi-state – sees its role as to safeguard this bourgeois law, which still sanctifies a certain inequality in society. With the further development of the productive forces and the attainment of communism, the state and the other vestiges of capitalism disappear. “So long as the state exists there is no freedom,” says Lenin. “When there is freedom, there will be no state.” (LCW, Vol. 25, p. 473.)
Marx went on to explain how bourgeois law disappears in the higher stage of communism:
After the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs! (MESW, Critique of the Gotha Programme, by Marx, Vol. 3, p. 19.)
Lenin, who commented on these remarks in his classic work The State and Revolution, added in relation to the transition period:
Bourgeois law in regard to the distribution of consumer goods inevitably presupposes the existence of the bourgeois state, for law is nothing without an apparatus capable of enforcing the observance of the rules of law. It follows that under communism there remains for a time not only bourgeois law, but even the bourgeois state, without the bourgeoisie! (LCW, Vol. 25, p. 476.)
This seems an incredible remark to make. It certainly horrifies those who regard a workers’ state in an idealistic fashion. Having only the limited experience of the Paris Commune to go on, Marx was only able to anticipate the form of a future workers’ state in the most general outline. Lenin developed Marx’s thoughts on the subject, but did not deal in any great detail with the processes that could take place if the Russian workers’ state were to remain isolated in conditions of extreme backwardness. On many occasions, he made it clear that, without the help of the workers in the advanced capitalist countries, he did not expect the revolution to survive. However, he confidently expected that the victory of the world socialist revolution would reduce this early phase to a very short duration. It was left to Trotsky to analyse this phenomenon in greater detail, on the basis of the growing bureaucratism of the Soviet regime and the emergence of Stalinism.
What is clear is that the poorer the society that emerges from a revolution, the cruder, the more bureaucratic and more primitive the forms of the transitional state would be, and the greater the danger of power slipping out of the hands of the working class. This had a powerful bearing on the state that emerged from the Russian Revolution, which was isolated in a backward country, and faced with total economic collapse. In the words of Trotsky:
For the defence of ‘bourgeois law’ the workers’ state was compelled to create a ‘bourgeois’ type of instrument – that is, the same old gendarme, although in a new uniform. (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 55.)
Lenin was aware of the dangers in such a situation. He explained that the state is a relic of class society and can degenerate under certain conditions, and therefore has to be under the constant democratic control and check of the working class. That is why an essential measure for Lenin was the reduction in the working day to allow time for the masses to participate in the running of industry and the state. It was not for sentimental reasons, but was a defence to prevent the new Soviet state rising above and becoming divorced from the working class. In other words, to prevent its degeneration. To combat such a development Lenin put forward a series of measures designed to fight bureaucratism. These included: election and recall of all officials, no standing army, no official to receive more than a skilled worker, and rotation of jobs and responsibilities. “So that all may become ‘bureaucrats’ for a time and that, therefore, nobody may be able to become a ‘bureaucrat’,” concluded Lenin. (LCW, Vol. 25, p. 486.) These measures were to be introduced immediately to deal with bureaucratic deformations that would inevitably arise from the numerical and cultural weakness of the proletariat. The chronic backwardness of Russia, however, constituted an insurmountable obstacle to their full implementation. The working day was lengthened, not shortened, and competent administrators were extremely scarce.
The old state machine
Lenin, following in the footsteps of Marx and Engels, continuously grappled with the problems of revolutionary strategy and tactics, as well as the problems of socialist construction in a backward country. His 53 volume Collected Works (in the Russian edition) are testimony to the depth of his life-long contribution to Marxism. He always put matters honestly and refused to lull the Russian workers with ‘official’ illusions and smug pronouncements. Above all he based his whole outlook on the success of the international revolution. Lenin explained that the overthrow of capitalism and consolidation of a proletarian democracy in an advanced country would be difficult enough, but for backward Russia it was an impossible task without immediate help from the West. In all the writings of Lenin, and especially of this period, there is a burning faith in the ability of working people to change society, and a fearless honesty in dealing with difficulties. He always revealed unpalatable truths, in full confidence that the working class would understand and accept the need for the greatest sacrifices, provided the reasons for them were explained honestly and truthfully. The arguments of Lenin were designed, not to stupefy the Soviet workers with ‘socialist’ opium, but to steel them for the struggles ahead – for the struggle against backwardness and bureaucracy in Russia and for the struggle against capitalism and for the socialist revolution on a world scale.
Using the same scrupulous approach Lenin returned repeatedly to discuss the chronic deficiencies of the Soviet state and the terrible predicament that faced the Russian workers. The objective backwardness of Russia – with its high rates of illiteracy and weak working class – forced the Soviet government to rely heavily on the services of hundreds of thousands of ex-tsarist bureaucrats, who in thousands of ways were sabotaging the efforts of the new regime. This was no small matter, but one that threatened an internal degeneration of the whole revolution. Marx had already explained that the danger of bureaucratic degeneration was possible on the basis of material backwardness. However, he never developed this point, believing that such a problem would be resolved on the basis of the revolution in the advanced capitalist countries. In backward, isolated Russia it was another matter.
Marx and Engels were well aware of the danger of bureaucracy in a workers’ state and tentatively proposed methods for combating it. Basing himself on the experience of the Paris Commune, Engels had written: “In order not to lose again its only just conquered supremacy, this working class must … safeguard itself against its own deputies and officials, by declaring them all, without exception, subject to recall at any moment.” To ensure that the state will not be transformed “from servants of society into masters of society – an inevitable transformation in all previous states – the Commune made use of two infallible means. In the first place, it filled all posts – administrative, judicial and educational – by election on the basis of universal suffrage of all concerned, subject to the right of recall at any time by the same electors. And, in the second place, all officials, high or low, were paid only the wages received by other workers. The highest salary paid by the Commune to anyone was 6,000 francs. In this way, an effective barrier to place-hunting and careerism was set up, even apart from the binding mandates to delegates to representative bodies which were added besides”. (MESW, The Civil War in France, by Marx, Vol. 2, pp. 187-8.)
Taking as his point of departure Marx and Engels’ analysis of the Paris Commune, Lenin put forward four key points to fight bureaucracy in a workers’ state in 1917:
1) Free and democratic elections to all positions in the Soviet state,
2) Right of recall of all officials,
3) No official to receive a higher wage than a skilled worker and
4) Gradually, all the tasks of running society and the state to be performed by everyone in turn, or as Lenin put it: “Any cook should be able to be prime minister.”
We shall reduce the role of state officials to that of simply carrying out our instructions as responsible, revocable, modest paid ‘foremen and accountants’ (of course, with the aid of technicians of all sorts, types and degrees). This is our proletarian task, this is what we can and must start with in accomplishing the proletarian revolution. (LCW, Vol. 25, p. 431.)
Under Lenin, the maximum wage differential was to be kept to a ratio of 1:4, which he honestly described as a ‘capitalist differential’. This, however, was made necessary by the lack of skilled personnel needed to run industry and the state in a country where the cultural level of the masses was extremely low. As the dissident Soviet historian Roy Medvedev points out:
The first Soviet wage scale established a ratio of 1:2.1 between the lowest and the highest earnings. At the beginning of 1919, the gap between the two extremes was narrowed even more and became 1:1.75. This lasted until the beginning of NEP in the autumn of 1921; with the approval of the Central Executive Committee and the Party Central Committee, the Council of People’s Commissars passed a resolution that stated: “When setting wage rates for workers with different qualifications – office staff, middle-range technicians and senior administrative personnel – all thought of equality must be abandoned.” The new wage scale contained broad differentials according to qualifications, and divided staff into four groups: apprentices, workers with varying degrees of skill, accountants and office workers, and administrative and technical staff. The ratio between the lowest level and the highest (the 17th category) was set at 1:8.
The question of payment for employees of state administrative bodies was dealt with in a different way. In the first months after October, the minimum subsistence wage based on the exchange rate and the level of prices was calculated to be eight roubles a day; this was confirmed by a decree of the 16th January 1918. (Medvedev, On Socialist Democracy, pp. 221.)
About the same time, Lenin drafted a bill “On the Salaries of Senior Personnel and Officials”, which was approved by the Council of People’s Commissars with slight amendments. The text was as follows:
Since it is considered necessary to adopt the most energetic measures to lower the salaries of officials in all state, communal, and private undertakings and institutions, without exception, the Council of People’s Commissars decrees:
1. There shall be a maximum limit to the salary of a People’s Commissar of 500 roubles a month, with an allowance of 100 roubles for each child; the size of apartments is limited to one room per member of the family.
2. All local Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies are asked to prepare and implement revolutionary measures for the special taxation of senior personnel.
3. The Ministry of Finance and all individual Commissars shall make an immediate study of the accounts of ministries and shall reduce all excessively high salaries and pensions.
During the first months of Soviet rule the salary of a People’s Commissar (including Lenin himself) was only twice the minimum subsistence wage for an ordinary citizen. Over the next years, prices and the value of the rouble often changed very rapidly and wages altered accordingly. At times the figures were quite astonishing – hundreds of thousands and millions of roubles. But even under these conditions Lenin made sure that the ratio between lowest and highest salaries in state organisations did not exceed the fixed limit – during his lifetime the differential apparently was never greater than 1:5. Of course, under conditions of backwardness, many exceptions had to be made which represented a retreat from the principles of the Paris Commune. In order to persuade the ‘bourgeois specialists’ (spetsy) to work for the Soviet state, it was necessary to pay them very large salaries. Such measures were necessary until the working class could create its own intelligentsia. In addition, special ‘shock-worker’ rates were paid for certain categories of factory and office workers, and so on. Speaking at the Seventh Moscow Provincial Party Conference on the 29th October 1921, Lenin honestly explained this:
Even at that time we had to retreat on a number of points. For example, in March and April 1918, the question was raised of remunerating specialists at rates that conformed, not to socialist, but to bourgeois relationships, i.e., at rates that corresponded, not to the difficulty or arduousness of the work performed, but to bourgeois customs and to the conditions of bourgeois society. Such exceptionally high – in the bourgeois manner – remuneration for specialists did not originally enter into the plans of the Soviet government, and even ran counter to a number of decrees issued at the end of 1917. But at the beginning of 1918 our party gave direct instructions to the effect that we must step back a bit on this point and agree to a ‘compromise’ (I employ the term then in use). (LCW, Vol. 33, p. 88.)
However, such compromises did not apply to Communists. They were strictly forbidden to receive more than a skilled worker. Any income they received in excess of that figure had to be paid over to the Party. The chair of the Council of People’s Deputies received 500 roubles, comparable to the earnings of a skilled worker. When the office manager of the Council of People’s Deputies, V. D. Bonch-Bruyevich paid Lenin too much in May 1918, he was given ‘a severe reprimand’ by Lenin, who described the rise as ‘illegal’. Due to the isolation of the revolution, and the need to employ bourgeois specialists and technicians, the differential was increased for these workers – they could earn a wage 50 per cent more than that received by the members of the government. Lenin was to denounce this as a ‘bourgeois concession’, which should be reduced as rapidly as possible.
In the words of Roy Medvedev:
With respect to Communists, even those who held the highest posts, Lenin demanded moderation. He showed concern for their health and food and living accommodations, but insisted that their salaries, his own included, be kept within certain limits. No luxuries were allowed.
In April 1918, Lenin characterised the introduction of material incentives and differentials as “a step backwards on the part of our socialist, Soviet state power, which from the very outset proclaimed and pursued the policy of reducing high salaries to the level of the wages of the average worker”. (LCW, Vol. 27, p. 249.) Medvedev continued:
In general, Lenin opposed both the equalisation of wages and excessively high salaries, especially for party members. This policy resulted in the so-called party maximum – a wage ceiling for all Communists. Lenin considered any excessive inequality in pay or living conditions “a source of corruption within the party and a factor reducing the authority of Communists”. (Medvedev, Let History Judge, p. 841.)
There are many examples which show the living conditions of the leaders of the workers’ state. Writing about the civil war period, Victor Serge recalls the living conditions of the deputy chief of the Cheka:
All this time, Bakayev of the Cheka was going around with holes in his boots. In spite of my special rations as a government official, I would have died of hunger without the sordid manipulations of the black market, where we traded the petty possessions we had brought in from France. The eldest son of my friend Yonov, Zinoviev’s brother-in-law, an Executive member of the Soviet and founder and director of the State Library, died of hunger before our very eyes. All this while we were looking after considerable stocks, and even riches, but on the State’s behalf and under rigorous control. Our salaries were limited to the ‘Communist maximum,’ equal to the average wage of a skilled worker. (Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1901-1941, p. 79.)
The English writer Arthur Ransome, who was well acquainted with Russia and made several visits at this time, reports an extraordinary incident which he experienced first-hand while on an official delegation with Radek and Larin to the town of Yaroslavl in 1921. The Yaroslavl prison was a notoriously bad place under Stalin. But the Bolsheviks took prison reform seriously and tried to improve the conditions of the prisoners. In conditions of terrible food shortages, the food at the Yaroslavl prison was actually better than that available to the local soviet leadership!
It so happens, Rostopchin explained, that the officer in charge of the prison feeding arrangements is a very energetic fellow, who had served in the old army in a similar capacity, and the meals served out to the prisoners are so much better than those produced in the Soviet headquarters, that the members of the Executive Committee make a practice of walking over to the prison to dine. They invited us to do the same. Larin did not feel up to the walk, so he remained in the Soviet House to eat an inferior meal, while Radek and I, with Rostopchin and three other members of the local committee walked round to the prison. (Arthur Ransome, The Crisis in Russia, p. 56.)
The housing space at the disposal of government ministers or commissars was also restricted to one room for each person in the household. Lenin’s office was sparsely furnished with the bare essentials. According to Karl Idman, a member of the Finnish government who met Lenin in December 1917: “Lenin received us cordially, apologising for keeping us waiting. The room in which we found ourselves was divided into two by a board partition… The room was in no way different from any of the other rooms in Smolny. It was as simple as all the rest. The walls were painted white, there was a wooden table and a few chairs.” This policy was in stark contrast to the exorbitant privileges and luxurious life-styles of the masters of the Kremlin under Stalin and his successors. This is confirmed by Victor Serge:
In the Kremlin, he [Lenin] still occupied a small apartment built for a palace servant. In the recent winter, he, like everyone else, had had no heating. When he went to the barber’s he took his turn, thinking it unseemly for anyone to give way to him. (Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1901-1941, p. 101.)
The same applied to Trotsky, who was, in effect, Lenin’s second in command:
During the first days of the Bolshevik revolt I used to go every morning to Smolny to get the latest news. Trotsky and his pretty little wife, who hardly ever spoke anything but French, lived in one room on the top floor. The room was partitioned off like a poor artist’s attic studio. In one end were two cots and a cheap little dresser and in the other a desk and two or three cheap wooden chairs. There were no pictures, no comfort anywhere. Trotsky occupied this office all the time he was Minister of Foreign Affairs and many dignitaries found it necessary to call upon him there… Outside the door two Red Guards kept constant watch. They looked rather menacing, but were really friendly. It was always possible to get an audience with Trotsky. (Louise Bryant, op. cit., p. 103.)
This was no exception. The Bolshevik leaders were always accessible and close to the masses. They walked in the streets with no escorts. Lenin was shot and seriously wounded by a Left SR assassin while doing just that. When one considers the luxurious conditions and privileges of the bureaucracy under Stalin and his successors, shut off from the Soviet population behind high walls, or rushing at great speed in huge limousines accompanied by armies of bodyguards, we see what a gulf separated the democratic regime of Lenin from what replaced it. And it is necessary to emphasise the point that Lenin even considered the relatively small differentials of that time to be unacceptable capitalist differentials which would gradually be reduced as society progressed towards socialism.
Roots of bureaucracy
In February 1917, the Bolshevik Party had no more than about 8,000 members in the whole of Russia. At the height of the civil war, when Party membership involved personal risk, the ranks were thrown open to the workers, who pushed the membership up to 200,000. But as the civil war grew to a close, the Party membership actually trebled, reflecting an influx of careerists and elements from hostile classes and parties. These elements had to be rooted out. The necessary ‘purge’ initiated by Lenin in 1921 had nothing in common with the monstrous frame-up trials of Stalin; there were no police, no trials, no prison camps; merely the weeding out of petty bourgeois and Menshevik careerists in order to preserve the ideas and traditions of October from the poisonous effects of petty bourgeois reaction. By early 1922, some 200,000 members (one third of the membership) had been expelled.
As early as 1919 the Bolshevik government had also organised the People’s Commissariat of Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection (known as Rabkrin, from the acronym of its Russian name). Its task was to weed out careerists and bureaucrats in the state and party apparatus. Stalin, given his record as a good organiser, was put in charge of Rabkrin. However, in a short space of time, Stalin’s narrow, organisational outlook and personal ambition led him to occupy the post as the chief spokesman of the bureaucracy in the Party leadership, not as its opponent. Stalin used his position, which enabled him to select personnel for leading posts in the state and Party, to quietly gather round himself a bloc of allies and yes-men, political nonentities who were grateful to him for their advancement. In Stalin’s hands, Rabkrin became an instrument for building up his own position and eliminating his political rivals.
By the end of 1920 the number of state officials had mushroomed from a little over 100,000 to an astonishing 5,880,000. This was five times the number of industrial workers. In the Red Army, such was the shortage of military skill that former tsarist officers were enlisted to fight against the White armies. By August 1920, 48,409 former tsarist officers had been called up as military specialists. These layers had no deep-seated loyalty to the Soviet state. In order to persuade them to provide their services and prevent them from fleeing to the other side, the Bolshevik government was forced to grant them considerable privileges. Also, political commissars were appointed to oversee the loyalty of these officers and provide an essential instrument of workers’ control over these layers.
Lenin’s intention was gradually to involve the whole of the working class in the tasks of running the state: “Our aim is to draw the whole of the poor into the practical work of administration, … to ensure that every toiler, having finished his eight hours’ ‘task’ in productive labour, shall perform state duties without pay.” (LCW, Vol. 27, p. 273.) But under the prevailing conditions of backwardness, this proved impossible. The young Soviet state was forced to make use of whatever they could of the leftovers of the old state machine. In March 1918, Lenin told the Party Congress that “the bricks of which socialism will be composed have not yet been made”. (Ibid., p. 148.)
Given the low cultural level, every lever, every toehold would be used to further the revolution. As we have seen, the prevailing illiteracy forced the Bolsheviks to rely on the old tsarist bureaucracy (“slightly anointed with Soviet oil”), administrators, government functionaries, military commanders and factory managers. This was unavoidable, at least until assistance arrived from the West. This would have far reaching consequences later on. But, at that time, there was simply no alternative. When Lenin asked Trotsky during the civil war whether it was best to replace the old tsarist officers, which were controlled by political commissars, with other Communists, Trotsky replied:
“But do you know how many of them we have in the army now?”
“Not even approximately?”
“I don’t know.”
“Not less than thirty thousand.”
“Not less than thirty thousand. For every traitor, there are a hundred dependable; for everyone who deserts, there are two or three that get killed. How are we to replace them all?”
A few days later Lenin was making a speech on the problems of constructing the socialist commonwealth. This is what he said:
“When comrade Trotsky recently informed me that in our military department the officers are numbered in tens of thousands, I gained a concrete conception of what constitutes the secret of making proper use of our enemy… of how to build communism out of the bricks that the capitalists had gathered to use against us”. (Trotsky, My Life, pp. 464-5.)
In relation to the state itself, Lenin told the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in 1922:
We took over the old machinery of state and that was our misfortune. We have a vast army of government employees, but lack the educated forces to exercise real control over them… At the top, we have, I don’t know how many, but at all events no more than a few thousand… Down below there are hundreds of thousands of old officials we got from the Tsar and from bourgeois society… (LCW, Vol. 33, p. 430.)
As always Lenin explained the harsh truth about the Soviet state apparatus. He never entertained any idealised view of this wretched organ, which had been largely inherited from the past. It was a bureaucratic machine, coloured by a thin socialist varnish. He understood full well that this bureaucracy was not simply a matter of bureaucratic behaviour, excessive red tape, officialdom, etc. Such an approach has nothing in common with the Marxist method. Marxism explains bureaucracy as a social phenomenon, which arises for definite material reasons. In the case of Russia, it arose from the isolation of the revolution in a backward, illiterate peasant country.
Lenin explained the rise of bureaucracy as a parasitic, capitalist growth on the organism of the workers’ state. The October Revolution had overthrown the old order, ruthlessly suppressed and purged the tsarist state but, in conditions of chronic economic and cultural backwardness, the elements of the old order were creeping back everywhere into positions of privilege and power in the measure that the revolutionary wave ebbed back with the defeats of the international revolution. There was a real danger that the revolution could suffer a bureaucratic degeneration. As such, Lenin denounced the growing bureaucratic threat and demanded a ruthless struggle against it:
We threw out the old bureaucrats, but they have come back… They wear a red ribbon in their buttonholes and creep into warm corners. What to do about it? We must fight this scum again and again and if the scum has crawled back we must again and again clean it up, chase it out, keep it under the surveillance of Communist workers and peasants whom we have known for more than a month and for more than a year. (LCW, Vol. 29, pp. 32-3.)
Engels explained that in every society where art, science and government are the preserve of a privileged minority, then that minority will always use and abuse these positions in its own interests. And this state of affairs is inevitable, so long as the vast majority of the people are forced to toil for long hours in industry and agriculture for the basic necessities of life. After the revolution, with the ruined conditions of industry, the working day was not reduced, but lengthened. Workers toiled ten, twelve hours and more a day on subsistence rations; many worked weekends without pay voluntarily. But, as Trotsky explained, the masses can only sacrifice their ‘today’ for their ‘tomorrow’ up to a very definite limit.
Inevitably, the strain of war, of revolution, of four years of bloody civil war, of famine in which millions perished, all served to undermine the working class in terms of both numbers and morale. The disintegration of the working class, the loss of many of the most advanced elements in the civil war, the influx of backward elements from the countryside, and the demoralisation and exhaustion of the masses was one side of the picture. On the other side, the forces of reaction, those petty bourgeois and bourgeois elements who had been temporarily demoralised and driven underground by the success of the revolution in Russia and internationally, everywhere began to recover their nerve, thrust themselves to the fore, taking advantage of the situation to insinuate themselves into every nook and cranny of the ruling bodies of industry, of the state and even of the Party.
Victor Serge recalls his impression of the Soviet apparatus even in the early years:
Of this apparatus, which seemed to me to function largely in a void, wasting three-quarters of its time on unrealisable projects, I at once formed the worst possible impression. Already, in the midst of general misery, it was nurturing a multitude of bureaucrats who were responsible for more fuss than honest work. In the offices of Commissariats one came across elegant gentlemen, pretty and irreproachably powdered typists, chic uniforms weighed down with decorations: and everybody in this smart set, in such contrast with the famished populace in the streets, kept sending you back and forth from office to office for the slightest matter and without the slightest result. (Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1901-1941, p. 74.)
Lenin’s struggle against Stalin
As early as 1920, Trotsky criticised the workings of Rabkrin, which from a tool in the struggle against bureaucracy was becoming itself a hotbed of bureaucracy. Initially, Lenin defended Rabkrin against Trotsky’s criticisms. Later he came around to Trotsky’s view: “This idea was suggested by Comrade Trotsky, it seems, quite a long time ago. I was against it at the time… But after closer consideration of the matter, I find that in substance there is a sound idea in it…” At first Lenin’s illness prevented him from appreciating what was going on behind his back in the state and Party. In 1922, the situation became clear to him. “Bureaucracy is throttling us,” he complained. He saw that the problem arose from the country’s economic and cultural backwardness.
So how was this state of affairs going to be combated? Lenin stressed the importance of the workers’ organisation in keeping the bureaucratic menace in check:
Our Party Programme – a document which the author of the ABC of Communism [Nikolai Bukharin] knows very well – shows that ours is a workers’ state with a bureaucratic twist to it… We now have a state under which it is the business of the massively organised proletariat to protect itself, while we, for our part, must use these workers’ organisations to protect the workers from their state, and to get them to protect our state… (LCW, Vol. 32, pp. 24-5.)
Lenin argued, dialectically, that the trade unions in a workers’ state must be independent, in order that the working class can defend itself against the state, and in turn defend the workers’ state itself. Lenin was emphatic on this point because he saw the danger of the state raising itself above the class and separating itself from it. The workers, by themselves through their organisations, could exercise a check on the state apparatus and on the bureaucracy. However, with the atomisation of the working class by the end of the civil war, it was unable to effectively combat the growth of the bureaucratism of the state. The growing bureaucratic menace preoccupied Lenin’s attention throughout that year. At the 11th Party Congress in March-April 1922 – the last Congress in which he was able to participate – his main preoccupation was bureaucratism. At the Congress Lenin dealt firstly with the economic relations of the workers’ state as a form of ‘state capitalism’. That is the economic relations on which the NEP was based. Market relations were allowed, while the key sectors of the economy remained in state hands. Lenin said that traditionally state capitalism applied to a minority nationalised sector in a capitalist state. But he now used it differently to describe the NEP:
That is why very many people are misled by the term state capitalism. To avoid this, we must remember the fundamental thing that state capitalism in the form we have here is not dealt with in any theory, or in any books, for the simple reason that all the usual concepts connected with this term are associated with bourgeois rule in capitalist society. Our society is one which has left the rails of capitalism but has not yet got on to new rails. The state in this society is not ruled by the bourgeoisie, but by the proletariat. We refuse to understand that when we say ‘state’ we mean ourselves, the proletariat, the vanguard of the working class. State capitalism is capitalism which we shall be able to restrain, and the limits of which we shall be able to fix. This state capitalism is connected with the state, and the state is the workers, the advanced section of the workers, the vanguard. We are the state.
He then explains that this capitalism which exists alongside the workers’ state is essential “to satisfy the needs of the peasantry… [and] without it existence is impossible”.
Lenin then goes on to deal with the crux of the problem:
Well, we have lived through a year, the state is in our hands; but has it operated the New Economic Policy in the way we wanted in the past year? No. But we refuse to admit that it did not operate in the way we wanted. How did it operate? The machine refused to obey the hand that guided it. It was like a car that was going not in the direction the driver desired, but in the direction someone else desired; as if it were being driven by some mysterious, lawless hand, God knows whose, perhaps of a profiteer, or of a private capitalist, or of both. Be that as it may, the car is not going quite in the direction the man at the wheel imagines, and often it goes in an altogether different direction. (LCW, Vol. 33, p. 179.)
Then what is lacking? …If we take Moscow with its 4,700 Communists in responsible positions, and if we take the huge bureaucratic machine, that gigantic heap, we must ask: who is directing whom? I doubt very much whether it can be truthfully said that the Communists are directing that heap. To tell the truth, they are not directing, they are being directed. (Ibid., p. 288.)
Far from being the ‘semi-state’ envisaged by Lenin in his book State and Revolution, the state apparatus was bureaucratically deformed and deeply infected by the alien class outlook of the old regime. At the same Congress Lenin explained, in very clear and unambiguous language, the possibility of the degeneration of the revolution as a result of the pressures of alien classes. Lenin compared the relationship of the Soviet workers to the bureaucracy and the pro-capitalist elements to that of a conquering and conquered nation. History has shown repeatedly that for one nation to defeat another by force of arms is not, in and of itself, a sufficient guarantee of victory. Given the low level of culture of the weak Soviet working class, surrounded by a sea of small property owners, the pressures were enormous. They reflected themselves not only in the state, but inevitably in the Party itself, which became the centre of struggle of conflicting class interests.
“Sometimes one nation conquers another, the nation that conquers is the conqueror and the nation that is vanquished is the conquered nation. This is simple and intelligible to all. But what happens to the culture of these nations? Here things are not so simple,” stated Lenin. “If the conquering nation is more cultured than the vanquished nation, the former imposes its culture upon the latter; but if the opposite is the case, the vanquished nation imposes its culture upon the conqueror. Has not something like this happened in the capital of the RSFSR? Have the 4,700 Communists (nearly a whole army division, and all of them the very best) come under the influence of an alien culture?” Lenin then asks pointedly: “Will the responsible Communists of the RSFSR and of the Russian Communist Party realise that they cannot administer; that they only imagine they are directing, but are actually being directed?”
Already by this time, the most far-sighted sections of the émigré bourgeoisie, the Smena Vekh (Change of Signposts) group of Ustryalov, were openly placing their hopes upon the bureaucratic-bourgeois tendencies manifesting themselves in Soviet society as a step in the direction of capitalist restoration. The same group was later to applaud and encourage the Stalinists in their struggle against Trotskyism. The Smena Vekh group, which Lenin gave credit for its class insight, correctly understood the struggle of Stalin against Trotsky, not in terms of ‘personalities’ but as a class question, as a step back from the revolutionary traditions of October.
“The machine no longer obeyed the driver” – the state was no longer under the control of the Communists, of the workers, but was increasingly raising itself above society. Referring to the views of Smena Vekh, Lenin said:
We must say frankly that the things Ustryalov speaks about are possible, history knows all sorts of transformations. Relying on firmness of convictions, loyalty, and other splendid moral qualities is anything but a serious attitude in politics. A few people may be endowed with splendid moral qualities, but historical issues are decided by vast masses, which, if the few do not suit them, may at times treat them none too politely. (LCW, Vol. 33, p. 287.)
In other words, the state power was slipping out of the hands of the Communists, not because of their personal failings or psychological peculiarities, but because of the enormous pressures of backwardness, of bureaucracy, of alien class forces which weighed down upon the tiny handful of advanced, socialist workers and crushed them.
Lenin’s correspondence and writings of this period, when illness was increasingly preventing him from intervening in the struggle, clearly indicate his alarm at the encroachment of the Soviet bureaucracy, the insolent parvenus in every corner of the state apparatus. Lenin was aware of the dangers of the degeneration of the workers’ state encircled by capitalism. After the 11th Party Congress in 1922, Lenin’s health deteriorated and in May of that year he suffered his first stroke. He recovered and was back on his feet by July and officially returned to work in October. On his return, he was deeply shocked by the growing bureaucratic tumour that was gnawing away at the state and Party. “Our bureaucratism is something monstrous,” Lenin commented to Trotsky. “I was appalled when I came back to work…” It was at this time that he offered to form a bloc with Trotsky against bureaucracy in general and against the Organisational Bureau in particular. Lenin also concentrated his attention on the entire problem of the leadership of the Party. The clashes with Stalin over the Georgian affair and other matters increasingly revealed Stalin’s role. Lenin began work on his Testament.
On the 30th December 1922, he dictated a note:
It is said that a united state apparatus was needed. Where did that assurance come from? Did it not come from the same Russian apparatus, which, as I pointed out in one of the preceding sections of my diary, we took over from tsarism and slightly anointed with Soviet oil?
There is no doubt that that measure should have been delayed until we could say that we vouched for our apparatus as our own. But now, we must, in all conscience, admit the contrary: the apparatus we call ours is, in fact, still quite alien to us; it is a bourgeois and tsarist hotchpotch and there has been no possibility of getting rid of it in the past five years without the help of other countries and because we have been ‘busy’ most of the time with military engagements and the fight against famine. (LCW, Vol. 36, pp. 605-6, my emphasis.)
Lenin only became fully aware of the bureaucratic reaction within the Party towards the end of 1922, when he discovered the truth about Stalin’s handling of relations with the Georgian Bolshevik leaders. The central role of Stalin in all this bureaucratic web became clear. Without the knowledge of Lenin or the Politburo (the highest body in the Party), Stalin, together with his henchmen Dzerzhinsky and Ordzhonikidze, had carried out a coup d’état in the Georgian party. The finest cadres of Georgian Bolshevism were purged and the Party leaders denied access to Lenin, who was fed a string of lies by Stalin. When he finally found out what was happening, Lenin was absolutely furious. From his sick-bed late in 1922, he dictated a series of notes to his stenographer on “the notorious question of autonomisation, which, it appears, is officially called the question of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics”. Lenin’s notes are a crushing indictment of the bureaucratic and chauvinist arrogance of Stalin and the clique surrounding him. But Lenin does not treat this incident as an accidental phenomenon – as a ‘regrettable mistake’ – but the expression of the rotten reactionary nationalism of the Soviet bureaucracy. Lenin thundered:
There is no doubt that the infinitesimal percentage of Soviet and Sovietised workers will drown in that tide of chauvinistic Great-Russian riff-raff like a fly in milk. (LCW, Vol. 36, p. 606.)
After the Georgian affair, Lenin threw the whole weight of his authority behind the struggle to remove Stalin from the post of General Secretary of the Party, which he had occupied for a short time after the death of Sverdlov. However, Lenin’s main fear now, more than ever, was that an open split in the leadership, under prevailing conditions, might lead to the break-up of the Party along class lines. He therefore attempted to keep the struggle confined to the leadership, and his notes and other material were not made public. Lenin wrote secretly to the Georgian Bolsheviks (sending copies to Trotsky and Kamenev) taking up their cause against Stalin “with all my heart”. As he was unable to pursue the affair in person, he wrote to Trotsky requesting him to undertake the defence of the Georgians in the Central Committee. In the last months of his political life, weakened by illness, Lenin turned repeatedly to Trotsky for support in his struggle against the bureaucracy and its creature, Stalin. On the question of the monopoly of foreign trade, on the question of Georgia, and, finally, in the struggle to oust Stalin from the leadership, Lenin formed a bloc with Trotsky, the only man in the leadership he could trust.
Lenin’s struggle against Stalin was directly linked to his determined struggle against the bureaucracy within the Bolshevik Party itself. In Better Fewer, But Better, written shortly before his Testament, Lenin commented: “Let it be said in parentheses that we have bureaucrats in our Party offices as well as in Soviet offices.” In the same work, he launched a sharp attack against Rabkrin, which was clearly meant for Stalin: “Let us say frankly that the People’s Commissariat of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection does not at present enjoy the slightest authority. Everybody knows that no other institutions are worse organised than those of our Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection and that under present conditions nothing can be expected from this Peoples’ Commissariat.” (LCW, Vol. 33, p. 490.)
Lenin began writing his Testament on the 25th December 1922, in which he critically assessed the qualities of the Bolshevik leadership. It contained his final recommendations. “Comrade Stalin, having become General Secretary, has concentrated enormous power in his hands; and I am not sure that he always knows how to use that power with sufficient caution.” He then deals with Trotsky’s qualities: “On the other hand comrade Trotsky, as was proved by his struggle against the Central Committee in connection with the question of the Peoples’ Commissariat of Communications, is distinguished not only by his exceptional abilities – personally he is, to be sure, the most able man in the present Central Committee – but also by his too far reaching self-confidence and a disposition to be too much attracted by the purely administrative side of affairs.” In relation to the others: “I will only remind you that the October episode of Zinoviev and Kamenev was not, of course, accidental, but that it ought as little to be used against them personally as the non-Bolshevik past of Trotsky.”
However, new and alarming manifestations of Stalin’s abuse of power caused Lenin to dictate a postscript ten days later, dated the 4th January 1923, entirely devoted to Stalin. This time it was direct and brutal.
Stalin is too rude, and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealings amongst us communists, becomes intolerable in a Secretary General. 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 Stalin in having only one advantage, namely, that of being more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious… (LCW, Vol. 36, pp. 594-6.)
Two months later, Lenin broke off political and personal relations with Stalin, after he had verbally abused his wife, Krupskaya. Two days before his final stroke, he wrote to Stalin, with a copy to Zinoviev and Kamenev: “I have no intention of forgetting so easily what has been done against me, and it goes without saying that what has been done against my wife I consider having done against me as well.” (Quoted in Liebman, op. cit., p. 423.) On the 6th March, Krupskaya told Kamenev that Lenin had resolved “to crush Stalin politically”. (Ibid., p. 424.) Lenin told Krupskaya that the Testament was to be kept secret until after his death, and then it should be made public to the ranks of the Party. However, Lenin was seriously paralysed by a third stroke on the 9th March 1923. Power effectively fell into the hands of a triumvirate of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin. Nine months later, on the 21st January 1924, Lenin died. It was very convenient for Stalin. The triumvirate were determined to keep Trotsky from the leadership and therefore decided to keep Lenin’s Testament under lock and key. Needless to say, the documentary evidence of Lenin’s last fight against Stalin and the bureaucracy was suppressed for decades, and denounced as forgeries by the leaders of the Communist Parties internationally. Lenin’s last writings were hidden from the Communist Party rank and file. Lenin’s Testament, which demanded Stalin’s removal as General Secretary, despite the protests of his widow, was not read out at the Congress and remained hidden until 1956 when Khrushchev and Co. produced it, along with a few other items, as part of their campaign to throw the blame for all that had happened in the past 30 years onto Stalin’s shoulders. With Lenin’s death, the struggle against the growing bureaucratic reaction now fell to Trotsky and the Left Opposition.
The bureaucratic reaction
With each international defeat of the working class, and its accompanying mood of despair and disappointment amongst the Russian proletariat, the bureaucratic reaction in the Soviet Union assumed an increasingly menacing form. The terrible backwardness and low cultural level of the masses proved an insurmountable obstacle to the Russian proletariat, weakened, crushed and exhausted by years of civil war, deprivation and demoralisation. The bureaucracy fed on this mood of weariness and growing scepticism particularly amongst the older generation. Largely left over from the old tsarist state machine, this caste of officials began to flex its muscles and feel more conscious of its independence, importance and power.
The diminishing participation of the masses in political life reinforced this process. The bureaucracy soon revealed its own ideas, feelings and interests. It yearned for stability and the abandonment of international revolution. “On all sides the masses were pushed away gradually from actual participation in the leadership of the country,” remarked Trotsky.
The reaction within the proletariat caused an extraordinary flush of hope and confidence in the petty bourgeois strata of town and country, aroused as they were to new life by the NEP, and growing bolder and bolder. The younger bureaucracy, which had arisen at first as an agent of the proletariat, began to now feel itself a court of arbitration between the classes. Its independence increased from month to month. The international situation was pushing with mighty forces in the same direction. The Soviet bureaucracy became more self-confident, the heavier the blows dealt to the world working class. Between these two facts there was not only a chronological, but a causal connection, and one which worked in two directions. The leaders of the bureaucracy promoted the proletarian defeats; the defeats promoted the rise of the bureaucracy. (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 90.)
The defeat of the German Revolution of 1923, followed by the defeats in Bulgaria and Estonia, constituted a severe blow to the morale of the Russian proletariat. It condemned the Soviet state to a period of further economic and political isolation. Within the Communist Party the initiative and independence of the rank and file was being systematically stifled by bureaucratic ‘commandism’ at all levels. A hierarchy of appointed officials replaced the elected representatives. Trotsky, who had been urged by Lenin to take up the struggle against bureaucratism, formed the Left Opposition to meet this challenge. Their demands centred around the restoration of workers’ democracy within the Party and the co-ordination of industry and agriculture through a national plan. These ideas immediately met with furious opposition from the majority faction of Zinoviev- Kamenev- Stalin. Trotsky’s defence of Bolshevism was met with abuse and ridicule by the ruling apparatus.
In early 1924, the death of Lenin delivered a further blow to the morale of the Russian workers. Some historians have suggested that if Lenin had lived longer it would have resulted in a totally different development in Russia. But even if Lenin had lived it would not have made a fundamental difference. Lenin’s colossal personal prestige, in itself, would not have been sufficient to prevent the political counter-revolution. As early as 1926, Lenin’s widow Krupskaya, in a meeting of the Left Opposition, pointed out: “If Ilyich [Lenin] were alive, he would probably already be in prison.” At that time this was probably an exaggeration. Had Lenin lived a few more years, the process of degeneration might have been delayed, modifying the course of events. But as long as the revolution remained isolated in conditions of frightful backwardness, the fundamental process would have been the same. Without doubt, Lenin would have fought relentlessly against the bureaucracy but that, in and of itself, would not have been sufficient to have defeated the reaction. Only with the success of the revolution elsewhere, which would have broken the isolation and rekindled the revolutionary élan of the Russian masses, could the bureaucracy have been stopped in its tracks. The fact of the matter is Lenin did not survive his third stroke, which totally incapacitated him for nine months prior to his death.
Does this mean that those who struggled against Stalinism were doomed to defeat? To pose the question in this way would be abstract, schematic, and fatalistic. The emergence of Stalinism was a struggle of living forces, the outcome of which could not be determined in advance. Trotsky and the Left Opposition certainly realised that there were strong objective forces working on the side of the Stalinist bureaucracy. However, there was nothing fatalistic about their attitude. Everything would depend upon the international situation. As Trotsky explained: “The development of the struggle has shown, without any doubt, that the Bolshevik-Leninists would not have been able to win a complete victory in the USSR – that is to say, conquer power and cauterise the ulcer of bureaucratism – without support from the world revolution.” (Trotsky, Writings, 1935-36, p. 178.) That is why the Opposition fought for a correct Marxist policy in Britain, China and elsewhere.
The serious illness and subsequent death of Lenin put effective power in the hands of the ‘troika’ of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev. In reality, the central lever of power was already in Stalin’s grip, given his complete organisational domination of the apparatus as General Secretary of the Party. The troika conspired to prevent Trotsky taking over from Lenin. They deliberately suppressed Lenin’s Testament, which had directly called for Stalin’s removal. Another factor was the opening of the Party to a flood of raw, inexperienced new members after Lenin’s death – the so-called Lenin Levy. This swamped the revolutionary nucleus of the Party in a sea of politically backward elements, who were putty in the hands of the apparatus-men, hand-picked by Stalin’s machine. The weakening and isolation of the Party’s Old Guard was the necessary precondition for the victory of the apparatus. Suffice to say that 75-80 per cent of the membership were recruited after 1923. The number of Party members with pre-revolutionary service was less than 1 per cent.
Simultaneously, a campaign of calumny and falsification was opened up against Trotsky. This was precipitated by Trotsky’s publication The Lessons of October, which dealt with the reasons for the defeat of the German Revolution, laying particular responsibility on the failure of leadership. In doing so, Trotsky drew parallels with what had happened in October 1917 in Russia and the vacillation of the Right Wing of Zinoviev and Kamenev who both came out against the insurrection (although they were never mentioned by name). These important lessons were buried in the campaign against ‘Trotskyism’. All the old smears about Trotsky’s non-Bolshevik past (which Lenin had written off in his Testament), about the ‘permanent revolution’, Brest-Litovsk, and the rest, were dragged up by the ruling faction to discredit Trotsky and oust him from the leadership. A stream of literature was brought out against Trotsky, while reinforcing the idea of the Leninist Old Guard of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev: Trotskyism or Leninism (Stalin), Leninism or Trotskyism (Kamenev) and Bolshevism or Trotskyism (Zinoviev). Trotsky was subsequently removed from the post of Peoples’ Commissar of War in January 1925. The campaign against Trotskyism was then taken into the Communist Parties internationally, where votes were demanded supporting the Russian Party majority leadership.
Dialectical materialism has nothing in common with the kind of mechanical approach which sees history as a simple, linear process. Such a view is more in line with religious philosophies like Calvinism, with its fatalistic theory of predestination. Accidents play a role in history as in nature, but, as Hegel brilliantly explained, necessity frequently expresses itself through the medium of accidents. The efforts of Trotsky alone were insufficient to change the Party’s course. Ranged against him was the Old Guard of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin and Stalin. This played a certain part in the equation. Marxism does not deny the role of the individual or of accidents in history. On the contrary. Individuals can play a tremendous role – for good or ill. Kamenev and, particularly, Zinoviev played an important role in the turn towards reaction after Lenin’s death. Here personal motives played a role. Having worked closely with Lenin for many years, Zinoviev considered that he should inherit Lenin’s mantle. He was ambitious and jealous of Trotsky. As a result, he organised a parallel leadership, even before Lenin’s death, composed of all the members of the Politburo except Trotsky. Using methods entirely alien to Bolshevism, he resorted to manoeuvres and intrigues to discredit Trotsky and drive a wedge between him and Leninism.
By inventing the myth of Trotskyism after Lenin’s death, Zinoviev and Kamenev played a pernicious role, which deepened the disillusionment and increased the disorientation of the workers. Neither of them showed any understanding of the real processes at work. They imagined that they were using Stalin as a tool when in fact it was they who were being used. In this way, without realising it, Kamenev and Zinoviev laid the basis for Stalin’s victory over the Bolshevik Party and over themselves. They felt themselves superior to Stalin, and, in a moral and intellectual sense, they were right. But Stalin’s strength lay, not in his intellect, but in the fact that he reflected the pressure and the interests of millions of officials who were thirsting for power. In this struggle, Kamenev and Zinoviev were handicapped by the very same qualities that had earlier been their strength – their faith in the revolution and loyalty to the cause of the working class. By the time of his break with them, Stalin had none of this. He was motivated purely by ambition for himself, but unlike Kamenev and Zinoviev, was not burdened down by principles. He eagerly based himself upon the bureaucracy, first in the Party, the apparat, which he dominated, and later became the champion of the millions of former tsarist officials, who continued to function under the protective colouring of the Soviet state.
This process eventually ended in the slaughter of the Old Bolsheviks, who could not stomach Stalin’s destruction of the Revolution and the party of Lenin. Stalin thus played the role of the executioner of the Bolshevik Party. Nevertheless, it is necessary to see that if Stalin had not existed, or if he had refused to act in the interests of the bureaucracy, he would merely have been replaced by someone else. In the concrete conditions, it would almost certainly have meant the victory of Bukharin’s faction. This would have meant the victory of capitalist restoration even at that time. In a panic reaction, Stalin was later forced to adopt, in caricature form, many of the policies of the Left Opposition. Without this, the pressure of the kulaks in the countryside and the NEPmen in the towns would undoubtedly have led to the overthrow of the regime. The new policy was enthusiastically received by the working class, who nevertheless remained largely passive. The policy of ‘dekulakisation’ was carried out in a hooligan way by the bureaucracy, which simultaneously covered its rear by striking blows against the Left Opposition.
At the time of their bloc with Stalin, both Kamenev and Zinoviev were not consciously aware of the processes which were taking place in the Soviet state, and which they were unwittingly abetting. They did not realise in what direction their attacks on Trotsky and Trotskyism would lead them, any more than did Stalin, at that time. But in attempting to drive a wedge between Trotskyism and Leninism, they set in motion all the machinery of historical falsification and bureaucratic harassment, which marked the first decisive step away from the ideas and traditions of October towards the monstrous bureaucratic police state of Stalin. Thus, they were acting as the unconscious agents of processes outside their control and beyond their understanding.
Stalin also had no conscious plan of where he was going. He was utterly blind to the processes taking place. Even Trotsky commented at the time of the Purge trials: “Had Stalin been able to foresee where the struggle against ‘Trotskyism’ was to lead him, he would undoubtedly have stopped short, despite the perspective of defeating his opponents. But he foresaw nothing.” (Trotsky, Writings 1936-37, p. 70.) Stalin, with his narrow, administrative, ‘practico’ mentality, reflected the pressures of the rising Soviet bureaucracy: the layer of officials in the state, industry and, increasingly, the Party who had done quite well out of the revolution and were anxious to put a stop to the period of storm and stress, and to get on with the work of organising society, with themselves comfortably installed on top, naturally.
To this layer, the idea of the world socialist revolution was an irritating irrelevance. They had no faith in the Russian working class, let alone the Germans and British. Stalin privately shared their view, although he would never have dared to say so in public while Lenin was still alive. The anti-Marxist theory of ‘socialism in one country’, first expounded by Stalin in the autumn of 1924, went against everything the Bolsheviks and the Communist International had preached. How was it possible to construct a national socialism in a single country, let alone an extremely backward country like Russia? Such a thought never entered the heads of any Bolshevik, including Stalin’s up until 1924. In April 1924, in a speech to students at the Sverdlov University, later published under the title Foundations of Leninism, Stalin stated:
The overthrow of the power of the bourgeoisie and the establishment of a proletarian government in one country does not yet guarantee the complete victory of socialism. The main task of socialism, the organisation of socialist production, still lies ahead. Can this task be accomplished, can the 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 organisation of socialist production, the efforts of one country, particularly of such a peasant country as Russia are insufficient. (Stalin, Lenin and Leninism, p. 40.)
Here without doubt the general position of the Bolshevik Party is correctly expressed. However, in the second edition, published a few months later, these lines were withdrawn and the exact opposite put in their place:
But the overthrow of the power of the bourgeoisie and the establishment of the power of the proletariat in one country does not yet mean that the complete victory of socialism has been assured. After consolidating its power and leading the peasantry in its wake the proletariat of the victorious country can and must build a socialist society… (Stalin, Collected Works, Vol. 6, p. 110, my emphasis.)
The United Opposition
Zinoviev and Kamenev, already worried about Stalin’s growing power, rudeness and disloyalty, were profoundly shocked by this development. Within a year, they had broken with Stalin and went over to the Left Opposition. This realignment at the top of the Party was due to the growing pressures from the workers of Leningrad, who were alarmed by the policy of enriching the kulaks and NEPmen. Zinoviev and Kamenev later admitted that the myth of Trotskyism had been deliberately invented to discredit Trotsky. In a typically Bonapartist fashion, Stalin now leaned on the right wing of Bukharin and Tomsky to attack the Left Opposition. The Left Opposition waged a heroic battle to maintain the original ideas of the Revolution against the growing bureaucratic reaction within the Party. Not only did they fight for the restoration of party democracy, but they argued for an economic plan that could harness the productive potential of the Soviet economy. The Opposition had understood early on that industry could not continue by resting upon equipment inherited from the past but needed, on the basis of ‘socialist accumulation’, to expand industry through national planning. Such a plan could increase the tempo of production far faster than in the capitalist West but the Stalin leadership chose to move with great caution, attacking the leaders of the Opposition as ‘super-industrialisers’.
Stalin’s belated reply to the Opposition proposals was a pessimistic draft Five-Year Plan published in 1927. Industrial production was projected to grow at a declining rate from 9 per cent to 4 per cent! Under the harsh criticism from the Opposition, the plan was finally revised upwards to 9 per cent annually, but was still far below the projections of between 15 per cent and 18 per cent growth rates of the Opposition. Stalin continued to attack Trotsky and the Opposition as super-industrialisers. As late as April 1927, he argued at the Central Committee that to build the Dnieperstroy hydroelectric power station would be the same as asking a peasant to buy a gramophone instead of a cow! The ruling group’s policy of support for the kulak and reliance on the market was leading to a growing differentiation in town and country. The increasing power and influence of NEPmen and kulaks was reaching dangerous proportions. The rising tide of capitalism was visible everywhere. These alien class pressures had earlier opened up a struggle in the Communist Party leadership. Those on the Right Wing – Bukharin, Rykov, Tomsky – wanted to give still greater concessions to the kulaks. Stalin balanced between the different factions in the Politburo, preferring to adopt a centrist position on questions and leaning for support, now on the left, now on the right. In his struggle with the Left Opposition he rested on Bukharin’s right wing. In 1925, Stalin even began to prepare for the denationalisation of the land. Bukharin, who in April 1925 urged the peasantry to “get rich”, envisaged these rich kulaks “growing into socialism”. He talked of “riding into socialism on a peasant nag”. This policy, which would have led to the restoration of capitalism in Russia, was bitterly opposed by Trotsky and the Left Opposition, which advocated a policy of voluntary collectivisation of agriculture and industrial planning.
Despite the hopes of the leadership, the kulaks moved, not to socialism, but to capitalist counter-revolution. By the spring of 1926, almost 60 per cent of grain for sale was in the possession of 6 per cent of the kulaks. And by early 1928, with the kulak blockade of grain, the spectre of famine in the towns became a serious threat. According to Alec Nove: “The shortfall in grain procurements may be seen from the fact that by January 1928 the state had succeeded in purchasing only 300 million poods [a pood is a Russian unit of measurement. 1 pood is approximately equal to 16.38 kilograms], as against 428 million on the same date in the previous year.” (Alec Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, p. 149.) The whole regime was shaken to its foundations by the impending crisis. Every town and city was faced with a food blockade. The kulaks had acquired tremendous power and were now determined to use it to overturn the regime.
On the 7th November 1927, the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, the United Opposition intervened in the marches and demonstrations with banners proclaiming: “Strike against the kulak, the NEPmen and bureaucrat!” “Carry out Lenin’s Testament!” and “Down with opportunism!” Trotsky and the other Opposition leaders were given a tremendous reception by the workers of Leningrad, who voiced their dissatisfaction with the bureaucratic leadership. The workers and the youth were sympathetic to the Opposition, but exhausted and disheartened. As Trotsky warned the impressionistic Zinoviev, who took this as a sign that the situation had changed, this sympathy did not mean that the masses were prepared to take action. On the contrary, this demonstration convinced the ruling group of the need to take immediate measures against the Opposition. One week later, after a ferocious campaign of denigration, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rakovsky, Smilga and Yevdokimov were expelled from the Central Committee. In December, the entire Left Opposition was expelled from the Communist Party. As a consequence, those who lacked a political perspective and backbone capitulated. The Zinovievists deserted the Opposition. Demoralised and disoriented, Zinoviev and Kamenev surrendered to Stalin. The Trotskyists, in contrast, refused to submit.
Tens of thousands of Left Oppositionists were sacked from their jobs, their families hounded, and sent into exile. Now the campaign of repression against the Opposition began in earnest. After their break with Stalin, Kamenev, who knew Stalin very well, had warned Trotsky: “Do you think that Stalin is now busy thinking how best to refute our criticism? You are mistaken. He is thinking of how best to destroy you… First morally, and then, if possible, also physically. By covering you with slander, by organising a provocation, by laying a military conspiracy at your door, by staging a terrorist act. Believe me, this is not guesswork. In our triumvirate, we had many occasions to be frank with one another, although even at that time our personal relations more than once verged upon an explosion. Stalin wages a struggle on a totally different plane from yours…” (Trotsky, Writings, 1936-37, p. 43.) At the 15th Congress Stalin proclaimed the Opposition ‘liquidated’. Trotsky and his family were exiled to Alma-Ata, then deported to Turkey. This was a turning point in the consolidation of the power of the Stalinist bureaucracy.
Why didn’t Trotsky take power?
Quite a few writers have raised the question: “Why didn’t Trotsky use his position, especially his authority in the Red Army, to seize power at the time?” In a recent book, The Ideas of Leon Trotsky, edited by H. Ticktin and M. Cox, we find the following assessment:
Trotsky has been attacked on the grounds that he was no politician. As we have argued above, there is an element of truth in the charge… The second charge against Trotsky is that he misunderstood the nature of the new regime under Stalin. This and the charge that he was no politician are linked in that it would have been his duty to have taken power from Stalin, if he had understood the nature of the counter-revolution that was to occur… he failed to understand the true nature of the beast in the crucial years when he could have prevented its rise. (H. Ticktin and M. Cox, The Ideas of Leon Trotsky, pp. 13-6.)
The whole episode is here reduced to the struggle of individuals and their particular qualities. These arguments are mere echoes of the arguments of the historians E.H. Carr, Richard B. Day, Moshe Lewin and Isaac Deutscher, who also saw the struggle largely in terms of personalities. Carr claims that Trotsky “failed to the last to understand that the issue of the struggle was determined not by the availability of arguments but by the control and manipulation of the levers of power.” Later, he argues:
He had no stomach for a fight whose character bewildered and eluded him. When attacked, he retreated from the arena because he instinctively felt that retreat offered him the best chance of survival. (E. H. Carr, Socialism in One Country, Vol. 2, p. 43.)
Moshe Lewin again makes a similar criticism:
He [Trotsky] also had the weakness of a man who was too haughty and, in a sense, too idealistic to indulge in the political machinations inside the small group of leaders. His position as an outsider, on account of his past and his style, prevented him from acting when the moment came – for him, it only came once – with the necessary determination. (M. Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle, p. 140.)
The fact is that the struggle was not an issue of personal power, of Trotsky versus Stalin, but a struggle of living forces. Those who argue that Trotsky only had to use the Red Army to take power display a complete lack of understanding of the nature of power itself. Power is not a product of the will of individual ‘great men’, as Nietzsche and others imagined, anticipating the ideology of Fascism. It is a reflection of the balance of forces between the classes in society. To use the army as a political force inevitably leads directly to Bonapartism. That is ABC for a Marxist. Bonapartism can only exist in certain conditions, normally when the contending classes in society are deadlocked. This creates conditions where the state apparatus lifts itself above society and acquires a certain degree of independence. Trotsky, just as Lenin before him, always placed his hopes in the working class. The workers sympathised with the positions of the Opposition, but were too exhausted and disappointed to do anything about it. They remained passive. The veteran Yugoslav Communist and Oppositionist Ante Ciliga, who was in Russia in the mid-1920s, comments on the mood of the workers at this time:
The impression that these meetings and private conversations left on me was favourable, on the whole; but I was struck by the passive attitude of many of the workers. One felt that they had neither interest nor enthusiasm, but on the contrary a frigidity of manner, an exaggerated reticence. It was depressing. The workers seemed to say by their silence: it is all very well but what does it mean to us? One had to pester each person to get a word out of him. (A. Ciliga, The Russian Enigma, p. 21.)
As Trotsky explained in one of his last writings:
On the side of the Opposition was the youth and a considerable portion of the rank and file; but on the side of Stalin and the Central Committee were first of all the specially trained and disciplined politicians who were most closely connected with the political machine of the General Secretary. My illness and my consequent non-participation in the struggle was, I grant, a factor of some importance; however, its importance should not be exaggerated. In the final reckoning, it was a mere episode. All-important was the fact that the workers were tired. Those who supported the Opposition were not spurred on by a hope for great and serious changes. On the other hand, the bureaucracy fought with extraordinary ferocity.
Passive support and sympathy was not enough to prevent the advance of the bureaucracy. Of course, a victory of the revolution in, say, China, would have completely transformed the situation, reviving the spirits of the Russian workers, and halting the bureaucratic counter-revolution in its tracks. But instead of victories there only came news of defeats, as a direct consequence of the policies of the Stalin- Bukharin leadership.
Ticktin and Cox state that:
We have to suspect that Trotsky at first was not prepared to lead. Later, of course, he refused to take power. He was the leader of the Red Army, and in 1924 Antonov-Ovseyenko, chief political commissar of the Red Army, actually proposed that Trotsky take over. (Ticktin and Cox, op. cit., p. 13.)
This is typical of the superficial approach to history, which reduces it to a struggle of individual personalities. In general, if you ask the right question, you stand a good chance of getting the right answer. If you ask the wrong question, you will invariably get the wrong answer. Messrs Ticktin and Cox do not even know what question to ask in the first place and therefore end in a mess. The Left Opposition were not Bonapartists but revolutionary Marxists. That being so, they could not look to the military for solutions to the problem. They based themselves on the working class – not for sentimental or arbitrary reasons, but because only the working class can bring about the socialist transformation of society. To base oneself on any other class or social group may achieve a change in society, but never in the direction of a healthy workers’ state.
People like Ticktin and Cox imagine themselves to be superior to Trotsky, who, they imply, was either too stupid or too cowardly to take power, whereas Stalin, one must assume, was more intelligent and more courageous. These ‘wise’ academics write glibly about ‘the question of power’ and at the same time show that they do not have the slightest idea of what power is. Trotsky explained that “power is not a prize which the most ‘skilful’ win. Power is a relationship between individuals, in the last analysis between classes”. (Trotsky, Writings 1935-36, p. 177.)
In the absence of the active participation of the workers, there were indeed conditions for Bonapartism in Russia. But the use of the military in politics is not a thing that can be disposed of like putting a sword back into its sheaf. To rely upon the Red Army to take power would have resulted, in the given conditions, not in the prevention of the political counter-revolution but, on the contrary, in enormously accelerating it. The sole difference would be that instead of a civilian bureaucracy, the military caste would be in power. The fact that Trotsky was at the head would have meant nothing. Either he would do the bidding of the officer caste (which was naturally ruled out), or he would be removed and replaced with someone who would. At that stage, the movement towards reaction had not yet acquired a definitive character. The bureaucracy was still feeling its way. Stalin’s cautious policy reflected that fact. A military coup would have led very quickly to the consolidation of proletarian Bonapartism. The faces would have been different, but the essence the same. The whole process of degeneration would have been enormously speeded up. That is all.
The role of the individual
Without doubt the role of individuals, with all their strengths and weaknesses, plays an important role, but we can only understand this role in the context of the struggle of social forces. The role of the individual in history is not more decisive than the objective conditions that they live in, although the personal ability, intellect and character of individuals certainly does affect the historical process, and, at critical points, may be decisive. Without Lenin and Trotsky, the October Revolution would never have taken place. This is a concrete fact. There can be no doubt that the policies of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin would have led to defeat and the triumph of reaction in 1917, after which we would have been treated to a large number of doctoral theses ‘proving’ beyond all doubt that the idea of a successful socialist revolution in Russia was completely utopian.
Historical materialism does not deny the role of the individual in history. It merely explains that individuals are not absolutely free agents, as idealists imagine, but must operate on the basis of given social and economic conditions which are not chosen by themselves and operate according to laws created independently of the will of men and women. Once we understand these laws, we are in a position to arrive at a scientific analysis of the real scope and significance of the actions of the individual player on the historical stage. The same Lenin and Trotsky who led the Russian workers to victory in 1917 remained isolated and powerless for decades before this. For all their personal abilities and theoretical knowledge, they did not stand above the general conditions of society. Just as Lenin and Trotsky set their stamp on the October Revolution and the regime that emerged from it, so the bureaucratic counter-revolution has become so closely linked with the name of Stalin that the two have become synonymous. But of course, the political counter-revolution in the USSR did not depend upon one man. That would be a mechanical interpretation of history. With or without Stalin, if the revolution remained isolated in a backward country, reaction was inevitable, sooner or later, in one way or another. This, however, does not exhaust the question. In politics, as in warfare, the question of ‘sooner or later’ and ‘one way or another’ is not at all secondary, and can be decisive.
In the first period Stalin had no idea where he was going. He did not want the defeat of the Chinese workers in 1927, or the German workers in 1923 or 1933, yet his policies guaranteed defeat in each case. This, in turn, meant the further isolation of the revolution in Russia, which was the real material basis for the victory of the bureaucratic counter-revolution, which Stalin had initially neither anticipated nor desired. Furthermore, the monstrous form which the counter-revolution took was certainly affected by Stalin’s personal character and psychology. Helvétius remarked long ago: “Every period has its great men, and if these are lacking, it invents them.” The apparatus was discovering that Stalin was the flesh of its flesh. He was a secondary figure in the October Revolution, narrow in vision, and a creature of the apparatus. Thus, in his whole mentality and outlook, Stalin embodied the views and aspirations of the rising layer of functionaries and administrators in the offices of the state, the trade unions and even the Communist Party.
These people had done quite well out of the Revolution, enjoyed certain privileges which, while very modest in comparison to the later life-style of the ruling caste, under the prevailing conditions of appalling misery, were important enough to set them apart from the masses. These functionaries – many of them recruited from the enemies of Bolshevism, Mensheviks, non-party elements and not a few tsarist officials – automatically gravitated to those elements in the ruling party who were closest to their outlook. In the ranks of the Bolsheviks there were many who, while sincerely devoted to the cause of socialism, were insufficiently steeped in the ideas and principles of Marxism. They were the notorious ‘committeemen’, the organisers, the Party practicos with their traditional contempt for theory and impatience with broad generalisations and inclination towards administrative solutions.
After the Revolution, there was a pressing need for able administrators to run the state. Many people were thrust into positions of responsibility without having the necessary preparation. Many of the best elements were killed in the civil war, and replaced by less able people. Once in positions of responsibility, they found themselves in close contact with the old tsarist officials who knew the ropes. Often it was difficult to know who was leading whom, as Lenin bitterly complained. The demobilisation of the Red Army after the civil war added to the problem. Although the Red Army had been thoroughly democratised, the low cultural level of the mass of peasant soldiers meant that many of the officers and NCOs had got used to the method of command. In the prevailing conditions of industrial collapse and the partial atomisation of the proletariat, the working class was no longer able to exercise the same degree of control. Gradually, the state apparatus slipped out of control.
It would be naïve to imagine that Stalin, previously unknown to the masses, suddenly issued from the wings fully armed with a complete strategic plan. No indeed. Before he felt out his own course, the bureaucracy felt out Stalin himself. He brought it all the necessary guarantees: prestige of an Old Bolshevik, a strong character, narrow vision, and close bonds with the political machine as the sole source of his influence. The success which fell upon him was a surprise at first to Stalin himself. It was the friendly welcome of the new ruling group, trying to free itself from the old principles and from the control of the masses, and having need of a reliable arbiter in its inner affairs. A secondary figure before the masses and in the events of the revolution, Stalin revealed himself as the indubitable leader of the Thermidorian bureaucracy, as first in its midst. ( Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 93.)
What was decisive here was the shift in the balance of class forces. The working class was exhausted and weakened by the years of war, revolution and civil war. The delay of the international revolution had a depressing effect on the Russian workers. On the other hand, the rising layer of bureaucrats increasingly felt themselves masters of the situation. The theory of socialism in one country was merely the ideological expression of a petty bourgeois reaction against October, which arose from the vague yearning of these elements for an end to the storm and stress of the revolution, for order which would allow them to get on with the tasks of administering society – from above. When a worker would occasionally protest against the arrogant behaviour of the officials, he would be asked ironically: “What year do you think this is? 1919?”
Even if Lenin had lived, it would not have made a fundamental difference. It required a favourable turn in the objective situation to alter the balance of forces within the party. It is entirely false, superficial, and, in fact, stupid, to believe that such a profound historical transformation could be explained in terms of the supposed cleverness or otherwise of intriguers at the top. This is merely a variant of the conspiracy theory of history, which has nothing in common with Marxism, which explains history in terms of the struggle between classes. As Trotsky explained: “Numerous critics, publicists, correspondents, historians, biographers, and sundry amateur sociologists have lectured the Left Opposition from time to time on the errors of its ways, saying that the strategy of the Left Opposition was not feasible from the point of view of the struggle for power. However, the very approach to the question was incorrect. The Left Opposition could not achieve power, and did not hope even to do so – certainly not its most thoughtful leaders.
A struggle for power by the Left Opposition, by a revolutionary Marxist organisation, was conceivable only under the conditions of a revolutionary upsurge. Under such conditions the strategy is based on aggression, on direct appeal to the masses, on frontal attack against the government. Quite a few members of the Left Opposition had played no minor part in a struggle and had first-hand knowledge of how to wage it. But during the early twenties and later, there was no revolutionary upsurge in Russia, quite the contrary. Under such circumstances, it was out of the question to launch a struggle for power. (Trotsky, Stalin, p. 403.)
 Prior to the creation of the USSR, the Federation was known as the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic (RSFSR).
 The United Opposition was formed in 1926 between Trotsky’s Left Opposition and the supporters of Zinoviev and Kamenev.