The Revolution Betrayed – a Marxist masterpiece

This week Wellred Books, the publishing house of the IMT, is for the first time publishing The Revolution Betrayed by Leon Trotsky. Trotsky's masterful analysis of the Soviet Union, written during degeneration in the 1930s, provides both an excellent rebuttal to right-wing critiques of socialism "in practice" and many lessons for the success of future revolutions. We publish here Alan Woods' introduction to the new edition. Order your copy now from Wellred Books.

The Revolution Betrayed is one of the most important Marxist texts of all time. It is the only serious Marxist analysis of what happened to the Russian Revolution after the death of Lenin. Without a thorough knowledge of this work, it is impossible to understand the reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the events of the last ten years in Russia and on a world scale.

For Marxists, the October Revolution of 1917 was the greatest single event in human history. If we exclude the brief but glorious episode of the Paris Commune, for the first time the working class succeeded in overthrowing its oppressors and at least began the task of the socialist transformation of society.

As Trotsky points out in The Revolution Betrayed, for the first time the viability of socialism was demonstrated, not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, coal, electricity and cement. The nationalised planned economy established by the October Revolution succeeded in a remarkably short time in transforming an economy as backward as Pakistan today into the second most powerful nation on earth.

The Bolshevik Revolution has therefore been completely justified by history. However, the Revolution took place not in an advanced capitalist country, as Marx had expected, but in semi-feudal tsarist Russia, on the basis of the most frightful backwardness. To give an approximate idea of the conditions that confronted the Bolsheviks, it is sufficient to point out that in just one year, 1920, six million people starved to death in Soviet Russia.

Material conditions for socialism

Marx and Engels explained long ago that socialism - a classless society - requires material conditions in order to exist. The starting point of socialism must be a higher point of development of the productive forces than the most advanced capitalist society (the USA for instance). Only on the basis of a highly developed industry, agriculture, science and technology is it possible to guarantee the conditions for the free development of human beings, starting with a drastic reduction in the working day: the prior condition for the participation of the working class in the democratic control and administration of society.

Engels pointed out that in any society in which art, science and government is the monopoly of a minority, that minority will use and abuse its position in its own interests. Lenin was quick to see the danger of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Revolution in conditions of general backwardness. In State and Revolution, written in 1917, he worked out the basic conditions - not for socialism or communism - but for the first period after the Revolution, the transitional period between capitalism and socialism. These were:

1) Free and democratic elections and the right of recall for all officials.

2) No official to receive a wage higher than a skilled worker.

3) No standing army but the armed people.

4) Gradually, all the tasks of running the state to be carried out in turn by the workers: when everybody is a "bureaucrat" in turn, nobody is a bureaucrat.

This is a finished programme of workers' democracy. It is directly aimed against the danger of bureaucracy. This in turn formed the basis of the 1919 Party Programme. In other words, contrary to the calumnies of the enemies of socialism, Soviet Russia in the time of Lenin and Trotsky was the most democratic regime in history.

However, the regime of soviet workers' democracy established by the October Revolution could not survive under conditions of appalling material privation and cultural backwardness. After Lenin’s death there was a process of regression. The bureaucrats who had been cowed by the mass movement of the workers, gradually reasserted themselves, elbowing aside the exhausted workers and raising themselves above society as a new privileged ruling caste.

By the early 1930s, all the above-mentioned points of Lenin’s programme had been abolished. Under Stalin, the workers' state suffered a process of bureaucratic degeneration which ended in the establishment of a monstrous totalitarian regime and the physical annihilation of the Leninist Party. The way in which this political counter-revolution took place was explained by Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed.

A new phenomenon

In 1936, the phenomenon of Stalinism was entirely new and unexpected. It was not explained or even anticipated in the classical texts of Marx and Engels. In his last writings, Lenin expressed his concern about the rise of bureaucracy in the Soviet state, which he warned could destroy the regime of October. But Lenin thought that the prolonged isolation of the Russian workers' state would inevitably lead to capitalist restoration. This eventually occurred, but after a period of seven decades, during which the Soviet workers lost political power and the democratic regime established by the Bolsheviks in 1917 was transformed into a monstrous bureaucratic and totalitarian caricature. Only the nationalised property forms and planned economy established by the revolution remained.

In The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky provided a brilliant and profound analysis of Stalinism from the Marxist standpoint. His analysis has never been improved upon, let alone superseded. With a delay of 60 years, it has been completely vindicated by history. Trotsky warned that the Bureaucracy was placing the nationalised planned economy and the Soviet Union in danger. In reply, he was subjected to an unparalleled campaign of vilification by the "friends of the Soviet Union".

Today, all those so-called Communists and fellow travellers who sang the praises of Stalin and ridiculed Trotsky should hang their heads in shame. Most of them have deserted the camp of Communism and Socialism altogether. The few that still formally adhere to Communism have nothing to say about what has happened to the Soviet Union. Not one of them can provide a Marxist analysis of the collapse of the USSR. But this is precisely what the new generation (and the best of the old generation also) are insistently demanding. They will find no answer to their questions from their leaders. But in the pages of The Revolution Betrayed they will find that Trotsky not only predicted the outcome sixty years in advance, but analyses it and explains it from a Marxist standpoint.

Bureaucracy undermined the Soviet economy

Nowadays the enemies of socialism try to maintain that the collapse of the USSR was the result of the failure of the nationalised planned economy, and that the latter is inseparable from a bureaucratic and dictatorial regime. This argument was answered by Trotsky in advance, when explained that a nationalised planned economy needs democracy as the human body needs oxygen.

With the aid of a wealth of facts, figures and statistics, Trotsky shows how the Soviet Union, on the basis of a nationalised planned economy, created a colossal productive potential, but was unable to use it because of its inherent contradictions. The needs of the nationalised planned economy were in complete contradiction to the bureaucratic regime of Stalinism. This was always the case. Even in the period of the first Five-Year Plans, when it still played a relatively progressive role in developing the means of production, the Bureaucracy was responsible for colossal waste. Trotsky said that they developed the means of production, but at three times the cost of capitalism. This contradiction did not disappear with the development of the economy, but, on the contrary, grew ever more unbearable until eventually the system broke down completely.

The productive forces of Russia were artificially constrained by the bureaucratic system. They had developed to a tremendous extent thanks to the nationalised planned economy, but were effectively sabotaged by bureaucratic mismanagement, waste, corruption and inefficiency. The only way the problem could have been solved was through the democratic control and administration of the working class, as Lenin had intended. This could have been achieved on the basis of the advanced economy that existed in the 1980s.

But the bureaucracy had no intention of going down that road. On the contrary, rather than hand control to the working class, the bureaucratic overlords preferred to return to capitalism. The movement towards capitalism did not arise from any economic necessity, but out of fear of the working class, and as a way to safeguard the power and privilege of the ruling caste. Trotsky had already warned that the bureaucrats would not be satisfied with their enormous privileges, luxurious cars, dachas and servants. Because all this was based upon state property, they could not pass these things on to their children. Sooner or later, therefore, they would seek to transform state property into private property. And that was just what occurred. 

Role of the 'Communist Party'

What strikes one is the brilliant way in which Trotsky anticipated the main lines of what took place in Russia since 1989. However, in certain respects, events have unfolded differently to what he expected. In the 1930s Trotsky was convinced that a capitalist counterrevolution could only come about as a result of civil war. He wrote: "The October Revolution has been betrayed by the ruling stratum, but not yet overthrown. It has a great power of resistance, coinciding with the established property relations, with the living force of the proletariat, the consciousness of its best elements, the impasse of world capitalism, and the inevitability of world revolution." (Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 252.)

This did not occur. The capitalist counterrevolution was carried out with only a minimum of resistance.  However, this is not the first time in history that a profound social transformation has occurred without civil war. There have been times when a given regime has so exhausted itself that it fell without a fight, like a rotten apple. One example is what occurred in Hungary in 1919 when the bourgeois government of Count Karolyi collapsed and handed power to the Communist Party.

Something similar happened in Eastern Europe in 1989. The Stalinist regimes were so demoralised that they gave up without a fight. In Poland, Jaruzelski just handed over power to the opposition. All of this did not occur without the intervention of the masses, who, incidentally, did not want a capitalist restoration. But in the absence of the subjective factor, the pro-capitalist elements were able to fill the vacuum and derail the movement on capitalist lines. This was done with the aid of the “Communist” leaders who transformed themselves into capitalists and the owners of the means of production.

How can one explain such a monstrosity? In reality, the Stalinist CPSU was not a Communist Party at all, but a bureaucratic club, with a membership of millions. It was an extension of the state, composed overwhelmingly of careerists and stooges, aimed at controlling the working class and subordinating it to the ruling caste. Possession of a Party card was not, as in Lenin's day, a pledge to a life of sacrifice and struggle for the cause of the working class, but a passport for a career. For every honest worker who joined the Party, there were a hundred careerists, toadies, informers and strike-breakers. The role of a Party member was not to defend the working class, but to defend the Bureaucracy against the working class.

It is necessary to underline that what failed in Russia was not socialism. The regime established by the Stalinist political counter-revolution after the death of Lenin was not socialism, and not even a workers' state in the sense understood by Marx and Lenin. It was a hideously deformed caricature of a workers' state - to use Trotsky's scientific terminology, a regime of proletarian Bonapartism. After generations of totalitarian rule, the privileged élite was completely corrupted.

Like the Thermidorian reactionaries in the French Revolution, the old Stalinist leaders were ignorant, cynical and crude upstarts. But at least they had some links with the working class and socialism. But after many decades in power, the ruling caste degenerated completely. In the end it was composed of the children and grandchildren of privileged officials, people who had not the remotest connection with the real ideas and traditions of October. In the moment of truth, these creatures went over to capitalism with the same ease with which a man passes from a second class to a first class compartment on a train.

Overnight, the seemingly powerful and monolithic "Communist" Party of the Soviet Union collapsed like a house of cards. When it became clear that the days of the Soviet Union were numbered, the first to jump from the sinking ship and embrace capitalism were the leaders of the "Communist Party" itself, headed by Boris Yeltsin. They fell over themselves in their haste to distribute the fruits of power to their families, friends and cronies, plundering the state and transforming themselves into billionaires. Compared to this, the betrayal of the leaders of the Social Democracy in 1914 was child's play.

“Real socialism”?

This colossal betrayal cannot be understood if one accepts the idea that what existed in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was "real socialism", as the CP leaders maintained for decades. The collapse of the Soviet Union was in reality the result of decades of bureaucratic degeneration. At a time when the Moscow bureaucracy was boasting about "building socialism" the USSR was in fact moving away from socialism. And, as Trotsky predicted in 1936, the ruling caste of officials would not be satisfied with their privileges and high salaries, but would want to secure their position and that of their children, by turning state property into private property. This was inevitable, unless the working class overthrew the bureaucracy and returned to the Leninist policy of workers' democracy and internationalism. In the end, it was exactly what happened.

Out of the 20 million members that were in it, only a mere 500,000 remained to form the CPRF. But this party also had nothing in common with communism except the name. Having been separated from the state, the leaders of the CPRF presented a semi-opposition to Yeltsin and the openly bourgeois wing, but in practice, they accepted capitalism and the market, and their opposition had the character of pure ritual and token. The same can be said of the leaders of the official trade unions (the FNPR). Thus, the colossal anger, bitterness and frustration of the masses found no organised expression. Lacking the necessary vehicle to express itself, the discontent of the masses was dissipated, like steam without a piston-box.

Trotsky had pointed out that whereas revolution is the locomotive of history, reactionary regimes - especially totalitarian regimes such as Stalinism - act as a colossal brake on human consciousness. To an extent which even we did not appreciate, Stalin had succeeded in utterly destroying the old traditions of October. The physical extermination of the Leninist Old Guard and the Left Opposition left the proletariat leaderless. The decades of falsification and the suppression of Trotsky's writings in the USSR destroyed the last vestiges of the democratic and internationalist traditions of Bolshevism. One by one, those workers who had survived the nightmare of Stalinism died out, leaving a colossal vacuum, with nothing to fill it. In the moment of truth, the proletariat was left without leadership, to face the capitalist onslaught.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and of the so-called Communist Party, after decades of Stalinist rule, caused tremendous confusion and disorientation. Having been fed on a diet of lies and falsification for decades, lies manufactured by a gigantic propaganda machine that taught people to believe that socialism and communism had found their highest expression in a totalitarian regime, dominated by a corrupt and degenerate caste of bureaucrats, the consciousness of the masses had been thrown far back. When the regime finally collapsed - as Trotsky had brilliantly predicted in the pages of The Revolution Betrayed - the masses were caught by surprise and unable to react. Some even had illusions in capitalism, on the assumption that things could hardly be any worse. However, these illusions did not withstand the test of experience.

A regime of decline

Trotsky wrote in The Revolution Betrayed: “The fall of the present bureaucratic dictatorship, if it were not replaced by a new socialist power, would thus mean a return to capitalist relations with a catastrophic decline of industry and culture." (Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, pp. 250-1.)

These prophetic words accurately predicted what has happened in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. Marx explained that the only way in which a given socio-economic system can maintain itself is by developing the means of production. From the standpoint of Marxist theory of history, a new ruling class - under any socio-economic system - can only emerge and establish itself on condition that it develops the means of production. The reason for the collapse of Stalinism was that it was no longer able to achieve growth rates higher than the advanced capitalist economies. In the so-called period of stagnation, under Brezhnev, the bureaucracy did not develop the means of production at all. This meant that it was doomed.

But has the capitalist counterrevolution brought any improvement? On the contrary, the restoration of capitalism has brought economic crises, unemployment, falling living standards for the majority and obscene wealth for a handful of oligarchs, their families and their hangers-on. It has brought to the Russian people all the blessings of the “free market”: prostitution, crime, the Orthodox Church, anti-Semitism and racism of all kinds, Black Hundred xenophobia, drug addiction, the Mafia and levels of corruption that make the old Soviet bureaucrats look like paragons of virtue by contrast.

Quite apart from the disastrous human consequences, the Russian bourgeoisie has not developed the economy. It has benefitted from Russia’s vast resources of oil and gas, but it has systematically looted the economy, making fortunes out of plundering the state. Putin sits at the apex of a corrupt bureaucratic-oligarchic regime that is bigger and more parasitic than that of the Soviet Union. It is a gangster regime, headed by a gangster with a gangster’s mentality. This is not progress but a monstrous regression.

The stage is set for a convulsive period of Russia's history. At present Putin’s regime seems to be solid. But in reality it resembles the hut on chicken’s legs of the Russian fable. The destiny of Russia is still not decided by history. The decisive question is the economy, which is facing increasing difficulties. More and more people are saying: “Despite everything, things were better in the Soviet Union.” The fumes of nationalism will eventually be blown away and the regime will enter into crisis.

There is already a ferment of discontent in the middle classes. But the key question is, as always, the working class. Once the proletariat begins to move, it can sweep all before it. The Russian proletariat has a long and glorious revolutionary tradition. They will rediscover it in the course of struggle. Of course, this process would be far quicker and more effective if a genuine mass Leninist current were present. But they will learn anyway.

The Russia of today is not the backward, semi-peasant Russia of the 1920s. It has a powerful industrial base and an educated and cultured working class, which is the overwhelming majority of society. The material basis exists for a rapid advance in the direction of socialism. Only a regime of real workers' democracy, along the lines of 1917, can provide Russia with a way out of the present impasse. A new October would transform the whole world situation far more quickly and radically than the ten days that shook the world in 1917. The way would be open for the victory of socialism, not only in Russia but on a world scale.

London 26th May 2015.