Tony Cliff

Trotsky: The darker the night the brighter the star

3. Trotsky’s reaction to the Five-Year Plan

Trotsky on the triangle of party forces: Left, Centre and Right

SINCE 1923 Trotsky had brilliantly analysed the prospects of development in Russia. His predictions were completely confirmed by events. He was able to achieve this because he possessed a clear class analysis of the three key groups in society – workers, peasants and bureaucrats. Already in the autumn of 1926 he had foreseen that as soon as the Left was smashed there would be a differentiation in the Stalin camp between a Centre and a Right. He even named names, placing Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky in a right wing group, struggling with the Stalin faction including Molotov, Kaganovich, Mikoyan and Kirov (though he was wrong to include Uglanov).

Trotsky predicted correctly that the NEP would lead to an economic, social and political impasse, that the lag of industry and strengthening of the kulaks and NEPmen would endanger the survival of the Soviet regime. He was also right when he predicted that this would lead to a sharpening conflict between the Right and the Centre in the leadership.

However, we shall show that from 1928 onwards Trotsky’s predictions proved wrong almost without exception. We shall also try to explain why this was so.

Trotsky argued repeatedly that in the conflict between the Centre (Stalin) and the Right (Bukharin) Stalin was bound to lose.

Thus in his article, At a New Stage, written in late December 1927, Trotsky wrote about what he called Stalin’s ‘Left manoeuvre’.

The Fourteenth Congress was the apogee of the party apparatus and, along with it, of Stalin. The Fifteenth Congress revealed an already substantial rightward shift of forces ...

The most likely thing is that in the event of a further aggravation of the economic situation, the line taken by the right, which was foreseen quite correctly in the Platform of the Opposition, will triumph

Even a left manoeuvre would not save Stalin.

On matters of tax policy, the rights of factory administrators, credit policy, especially in the village, etc., etc., pressure will ... be exerted from the right. The Stalin apparatus will run up against this pressure very soon and will reveal its impotence in the face of it ...

The left manoeuvres will not save Stalin’s policy; the tail will hit the head. [1]

On 23 May 1928, in a letter to Aleksandr Belobrodov in Ust-Kulon, Trotsky explained why his prediction in the article At a New Stage of a move to the right did not take place.

At a New Stage speaks of a rather imminent economic shift to the right under the pressure of aggravated difficulties. It turned out that the next shift was to the left. This means that we ourselves underestimated the good, strong wedge we had driven in. Yes, it was precisely our wedge that has made it impossible for them, at this particular time, to seek a way out of the contradictions on the right path. There can be no doubt (only a blockhead could doubt this now) that if all our previous work had not existed – our analyses, predictions, criticism, exposés, and ever newer predictions – a sharp turn to the right would have occurred under the pressure of the grain collections crisis. [2]

In a circular letter of 26 May 1928, directed against those Oppositionists who capitulated to Stalin, believing that the left turn made the Opposition superfluous, Trotsky dealt with their anxiety thus:

Without the preceding work of criticism and warnings, which have now been tested against the facts, the blow of the tail to the head – the grain collections, etc. – would have produced an inevitable shift to the right. We averted this at very great cost. For long? That is entirely unclear. The main difficulties, both foreign and domestic, are ahead.

... the party will still have need of us, and very great need at that. Don’t be nervous that ‘everything will be done without us’. [3]

Trotsky advocated support for the left turn, arguing that this would open the sluices for the reform of the party.

Are we ready to support the present official turn? We are, unconditionally, and with all our forces and resources. Do we think that this turn increases the chances of reforming the party without great upheavals? We do. Are we ready to assist in precisely this process? We are, completely and to the utmost of our ability. [4]

But the Opposition had to keep its independence.

While supporting against the right every step of the center toward the left, the Opposition should (and will) criticize the complete insufficiency of such steps and the lack of guarantees in the entire present turn, since it continues to be carried out on the basis of orders from on high and does not really emanate from the party. The Opposition will uncompromisingly continue to reveal to the party the immense dangers resulting from the inconsistency, the lack of theoretical reflection, and the political contradictoriness of the present course, which is still based on the bloc of the center with the right against the left wing.

... A continued fight for the ideas and proposals expressed in the Platform is the only correct, serious, and honest way to support every step by the center that is at all progressive. [5]

This was a source of optimism for the victory of the Opposition.

... the right-centrist policies have reached an impasse; ... the soil will become more and more receptive to our seed. Of course, this process will still have its ups and downs. But one thing is clear: even a few cadres – if they are armed with a clear understanding of the situation in its entirety, if they are imbued with an understanding of their historical mission, and if, at the same time, they know how or are able to learn how to march in step with the progressive movements in the party masses and the working class – given the inevitable future crises of the situation, such cadres can play a decisive role. [6]

After the July 1928 Plenum of the Central Committee, in which Stalin made concessions to the Right, to Bukharin, Trotsky’s optimism about the imminence of the victory of the Left increased.

On 19 October Stalin delivered a speech to the Moscow Committee and the Moscow Control Commission entitled The Right Danger in the CPSU(b). [7] Trotsky’s comment on the speech was that Stalin’s campaign against the Right was half-hearted and sham. Its inconsistency would allow great opportunities to the Bolshevik-Leninists. On 25 February 1929, just weeks before Stalin crushed the Rights and finally consolidated his dictatorial power over all wings of the party, Trotsky wrote: ‘Thus Stalin’s half-hearted policies have developed in a series of zigzags, with the consequence that the two wings of the party, left and right, have grown stronger – at the expense of the centre faction.’ [8]

Trotsky fundamentally misread the situation regarding what he called the Right (Bukharin) and Centre (Stalin) when he declared on 24 April 1929 that Stalin was fighting the Right under the whip of the Left Opposition, and that Stalin was inherently incapable of smashing the Right.

... under the Opposition’s lash the Stalinist apparatus is tossing from side to side and thus making the party think and make comparisons. Never has policy in the USSR turned to such an extent round the ideas of the Opposition as now, when the leaders of the Opposition are in jail or exiled ... Stalin is fighting the Right under the lash of the Opposition. He is fighting that fight as a centrist, compelled by means of splits on the right and left to ensure his intermediate position both from the proletarian line and from the openly opportunist. This zigzag fight of Stalin in the last analysis only strengthens the Right. The party can be protected from shocks and splits only by a revolutionary position. [9]

Eight months later, on 4 January 1930, Trotsky argued that the moment of victory of the Left Opposition was near, as Stalin would need it to rebut the threat from Bukharin and Co.

... at the moment of danger the Oppositionists would be in the foremost positions ... in the hour of Stalin’s difficulty, the latter would call on them as Tseretelli had called on the Bolsheviks for aid against Kornilov. [10]

Why Trotsky’s predictions proved wrong

IT WAS not Bukharin or Trotsky who came out victorious, but Stalin; the ‘Centre’ did not collapse under the pressure of the Left or the Right. History did not choose between the proletariat on the one hand and the kulaks and NEPmen on the other.

Trotsky did not make a mistake in his characterisation of the politics of the Right nor of the Left, but he completely misunderstood the third element, the Stalinist bureaucracy. Trotsky extrapolated from the experience of the bureaucracy which he well knew – that of the trade unions and Social Democratic parties – to the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia.

The Stalinist bureaucracy was very different from the trade union bureaucracy in the West. The latter mediates between the ruling class – those who own the means of production – and the workers who are ‘free’ of means of production. The trade union bureaucracy cannot become a class for itself because it lacks that which defines classes – a relation to the means of production. So it does follow a zigzag, ‘Centrist’ path. However, the Soviet bureaucracy was in direct control of considerable means of production, and now, in 1928-29, a section of it was prepared to act independently, not only of the workers, but also of the kulaks and NEPmen who also owned means of production. Once the Stalinist bureaucracy smashed the Left Opposition, the proletarian vanguard, it was not going to give up the fruits of victory to the kulaks and NEPmen. Brutally suppressing the working class and peasantry, the bureaucracy refused to give up its economic, social and political power.

As I wrote elsewhere:

... when Trotsky wrote about the bureaucracy his terms of reference were the bureaucracy of the trade unions; and Social Democratic parties. This labour movement bureaucracy balances between the two main classes in capitalist society – the employers and the workers. Its behaviour is characterised above all by vacillation; moving, now to the left under pressure from the working class, now to the right under pressure from the capitalists Similarly Trotsky characterised the Stalinist bureaucracy as ‘centrist’, vacillating between the pressure of the Russian working class and the aspirant bourgeoisie of NEPmen and kulaks. His expectation and fear was that Stalin would capitulate to the right. His hope, and all his efforts, were directed to this end, that pressure from the working class and the left could prevent this capitulation. In the event neither Trotsky’s fear nor his hope materialised. Instead the Stalinist bureaucracy moved against both the left (Trotsky, the ‘United Opposition’, etc.) and the right (Bukharin, Rykov, Tomsky, etc.) in quick succession. In the space of a couple of years the bureaucracy completely crushed the workers, the kulaks and the peasantry as a whole, and emerged as the sole political power in Russia with Stalin at its head as personal dictator.

The Stalin faction was able to do this because it was fundamentally different from the trade union bureaucracy under capitalism. In a society where the state is already the principal repository of the means of production and the bourgeoisie has been decisively smashed and expropriated (as the Russian bourgeoisie was in 1917-18) a state bureaucracy which frees itself completely from control by the working class (as the Stalinist bureaucracy did in the years 1923-28) becomes the de facto owner and controller of those means of production and the employer of the workers. In short it becomes a new exploiting class. [11]

It was with the inauguration of the Five-Year Plan that the Stalinist bureaucracy was transformed from a stratum mediating between the proletariat and the peasantry into a ruling class. [12]

Trotsky did not foresee the possibility that Stalin could both ‘send NEP to hell’ – liquidating the kulaks and peasant farming in general – while at the same time strangling the proletariat. To Trotsky the two actions looked irreconcilable. Trotsky again and again warned that the Stalinist clique would follow in the footsteps of the Thermidorean Jacobins. He overlooked the fact that the Stalinist bureaucracy had a weapon at its disposal that the Jacobins did not have: the entire economy of the country. Master of all the key means of production, the bureaucracy was becoming the ruling class, the master of society. Trotsky’s assumption that the Stalinist bureaucracy could be defeated by the kulaks – that ‘the tall will hit the head’ – completely contradicted Trotsky’s own long head view on the nature of the peasantry. In 1906 Trotsky wrote: ‘Historical experience shows that the peasantry are absolutely incapable of taking up an independent political role ... The history of capitalism is the history of the subordination of the country to the town.’ [13] How could the atomised, dispersed peasantry beat the highly centralised state bureaucracy? In a conflict between the two, the peasantry was bound to lose.

Trotsky’s scheme, Bukharin = Right, Stalin = Centre, Trotsky = Left, seemed to fit the years 1923-28, but was completely out of joint afterwards. If by Left one means nearer to the working class, its needs and aspirations – then Stalin was to the Left of Bukharin in the mid-1920s, but was far to the right after 1928. It was not that Bukharin had changed, but that Stalin had – because of his new social position. This is brought out by a comparison with another right-winger – Tomsky. As the leader of the trade unions he was still dependent on the existence of unions. Stalin, by contrast, completely integrated the unions into the state, and abolished every vestige of their independence after 1928/29. The attitude of the Bukharin-Tomsky Right to the workers was very much like that of the Labour bureaucracy towards workers in the West. With the Five-Year Plan Stalin’s treatment of Russian workers was closer to that pursued by Hitler against the German proletariat.

Stalin’s policies had undergone a qualitative transformation which in class terms put him far to the right of both Trotsky and Bukharin, neither of whom had fundamentally changed their positions.

The Left Opposition was a wing of Bolshevism; Bukharin and Co. were also a wing of Bolshevism – a most conservative wing. Stalin was the gravedigger of Bolshevism. His position contrasted with that of even the most prominent ‘Right’ – Bukharin, who, as Donny Gluckstein writes, stopped short of counter-revolution:

As the revolution became distorted, Bukharin, who had excellently expressed the finest traditions of that revolution, continued to be a mouthpiece, but this time for its degeneration. He became an active factor in rationalising and furthering that process, both in the USSR itself and through the Comintern. But, unlike Stalin, he stopped short of the final step of betraying and destroying the revolution, and for this he paid the ultimate penalty. [14]

Trotsky’s attitude to collectivisation and the industrialisation drive

TROTSKY’S FALSE estimate of collectivisation and industrialisation under the Five-Year Plan followed from an underestimation of the Stalinist bureaucracy’s independence vis-à-vis both the proletariat and the peasantry.

Trotsky argued that the Left Opposition played a crucial role in the turn towards collectivisation and industrialisation. Thus in a pamphlet, Problems of the Development of the USSR (4 April 1931) he wrote:

The experience of the whole post-Lenin period bears testimony to the incontestable influence of the Left Opposition upon the course of development of the USSR. All that was creative in the official course – and has remained creative – was a belated echo of the ideas and slogans of the Left Opposition ...

The power of this criticism, despite the numerical weakness of the left wing, lies in general here the power of Marxism lies: in the ability to analyse, to foresee ...

The faction of the Bolshevik-Leninists is consequently even now one of the most important factors in the development of the theory and practice of socialist construction in the USSR and of the international proletarian revolution. [15]

In January 1932 Trotsky wrote with great enthusiasm about the Five-Year Plan:

The development of the productive forces of the Soviet Union is the most colossal phenomenon of contemporary history. The gigantic advantage of a planned leadership has been demonstrated with a force which nothing can ever refute. [16]

This major economic development weakened the base of the bureaucracy, Trotsky argued in an interview with the New York Times on 15 February 1932:

The economic successes, it is needless to say, have greatly strengthened the Soviet Union. At the same time they have greatly weakened the position of Stalin’s official apparatus ... [An] ... important cause of the weakening of the Soviet bureaucracy lies in the fact that the economic successes have greatly elevated not only the number of Russian workers, but also their cultural level, their confidence in their own powers, and their feeling of independence. All these traits are hard to reconcile with bureaucratic guardianship. [17]

In an interview with Associated Press on 26 February 1932 Trotsky said:

In spite of everything that many newspapers write, the personal position of Stalin and his limited group is tottering precariously. The economic and cultural successes of the Soviet Union have considerably aroused the self-confidence of the working class and, at the same time, its criticism of the bureaucratic regime which Stalin personifies. [18]

This was written at a time that the working class of the USSR had been massively weakened by repression, by being flooded with rural recruits lacking traditions of working class struggle, and atomised by ‘socialist competition’!

Trotsky was full of praise for the collectivisation and industrialisation drive, although very critical of the methods Stalin used to carry it out. However much one can, and should, criticise Stalin’s policy, Trotsky argued, one had to make it clear that the workers and peasants were doing far better under him than they would under capitalism. In a letter of 28 January 1928, Trotsky wrote:

Even with an opportunist leadership, the Soviet state gives the workers and peasants immeasurably more than a bourgeois state would at the same level of development of the productive forces. [19]

Trotsky repeated this in a letter to Lev Sosnovsky of 5 March 1928:

... the Soviet government is doing immeasurably more for the working class than any bourgeois government could or would do, given the same general level of wealth of the country ...

The workers of a bourgeois Russia, with productive forces at the same level, would never have had a living standard as high as they have now, despite all the mistakes, miscalculations, and departures from the correct line. [20]

In an article entitled Towards Capitalism or Socialism? of 25 April 1930, Trotsky wrote:

... at the head of the country is a government that, whatever its faults, is trying by all means to raise the material and cultural level of the peasants. The interests of the working class – still the ruling class of the country whatever the changes that have taken place in the structure of the revolutionary society – lie in the same direction. [21]

This was written at a time when real wages in Russia were cut by half!

At the same time Trotsky was arguing that Stalin was going to encourage the rise of the kulaks in the future. Collectivisation would not eliminate this, but, on the contrary, would give the kulaks a new social base. Thus, in an article entitled The New Course in the Soviet Economy (13 February 1930), he wrote:

... the day after the official liquidation of the kulaks as a class,’ i.e., after the confiscation of the property of ‘named kulaks’ and their deportation, the Stalinist bureaucracy will declare the kulaks within the collective farms to be progressive or ‘civilised cooperators’ ... The collectives may become, in this case, only a new form of social and political disguise for the kulaks. [22]

Two years later Trotsky repeated the same argument about the kulaks being restored.

The newspapers are continuing to bluster about the liquidation of the kulaks as a class, but the practical measures of the economic policy are unavoidably preparing the conditions for the restorations of the kulaks as a class. [23]

Now, not only will the kulaks in the village accumulate capital but the Nepman in the city will also, and a new process of social differentiation will arise. [24]

Trotsky’s sharp criticism of Stalin’s management of the economy

HOWEVER, despite these errors and illusions, Trotsky never ceased to criticise, in sharp terms, the bureaucratic mismanagement of the Soviet economy. The art of planning, he stressed, demands first of all, harmonious development of all elements in the economy. Workers’ democracy is crucial to it. The arbitrariness of the Stalinist bureaucracy brought about massive disproportions between different branches of the economy, different enterprises that depended on one another, and so on. In an article entitled The Soviet Economy in Danger (22 October 1932), Trotsky wrote:

Centralized management implies not only great advantages but also the danger of centralizing mistakes, that is, of elevating them to an excessively high degree. Only continuous regulation of the plan in the process of its fulfilment, its reconstruction in part and as a whole, can guarantee its economic effectiveness.

The art of socialist planning does not drop from heaven nor is it presented full-blown into one’s hands with the conquest of power. This art may be mastered only by struggle, step by step, not by a few but by millions, as a component part of the new economy and culture. [25]

Democracy is not an extra for real economic planning, but its alpha and omega.

The innumerable living participants in the economy, state and private, collective and individual, must serve notice of their needs and of their relative strength not only through the statistical determination of plan commissions but by the direct pressure of supply and demand. The plan is checked and, to a considerable degree, realized through the market. The regulation of the market itself must depend upon the tendencies that are brought out through its mechanism. The blueprints produced by the departments must demonstrate their economic efficacy through commercial calculation.

... The struggle between living interests, as the fundamental factor of planning, leads us into the domain of politics, which is concentrated economics. The instruments of the social groups of Soviet society are – should be: the Soviets, the trade unions, the cooperatives, and in the first place the ruling party. Only through the inter-reaction of these three elements, state planning, the market, and Soviet democracy, can the correct direction of the economy of the transitional epoch be attained. [26]

Trotsky also opposed the policy of economic national self-sufficiency, of autarky, arguing that it much more fitted Hitlerism than socialism. As a matter of fact, the Soviet economy under Stalin became more and more autarkic, as is clear from the following table:

USSR: Share of Exports
in National Income,























Trotsky made it clear in all his writings that for him the working class should not be the object of economic planning but its subject. The improvement of workers’ living standards and their role in the economy, society and state, were the criteria for advance. In the thesis, Problems of the Development of the USSR (4 April 1931), Trotsky wrote: ‘The living standard of the workers and their role in the state are the highest criteria of socialist successes.’

The problem of raising the political independence of the proletariat and its initiative in all fields must be put in the foreground of the whole policy. The genuine attainment of this aim is inconceivable without a struggle against the excessive privileges of individual groups and strata, against the extreme inequality of living conditions, and, above all, against the enormous prerogatives and favoured position of the uncontrolled bureaucracy. [28]

Thus there is no similarity at all between Trotsky’s concept of socialist planning and the actual bureaucratic command economy of Stalin that passed under the title of Plan.

The Shakhty Trial, the ‘Industrial Party’ Trial and the ‘Menshevik Centre’ Trial

IN MAY 1928, a trial was staged of a number of mining engineers of the administrative district of the town of Shakhty, with a big fanfare. They were accused of industrial sabotage. Reiman explains the background:

The equipment in the working mines was very old and worn out, the influx of new equipment totally inadequate. The Donbass had one of the highest accident rates in the USSR, including fatalities. The organization of production was grossly inadequate. Labour turnover was extremely high in the Donbass, and the skills of those working in the mines was correspondingly low. Alcoholism, fights, and knifings were very common. Because of the shortage of trained personnel, engineers and technicians were overburdened.

At the end of 1927, the Donbass was in a state of severe and nearly constant unrest. Labour disputes and wildcat strikes broke out again and again. [29]

Stalin wanted to direct workers’ discontent away from party and state leadership, towards a scapegoat, the engineers.

He undoubtedly understood that a major case involving ‘wrecking activity’ would reinforce an atmosphere supportive of the extraordinary measures and the use of force to overcome the economic crisis. [30]

Mass meetings to express public indignation occurred at virtually every factory, office, or other workplace. Much of this anger was genuine, reflecting the strained relations between workers and specialists ...

A lynch mob atmosphere directed against the technical intelligentsia had been created. Engineers and technicians in factories were called ‘Shakhtintsy’ or ‘Donbassovtsy’ (Shakhtyites or Donbass types). Their situation became extremely difficult, if not dangerous. The technique of solving social problems by repression had won new ground. Stalin now implied that ‘wrecking’ by old specialists was a major problem affecting the entire country; it was no longer just a regional matter. And, he argued, solving this problem was crucial to finding a fundamental solution to the economic difficulties. [31]

The trial opened on 18 May in the Hall of Columns of Moscow’s House of Trade Unions. It lasted about six weeks, until the beginning of July 1928. The special session of the Supreme Court of the RSFSR was chaired by Andrei Vyshinsky, rector of the First Moscow State University, a former Menshevik. This was the same Andrei Vyshinsky who would preside over the frame-up trials of the Old Bolsheviks later on in the 1930s.

There were 53 people in the dock. The court handed down eleven death sentences, six of which were ‘provisional’ and were later reduced by the Central Executive Committee. The five sentenced to death were executed immediately. Reiman comments:

The economic and social crisis in the USSR had borne its fruit. In addition to the use of force and administrative measures to solve social problems, methods that made their appearance very quickly from the beginning of 1928 on, a new element entered Soviet history; the public show trial ... The discontent of broad layers of the working class over the general situation in the country was now directed against the lower ranks of management. The centers of political power were raised above society and above their own apparatus, gaining greater room for maneuver and greater possibilities for arbitrary and oppressive rule. [32]

The Shakhty trial was followed by that of the ‘Industrial Party’ in November-December 1930, and the ‘Menshevik Centre’ trial in March 1931. All three were of the same type: frame-up trials in which the accused ‘confessed’ to heinous crimes.

In the case of the ‘Industrial Party’ trial there were eight defendants, all of whom had held responsible posts in Soviet economic and planning institutions during the 1920s. They were accused of having organised a ‘Council of the Allied Engineers’ Organisation’, which, according to the indictment, had ‘united in a single organisation all the different wrecking organisations in the various branches of industry, and acted not only in accordance with the orders of the international organisations of former Russian and foreign capitalists, but also in contact with, and upon direct instructions of the ruling circles and the general stall of France in preparing armed intervention and armed overthrow of the Soviet power’. They were also accused of having ties with the British General Staff. The defendants confessed to everything in the indictment, including sabotage in the principal industries, treasonable activities in the Red Army, espionage, etc. No evidence was introduced except the confessions. Five defendants were sentenced to death, the other three to ten years’ imprisonment. The death penalties were commuted to imprisonment.

In the trial of the ‘Menshevik Centre’ there were 14 defendants, among them N.N. Sukhanov and V. Groman. They were accused of economic sabotage and conspiracy with their emigré comrades. The charge was based on confessions. The Prosecutor alleged that the defendants had taken orders from R. Abramovich, the Menshevik émigré leader, and that the latter had come clandestinely to Russia to inspect the conspiratorial organisation. Abramovich was able to prove that at the time when, according to the Prosecutor, he was supposed to have travelled to Russia, he was present at sessions of the Executive of the Second International in Brussels, and spoke with Leon Blum, Vandervelde and other Social Democratic leaders on public platforms. Groman, former adviser to the State Planning Commission, confessed that it was he who had sought to subvert the First Five-Year Plan.

Underestimating the strength of the Stalinist bureaucracy and its independence from all sections of society, including bourgeois technicians. Trotsky justified all three trials. On 23 May 1928, in a letter to Aleksandr Belobrodov, he criticised the ‘bureaucracy who had organised or slept through the Shakhty affair’. [33] In November 1928, in an article, Crisis in the Right-Centre Bloc Trotsky wrote:

The Shakhty affair is eloquent not only of the incompetence and the bureaucratic spirit of the leadership, but also of the weak cultural and technical level of the workers of Shakhty, as well as their lack of socialist interest. Has anyone ever calculated what ‘socialist construction’ Shakhty cost? ... the Shakhty affair is not an exceptional one. It is only the most flagrant expression of bureaucratic irresponsibility above, and material and cultural backwardness and passivity below. [34]

What about the ‘Industrial Party’ trial? Trotsky writes:

... the indictment itself demonstrates without any doubt that in the period of its economic slowdown – up to 1928 – as well as in the period of its economic adventurism – beginning with the second half of 1928 – the Stalinist economic leadership acted under the dictation of the saboteurs’ center, that is, a gang of agents of international capital. [35]

Trotsky took the same position as regards the Menshevik trial. He wrote:

The Ramzins, the Osadchys and the Mensheviks have confessed. The question of knowing to what extent these confessions are sincere is not of great interest to us. It is, however, beyond doubt that the next trial will reveal the transgressions of the saboteurs guilty of the disruptive acceleration of disproportionate rates in the complete collectivization, in the administrative dekulakization; the trial will show that if the Menshevik economists in the years 1923-28 saw, and with reason, the path to the bourgeois degeneration of the Soviet system in the retardation of industrialization, many of them beginning in 1928 became veritable super-industrializers so as to prepare, by means of economic adventurism, the political downfall of the dictatorship of the proletariat. [36]

Eighteen months later Trotsky still drew the same conclusions from the trials:

The saboteurs of the last few years have ... occupied responsible posts of leadership in the economic apparatus. Their sabotage consisted in openly and publicly – with the approval of the Politburo – putting through programs which in essence were directed against socialist construction and the proletarian dictatorship ... The artificial speed-up of the rates of industrialization and collectivization can be just as much an act of sabotage as their artificial slowing-down. Symptoms of this are plain to be seen. [37]

Not until five years after the Mensheviks’ trial did Trotsky recognise that he had taken the wrong position regarding it. Now he wrote:

The editors of the Bulletin must acknowledge that at the time of the Menshevik trial they greatly underestimated the degree of shamelessness of Stalinist ‘justice’ and in light of this took too seriously the confessions of the former Mensheviks. [38]

Entangled in contradictions

AS WE have shown, Trotsky saw the Left Opposition as representing the interests of the proletariat, and the Right representing the kulaks and NEPmen. The Centre – Stalin – was viewed as hanging in mid-air, its apparent strength an illusion. The Centre was doomed to vacillate between the two basic class forces. Trotsky thought its vacillations, its zigzags, were bound to be in general far more to the right: one step to the left to be followed by two to the right. In the long term the centrist bureaucracy would be crushed by the proletariat or else by the kulaks and NEPmen.

Although these forecasts were not confirmed by actual developments, once the basic analysis was faulty, the explanation of actual developments was driven into greater and greater contradictions. One is reminded how the astronomers of the Ptolemaic school, assuming that the earth is the centre of the universe, were forced with every new discovery of the movement of planets into a more and more complicated explanation. Things became much simpler once the assumption about the centrality of the earth was removed. As we shall see – in the following seven pages – Trotsky’s theory about the developments in the USSR in the late 1920s and early 1930s is very messy and riddled with contradictions. To follow it is a very difficult task. The reader’s patience and forgiveness will be asked for in reading these pages.

To follow Trotsky’s analysis of the Stalinist reaction in the years after 1928 is painful, but it is necessary. It shows that even the greatest genius becomes entangled in contradictions if the basic assumptions are wrong.

For a long time Trotsky defined the Soviet state as a workers’ state. The proletariat could seize power from the hands of the Stalinist bureaucracy by way of reform and without a revolution because the bureaucracy was inherently weak and lacked a real independent basis. Thus in a letter of 11 November 1928 to V.G. Borodai, a member of the Democratic Centralist group, exiled to Timmen, Trotsky wrote:

... as the situation is now, the bourgeoisie could seize power only by the road of counter-revolutionary upheaval. As for the proletariat, it can regain full power, overhaul the bureaucracy, and put it under its control by the road of reform of the party and the soviets. These are the fundamental characteristics of the situation ...

Is the proletarian core of the party, assisted by the working class, capable of triumphing over the autocracy of the party apparatus, which is fusing with the state apparatus? Whoever replies in advance that it is incapable thereby speaks not only of the necessity of a new party on a new foundation but also of the necessity of a second and new proletarian revolution. [39]

If the proletariat was unable to seize power from the bureaucracy along the path of reform, it meant that the revolution had been liquidated, that the victory of Thermidor had been completed, and a new proletarian revolution was needed.

If the party is a corpse, a new party must be built on a new spot, and the working class must be told about it openly. If Thermidor is completed, and if the dictatorship of the proletariat is liquidated, the banner of the second proletarian revolution must be unfurled. That is how we would act if the road of reform, for which we stand, proved hopeless.

And Trotsky defined Thermidor as bourgeois restoration. Thus he wrote on 24 August 1929: ‘If Thermidor “has been completed”, this means that development in Russia has definitely taken the capitalist road.’ [40]

And on 7 September 1929, Trotsky elaborated further his views on the essence of Thermidor:

Thermidor signalizes the first victorious stage of the counter-revolution, that is, the direct transfer of power from the hands of one class into the hands of another, whereby this transfer, although necessarily accompanied by civil war, is nevertheless masked politically by the fact that the struggle occurs between the factions of a party that was yesterday united ... Thermidor ... indicates the direct transfer of power into the hands of a different class, after which the revolutionary class cannot regain power except through an armed uprising. [41]

Thermidor had not yet been victorious in Russia.

Thermidor signifies the transfer of power from the hands of the proletariat into the hands of the bourgeoisie. It can signify nothing else. If Thermidor has been accomplished, it means that Russia is a bourgeois state. [42]

The belief that Thermidor had not won, and the state apparatus was still dependent on the proletariat, was crucial to Trotsky’s definition of the Soviet regime as a workers’ state.

... despite everything the proletariat still possesses powers to exert pressure and ... the state apparatus still remains dependent on it. Upon this cardinal fact the Russian Opposition must continue to base its own policy, which is the policy of reform and not of revolution. [43]

What Trotsky wrote to Borodai he reiterated in his theses Problems of the Development of the USSR (4 April 1931):

The recognition of the present Soviet state as a workers’ state not only signifies that the bourgeoisie can conquer power only by means of an armed uprising but also that the proletariat of the USSR has not forfeited the possibility of subordinating the bureaucracy to it, of reviving the party again, and of regenerating the regime of the dictatorship without a new revolution, with the methods and on the road of reform. [44]

The reaction of the Stalinist leadership to the victory of Hitler in Germany demonstrated to Trotsky that it was not amenable to gradual reform. He came to a new view of the Soviet regime and the struggle against it. In an article entitled The Class Nature of the Soviet State (1 October 1933), he wrote:

After the experiences of the last few years, it would be childish to suppose that the Stalinist bureaucracy can be removed by means of a party or soviet congress. In reality, the last congress of the Bolshevik Party took place at the beginning of 1923, the Twelfth Party Congress. All subsequent congresses were bureaucratic parades. Today, even such congresses have been discarded. No normal ‘constitutional’ ways remain to remove the ruling clique. The bureaucracy can be compelled to yield power into the hands of the proletarian vanguard only by force.

It would be necessary to apply force against the bureaucracy; however, not the measures of civil war, but rather ‘measures of a police character.’ [45]

Even if Trotsky still underestimated the resistance of the bureaucracy – hence limiting the measures necessary to remove it – it was clear that he no longer envisaged the possibility of reforming the Soviet regime.

Now Trotsky changed his mind on: 1. The ability of the proletariat to exert pressure on the state apparatus and the party leadership; 2. The possibility of reforming the regime, and 3. The question of whether Thermidor had occurred. Yet still he clung to the conclusion that the Stalinist state was a workers’ state: hence he was constrained to change the definition of Thermidor and Bonapartism. In an article entitled The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism (1 February 1935), Trotsky argued that Thermidor had already won in Russia, but that this did not signify the transfer of power from one class, the proletariat, to another, the bourgeoisie, but only the transfer of power from one section of the proletariat to another.

In the internal controversies of the Russian and the International Opposition, we conditionally understood by Thermidor the first stage of the bourgeois counter-revolution, aimed against the social basis of the workers’ state.

Now Trotsky argued that this definition of Thermidor should be corrected:

The overturn of the Ninth Thermidor did not liquidate the basic conquests of the bourgeois revolution, but it did transfer the power into the hands of the more moderate and conservative Jacobins, the better-to-do elements of bourgeois society. Today it is impossible to overlook that in the Soviet revolution also a shift to the right took place a long time ago, a shift entirely analogous to Thermidor, although much slower in tempo and more masked in form ...

The smashing of the Left Opposition implied in the most direct and immediate sense the transfer of power from the hands of the revolutionary vanguard into the hands of the more conservative elements among the bureaucracy and the upper crust of the working class. The year 1924 – that was the beginning of the Soviet Thermidor ...

The Thermidor of the Great Russian Revolution is not before us but already far behind. The Thermidoreans can celebrate, approximately, the tenth anniversary of their victory.

Thermidor and Bonapartism had won in the USSR, but still the working class was the ruling class, we are told.

Carrying the policies of Thermidor further, Napoleon waged a struggle not only against the feudal world but also against the ‘rabble’ and the democratic circles of the petty and middle bourgeoisie; in this way he concentrated the fruits of the regime born out of the revolution in the hands of the new bourgeois aristocracy. Stalin guards the conquests of the October Revolution not only against the feudal-bourgeois counter-revolution but also against the claims of the toilers, their impatience and their dissatisfaction; he crushes the left wing that expresses the ordered historical and progressive tendencies of the unprivileged working masses; he creates a new aristocracy by means of an extreme differentiation in wages, privileges, ranks, etc. Leaning for support upon the topmost layer of the new social hierarchy against the lowest – sometimes vice versa – Stalin has attained the complete concentration of power in his own hands. What else should this regime be called if not Soviet Bonapartism?

Bonapartism, by its very essence, cannot long maintain itself; a sphere balanced on the point of a pyramid must invariably roll down on one side or the other. [46]

The Stalinist regime, ‘a sphere balancing on the point of a pyramid’, maintained itself for over half a century! [1*]

Trotsky had seen the Stalinist bureaucracy as Centrist, as balancing between the proletariat on the one hand, and the kulaks and NEPmen on the other. But with one side disarmed and sup-1 pressed and the other liquidated, the whole idea of a centrist bureaucracy balancing between social forces was blown apart.

Trotsky often used the concept of Thermidor in his discussion of Stalin’s regime but there is a difficulty with it. Trotsky’s post-1933 version of the analogy, while being in some respects a step backwards, in that it compromises the criteria for a workers’ state in Russia, did fit the French Revolution well. After 1793 there was a period of reaction, but neither the Thermidorians, nor the Directorate, nor Napoleon, carried out a full counter-revolution by restoring the Ancien Régime. Beheading of the popular forces without counter-revolution was possible. However, there is a difference between the bourgeois and the proletarian revolution. In bourgeois revolutions it is the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie rather than the bourgeoisie proper that drives the process forward. This makes possible (and probably, inevitable) a bourgeois reaction within and on the foundations of the bourgeois revolution. In a socialist revolution the proletariat itself makes the revolution. Any reaction, especially in conditions of capitalist encirclement, is therefore bound to head in the direction of capitalist restoration. Thus in the proletarian revolution there can be no exact repetition of Thermidor.

As with the problems surrounding the concept of Thermidor, Trotsky ran into problems with the concept of Bonapartism. Marx had developed the concept of Bonapartism to describe the regime of Louis Bonaparte as a force balancing between the two main contending classes – the proletariat and the bourgeoisie seemingly independent of both, but in essence defending the interests of the latter. Subsequently Marx and Engels characterised various regimes, including that of Bismarck in Germany as Bonapartist. Thus Bonapartism is a regime in which the state apparatus assumes a high degree of independence from the economically dominant class, while defending and supporting this class. Now, to use the same concept in relation to the Soviet regime, one has to ask a number of questions: above which classes did the Stalinist bureaucracy rise; was it the proletariat and petty bourgeoisie; and in whose interests was it acting? Trotsky’s use of Bonapartism led to extreme theoretical tangles.

These stemmed from his attempt to insert within his theory of a workers’ state a term borrowed from the analysis of bourgeois states.

The bourgeoisie normally owns the means of production as private property and therefore can lose or surrender a measure of political power without losing its position as the ruling class. There are many examples of this happening, most notably in Nazi Germany.

The working class, by contrast, can only take possession of the means of production collectively, by means of its own state. Consequently the loss of political power immediately threatens the working class with loss of its control of the means of production and its position as ruling class.

For Soviet Bonapartism to have been a reality it would have been necessary for the Stalinist bureaucracy to control the party, the government, the army, the police, the courts, etc, while the working class retained control of the factories, mines, transport, etc., along with state economic planning. This was manifestly not the case.

Thus we see that throughout the period of the Five-Year Plan Trotsky, normally such a superb analyst of social and political forces, was repeatedly disoriented and wrong-footed. That this was not due to any decline in his powers is proved by the fact that during this same period he produced his master work, The History of the Russian Revolution and his no less impressive writings on the rise of fascism in Germany. Rather the fault lay in his underlying theoretical framework – his failure to grasp the state capitalist nature of the Stalinist regime and his persistence in viewing the Soviet Union as a workers’ state.

Having said this, however, it is also important to stress that, despite his mistakes in these years, Trotsky did not weaken or dilute his opposition to Stalinism, rather he deepened and intensified it, as his shift from a reformist to a revolutionary perspective in 1933 testifies. This shows that for all his confusion he remained loyal to revolutionary Marxism and the working class.


1*. The article The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism, contains in essence the arguments of Trotsky’s book, The Revolution Betrayed, (1936). We shall deal with this further in chapter thirteen.


1. Trotsky, Challenge, 1926-27, pp.497-500.

2. Trotsky, Challenge, 1928-29, p.98.

3. Ibid., pp.106, 108.

4. Ibid., p.80.

5. Ibid., p.143.

6. Ibid., pp.155-6.

7. Stalin, Works, Vol.XI, pp.231-48.

8. Trotsky, WLT, 1929, p.48.

9. Ibid., pp.109-10.

10. Trotsky, WLT, 1930, p.24.

11. Cliff, Trotsky, Vol.3, London 1991, pp.15-16.

12. See further, Chapter 12.

13. L. Trotsky, Results and Prospects, London 1971, pp.204-5.

14. D. Gluckstein, The Tragedy of Nikolai Bukharin (forthcoming).

15. WLT, 1930-1, pp.227-8.

16. WLT, 1932, p.42.

17. Ibid., pp.47-8.

18. Ibid., pp.53-4.

19. Trotsky, Challenge, 1928-29, pp.44-5.

20. Ibid., p.55.

21. WLT, 1930, p.198.

22. Ibid., p.114.

23. WLT, 1929-33, p.121.

24. Ibid., p.139.

25. WLT, 1932, p.260.

26. Ibid., pp.274-5.

27. F.D. Holzman, Foreign Trade, in A. Bergson and S. Kuznets, editors, Economic Trends in the Soviet Union, Cambridge, Mass. 1963, p.290.

28. WLT, 1930-31, pp.228-9.

29. Reiman, p.58.

30. Ibid., p.59.

31. Ibid., pp.60-1.

32. Ibid., pp.65-66.

33. Trotsky, Challenge, 1928-29, p.96.

34. Ibid., p.330.

35. WLT, 1930-31, p.68.

36. Ibid., p.201.

37. Ibid., pp.306-7.

38. Biulleten Oppozitsii, No.10, April 1930, p.2.

39. Trotsky, Challenge, 1928-29, pp.293-5.

40. WLT, 1929, p.248.

41. Ibid., pp.278-9.

42. Ibid., p.288.

43. Ibid., p.280.

44. WLT, 1930-31, p.225.

45. WLT, 1933-34, pp.117-8.

46. WLT, 1934-35, pp.173-4, 181-2.

Last updated on 4 August 2009