Isaac Deutscher 1957

Was the Revolution Betrayed?

Source: Marxism in Our Time, The Ramparts Press, Berkeley, 1971. This review was originally published in the New Statesman, 24 August 1957. Scanned, prepared and annotated for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The other day I received by post the latest issues of two Soviet journals, Kommunist and Voprosy Istorii, together with a new cheap English edition of Leon Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed. It was enough to scan the two journals for a few moments to see how much the ghost of Trotsky is once again haunting the ruling circles of the USSR. Kommunist attacks Shepilov [1] for the indulgence he has shown towards ‘revisionists’ in literature and the arts and says that Shepilov drew inspiration from Trotsky, who allegedly held that writers and artists should avoid all political ‘commitment’. The other journal, Voprosy Istorii, makes a fresh effort to exorcise Trotsky from the history of the Red Army and the civil war. This is not as easy a job as it used to be in Stalin’s days. The ‘freedom’ of historical falsification is now greatly restricted, and the archives have been thrown open to young historians, who have been startled to discover how large Trotsky looms in them as the founder and leader of the Red Army. Voprosy Istorii tries discreetly and rather feebly to soften the impact of this discovery.

These new attempts to lay Trotsky’s ghost do not alter the fact – indeed they confirm it – that a new generation of the Soviet intelligentsia is grappling with the significance of Trotsky’s struggle against Stalin and with its relevance to the problems of the post-Stalin era. The issue of Trotsky’s rehabilitation lurks behind some of the current political conflicts as well. The downfall of Molotov and Kaganovich has certainly brought the rehabilitation nearer. To be sure, Khrushchev, who was a very zealous Stalinist for over twenty-five years, does not favour it; but he is no more likely to have the last say in this matter than Molotov and Kaganovich have had it.

What is involved here is not merely history or the rendering of posthumous justice to the reputation of a great revolutionary leader. If this were all, Trotsky would not occupy such a place in Soviet discussions seventeen years after his assassination and thirty years after his deportation from Moscow. The intelligentsia of Moscow, Warsaw, Prague, East Berlin and perhaps even of Peking are wondering whether they can learn anything from Trotsky. Do his writings convey any message to communists who are freeing themselves from Stalinism and trying to shape an alternative to it?

Tito, Gomułka, Mao and Khrushchev have, each in his own way, provided some of the short-term practical answers to questions raised by de-Stalinisation. But none of them has provided any serious theoretical generalisation; none has offered a broader historical perspective, and none has even tried to explain the origins and the nature of Stalinism and to facilitate thereby the proper approach to its legacy. They have all been more lucky than Trotsky was in resisting Stalinism – they have resisted it during its decline. But, of all Stalin’s opponents, Trotsky alone has produced a systematic and comprehensive critique.

In The Revolution Betrayed he offered the final version of that critique. He wrote the book in Norway in 1936, just before the great purges, and it has since become the bible of latter-day Trotskyism, quoted ad nauseam, as the final argument in any controversy, by the devotees of the various Trotskyist sects and chapels. However, the work also made its impression far beyond these circles. In a curious way it has been one of the most influential books of this century. Some of its ideas, torn out of context, have become widely popularised by a host of writers who have lived on crumbs (and not the best crumbs) from Trotsky’s rich table. James Burnham, for instance, has based his Managerial Revolution on a few fragments of Trotsky’s theory. The Revolution Betrayed echoes through much of Koestler’s writing. Orwell was strongly impressed by it: the fragments of ‘The Book’, which take up so many pages in 1984, are a paraphrase of The Revolution Betrayed, just as Emanuel Goldstein, the author of ‘The Book’ and Big Brother’s enigmatic antagonist, is modelled on Trotsky. Finally, some of the intellectually ambitious propagandists of the Cold War have also drawn their arguments from this source.

Despite the adventitious use made of it, The Revolution Betrayed remains a classic of Marxist literature (and, unlike some of those classics, it can be easily read and absorbed by non-Marxist readers). There are admittedly various layers of thought in it: not all of them are of equal value and not all have stood the test of time equally well. But this is only natural. Trotsky’s fertile mind grappled here with a vast, complex and novel problem. He threw out various, sometimes contradictory, hypotheses; and he sought to facilitate analysis by means of somewhat shaky historical analogies. He dealt with his subject matter in his various capacities: as a detached and rigorously objective sociologist and analyst; as a fighter and exiled leader of a suppressed opposition; and as a passionate pamphleteer and polemicist. The polemicist’s contribution, his brilliant anti-Stalinist invective, forms the more ephemeral and exoteric part of the work, and it has, naturally, tended to overshadow Trotsky’s deep and strictly analytical argument.

Nothing is easier than to compile from this book a list of errors and false prognostications. Trotsky argued gravely that the Stalinist bureaucracy strove to abolish public ownership and that its members might soon become the shareholding owners of the Soviet industry – he even saw in the ‘Stalin Constitution’ of 1936 ‘the political premises’ for such a change in property relations. He forecast that in the course of the Second World War the collective farms would dissolve, the Soviet monopoly of foreign trade would collapse, and Western (Allied) capital would penetrate into Russia. He did not see how Stalin’s Russia could emerge victorious, with its social structure intact, if the war was not brought to an end by proletarian revolutions in the West; and he was strangely confident that such revolutions would stop the Second World War much more decisively and much earlier than they stopped the First.

But there is perhaps more to be learned even from Trotsky’s mistakes than one can learn from the ‘correct’ platitudes of most political writers. Even his erroneous hypotheses and predictions contain important elements of truth and most often follow from premises which retain full validity. He is in this respect not unlike Marx: his thought is ‘algebraically’ correct even when his ‘arithmetical’ conclusions are wrong. He overrated the ‘bourgeois’ element in the Stalinist bureaucracy, but he was absolutely justified in exposing it, and this at a time when so many ‘friends of the Soviet Union’ were utterly blind to it. His specific forecasts about revolutionary developments in the course of the Second World War have been falsified by the events, largely because he viewed the Second World War too much in terms of the First; but his general insights into the mutual relationship between war and revolution were deep and still offer the clues (but not more than the clues) to an understanding of the revolutionary aftermath of the Second World War.

What gives The Revolution Betrayed its weight as a document of our time is the masterly critical panorama of Stalinist society during its early and middle periods which Trotsky drew here – of Stalinist society in all its aspects, from the economic to the cultural. While the polemicist denounces the ‘betrayal’ of the revolution and the ‘conspiracy’ and the ‘plots’ of the bureaucracy and above all of Stalin, the sociologist sees Stalinism and its growth as an historical process determined by objective circumstances, by the isolation of the Russian revolution and the appalling poverty and backwardness of the environment in which the first ‘workers’ state’ had set out to build socialism:

The justification for the existence of a Soviet state as an apparatus of compulsion lies in the fact that the present transitional structure is still full of social contradictions, which in the sphere of consumption – most close and sensitively felt by all – are extremely tense...

The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all. When there are enough goods in a store the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there are few goods the purchasers are compelled to queue up; when the queues are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy. It ‘knows’ who is to get something and who has to wait... Thus out of a special necessity there has developed an organ which has far outgrown its socially necessary function, and become... the source of great danger... The poverty and cultural backwardness of the masses have again become incarnate in the malignant figure of the ruler with a great club in his hand...

Trotsky does not content himself with exposing inequality and bureaucratic domination against their peculiarly Russian background. From the experience of his time he draws a wider conclusion which may be read as a warning to communists and socialists everywhere: ‘The tendencies of bureaucratism, which strangles the workers’ movement in capitalist countries, would everywhere show themselves even after a proletarian revolution’, although they are most unlikely to assume the barbarous forms they had assumed in Russia. He held that this danger was all the greater because inequality was bound to persist ‘even in the most advanced countries, even in the United States’ after a socialist upheaval, for even American capitalism had not developed the nation’s economic resources sufficiently to prepare the ground for an egalitarian society. This statement contradicts facile assumptions to the contrary, which are widespread in Marxist literature and can be found in Trotsky’s own earlier writings; and it may serve as a starting point for a new Marxist analysis of the state of Western capitalism and socialism in this century.

An article in a weekly review cannot do justice to the wealth of ideas that are found in this book, to the burning socialist faith that informs it, and to its imaginative force and literary élan. Some of Trotsky’s conclusions are open to doubt. He certainly underrated, to some extent, the vitality that socialist institutions and traditions retained even under the Stalinist regime and, by implication, also the reformist potentialities inherent in the Soviet Union. He insisted that the conflict between bureaucracy and workers cannot be resolved in a reformist manner and that it necessitated a new proletarian revolution, although he himself had most vigorously combatted this view in the course of many years. Was he right in abandoning the reformist and adopting a ‘revolutionary’ attitude towards the Stalinist regime? Only further developments within the Soviet Union can provide the answer to this question. But history is already proving him profoundly right in his inspired prophecy:

... the actual establishment of a socialist society can and will be achieved, not by these humiliating measures of a backward capitalism, to which the Soviet government is resorting, but by methods more worthy of a liberated humanity – and above all not under the whip of a bureaucracy. For this very whip is the most disgusting inheritance from the old world. It will have to be broken in pieces and burned at a public bonfire before you can speak of socialism without a blush of shame.


1. Dmitri Trofimovich Shepilov (1905-1995) was a leading propagandist in the postwar Soviet administration and became editor-in-chief of Pravda in November 1952. He sided with Khrushchev after Stalin’s death, and helped him draft his ‘Secret Speech’ of 1956 that criticised Stalin. He became Soviet Foreign Minister in June 1956, but returned to be in charge of ideological questions in February 1957. Having backed Khrushchev, in June 1957 he supported the abortive anti-Khrushchev coup; with its failure he was removed from the Central Committee and in 1962 expelled from the Communist Party. He was readmitted to the party in 1976 – MIA.