C.L.R. James

After Ten Years
On Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed

(October 1946)

Source: New International, Vol. 12 No. 8, October 1946, pp. 235–240. (as J.R. Johnson)
Reprinted: International Socialism (1st series), No.  16, Spring 1964, pp. 25–29.
Transcribed: by Adam Buick;
Mark-up: by Einde O’Callaghan.

No one will deny that The Revolution Betrayed contains all that Trotsky thought essential to an understanding of Stalinist Russia as a new form of society. In reviewing this timely reprint [1] I propose to re-examine Trotsky’s basic analysis of Stalinist production; the role of the working class in the labor process: the social functioning of the bureaucracy.

According to Trotsky, the distinguishing feature of the economy is the capacity to plan owing to the existence of State Property. Apart from the general problem of backwardness, its main defect is the incompetence of the bureaucracy. The fundamental content of the activity of the Soviet government is the struggle to raise the productivity of labor (p. 79). The bureaucracy claims that the Russian workers lack skill, but the Russian worker is “enterprising, ingenious and gifted” (p. 83). “The difficulty lies in the general organization of labor.” And the responsibility for this lies with the bureaucracy. “The Soviet administrative personnel is, as a general rule, far less equal to the new productive tasks than the worker.” Productive organization of piecework demands “a raising of the level of administration itself, from the shop foreman to the leaders in the Kremlin” (p.84). “The bureaucracy tries fatally to leap over difficulties which is cannot surmount.” Again: “Not knowing how, and not being objectively able, to put the régime of production in order in a short space of time ...” (p. 84). In conclusion: “... the name of that social guild which holds back and paralyzes all the guilds of the Soviet Economy is the bureaucracy” (p. 85).

In regard to the workers Trotsky’s main preoccupation is the relation between their wages and the wages of the bureaucracy. It is important to recognize the enormous emphasis and space which Trotsky gives to consumption in his analysis of “inequality” and “social antagonisms”. What lies, he asks, at the bottom of the continuous repression? His reply is: “Lack of the means of subsistence resulting from the low productivity of labor” (p. 62). He returns to it again and again.

“The justification for the existence of the Soviet State as an apparatus for 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 sensibly felt by all – are extremely tense, and forever threaten to break over into the sphere of production ...

“The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption with the resulting struggle of each against all ...”

Trotsky, of course, is no anarchist. He justifies a certain amount of inequality by the necessity for bourgeois norms of distribution in a transitional régime. This also justifies the state. The gravamen of his charge of betrayal of the revolution is the monstrous growth of the state and the monstrous growth of inequality.

He claims in more than one place that the economy is slowly bettering the position of the toilers. But the future of Soviet society depends upon the world revolution. Either the world revolution enables the Russian proletariat to liquidate the usurpations and incompetence of the bureaucracy, or the further rule of the bureaucracy will lead to a complete liquidation of the conquests of the revolution. Such in brief is Trotsky’s economic analysis. The problem of accumulation as such receives no direct treatment and this is not accidental. After the most scrupulous analysis of which he is capable, the present writer finds that Trotsky operates on the principle that once private property is abolished there is no problem of accumulation. [2] If waste and bureaucracy are kept down to a minimum, progressive accumulation is assured. It is impossible to read this book and learn from it what, if any, is the specific contribution of the proletariat to the building of the socialist society.

Marx’s Theory of Society

Such a difference of view involves the very concepts of Marxian thought. I propose, therefore, to state what in my view is the Marxian conception of society, capitalist, socialist and transitional to socialism, and then to show, in my opinion, Trotsky’s sharp and consistent departure from this conception.

Marx’s theory of society is a theory of the activity of men, of men as active in the process of production. The classical economists, having discovered labor as the activity which produces private property, left it alone and proceeded to deal only with the material results of this activity. They did not analyze the nature of the activity nor the relationship of the results of the activity to the activity itself. Thus they viewed the movement of society and the division of society according to the division of the products of labor. Marx, on the contrary, based his analysis on the division of labor itself. His philosophy was a philosophy of the activity of men in the labor process. His analysis of capitalist production was therefore the analysis of the labor of man. In capitalism, labor was alienated from its true function, the development of man. Thereby it was transformed into its opposite, man’s increasing subjugation – and rebelliousness. For Marx, therefore, the essence of private property was the alienation of labor and not the fact that property belonged to private individuals.

Marx states categorically that to see private property as the basis of alienated labor is to turn the truth upside down.

“We have, of course, achieved the concept of alienated labor (of alienated life) from political economy as the result of the movement of private property. But in analyzing this concept, it is revealed that if private property appears as the basis as the cause of alienated labor, it is rather a consequence of it, as the gods are not originally the cause but the effect of human confusion of understanding. Later this relationship is turned upside down.”

The handing over of his products to another, his alienation, is for Marx the result of his degraded labor, of the type of activity to which the proletarian is condemned.

“How could the laborer be opposed to the product of his activity in an alien fashion if he were not estranged in the act of production itself? The product is only the résumé of activity, of production ... In the alienation of the object of labor is only crystallized the alienation, the renunciation in the activity of labor itself.”

Marx believed that this was his special contribution to the analysis of society. He says magnificently:

“When one speaks of private property one thinks he is dealing with something outside of man. When one speaks of labor one has to do immediately with man himself. The new formulation of the question already involves its solution.”

The result of this alienation of man from the product of “his labor is therefore not free but forced, forced labor.” That is to say, his labor is not his own free self-activity, the conscious exercise of all his powers, but merely a means to his existence. Secondly, an immediate consequence of this alienation of man from self-activity is the alienation of man from man. Capitalist society was the highest stage of alienation yet reached. As a result it carried to the highest possible stage the contradictions and hypocrisies of all previous class societies.

Alienation of labor corrupted society through and through. The greater the alienation, the greater the necessity of using all manifestations of society, science, art, politics, as a justification for the alienation. The solution is in what Marx calls the appropriation by the proletariat of the enormous possibilities for self-development existing in the objectified labor, the mass of accumulated capital. Man must become universal man, universal in the sense that the individual develops all his own individual powers in accordance with the stage of development of the species, that is to say, the potentialities embodied in the accumulated mass of productive forces.

The powers of man as an individual is the test.

“Above all, one must avoid setting the society up again as an abstraction opposed to the individual. The individual is the social entity. The expression of his life ... is therefore an expression and verification of the life of society.”

The most vital expression of the life of the individual is his activity in the labor process. For Marx, it is labor which distinguishes man from the beast. Labor is the truest essence of man. By that he lives and develops himself as a truly social being. We have the result that man, the laborer, “feels himself as freely active more in his animal functions, eating and drinking, procreating”, whereas in labor, his specifically human function, he functions more like an animal. “The animal becomes the human and the human the animal.”

Marx’s philosophy is not one thing and his economics and politics something else. His analysis of capitalist production, of accumulation, of consumption, flow from his philosophical concept of man in society with which he began. The quotations above are from his early economic and philosophical manuscripts. Capital and the writings of his maturity are only the embodiment and concretization of these ideas. The difference between these conceptions and Trotsky’s conceptions of Stalinist Russia can be seen immediately in the analysis of Russia itself.

Stalinist Society and Alienated Labor

Where in modern society is there so perfect an example of alienated labor and its consequences as in Stalinist Russia? Trotsky after page upon page about wages and consumption suddenly states late in his volume the following:

“The transfer of the factories to the State changed the situation of the workers only juridically.”

In other words, in the labor process he was left just where he was. First, this is not true. And if it were a whole new world begins. But to continue:

“... In order to raise [the low] level [of technique and culture], the new state resorted to the old methods of pressure upon the muscles and nerves of the workers. There grew up a corps of slave drivers. The management of industry became super-bureaucratic. The workers lost all influence whatever upon the management of the factory.”

This is the situation of the proletariat today in production. What is there new or socialist in this? How does the mode of labor of the worker in Stalinist Russia differ from the alienated labor of the worker in capitalist production? Trotsky points out similarities. The differences, if any, and their importance, are outside of his consideration.

Failing to base himself upon the alienation of labor in the process of production, Trotsky fails to see the consequence of this upon the bureaucracy itself. Of what theoretical validity is his constant emphasis upon the incompetence of the bureaucracy? The Soviet bureaucracy is a reflection of the law of motion of the Soviet economy. The bureaucracy has no free will. It consumes more than the proletariat. But its social life within itself is a form of jungle existence. No member of the bureaucracy, except perhaps Stalin, knows whether tomorrow his whole life may not be cut short and he himself and all his family, friends and assistants disgraced, murdered or sent into exile. The various strata of the bureaucracy address each other in the same tone and manner as the bureaucracy as a whole addresses the proletariat. If the proletariat is imprisoned in the factories, the members of the ruling party are subjected to a regimentation, and unceasing surveillance and inquisition that make the coveted membership in the party a form of imprisonment. The Stalinist official, from the highest to the lowest, excludes his wife and family from any participation not only in his public or political life but even in his thinking. It is a measure of protection so that when the arm of the NKVD falls upon him, they will be able to say with honesty that they knew nothing about his political ideas. That is their slender hope of salvation. Friendship is a permanent suspicion. The risk of betrayal by one chance word is too great. This catalogue of crime, fear, humiliation, degradation, the alienation from human existence of a whole class (or caste), is the fate of those who benefit by the alienation of labor. As for the proletariat, at least a third of the labor force is an industrial reserve army herded in concentration camps. That is the Stalinist society, rulers and ruled. It is the ultimate, the most complete expression of class society, a society of alienated labor.

In socialist society or in a society transitional to socialism, politics, science, art, literature, education all become or are in process of becoming truly social. The individual is able to exercise his gifts to the highest capacity, to become truly universal, because of the essentially collective life of the society in which he lives. Look at Stalinist society. No individual is more “political” than the individual in Stalinist society. Nowhere are art, literature, education, science, so integrated with “society”. That is the appearance. In reality, never before has there been such a prostitution of all these things for the corruption and suppression of the direct producer, with the resulting degradation of the producers and managers alike. From what aspects of Marxian theory is it possible to call this barbarism a part of the new society envisaged by Marx as emerging from the contradictions of capitalist society? But a false analysis of the social role of the proletariat in society is always either cause or effect of a false analysis of the proletariat in the process of accumulation.

Trotsky, the Proletariat and Accumulation

Now let us see what role Trotsky gives to the proletariat. He says, for example, that for the regulation and application of plans, two levers are needed: “the political lever, in the form of a real participation in leadership of the interested masses themselves, a thing which is unthinkable without Soviet democracy; and a financial lever”, a stable rouble. But when he concretizes leadership of the interested masses, we find that he is referring to the interest of the masses in the quality of products in so far as it affects their consumption.

“The Soviet products are as though branded with the gray label of indifference. Under a nationalized economy quality demands a democracy of producers and consumers, freedom of criticism and initiative” (p. 276).

This is no casual statement. It comes in the chapter Whither the Soviet Union? where he is summarizing his position. On the previous page he had made it less sharp but more revealing. State planning, he writes, brings to the front “the problem of quality”, bureaucratism destroys the creative initiative and the feeling of responsibility without which there is not, and cannot be, qualitative progress” (p. 275). Then comes what is, perhaps, the most astonishing statement in the book, from the point of view already enunciated:

“The ulcers of bureaucratism are perhaps not so obvious in the big industries, but they are devouring, together with the cooperatives, the light and food processing industries, the collective farms, the small local industries – that is, all those branches of the economy which stand nearest to the people” (p. 275).

So that Trotsky finds that there is more “bureaucratism” in light industry than in heavy.

We want to leave no misunderstanding whatever in the minds of the reader as to our fundamental principled opposition to this analysis by Trotsky of bureaucracy and the relation to it of the proletariat and production. In The State and Revolution, Lenin states:

“Under capitalism democracy is restricted, cramped, curtailed, mutilated by all the conditions of wage-slavery, the poverty and misery of the masses. This is why and the only reason why (emphases mine – J.R.J.) the officials of our political and industrial organizations are corrupted – or, more precisely, tend to be corrupted – by the conditions of capitalism, why they betray a tendency to become transformed into bureaucrats, i.e., into privileged persons divorced from the masses and superior to the masses. This is the essence of bureaucracy, and until the capitalists have been expropriated and the bourgeoisie overthrown, even proletarian officials will inevitably be ‘bureaucratised’ to some extent.”

But even when the capitalists have been expropriated and the bourgeoisie overthrown, the essence of bureaucracy can remain or recur owing to the cramped, curtailed, mutilated life of the masses. But whence comes this cramping, this curtailment, this mutilation of the life of the masses? Is it a question of consumption and quality of goods? Or of light and heavy industry? Is it necessary to quote again Marx’s famous summation of hundreds of pages on the worker in heavy industry and the General Law of Capitalist Accumulation when he says that “be his payment high or low”, the accumulation of capital leads on the part of the worker to accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation? (Capital, Vol. I, p. 709). But production in Stalinist Russia is not capitalist? Very well. Let the followers of Trotsky’s theory demonstrate that accumulation of misery, agony of toil, etc., in the production mechanism of the Workers’ State, the state of planned economy, let them demonstrate that this is not “the reason and the only reason” why the officials of the political and industrial organizations of Stalinist Russia become corrupted and transformed into privileged persons, divorced from the masses and superior to them. Trotsky’s conception of the term “bureaucracy” is not ours.

Marx, the Proletariat and Accumulation

Twenty-five years after he had written the early manuscripts, Marx stated in Capital that it was a matter of life and death for society to change the degraded producer of alienated labor into universal man. Presumably this was only philosophy. It would be interesting to have a symposium as to what interpretations a body of Marxists would give to the following:

“Modern industry, indeed, compels society, under penalty of death, to replace the detail-worker of today, crippled by life-long repetition of one and the same trivial operation, and thus reduced to the mere fragment of a man, by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labors, ready to face any change in production, and to whom the different social functions he performs, are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers” (Capital, Vol. I, p. 534).

Life and death for society! Marx did not use such words lightly. Here he uses them twice on a single page. To the extent that one accepts this passage, one is penetrating to the heart of the Marxian theory of society and the theory of accumulation. Marx was the last man in the world to base such a conception of universal man upon anything but the economic necessities of society.

It is to be understood that the degradation (and the revolt is inherent in capitalist accumulation, or if you prefer, in the accumulation of Modern Industry, where labor is alienated). In his analysis of machinery and modern industry, Marx points out that the “special skill of each individual insignificant factory operative vanishes as an infinitesimal quantity before the science, the gigantic physical forces, and the mass of labor that are embodied in the factory mechanism and, together with that mechanism, constitute the power of the ‘master’.” Capital, Vol. I, p. 462) Let the 1946 theoreticians of the degenerated Workers’ State show that this gigantic bureaucratic mechanism in Russia confronts the individual worker with economic and political consequences other than those of capitalism.

The bureaucracy uses the old methods of pressure upon the worker. It is the greatest error of Trotsky that he nowhere in his book seems to find it necessary to answer (1) that the old methods of pressure are rooted in the relations of expropriated pauperized proletarians to accumulated labor; (2) that this relation determines the economic movement. The present writer, as is known, believes that Stalinist Russia is a form of State Capitalism. He has no wish to hide that in this article, nor could he do so if he tried. But the fact remains that the desperate struggle for the productivity of labor, today at least and for some years now, compels the bureaucracy to pay the individual proletarian at his value. From this follow certain economic consequences. The raising of the level of productivity, according to Trotsky the fundamental content of the Soviet government, can be accomplished in only one way, expansion of the mass of accumulated labor, decrease of the relative quantity of living labor. I submit that expansion in the degenerated Workers’ State is governed by the amount of surplus labor at its disposal after all the necessary expenses have been met. Now Marx’s thesis, in the analysis of capitalist production, was that at a certain stage, the increased surplus labor which was necessary for the continued expansion and development of society on new foundations could be met only by entirely new perspectives of productivity. These could be opened up only by the proletariat, appropriating the mass of accumulated labor and using it to develop its own potentialities. Thereby it elevated the whole social system to a new level. But just so long as the proletariat continued in the stage of degradation, so the ruling class, bureaucracy or bourgeoisie, caste or class, would be compelled to raise productivity “by the old methods of pressure”. Precisely because of this, the contradiction between the relatively decreasing labor force and the resultant increase in the mass but the fall in the rate, of surplus labor, becomes the theoretical premise of economic collapse. The greater the degeneration of the Workers’ State the more powerful the functioning of this law.

Trotsky, Consumption and Production

What, in Trotsky’s analysis, is the relation between consumption and production in Russia? This is his solitary reference:

“Superficial ‘theoreticians’ can comfort themselves, of course, that the distribution of wealth is a factor secondary to production. The dialectic of interaction, however, retains here all its force.”

The dialectic of interaction! This fundamental problem he dismisses with a phrase. But immediately goes on to make the tremendous statement:

“The destiny of the state-appropriated means of production will be decided in the long run according as these means of personal existence devolve in one direction or another.”

The future of a planned economy then depends on consumption. Then follows a characteristic analogy of a ship declared collective property but whose first class passengers have “coffee and cigars” and the third class passengers nothing.

“Antagonisms growing out of this may well explode the unstable collective” (p. 239).

Equally unfortunate is his treatment of the thesis that Russia may be a form of state capitalism. He admits (and no educated Marxist would dare deny) the theoretical possibility of an economy in which the bourgeoisie as a whole constitutes itself into a stock company and by means of the state administers the whole national economy. “The economic laws of such a regime would present no mystery.” Good. But then he proceeds to analyze the law of the average rate of profit which concerns the distribution of the surplus value among the capitalists. That is no problem. The relevant law is the law of the falling rate of profit. The problem is whether the national economy would be able to overcome the contradiction between the necessity of lessening and lowering the relative consumption of wage labor at the same time accumulating sufficient surplus labor to continue the increase of expansion. Today, 1946, it is no longer a theoretical problem.

“In Accordance With a Plan”

In a society of alienated labor, that is to say, in a society of such low productivity as compels the antagonism of alienation, the idea of a planned economy is a fiction. The Soviet State undoubtedly was the first to distribute capital to those spheres of production which expansion especially required. In so doing it led the world. But today, 1946, isn’t it perfectly obvious that no capitalist society distributes capital any longer according to the sphere of greater profit? Planning is merely a form of rationalization. Monopoly capitalism was progressive in relation to individual capitalism. But it grew out of the contradictions of individual capitalism. It was a capitalistic method of attempting to solve those contradictions and merely sharpened them. In the same way planning today, without the emancipation of labor, arises out of the contradictions of monopoly capitalism and, like all rationalization, is a more highly developed and refined form of exploitation, not lessening but increasing unbearably all antagonisms. How is it possible to plan socially when society is torn as it is by alienated labor and all the economic, political and social contradictions flowing from it? When Marx says that production by “freely associated men” will be “consciously regulated” by them in accordance with “a settled plan” he means literally and precisely that. The plan is the result of the freedom of individuals in society. No plan of bureaucrats, class or caste, can create anything else but chaos and crisis. As long as a section of society other than the proletariat controls the surplus labor, the plan can become the greatest calamity that can befall human society.

Trotsky once asked Shachtman:

“Does Shachtman wish to say in relation to the U.S.S.R. that the state ownership of the means of production has become a brake upon development and that the extension of this form of property to other countries constitutes economic reaction?” (In Defense of Marxism, p. 124).

This writer replies unhesitatingly “Yes”. “In relation to the U.S.S.R.”, in 1940 and 1946, state-ownership in the Soviet zone in Germany, in Poland, in Yugoslavia, and wherever else it is instituted, is reactionary in all aspects, economic and otherwise. There is no economic progressiveness in totalitarianism. The complete degradation of labor cannot be in any circumstances progressive. It cannot raise the productivity of labor, the fundamental criterion, except by the old methods of pressure. And it is precisely because class society cannot do otherwise that all state ownership will end either in totalitarianism or social revolution.

This false conception of “plan” permeates the thought of Trotsky, but particularly in his later years. In 1938 he wrote:

“The disintegration of capitalism has reached extreme limits, likewise the disintegration of the old ruling class. The further existence of this system is impossible. The productive forces must be organised in accordance with a plan.” (In Defense of Marxism, p. 8)

The formulation is characteristic and characteristically false. Once the question is posed that way, of necessity the second question then arises “Who will accomplish this task – the proletariat or a new ruling class of ‘commissars’?” ... But the problem is not to organize the productive forces “in accordance with a plan”. The problem is to abolish the proletariat as proletariat and release the creative energies of hundreds of millions of men suppressed by capitalism. Released from capitalist degradation they can plan. The guiding party, the administration or superintendence, the state, must be the expression of the free producers. These cannot be the expression of the need for the productive forces to be organized in accordance with a plan. The proletariat is the most important part of the productive forces. To say that these must be organized in accordance with a plan merely makes the proletariat a part of the plan. On the contrary the plan is part of the proletariat, but of the proletariat emancipated.

Trotsky understood as few men have ever done the creative power of the proletariat in revolution. But the full, the complete significance of the creative power of the proletariat in the construction of the socialist economy always eluded him. In the Trade Union dispute, crucial for any understanding of Russian developments, Lenin told Trotsky:

“Comrade Trotsky’s fundamental mistake lies precisely in that he approached ... the very question he himself raised, as an administrator.”

He told him again:

“It is wrong to look only to the elected persons, only to the organizers, administrators, etc. These, after all, are only a minority of prominent people. We must look to the rank and file, to the masses.” (Selected Works, Vol. IX, pp. 3–80)

Fifteen years after, the same error which Lenin attacked so fiercely and to which he referred to in his testament, appears almost unchanged in The Revolution Betrayed. The approach is in essence administrative. For many years Trotsky led a profound and brilliant opposition to the Stalinist bureaucracy despite his fundamentally false theoretical orientation. But a false theory always takes its toll in the end. It is taking toll of our movement today. Finally a word to those who think that this conception of the role of the proletariat belongs to some distant future after the good bureaucrats have organized production “in accordance with a plan” and raised the level of the masses. It is necessary to refer these vulgar materialists and sceptics to Trotsky himself who quotes and wholeheartedly approves Lenin’s statement that the masses must begin to institute the new régime on the day after the revolution. That they will do, but they will need leaders and the leaders must begin with the concepts of the new régime clearly in mind.

J.R. Johnson



1. The Revolution Betrayed by Leon Trotsky, Pioneer Publishers, New York, 308 pp. $2.00.

2. Other writings show the same thought.


Last updated: 23 July 2020