Ernest Mandel

Trotsky’s Economic Ideas
and the Soviet Union Today


From Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, No.84, April 1991, pp. 24-26.
Originally published in Rouge, August 1990.
Translated by Keith Mann.
Transcribed by Joe Auciello.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The following article originally appeared under the title L’alternative economique in a special magazine issue of Rouge, the newspaper of the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR), French section of the Fourth International. It was published to commemorate of the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Leon Trotsky. Translation from the French is by Keith Mann.

As the bureaucratic USSR sinks into chaos, the economic platform of Trotsky and the Left Opposition emerges as an indispensable guide to the relaunching of a socialist project. This explains why for the liberals the “neo-Bolsheviks” are today the main enemy.

The disgraceful slanders hurled by Stalin and the neo-Stalinists against Leon Trotsky are today unanimously rejected in the USSR. On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination the government daily Izvestia solemnly recognized that Lev Davidovich was a great and honest revolutionary, one of the principal founders and leaders of the Soviet state. Other newspapers have revealed that at two points during 1922 Lenin had proposed that Trotsky be vice president of the Council of People’s Commissars and his designated successor in case of sickness or death.

But this is not to say that this rehabilitation of the founder of our movement signals an approval of his political platform which was opposed to that of Stalin. On the contrary. The media and social science circles in the USSR are dominated today by neo-social democratic and neo-liberal tendencies hostile to Leninism, to Marxism, and to the October revolution. For these currents, Trotsky remains an ideological adversary, Trotskyism a political enemy.

What is at stake, however, is an undeniable historical figure and tradition in the Soviet Union. It is difficult to deny that Stalin considered them as his number one enemies. As Stalin is hated by the immense majority of the Soviet people, it is necessary that the current ideologues work to prevent this hatred from translating automatically into a certain sympathy concerning Trotsky. The solution which they have generally opted for is that of raising a new set of slanders, less inflammatory than those of the Stalinists and neo-Stalinists, but founded just as much on open historical falsifications.

It is an historical irony that Trotsky is reproached today not for having been a counterrevolutionary but for having been an ultraleft “revolutionary fanatic.” He is not reproached for having been an adversary of Lenin, but for having been, in 1917 and later, the damned soul and “inspirer” of Lenin. Trotsky, the “bloody” incarnation of the October revolution (a Jew and a “cosmopolitan” imbued with “European culture” to boot), is the prime target of the neo-fascists and the neo-Black Hundreds who are sometimes openly allied with the neo-Stalinists. According to all the “democratic” opponents of the October revolution, Trotsky, the “dogmatic utopian” of “the historical mission of the working class,” was the greatest leader of the “deviation” of Russian history from 1918 on.

An Opponent of the NEP?

Within this cacophony the debate around economic alternatives occupies a key place. Trotsky is said to have been an opponent of the NEP [New Economic Policy], the partisan of “superindustrialization,” a fierce enemy of the private peasant, and the father of the “command economy.” Stalin only applied Trotsky’s economic program. The anti-Trotskyists in the USSR today say that the struggle between Stalin and Trotsky was simply a struggle for power between two despots.

This interpretation of the debate which swept the USSR from 1923 through 1928 all the way to 1934 involves a confusion between two distinct points of departure by Trotsky and the Left Opposition (not counting the capitulationists after 1929): The long-term analytical approach on the one hand, and the political approach operating on the immediate and medium term on the other. This confusion is the fruit of a deliberate lie, of ignorance, or of a lack of understanding about these questions.

In opposing the Stalinist theory that socialism could be achieved in one country, Trotsky affirmed his belief that, considering the nature of imperialism, whether socialism or capitalism would end up victorious in the Soviet Union could only be approached on an international scale. It was impossible to establish a true classless society of the “freely associated producers” in Russia because this required a median level of labor productivity superior to that of the most advanced capitalist countries, but also in permanent conflict with the world capitalist market. The weight of this antagonism would end up by crushing the chances for socialism in the USSR by military or economic pressure if the revolution did not spread to the “advanced capitalist nations.” This analysis of long-term trends certainly also had short-term implications. It underscored the dangers of a lagging development of industry which risked promoting an alliance between private Russian agriculture and the world capitalist market, a rupture of the worker-peasant alliance. To fight the dangers of capitalist restoration, it stressed the necessity of limiting the private accumulation of capital and of raising the productivity of state industry which would permit the sale of products at a lower price. This necessitated a more rapid development of industry.

Therefore, contrary to the legend of Stalinist-Bukharinist origin, developed in the 1960s by Georg Lukacs, Trotsky did not draw adventurist-defeatist conclusions from this analysis, which history has now confirmed in a striking way precisely on the economic plane. It in no way reduced the middle-term destiny of the Soviet Union to the dilemma of either a revolutionary war and territorial expansion or an inevitable retreat towards capitalism. On the contrary, he advanced the idea of a steady consolidation of the gains of the socialist revolution while waiting for the ripening of the objective and subjective conditions for revolutionary victories in the advanced countries. In other words, he proposed that the USSR enter the road of beginning to build socialism in a realistic and prudent manner without fanfare or illusions.

This “Trotskyist” alternative was based on the dialectic of economic logic and on the dynamic of social forces. Trotsky’s analysis remains unmatched among twentieth century Marxists. The acceleration of the rhythm of industrialization must proceed through the steady transfer of the social surplus towards the productive socialized sector of the economy, that is to say, essentially at the expense of the middle bourgeoisie (kulaks and nepmen) and at the expense of the bureaucracy, by a radical reduction of unproductive expenditures.

A reinforcement of the social weight of the proletariat and the poor peasantry in society (as well as a fraction of the middle peasantry ready to participate) had to be realized through the raising of their standard of living and an improvement of their working conditions: the elimination of unemployment; the leading role of workers in factory management; the recruitment of the working peasantry to production cooperatives founded from the start on mechanized labor in order to guarantee to its members returns higher than they had known as individual producers.

These proposals were marked by an internal coherence that is still impressive today. The building of the first large tractor factory in 1923 would have assured the “voluntary participation of the poor peasants in the state farms.” It would have freed the towns from the danger of being of being blackmailed by reductions in deliveries from the rich peasants by preventing the concentration of the agricultural surplus in their hands. It would have allowed the continued raising of real wages that had proceeded until 1926-’27. It would have provided the USSR with a powerful arms industry in order to defend itself from an eventual military attack over a ten-year rather than a five-year period.

At the same time this road of economic policy proposed to the Comintern and to the Communist parties would permit them to take full advantage of revolutionary situations like those which occurred between 1923-1937 in Germany, Great Britain, Spain, and France.

Far from being “Trotskyism without Trotsky,” Stalinist economic policy from 1928 on was the antithesis of that advanced by the Opposition. Full-scale industrialization was accompanied by a lowering, not a raising of real wages, by a catastrophic deterioration, not an improvement of labor conditions. Administrative expenses were not reduced but colossally increased, absorbing the major part of what had been taken from worker consumption. This was the monstrous deadweight of the bureaucracy and its absolute power over society. If the rise in production could not be supported by the interests and consciousness of the producers, it must be realized by force and general control. In place of “soviets everywhere” the reality was police control and red tape everywhere.

The forced collectivization of agriculture was the antithesis of the voluntary participation advocated by the Opposition, consistent with Lenin’s “cooperative plan,” It led to desperate resistance by the peasants, notably the massive slaughter of livestock. It was accompanied by a systematic underdevelopment of investments, in agriculture as much as in the service sector (stockpiling, transportation, distribution), and a fluctuating price policy. It was thus the source of misery in the countryside and poverty in the towns for decades.

Against the Command Economy

As soon as Stalin’s policies became clear, Trotsky, Rakovsky, and the Left Opposition denounced the forced collectivization of agriculture, the total suppression of the NEP, “superindustrialization,” the attacks against real wages and peasant incomes, and the deepening of social inequality. To identify the Opposition with these policies, to hold that they inspired them, amounts therefore to a pure and simple lie. To identify the thesis of Preobrazhensky-Trotsky, according to which in the long term an extension of private appropriation of the social surplus and market mechanisms would make capitalist restoration inevitable, with the short- and medium-term elimination of these mechanisms is a falsification of the economic orientation of Trotsky and the Left Opposition. Several quotations will suffice to demonstrate this.

The Opposition Speaks

Christian Rakovsky, V. Kossior, N. Muralov, and V. Kasparova wrote in the declaration of 1930:

The decree that abolished the NEP and the kulaks as a class is ... an economic absurdity ... No charter, no decree can abolish the contradictions that still operate in the economy and in everyday life ... Attempts to ignore this economic truth... have led to the use of violence, breaking with the party’s program, with the fundamental principles of Marxism and contempt for Lenin’s most basic warnings concerning collectivization, the middle peasantry, and the NEP.

On October 22, 1932, Trotsky continued in his article The Soviet Economy in Danger:

If a universal mind existed, of the kind that projected itself into the scientific fancy of Laplace – a mind that could register simultaneously all the processes of nature and society, that could measure the dynamics of their motion, that could forecast the results of their interactions – such a mind, of course, could a priori draw up a faultless and exhaustive economic plan, beginning with the number of acres of wheat down to the last button for a vest. The bureaucracy often imagines that just such a mind is at its disposal; that is why it so easily frees itself from the control of the market and of Soviet democracy. But, in reality, the bureaucracy errs frightfully in its estimate of its spiritual resources ... 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 determinations 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 efficiency through commercial calculation. The system of the transitional economy is unthinkable without the control of the ruble. This presupposes, in its turn, that the ruble is at par. Without a firm monetary unit, commercial accounting can only increase the chaos. [1]

He followed up on this in The Revolution Betrayed:

While the growth of industry and the bringing of agriculture into the sphere of state planning vastly complicates the tasks of leadership, bringing 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. 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-producing industries, the collective farms, the small local industries – that is, all those branches of economy which stand nearest to the people ...

It is possible to build gigantic factories according to a ready-made Western pattern by bureaucratic command – although, to be sure, at triple the normal cost. But the farther you go, the more the economy runs into the problem of quality, which slips out of the hands of a bureaucracy like a shadow. 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 – conditions incompatible with a totalitarian regime of fear, lies, and flattery. [2]

Three Orientations

There were three distinct currents of economic policy in the CPSU between 1928 and 1934, assuming the supporters of Bukharin remained so after 1933, which is not at all certain.

These three currents clearly reflected the pressure of different social forces. But it must be remembered that, at least during the period from 1930-33, the differences between the concrete proposals of the Opposition and those of the Bukharinists were much less clear than with those of Stalin.

What characterized the economic program of the Opposition more than anything else was the unity and clarity of its economic positions on the one hand and its political and social positions on the other: soviet democracy, satisfaction of the material demands of the producers, the struggle against inequality and bureaucratic privileges.

In 1932, also in The Soviet Economy in Danger, Trotsky declared that:

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 first place the ruling party. Only through the interaction of these three elements, state planning, the market,and Soviet democracy, can the correct direction of the economy of the transitional epoch be attained. [3]

This last sentence deserves to be underlined. And in The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky held that:

A restoration of the right of criticism and a genuine freedom of elections are necessary conditions for the further development of the country. This assumes a revival of freedom of Soviet parties, beginning with the party of Bolsheviks, and a resurrection of the trade unions. The bringing of the democracy into industry means a radical revision of plans in the interests of the toilers. Free discussion of economic problems will decrease the overhead expense of bureaucratic mistakes and zigzags. Expensive playthings – palaces of the Soviets, new theaters, show-off subways – will be crowded out in favor of workers’ dwellings. “Bourgeois norms of distribution” will be confined within the limits of strict necessity, and in step with the growth of social wealth, will give way to socialist equality. [4]

These lines written fifty-five years ago retain a burning relevance in today’s USSR. Once again, we find three fundamentally different currents of economic policy:

The second tendency, in contradiction to that of Bukharin and his comrades who were honest communists, is essentially anti-communist and anti-socialist. The third is not Trotskyist. But it must increasingly borrow from the ideas of revolutionary Marxism, regardless of the vocabulary it chooses, in order for it to join hands with the real independent workers’ movement currently reviving in the USSR.

New Slanders

It is noteworthy that a pro-capitalist and liberal opponent of Bolshevism, Leonid Radzikhovski, writing in the September 9 issue of the Moscow News, accuses both neo-Stalinists like Nina Andreyevna and comrade Buzgalin, spokesman of the “Marxist Platform” in the CPSU, of being inspired by Trotsky’s ideas – putting them in the same bag in the best Stalinist tradition. “Neo-Bolsheviks” are thus all “neo-Trotskyists.”

However, the same Radzikhovski had to recognize that

Thanks to his Marxist analysis, Trotsky discovered the principal evil in Soviet society: The struggle of a new aristocracy, of the bureaucracy against the popular masses who brought it to power ... Trotsky also developed in the 1930s a program for reorganizing the Soviet Union that involved democratization, self-management, openness, and even the market.

Exactly. But to accuse the new Soviet socialist left of wanting to “defend the bureaucratic system against capitalism” is a gross slander. Like Trotsky, the true “neo-Bolsheviks” fight on two fronts: Against the bureaucracy and against the rising middle bourgeoisie. That is consistent with the workers’ material interests.

The supreme contradiction that the neo-liberals face is the following: How can the majority of citizens be prevented from defending their own interests while the sacred right of every individual is proclaimed? In the name of what principle? Could it be, in the best Stalinist tradition, that the people must be made to be happy in spite of and against itself by the use of force?


1. The Soviet Economy in Danger, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1932, (New York, Pathfinder Press, 1973), pp.273-274.

2. The Revolution Betrayed, (New York, Pioneer Publishers, 1937), pp.275-276.

3. op. cit., p.275.

4. op. cit., p.289.

Last updated on 14.1.2009