Max Shachtman

Trotsky’s Stalin

A Critical Evaluation

(October 1946)

From New International, Vol.12 No.8, October 1946, pp.229-236.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The emergence of Russia as a power of first magnitude is indissociable from the name of Stalin. Now that Mussolini is gone, there is nowhere a government chief that has ruled his country for so long a continuous period as Stalin, or ruled it so completely. His mark upon the destiny of Russia and for that matter of the rest of the world has certainly been deeper than that of any other man alive today. Few other lives in a century rampant with storm and strife have been as stormy as his or have aroused as much controversy.

In the face of this, the paucity of serious biographical literature about Stalin – as compared, let us say, with the available literature on the life and work of Lenin or Hitler or even Roosevelt – is astonishing. The official Russian biographies are valuable only for what they conceal and what they invent. The quasi-official non-Russian biography by Henri Barbusse has only the added value of a commentary on the depths of naive sycophancy to which a free mind can sink. The biography by the reactionary Caucasian Essad Bey is worthless even as cheaply romanticized malice. The biography by Isaac Don Levine, interesting in part, is not illuminating or instructive and seldom rises above the level of glorified Hearstism. Boris Souvarine’s study of Stalin is erudite, painstaking, scintillating and worthy of serious attention, but it lacks that profound grasp of the problem constituted by Stalin’s life of which the author deprived himself when he abandoned Marxist objectivity. There are, in addition, a few minor pamphlets published abroad by Russian emigrés which are for the most part worse than useless or which, if useful, deal with isolated parts of Stalin’s life; there is a positively putrid booklet by the Englishman Stephen Grahame; there is some Nazi “literature” which belongs in the water closet where it was conceived. That is about all.

This paucity is not so astonishing upon reflection, however. Like all other outstanding personages, Stalin has both a personal history, linked with his character, and a social history; he is at once an individual and a social phenomenon. To treat of the individual “alone” offers virtually no difficulties in the case of a Hitler or a Roosevelt. Their lives are pretty much an open book and what they have to conceal can be laid bare with a good sneeze. As social figures the problem is no more difficult: each in his own way was a child of a social order whose anatomy has long been familiar to modern science. Not so in the case of Stalin. His true personal history is not only obscure in large part, but it has been covered up, nailed down and overlaid with a history manufactured and disseminated on a scale that is utterly unprecedented, stupefying and, for its purpose, effective. His true social history is, if anything, far more baffling, for here we are faced not with a familiar but with a new, unfamiliar, unpredicted, unanalyzed social order, of which Stalin is both the child and the parent.

The biographer thus faces a dual handicap without equal n history. Superficiality, glibness, gullibility, impatience, carelessness, sensationalism, lack of a sympathetic understanding of the movement which nursed Stalin and out of which he rose, personal animus, lack of scientific method, lack of scrupulous objectivity – all or many of these characterize the authors of the biographical attempts made up to now. Hence, even the best of them only come abreast of the handicap but do not surmount it. No man of our time had the qualifications for coping successfully with the dual obstacle that Trotsky had. We know that he had to drive himself physically, so to speak, to write his study of Stalin [1], for the subject is not very attractive. But he was able to bring to the work an archaeological patience and thoroughness in digging past layer upon layer of falsification to reveal the bare bones of truth; a direct personal knowledge of the Bolshevik movement in its rise and decline, of its protagonists big and small, of the country and the conditions in which they lived and worked; a personal objectivity which is all the more striking in a man whom Stalin rightly considered his greatest and most dangerous adversary; and such a unifying and illuminating grasp of the riches of the Marxist method of analysis and synthesis as the philistines of Marxism, let alone the philistines in general, cannot possibly comprehend. (For them Marxism says: only classes exist, there are no individuals; man is made by history but history is not made by man; politics is a passive, automatic reflex of economics; man’s actions are determined by the amount of cash in his purse; and more of the pitiful same.) As for Trotsky’s universally-acknowledged literary qualifications, they need to be mentioned at all only because they help sustain interest in the narration and analysis of a life – Stalin’s whole early period – which would otherwise be unbearably tedious.

Trotsky was not permitted by his subject to complete the work. He was murdered by a Stalinist gangster in the very midst of the biography. Only parts of the book can be considered Trotsky’s finished product. To give greater coherence to the work, the translator has interpolated sections of his own, carefully set off between brackets, which, while based in large measure on notes and rough outlines by the author, are nevertheless so written as to conflict (in some places violently) with the thinking and the purpose of the author himself. The reader will do well to be on guard against this. [2]

Bearing all this in mind, the net result is an outstanding and durable triumph over the difficulties whose nature and dimensions we have indicated. It is a first-rate success. If, in our view, a qualification must be added to this, it is for reasons we shall venture to set forth as we go along.

Conditions of Czarism and the Revolutionary Party

Russian Czarism left its serious opponents no parliamentary alternative to the organization of a conspiratorial revolutionary movement. The historical peculiarities of Russia’s backwardness left consistent democracy no alternative to the struggle for proletarian power and socialism. Bolshevism with all that was singular about it as well as all that identified it with the international Marxian movement – can be understood only against the background of these two circumstances.

To overturn Czarism and lay the democratic foundations for socialism, argued Lenin, to overturn this centralized, autocratic monster which sprawled over vast and variegated lands and peoples, over such economic, political and cultural backwardness, which combined the refinements of contemporary imperialism with semi-feudal anachronisms – required a trained fighting force having at its command all the science and skill of modern class warfare. Lenin’s appeal was answered by the most advanced workers of the country, and also by brilliant intellectual forces of the kind which, a century or two earlier, had made up the vanguard of the revolutionary bourgeois democracy of the Western countries. In the Bolshevik Party Lenin fused these two elements by unremitting efforts to raise the workers to the theoretical level of the intellectuals who, by mastering Marxism, placed themselves at its service, in order that they could unitedly raise the entire people to the level of a thoroughgoing revolutionary struggle against Czarism. In one of the first of his writings that revealed him as standing high above all his socialist contemporaries (What Is to Be Done), Lenin inveighed against the prevailing looseness, dilettantism and amateurishness of the Russian social-democratic movement and developed (far more broadly, profoundly, consciously and systematically than anyone before him) the concept of the “professional revolutionist.”

Among the young students who joined the Social Democracy was Stalin (in Georgia, at the age of 18). In 1904, a year after the split of the party into the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions, and after some five years of revolutionary underground activity behind him, Stalin associated himself with the Bolsheviks. He became one of Lenin’s professional revolutionists, always at the disposal of the party, working illegally from one town to another to spread revolutionary ideas, to build up units of the party among the workers, to edit party periodicals and popular literature, to organize unions and strikes and demonstrations – even “expropriations” of Czarist funds with which to finance the underground activity – and to serve more than the usual number of years in Czarist prison and exile for his work.

For all that, we do not recognize the young Stalin in the Stalin of today; there does not even seem to be a strong resemblance. Trotsky demonstrates with meticulous attention to detail and overwhelming conclusiveness the facts that have been no secret for a long time.

Stalin was not particularly distinguished in that large group of intellectuals and workers turned Bolshevik professional revolutionists, with respect to grasp of theory, outstanding political ability and independence, or even success in organization – hundreds equalled him at his best and scores were his superior. Stalin was not always an unwavering Bolshevik, if by that is meant a consistent supporter of Lenin’s views. Stalin, when he took a position “independent” of Lenin, only disclosed his own provincialism, theoretical backwardness and political mediocrity. Stalin, even after years of direct contact with Lenin and the party leadership, never contributed a positive original idea, never fully grasped the theories and spirit of Bolshevism, was indeed organically alien to them. Stalin was never really a leader of masses, feared and shunned them in fact, and felt most at home in “committee meetings,” in intrigue, in cunning combinations and mean maneuvers. Stalin was always devoid of idealism, nobility and a socialist passion for freedom, but he is characterized by rudeness, trickiness, brutality, lack of principle, vindictiveness and similar dark traits. More than that: the last year or more of the life of Lenin, founder of Bolshevism, the most authoritative and popular voice in the party as a whole, in the party leadership and the country as a whole, was devoted to increasingly stiff blow at Stalin, culminating in the rupture of all personal relations between them and in Lenin’s recommendation that Stalin be removed from his most prominent position, general-secretaryship of the ruling party.

An Anatomy of Stalin

Near the high point of Stalin’s power, Trotsky insisted that he was only the “outstanding mediocrity” in the party, and this opinion is reiterated in the biography. But to this must be added facts such as these: the comparatively young Stalin was coöpted, under Czarism, to Lenin’s Central Committee; remained a member of that Committee throughout Lenin’s life time; was entrusted by Lenin and the leadership with highly responsible tasks; was linked with Trotsky by Lenin in his testament as one of the “two most able leaders in the present Central Committee”; was nevertheless crushingly assailed by Lenin at the same time in the proposal that he be removed from his post for rudeness, disloyalty and inclination to abuse power: was opposed and combatted at one time or another by virtually every well-known leader of the Bolshevik Party, yet emerged victor over them and in possession of such power and authority as probably no single individual has ever enjoyed in all history.

We seem to be in the realm of irresolvable contradictions. Trotsky did not set himself the mere pedantic task of tabulating the record of a man. Among the aims of the biography is the resolution, by analysis and explanation, of the contradictions, real and apparent.

Against a backdrop of the times – the country, the people, their social relations – Trotsky depicts for us, trait by trait, the personal character of Stalin. More truly, he patiently scrapes away and washes off the encrustation of false strokes and false colors with which Stalin’s court painters have concealed his original portrait. That so much time and space should be devoted by a Marxist to personal characteristics in the writing of a political history (Trotsky’s biography is nothing but a political history) must appear strange and out of place to those whose “concepts” about Marxism are vastly greater than their knowledge of it. Yet Trotsky is entirely in the Marxian tradition and a master-hand with the Marxian method. It was the old teacher Marx himself who once wrote in a letter to his friend Kugelmann that world history would indeed be of a “very mystical nature if ‘accidents’ played no rôle in it ... But the acceleration or slowing-down [of the general course of development] are very much dependent upon such ‘accidents,’ among which also figures the ‘accident’ of the character of those people who at first stand at the head of the movement.”

In restoring the portrait, Trotsky gives us the anatomy of its character. If we abstract each of its features and classify them (rather arbitrarily, as we will see) into “the good” and “the bad” we find, under one heading, firmness, courage, perseverance, will-power, and under the other, rudeness, low cunning, vengefulness, theoretical and political mediocrity, narrowness of horizon and lack of intellectual profoundity or breadth, and so forth. The trouble is precisely the fact that these features of character simply cannot be abstracted. In fact, once they are “abstracted,” that is the end of all sense in the study of Stalin.

Lenin valued Stalin for his characteristics – for most of them, at any rate – and was able to utilize them in the interests of the movement. And in this he was right. To appreciate this judgment, it is necessary to understand something about the class struggle in general and about working-class politics, and it is of course necessary to live in this world and not in an imaginary one. Before Lenin got to know Stalin personally in 1913, during Stalin’s first really important trip abroad in Cracow and Vienna where he came into intimate contact with the Bolshevik leader – he knew about him from reports, correspondence or through the opinions of other party men. Even if the views which Stalin ventured now and then to express in opposition to Lenin’s had impinged on the latter’s consciousness, they could not possibly have made a very deep impression. Lenin undoubtedly made allowances for that. He held no malice toward comrades who differed with him (after all comrades much more prominent than Stalin and much closer to Lenin differed with him on countless questions of theory and policy without losing his esteem), and then Stalin was still a pretty young comrade and only of local importance in the organization. Yet Lenin, before really knowing him, successfully proposed his coöptation into the Bolshevik Central Committee, in 1912, only a month after the candidacy had been rejected at the party conference in Prague. How could this happen?

The Reaction After 1905

The revolution of 1905 was followed by a deep and widespread reaction. It was not long after its defeat that the whole social-democratic movement, the Bolshevik faction included, began to disintegrate. Those around Lenin who remained steadfast felt the vise of isolation tightening around them year after year, with no let-up until the resurgence began seven years later, in 1912. It should hot be too hard for our own generation, which has also seen the consequences of defeats in the form of desertions, disorientation, skepticism, to understand what the movement must have gone through in Russia between 1906 and 1912. It does not, alas, sound altogether unfamiliar when we read Trotsky’s description of the times:

Desertion assumed a mass character. Intellectuals abandoned politics for science, art, religion, and erotic mysticism. The finishing touch on this picture was the epidemic of suicides. The transvaluation of values was first of all directed against the revolutionary parties and their leaders ...

News dispatches from local organizations to the party’s central organ, which was again transferred abroad, were no less eloquent in recording the revolution’s disintegration. Even in the hard-labor prisons, the heroes and heroines of uprisings and of terrorist acts turned their backs in enmity upon their own yesterdays and used such words as “party,” “comrade,” “socialism” in no other than the ironic sense.

Desertions took place not only among: the intellectuals, not only among those who were here today and gone tomorrow and to whom the movement was but a half-way house, but even among the advanced workers, who had been part and parcel of the party for years.

... In 1909 Russia still had five or six active organizations; but even they soon sank into desuetude. Membership in the Moscow district organization, which was as high as 500 toward the end of 1908, dropped to 250 in the middle of the following year and half a year later to 150; in 1910 the organization ceased to exist.

Bolshevik leaders were no absolute exception to the trend. Some turned Menshevik; some turned “God-Seekers”; more than a few dropped out of the movement altogether, and if even the official biographies of many of those who became prominent again after the Bolshevik revolution say nothing about their activities from 1906 to 1912 (and sometimes to 1914 and even to 1916), it is because there were no activities to record.

In such times, Stalin’s characteristics were of positive value especially if the reader maintains simple historical balance and remembers that the Stalin of 1946 is not the Stalin of 35-40 years ago. Stalin was one of the not-too-many who did not flinch and did not quit. His tenacity stood out. He continued without perturbation to risk his life and freedom. If it is said that there were others like him even in those hard days, it is no less true that there were far more unlike him. Lenin could but see in him perhaps not an inspired but a stubborn organizer, perhaps not a distinguished but a persevering party man, taking prison life or exile in his stride, returning to his party work without a breathing spell. It is not necessary to idealize the pre-war Stalin to understand this.

Such attributes of character as slyness, faithlessness, the ability to exploit the lowest instincts of human nature [writes Trotsky] are developed to an extraordinary degree in Stalin and, considering his strong character, represent mighty weapons in a struggle. Not, of course, any struggle. The struggle to liberate the masses requires other attributes. But in selecting men for privileged positions, in welding them together in the spirit of the caste, in weakening and disciplining the masses, Stalin’s attributes were truly invaluable and rightfully made him a leader of the bureaucratic reaction. [Nevertheless] Stalin remains a mediocrity. His mind is not only devoid of range but is even incapable of logical thinking. Every phrase of his speech has some immediate practical aim. But his speech as a whole never rises to a logical structure.

And again, in dealing with the reaction of the July days between the February and October revolutions, Trotsky writes:

The mass movement had in the meantime weakened considerably. Half of the party had gone underground. The preponderance of the machine had grown correspondingly. Inside of the machine, the rôle of Stalin grew automatically. That law operates unalterably throughout his entire political biography and forms, as it were, its mainspring.

It is hard to contest a single word in the sentences quoted. They describe qualities which explain Stalin’s rise not only in the post-Lenin reaction, but his slower and much more modest rise during Lenin’s lifetime. The incapacity for logical thinking prevented him from developing as an independent political thinker, but he had a quality which enabled him to repeat day in and day out, in his own peculiar style, the simple, hammer-logical ideas of Lenin, and that made him a sufficiently reliable party organizer. His quality of vindictiveness was directed, in the pre-revolutionary days, primarily against backsliders and all other opponents of the party, so that he gave the impression, apart from isolated incidents and expressions of which few could have been aware, of political firmness. Even his quality of exploiting “the lowest instincts of human nature” must, in those days, have taken the form, so far as was generally known, of appealing to the popular hatred of Czarism and its social iniquities.

Stalin’s Positive and Negative Qualities

As for that law which Trotsky calls the mainspring of Stalin’s rôle and evolution – rightly, we believe – its operation, too, was different at different times and under different controls. The period of post-1905 reaction was not the period of mass action. It was a period of trying to hold the party together, of preventing complete disintegration. The party was reduced to its local committees, important in general; exceptionally important in countries with an illegal movement, trebly important in the days of reaction. In the “committee” Stalin felt at home and probably discharged well the task of tasks – imbuing others with tenacity, with contempt for the deserters and liquidators, with contempt for bourgeois public opinion about Bolshevism and especially about its then prevalent “expropriations.”

What held true before 1917 must have held true during and after 1917.

Stalin, by himself, was and certainly is incapable of logical thinking, let alone thinking in terms of revolutionary socialist internationalism and of the Marxian scientific method. He could repeat what Lenin said, not as well as some but better than many. But for that he had to know what Lenin said or thought. When Lenin’s views were not yet known, during the first period after the overturn of Czarism, Stalin showed that he understood Bolshevism to mean that the proletariat, once the autocracy is destroyed, supports bourgeois democracy as a radical but more-or-less loyal opposition. The socialist perspective was only a perspective and a remote one. He supported the bourgeois Kerensky regime “in so far as it is not reactionary” – the same formula that some self-styled Trotskyists today use to support the Stalin regime.

But his rôle before Lenin’s return to Russia did not and could not rule him out of the party leadership, in Lenin’s eyes. Far more prominent leaders of the party took a position not one whit better than Stalin’s and often worse. What’s more, they maintained it more persistently than Stalin. Stalin had made disastrous mistakes from the standpoint of political leadership. But Lenin could not make lasting reproaches for that. He did not regard him as an outstanding political leader in his own right, and consequently did not apply to him the severe criteria to which others had to submit and to which they were, so to speak, entitled. You might almost say that it was Stalin’s very lack of political distinction, the fact that he laid no claim to independence of political and theoretical thought, his very characteristic of reiterating Lenin’s thoughts (even if not very brilliantly), or of carefully reducing his disagreements to brief brushes followed by silent but prompt leaps on to the bandwagon – that made him valuable in the leadership. This is not to be construed in the least as an apology for political servility to the “party chief.” It is simply that, politically speaking, Stalin was most useful when he faithfully repeated, as best he could, the ideas of Lenin. Not laying claim to being a politician in his own right, his errors could all the more easily be corrected.

So far – the negative. But positively, his usefulness in the days of preparing for the insurrection and in the days of the civil war that followed it assured him a place in the leadership, if not an eminent place then a solid place nevertheless. He had a “hand that did not tremble,” and for those who are interested in the revolution getting off the paper to which it is normally confined, this is not a quality to sneeze at. By his very nature and bent, he was able, better than many others, to get the cooperation of all the lower ranks of the party machine – the committeemen of yesterday and today – and to protect the interests of the party, which he identified more and more with the party machine. Where a merciless hand was needed – as it so often is in revolutionary times, the critical observers to the contrary notwithstanding – his was always available, often used and sure to be merciless. In negotiations and such-like activities, he could more often than not be well trusted to represent the interests of the revolution: he had will-power; he could not easily be swayed by arguments of the adversary; his brutality could easily appear as imperious insistence; his cunning and slyness as effective ruse and guile in outwaiting and outwitting the enemy; his penchant for intrigue and forming a clique around himself as a sympathetic and tender ear for the woes and vicissitudes of the misunderstood comrade.

The Committee Man as Leader

In the period of revolutionary rise and under the control of a revolutionary party, not all of Stalin’s characteristics were negative. In the service of the revolution, many of them could be and were put to such uses as explain without too much difficulty his specific place in the leadership and Lenin’s evaluation of him as a leader. A leadership, not on paper, but at the head of a real revolutionary party, cannot be made of men with uniformly high qualifications or with qualifications equally applicable in all fields.

A leadership composed only of Lenins and Trotskys is an alluring but utopian idea. With all things properly arranged, the Zinovievs and Stalins and all other first-class second-raters also find their place in the leadership and enrich its capacities. You cannot have an opera with only lyric sopranos in it, or a complex machine of fine steel without bronze or brass or baser alloys in it.

Calling Trotsky and Stalin the two most able men in the leadership was no mistake on Lenin’s part. As we understand it, he meant that either one of them, by virtue of the qualities each possessed, could hold the party together and lead it – each, that is, in his own way. Zinoviev, Kamenev, Pyatakov, Bukharin – the only other men Lenin mentions in his testament – were all leaders of the highest caliber. All belonged incontestably in the leadership. But none had the qualifications to hold the party firmly together and lead it. But because Lenin was not concerned merely with holding it together but with how it would be held together and by whom, he ended his testament with the appeal to remove, not Trotsky, but Stalin from his post and from his power. The appeal proved unsuccessful.

To explain the rise of Stalin and the unsuccess of Lenin’s appeal – which was at the same time an appeal for the restoration and burgeoning of workers’ democracy – Trotsky wastes little more than a passing comment on the ludicrous and infantile assertion that “Bolshevism leads to Stalinism” which has been popularized in recent years by deserters from the socialist struggle who would like to cover their retreat behind the cloud of a “theory,” and by some helpless and hopelessly disoriented victims of Stalinism who take the odd revenge of supporting Stalin’s claim to Lenin’s succession. One of these “anti-Stalinist” deserters, who, in quick succession, abjured Bolshevism, Trotskyism and socialism itself, and then remembered with such indignation that Marx could not make a respectable living for his family that he sped with unerring instinct to a job which keeps him in the style to which his poetry did not accustom him – now calls himself a “radical democrat.” Irony! If Stalin had not appeared in April 1917, and if the Bolshevik Party had not re-armed itself to make the Bolshevik revolution; and if (what was most unlikely) bourgeois democracy had consolidated itself in Russia – it is more than likely that the “disintegration of Bolshevism” would have taken the form of conversion into the mere left-wing opposition of bourgeois democracy, into the party of “radical democrats,” with Stalin most probably that party’s boss. That was how many Bolshevik leaders, Stalin prominently included, practically conceived of Lenin’s formula of the “democratic dictatorship of proletariat and peasantry” that was to be established on the ruins of Czardom.

But Stalin’s transformation from revolutionist to reactionary – a not uncommon change, unfortunately, as Mussolini showed – did not take place under conditions of the maintenance of bourgeois society, or of its restoration. His transformation is unique. Hence the complications; hence the mystery. To this transformation, Trotsky devotes a long and, alas, the unfinished section of his book. Enough remains of the draft, however, to preclude ambiguity about Trotsky’s views.

Trotsky seeks the cause of the change neither in the alleged adherence of Stalinism in Bolshevism nor in the all-determining power of Stalin’s personal character. He looks instead for those social and political factors which lent themselves to the actual evolution of Stalin and Stalinism and which were, in turn, significantly influenced by this evolution. Risking misunderstanding and vulgarization, Trotsky nevertheless does not hesitate to trace the Stalinist type, in embryo, to the old pre-war Bolshevik militant, the “committeeman.”

We have often heard the argument made in the small revolutionary group: “How can we have bureaucrats among us? Bureaucratism is a social phenomenon. There are bureaucrats in the trade unions, because they have an economic base and stake in capitalism. But among us? Aren’t our officials poorly paid – when they are paid at all? Be a Marxist – show me the economic base for our alleged bureaucratism! You cannot? Then be off with you, and let’s hear no more about bureaucratism in our little revolutionary party!” This is sacred ritual in the SWP, for example. [3] You are puzzled to know if the argument is made out of village ignorance or know-better demagogy. In either case, Trotsky smothers it – for good, we hope – in a couple of paragraphs. He is speaking, understand, of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party, which was small, revolutionary, self-sacrificing from top to bottom, and worse than poor.

The habits peculiar to a political machine were already forming in the underground. The young revolutionary bureaucrat was ready emerging as a type. The conditions of conspiracy, true enough, offered rather meager scope for such of the formalities of democracy as electiveness, accountability and control. Yet undoubtedly the committeemen narrowed these limitations and considerably more than necessity demanded and were far more intransigent and severe with the revolutionary workingmen than with themselves, preferring to domineer even on occasions that called imperatively for lending an attentive ear to the voice of the masses.

One of the keys, and not the least important one, to the mystery of Stalin’s rise, is an understanding of the relationship between the bureaucratism and power of the “committeeman” – “the young revolutionary bureaucrat” – on the one side, and the activity of the masses, their capacities at any given stage for effecting social changes, on the other. It gives clearer meaning to what Trotsky calls the “law” governing the change in the rôle and evolution of Stalin.

Even the Bolshevik Party cadres [Trotsky continues elsewhere], who enjoyed the benefit of exceptional revolutionary training, were definitely inclined to disregard the masses and to identify their own special interests with the interests of the machine on the very day after the monarchy was overthrown. What then could be expected of these cadres when they became an all-powerful state bureaucracy? It is unlikely that Stalin gave this matter any thought. He was flesh of the flesh of the machine and the toughest of its bones.

The Degeneration Takes a New Turn

In the course of the decay of the Bolshevik revolution, these bones acquired such flesh and muscles and flesh and mind and social purpose as nobody expected or foresaw, not Lenin or Trotsky and not even Stalin (in making this last point, Trotsky is entirely correct).

The revolution will flower into socialism provided it is soon followed by successful revolution in the more advanced countries of the West. The very barbarism of Czarist Russia made it possible for the working class of that country to be the first to take socialist power. In this respect, Trotsky’s brilliant theory of the “permanent revolution” was brilliantly confirmed in 1917. But the same barbarism, to mention no other considerations, will prevent the realization of socialism by national efforts alone, This, too, was confirmed, not only tragically but in a unique and unpredicted way. If the revolution in the West does not come, said all the Bolsheviks, our revolution will perish, “Perish” simply meant: capitalism will be restored in Russia; the outside capitalist world will lend its overwhelming forces to the remaining capitalistic elements inside of Russia and crush the workers’ government and its ruling party – all of it.

This did not happen, But the revolution did perish. Given the continued failure of the proletarian revolution to win in the West, the power of the working class was doomed in Russia – nothing else could save it. But if the prospect of maintaining workers’ power in Russia alone was hopeless, the prospect of restoring capitalism in Russia was not hopeful. Fifty years earlier, the failure of the Paris Commune meant its automatic replacement by capitalist rule. First, the revolution that established the Commune was purely spontaneous, unprepared and did not have the enormous advantage of the directing brain and spinal column of a modern revolutionary political party, Second and more important, capitalism everywhere was still on the powerful upswing. The Russian revolution, on the other hand, was planned, prepared for and carried through by an increasingly powerful and integrated political machine, in the best sense of the word. It overthrew a putrescent regime and destroyed almost overnight a small and economically feeble capitalist class, so that whatever capitalistic elements remained in the country, the peasantry primarily, had no important and strong urban counterpart and consequently, no national class capable of giving it leadership in the struggle to restore capitalism. Capitalism cannot be restored or established by the “blind workings” of economy in general, but only by the living classes that these “blind workings” create. The capitalist class of the rest of the world, however – what of it? For reasons we need not dwell on – the fact alone suffices for the moment – it proved incapable of crushing the revolution by armed force in the early years. In the second and, we think, more decisive place, the decay of the revolution – what Trotsky calls the “unwinding process” – took place simultaneously with the decay and agony of capitalist society itself – a most significant conjunction of processes, Trotsky is more correct than is explicit in his own views when he writes: “The Russian Thermidor would have undoubtedly opened a new era of bourgeois rule, if that rule had not proved obsolete throughout the world.”

In agony itself, capitalism could not overturn the workers’ state. Yet the rule of the workers could not be saved. What could be saved, and what was saved, and what was extended and expanded and rooted as deeply as never before were the special privileges of a new bureaucracy. It is in the course of this process that Stalin’s qualities took the form they did, for that is what they were best suited to. In the process he emerged as traitor to the proletarian revolution and, socialism – but hero, and rightly so considered, to the beneficiaries of the new regime.

For reasons already mentioned – more and even more cogent reasons could be adduced without number – the counter-revolution could not take place in the name of capitalist property or in its interests. The reaction in Russia took the form of a vast weariness of the masses. But if they were worn out in the rigorous struggle to maintain socialist power, they were not so worn out as to tolerate, let alone welcome, a restoration of capitalist rule. They would not surrender power to the classes they had overthrown in 1917. In this determination, they were joined not only by the ruling party in general, but by the party bureaucracy in particular. The restoration of capitalism would mean the crushing not only of the working class: but of the bureaucracy as well, whether in its 1923 form or in its form today. Whatever else the bureaucracy is ready to endure, that is a fate that is too much like death; it in no way corresponds to its aspirations or its evolution.

Revolutionary Bureaucrat and Stalinist Bureaucrat

The counter-revolution could be carried through successfully only in the name of the revolution and for its ostensible preservation. What was really involved was the preservation and extension of the privileges and power of the bureaucracy.

Here it is necessary to be most precise, to distinguish between bureaucracy and bureaucracy, to avoid the imprecision which undermines Trotsky’s analysis after a certain point. What must be distinguished, and clearly, is the stratum composed of “the young revolutionary bureaucrat” of the revolutionary and early post-revolutionary period, and the present-day Stalinist bureaucracy. The former was a working-class bureaucracy, or if you please, a revolutionary working-class bureaucracy. Its fate was tied up, consciously and in fact, with the working class, its revolution and its rule. In its struggle against the proletarian socialist opposition (Trotskyism), it reflected, like every labor bureaucracy, the pressure of hostile classes, but it was animated by the conviction that the maintenance and consolidation of the power of the bureaucracy was the only way in which to save the achievement of the socialist revolution itself. In this case, Trotsky is quite right about Stalin when he says that he did not “think through to the social significance of this process in which he was playing the leading rôle.”

But even in this conviction, the bureaucracy was profoundly mistaken. Quite unconsciously, in all probability, it identified its rôle, mutatis mutandis, with the rôle of the bureaucracy in bourgeois society. In the latter case, it is absolutely true that, especially as capitalist society decays, the only way the rule of capitalism can be maintained is by the bourgeoisie surrendering its political power to an all-pervading bureaucracy in order to preserve its social power which is based on the ownership of capital. The contrary is true in the transitional workers’ state. There the political power exercised democratically by the working class can be replaced by a ruling bureaucracy, however beneficient and well-meaning, only in the most exceptional circumstances and for the briefest of periods (civil war, for example), for the decisive reason that the peculiarity of the rule of the working class lies in the fact that if it does not have political power (if it is not the “proletariat raised to political supremacy”), it does not have any power whatsoever and is in no sense the ruling class.

For this fundamental mistake, the already not-so-very “young revolutionary bureaucrats” paid the heaviest toll. After the opening of the factional struggle in the Bolshevik Party, Trotsky repeatedly declared that the party bureaucracy is opening the road to capitalist restoration, is the channel through which capitalism was pouring. This was popularly understood to mean – and Trotsky unfortunately contributed to this misunderstanding by saying it explicitly on more than one occasion – that the bureaucracy aimed at restoring capitalism. Entirely wrong! It could be held to be true only in one specific and limited sense: the bureaucracy was so undermining the revolutionary resistance of the proletariat as to deprive it of the strength with which to fight off the encroaching capitalist restoration which would enslave it as it would crush the power of the bureaucracy itself. As is known, this is not what happened. The bureaucracy could not rule for the proletariat Consequence? It could not rule for itself either!

By the bureaucracy here, we are referring primarily to the old Bolshevik bureaucracy and not to its successors – and exterminators. This cannot be overemphasized. For the proletariat to hold Russia together required the world revolution which would assure a socialist development for Russia. Without the world revolution, the bureaucracy which shouldered out the working class not only could not assure a socialist development for Russia but could not hold it together. That bureaucracy took several political forms: from the “trinity” of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin which began the open struggle against “Trotskyism,” i.e., workers’ rule – down to the “all Leninist” bloc of Stalin-Bukharin-Tomsky. It continually weakened the proletariat, undermined its will and power, and brought such chaos into the country as threatened its very integrity. Again and again, “the revolutionary bureaucracy” a, a substitute for the proletariat could not hold the country together, could not give it any kind of strength.

What was needed was a “new corps of slave-drivers” (as Trotsky calls it in another book) – what we call the new ruling class in Stalinist Russia, bureaucratic-collectivist Russia. The decaying “revolutionary bureaucracy” contributed not a few members to this new ruling class, but the two are by no mean, identical. That is why the achievement and consolidation of power by the new bureaucracy was preceded not only by the destruction of the working-class socialist opposition (Trotskyism) but also by the political and physical destruction of all the Zinovievists, all the Bukharinists, all the “conciliators,” all the capitulators and virtually all the original Stalinist cadres as well, that is, all the sections, wings, tendencies, strata of the Bolshevik Party. This important fact is obscured but not refuted by the accidental and purely personal phenomenon of the presence in the leadership of the new regime of a handful of the old revolutionists (that is, ex-revolutionists) like Stalin, Molotov and a very few others, a phenomenon with little more significance than the accidental presence in the leadership of the fascist regime of ex-socialists like Mussolini and another handful of turncoats like him.

The fact is symbolically but inadequately represented in a significant passage in Trotsky:

The bloc with Zinoviev and Kamenev restrained Stalin. Having undergone long periods of schooling under Lenin, they appreciated the value of ideas and programs. Although from time to time they indulged in monstrous deviations from the platform of Bolshevism and in violations of its ideological integrity, all under the guise of military subterfuge, they never transgressed certain limits. But when the triumvirate split, Stalin found himself released from all ideological restraints.

The passage would be adequate if put in other terms. The Zinovievs, and even the Bukharins (in another way), represented the “revolutionary bureaucracy” and only deviated however monstrously, from Bolshevism, that is, from the concept of workers’ power and socialism. The Stalin of today and the class he defends represent an irreconcilable break with Bolshevism, an anti-working class force in every respect, including the most fundamental.

Stalin: Logical Leader of New Class

To bring this new reactionary class to absolute power was a task which, however unconsciously performed, coincided with Stalin’s personal ambitions and was enormously facilitated by his personal characteristics. For this task, he was eminently indicated and useful. Who could more easily lead in the destruction of Bolshevism and the Bolsheviks in the very name of Bolshevism – an old monarchist or Menshevik or an old Bolshevik? Who could more lightly undo the basic achievement of the revolution – the establishment of the working masses as the ruling class – than one who felt organically alien to the masses, who saw in them nothing more than an instrument for the revolutionary “committeemen” whom he regarded as the only safe repository of what he understood by socialism? To whom would socialist science and Marxian tradition be a more superfluous burden when sailing before the winds of social reaction than to a man who never fully grasped them at his best and who regarded them as the toys of intellectuals at his worst? His very incapacity for logical thinking was invaluable in the performance of his social task. The rising bourgeoisie was capable of logical thought, of logical presentation of its historic claims to the public and in the name of progress. The rising proletariat, in its socialist form, is even more capable of doing the same thing and under an even greater necessity to do so. The new ruling bureaucracy in Stalinist Russia need not present an “independent program” in its own name, or in the name of logic. In fact, it cannot, by its very nature, do so. Bastard of history, it can do nothing but falsify history and falsify thought. Given his character, it found in Stalin its eminently “logical” exponent. Will-power to destroy a revolution in its own name, nerveless brutality in the execution of as monstrous a task as history knows, craftiness of the highest (lowest?) order in the successive cutting down of one section of Bolshevism” after another or in getting one section to cut down another until there was nothing left – these qualities were required in highly-developed form. Stalin had them.

By himself he accomplished nothing, nor could he. He had social winds in his sails. He was pushed – with what degree of consciousness on his part or theirs is hard to say – by a gathering and powerful social force, the new bureaucracy. It saw in him, all things considered, an ideal representative. It did not hesitate to use the more-or-less capitalistic peasantry to destroy the power of the proletariat and the revolutionists. But not, by Heaven! for the sake of the peasantry or any capitalistic claimant to power. Restore capitalism? Why? In his important appendix to the biography, Trotsky says, without any supporting argument (we do not think there is any) that “the Stalinist bureaucracy is nothing else than the first stage of bourgeois restoration.” In the text, however, Trotsky writes differently and far, far more correctly. The struggle between the new bureaucracy and the petty bourgeoisie

“was a direct struggle for power and for income. Obviously the bureaucracy did not rout the proletarian vanguard, pull free from the implications of the international revolution, and legitimize the philosophy of inequality in order to capitulate before the bourgeoisie, become the latter’s servant, and be eventually itself pulled away from the state feed-bag.”

And further on:

“To guard the nationalization of the means of production and the land, is the bureaucracy’s law of life and death, for these are the social sources of its dominant position.”

A thousand times right! To understand it is to begin to produce the necessary corrective in Trotsky’s old position which is implicitly abandoned in the above passages. The “social sources” of the bureaucracy’s dominance are assured them, however, only by virtue of their political power, their control of the state – just as the nationalized means of production were the social sources of the proletariat’s dominance only when it was assured of political power. Political power, and therefore all power, to the bureaucracy is what Stalin’s triumph gave this new ruling class. More – far more – than any other individual, he so organized the “new corps of slave-drivers” and its system of exploitation so as to build up the mightiest (we do not say “the most durable” but only “the mightiest”) of Russian Empires and thus endowed the slave-drivers as a whole with the greatest power and privilege a ruling class ever enjoyed.

The “Great Man” Theory

What does this achievement, which it would be foolish to deny, do for Stalin as an historical figure? The recent “controversy” over the question: “Is Stalin a great man?” seems to us academic and sterile, a semantic quarrel at best. Everything here depends on your criteria. The English aristocracy still looks upon the great Napoleon as nothing but a miserable monster; the French damn Robespierre as a perverse gnome and – the Stalinists now glorify Ivan the Terrible. It can be freely admitted that Stalin was “underestimated” in the past, but only because, in our view, the social capacities of the new bureaucracy (which should not now, in turn, be overestimated) on which he bases himself were underestimated.

Trotsky is right, we think, in arguing that even Stalin’s rise to a super-Caesaro-Papist totalitarian dictatorship is not due to his “genius.” He was pushed to power by the bureaucracy which has no small share in the enjoyment of it. Yet the fact is that as he moved toward his power, Stalin pulled the new bureaucracy along with him, assembled it, gave it what self-confidence it has, codified and assured its privileges and, in general, lifted it to power next to his own throne.

To imagine that the bureaucrats look upon him as a mediocrity is to imagine that they have greater intellectual and cultural capacities than he, greater devotion to ideals in general or socialism in particular. Nothing of the sort is true. The ruling bureaucracy idealizes and worships Stalin with a certain enthusiasm and conviction, to say nothing of gratitude. To them he is a great man, perhaps the greatest in history, and according to their lights they are not far from right. How many men can you find in history who have been so ruthless and thoroughgoing in establishing and protecting the power of a ruling class? Bukharin compared Stalin with Genghis Khan. There is a big difference – the difference between primitive Asiatic despotism riding on Mongol ponies, as it were, and modern totalitarian tyranny whose GPU rides tractors and tanks. From the standpoint of the Stalinist bureaucracy, its Vozhd is by far the greater of the two!

There is another standpoint. The great man is the one who by thought or deed or both, and under whatever circumstances, by whatever methods or for whatever class, helped lift mankind a few feet closer to the light, helped it to acquire greater knowledge of itself, greater mastery over nature and society so that it might more speedily free itself from subjection to nature and from all physical and intellectual fetters. From this standpoint, it is doubtful if Stalin qualifies even as the “outstanding mediocrity” of Bolshevism. In measuring Stalin, Trotsky could not but employ the criterion which is, in our times, if not the only one, then at least the overwhelmingly decisive one: What contribution has he made to advancing the cause of working-class emancipation? Hounded into obscure exile, isolated, writing in the shadow of an assassin in the hire of the all-powerful victor, Trotsky gave his answer: “To me, in mind and feeling, Stalin’s unprecedented elevation represents the very deepest fall.” We who continue to share the deep-seated socialist convictions which sustained Trotsky to the very end, share this terribly just judgment and comprehend it to the full. No great man ever wore to his death, as Stalin will, the brand of Cain and the stigma of traitor.

Max Shachtman


1. Stalin, An Appraisal of the Man and His Influence, by Leon Trotsky. 421 pp. with appendix, glossary and index. Illustrated. Translated by Charles Malamuth, Harper & Bros., New York, $5.00.

2. Between brackets to be sure, and on his own responsibility, the translator permits himself such phrases as “the vaunted democracy of the Soviets” and “centralization, that sure precursor of totalitarianism” and “‘the rule or ruin’ attitude of the Bolsheviks,” to cite a few. Trotsky never used and never could use such phraseology, with all it implies, and would never have authorized their use by his translator, even as bracketed-off interpolations. They are an offense both to the author and the readers, and mar a felicitous translation.

3. This is no doubt one of the reasons why Trotsky’s work received such curt and indifferent – even cool – treatment in the SWP press, especially when contrasted to the whole series of unrestrained eulogies written on the “work” of the SWP chief, which is a studied apology for bureaucratism.

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 13.9.2008