Leon Trotsky

Twenty Years of Stalinist Degeneration


Written: 1938.
First Published: In Russian, The Bulletin of the Russian Opposition, May–June 1938, No. 66–67, pp. 19–21.
Source: Fourth International [New York], Vol. 6 No. 3 (Whole No. 52), March 1945, pp. 87–89.
Translated: John G. Wright.
Transcription/HTML Markup: David Walters.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2002. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

EDITOR’S NOTE: With the defeat of the German revolution in 1923 and the resulting isolation of the proletarian revolution in a backward country under the conditions of capitalist encirclement, a process of degeneration set in the USSR which is reaching, under the impact of the war, its culminating stages today. The usurping bureaucracy headed by Stalin is the fountainhead of this degeneration.

From the beginning Leon Trotsky studied and analyzed this process, not as an observer but as a direct participant in the struggle to regenerate the Soviet Union, a struggle inseparable from the struggle to spread the Socialist revolution throughout Europe and the whole world. In a whole series of writings, Trotsky demonstrated that the maintenance of Stalin’s regime is incompatible with the needs of the Soviet masses and the preservation of the first workers’ state. The pre-condition for the regeneration of the USSR is the overthrow by the workers of the Kremlin’s rule and the restoration of Soviet democracy. Failing this, the development could proceed only in the direction of the triumph of the capitalist counter-revolution on the territories of the USSR.

This historical alternative was posed by the Trotskyist movement more than a decade ago. It is posed in the article which appears below and which was written in 1938 shortly after the termination of the infamous Moscow Trials and the accompanying blood purges.

In order to correctly answer the question raised in the title of this article, it is first of all necessary to establish the difference between the basic conquest of the October Revolution - nationalized property - and the policy pursued by the present government. There is a contradiction between the revolutionary form of property and the Thermidorian, i.e. reactionary, policy. But up to the present this policy has been unable or hasn’t dared or hasn’t succeeded in as yet overthrowing the revolutionary form of property. The incumbent government’s tendencies are diametrically opposed to the program of Bolshevism. But inasmuch as the institutions erected by the revolution still continue to exist, the bureaucracy is compelled to externally adapt its tendencies to the old principles of Bolshevism: it continues to swear by the covenants of October; it invokes the interests of the proletariat and invariably refers to the Soviet system as Socialist. One may say without risking a blunder that in the history of mankind there has never been a government so given to lies and hypocrisy as the Soviet bureaucracy of today.

In and of itself the preservation of state ownership of the means of production is of enormous progressive significance, inasmuch as with the aid of planned economy this permits of attaining a swift development of the productive forces. True, the economic statistics issued by the bureaucracy do not merit any confidence: they systematically exaggerate successes while concealing failures. It is nonetheless unthinkable to deny the fact that even today the Soviet Union’s productive forces are still developing at a tempo that was not and is not known in any other country in the world. Whoever refuses to see this side of the case, identifying the Soviet regime with fascism—as, for example, does Max Eastman—throws out, as the Germans say, the baby with the dirty bath-water. The development of the productive forces is the fundamental factor of human culture. Without increasing man’s power over nature it is impossible even to think of destroying the rule of man over man. Socialism cannot be erected on backwardness and poverty. The technical premise of Socialism has taken an enormous forward step in the Soviet Union in the course of these twenty years.

However, least of all is this the merit of the bureaucracy. On the contrary, the ruling caste has become transformed into the greatest brake upon the development of the productive forces. Socialist economy must by its very essence take as its guide the interests of the producers and the needs of the consumers. These interests and needs can find their expression only through the medium of a full-flowering democracy of producers and consumers. Democracy, in this particular case, is not some sort of abstract principle. It is the one and only conceivable mechanism for preparing the Socialist system of economy, and realizing it in life.

Workers Expropriated Politically

The incumbent ruling clique has replaced Soviet, party, trade-union and cooperative democracy by the domineering of functionaries. But a bureaucracy, even one composed entirely of geniuses, could not assure from its bureaus the necessary proportions between all branches of economy, that is, the necessary correspondence between production and consumption. What the lexicon of Stalin’s justice designates as “sabotage,” is in reality one of the evil consequences of bureaucratic methods of domineering. The manifestations of disproportion, wastefulness and entanglement, constantly increasing, threaten to undermine the very foundations of planned economy. The bureaucracy invariably seeks “the guilty one.” Such in the majority of cases is the secret meaning of the Soviet trials of saboteurs.

To find an explanation of the existing regime in Stalin’s personal “lust for power” is far too superficial. Stalin is not an individual but a caste symbol. Power is not something incorporeal. Power enables one to dispose of and appropriate material values. Naturally, complete equality cannot be attained in a single leap. A certain differentiation in labor payments is dictated at the given stage in the interests of raising labor productivity. However, of decisive importance in evaluating the nature of society is the following question: Is the society evolving in the direction of equality or in the direction of privileges? The answer to this question does not leave room for any doubts whatever. The differentiation of [Soviet] society has long exceeded the limits of economic necessity. The material privileges of the bureaucracy have grown like a glacier. Fearful of their isolation from the masses, the bureaucracy seeks to create a new labor and kolkhoz aristocracy under the banner of Stakhanovism.

The division of national income in its turn determines the political regime. The ruling caste cannot permit a producers’-consumers’ democracy for the simple reason that it ruthlessly despoils both the producers and the consumers. One may accept as an established fact that the bureaucracy devours not less than half of the national consumption fund, taking of course into account not only living quarters, food, clothing, means of transport and communication but also educational institutions, press, literature, sports, cinema, radio, theatres, museums and so. We can therefore with complete justification say that although the bureaucracy is still compelled to adapt itself to the institutions and traditions of the October Revolution, its policy, which expresses its own interests, is directly opposed to the interests of the people and of Socialism.

Role of Soviet Bureaucracy

The same basic contradiction can be corroborated in all other spheres of social life, such as the state, the army, the family, the school, culture, science, art and so on.

From the standpoint of Marxism, the state is a machine whereby one class rules over another. The dictatorship of the proletariat is only a temporary institution, indispensable to the toilers for coping with the resistance of the exploiters and for destroying exploitation. In a society without classes the state, as an apparatus of coercion, must gradually wither away and become replaced by the free self-administration of producers and consumers. But what do we observe in reality? Twenty years after the revolution the Soviet state has become the most centralized, despotic and bloodthirsty apparatus of coercion and compulsion. The evolution of the Soviet state therefore proceeds in complete contradiction with the principles of the Bolshevik program. The reason for it is to be found in this, that society, as has already been said, is evolving not towards Socialism but towards the regeneration of social contradictions. Should the process continue in this direction, it must inevitably lead to the rebirth of classes, the liquidation of planned economy and the restoration of capitalist property. The state regime will in that case inevitably become fascist.

The October Revolution proclaimed as one of its tasks: to dissolve the army in the people. It was presumed that the armed forces would be built on the militia principle. Only this type of army organization, making the people the armed master of their own fate, corresponds to the nature of Socialist society. In the course of the first decade systematic preparation was made for the transition from a barracks-army, to a militia-army. But from the moment when the bureaucracy succeeded in crushing every manifestation of working class independence, it openly transformed the army into an instrument of its own domination. The militia system has been completely set aside. An army of two million is now a purely barracks-army in character. An officer caste with Generals and Marshals has been reinstituted. From an instrument of Socialist defense the army has been turned into an instrument of defense of the bureaucracy’s privileges. Things however did not stop there. The struggle between Stalin’s narrow clique and the more authoritative and talented military leaders, genuinely devoted to the interests of defense, has led to the beheading of the Red Army.

The position of woman is the most graphic and telling indicator for evaluating a social regime and state policy. The October Revolution inscribed on its banner the emancipation of womankind and created the most progressive legislation in history on marriage and the family. This does not mean, of course, that a “happy life” was immediately in store for the Soviet woman. Genuine emancipation of women is inconceivable without a general rise of economy and culture, without the destruction of the petty-bourgeois economic family unit, without the introduction of socialized food preparation, and education. Meanwhile, guided by its conservative instinct, the bureaucracy has taken alarm at the “disintegration” of the family. It began singing panegyrics to the family supper and the family laundry, that is the household slavery of woman. To cap it all the bureaucracy has restored criminal punishment for abortions, officially returning women to the status of pack animals. In complete contradiction with the ABC of Communism the ruling caste has thus restored the most reactionary and blackest nucleus of the class regime, i.e. the petty bourgeois family.

A Graphic Indicator

The situation is not much better in the field of culture. The growth of productive forces created the material premise for a new culture. But the development of culture is unthinkable without criticism, without faltering and error, without independent creative work, in a word, without the awakening of the human personality. The bureaucracy, however, refuses to tolerate independent thought in a single field of creative activity. And in its own way it is right: should criticism awaken in the sphere of art or pedagogy, it will inevitably become directed against the bureaucracy, against its privileges, against its ignorance and its arbitrary rule. Herein is to be found the explanation for the fact that the “purge,” having started with the party, penetrated later into all spheres of social life without exception. With “Trotskyism” as the token, the GPU “purges” poets, astronomers, pedagogues and musicians, and therewith the best heads come under the muzzle of revolvers. Is it conceivable under such conditions to talk of “Socialist” culture?

In the sphere of ordinary literacy the successes are unquestionable. Tells of millions have learned how to read and write. Parallel with this, however, they have been deprived of the right to express their views and their interests through the medium of the printed word. The press serves only the bureaucracy. The so-called “Socialist” poets have the right to write only hymns to Stalin. The same right is bequeathed to the prose writers. The population is duty-bound to read these hymns. The same thing takes place with regard to cinema, radio, theater and so on. A new prize-winning textbook on Russian history has been recently introduced in the schools. One can say without exaggeration that this textbook consists solely of falsifications, the aim of which is to justify the despotism of the bureaucracy and the personal autocracy of Stalin. Even textbooks on the history of the Catholic Church, published with the approval of the Vatican, are models of scientific conscientiousness in comparison with the Stalinized textbooks in the USSR. Tens of millions of children’s heads are infected and poisoned by this meretricious literature.

The October Revolution proclaimed the right of every nation not only to an independent cultural development but also to state separation. As a matter of fact, the bureaucracy has transformed the Soviet Union into a new prison-house of the peoples. True enough, the national language and the national school continue to exist: in this sphere the mightiest despotism can no longer turn back the wheel of evolution. But the language of the various nationalities is not an organ of their independent development, but the organ of bureaucratic domineering over them. The governments of the national republics are, naturally, appointed by Moscow, or to put it more precisely, by Stalin. But the astonishing thing is that two score and ten of these governments suddenly turn out to have consisted of “enemies of the people” and agents of a foreign government. Behind this accusation, which rings far too rudely and ludicrously even on the lips of Stalin and Vyshinsky, there lurks in reality the fact that, in the national republics, functionaries, even those appointed by the Kremlin, fall into dependence upon local conditions and moods and become gradually infected with an oppositional spirit against the stifling centralism of Moscow. They begin dreaming or talking about replacing the “beloved leader” and relaxing the steel tentacles. This is the real reason why all the national republics of the USSR, were recently beheaded.


It is hard to find in history an example of reaction uncolored by anti-Semitism. This peculiar historical law is likewise completely corroborated nowadays in the Soviet Union. In his interesting, though not profound, book, Assignment in Utopia, Eugene Lyons, who spent many years in Moscow, relates how the bureaucracy exploited systematically, even if covertly, anti-Semitic prejudices in order to entrench its rule. And how can it be otherwise? Bureaucratic centralism is unthinkable without chauvinism, while anti-Semitism has always been the line of least resistance so far as chauvinism is concerned.

In the sphere of foreign policy, in the course of these twenty years there has occurred a turn no less drastic than in internal policies. Only from inertia, or with some hidden thought in mind does the bourgeois reaction continue to indict Stalin as the inspirer of world revolution. As a matter of fact, the Kremlin has become one of the pillars of the conservative law and order. The period when the Moscow government used to tie up the fate of the Soviet Republic with the fate of the world proletariat and of the oppressed peoples of the East has been left far behind. Apart from the question of whether the policy of the “People’s Front” is good or bad, it happens to be the traditional policy of Menshevism against which Lenin fought all his life. It signals the renunciation of the proletarian revolution in favor of conservative bourgeois democracy. The ruling Moscow caste seeks today one thing and one thing only: to abide in peace with all the ruling classes.

The contradiction between the October Revolution and the Thermidorian bureaucracy found its most dramatic expression in the annihilation of the old generation of the Bolsheviks. Vyshinsky, Yezhov, Troyanovsky, Maiski, agents of the Comintern and the GPU, journalists of the Dwianty-Louis Fisher type, attorneys of the Pritt type, will not dupe world public opinion. Not a single serious person any longer believes that hundreds of old revolutionists, leaders of the Bolshevik Party under [Czarist] illegality, leaders of the Civil War, revolutionary Soviet diplomats, military heads of the Red Army, heads of 30 national Soviet Republics, became all at once and as if by command-agents of fascism. The New York Committee of Investigation, comprising of impeccable and impartial people, found, after nine months’ work, the Moscow Trials to be the most grandiose counterfeit in human history.

Today the issue is not that of proving that Zinoviev, Kamenev, Smirnov, Pyatakov, Serebryakov, Sokolnikov, Radek, Rakovsky, Krestinsky, Tukhachevsky and hundreds of others had fallen victims of a frame-up. This has been proved. What is at issue is to explain how and why the Kremlin clique could have risked undertaking so monstrous a frame-up. The answer to this flows from everything that has preceded.

Insolvable Contradiction

In its struggle for power and revenue the bureaucracy is compelled to lop-off and batter down those groups who are connected with the past, who know and remember the program of the October Revolution, who are sincerely devoted to the tasks of Socialism. The slaying of old Bolsheviks and of Socialist elements among the middle-aged and youngest generation are the necessary links in the chain of anti-October reaction. That is why the accuser-prosecutor at the trials came forward in the person of a former White Guardist, Vyshinsky. That is why, the USSR is represented in Washington by a former White Guardist, Troyanovsky, and in London by a former Minister of Kolchak, Maisky. And so on and so forth. The necessary people turn up in the necessary places.

Hardly anyone will permit himself to be duped by the farce of the recent Moscow elections. Hitler and Goebbels have more than once perpetrated exactly the same thing, in exactly the same way. One need only read what the Soviet press itself has written concerning Hitler’s plebiscites in order to grasp the secret of Stalin’s “success.” Totalitarian parliamentary experiments testifies only this: that once all the parties have been crushed, including one’s own; once the trade unions have been strangled; once the press, the radio and the cinema have been subordinated to the Gestapo or the GPU; if bread and work are given only to the docile or the silent, while a revolver is placed at the temple of every voter-then it is possible to achieve “unanimous” elections. But this unanimity is neither eternal nor stable. The traditions of the October Revolution have disappeared from the official arena, but they continue to live in the memory of the masses. Under the cover of juridical and electoral frame-ups the contradictions continue to deepen and cannot fail to lead to an explosion. The reactionary bureaucracy has to be overthrown and it will be overthrown. The political revolution in the USSR is inevitable. It will signify the liberation of the elements of the new society from the yoke of the usurping bureaucracy. Only if this condition is given will the USSR be able to develop in the direction of Socialism.

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Last updated on: 12 September 2015