Back to Main Document Index  |  Back to Trotsky Encyclopedia Home Page  |  Revolution Unfinished? Index


Paul Thompson & Guy Lewis

The Revolution Unfinished?

2. Trotsky and the degeneration of the revolution


This involves examining Trotsky’s early ideas in the Russian and general historical context. A wider and more general examination of Trotsky’s theories comes in the later section – The political basis of modern Trotskyism.

Stalinism, bureaucracy and the nature of the regime

The struggle of the Left Opposition (LO) is primarily remembered for its assertion of proletarian democracy against the bureaucracy. Yet Trotsky, in particular, always had a remarkably shallow and blinkered analysis of bureaucracy and the question of democracy and its suppression. Right up to the end Trotsky always maintained that early restrictions of democracy, whether political (the other parties; within the Bolsheviks), or “economic” (the factory committees; the soviets; the unions) – were the product of the backward and chaotic material environment, only becoming unnecessary with the growth of Stalinism.

We have already stated that the conditions did impose heavy limitations on the Bolsheviks: when every democratic debate threatened to exacerbate the tensions in society and threaten the collapse of the revolutionary process. Yet it is impossible to maintain that what was necessary before 1922, was unnecessary afterwards. As we have explained, this contradictory position was precisely used by Stalin against the Trotskyist opposition, when time and again their own words were used against them. It was one of the greatest defects of Trotsky and the Trotskyist tradition to have failed to face up to the contradictions within Leninism and the Bolsheviks; the tensions between proletarian democracy and authoritarianism. These tensions were not just a product of the material conditions, they were partially linked to certain aspects of Leninist theory and its context (which we examine later in Section 5b – Party, class and epoch).

While the revolution was going forward and the masses had independent organs of power themselves in the form of factory committees and soviets: the gap between party and class remained small, the living dialectic remained. And we must remember that the Bolsheviks were the only weapon the working class could possibly use to capture and maintain state power. But when the situation deteriorated, the gap widened, the elitist strand became stronger, precisely because die material situation dictated the terms. There was, however room for manoeuvre to close the gap. It was a small space, but it would determine the future of the revolution. Unfortunately, the Bolsheviks felt impelled to take the pessimistic road, limiting the powers of soviets and factory committees (as early as 1918), appointing functionaries from above, setting up the CHEKA, suppressing internal debate in the party. In general, taking an all-powerful role – political, administrative, social and economic, in the process swelling its ranks with administrators, managers and functionaries inherited from the bourgeois ranks of Czarist Russia.

All this happened with Trotsky’s approval or acquiescence, whilst he was still holding the reins of power. Yet he maintained that the de-generation was not a danger before 19221 It is little wonder that Trotsky consistently underestimated the degreee to which the prel 922 measures destroyed the working class as a political force, sealing it inside an apathetic and cynical passivity. Having aided the conditions for passivity and suppression of democracy inside and outside the party, it was futile to expect, as Trotsky did, that the proletariat would re-emerge as a social force in the struggle against the bureaucracy – or that inner-party democracy could be restored once the freedom of debate had been stifled and the banning of factions imposed during Lenin’s lifetime. This merely gave the go-ahead for a powerful party apparatus to emerge and consolidate its power.

Trotsky’s inability to see the links between pre- and post-1922 extends to the question of the Communist International. The way that Stalin “Bolshevised” and used the Comintern to crush revolution and manipulate foreign Communist Parties in the interests of “socialism in one country” could only have taken place in the context of the degree of control and “Bolshevisation” carried out by Trotsky and Zinoviev. In the early years they imposed the Russian pattern of political strategy and structure on the humble and diverse foreign Communist Parties. But again the links go largely unacknowledged by Trotsky and modern Trotskyists.

What we have said does not mean that we share the reactionary belief common to ultra-left and bourgeois commentators alike that Stalinism was a direct product of Leninism. Let Victor Serge comment on this:

It is often said that the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning. Well I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism contained a mass of other germs – and those who lived through the first years of the first revolution ought not to forget it. To judge the living man by the death germs, which the autopsy reveals in a corpse – is this very sensible? (From Memoirs of a Revolutionary)

The bureaucracy

Trotsky’s shallow analysis of relationships between party and class would not be so serious if they were not accompanied by an equally superficial understanding of the bureaucracy and the nature of the regime. Despite the ferocity of his struggle against it, Trotsky always underestimated and misrepresented the bureaucracy. He regarded it as a parasitical layer on a healthy body, a “morbid outgrowth on the working class”, as he once put it. That “healthy body” was the “workers’ state” based on:

The nationalisation of the land, the means of industrial production, transport and exchange, together with the monopoly of foreign trade constitutes the basis of the Soviet social structure. Through these relations, established by the proletarian revolution, the nature of the Soviet Union as a proletarian state is for us basically defined. (Trotsky: The Revolution Betrayed)

Leaving aside for a moment the characterisation of the regime as a “workers’ state” – the error was that by viewing the bureaucracy as an unstable parasite, the analysis separated it from its real role and functions. As we indicated previously, Trotsky consistently underestimated the power and independence of the bureaucracy, claiming it had no programme or social backing. But its “programme” was unmediated power and its social backing were the very forces it was creating itself. That is, the uncontrolled party/state apparatus, directing the organs of economic control and the means of terror and repression. The bureaucracy became an independent power in itself, it did not need direct social backing in other class forces, because its strength lay in the ability to keep those forces fragmented, powerless and terrorised.

The inability of Trotsky to recognise this, in fact was partially derived from a tradition of Marxism, which linked classes and class struggle to the existence of private property relations. Instead we have to examine how bureaucratic, control over new economic forces and property relations creates the conditions for new class forces with their own interests and privileges to arise. While the bureaucracy had to (and still has to ) balance the aspirations of other class forces, this was a strength, not a weakness as Trotsky saw it. This was because they had sufficient distance and control, through hierarchy and terror, to maintain that balancing process.

Trotsky preferred to see the inner-party and bureaucratic battles as solely ideological clashes, reflecting wider social trends; once saying:

Even episodic differences in views and nuances of opinion may express the remote presence of distinct social interests. (The New Course, p.21)

His underestimation of the importance of the power battle between Zinoviev and Stalin and his characterisation of the Bukharinites as agents of the Thermidor (reaction) are only two examples of this mistaken political position in action. While it is true that such clashes do often represent underlying social trends – they have their own specific political level. Here is one of the most important roots of Trotsky’s defective theories of bureaucracy, his failure to recognise the autonomy of the political sphere. He relapses into what Krasso calls “sociologism”, that is the reduction of political processes to the movements of social forces/classes. [1] Trotsky was always a genius for grasping the fluidity and movement of social classes and trends, as will be shown in other sections, but he tended to abstract and idealise them, making them the determinant of everything. Thus he failed to acknowledge that a political apparatus, through its control of the state and the economy, could have its own interests and logic of development, partially above other forces. It ceased to be a temporary and artificial creation “simply using the old label of Bolshevism, the better to fool the masses”, as Trotsky said in one of his less enlightened moments. Trotsky’s view that at one stage the bureaucratic deformations in the Party could be overcome by the re-proletarianisation of Party cells is another instance of “sociologism”.

For us, in this period, the bureaucracy was a distinct and autonomous social layer, characterised by its total control of the political-economic apparatus, impossible to separate from the so-called “healthy body” of the basic infrastructures of Russian society. In this sense, it meant that the new mode of production and all social relations had a “bureaucratic” character. The control and nature of work, cultural life, the position of women in the family and political structures are only examples of spheres where either little was changed, progressive measures gradually eliminated or new hierarchical form and content emerged. For instance, industry did not simply lack workers’ control or independent trade unions, it was dominated by capitalist work methods and management techniques, including Taylorism and “one-man management”. Trotsky, while admitting that the working class did not in any way control the state, kept the myth of a workers state because of the existence of an economy he wrongly defined as “healthy”. As long a the bureaucracy defended it against “capitalist encroachment” it would remain a workers’ state – again he made the mistake of seeing the forces of degeneration solely as external to the dynamic of the bureaucracy. To maintain that nationalised property etc. equals a workers’ state is to abstract property relations from the mode of production as a whole, and to ignore the total social and political relationships involved in the whole of economy and society. It is responsible for the reduction by the Trotskyist tradition of the problem to “good base – bad superstructure”.

Defeating the regime

This determines the weakness of the Trotskyist solution to the problem of bureaucracy in transitional societies – i.e. the need for a political revolution. A revolution that initially seeks to change the state personnel, but does not transform the supposedly “healthy body” of the “workers’ state”. The degeneration of the state is seen at the political level only; when in fact any revolution must be social and material, as the bureaucratic character of production and society in general is in the traditional Marxist sense a “fetter on the development of productive forces”. It supresses working class creativity and involvement in all spheres of life. The character of the state machine is such that it cannot be reformed or restored. There is nothing to restore – the working class has no power, there are no soviets, the trade unions are paper institutions. The, state is run by a class hostile to working class power, using “Marxism-Leninism” as an ideology to hide the real situation.

We must be clear that while new class forces and hierarchical social relations were emerging, the bureaucracy was not yet a class. Classes are formed in an historical relationship with other classes and social forces. The bureaucracy was a “class-in-formation” throughout the 1920s and 30s because certain conditions had not been fulfilled, so that it could come to have a vital class characteristic – a consciousness of its own interests and unity. This required firstly, that all remains of opposition be suppressed, whether Trotskyist revolutionaries on the left, or old-guard bureaucrats on the right. It is remarkable and tragic that of the 24 people on the Bolshevik Central Committee of 1917, only Stalin remained in 1938. The rest had either died, been murdered by Stalin or had conveniently “disappeared”. The second paradoxical condition was the death of Stalin. His personal dictatorship and terror apparatus had distorted the functioning of a new class system.

Permanent revolution

One of the strongest points of Trotsky’s theories was his critique of “socialism in one country”, and its effects on Russia’s political and economic development and the progress of revolution abroad. Yet even here there are decisive weaknesses which add to his failure to grasp the dialectic of transition from capitalism to socialism.

Both Trotsky and Lenin provided the theoretical basis for the Bolsheviks to understand that the revolutionary process did not and could not go through separate stages. The bourgeoisie was too weak and subordinate to the old Czarist regime to carry through a “democratic” revolution. The peasantry, while large sections were potential allies of the working class, was in Russia too distant from the unfolding process of struggle and in some aspects too fragmented to play a leading role. This meant that the urban working class was the central revolutionary force and the means of providing continuity between the democratic and socialist tasks of the revolutionary process. Trotsky understood this and stated it in his theory of “permanent revolution”. It played an important role in successfully developing Bolshevik strategy. Yet it had weaknesses. In section 5d we will show how firstly it underestimated the necessity for distinct phases and tasks, despite the continuity, and secondly how it failed to understand how the working class built an alliance with the peasantry, instead regarding the relationship as one of subordination. This has passed on a legacy to Trotskyism which consistently underestimates the revolutionary potential of the peasantry and their achievements, in China and throughout the “Third World”. Lenin’s concept of the “democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants” provided a better basis for understanding both these problems. (see Mavrakis, Chapter 2)

In this section we want to look at permanent revolution in relation to “foreign policy”. There is no doubt that again the theory of permanent revolution played an important part in the Bolsheviks’ understanding that Russia, in isolation and backwardness, could not develop into complete socialism without revolution in some of the advanced capitalist countries. This gave the Bolsheviks a firm basis for a revolutionary foreign policy. But in the early years neither Lenin nor Trotsky were foolish enough to pin all their hopes on such developments, especially after the German defeat and the necessity for the New Economic Policy (NEP) in Russia. Trotsky himself wrote:

Needless to say, under no circumstances are we striving for a narrow “national” communism: the raising of the blockade and the European revolution all the more, would introduce the most radical alterations into our economic plan, cutting down the stages of development and bringing them together. But we do not know when these event will take place; and we must act in a way that we can hOld out and become stronger under the most unfavourable circumstances – that is to say, in face of the slowest conceivable development of European and world revolution. (From Terrorism and Communism – 1920)

Hence Trotsky held the essentially correct dialectical position, but unfortunately he was not to maintain it. After Lenin’s death and Stalin’s rise to power, the situation changed.

Stalin’s strategy was based on the idea of “socialism in one country”. Despairing of revolution abroad and surrounded by people lacking international political understanding and culture, Stalin embarked on what Colletti (The Question of StalinNew Left Review, No.61) has called a policy of “national restoration”. A policy that ignored and distorted previous Bolshevik theory and practice.

Socialism in one country?

There are two things wrong with socialism in one country as preached by and practised by the Stalinist bureaucracy. The first is that it often gave up the possibility of revolution abroad. This meant that the Comintern, once the vanguard of world revolution, became increasingly subordinate to the needs of the Russian party. This created a series of ultra- right and ultra-left zigzags, as the situation changed in Russia and the Stalinists attempted to rectify their previous political mistakes at home and abroad. What’s worse, they ensured the defeat of the revolutionary forces in Germany Britain and China – to name but three instances.

Secondly, it adversely affected the process of economic development. While industrialisation, capital accumulation and collectivisation of agriculture were necessary, the bureaucracy carried them out in an anti-socialist way. Not only were they accompanied by vicious repression, “a revolution from above”, as E.H. Carr called it, without attempts to bring changes in values from below; it failed to challenge concepts of economic development that had arisen in capitalist countries. This wasn’t simply the already described adoption of capitalist work processes, but a failure to question the viability of total large- scale production and to integrate the organic development of town and countryside.

Trotsky and the Left Opposition’s economic policies showed a much better grasp of many aspects, such as the role and detail of state planning. They were, however, flawed in that they too failed to question the nature of economic development. As we seek to show later, both Stalin and Trotsky’s conceptions were “economistic”. This was tragically shown when from 1928 onwards Stalin used the Opposition’s economic policies to industrialise and collectivise – accompanied of course by the terror and lack of real planning in distinction to Trotsky’s ideas. The reaction of many Oppositionists was understandably confused by Stalin’s so-called “Left Course”, given the similarities. In the end, many capitulated, including Preobrazhensky, in the belief that Stalin was carrying out their policies.

In relation to foreign affairs Trotsky was using the theory of permanent revolution on many occasions to brilliantly predict and criticise the consequences of Stalin’s foreign policies. But in this struggle he gradually abandoned his dialectical position and permanent revolution became an almost metaphysical internationalism and a vain hope for revolution abroad. A hope abstracted from the real circumstances and peculiarities of each country and their different ideological and political institutions. He later wrote, describing his analysis of the time:

The specific alignment of forces in the nation and international field can enable the proletariat to seize power first in a backward country such as Russia. But the same alignment of forces proves that without a more or less rapid victory of the proletariat in the advanced capitalist countries, the workers’ government will not survive. Left to itself the Soviet regime must either fall or degenerate. More exactly will first degenerate and then fall ... without a revolution in the West, Bolshevism will be liquidated either by internal counter-revolution or by external intervention, or by both. (Stalinism and Bolshevism – 1937)

In this context permanent revolution lost its precise meaning. A consequence was fatalism about political events in Russia, a fatalism that was to prove disastrous in the struggle against Stalin. Stalin was able to present Trotsky’s views as idealistic and ignorant of the real situation. When combined with all the political contradictions of his own economic policy Trotsky’s arguments about permanent revolution degenerated still further. Continuing to deny that a “Thermidor” had occurred and that the bureaucracy was a strong and independent power, he asserted that ‘socialism in one country’ could not survive because:

  1. It could not withstand the hostility of the capitalist world market and the economic blockade.
  2. The USSR was militarily indefensible.

Time proved him wrong on both points and his arguments undermined the opposition, as Trotsky was posing a version of historical fatalism that almost devalued political action. Such action was necessary on the question of the quality and political direction of the transition period, that is, it was not so much a question of total opposition to the policy of socialism in one country, but posing the question “what kind of socialist transition, and who controls it?” that was needed. To struggle on these ground would not have been easy, given the power and the control of the Stalinist apparatus: but as a perspective it could have broken through the confusion that had been created by what permanent revolution had come to represent – a collapse into an undialectical opposite of a wrong policy, simply a mirror image of Stalin’s policies.

Despite all its power Trotsky’s analysis has for generations mystified the ways in which there can be a transition to socialism, whether in conditions of backwardness or advancement. As C.J. Arthur points out in his critique of Trotskyism – The Revolution Betrayed? [2] – some transitional society is inevitable in the ebb and flow of class struggle after the seizure of power. While any revolutionary process, class or party bears the risk of degeneration or defeat, permanent revolution has been responsible for an ultra-left short-circuit in its conception of transition to socialism. For while it is correct to say that the achievement of full socialism is impossible in a single country, it is the most mechanical fatalism to deny that a process of building socialism cannot begin in the real world of one space and time. (see Section 5d).



1. Term coined by Krasso in his article Trotsky’s Marxism in New Left Review, No.44.

2. In Radical Philosophy, No.6.

Back to Main Document Index  |  Back to Trotsky Encyclopedia Home Page  |  Revolution Unfinished? Index

Last updated on 13.11.2002