From Labour Review, Vol.2 No.4, July-August 1957, pp.111-115.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
This is NOT a point-by-point reply to William Hunter (Labour Review, vol.2 no.1). I concentrate on what seem to be our main differences. These concern:
In this article I have space to deal only with the first two.
William Hunter treats Stalinism and the ‘Stalinist bureaucracy’ as regressive factors from 1923 onwards, leading astray and then crippling the Revolution, both in Russia and abroad. Trotsky summed up this view in three words: ‘The Revolution Betrayed’.
I regard Stalin and the sections of the population which most actively backed him as having been dynamic and progressive in the pre-war years, leading the industrial (and educational) revolutions which were essential to the survival of the Soviet Union and which on the whole hastened the spread of socialism throughout the world. I would term it: ‘The Revolution made into Russian flesh’.
Who is right?
I suppose there will be no disagreement that the Russia of 1957 is substantially in advance of the Russia of 1923. A backward peasant country at a level somewhere between India and Southern Italy has become an advanced industrial nation in which there is complete literacy, nearly half the population live in the towns, and industrial output per head of population is approaching that of Britain. Moreover this industrial revolution has created the conditions for the Soviet people to eliminate the bad side of the Stalin period and to move forward into the next stage of Soviet socialism.
If I understand him correctly, William Hunter has three replies to this.
The advance was made in spite of ‘the bureaucracy’.
I am sure there is no serious case for this view. What William Hunter calls (after Trotsky) ‘the bureaucracy’ includes, according to Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed, all managers, technicians, teachers, intellectuals, doctors, officials, etc., and their families. These semi-professional and professional sections of the population grew from one and a half per cent of the employed population in 1913 to eleven per cent in 1955. They are principally former manual workers and their children who were trained in the technical schools and universities in the intensive education schemes which began to mature during the first five-year plan.
The training of people to fill leading posts, and the posts themselves, are a necessity in any industrial revolution, capitalist or socialist; and there is no, doubt that these sections of the population have played a progressive part in both capitalist and socialist revolutions. You may argue that they should have been trained differently in a social sense and therefore have behaved differently. But they were undoubtedly the spearhead of industrialization and not a hindrance to it.
By Trotsky’s methods, it is argued, the same good results could have been obtained, but without the price that was paid.
We must examine this in some detail.
Trotsky’s alternative policy may be conveniently divided into two main periods: 1923-27, when he was active in Russia, and 1928-40, when he was in exile.
In the first period there were two main occasions on which he opposed the policy of the majority of the party Central Committee.
In 1923-24 he emphasized unified national planning and priority for industry as the way out of the scissors crisis , warned against the bureaucratic degeneration of the party and its Old Guard, and emphasized the need for close links with the ‘masses’ (the Russian name for ordinary men and women), especially with the young people.
In 1926-27 the criticism went much further, partly because Trotsky had the benefit of support from experienced party administrators like Zinoviev and Kamenev. The home policy programme put forward by the ‘United Opposition’ could be summarized:
Taken as a whole, these policies clearly suffer from fundamental defects which were not present, for all their faults, in the policies of Stalin and his supporters. The common feature which runs through the Opposition programmes in 1923-27 seems to me to be that they tended to reflect the views of people who had spent much of their lives in the heady, romantic and argumentative atmosphere of small political sects in exile at home and abroad, and looked on Russian history, conditions and problems largely through the eyes of Western intellectuals.  They did not base themselves firmly on the conditions and needs of the construction period, and looked on the way in which the Russian people were constructing an industrial society as a betrayal of revolutionary ideals. They could not bridge the traditional gulf between the Russian revolutionary intellectual and the common people.
For example, in 1923-24 Trotsky built his economic policy round an emphasis on planning. This was a time when planning and planning technique were in their infancy. The training of communist workers to manage and plan industry was just beginning. Elementary machinery for collecting statistics had not been established. The great controversies with the ‘bourgeois economists’ about how to plan had not taken place (they occurred in 1926-30), but it was in these controversies that top planners such as Strumilin worked out Soviet planning methods. Without this preparation and experience, talk of planning was empty: yet Trotsky put forward his proposals for central planning as an immediate solution to the dangerous economic situation of 1923-24. It is not surprising that his proposals found little response among the industrial workers or among economists and State administrators, and were widely supported (as far as I can find from the evidence) only by managerial and technical personnel in industry.
The prevailing attitude to his 1923-24 proposals was expressed in speeches at the Thirteenth Party Congress in April 1924. Uglanov said that instead of talking about the plan ‘it would be better if Trotsky, with his rich artistry, would help us illiterate leaders of provinces to compile province budgets properly’. He added that long schemes on planned economy were very difficult to understand. Rukhimovich argued that it was not the word ‘plan’ that mattered, but a proper approach ‘within the limits of the possible’: the party, he said, was moving from the preparatory grade to the first form, and was well aware that a socialist economy implied planning above all, but “plan” in inverted commas sometimes leads to Utopia’. Rudzutak (in an otherwise rather tendentious speech) argued that planning was impossible till the currency was stabilized, so it was no good shouting about it on street corners.
In 1926-27 it was not the Opposition proposals to industrialize which were unrealistic. On the contrary, in 1929 and 1930 the industrialization drive went further and faster than the Opposition had postulated. But their policy was inadequate, and, in practical terms, irrelevant. They failed to see that in economically backward Russia, with a largely illiterate peasant population, the industrialization drive necessarily involved greatly increased control from above: priorities had to be centrally decided. the standard of living had to be kept down, wages had to be more sharply differentiated so as to encourage the rapid development of skills, and the whole thing had to be run by the firmly based party machine. What one might call the ‘democratic socialist’ programme of the Opposition was not compatible with rapid industrialization in Russia; it was suitable only for an already industrialized country, with a literate population.
Trotsky’s ‘Western eyes’ also led him to lack confidence in the capabilities of Russia to build up its social economy in isolation from the rest of the world (a lack of confidence which finds curious echoes in William Hunter’s article). Thus Trotsky tells us that in 1927 the Left Opposition held that if capitalism continued to flourish for decades, ‘then the talk of socialism in our backward country is pitiable tripe’.  He was a man of the heroic period, not a practical administrator; and he never fully appreciated the economic potentialities of the backward countries. He thought that owing to the ‘world division of labour’, ‘modern productive forces are incompatible with national boundaries’. Socialism in One Country meant ‘limiting ourselves to the curbed and domesticated productive forces, that is, to the technology of economic backwardness’. The world capitalist market would prove stronger than the new socialist economy: ‘the control figures [of the Plan] are ... controlled by world economy’, and ‘the intervention of cheaper capitalist commodities constitutes perhaps the greatest immediate menace to socialist economy’. All this led him to conclude that the proletariat of the advanced countries would ‘seize power long before we have overcome our backwardness’.  In fact what is happening is that in the course of a mere half-century first Russia and then China and India are breaking the bounds of their economic backwardness and coming to stand as industrial equals to first Western Europe and then the USA; in this sense the world division of labour is being overcome. This prospect was never taken sufficiently seriously by Trotsky (in spite of the law of uneven and combined development!).
So the Opposition of 1926-27 did not accept the need for controls from above, and tended to lack confidence in Russia’s ability to ‘do it alone’. This led them to see the party and the party machine as inherently conservative, and to believe that powerful conservative elements within it (led by Rykov, Tomsky and Bukharin) had gained the upper hand over the ‘industrializing’ elements led by Stalin, Molotov and Kuibyshev. This of course proved wrong: the party machine in fact became the driving motor of the industrialization process. But their wrong assessment led them to see it as their duty to attack the party bureaucracy as a whole in a frontal assault, instead of putting forward practical detailed proposals on all the issues involved. They ended up in demagogy. Thus in 1927 Trotsky supported ‘the elevation of real wages to correspond with every growth in the productivity of labour’, and demanded that goods shortages should cease. But rapid industrialization could not have been carried out if large resources had not been diverted to investment, and real wages held down. And no country and no economist has yet devised a way of industrializing a backward country through State investment without inflation and goods shortages (compare India today) – ‘the goods shortages are the fellow-traveller of the first stages of industrialization’, as Sokolnikov said when breaking with the Opposition at the Fifteenth Congress in December 1927. (Trotsky was later to argue persistently that the inflation of 1928-32 was unnecessary and likely to prove fatal, an argument which was economic nonsense.)
What kind of attitude did the rank-and-file Russian communists take to the Opposition? Trotsky made the mistake of believing that they were bound to support him. But the absence of traditions of political freedom in Russia, and the realization by sensible Russian citizens that Trotsky’s policies were largely irrelevant, combined to deprive him of serious support. The majority of party members took the attitude that the controls and discipline which were gradually introduced from 1921 onwards were necessary if socialist Russia were to survive in a hostile world, and the ideology offered them by Stalin of ‘Socialism in One Country’ summed up their outlook and united them under his leadership. They came fairly easily to accept the view that just as the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries could not be allowed freedom of speech outside the party (as Trotsky entirely agreed), so ‘Opposition voices’ could not be tolerated within it. Trotsky never really understood this: like Peter Fryer in different circumstances, he attributed the support given to the Stalinists by rank-and-file party members to intimidation and pressure, and not to genuine conviction. Of course Stalin was a political boss, and did what he could to run the machine his own way. But he was able to do this only because most of the members supported him. Trotsky had originally approved of the induction of 300,000 workers from the bench into the party after the death of Lenin; but they proved firm supporters of Stalin. These people judged the party leaders by the extent to which they were prepared to join in the practical hard work of building up the socialist economy. As early as 1924, Gnutenko, from the Donbass, took the attitude at the Thirteenth Congress that to criticize the fact that the secretaries of basic party units were appointed and not elected was to make play with trivia! Over sixty per cent of the party were politically illiterate, he argued; in the working-class areas it was the secretaries and the representatives of district committees who were active and gave reports. What was needed was to send more trained people to the Donbass, and have less in the centre taking part in discussion. This reflected a mood that later became dominant. Kollontai argued that ‘workers and the more advanced peasants are up to their eyes in important everyday work’. There had been a ‘growth in the direction of consolidating communist thinking’, and as a result, the lower you went down the ladder the more resentment about the Opposition you found. The organizing principle in the period of construction must be unity in thinking and action. The Opposition were ‘not in harmony with the moods predominating in the rank and file of the party’. 
From our historical judgment seat, we can see that there was much that was crude and one-sided in the political outlook of the majority of Russian communists in the late nineteen twenties. The Chinese and Indians will be able to be less one-sided. But at that time, whether Trotsky liked it or not, it was people of this kind who were beginning to build socialism in Russia; there was no other social force available. If you wanted to take part, you had to learn to work with them. Trotsky failed to do so, so out he went.
Trotsky in exile would accept much of this assessment of the Stalin period. When he was cross-examined by the Dewey Commission, he agreed with his questioner that bureaucracy was inevitable at the beginning of the transition from capitalism to socialism: it was an ‘iron necessity to give birth to and support a privileged minority, so long as it is impossible to guarantee genuine equality ... to a certain degree, not an absolute measure, but to a certain degree it is an historical necessity ... the growth of bureaucracy in the Soviet Union is the reason [evidently a misprint for ‘result’ – R.W.D.] of the backwardness of the Soviet Union and its isolation.’ It was necessary that the bureaucracy should grow up ‘in so far as the Soviet Union remained isolated’. 
But in his view the ‘bureaucracy’, from the beginning, was ‘the worst brake on the technical and cultural development of the country’; it ‘possesses all the vices of the old ruling classes but lacks their historical mission’.  This wrong assessment of the role of the professional and administrative sections of the Soviet population led Trotsky into strange waters during his exile in the thirties. He was in favour of rapid industrialization, but nowhere explained how this would have been possible without training a State apparatus, factory managers, etc., and giving them a higher standard of living. As his isolation in exile grew, the whole weight of his analysis became negative, hostile and panicky. In 1928 he feared that Bukharin would take over the party and lead the country back to capitalism: the attack on the kulak is too late, one of his followers (Bakayev) suggested at the Fifteenth Congress. In 1933 (‘Sound the Alarm!’) he spoke of the ‘profound dislocation of the Soviet economy’ and in a hysterical statement warned of the catastrophe which would result if the ‘bureaucracy’ were not overthrown. In 1937, in The Revolution Betrayed, he told us that in the present situation ‘a backslide to capitalism is wholly possible’, and that war ‘must lead to a bourgeois Bonapartist counter-revolution’, if the ‘bureaucracy’ was not overthrown.
Trotsky gradually came to advocate a political revolution against the Soviet government, and to argue that in the event of war, while fighting against Hitler, his supporters inside Russia should ‘conduct revolutionary propaganda against Stalin, preparing his overthrow at the next and perhaps very near stage’, their slogan being ‘For Socialism! For the World Revolution! Against Stalin!’  These were the policies of a man who had lost touch with Soviet reality, and fortunately for the world they found little support inside Russia.
The third aspect of the Trotskyite position might be put like this: You may be right that Stalinist Russia was an inevitable stage, but it was inevitable only in so far as we think of Russia in isolation. But Russia was isolated only because of Stalin’s policy. If Trotsky’s international policy had been followed, the revolution would have triumphed in China and Germany in the twenties, and possibly in other advanced countries as well.
I am not an authority on the history of the world communist movement, but it does seem to me that this argument will not stand up to historical criticism. In addition to Russia, at least three countries have carried out successful communist revolutions on their own internal resources, without large-scale Soviet military aid: Yugoslavia (1945-49), China (1933-49) and Poland (1956). In each of these countries, what happened inter alia was that the Communist Party leaders ceased to rely primarily on the advice of Russian politicians for their basic policies (in each case they specifically rejected it, apparently, at the critical point). Instead they built their revolution on their own experience and on popular national support. But in Germany 1923 and China 1926-27, if I understand the position correctly, the choice was between two sets of Russian policies: the faction fights reflected quarrels in Moscow about German and Chinese policies. The blunt truth was that Trotsky, Stalin and Bukharin were all incapable of giving proper advice to Germans, Chinese or British. When R.P. Dutt called on Trotsky to carry forward his interpretation and elucidation of British politics, and to elaborate his analysis ‘which is so much needed in England’ , he was uncovering the immaturity of British communist thought as strikingly as when Stalin-supported solutions to our problems were accepted in 1929 (and 1951?). When did Tito or Mao Tse-tung become leaders of their nations? When they saw Trotsky was right and Stalin was wrong? No; only when they had sufficient experience in political leadership and knowledge of their own country’s history and needs to find their own way forward.
Let me make it clear that I am not one of those who thinks that ‘Russian tutelage’ was a harmful thing for the world communist movement from the beginning. That Pollitt and Rothstein emerged as an alternative to Macdonald and J.H. Thomas in the twenties was a very good thing for British socialism, and the young Communist Parties would probably have fallen apart without the centralized control of the Comintern, however peculiar and Russian-flavoured the leadership of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. But once firmly established, every Communist Party has to find its own painful way forward to independence or drastically lessen its influence in its own country. Such independence does not necessarily involve a break with the world communist movement, as the Chinese and Polish examples have shown (the Italians too, both Togliatti and his ‘revisionist’ critics, have made serious contributions to Marxist political thought within the framework of the world communist movement). And it has never involved becoming Trotskyite: indeed, in the thirties to become a Trotskyite meant to advocate political revolution in Russia, and therefore to deprive yourself of serious influence in any Communist Party. Mao, Tito and Gomulka would not have got where they are if they had been Trotskyites in the thirties.
What I am saying is this. Socialism outside Russia was unachievable because of the immaturity of working-class thought and of the Marxist parties, not primarily because of Stalin’s good or bad advice.  Compare the experience, maturity, influence and numerical strength of the Chinese communists in 1926 with that of the Bolsheviks in 1917. Were the Chinese communists really in a position to lead, or capable of leading, a successful proletarian revolution? And after discussions with both ‘Stalinist’ and ‘anti-Stalinist’ German communists I am not surprised that neither Ruth Fischer nor Thaelmann became Premier of a German People’s Republic; what does surprise me is that six million Germans voted communist!
If I am right in concluding that Stalin’s influence on the revolution outside Russia was marginal, then he must be judged by his success in building up the economy of his own country.
And what of Trotsky?
Trotsky was not the first person to be placed in a dilemma by the economic and cultural backwardness of revolutionary Russia. Sukhanov in his Notes on the 1917 revolution  was preoccupied with this dilemma, and came to the conclusion that the Bolshevik revolution was a mistake: the proletariat should not ‘take up arms against the entire old world ... in our ruined, half-wild, petty-bourgeois, economically-shattered country’. Instead it should have collaborated, he said, with the petty-bourgeois revolutionary parties – Lenin’s policy ‘obliged the new government and the Bolsheviks themselves to perform tasks they knew to be beyond their strength’. Sukhanov and his colleagues, like Trotsky ten years later, found themselves described as ‘deserters and lackeys of the enemies of the people’. Fifteen years later, Ciliga, a disillusioned supporter of Trotsky, also came to the conclusion that the Russian Revolution was a mistake; Russia was too backward for it to succeed. Inside the Communist Party, the Workers’ Opposition and Democratic Centralist groups fought a losing battle against Trotsky and Lenin in 1919-21 for essentially the same kind of policy as that which Trotsky supported in 1927. Trotsky is a link in a long chain of failures.
But the conclusion to be drawn is not the absurd one that the Russian Revolution should not have taken place. Nor is it sensible to argue that Sukhanov ‘ought to’ have come to power in 1917, Shlyapnikov in 1920, Trotsky in 1924-27, or Tomsky in 1930. We have seen that social backing inside Russia for a ‘democratic’ socialism was lacking. Any of them, in power, would have had to have behaved more or less like first Lenin and then Stalin, if rapid industrialization was to take place, and the Revolution was to be firmly grounded in the Russian nation and its history. The proper conclusion is that the Russian Revolution has been through a difficult but necessary phase, and that it is now our job to study it and draw lessons from it.
I have been concerned in this article with clearing away certain Trotskyite misconceptions. But that is a small and easy part of the work which British socialist students of Soviet society must undertake. It is foolish and unhistorical to paint Utopian pictures, as the Trotskyites tend to do, of what the world would have been like if – . But it is a proper function of the historian to dissect Soviet experience, and to reach conclusions from it. The Chinese and Indian peoples want to minimize suffering and widen the bounds of freedom in their industrialization. British socialists and communists want to work for a socialist society in our country which is compatible with our traditions of civil liberty, and does away with our traditions of narrow-minded and philistine nationalism.
If Soviet experience is to help to show us what to do and what to avoid, we must analyze carefully the social contradictions and ideology of the Stalin period. In this work, Trotsky’s stimulating writings, shorn of their excesses, must of course be used. I welcome in this connection G. Healy’s declaration (quoted in The Newsletter, no.1, May 10, 1957) that no one should be put on a pedestal, and that we should all read, study and examine every point of view.
But if the Trotskyites want to contribute seriously to creative Marxism, and not get in the way of the new start that is being made, de-Stalinization is not enough. The Trotskyites must be thoroughly de-Trotskyized. They must abandon their excursions into syndicalist romanticism and their hourly expectation of bloody revolution in the Old Town Square. They must drop this silly stuff about ‘For Soviet Britain’ – the Communist Party got over that a couple of decades ago, and no one is going to waste time arguing with them in such terms. They must cease in practice as well as in words, to treat Lenin and Trotsky, those politicians of a past era, as the main oracles on things Russian and British. Their reports on Soviet affairs must be fuller and more realistic, discussing the past writings of (say) Bukharin, Kamenev, Mikoyan and Kalinin as well as those of Trotsky, telling us what we can learn about Soviet society from Ovechkin as well as Dudintsev. They must study and learn from Stalin and Mao Tse-tung, the greatest practical exponents so far of the art of constructing socialism in backward countries. If the Trotskyite egg is to be merged in our new Marxist omelette, its hard dogmatic shell must be thoroughly smashed.
Or is it premature to think that British Marxists have reached the stage when they can begin an objective study of the history of the world communist movement?
(1) My article in the Marxist Quarterly was not, as William Hunter suggests. ‘walking in the footprints of Khrushchev’. It was written months before the Khrushchev speech was published, most of it in fact in the summer of 1955 before the Twentieth Congress, as a footnote specifically stated.
(2) The published article was dealing primarily with the post-war period: I stated that ‘the section dealing with the pre-war period has been considerably abridged here for space reasons’. I eventually decided not to publish the pre-war section, as most of the points it covered were dealt with more adequately in the Togliatti interview.
(3) I did not say that the Trotskyites were opponents of industrialization in 1923-29, as William Hunter implies. I said they ‘thought that socialism could not be built in this backward country without the help of revolutionary governments in the West. I agree, however, that my statement that in the early thirties ‘restrictions were placed on the political rights of opponents of industrialization’ was wrong and misleading. I should have said ‘restrictions were placed on the political rights of opponents and critics of the Soviet government, who were regarded as endangering the industrialization process – a very different story.
(4) I do not wish to found yet another school in the ‘Is Russia really Socialist?’ controversy. In this article I have argued that the view that the Russian State in the thirties was a step back from the twenties is erroneous. William Hunter is right that industrialization by the State is not necessarily full socialism; but the point is that industrialization is a necessary stage in the achievement of socialism in a backward country: I therefore cannot accept Trotsky’s term ‘a workers’ State degenerated’ for the thirties (though I tend to agree with the use made by Togliatti of the word ‘degeneration’ for the early fifties). Nor do I find the term ‘state capitalism’ (Tito 1954 and Tony Cliff) appropriate: it does not make clear the differences in structure and values between the social systems of Russia and America. The statement that what has happened so far in Russia is ‘early socialism’ and that she is now entering the stage of ‘middle socialism’ corresponds most closely to my view (on this point, see J.M. in Soviet Studies, vol.VII. no.4, April 1956, p.436).
(5) William Hunter asks me to ‘tell us how “inner-party democracy”, can be concerned with the “formation of policy” when anyone who even tries to question the correctness of what the bureaucrats say is denounced as a “rotten element”.’ The short answer is:
– see Ovechkin’s sketches, summarized in Soviet Studies from 1953 onwards.
1. In 1923, as a result mainly of the slower recovery of industry than agriculture after the Civil War, and of the monopoly position of State industry on the market, the prices of industrial goods rose more rapidly than those of agricultural goods, threatening good relations with the peasantry. This became known as the scissors crisis (after Trotsky).
2. One of the reasons that so much of what Trotsky wrote in 1923-27 seems so prophetic and timely to dissident communists today is that he saw Russia’s problems through the same kind of eyes as those with which they view the crisis of British communism today. They should try reading Menshevik attacks on Lenin before the First World War; they seem even more appropriate. But Russia 1927 is agrarian Russia and Britain 1956-57 is industrialized Britain. Contemporary struggles should not be allowed to warp historical judgments. (Such appeals to Trotsky are the mirror image of the facile comparison that some ultra-orthodox communists make between Kronstadt and Budapest.)
3. The Revolution Betrayed, pp.280-81.
4. Trotsky; The Draft Programme of the Communist International (1928).
5. Translated in Inprecorr, vol.7 no.64, November 17, 1927. The above paragraph is not intended as proof that the majority of party members supported Stalin: this would require a separate article.
6. The Case of Leon Trotsky (1937), pp.358-62.
7. In Defence of Marxism (1942), pp.6-7. At one stage Trotsky acknowledged ‘the progressive work accomplished by the Soviet bureaucracy’ in following ‘the logic of its own interests’ (The Kirov Assassination ).
8. In Defence of Marxism, p.20.
9. Labour Monthly, 1926, p.241.
10. I leave aside here the question of how far objective conditions, independent of what communists did, made revolutions impossible anyway. There was a marked tendency by communists in general and Trotskyites in particular to exaggerate the prospects of revolution (see Borkenau, The Communist International, for evidence of this).
11. Partly translated in Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution: a Personal Record.
Last updated on 30.7.2006