Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


R.W. Davies, Soviet History in the Gorbachev Revolution, Macmillan, 1989, pp232, £7.99

We are living in the midst of extraordinary events. Developments in Eastern Europe are opening up a new phase in world history – a phase which will mercilessly test every ideology and philosophy. “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” Thus the bleak realisation of Sir Edward Grey, Liberal Foreign Secretary, as old ‘Liberal’ Europe descended into war in August 1914. Dare we hope to hope that the lights might now be beginning to come on again after the dark decades of world wars, Fascism, Stalinism and Orwellian subjection to interdependent Cold War ideologies?

The deepest questions are being raised in the Soviet Union itself, though they have received less publicity in the Western media, and it is in revealing some of the details of these debates that this book has its merits. The harsh realities of the inabilities of the excessively centralised Stalinist “command-administrative system”, as Gorbachev is calling it, to develop the Soviet economy further has led to a return and extension of the liberalising policies initially initiated by Khrushchev, and for the same reasons. Khrushchev, as Sandor Kopacsi has shown in his memoirs of Hungary from 1953-56, was driven by the twin fears of the need to improve the conditions of the masses and the fear of the retribution of the workers if he failed. In the short term the bureaucracy, terrified by some of the forces unleashed by Khrushchev not just in Hungary, Poland, but in Georgia and other parts of the Soviet Union to clamp down again. Khrushchev was removed from office and a further bleak 20 years, under Brezhnev, Andropov and finally Chernenko ensued. But the underlying problems did not go away, and it took Gorbachev less than a year, from 1985-86, to discover that the necessary restructuring and revitalisation of the economy could not be done by technological means alone. The creative talents of the Soviet peoples had to be reawakened and harnessed and that meant liberalisation, ‘glasnost’, braving the risks, and this time without any turning back. What is still little acknowledged yet is just how far the reawakening of critical discussion and activity has already gone, in ways not fully anticipated or controlled by the bureaucracy. In the sense that “the debate about the past is also a debate about the future of Soviet society”, to quote Davies, the unleashing of more or less unfettered debate on the history of the Soviet Union has been one of the most important developments this last two years. This is what Davies’ book deal with; but what it has also unleashed, and what Davies also provides evidence of, is a rebirth of genuine Marxist debate within the Soviet Union.

By 1985 Brezhnev had finally destroyed what little remaining credibility Marxism had had within the USSR; even amongst dissidents names such as Trotsky and Bukharin were little invoked, such was the discredit Stalinism had brought down on anything and anyone connected with Marxism. Dissidence had been forced into channels far from Marxism: nationalism, reactionary hankerings even after aspects of Czarism, Orthodoxy and capitalist restoration. Certain aspects of this were understandable, and an absolute condemnation of some of the crimes of the bureaucracy: censorship, the postal system, treatment of dissidents, and many aspects of culture and human relations had, in certain respects, been better, even for many of the poor, under Czarism. The Hungarian dissident Tamas has recently pointed out too how, under Stalinism, entire concepts such as charm, wit, elegance, style, beauty, fairness, justice, shock, vulgarity and excellence had simply been destroyed. These criticisms remain true, and an absolute indictment of Stalinism, but what has reawakened is the vision that Marx had had of a Socialism which would deliver a quality of life that was not possible under capitalism either.

The debate which Gorbachev unleashed is described by Davies in the following terms:

Nothing like this has ever happened before in the history of the world. In the course of 1987 and 1988, tens of millions of Soviet citizens became passionately involved in studying their country's past ... Gorbachev did not anticipate this outburst of public interest in the past, and it was largely uncontrolled ... in the course of 1988 ... the main daily newspapers published long articles about Stalin, Bukharin, Trotsky, collectivisation and the repressions.

Readers here will be more than well aware of one of the most crucial of the new publications, Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat, which describes life in Stalin’s inner circle. But there is also the film Repentence, and even Rybakov does not tell all of the story now revealed. And it is not just making available in the Soviet Union material which was already known outside. Many more genuine details of Stalin, his immediate entourage, and relations between these is now surfacing. The horrors of the system were well enough known to Trotskyists and those who were willing to listen, but the revealed personal brutality not just of Stalin himself, but also of Beria, Molotov and Kaganovich in particular is quite startling. Revealed too, however, are details of struggles even within Stalin’s immediate inner circle which have hitherto remained unknown. If anything the new details of the reality within the hitherto faceless upper bureaucracy bring new confirmation of the analysis of the nature of the bureaucracy as a usurping Bonapartist clique upheld by Trotsky in exile against the proponents of ‘state capitalism’ and ‘bureaucratic collectivism’.

Understandably Trotsky has remained one of the more sensitive topics, and he has not been ‘rehabilitated’. Nevertheless, his role has now received some recognition and at least one article in Izvestia has gone as far as producing the following remarkable statement:

There are grounds for concluding that in the years of his active work for the party (1917-24) he was not an enemy of the revolution and Socialism. But he was already then an enemy of Stalin. Trotsky must be given his due: he was not broken by Stalin’s dictatorship, unlike many others. Until the end of his life he regarded Lenin with respect.

Several excerpts from Trotsky’s writings have now appeared openly too, but most crucial of all is the question of his analysis of the bureaucracy. This too has appeared in all its essentials, but not necessarily with acknowledgement to him.

One of the less pleasant of the developments charted by Davies is a resurgence of anti-Semitic narrow Russian chauvinism. This may in part be a genuine, if unfortunate, reaction within some sections of the Russian community to the upsurge of nationalism elsewhere in the Union, but it is also a cover manipulated by unreconstructed Stalinist elements. It is certainly being used to raise pernicious odium against some, including Trotsky.

Despite all the problems, however, at least three remarkably senior academicians have gained publicity for class analyses of the nature of the Soviet bureaucracy which are very close indeed to Trotsky’s, even if they have scrupulously avoided linkage to him. One Sergei Dzarasov is found arguing that the bureaucracy as a caste had its own selfish interests which were “incompatible with democracy – the rule of the people”, before going on to outline quite specifically the measures which Lenin had proposed to counter the growth of bureaucracy: the universal election and recall of officials, and their payment only on the levels of the workers themselves. From this he has argued the necessity for “the democratisation of the whole social and political structure”, with the ‘labour collective [as] the full master”. From the Institute of the Economics of the World Socialist System the Director, O. Bogomolov, has further argued that Stalinism also had a “unified social nature” that was common to Eastern Europe and China as well as the USSR. A.P. Butenko, from the same Institute, has followed up by agreeing with Dzarasov that the “unified social nature” was “a huge stratum of state and party bureaucracy, torn away from the people and not under its control”, “it was not the proletariat and the labouring peasantry which were in power, but those who usurped power – Stalin and his entourage”, “that section of the administrators which ... use their functions for their selfish interests ... and ... slow down and put a break on ... development”. Not surprisingly Davies reports that these analyses have been “strongly challenged”; but the arguments are out and there are workers who will listen and draw conclusions.

Even the most fundamental features of the one-party system are now open to scrutiny. Even aspects of Lenin’s Russia, previously out of bounds even to those who criticised Stalin, are up for debate. Rosa Luxemburg’s critical comments of 1919 have been printed, and deep debate has opened, but only very recently, on the banning of internal party factions in 1921 and the deficiencies of the control mechanisms introduced then to prevent abuses. Gorbachev himself makes claim to wishing to use the “post-1917 experience of a powerful Congress of Soviets and Central Executive Committee” as his model, and wishing to “revive the fine tradition of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate of Lenin’s time”. The contradictions in Gorbachev’s position, however, are manifest, given how far historical debate and enquiry have already entered the Lenin period.

Davies ends with many intriguing questions, some overt, others implicit. Many are inherent in Gorbachev’s claims to be “returning to Leninist norms”. Davies is driven to commenting that Gorbachev’s claims to libertarianism look more like the Lenin of 1917 than of the Civil War or even the NEP, but also finds it necessary to point out the stark contrast to these flights of rhetoric and the fact that Gorbachev is simultaneously rejecting criticisms of the Soviet administrators as a group, and has restated Stalin’s 1931 rejection of ‘equalisation’, though of course without mentioning Stalin. The questions he then raises are: just how in this case is the “introduction of self-management in state factories” to be achieved, and how is this to be tied in and combined with central state planning, whether the replacement of the centralised supply system with a system of wholesale trade will also involve allowing demand rather than the state to set prices, whether collectives and co-operatives will be allowed to become genuine collectives and co-operatives or whether they will become some sort of private enterprise, whether in the end “perestroika will lead to a social revolution, in which the bureaucratic hierarchy gives way to some form of Socialist democracy”?

When the workers do finally move and have their decisive say then other questions and perspectives will open up too. Some of the dream of reconstructed social relations hinted at by the early Marx and Marxist visionaries such as Engels’ English collaborator William Morris has already been raised again by the Czech Vaclav Havel: “Ideology”, he has written, “is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity and of morality, whilst making it easier for them to part with them.” The promise of reasserting genuine human worth and responsibility, crushed and degraded under both capitalism and Stalinism reawakens. Perhaps too, as Bulgaria’s Eco-Glasnost is trying to make us aware, this is only just in time to enable sane management to mitigate the world ecological catastrophe already set in train by unrestrained and uncontrolled abuse and exploitation in both East and West. “From each according to his ability to each according to his needs” necessitates a recreation of an accepted framework of obligations and personal responsibilities beyond the conquest of power.

Khrushchev told Rakosi in 1953: “You’re covered in crimes. If this continues, your people will grab their pitchforks and pitch you out of the country”. Western Marxists will have a role in helping the peoples of the Soviet empire keep this ‘pitching out’ on a constructive read. But those who have lived under the Stalinist bureaucracies will also have lessons and experiences for us too. We cannot afford not to listen to and learn from the new free forces of Eastern Europe or the debates current within the USSR. Davies’ work is a uniquely useful guide to what are only the early stages of political restructuring in the USSR. In that respect there is one final but very telling observation:

The view of the Stalin period which now predominates is more that of the scientist and intellectual, and of the peasant as understood by the intellectual. It is significant that so far the factory workers ... have hardly appeared at all ...

Ian Hunter

Updated by ETOL: 10.7.2003