Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Roy Medvedev, Let History Judge, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1989, pp903, £25

When the first edition of Let History Judge was published in the west, it was of unusual significance. Here we had a massive indictment of Stalin and Stalinism by a dissident Soviet writer, who declared his allegiance to Marxism and the October Revolution at a time when official Soviet propagandists were indulging in the partial rehabilitation of Stalin, and when most Soviet dissidents were embracing; increasingly right wing viewpoints. Today, however, Let History Judge is of less significance to the western reader, despite the additional revelations and memoirs contained in this new edition. In these days of glasnost, Medvedev’s historical outlook is more or less officially acceptable in the Soviet Union, and just as he has had his party card returned and has been elected to the Supreme Soviet, the official climate has changed to the degree that this book could well be published in the Soviet Union.

Medvedev’s writings closely resemble those of the Soviet reformists and Eurocommunists. This is not surprising, as he is a staunch supporter of glasnost, and has expressed an admiration for Eurocommunism. Medvedev holds Bukharin in high esteem, and counterposes his policies to those of both Stalin and Trotsky. He claims that Bukharin’s policies were the direct and logical continuation of those elaborated under Lenin, and contends that had they been adhered to, the frightful experiences of the Stalin era would have been avoided.

Like anyone embarking on this task, Medvedev is obliged to distort the historical record. His treatment of Lenin shows the extent to which Medvedev, whatever his criticisms of Stalinism, is still influenced by it.

He holds that Lenin believed it possible to build Socialism within the bounds of a single country, claiming that Lenin “in 1915 and 1916 argued that not only could a revolution be made and power taken in one separate capitalist country but that ‘Socialist production could be organised’ and proletarian power defended against encroachments by other countries”. From 1918 to 1920 “Lenin’s and Trotsky’s views on this question virtually coincided” because “Lenin was sure of a rapid victory for the world revolution, or at least of the European revolution”, and because the economic devastation in the Soviet Union made it “impossible to build Socialism in Russia without the support of a Socialist Europe”. However, Medvedev assures us that “toward the end of 1922 ... Lenin confidently declared that NEP [New Economic Policy] Russia would ‘become a Socialist Russia’”. Stalin concurred with Trotsky until “under Bukharin’s influence and after becoming more thoroughly acquainted with Lenin’s texts”, he too changed his mind (p.129).

A good deal of tendentious text-mangling is required to find any support for the idea of Socialism in one country in Lenin’s works. However “thoroughly acquainted” Stalin may have been with them, all he could find were a couple of quotes torn out of context. Some 60 years later, Medvedev follows suit.

In On the Slogan for a United States of Europe, Lenin did indeed say that “the victory of Socialism is possible first in several or even in one capitalist country alone” Collected Works Volume 21, p.342). But this article refers merely to the seizure of power, not the building of a Socialist society. In On Cooperation, Lenin refers to political power being in the hands of the proletariat, and the existence of state control of industry and peasant cooperatives, and asks “is this not all that is necessary to build a complete Socialist society?” (CW Volume 33, p.468). He then points to the need for a far higher level of culture. Medvedev cites him (p.129) – “this cultural revolution would now suffice to make our country a completely Socialist country” – as if to show that the Soviet Union no longer required external aid. But where Medvedev puts a full stop, Lenin continued, “but it presents immense difficulties of a purely cultural (for we are illiterate) and material character (for to be cultured we must achieve a certain development of the material means of production, must have a certain material base)” (CW Volume 33, p.457). Lenin was acutely aware of the situation right to the end. In one of his last articles, Better Fewer, But Better, he asked “shall we be able to hold on with our small and very small peasant production, and in our present state of ruin, until the West European capitalist countries consummate their development towards Socialism?” (CW Volume 33, p.499). For all his condemnations of Stalin, Medvedev uses his methods to attribute to Lenin views that he never held.

Medvedev’s attitude towards Trotsky and the Left Opposition is also very much that of the glasnost intellectuals and Eurocommunists. The outright lies of the Stalin era and the less blatant distortions issued afterwards are repudiated. Trotsky’s rôle during the October Revolution and the Civil War are recognised, although Medvedev is quick to condemn his “extreme authoritarianism” (p.120). Similarly, he considers the Left Opposition’s fight against bureaucratism in the Soviet Communist Party to be valid. But whilst Medvedev excises some of the worst cliches of the first edition of this book (for instance, Trotsky’s “underestimation of the revolutionary potential of the peasantry”, Spokesman edition, p.38), and is now acquainted with a wide range of Trotsky’s works, his hostile attitude towards the Left Opposition remains substantially unchanged. One passage that has remained in the new edition refers to a certain Eshba who had “belonged to the Trotskyist opposition, but soon left and, having admitted his mistakes, was reinstated in the party” (p.384, my emphasis).

If Trotsky and his comrades get a plus for their activities prior to (roughly) 1924, things are different for later. In order to bolster Bukharin’s reputation, Medvedev portrays the Left Opposition as incurable ultra-leftists. But to prove his point, once again he is obliged to distort the historical record.

Under Bukharin’s influence, the Fifteenth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party voted in December 1927 in favour of certain restrictions upon rural capitalist elements. Medvedev comments:

However, contrary to the demands of the Left Opposition, it was proposed that these restrictions be carried out primarily through economic means – that is, within the framework of NEP and not by the methods of ‘War Communism’. Moreover, placing restrictions on the capitalist elements or going on the offensive against them did not at all mean that they should be squeezed out of economic life or ‘liquidated’. Therefore the Fifteenth Congress took a firm stand against the Left's proposals for compulsory requisition of grain from the prosperous strata in the countryside. The Congress also opposed any hasty mass collectivisation, since neither the subjective nor the objective preconditions for it had been created. (p.193)

Unlike what Medvedev implies, the Left Opposition did not call for the return of War Communism, the liquidation of the kulaks, or “hasty mass collectivisation”. It called for the voluntary and gradual introduction of collective farming based upon modern techniques, provision of credit to small farmers for equipment, fiscal measures against the kulaks, and it warned that the capitalist elements could not be defeated by administrative orders or simple economic pressure.

Condemning the ultra-left idiocies of the Third Period, Medvedev notes that in 1934 some Communists were beginning to favour anti-Fascist unity with Social Democrats. He would then have us believe that Trotsky “in his treatment of the Social Democrats ... continued to defend a position that even Stalin found it necessary to gradually abandon” (p.323), implying that Trotsky adhered to the Third Period positions. In actuality, Trotsky opposed both the sectarianism of the Third Period and the opportunism of the ensuing Popular Front, and counterposed to them the tactics evolved in the Communist International during Lenin’s time, calling for left unity in action in order to expose the reformists and win the masses to a revolutionary leadership.

Ultimately, Medvedev doesn’t want to know, pointedly refusing to discuss the Left Opposition’s differences with Stalin and Bukharin over foreign policy (p.163), and writing off Trotsky’s work in exile thus:

... because of his inherent dogmatism, his tendentiousness, and his lack of information, Trotsky could not understand or properly evaluate the complex processes taking place in the Soviet Union and the world Communist movement in the ’thirties. As a result, he was not able to formulate an alternative Marxist programme. (p.180)

In his highly appreciative portrayal of Bukharin, Medvedev does mention his “scholasticism” and “the elements of schematic thinking and oversimplification in almost all of his theoretical constructs” (p.190). Just where these characteristics made themselves felt, however, remains a mystery. But it is precisely the issues at which Medvedev considers that Bukharin fared best where his scholasticism was most apparent. This in itself would not be particularly significant was it not for the fact that from 1924 to 1929 the Soviet government’s policies were very much influenced by him.

Bukharin held that a national economy could exist, and its contradictions overcome, in isolation from the world economy. Now, if this was so, the Soviet Union could logically develop into Socialism insofar as imperialist intervention was averted. Socialism could be built in one country, and the main problem facing the Soviet Union was thus solved. The best means of defending the country would be the prevention of intervention, rather than the risky business of workers’ revolutions in the major capitalist powers. The primary task of Communist parties would turn from seizing power to attempting to force their ruling classes into establishing friendly relations with the Soviet Union. A Communist party would adopt a conciliatory stance towards a capitalist class, or a faction of one, which, for whatever reason, favoured an alliance with the Soviet Union.

Moreover, if a capitalist class and its state could play a progressive rôle in the sphere of foreign policy, then why not in others? The basis for reformism was thus laid. And if backward Russia contained within itself all the necessary prerequisites for Socialism, then surely so did such advanced countries as Germany, Britain and the USA. The theoretical necessity for internationalism – that national boundaries were a barrier to the development of the productive forces – no longer existed. Each Communist party could develop its own national programme and go its own way. Bukharin’s theories gave rise to tendencies that threatened to – and did – transform the Communist International into a collection of national reformist parties.

Although Medvedev prefers not to touch upon the foreign policy debates in the 1920s, it’s worth noting that Bukharin played an important part in introducing into the Communist International the schematic Marxism of the Second International, from which the Bolsheviks had broken decisively in 1917. The October Revolution proved conclusively that not only could a workers’ revolution occur in a country with a large peasantry and in which the bourgeois-democratic revolution had not taken place or had not been completed, but that the tasks of that revolution could only be carried out under the dictatorship of the proletariat. The Communist International in Lenin’s days recognised that in anti-colonial struggles, any alliance with bourgeois nationalists would be inherently unstable and temporary, and the proletariat must maintain its political independence.

Nevertheless, in 1922 the fledgling Chinese Communist Party was instructed by the Communist International to join the bourgeois nationalist Guomindang, to which it rapidly became subordinate. A mass anti-imperialist uprising blew up in May 1925, and civil war raged for the next two years. The Chinese bourgeoisie took fright, and it was clear that the Guomindang leadership was mobilising against the insurgents. Despite pleadings from several leading Chinese Communists, Bukharin and Stalin, convinced that the dictatorship of the proletariat was impossible in China, refused to allow the CCP to break from the Guomindang, even though workers had seized power in Shanghai in March 1927. The ‘anti-imperialist bloc’ had to be maintained even though the bourgeoisie was more afraid of the workers and peasants than of the imperialists. The uprisings were drowned in blood. All Bukharin’s chatter about the ‘anti-imperialist bloc’ was just a cover for the long-discarded dogma that the bourgeois-democratic revolution had to be led by the bourgeoisie.

Unlike Preobrazhensky and the Left Opposition, Bukharin did not consider that an immanent conflict existed between the private and state sectors in the Soviet Union. He held that, as all societies require a mechanism for the distribution of labour time, the capitalist law of value was in essence no different to the consciously planned economic regulation of a Socialist society. The two sectors of the Soviet economy could, therefore, coexist peacefully, and the capitalist sector would gradually be absorbed into the Socialist sector. Bukharin considered that the initial driving force behind the revival of the Soviet economy would be the accumulation of funds within the private agricultural sector, with the increase in demand for manufactured products boosting industry. He was happy to see the unrestricted growth of capitalist farming, and most of the remaining restrictions on the richer farmers were lifted in 1925. The few collective farms in existence were left to stagnate, and insufficient resources were directed towards industry. Bukharin energetically opposed the Left Opposition’s calls for the steady collectivisation of agriculture and for far-reaching industrial development.

As it happened, the Soviet government was soon confronted with the fruits of Bukharin’s policies. The slowness of industrial growth resulted in a goods famine. The peasants, with little to purchase in exchange for their produce, started to withhold their grain from the market. In late 1927 Bukharin, borrowing not a little from the Left Opposition, called for fiscal measures against the rich peasants, and moves towards collectivisation and increased industrialisation. But valuable time had been wasted. Irreparable damage had been done. The NEP, the judicious use of market measures under the auspices of a workers’ state, was very much a delicate balancing act in which disproportions would jeopardise the development of the economy. Whatever his enthusiasm for the NEP, Bukharin’s policies ensured that the necessary balance was not maintained, thus causing the problems which ultimately led to the demise of the NEP in 1929.

The appeal of Bukharin is easy to understand. Compared to the boorish and ignorant men who made up much of Stalin’s entourage, he was undoubtedly a humane and cultured figure. Compared to the programme of the Left Opposition, Bukharin’s moderate policies appear more realistic and less risky. His market-oriented schemas appear attractive to those who see market measures as the means of overcoming the stasis in the Soviet economy. Yet Bukharin’s approach had disastrous effects in both the Soviet Union and the Communist International. Moreover, he played a major and ignominious part in the defeat of the Left Opposition – something else that Medvedev glosses over – and thus aided the ascendancy of Stalin.

The crucial question facing any historical study of the Soviet Union is how and why the workers’ revolution degenerated into Stalin’s terror regime. Medvedev lists many of the factors which undermined the dictatorship of the proletariat: the disintegration of the working class during the Civil War, the absorption of activists into the state machine with a concomitant divorce from the masses, the increasing reliance of officials upon administrative solutions for political questions, the overall low level of culture, the political inexperience of many party cadres, etc. Medvedev also makes much of Stalin’s personality. Disagreeing with Trotsky’s claim that if Stalin at the start of his fight against him had foreseen the consequences of it, he would have stopped short, Medvedev says: “No, Stalin would not have stopped even if he had known beforehand the cost of his own victory and of his virtually unlimited power.” (p.89)

Like many bourgeois biographers of Stalin, Medvedev sees Stalin's political life as a narrow quest for personal power:

It was not out of love for suffering humanity that Stalin came to Sqqialism and the revolution. He joined the Bolsheviks because of his ambition and his lust for power. When he joined the radical wing of the revolutionary movement, he already believed in his own special mission ... For Stalin the party was always just an instrument, a means of reaching his own goals ... His main motive ... was lust for power, boundless ambition. (pp.600-1, 585)

This does not ring true. The mere lust for personal power cannot explain why a rebellious seminary student would join a tiny, persecuted movement which, for most of its existence before 1917, appeared to have little or no chance of attaining power.

It’s not surprising that Medvedev concentrates on Stalin’s character. The factors undermining the dictatorship of the proletariat were real enough, but cannot of themselves explain the terrible features of Stalin’s era. Medvedev overlooks the transformation during the 1920s of the Soviet bureaucracy from an administrative machine into a ruling elite, standing above the workers and peasants, and becoming increasingly hostile to proletarian revolution. Stalin and his faction personified the bureaucracy, and their victory represented the consummation of the bureaucracy’s transformation into an elite.

The bureaucracy, faced with the necessity of maintaining control over the rebellious countryside and of building a large-scale industrial base, initiated in 1929 schemes for agricultural collectivisation and industrial development. But because the bureaucracy was unwilling to relinquish its newly-found ascendancy, it could not contemplate encouraging workers’ democracy, and therefore, with the market measures of the NEP destroyed, it had no means of regulating the economy except through coercion. The terror of the Stalin era was due, not to the unpleasant traits of the man himself, but to the inability of the bureaucracy to impose its authority over society by any other means. This resulted, especially in the 1930s, in convulsions and irrationalities, the outward form of which were the purges and general yet arbitrary repression, which Medvedev describes in detail. Sure, Stalin, at the apex of the system, had his features stamped on society, but these characteristics were only fully developed in and by the society in which he lived. The Stalin of the Moscow Trials was not the Stalin of 30, 20 or even 10 years previously. Medvedev strives to find the secret of Stalin’s victory and the basis for his regime in his personality, projected back from its ultimate development. That is not Marxism.

History is politics projected back into the past. Medvedev aims to prove that Stalinism was not the logical consequence of Bolshevism. But he insists that an unbroken thread runs from Lenin to Gorbachev, even if it was severely strained during Stalin’s days, that the Soviet Union remains a Socialist state, and that the official Communist movement remains a force for progress. He refuses to accept that, by the end of the 1920s, the dictatorship of the proletariat had been destroyed, and that the Soviet bureaucracy had become a ruling elite and a barrier to workers’ revolution. Medvedev gives the Soviet bureaucracy a legitimacy it does not deserve.

Let History Judge was undoubtedly written with a Soviet audience in mind. Its reception, should a Soviet edition appear, will very much depend upon the course of events there. It should prove popular with the glasnost reformers; who knows, Medvedev could become some kind of court historian for those who wish to claim their descent from 1917 but who want to dissociate themselves from the Stalin era. However, noting how rapidly key sections of the bureaucracy and intelligentsia are openly advocating capitalist solutions, it won’t be long before they junk the entire Soviet period, Lenin and all. And anyone intending to revive the Bolvshevik tradition will find Medvedev's historical method inadequate as they seek to explain the turbulent history of their country.

Paul Flewers

Updated by ETOL: 10.7.2003