The Revolution Betrayed: Chapter 3 – Socialism and the State

This is a crucial chapter, and there are several reasons for that. It provides the political basis for understanding the nature of the USSR under Stalinism.

It contains the beginning of an explanation for what Stalinism was and is, as a social and political phenomenon.

And it contains generalised lessons, based on the experience of the Russian Revolution and its degeneration, of key concrete phenomena, their explanation in terms of historical materialism and Marxist theory, which the working class in power will have to address in every revolution in the future.

There are key passages in this chapter, often little noticed, that are a correction and an advance on some theoretical weaknesses of the Bolsheviks in the period when they took power.

These could only be gleaned from a substantial experience of the working class in power, and of the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the problems confronted by such a state form in real life.

This is a crucial development of Marxism, and I would argue, indispensable. In my view, those tendencies on the left who reject the enriching insight that is central to this chapter, are rejecting revolution itself.

Some of those who claim to be revolutionary opponents of the Stalinist regimes – the ‘third campists’ who have a lot of followers in the advanced capitalist West – have a cavalier attitude to the Russian Revolution.

They attempt, by theoretical exegesis, which in reality is a form of sleight of hand, to wish away the difficult duty to defend imperfect workers states (which many call ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ states) against ‘democratic’ imperialism.

This is actually to renounce Marxism and revolution, in the real world.

It is perfectly possible to construct elaborate theories, based on a manipulation of Marxist categories and forms of reasoning that do various forms of violence to logic, that try to put a case that the USSR under Stalinism was the ­complete negation of the 1917 Revolution,

That it represented the birth of a new class society, either capitalist, ‘state capitalist’ or some other form of new class, e.g. ‘bureaucratic collectivism’.

Some of these theories are quite sophisticated, and have the ability to confuse good militants for a while.

But they all evade, at some level, the most important insight in this chapter, concerning the question that will, in due course, confront every victorious revolution.

That is not to say that every revolution will degenerate in the manner of the Russian. Far from it: the degeneration in Russia was the product of isolation, and the extreme disparity of development of the productive forces compared to the advanced capitalist enemies it confronted.

But all revolutions, even if they are not confronted with defeats internationally, but conversely victories, will confront this question in some form,

That of how to deal with the objective need for some degree of bourgeois norms of distribution as the transition to socialism begins, in order to develop the productive forces to the point that bourgeois norms of distribution, that is, inequality, wage labour in some form, are transcended and begin to wither away.

Along with the state.

As Trotsky made clear in the core of this chapter, if the claims of the Stalin regime about how the USSR had reached ‘socialism’, or the lower stage of communism, were accurate, then the entire repressive apparatus of the state should have been preparing for its own dissolution.

Whereas in the Stalin period, in particular, we saw the enormous enhancement and agglomeration of the power of the state.

This was because, far from having developed the productive forces to the point that bourgeois forms of distribution, – payment of wages according to work done – had begun to wither away, the level of productive forces in the first workers state were considerably lower than under those of the advanced capitalist/imperialist powers that were the USSR’s adversaries.

Trotsky quoted the official doctrine of the Stalinist regime:

“We have not yet, of course, complete communism… but we have already achieved socialism – that is, the lowest stage of communism.”

And noted that

“In proof of this, they adduce the dominance of the state trusts in industry, the collective farms in agriculture, the state and co-operative enterprises in commerce. “

And quite simply shows that this always was a delusion of the bureaucracy, in contradiction with material reality.

Trotsky points out the programmatic norm of communism very straightforwardly:

“The material premise of communism should be so high a development of the economic powers of man that productive labour, having ceased to be a burden, will not require any goad, and the distribution of life’s goods, existing in continual abundance, will not demand …  any control except that of education, habit and social opinion.”

He then explored the distinction between this “higher stage of communism” and the period of preparation for it, the “lower stage”:

“The communist structure cannot, however, immediately replace the bourgeois society. The material and cultural inheritance from the past is wholly inadequate for that. In its first steps the workers’ state cannot yet permit everyone to work ‘according to his abilities’ – that is, as much as he can and wishes to – nor can it reward everyone ‘according to his needs’, regardless of the work he does. In order to increase the productive forces, it is necessary to resort to the customary norms of wage payment – that is, to the distribution of life’s goods in proportion to the quantity and quality of individual labour.”

And with regard to the claim of the Stalinists that this had already been achieved, he noted that:

“But it is exactly for the Marxist that this question is not exhausted by a consideration of forms of property regardless of the achieved productivity of labour. By the lowest stage of communism Marx meant, at any rate, a society which from the very beginning stands higher in its economic development than the most advanced capitalism. Theoretically such a conception is flawless, for taken on a world scale communism, even in its first incipient stage, means a higher level of development that that of bourgeois society. Moreover, Marx expected that the Frenchman would begin the social revolution, the German continue it, the Englishman finish it; and as to the Russian, Marx left him far in the rear. But this conceptual order was upset by the facts. Whoever tries now mechanically to apply the universal historic conception of Marx to the particular case of the Soviet Union at the given stage of its development, will be entangled at once in hopeless contradictions.”

He continues:

“The present Soviet Union does not stand above the world level of economy, but is only trying to catch up to the capitalist countries. If Marx called that society which was to be formed upon the basis of a socialization of the productive forces of the most advanced capitalism of its epoch, the lowest stage of communism, then this designation obviously does not apply to the Soviet Union, which is still today considerably poorer in technique, culture and the good things of life than the capitalist countries.”

And concludes:

“It would be truer, therefore, to name the present Soviet regime in all its contradictoriness, not a socialist regime, but a preparatory regime transitional from capitalism to socialism.

“There is not an ounce of pedantry in this concern for terminological accuracy. The strength and stability of regimes are determined in the long run by the relative productivity of their labour. A socialist economy possessing a technique superior to that of capitalism would really be guaranteed in its socialist development for sure – so to speak, automatically – a thing which unfortunately it is still quite impossible to say about the Soviet economy.”

And this is the core of the issue. The Stalinists claimed that this was pedantry, that

“a further development of the productive forces on the present foundations must sooner or later lead to the complete triumph of socialism. Hence only the factor of time is uncertain. And it is worth while making a fuss about that?”

But of course, this is not true, as the point about the productivity of labour is the basis for class struggle both internally and on an international level with capitalist opponents.

Who, as long as they possess a qualitatively superior productivity of labour, are in a position to threaten the Soviet power externally with military force, and internally by the promotion of hostile class forces within the workers state with the potential to overturn it.

And Trotsky talks at length about the social and political contradictions that this disparity – which falls far short of ‘socialism’ – brings about internally.

The conflict with the Kulaks was a prime example of a hostile class force exploiting the illusion that the materially backward workers state could peacefully grow-over into socialism.

Trotsky explores the programmatic norm of the workers state, and pointed out that Lenin, in 1917, was very clear that the withering away of the workers state should begin immediately after the revolution:

“After the overthrow of the exploiting classes – he repeats and explains in every chapter of State and Revolution – the proletariat will shatter the old bureaucratic machine and create its own apparatus out of employees and workers. And it will take measures against their turning into bureaucrats –

’measures analysed in detail by Marx and Engels: (1) not only election but recall at any time; (2) payment no higher than the wages of a worker; (3) immediate transition to a regime in which all will fulfil the functions of control and supervision so that all may for a time become ‘bureaucrats’, and therefore nobody can become a bureaucrat.

“You must not think that Lenin was talking about the problems of a decade. No, this was the first step with which ‘we should and must begin upon achieving a proletarian revolution.’ … The state as a bureaucratic apparatus begins to die away the first day of the proletarian dictatorship.”

Trotsky pointed out that the opposite had happened in the USSR, regarding the state:

“it has not only not died away, but not begun to ‘die away.’ Worse than that, it has grown into a hitherto unheard-of apparatus of compulsion. The bureaucracy not only has not disappeared, yielding its place to the masses, but has turned into an uncontrolled force dominating the masses. The army not only has not been replaced by an armed people, but has given birth to a privileged officers’ caste, crowned with marshals, while the people, ‘the armed bearers of the dictatorship’, are now forbidden in the Soviet Union to carry even nonexplosive weapons.”

And that is the core of the issue, and why the Revolution Betrayed contains a further development of Marxism beyond the earlier Bolshevism, on the basis of concrete, sustained experience of the proletariat in power. Lenin anticipated this, as Trotsky quotes Marx first, and then Lenin:

“Bourgeois law … is inevitable in the first phase of the communist society, in that form in which it issues after long labour pains from capitalist society. Law can never be higher than the economic structure and the cultural development of society conditioned by that structure.

Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme

And then Lenin:

“Bourgeois law in relation to the distribution of the objects of consumption assumes, of course, inevitably a bourgeois state, for law is nothing without an apparatus capable of compelling observance of its norms. It follows that under Communism not only will bourgeois law survive for a certain time, but also even a bourgeois state, without the bourgeoisie!”

State and Revolution

And this is the point at which Trotsky develops Marxism beyond the earlier Bolshevism, when he draws the conclusion:

“It is because Lenin, in accord with his whole intellectual temper, gave an extremely sharpened expression to the conception of Marx, that he revealed the source of the future difficulties, his own among them, although he did not himself succeed in carrying his analysis through to the end. ‘A bourgeois state without a bourgeoisie’ proved inconsistent with genuine Soviet democracy. The dual function of the state could not but affect its structure. Experience revealed what theory was unable clearly to foresee. If for the defence of socialized property against bourgeois counterrevolution a ‘state of armed workers’ was fully adequate, it was a very different matter to regulate inequalities in the sphere of consumption. Those deprived of property are not inclined to create and defend it. The majority cannot concern itself with the privileges of the minority. For the defence of ‘bourgeois law’ the workers’ state was compelled to create a ‘bourgeois’ type of instrument – that is, the same old gendarme, although in a new uniform.”

And Trotsky’s theoretical generalisation is obviously related to the question of the development of the productive forces:

“The tendencies of bureaucratism, which strangles the workers’ movement in capitalist countries, would everywhere show themselves even after a proletarian revolution. But it is perfectly obvious that the poorer the society which issues from a revolution, the sterner and more naked would be the expression of this ‘law’, the more crude would be the forms assumed by bureaucratism, and the more dangerous would it become for socialist development. The Soviet state is prevented … from dying away… by … factors, such as material want, cultural backwardness and the resulting dominance of ‘bourgeois law’ in what most immediately and sharply touches every human being, the business of insuring his personal existence.”

And the relationship of the workers’ state to the productive forces of its capitalist-imperialist adversaries is a crucial factor here. It is not a question of purely absolute productivity, but relative productivity. As Trotsky pointed out:

“The Soviet Union, to be sure, even now excels in productive forces the most advanced countries of the epoch of Marx. But in the first place, in the historic rivalry of two regimes, it is not so much a question of absolute as of relative levels: the Soviet economy opposes the capitalism of Hitler, Baldwin, and Roosevelt, not Bismarck, Palmerston, or Abraham Lincoln. And in the second place, the very scope of human demands changes fundamentally with the growth of world technique. The contemporaries of Marx knew nothing of automobiles, radios, moving pictures, aeroplanes. A socialist society, however, is unthinkable without the free enjoyment of these goods.”

The coherence of this argument is why this chapter has to be discussed as a whole, and cannot be divided. Trotsky is here critical of Lenin, but his criticism is inevitably a self-criticism – he does not claim a superior insight at the time Lenin wrote State and Revolution.

Rather, this is a development of Marxism. He writes:

“Basing himself wholly upon the Marxian theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat, Lenin did not succeed, as we have said, either in his chief work dedicated to this question … or in the program of the party, in drawing all the necessary conclusions as to the character of the state from the economic backwardness and isolation of the country. Explaining the revival of bureaucratism by the unfamiliarity of the masses with administration and by the special difficulties resulting from the war, the program prescribes merely political measures for the overcoming of “bureaucratic distortions”….

This obvious underestimation of impending difficulties is explained by the fact that the program was based wholly upon an international perspective. ‘The October revolution in Russia has realized the dictatorship of the proletariat … The era of world proletarian communist revolution has begun.’ … Their authors not only did not set themselves the aim of constructing “socialism in a single country” – this idea had not entered anybody’s head then, and least of all Stalin’s – but they also did not touch the question as to what character the Soviet state would assume, if compelled for as long as two decades to solve in isolation those economic and cultural problems which advanced capitalism had solved so long ago.

In subsequent chapters, which we will study, Trotsky goes into more detail as the character of the ‘gendarme’ whose existence this chapter explains.

As I said, this is a development of Marxism, within its own framework. We should stand on this as a key building block of our understanding of the world today.

We have no need of the theories of various pseudo-Marxists about such things as ‘state capitalism’ or ‘bureaucratic collectivism’, which ignore these lessons of world-revolutionary experience in a quest to evade the sometimes-difficult task of revolutionary defence of the gains of the revolution itself.