The Revolution Betrayed – Chapter 5 part 1: The Soviet Thermidor – Why Stalin Triumphed

(These are the notes for the presentation at this event, which can also be listened to as a podcast)

It is clear that the Left Opposition was able to exercise foresight in the various conflicts and contentious issues that took place in the USSR after the death of Lenin, just over 100 years ago.

The classic example is over the question of collectivisation and the Kulak. But there are several others. Let us however recap on the question of collectivisation first.

The Left Opposition as early as 1923 pointed to the ‘scissors crisis’ – the divergence of prices of industrial and agricultural goods – as threatening to break the class alliance between the workers and peasants that was the foundation stone of the revolution.

This was symbolised by the Hammer and Sickle, of course.

The high prices of industrial goods, a symbol of low productivity, diverged from the lower price of agricultural goods – a symbol of the underdevelopment of agriculture and low productivity by a huge, impoverished peasantry.

The Left Opposition proposed a measured programme of collectivisation of agriculture in the countryside, through material and moral incentives, and planned industrial development in the cities. To establish an equilibrium between the two, and develop a harmonious economic growth benefiting both.

They were denounced as ‘super industrialisers’

Their opponents, the Troika and the Bukharin rights, preferred to extend NEP beyond its original purpose and achieve economic growth through giving great latitude to the wealthier layers of the peasantry to enrich themselves. This led to the growth of the Kulak class.

Unease at this developing threat split the Troika in 1926. Zinoviev and Kamenev broke with Stalin over this and joined with the Trotskyists in the Joint Opposition. Though they proved weak and soon capitulated, this was an important demonstration of the correctness of the Left Opposition.

Later, Stalin was forced to break with Bukharin when the indulgence of the Kukaks (“Enrich Yourselves” said Bukharin) – led to the Kulaks attempting, by grain strikes, to overthrow the Soviet regime and gain complete (capitalist) economic ‘freedom’ to exploit the poor peasantry and the working class through high prices, backed with the threat of starvation.

Stalin broke with Bukharin and was forced to collectivise agriculture by methods of civil war, and to institute economic planning – the advent of 5-year plans (1928).

This led to attempts to jump over material reality and use administrative measures to industrialise the country without a stable currency, with the ruinous effects of inflation on the workers, and a major famine in the countryside that caused millions of deaths on an All-Union basis.

The Stalin regime was forced to retreat and stabilise the currency and thereby the economy.

Yet it persisted in voluntarist efforts to leap over economic reality, with such things as ‘shock brigades’. This was related to Stakhanovism, which used the most brutal form of capitalist renumeration, piecework, which damages the workers labour power itself. The Stalin regime tried to dub this ‘socialist’.

It is clear that the Left Opposition exercised foresight every step of the way in this period. This is confining matters to domestic economic policy. Yet it still lost, was subjected to ferocious persecution in the USSR, and in the course of the 1930s, was essentially wiped out.

This preliminary section of Chapter 5 deals with why this happened.

It is not enough to be right in many circumstances. Trotsky addressed this question, of the superior political vision of the opposition, which is

“contradicted at first glance by the simple fact that the faction which could not see ahead was steadily victorious, while the more penetrating group suffered defeat after defeat.”

and then Trotsky explained why:

“That kind of objection, which comes automatically to mind, is convincing, however, only for those who think rationalistically, and see in politics a logical argument or a chess match. A political struggle is in its essence a struggle of interests and forces, not of arguments. The quality of the leadership is, of course, far from a matter of indifference for the outcome of the conflict, but it is not the only factor, and in the last analysis is not decisive. Each of the struggling camps moreover demands leaders in its own image.”

He gives many examples, not just from the then-recent history of the USSR:

“The February revolution raised Kerensky and Tsereteli to power, not because they were “cleverer” or “more astute” than the ruling tsarist clique, but because they represented, at least temporarily, the revolutionary masses of the people in their revolt against the old regime. Kerensky was able to drive Lenin underground and imprison other Bolshevik leaders, not because he excelled them in personal qualifications, but because the majority of the workers and soldiers in those days were still following the patriotic petty bourgeoisie. The personal “superiority” of Kerensky, if it is suitable to employ such a word in this connection, consisted in the fact that he did not see farther than the overwhelming majority. The Bolsheviks in their turn conquered the petty bourgeois democrats, not through the personal superiority of their leaders, but through a new correlation of social forces. The proletariat had succeeded at last in leading the discontented peasantry against the bourgeoisie.”

Likewise, from the history of the French Revolution:

“The consecutive stages of the great French Revolution, during its rise and fall alike, demonstrate no less convincingly that the strength of the ‘leaders’ and ‘heroes’ that replaced each other consisted primarily in their correspondence to the character of those classes and strata which supported them. Only this correspondence, and not any irrelevant superiorities whatever, permitted each of them to place the impress of his personality upon a certain historic period. In the successive supremacy of Mirabeau, Brissot, Robespierre, Barras and Bonaparte, there is an obedience to objective law incomparably more effective than the special traits of the historic protagonists themselves.”

And this touches upon the question of similar phenomena related to the workers state after the revolution, with relevance to the subject matter of this whole chapter (which we will look at in more detail later.):

“It is sufficiently well known that every revolution up to this time has been followed by a reaction, or even a counterrevolution. This, to be sure, has never thrown the nation all the way back to its starting point, but it has always taken from the people the lion’s share of their conquests. The victims of the first revolutionary wave have been, as a general rule, those pioneers, initiators, and instigators who stood at the head of the masses in the period of the revolutionary offensive. In their stead people of the second line, in league with the former enemies of the revolution, have been advanced to the front. Beneath this dramatic duel of ‘coryphées’ on the open political scene [a metaphor about the interaction of ballet dancers], shifts have taken place in the relations between classes, and, no less important, profound changes in the psychology of the recently revolutionary masses.”

This is connected with the paradox of the Permanent Revolution process that commenced when the proletariat of the Russian Empire, the most backward of the imperialist Great Powers in the European war, took power in October 1917:

“The axiomatic assertions of the Soviet literature, to the effect that the laws of bourgeois revolutions are ‘inapplicable’ to a proletarian revolution, have no scientific content whatever. The proletarian character of the October revolution was determined by the world situation and by a special correlation of internal forces. But the classes themselves were formed in the barbarous circumstances of tsarism and backward capitalism, and were anything but made to order for the demands of a socialist revolution. The exact opposite is true.”

This produced a huge contradiction in material reality itself:

“It is for the very reason that a proletariat still backward in many respects achieved in the space of a few months the unprecedented leap from a semi-feudal monarchy to a socialist dictatorship, that the reaction in its ranks was inevitable. This reaction has developed in a series of consecutive waves. External conditions and events have vied with each other in nourishing it. Intervention followed intervention. The revolution got no direct help from the west. Instead of the expected prosperity of the country an ominous destitution reigned for long. Moreover, the outstanding representatives of the working class either died in the civil war, or rose a few steps higher and broke away from the masses. And thus after an unexampled tension of forces, hopes and illusions, there came a long period of weariness, decline and sheer disappointment in the results of the revolution. The ebb of the “plebian pride” made room for a flood of pusillanimity and careerism. The new commanding caste rose to its place upon this wave.”

Indeed, this had bearing on the conflict in the countryside, which culminated in the Kulak revolt at the end of the 1920s:

“The reaction within the proletariat caused an extraordinary flush of hope and confidence in the petty bourgeois strata of town and country, aroused as they were to new life by the NEP, and growing bolder and bolder. The young bureaucracy, which had arisen at first as an agent of the proletariat, began ow to feel itself a court of arbitration between classes. Its independence increased from mouth to mouth.”

Of course, this is not solely, or even primarily, a matter of purely domestic politics. The entire context of all these struggles is the situation on a much broader, international level, which Trotsky spelled out thus:

“The international situation was pushing with mighty forces in the same direction. The Soviet bureaucracy became more self-confident, the heavier blows dealt to the working class. Between these two facts there was not only a chronological, but a causal connection, and one which worked in two directions. The leaders of the bureaucracy promoted the proletarian defeats; the defeats promoted the rise of the bureaucracy. The crushing of the Bulgarian insurrection in 1924, the treacherous liquidation of the General Strike in England and the unworthy conduct of the Polish workers’ party at the installation of Pilsudski in 1926, the terrible massacre of the Chinese revolution in 1927, and, finally, the still more ominous recent defeats in Germany and Austria – these are the historic catastrophes which killed the faith of the Soviet masses in world revolution, and permitted the bureaucracy to rise higher and higher as the sole light of salvation.”

And that is the point. The Left Opposition were able to foresee the practical problems of the USSR’s ‘internal’ economic policy, because their perspective was one of preparing for, and fighting for, the international revolution as the only ultimate salvation of the Soviet state.

The developing bureaucracy, on the other hand, was forced to zigzag from one flawed policy to the opposite, repeatedly, because it rejected the primacy of the world revolution as the objective of the Soviet state, and sought to solve their problems on a purely national basis, as befitting the theory of socialism in one country.

The problem is that the objective interests of the USSR could only be successfully defended in the long term by the means of the world revolution.

And yet the bureaucracy grew stronger because of the defeats it had brought about. He wrote of the defeat in Germany strengthening the bureaucracy:

“the irrefutable and instructive fact that the continual defeats of the revolution in Europe and Asia, while weakening the international position of the Soviet Union, have vastly strengthened the Soviet bureaucracy. Two dates are especially significant in this historic series. In the second half of 1923, the attention of the Soviet workers was passionately fixed upon Germany, where the proletariat, it seemed, had stretched out its hand to power. The panicky retreat of the German Communist Party was the heaviest possible disappointment to the working masses of the Soviet Union. The Soviet bureaucracy straightway opened a campaign against the theory of “permanent revolution”, and dealt the Left Opposition its first cruel blow.”

And again over China:

“During the years 1926 and 1927 the population of the Soviet Union experienced a new tide of hope. All eyes were now directed to the East where the drama of the Chinese revolution was unfolding. The Left Opposition had recovered from the previous blows and was recruiting a phalanx of new adherents. At the end of 1927 the Chinese revolution was massacred by the hangman, Chiang Kai-shek, into whose hands the Communist International had literally betrayed the Chinese workers and peasants. A cold wave of disappointment swept over the masses of the Soviet Union. After an unbridled baiting in the press and at meetings, the bureaucracy finally, in 1928, ventured upon mass arrests among the Left Opposition.”

And the contradiction in the consciousness of the masses these defeats gave rise to,

“This gospel of repose firmly consolidated the apparatchiki and the military and state officials and indubitably found an echo among the weary workers, and still more the peasant masses. Can it be, they asked themselves, that the Opposition is actually ready to sacrifice the interests of the Soviet Union for the idea of “permanent revolution”? In reality, the struggle had been about the life interests of the Soviet state. The false policy of the International in Germany resulted ten years later in the victory of Hitler – that is, in a threatening war danger from the West. And the no less false policy in China reinforced Japanese imperialism and brought very much nearer the danger in the East. But periods of reaction are characterized above all by a lack of courageous thinking.”

And thus, the conclusion of this analysis:

“The Opposition was isolated. The bureaucracy struck while the iron was hot, exploiting the bewilderment and passivity of the workers, setting their more backward strata against the advanced, and relying more and more boldly upon the kulak and the petty bourgeois ally in general. In the course of a few years, the bureaucracy thus shattered the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat.”

This sets the scene for the next two parts of the chapter, on the degeneration of the party, and the Thermidor itself. I will leave it here for now, and go further into the programmatic implications of all this.

But the sentence above “Can it be, they asked themselves, that the Opposition is actually ready to sacrifice the interests of the Soviet Union for the idea of ‘permanent revolution’?” really does encapsulate the illusion in the minds of the masses that fed the growth of the bureaucracy.

The entire concept was a contradiction in terms. It was, and could only be, the product of exhaustion.

As the only way the new forms of property created by the revolution, precisely because of their character of being more advanced in historical terms than the most advanced capitalism, could thrive, is on an international scale.

Because that is one of the key elements of the obsolescence of capitalism. Its soil is the national state, but the productive forces it has created, already by 1914 had outgrown the same national state.

The imperialist war itself, which tore the world apart as the various imperialists fought each other to transcend their national boundaries, was proof of that.

Socialism transcends the national state. Marx and Engels pointed out this logic as early as 1847 in the Communist Manifesto. The attempt to confine the socialist revolution within national borders can only be a means of stifling it and extending the life of capitalism.

This is not some sort of abstract liberal idealism, but fundamentally a product of the deep-rooted inner needs of the productive forces themselves.