The Revolution Betrayed, Chapter 5, Part 2 The Soviet Thermidor – The Degeneration of the Bolshevik Party

This part of the chapter is simple, but crucial. It centres on basic questions about the nature and functioning of a revolutionary party, and how they were turned into their opposite.

Trotsky talked at length about the transformation, its point of departure, and the causes of the change:

“The inner regime of the Bolshevik party was characterized by the method of democratic centralism. The combination of these two concepts, democracy and centralism, is not in the least contradictory. The party took watchful care not only that its boundaries should always be strictly defined, but also that all those who entered these boundaries should enjoy the actual right to define the direction of the party policy. Freedom of criticism and intellectual struggle was an irrevocable content of the party democracy. The present doctrine that Bolshevism does not tolerate factions is a myth of epoch decline. In reality the history of Bolshevism is a history of the struggle of factions. And, indeed, how could a genuinely revolutionary organization, setting itself the task of overthrowing the world and uniting under its banner the most audacious iconoclasts, fighters and insurgents, live and develop without intellectual conflicts, without groupings and temporary factional formations? The farsightedness of the Bolshevik leadership often made it possible to soften conflicts and shorten the duration of factional struggle, but no more than that. The Central Committee relied upon this seething democratic support. From this it derived the audacity to make decisions and give orders. The obvious correctness of the leadership at all critical stages gave it that high authority which is the priceless moral capital of centralism.”

This was completely at odds with the practice that developed in the aftermath of the Thermidor in the USSR (whose nature will be expanded on later)

“The regime of the Bolshevik party, especially before it came to power, stood thus in complete contradiction to the regime of the present sections of the Communist International, with their “leaders” appointed from above, making complete changes of policy at a word of command, with their uncontrolled apparatus, haughty in its attitude to the rank and file, servile in its attitude to the Kremlin. But in the first years after the conquest of power also, even when the administrative rust was already visible on the party, every Bolshevik, not excluding Stalin, would have denounced as a malicious slanderer anyone who should have shown him on a screen the image of the party ten or fifteen years later.”

However, as we already discussed earlier, this was not a conscious process, at least not initially. It was the product of changed circumstances, privations and difficulties resulting from the isolation of the revolution.

In particular, it was initially the product of the situation that all the softer ‘left’ parties that had supported the coming to power of the proletariat in October 1917, or at least had pledged to work constructively as an opposition to the Bolsheviks within the Soviet framework, betrayed such fine words.

The imperialists declared war on the Bolsheviks, and sought to fund anyone who could be bribed, or be persuaded of what was in reality the virtue of being bribed, to join in the crusade against the Soviet regime.

As the civil war got underway, that became a crucial phenomenon.

“Democracy had been narrowed in proportion as difficulties increased. In the beginning, the party had wished and hoped to preserve freedom of political struggle within the framework of the Soviets. The civil war introduced stern amendments into this calculation. The opposition parties were forbidden one after the other. This measure, obviously in conflict with the spirit of Soviet democracy, the leaders of Bolshevism regarded not as a principle, but as an episodic act of self-defense.“

They really had no choice but to do this. It was a product of the disparity between the material resources the revolution had at its disposal, vs those of its imperialist enemies.

Obviously Soviet Russia was created out the most backward of the imperialist powers, and the resources of its enemies were enormously greater.

This is not very different from the phenomena we see today, the promotion of colour revolutions etc. But the Bolsheviks’ resources to combat it were much more limited.

However, there is a problem that logically follows from the suppression of opposition parties in a state dominated by a large, authoritative and democratic party with a mass base among large sections of the population.

It’s not so much a process of infiltration – the Bolsheviks were vigilant against that (until the Troika changed the policy), but of social pressure, which the mass base of the party are vulnerable to, which in turn can only find reflection in the party.

Abolishing other parties that represent other social forces, does not abolish those social forces. They instead place their social pressure on the revolutionary party itself. And that is what the Bolshevik leaders came to fear, and as result, even Lenin and Trotsky felt obliged at the time to take the logical measure:

“The swift growth of the ruling party, with the novelty and immensity of its tasks, inevitably gave rise to inner disagreements. The underground oppositional currents in the country exerted a pressure through various channels upon the sole legal political organization, increasing the acuteness of the factional struggle. At the moment of completion of the civil war, this struggle took such sharp forms as to threaten to unsettle the state power. In March 1921, in the days of the Kronstadt revolt, which attracted into its ranks no small number of Bolsheviks, the 10th Congress of the party thought it necessary to resort to a prohibition of factions – that is, to transfer the political regime prevailing in the state to the inner life of the ruling party. This forbidding of factions was again regarded as an exceptional measure to be abandoned at the first serious improvement in the situation. At the same time, the Central Committee was extremely cautious in applying the new law, concerning itself most of all lest it lead to a strangling of the inner life of the party.”

This was meant to be temporary. However, the contradictions which gave rise to it militated against that. You can argue that it ought to have been rejected, but that was unlikely. The motive for it was nothing sinister or ‘totalitarian’, but rather just the conviction and fear that if the party did not hang together, they would hang separately.

The problem is that it fitted perfectly the agenda of the emerging bureaucracy, who as Trotsky said, “begun to approach the inner life of the party exclusively from the viewpoint of convenience in administration”. As he noted:

“The entire effort of Stalin, with whom at that time Zinoviev and Kamenev were working hand in hand, was thenceforth directed to freeing the party machine from the control of the rank-and-file members of the party. In this struggle for “stability” of the Central Committee, Stalin proved the most consistent and reliable among his colleagues. He had no need to tear himself away from international problems; he had never been concerned with them. The petty bourgeois outlook of the new ruling stratum was his own outlook. He profoundly believed that the task of creating socialism was national and administrative in its nature. He looked upon the Communist International as a necessary evil would should be used so far as possible for the purposes of foreign policy. His own party kept a value in his eyes merely as a submissive support for the machine.”

And for this ‘convenience’, immediately after the death of Lenin, Stalin completely did away with the safeguards of the party against being ‘infiltrated’ by element withs a different class outlook, by backward elements.

This was the ‘Leninist levy’: the admission of many new members to the party:

“Workers, clerks, petty officials, flocked through in crowds. The political aim of this manoeuvre was to dissolve the revolutionary vanguard in raw human material, without experience, without independence, and yet with the old habit of submitting to the authorities. The scheme was successful. By freeing the bureaucracy from the control of the proletarian vanguard, the ‘Leninist levy’ dealt a death blow to the party of Lenin. The machine had won the necessary independence. Democratic centralism gave place to bureaucratic centralism. In the party apparatus itself there now took place a radical reshuffling of personnel from top to bottom. The chief merit of a Bolshevik was declared to be obedience.”

And this appeared to the masses to be a remote factional struggle over the succession:

“The political meaning of the developing struggle was darkened for many by the circumstances that the leaders of all three groupings, Left, Centre and Right, belonged to one and the same staff in the Kremlin, the Politburo. To superficial minds it seemed to be a mere matter of personal rivalry, a struggle for the ‘heritage’ of Lenin. But in the conditions of iron dictatorship social antagonisms could not show themselves at first except through the institutions of the ruling party.”

The result:

“Of the Politburo of Lenin’s epoch there now remains only Stalin. Two of its members, Zinoviev and Kamenev, collaborators of Lenin throughout many years as émigrés, are enduring ten-year prison terms for a crime which they did not commit. Three other members, Rykov, Bukharin and Tomsky, are completely removed from the leadership, but as a reward for submission occupy secondary posts.”

“And, finally, the author of these lines is in exile. The widow of Lenin, Krupskaya, is also under the ban, having proved unable with all her efforts to adjust herself completely to the Thermidor.”

That basically sketches out the basic facts about the degeneration of the party, how it began, what fuelled it, and how it concluded.

In the final few paragraphs of this part, Trotsky sketches out at few relevant facts that go deeper into the reasons for the political degeneration of the apparatus, and the social basis of it. Such things always have something in common: the conquest of the conquerors by the conquered when the conquered are on a higher cultural level.

“At the 11th Congress of the party, in March 1922, Lenin gave warning of the danger of a degeneration of the ruling stratum. It has occurred more than once in history, he said, that the conqueror took over the culture of the conquered, when the latter stood on a higher level. The culture of the Russian bourgeoisie and the old bureaucracy was, to be sure, miserable, but alas the new ruling stratum must often take off its hat to that culture. ‘Four thousand seven hundred responsible communists’ in Moscow administer the state machine. ‘Who is leading whom? I doubt very much whether you can say that the communists are in the lead …’ In subsequent congresses, Lenin could not speak.”

The remarks from Rakovsky, about the intermarriage of the Jacobins with “the young ladies of the aristocracy” after 1789 and the role that played in the original Thermidor, casts light on the Soviet Thermidor as well.

The ‘Automobile-harem factor’, of course is relevant, as well of course is the rise, not only of secondary and very much junior figures in the period of the revolution, to the front rank of the party, but also of elements who were enemies of the 1917 revolution at the time.

This also indicates the political and social degeneration of the political life of the party, as manifested in this anecdote, as reproduced from the critical writings of Sosnovsky:

“The director of a Moscow factory, a prominent communist, boasts in Pravda of the cultural growth of the enterprise directed by him. “A mechanic telephones: ‘What is your order, sir, check the furnace immediately or wait?’ I answer: ‘Wait.’”  The mechanic addresses the director with extreme respect, using the second person plural, while the director answers him in the second person singular. And this disgraceful dialogue, impossible in any cultured capitalist country, is related by the director himself on the pages of Pravda as something entirely normal! The editor does not object because he does not notice it. The readers do not object because they are accustomed to it. … How can they fail to remember that one of the most popular revolutionary slogans in tzarist Russia was the demand for the abolition of the use of the second person singular by bosses in addressing their subordinates!”

That does not work in English, as that construct does not exist in English. It is likely to be fully understood by French speakers.

The equivalent in English might be a boss expecting the worker to tug his forelock in deference.

But it was a sign, reproduced in the Soviet press without even being noticed, of how the social relations in the USSR had degenerated in the decade and a half after the revolution. It was a striking symbol of Thermidor.