The Revolution Betrayed, Chapter 5, Part 3 The Soviet Thermidor – The Social Roots of Thermidor

This concluding section of the fifth chapter is really a significant building block in Trotsky’s theoretical understanding of the growth of inequality and the degeneration of the revolution.

What he is trying to address is the ‘deep social causes’ of the rise of the bureaucracy and its representatives to supreme power in the workers state, to get down to fundamentals, and not be side-tracked by superficial or incidental aspects of the question.

He wrote, by analogy with the French revolution, that:

“The victory of the Thermidorians over the Jacobins in the 18th century was also aided by the weariness of the masses and the demoralization of the leading cadres, but beneath these essentially incidental phenomena a deep organic process was taking place. The Jacobins rested upon the lower petty bourgeoisie lifted by the great wave. The revolution of the 18th century, however, corresponding to the course of development of the productive forces, could not but bring the great bourgeoisie to political ascendancy in the long run. The Thermidor was only one of the stages in this inevitable process. What similar social necessity found expression in the Soviet Thermidor? We have tried already in one of the preceding chapters to make a preliminary answer to the question why the gendarme triumphed. We must now prolong out analysis of the conditions of the transition from capitalism to socialism, and the role of the state in this process.”

If the French Revolution “could not but bring the great bourgeoisie to political ascendancy in the long run” as the outcome of a bourgeois revolution, which ultimately explained the eclipse of the radical, Jacobin forces, what then was the explanation for the Soviet Thermidor? That is what this section attempts to explain.

Trotsky’s takes one of Lenin’s most fundamental points about the nature of a workers’ state as opposed to any other kind of class state:

“It is still necessary to suppress the bourgeoisie and its resistance … but the organ of suppression here is now the majority of the population, and not the minority as had heretofore always been the case…. In that sense the state is beginning to die away.”

And again, he quotes Lenin on the consequences of this:

“The more universal becomes the very fulfilment of the functions of the state power, the less need is there of this power.”

He then draws out the programmatic norms Lenin was discussing:

“The dying away of the state begins, then, according to Lenin, on the very day after the expropriation of the expropriators”

And yet he brings out something that qualifies that:

“that is, before the new regime has had time to take up its economic and cultural problems.”

And goes on to extrapolate the consequences of this, and the paradox of the reality that Trotsky was discussing:

“Every success in the solution of these problems means a further step in the liquidation of the state, its dissolution in the socialist society. The degree of this dissolution is the best index of the depth and efficacy of the socialist structure. We may lay down approximately this sociological theorem: The strength of the compulsion exercised by the masses in a workers’ state is directly proportional to the strength of the exploitive tendencies, or the danger of a restoration of capitalism, and inversely proportional to the strength of the social solidarity and the general loyalty to the new regime. Thus the bureaucracy – that is, the “privileged officials and commanders of the standing army” – represents a special kind of compulsion which the masses cannot or do not wish to exercise, and which, one way or another, is directed against the masses themselves.”

That is the point. The activity of the bureaucracy is indeed directed against the masses themselves. He notes the form that it took:

“…the mass soviets have entirely disappeared from the scene, having turned over the function of compulsion to Stalin, Yagoda and company. And what forms of compulsion!”

And asks the question of why, in essence:

“First of all we must ask ourselves: What social cause stands behind its policification The importance of this question is obvious. In dependence upon the answer, we must either radically revise out traditional views of the socialist society in general, or as radically reject the official estimates of the Soviet Union.”

By way of a preliminary to the explanation, he manages to completely ridicule the theoretical structure given by Molotov, who attempts to excuse the monstrous growth of the repressive apparatus of the state in this period. He boasted:

“The national economy of the country has become socialistic. (applause) In that sense [?] we have solved the problem of the liquidation of classes.”

and then continued that there remain:

“‘elements in their nature hostile to us,’… ‘petty speculators’ … ‘grafters in relation to the collective and state wealth, anti-Soviets gossip, etc.’

Hence, he paraphrases Molotov: “In opposition to Engels, the workers’ state must not ‘fall asleep’, but on the contrary become more and more vigilant.”

In counterposition to this self-contradiction, he then goes back to Lenin:

“We are not Utopians.. we by no means deny the possibility and inevitability of excesses on the part of individual persons, and likewise the necessity for suppressing such excesses. But … for this there is no need of a special machine, a special apparatus of repression. This will be done by the armed people themselves, with the same simplicity and ease with which any crowd of civilized people even in contemporary society separate a couple of fighters or stop an act of violence against a woman.”

Thus demonstrating that Molotov, the only individual in the Stalinist regime who had even attempted to justify the growth the repressive state theoretically, had all his points answered in advance by Lenin many years earlier.

So, what is the explanation for the monstrous growth of the bureaucratic and repressive state apparatus? The bureaucracy could not explain it without falling into severe self-contradiction. And yet there was a clear objective cause:

“The present Soviet society cannot get along without a state, nor even – within limits – without a bureaucracy. But the case of this is by no means the pitiful remnants of the past, but the mighty forces and tendencies of the present. The justification for the existence of a Soviet state as an apparatus of compulsion lies in the fact that the present transitional structure is still full of social contradictions, which in the sphere of consumption – most close and sensitively felt by all – are extremely tense, and forever threaten to break over into the sphere of production. The triumph of socialism cannot be called either final or irrevocable.”

And he goes on to elaborate the material roots of this, and the basic necessity that gives rise to the core elements of the mechanism:

“The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all. When there is enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there is little goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy. It ‘knows’ who is to get something and how has to wait.”

In fact, he noted, that the very growth of the productive forces from the initially very low level had helped the growth of the bureaucracy:

“A raising of the material and cultural level ought, at first glance, to lessen the necessity of privileges, narrow the sphere of application of ‘bourgeois law’, and thereby undermine the standing ground of its defenders, the bureaucracy. In reality the opposite thing has happened: the growth of the productive forces has been so far accompanied by an extreme development of all forms of inequality, privilege and advantage, and therewith of bureaucratism. That too is not accidental.”

It is itself the product of the growth of the economy from the state of near total exhaustion that prevailed at the end of the Civil War:

“In its first period, the Soviet regime was undoubtedly far more equalitarian and less bureaucratic than now. But that was an equality of general poverty. The resources of the country were so scant that there was no opportunity to separate out from the masses of the population any broad privileged strata. …

“Soviet economy had to lift itself from its poverty to a somewhat higher level before fat deposits of privilege became possible. The present state of production is still far from guaranteeing all necessities to everybody. But it is already adequate to give significant privileges to a minority, and convert inequality into a whip for the spurring on of the majority. That is the first reason why the growth of production has so far strengthened not the socialist, but the bourgeois features of the state.”

He notes the objective necessity of the existence of a bureaucracy, as discussed earlier, because of the need to maintain inequality in order the regime could maintain “bourgeois right” in the transition to the ‘lower phase of communism’. Marx himself had noted, if we recall, that such distribution required an apparatus of coercion, even “a bourgeois state .. without the bourgeoisie”! This was the phenomenon that gave rise to the Soviet bureaucracy. And the bureaucracy was able to act as a self-motivated actor in this situation, and thereby a danger to the survival of the revolution. That is the key insight of his chapter, building on what we discussed before:

“Alongside the economic factor dictating capitalist methods of payment at the present stage, there operates a parallel political factor in the person of the bureaucracy itself. In its very essence it is the planter and protector of inequality. It arose in the beginning as the bourgeois organ of a workers’ state. In establishing and defending the advantages of a minority, it of course draws off the cream for its own use. Nobody who has wealth to distribute ever omits himself. Thus out of a social necessity there has developed an organ which has far outgrown its socially necessary function, and become an independent factor and therewith the source of great danger for the whole social organism.”

And the operative conclusion from this:

“The social meaning of the Soviet Thermidor now begins to take form before us. The poverty and cultural backwardness of the masses has again become incarnate in the malignant figure of the ruler with a great club in his hand. The deposed and abused bureaucracy, from being a servant of society, has again become its lord. On this road it has attained such a degree of social and moral alienation from the popular masses, that it cannot now permit any control over wither its activities or its income.”

And at the end, Trotsky hints at the possible remedy for this, which will again be developed in future chapters:

“The first still very meagre wave of prosperity in the country, just because of its meagreness, has not weakened, but strengthened, these centrifugal tendencies. On the other hand, there has developed simultaneously a desire of the unprivileged to slap the grasping hands of the new gentry. The social struggle again grows sharp. Such are the sources of the power of the bureaucracy. But from those same sources comes also a threat to its power.”