Trotsky – the Revolution Betrayed Chapter 6 – The Growth of Inequality and Social Antagonisms

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

Chapter 6 does not contain any major theoretical innovations. It is more an elaboration and concretisation of those theoretical insights that were addressed in previous chapters.

Thus, it can be dealt with in one go, as it has a single theme, as addressed in the title, the growth of inequality and social antagonisms.

First, it should be said that this analysis does NOT imply that the Soviet bureaucracy is a new, stable ruling class, with a characteristic role in production.

All the material in this chapter flows from a different premise – the contradiction between the existence of socialised property relations in a workers’ state, and the backwardness of the country,

This has, as previously explained, led to the growth of the bureaucracy as an expression of this contradiction,

Of the fact that the backwardness of the country means that economic life requires a degree of inequality in distribution and reward, to spur the development of the productive forces to the extent that the provision of a decent standard of life to the bulk of the population even begins to become possible.

As Marx elaborated in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, a lack of development of the productive forces under the ‘Lower Stage of Communism’ (socialism) requires a degree of inequality, under the watchword of ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his work’.

Such inequality is a sine qua non of the further economic and cultural development needed to develop from socialism to the Higher Stage, actual communism, to cross the horizon of bourgeois right to the point that inequality withers away, and the watchword of society becomes “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.

But for Marx, to recap, the existence of such inequality under ‘socialism’, required an apparatus to administer it. This was further analysed by Lenin in State and Revolution as a kind of bourgeois state apparatus, or at least a shadow of one, without the bourgeoisie!

How much more necessary is such an apparatus when the society that expropriated capital is qualitatively more backward materially and economically than the advanced imperialist capitalist powers that surround it?!

And threaten its existence, both militarily and economically, with their own cheaper commodities.

That is the starting point of the bureaucracy, to manage that necessary inequality.

The danger is that in such circumstances, that bureaucracy becomes powerful enough to expropriate the proletariat politically, which is precisely the real social content of the Thermidor that the previous chapter discussed at length.

Trotsky pointed out that in such conditions, the growth of the productive forces from such a low level, far from reducing inequality, was likely to increase it, as the productive forces developed to the point that they could give a decent standard of life to a minority, but not the overwhelming majority of the working class.

Trotsky notes the sequence of changes of Soviet economic policy thus:

“After starting out with ‘socialist distribution’, the Soviet power found itself obliged in 1921 to return to the market. The extreme stretching of material means in the epoch of the five-year-plan again led to state distribution – that is, a repetition of the experiment of ‘military Communism’ on a higher basis. This basis too, however, proved inadequate. In the year 1935, the system of planned distribution again gave way to trade. Thus, a second time it is made evident that practicable methods of distribution depend more upon the level of technique and the existing material resources, than even upon forms of property.”

The turn back to the market was a reflection of the fact that the Soviet economy was simply too impoverished to be able to guarantee the masses a decent standard of life and a fundamental equality.

This is what had happened in the USSR in the 1930s.

“The raising of the productivity of labour, in particular through piecework payment, promises in the future an increase of the mass of commodities, a lowering of prices, and a consequent rise in the standard of living of the population. But that is only one aspect of the matter – an aspect which has also been observed under capitalism in its flourishing epoch. Social phenomena and processes must, however, be taken in their connections and interactions. A raising of the productivity of labour on the basis of commodity circulation, means at the same time a growth of inequality. The rise in the prosperity of the commanding strata is beginning to exceed by far the rise in the standard of living of the masses. Along with an increase of state wealth goes a process of new social differentiation.

“According to the conditions of its daily life, Soviet society is already divided into a secure and privileged minority, and a majority getting along in want. At its extremes, moreover, this inequality assumes the character of flagrant contrast. Products designed for broad circulation are as a rule, in spite of their high prices, of low quality, and the farther from the centres the more difficult to obtain. Not only speculation but the downright theft of objects of consumption assumes in these circumstances a mass character. And while up to yesterday these acts supplemented the planned distribution, they now serve as a corrective to Soviet trade.”

This could be read between the lines of the Soviet press itself. Trotsky cites quite a few choice examples:

“Zhdanov, to the applause of his immediately interested audience, promised that in a year ‘our active workers will arrive for the conference not in the present modest Fords, but in limousines.’ The Soviet technique, insofar as its face is turned toward mankind, directs its efforts primarily to satisfying the high-class demands of a chosen minority. The streetcars, where they exist at all, are as before filled to suffocation.”


“When the People’s Commissar of Food Industries, Mikoyan, boasts that the lowest kind of confections are rapidly being crowded out of production by the highest, and that ‘our women’ are demanding fine perfumes, this only means that industry, with the transfer to money circulation, is accommodating itself to the better qualified consumer. Such are the laws of the market, in which by no means the last place is occupied by the highly placed ‘wives.’ Together with this it becomes known that sixty-eight co-operative shops out of ninety-five investigated in the Ukraine in 1935, had no confections at all, and that the demand for pastries was only 15 to 20 per cent satisfied, and this with a very low quality of goods. ‘The factories are working,” complains Izvestia, “without regard to the demands of the consumer.’ Naturally, if the consumer is not one who is able to stand up for himself.”

This manifested itself in the working class, and among the collectivised peasantry, in different ways, both inimical to socialist development.

Within the newly growing working class, we saw the feverish growth of a labour aristocracy in a manner that could be called a caricature of the labour aristocracy in imperialist countries:

“It is indubitable that the situation of the upper layer of the workers, especially the so-called Stakhanovists, has risen considerably during the last year. The press is not without foundation in eagerly listing the number of suits, shoes, gramophones, bicycles, or jars of conserves this or that decorated worker has bought himself. Incidentally it becomes clear how little these benefits are accessible to the rank-and-file worker.


“But that is not enough for the bureaucracy. They literally shower privileges upon the Stakhanovists. They give them new apartments or repair their old ones. They send them out of turn to resthouses and sanatoriums. They send free teachers and physicians to their houses. They give them free tickets to the moving pictures. In some places they even cut their hair and shave them free and out of turn. Many of these privileges seem to be deliberately calculated to injure and insult the average worker.


“The best of the Stakhanovists, those who are really impelled by socialist motives, are not happy in their privileges, but irked by them. And no wonder. Their individual enjoyment of all kinds of material goods on a background of general scarcity surrounds them with a ring of envy and ill will, and poisons their existence. Relations of this kind are farther from socialist morals than the relations of the workers of a capitalist factory, joined together as they are in a struggle against exploitation.”

This is contrasted with the conditions of the mass of the workers:

“The wages of unskilled workers are 1200 to 1500 roubles a year and even less – which under Soviet prices means a regime of destitution. Living conditions, the most reliable indicator of the material and cultural level, are extremely bad, often unbearable. The overwhelming majority of the workers huddle in common dwellings, which in equipment and upkeep are considerably worse than barracks. 


“As a result of these flagrant differences in wages, doubled by arbitrary privileges, the bureaucracy has managed to introduce sharp antagonisms in the proletariat. Accounts of the Stakhanov campaign presented at times the picture of a small civil war. ‘The wrecking and breaking of mechanisms is the favourite [!] method of struggle against the Stakhanov movement,’ wrote, for example, the organ of the trade unions.”

Likewise in the collective farms, in the rural village. First of all, Trotsky pointed out the relative contradiction between the collective farm form, and state property:

“They rest not upon state, but upon group property. This is a great step forward by comparison with individual scatteredness, but whether the collective enterprises will lead to socialism depends upon a whole series of circumstances, a part lying within the collectives, a part outside them in the general conditions of the Soviet system, and a part, finally, no less a part, on the world arena.”

More to the point is that the formal collectivisation of agriculture became, in many cases, a mask for the continuation of individual, backward forms in practice. The question of stockbreeding of animals was indicative:

“While the number of horses continued to decline up to 1935, and only as a result of a series of governmental measures has begun during the last year to rise slightly, the increase of horned cattle during the preceding year had already amounted to four million head. The plan for horses was fulfilled in the favourable year 1935 only up to 94 per cent, while in the matter of horned cattle it was considerably exceeded. The meaning of these data becomes clear in the fact that horses exist only as collective property, while cows are already among the personal possessions of the majority of collectivized peasants.”

A number of other examples of this were given, including the renting of land from one collective farm to another, as a means of those farms that were wealthier, often due to more advantageous land being in their possession, having the ability to in practice exploit those involved in less prosperous farms.

And the overall picture is far from characterised by equality:

“On the average, the income of each collective farm is about 4,000 roubles. But in relation to the peasants, ‘average’ figures are even more deceptive than in relation to the workers. It was reported in the Kremlin, for example, that the collective fishermen earned in 1935 twice as much as in 1934, or 1,919 roubles each, and the applause offered to this last figure showed how considerably it rises above the earnings of the principal mass of the collectives. On the other hand, there are collectives in which the income amounts to 80,000 roubles for each household, not counting either income in money and kind from individual holdings, or the income in kind of the whole enterprise. In general, the income of every one of these big collective farmers is ten to fifteen times more than the wage of the “average” worker and the lower-grade collectivized peasant.

The gradations of income are only in part determined by skill and assiduousness in labour. Both the collectives and the personal allotments of the peasants are of necessity placed in extraordinarily unequal conditions, depending upon climate, soil, kind of crop, and also upon position in relation to the towns and industrial centres. The contrast between the city and the village not only was not softened during the five-year plan, but on the contrary was greatly sharpened as a result of the feverish growth of cities and new industrial regions. This fundamental social contrast in Soviet society inevitably creates derivative contradictions among the collectives and within the collectives, chiefly thanks to differential rent.”

And Trotsky concludes that the bureaucracy is both a product of, and an active factor in the deepening of, these contradictions:

“The unlimited power of the bureaucracy is a no less forceful instrument of social differentiation. It has in its hand such levers as wages, prices, taxes, budget and credit. The completely disproportionate income of a series of central Asiatic cotton collectives depends much more upon the correlation of prices established by the government than upon the work of the members of the collectives. The exploitation of certain strata of the population by other strata has not disappeared, but has been disguised.”


“Thus in agriculture immeasurably more than in industry, the low level of production comes into continual conflict with the socialist and even co-operative (collective farm) forms of property. The bureaucracy, which in the last analysis grew out of this contradiction, deepens it in turn.”

The final section of this chapter, The Social Physiognomy of the Ruling Stratum, contains an estimate of the actual numerical strength and social weight of the bureaucracy.

Trotsky goes through several different layers of the communist party central bureaucracy, the communist party membership and that of the youth, the state administration, the apparatus of the republics, the cooperatives, the Stahkanovists, the privileged administrative of the collective farms,

All these various often interpenetrated layers amounting to around 25 million, or 12-15 percent of the population, constitute the petty-bourgeois bureaucratic caste that had grown up as the revolution developed in isolation:

“In its conditions of life, the ruling stratum comprises all gradations, from the petty bourgeoisie of the backwoods to the big bourgeoisie of the capitals. To these material conditions correspond habits, interests and circles of ideas. The present leaders of the Soviet trade unions are not much different in their psychological type from the Citrines, Jouhaux’s and Greens. Other phraseology, but the same scornfully patronizing relation to the masses, the same conscienceless astuteness in second-rate manoeuvres, the same conservativism, the same narrowness of horizon, the same hard concern for their own peace, and finally the same worship for the most trivial forms of bourgeois culture..


If it is difficult to estimate the numbers of the bureaucracy, it is still harder to determine their income. As early as 1927, the Left Opposition protested that the ‘swollen and privileged administrative apparatus is devouring a very considerable part of the surplus value.’ In the Opposition platform it was estimated that the trade apparatus alone ‘devours an enormous share of the national income more than one tenth of the total production.’ After that the authorities took the necessary measures to make such estimates impossible. But for that very reason overhead expenses have not been cut down, but have grown.”

I think that is probably enough for now.