Alex Callinicos




1 Origins

1.2 The critique of Stalinism

The generalization of the theory of permanent revolution made explicit what had earlier been implicit, namely that Trotsky’s frame of reference was the capitalist world-system as a whole:

Marxism takes its starting point from world economy, not as a sum of national parts but as a mighty and independent reality which has been created by the international division of labour and the world market and which in our epoch imperiously dominates the national markets. (Trotsky 1969: 146)

Accordingly, he argued that while socialist revolution would begin in an individual country it could only be completed on a world scale. The internationalization of the productive forces achieved by capitalism meant that socialism could not be built in one country, and certainly not backward Russia. A workers’ state should act primarily as a platform from which to spread the revolution to other countries.

The socialist revolution begins on the national arena, in unfolds on the international arena, and is completed on the world arena. Thus, the socialist revolution becomes a permanent revolution in a newer and broader sense; it attains completion only in the final victory of the new society on the entire planet. (Trotsky 1969: 279)

In thus rejecting the possibility of socialism in one country, Trotsky was merely stating what was axiomatic to all Marxists in 1917. Lenin stressed on numerous occasions that the survival of the Bolshevik regime depended on the victory of revolutions in the advanced countries, especially Germany. The Bolsheviks accordingly launched the Comintern in 1919, with the aim of establishing an “international Soviet republic”. Marx had indeed warned that without world revolution “privation, want is merely made general and with want the struggle for necessities would begin again and the whole filthy business would necessarily be restored” (Marx and Engels 1976a: 49). This prediction seemed to be confirmed by developments after 1917. No successful revolution in the West came to the aid of the Bolshevik regime. Industry collapsed under the impact of invasion, civil war, and blockade. The urban working class which had made the Revolution sharply diminished in size and political enthusiasm. The soviets consequently became the empty shells of proletarian rule, so that by the end of the Civil War in 1921 the Bolshevik Party, itself transformed into a bureaucratic organization interwoven with the state apparatus, found itself ruling, in the name of a class which had effectively ceased to exist, over a population largely made up of small-holding peasants whose natural suspicions of government were reinforced by the regime’s commitment to collective rather than private ownership.

It was against this background that, in the years after Lenin’s death in January 1924, a bitter factional struggle developed among the Bolsheviks. Stalin, allied first to Zinoviev and Kamenev and then to Bukharin, owed his rise to the new bureaucracy of party secretaries over which he presided. The doctrine of “socialism in one country”, though formulated by Bukharin, is perhaps best seen as an assertion of this group’s self-confidence. Dismissing the possibilities of revolutions elsewhere from their calculations, especially after the German Communist Party’s failure to take advantage of the radicalization produced by the 1923 inflation, Stalin and his supporters asserted their capacity to reconstruct society using resources available within Russia’s borders. For much of the 1920s the strategy formulated by Bukharin and the Right of the party was accepted as the best means of achieving this objective. This involved extending the New Economic Policy (NEP) introduced at the end of the Civil War to conciliate the peasantry by relying on market incentives rather than coercion to provide the towns with food, even if this meant industry growing “at a snail’s pace”, as Bukharin put it. Trotsky and the Left Opposition rejected this policy because it was likely to promote the development of rural petty capitalism which would provide the socio-economic base for counter-revolution. Faster industrial growth would increase the size and social weight of the working class, a necessary condition of the restoration of democracy in both party and soviets. Nevertheless, Trotsky argued, no purely national strategy could resolve the contradictions facing the Bolshevik regime. Thus a major theme of the Left’s critique of Stalin and Bukharin was the manner in which socialism in one country led to the subordination of the Comiritern to the interests of Russian foreign policy and therefore to the squandering of major revolutionary opportunities – for example, in China in 1925-7 and in Britain during the General Strike of 1926.

The final defeat of the Opposition in 1927-8 – which recent research has shown to have been less of a foregone conclusion than previously thought – took place in the context of an increasingly serious crisis involving worsening relations with the West, industrial stagnation, and an abrupt fall in grain deliveries (Reiman 1987). Stalin’s response was to break with the Right and resort to coercion to extract from the peasants the grain needed to feed the cities. This expedient became the starting point for a different strategy involving rapid centrally directed industrialization and the forced collectivization of agriculture. Implemented during the First Five Year Plan (1928–32), the new policy transformed the USSR into a major industrial power, but at an enormous human price: collectivization led to the deaths of millions of peasants from repression, famine, or forced labour in the Gulag Archipelago. Even modern Soviet estimates suggest that industrialization was financed by a drastic reduction in real wages. The divisions these consequences caused inside the regime led in 1936 to the Great Purge in which much of the old Bolshevik Party perished.

Exiled from the USSR in January 1929, Trotsky sought to provide a Marxist explanation of this enormous transformation. Given its unprecedented character, it is hardly surprising that his views on the subject should have undergone considerable changes. The thread running through these modifications is a preoccupation with the social causes of Stalinism. As early as December 1923 Trotsky (1975: 91) was insisting that “[b]ureacratism is a social phenomenon”. Stalin was the representative of a distinct social layer, the bureaucratic caste” which had crystallized within the party and state after 1917. It was not, however, from the bureaucracy that Trotsky expected a Russian equivalent of 9 Thermidor (27 July 1794), when the Jacobin dictatorship under Robespierre was overthrown and a conservative reaction unleashed. The main danger of counter-revolution came, rather, from the “new bourgeoisie” of kulaks (rich peasants) and nepmen (speculators and middlemen) who had benefited from the revival of the private market under NEP. The Stalinist bureaucracy Trotsky saw as a “centrist” force: just as left social democrats such as Kautsky vacillated between reform and revolution, so Stalin balanced between the two main classes – the “new bourgeoisie” represented by Bukharin and the Right and the proletariat championed by Trotsky and the Left. Hence Stalin’s zigzag from an alliance with Bukharin in the mid-1920s to forced industrialization and collectivization in 1928, a shift which many supporters of the Left Opposition welcomed as the adoption of their own policy, even though Trotsky himself had advocated much lower growth targets than those set in the First Five Year Plan and opposed the coercion of the peasantry into collective farms.

The events of 1927-8 did not lead Trotsky to alter his basic appraisal of the regime. He rejected the argument, advanced by Viktor Smirnov and the Democratic Centralist faction as early as 1926, that a counter-revolution had occurred (see Ciliga 1979: 261-91 on the debates within the Left Opposition). Thermidor, in the sense of “the restoration of capitalism”, remained a “danger” rather than accomplished reality (Trotsky 1981:321-3). Russia was still a workers’ state, despite the bureaucratization of party and soviets. “The zig-zags of Stalinism show that the bureaucracy is not a class, not an independent historical factor, but an instrument, an executive organ of the classes” (Trotsky 1973b: 215). The Stalinist regime represented a form of Bonapartism: like the Second Empire of Napoleon III (as analysed by Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte), its power arose from an equilibrium between bourgeoisie and proletariat rather than from an independent socio-economic base. The task of the Left Opposition was not forcibly to overthrow the bureaucracy in a second revolution but to subject it to democratic control by peaceful means:

As the situation is now, the bourgeoisie could seize power only by the road of counterrevolutionary upheaval. As for the proletariat, it can regain full power, overhaul the bureaucracy, and put it under its control by the road of reform of the party and the soviets. (Trotsky 1981: 295)

It was not any change within the USSR but the failure of the Comintern’s strongest section outside Russia to prevent the Nazi seizure of power in Germany which led Trotsky to change this assessment. “Now we are in a new historic stage in which the policy of reform is exhausted”, he declared in July 1933 (Trotsky 1972b: 27). Furthermore, “[t]he Thermidor of the Great Russian Revolution is not before us, but already far behind”, having taken place in 1924 (Trotsky 1971b: 182). The Russian Thermidor did not, however, represent “the first stage of the bourgeois counterrevolution, aimed against the social basis of the workers’ state”, as the Left Opposition had argued in the 1920s (Trotsky 1971b: 173). The USSR was still a workers’ state, albeit a degenerated one. Presiding over a “transitional society” between capitalism and socialism, the state had “a dual character: socialistic, insofar as it defends social property in the means of production; bourgeois, insofar as the distribution of life’s goods is carried out with a capitalistic measure of the value and all the consequences ensuing therefrom” (Trotsky 1970:54). This contradiction was intensified by the “generalized want” arising from Russia’s isolation after the Revolution:

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. (Trotsky 1970: 112)

If the bureaucracy was a product of post-Revolutionary scarcity, it was able thereafter to reshape Soviet society in its own interests, monopolizing political power and claiming for itself a host of material privileges. Trotsky nevertheless insisted that the bureaucracy, though “the planter and protector of inequality” (Trotsky 1970: 113), was not a new ruling class. He vehemently opposed the claims by some of his supporters that Stalinism represented either state capitalism or a new variant of class society, bureaucratic collectivism. The bureaucracy was “a temporary growth”, “the product of an ‘accidental’ (i.e., temporary and extraordinary) enmeshing of historical circumstances”, above all the failure of revolution in the West (Trotsky 1973c: 6). The relations of production were still those established by the October Revolution:

The nationalization of the land, the means of industrial production, transport and exchange, together with the monopoly of foreign trade, constitute the basis of the Soviet social structure. Through these relations, established by the proletarian revolution, the nature of the Soviet Union as a proletarian state is for us basically defined. (Trotsky 1970: 248)

State ownership of the means of production was thus a necessary and sufficient condition of the existence of a workers’ state. As Max Shachtman (1962: 92) pointed out, this amounted to the abandonment of the criterion Trotsky had used earlier, “namely, Does the working class still have political power, in one sense or another, even if only in the sense that it is still capable of bringing a straying and dangerous bureaucracy under its control by means of reform measures?”. Trotsky (1970: 288-9) now believed that the working class could only remove the Stalin regime by revolutionary means, but that this would be a “political revolution”, which would leave intact the “economic foundations” of Soviet society, amounting rather to “a second supplementary revolution – against bureaucratic absolutism”.


Last updated on 13.3.2001