A wise man learns from his mistakes; it is only the fool that seeks to stay rut in his ways, uneager to move even though he sees a torrent coming his way or repeating a past mistake. We communists have much in the history of mistakes to sort through. Of this, there is shame in past failings, but much to learn and a passion to redeem ourselves.
Leon Trotsky’s “The Revolution Betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going?” is one of the best pieces of wisdom for any socialist to read through in order to understand the inherent failings of the Stalinist system and how communism is vastly different from the police-state that many assume it is. Who better to write on the missteps of the Stalinist system then the man most demonized by the whole bureaucratic class?
Chapter I: What has been Achieved
Trotsky begins by stating that the only reason that the Soviet Union’s industry expanded so vastly in the relatively short time of two decades is because the state held a vast amount of power over it and could dictate what was produced, for where, etc. “Socialism has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of “Das Kapital”, but in an industrial arena…thanks solely to a proletarian revolution a backward country has achieved in less than ten years success (something) unexampled in history” (Trotsky 7). The numbers are there to reinforce his claims, but Trotsky also explains that these massive increases mean very little for a country the size of Russia. The percentages the Soviet Union put out are indeed impressive to look at if disregarding a great deal many other things: “To characterize industrial progress by quantitative indices alone, without considering quality, is almost like describing a man’s physique by his height and disregarding his chest measurements” (Trotsky 11). The quality of the goods is simply not there with misshapen shoes, shoddy cars, awful roads, incompetently run food dispensaries, etc. There are more goods out for people, but still not enough and even those are of inferior quality.
The reason for these horrendous goods is in the severe lack of skilled laborers in the Soviet Union and foolish use of management. The men who run the machines or use the tools are simply not taught in their use resulting in shoddy worker-output and routinely broken equipment. Trotsky explains: “But this same feverish growth has also had its negative side. There is no correspondence between the different elements of industry; men lag behind technique…” (Trotsky, 9). It is one thing to build a factory and quite another to run it effectively and raise worker productivity—these are two things that Stalin and his cronies knew nothing about.
Chapter II: Economic Growth and the Zigzags of the Leadership
The next chapter begins with Trotsky writing on the short-lived use of ‘war-communism’ and the NEP (New Economic Policy). War-communism was a nasty affair and not one of the cheeriest moments for the Bolsheviks. In essence, it was the requirement for all farmers to send a good portion of the harvest to the front for the Red Army during the civil war, “Military communism was…the systematic regimentation of consumption in a besieged fortress” (Trotsky, 17). The civil war was a nasty affair and one fraught with crimes committed by both the Reds and Whites, but the front had to hold and everyone had to send their share either by hook or crook. This was a very dangerous move and was quickly removed when the NEP was implemented which legalized the market and a sliver of private enterprise which spurred the farmers to plant their seeds again and for the workers to return to the factories. Trotsky relents that the use of money is a tool that simply works: “A brief experiment showed, however, that industry itself, in spite of its socialized character, had need of the methods of money payment worked out by capitalism” (Trotsky, 19). Unsurprisingly, kulaks began to emerge and the exploitation of the rural peoples began again. These kulaks, wealthy farmers who hired hands, were to become a large part of Stalin’s purges and propaganda later.
As class antagonisms rose once again, the leadership was splitting apart following Lenin’s death in 1924 as two blocs emerged: The left under Trotsky—later to be Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev—and the right under Stalin and has gaggle of followers. The left argued for more gradual advances down industry and a heavier tax on kulaks so as to break the kulaks’backs. Stalin disagreed by saying that doing so would risk breaking the bond between the rural worker and industrial worker.
Those aware of their history will know that Trotsky and the opposition were banished, silenced, imprisoned or executed from 1927 onwards. Trotsky states that Stalin and his cohorts wanted the individual farmer to continue, for socialism to exist in one country until the left was, for all intents and purposes, silenced when industrialization became their calling. Stalin, who before spoke out against Trotsky’s industrialization plan, was trumpeting it now; “The minimalist five-year plan…gave place to a new plan, the fundamental elements of which were borrowed in toto from the platform of the shattered Left Opposition” (Trotsky 27). The kulaks, once championed by Stalin, became his enemy and collectivization began in earnest where Stalin declared his intent to remove the kulak as a class.
This is a very hypocritical thing for Stalin to do, of that there is no doubt, but the real damage was in demolishing the farmers desire to produce—“Twenty-five million isolated peasant egoisms, which yesterday had been the sole motive force of agriculture…the bureaucracy tried to replace at one gesture by the commands of 2,000 collective farm administrative offices, lacking technical equipment, agronomic knowledge and the support of the peasants themselves” (Trotsky, 31). Those under the sway of capitalism like to point towards the famine brought about by this forced collectivization as a problem of communist thought and practice, but the truth is far simpler. Stalin’s government foolishly thought that people still unsure what socialism or communism was would accept this forced seizure of their ‘daily bread’ and property. Socialism can only triumph when the masses are instructed what that means and what the benefits of the system are; it will fail when you start taking things at gunpoint without any explanation. That leads to “discontent, distrust and bitterness.”
Collectivization was a foolish gamble at that stage of socialism and one without any merit. The kulaks should have been weakened, but not through naked force that spurs antagonism and results in fewer crops. They should have been demolished as a class slowly and through economic means.
Chapter III: Socialism and the State
The third chapter details why the Soviet Union under Stalin is not even approaching anything close to communism and is, in fact, moving quite the distance away from anything Marx envisioned. This fact is reached easily by understanding that capitalism is merely the first step towards communism and that without the sturdy basis that capitalism gives in terms of, as Lenin put it, building blocks for socialists to use then there can be no communism. These building blocks include unions to organize laborers, the factories left after the expulsion of the capitalists, any state infrastructure, a money based economy, the police etc. Marxists are quite rigid in their timeline towards communism and Trotsky is no different—capitalism must act as prelude to communism, it absolutely must; “Russia was not the strongest, but the weakest link in the chain of capitalism. The present Soviet Union does not stand above the world level of economy, but is only trying to catch up to the capitalist countries” (Trotsky, 36-7). The advances the Soviet Union has made are not monuments to socialism or a strong state (one need only look at Versailles to see what a strong head of state can do), but a way to catch up to the other capitalist countries because capitalism and the proletariat that it breeds always, always, always comes before communism.
Trotsky later states that the current Soviet Union is also not withering away as any good communist state should be. The Soviet Union under Stalin was expanding almost exponentially with the rise in bureaucracy and government censorship: “The bureaucracy not only has not disappeared, yielding its place to the masses, but has turned into an uncontrolled force dominating the masses” (Trotsky, 40). What so many people do not know about communism is that the state is very temporary. The end goal of communism is the complete absence of a state, a disregard for wealth and the destruction of social class which, as Trotsky rightly believes, is the basis for all conflict.
The chapter ends with Trotsky attacking the claims coming from the Soviet Union about the compete triumph of socialism in the country. If this humble author has not argued enough of Trotsky’s, shall we say, total level of awesome than this quote ought to suffice;
“Socialism is a structure of planned to the end of the best satisfaction of human needs; otherwise it does not deserve the name of socialism. If cows are socialized, but there are too few of them, or they have too meagre udders, then conflicts arise out of the inadequate supply of milk – conflicts between city and country, between collectives and individual peasants, between different state of the proletariat, between the whole toiling mass and bureaucracy. It was in fact the socialization of the cows which led to their mass extermination by the peasants. Social conflicts created by want can in their turn lead to a resurrection of “all the old crap.” Such was, in essence, our answer.”
This quote is in reference to a comment made by Karl Radek claiming that the Soviet Union had entered into the utopia of socialism despite the Left’s claims to the contrary. Those lines also sum up the entire third chapter nicely: Stalin and his cronies attempted to enter into socialism (or what they believed socialism was) far too quickly and simply shouted louder when their system proved asinine.