Bureaucracy and revolution

Leon Trotsky was one of the great original Marxist thinkers of the twentieth century. But his followers, persecuted and isolated, transformed Trotsky’s developing thought into an orthodoxy, and continued in this defensiveness long after the circumstances that gave birth to it had vanished. Increasingly divided, they competed bitterly among themselves as to who were Trotsky’s true followers.

So Twiss’s book should be welcomed for giving a new and valuable perspective on Trotsky’s thinking. In a work that is scholarly in the best sense of the term, Twiss traces Trotsky’s developing thought about the nature of bureaucracy in Russia from 1917 to 1940. He places Trotsky’s ideas in context, showing what Trotsky knew and what (especially in the years of exile) he couldn’t know; he also measures Trotsky’s analyses against what we now know in retrospect, not to score points but to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of Trotsky’s thinking. So the Trotsky we get is not a prophet, nor is he the villain depicted in anti-Marxist polemics. Twiss depicts Trotsky sympathetically, recognizing the power of his thought, but does not lapse into the advocacy of a devotee.

What we get is a year-by-year, sometimes month-by-month, record of Trotsky’s changing positions. Unlike all too many of his self-appointed followers, Trotsky was not afraid to change his mind. At times he was confused, almost bewildered, by the course of events. But those events, in the twenty-three years after the October Revolution, were unprecedented and unpredictable. What Twiss shows us is a razor-sharp mind, informed by the best traditions of international Marxism, grappling with developments that were perhaps too difficult for any thinker to fully comprehend. Time and again Trotsky was surprised by the way in which Stalinism evolved; but a revolutionary who is incapable of being surprised cannot learn from events.

In the difficult years immediately after the revolution, Trotsky saw the problem of bureaucracy essentially in terms of efficiency. Obviously this reflected reality. If the revolution could not feed its citizens and defeat its military opponents, then any other aspirations were futile. Trotsky himself favored methods like the “militarisation of labour” and the subordination of trade unions to the state that could be seen as authoritarian, if not bureaucratic. But the very survival of the revolution was at stake.

It was Lenin rather than Trotsky who first became alive to the dangers of bureaucracy within the party and state machine that was governing Russia. As Lenin recognized, the working class that had taken power in 1917 had almost “disappeared” as a result of the civil war. The party of the working class was substituting itself for the direct rule of the working class through the soviets. While Trotsky was skeptical of Lenin’s belief that the solution lay in the Rabkrin [Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate], he worked with Lenin to challenge the emerging bureaucracy.

Twiss argues that Trotsky began to see the roots of bureaucracy in “political alienation.” State officials demonstrated, in Trotsky’s words “complete indifference to the living human being”; Trotsky perceived “a frightful abyss between the state machine and the working masses.” It was the absence of the direct involvement of the working class in the running of society that created a space in which bureaucracy could grow; the only cure to the problem was the revival of working-class self-activity and self-organization. But no policy from above could instigate such revival.

So the bureaucracy grew—the sheer numbers showed the weight that bureaucracy was acquiring in Russian society; by 1926 there were 25,000 paid party officials and two million employees of state institutions. And increasingly Stalin put himself at the head of this bureaucracy. The Left Opposition in its various forms confronted Stalin, but was defeated, and Trotsky was exiled. With enormous force of will Trotsky devoted the rest of his life to trying to understand what had gone wrong and how it might be righted.

Trotsky was now confronted by developments that challenged all his expectations. The Left Opposition had defined Stalin as representing a “centrist” current between the Left Opposition and the right. But from 1928 Stalin appeared to take a sharp turn to the left. Industrialization was accelerated (with a sharp fall in workers’ living standards); there was a drive for collectivization and war against the kulaks (rich peasants). Internationally social-democratic parties were denounced as being “social fascist.” Stalin actually appeared to have borrowed some points from the Left Opposition’s program, though in a bureaucratic, undemocratic, and overaccelerated manner. How could this be understood?

Trotsky came from a Marxist tradition for which the French Revolution of 1789 was an essential point of reference. He knew the histories by Jaurès, Kropotkin, and many others. To try to understand the present in terms of the past is of course legitimate and necessary; what other basis for understanding do we have? But Trotsky became preoccupied with the question of “Thermidor.” In July 1794 (during the month of Thermidor in the French revolutionary calendar) the most radical phase of the Revolution had been brought to an end with the overthrow and execution of Robespierre and his Jacobin allies. Would the Russian Revolution come to a similar reactionary end?

In fact the parallels with Thermidor were quite limited. In 1794 the rule of the most radical wing of the bourgeoisie gave way to rule in the interests of the bourgeoisie as a whole. Thermidor and later Napoleon did not restore feudalism, but laid the bases for modern capitalist France. Stalin, on the other hand, replaced the rule of the working class through soviets with the rule of a party claiming to represent the working class. As time went on the analogy with Thermidor became less and less illuminating.

Likewise with the concept of Bonapartism which Trotsky deployed to try to explain Stalin. In The Eighteenth Brumaire Marx had examined the means whereby Louis Bonaparte had overturned the gains of the 1848 revolution. Certainly there were parallels with both Stalinism and fascism, but sometimes Trotsky allowed those parallels to obscure what was new and original about the whole phenomenon of Stalinism.

In fact Stalinism called into question established ideas of “left” and “right.” In what sense could Stalin’s domestic policies after 1928 be described as “left”? And the Comintern doctrine that there was little or no difference between social democracy and fascism might seem “ultra-left.” But historically ultraleftism had generally been the product of newly radicalized activists who lacked the patience to persuade and win allies—what Lenin called an “infantile disorder.” Stalin’s “leftism” had very different roots.

And Trotsky remained convinced that the end result of Stalinism would be the restoration of capitalism—understood in the form of private ownership of the means of production. In fact Stalinism would produce a new form of centrally directed economy, which would survive for over half a century and transform Russia into a major industrial economy.

Trotsky was further shocked by Hitler’s accession to power—largely as a result of the German communists’ failure to build a united front to stop him. Trotsky was compelled by the logic of events to abandon his belief that the Russian regime could be reformed and to acknowledge the necessity of constructing an open political alternative.

It was only with The Revolution Betrayed in 1936 that Trotsky set out a full account of what the Stalinist bureaucracy had become. Twiss gives a critical analysis of this key text, showing its strengths, but also arguing that it fell short of being a “coherent whole.” There were still loose ends and unanswered questions, problems that Trotsky continued to grapple with until he was murdered.

Trotsky showed how the bureaucracy had become a social group that had interests of its own, and would use the most murderous means to defend those interests. But was the bureaucracy a new ruling class? This was the issue that for several decades would set Trotsky’s followers at each other’s throats—with some justice, since it was clearly an important question that had massive political implications. But it was not the only question, and Twiss places it in the context of a much broader discussion. On the actual question he seems to be calmly agnostic, many miles from those orthodox thinkers who have made it into the equivalent of a loyalty oath.

We should therefore be very grateful to Twiss for this portrait of Trotsky the thinker; his formidable insights are all the more powerful when set against his obvious if inevitable mistakes. If Stalinism is no longer with us, the debate about the Russian Revolution, and whether it proves that all revolutionary attempts to change the world are doomed to end in dictatorship, is still a central one for socialists.

But it also contributes to a broader discussion. Any future revolution will be very different from October 1917, and will surprise us, or our heirs, as much as the aftermath of October surprised Trotsky. The task of envisaging what a genuinely libertarian socialism might look like remains. In particular, Trotsky located the origins of bureaucracy in scarcity—“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.” He believed bureaucracy could be overcome by the achievement of abundance. But if we have learned one thing from the environmentalists, it is that scarcity may always be with us. So the need for democracy in establishing social and economic priorities will be even more central.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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