* This text and its notes are by Fernando Rojas, author of the compilationLeon Trotsky: Selected texts.
Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews. Spanish original here:
In 1936, the USSR proclaimed its second constitution, the third of Soviet power if one takes into account the 1918 one when the Union did not exist. The Bolshevik Party and its by-then indisputable boss, Josef Stalin, had resolved – against the teachings of Marx and Engels – the way in which an isolated socialist state could create wealth and develop powerful productive forces.
The regime that was thus constitutionally consecrated was very homogeneous in its social composition due to the transformations undertaken “from above”, and its coercive methods – although not yet of a criminal nature. It had the most egalitarian levels of distribution of national income known in history.
It is useless to delve into the texts of Lenin in search of the keys to these results. As a matter of fact, both Stalin and his adversaries of the previous decade (the Twenties), appealed to the attitude of the late leader to justify their conflicting and even antagonistic positions.
The social and ideological basis of Stalin’s victory is found elsewhere, and it is not only attributable to the arbitrariness that prevailed in the State and the party ever since the process that began with the defeat of the Bukharinists around 1930. In fact, arbitrariness was “used” by all Bolshevik fractions to a greater or lesser degree – although it is true that, except for the Stalinists, all the others rejected it one after the other– and to the degrees in which it this is consubstantial with any revolution.
It is often and deliberately forgotten that the arbitrary actions of the Bolshevik Revolution, in its ascendant stage (1917– end of the twenties) (1) were fewer and much less serious than those of the bourgeois revolutions so glorified until recently. (Today, the masters of the world and their willing or unconscious satellites find it convenient to not glorify any revolution).
The key to Stalin’s triumph must be sought in the growing dreams of swift prosperity, peace and stability that inspire the masses to participate in any revolution.
Isaac Deutscher recognizes this condition in the first half of the Twenties, although he nuances his conclusion denouncing the manipulative intention of anti-Soviet historiography to counterpose that idyllic time to the bloody decade of the Thirties.
Leon Trotsky creatively applies the notion of the dialectical relationship between oppressed and oppressor to the relationship of the Soviet bureaucracy with the entire population in the Thirties.
One can coincide with both but, at the same time, the facts, the documents and the press – – even the Western media– confirm that the feeling of well-being and stability was present in important and broad sectors of Soviet society until the beginning of the war in 1941, though since the mid-1930s that feeling was contradictorily combined with fear.
It happened that arbitrariness gave way to crime. In the same year that the brand new Soviet constitution –the most advanced legislation known until then– was proclaimed,–the first “notorious” Moscow trials took place –notorious–for everyone except for those of us who were educated in the fidelity to the Soviet Union. These trials allowed Stalin to liquidate the cream of the leaders of the revolution and the Party.
Before being shot, the Bolshevik leaders were demoralized, forced to make confessions that concealed their pitiable condition of political losers to the country and the world and canceled their credibility as revolutionaries. In that perfidious manner, Stalin made sure that his adversaries could not claim the halos of martyrs. (2) Terror struck all dissidents and their families, and it became the norm.
Trotsky and Deutscher claim that Stalin did not feel safe, despite his absolute power. The dynamics of their explanation leads one to suppose that, successively, the Class replaced the People, the Party replaced the Class, the Fraction replaced the Party, and the Leader the Fraction, and – I infer from my readings–that this did not grant security, since there were always real or potential adversaries in the transit from one substitution to another. In my perception, such substitutions did not happen one after the other, but took place concomitantly and, many times following the logic of any revolution.
An essential question is that the Bolsheviks – Stalin first and foremost because he had been victorious in the struggle for power – had not solved the question of democracy. They knew that the bourgeois version of popular power – presented until today as “democratic” – was, and is, an absolute farce. However, they had not been able, despite their long debates on the matter and the just remonstrance of Rosa Luxemburg, to articulate an alternative which could be recognized and verified at the same time.
Lenin’s premonitions and warnings simply remained on paper. Had they been taken seriously – some of them were very concrete proposals – after 1924 the working class would have had a much more important role in the country and as a counterpart to the increasingly bureaucratic party than what it had at the triumph of the revolution. Incidentally, it did have it in the propaganda, but the facts proved otherwise.
However, until the defeat of Bukharin in 1930, the backdrop of far-reaching ideological discussions about the destiny of most of the planet’s population ignored intentionally or unconsciously until today, was not due to apathy –as Deutscher believes– but to a spontaneous massive participation in the conquest of a promising future for hundreds of millions of people, against the grain of the languishing soviets, since they had barely been designed to mobilize the protagonists of the taking of power in 1917.
Stalin knew all that. He knew that there was no such apathy, that people were still supporting the revolution, but not from a new institutionalism, but from the real democracy that the oppressed had always aspired to. And this was not only because, as Lenin foresaw, the czarist bureaucratic tradition had permeated the Soviet institution; but because that institution was still not the definitive democratic institution. Today they want to make us believe that it had stopped being so.
But Stalin needed a triumph. He needed to consecrate politically the advances in the economy and the distribution of income. As a consummate Machiavelli, he needed to consecrate the construction of socialism –with very little respect for the ideals of Marx and Lenin, because socialism presupposes the highest levels of collective well-being and political democracy.
In order to prevent cataclysms, he decided to consecrate the existing soviets. He consulted, yes, consulted, and there was general agreement: everyone wanted to consecrate the notion of welfare.
He knew there would be adversaries and decided to desecrate the revolution through crime, eliminating everything that recalled the failure to build democracy, and the proposition that socialism is the advancement of the quality of life in all respects.
Meanwhile, the regime renounced the practice of consistent internationalism that had characterized it until the death of Lenin. Bukharin established the dogma of the stabilization of capitalism by exaggerating existing trends which –in fact– pointed at the clear perception the bourgeoisie had of the existence of an alternative to its domination.
Stalin established a geo-policy of coexistence with the major centers of capitalist power stripped of Lenin’s third-worldist perspective, with the sole purpose of ensuring the interests of his internal policy. In that way, he anticipated the international social democracy by several years. The logic of his international perspective unfailingly led to the idea that the expansion of the socialist experience would occur, exclusively, from the extended borders of the USSR.
The Communist International was quite often an instrument of the Soviet state policy. The lines that the member parties followed were the result of theoretical elaborations that were hindered by the perspective of the practice of socialist construction in the USSR, or the mechanical transfer of the Bolshevik experience to the assessment of other social processes. This produced erroneous conclusions and confusing orientations– devoid of any contact with reality.
The Thirties saw the International move from the proclamation of the stability of capitalism to the policy of class against class, which gave not the slightest room for alliances with other progressive forces or the recognition of other social actors (3). It finally reached the extreme opposite calling for the formation of popular fronts without distinguishing the character of the multiple possible alliances, or the profile of the potential allies.
The origin of so many comings and goings was none other than Stalin’s caution, his fundamental reluctance to risk the position of power conquered, which was supported by the Soviets longing for stability.
Bolshevik zigzagging gave wings to Fascism, ignored the transformative potential of the national liberation movements, contributed to fatal outcomes of popular struggles in various parts of the world, and established a dogmatic perspective on the analysis of relations of class and revolutionary possibilities.
But caution served little purpose: by the end of the Thirties the USSR was threatened, isolated, forced to sign a pact with Hitler, deep into the shame of an unnecessary invasion of Poland and, what is worse, barely prepared for a monstrous and inevitable war.
The paradox is that its own excesses at the beginning of the decade allowed that great country to resist and overcome. But that was already in the Forties.
Trotsky and the Communist Opposition
Isaac Deutscher concluded one of his best texts with the apotheosis of the rivalry between Trotsky and Stalin as the ultimate expression of the evolution of Soviet policy in the Thirties.
With regard to Stalin, I have previously added precisions and remarks of an objective nature to the well-known and widespread perception of the formidable biographer. The point is to avoid reducing the analysis to just personal attitudes of both the leading figures and of the mass of activists and Bolshevik militants.
In the case of Trotsky, a similar exercise should be done from the perspective of the opposition. There is the obvious obstacle of the scarcity of documentary sources to assess the activity of the opposition within the USSR which forces us to resort to testimonies and previous studies as the main source.
On a main point there are plenty of coincidences: the opposition – crushed by terror, discredited in the media, deprived of direct contact with the people, isolated from their leader, confused and manipulated by the bureaucracy– had already lost in the early 1930s any influence over Soviet men and women. Later on it simply disappeared, not only from reality, but especially from memory.
The influence of Trotsky and the communist opposition cannot be judged based on its direct impact on the life of the USSR. It has a historical significance and had some importance in contemporary politics outside the USSR. And above all – and this is a key that cannot be missed– the activity of Trotsky and his supporters was zealously studied, monitored and counteracted by Stalin and his cronies.
Until 1936 Trotsky and his supporters had considered themselves members of the Party that they criticized for its bureaucratic deviations, and were affiliated to the Third International.
The Moscow trials, which enshrined State crime as as a policy of Stalinism, convinced Trotsky of the impossibility of considering himself a militant of the Communist Party of the USSR and the Comintern. The Revolution Betrayed establishes this rupture in the theoretical and political arenas, although Trotsky takes special care to clarify the condition of the USSR as a workers’ state, and notwithstanding the demolishing criticism, he cannot avoid acknowledging certain improvements in the situation of the population.
The nature of the USSR and its defense against Fascism are the topics of the last debate in which Trotsky was involved. The group of texts on these matters would merit a detailed study, of the kind dedicated to the last letters of Lenin. All the more because the posture that Trotsky undertook convinced Stalin to prepare his murder.
In discussion with the militants of the Socialist Workers Party of the United States, Trotsky reiterated his unswerving confidence in the triumph of the socialist revolution in developed countries and the conviction, more and more evident in our days, that the alternative to socialism is barbarism.
Just as it happened a long time ago, the perspective of the permanent revolution in one country alone has disappeared from the discussions.
The rigor of the analysis is especially remarkable. Trotsky asks himself several times the possibility of rethinking the approach to the current era and the revolution. Curiously, although he evokes Lenin with phrases that recall the multiple, diverse and disparate appeals to the illustrious deceased found in the discussions of the twenties, he does not identify himself with the conclusions of his old comrade regarding the reassessment of the prospects for world revolution.
In the debate, Trotsky emphasizes his attachment to the strictest discipline in the Party. Another remarkable similarity with the discussions of the Twenties is the somewhat scholastic tone of the arguments.
In short, Trotsky remained even more isolated. And yet, his isolation, his exile, his personal tragedy – he lost his sons- – and his defeat are tinged with such a greatness that his rival and victor, responsible to a considerable extent for muddying socialism for many years in dogma and crime, will never be able to show. This is despite the ability that Stalin demonstrated to adapt to real situations and the potential that the USSR of the 1930s undoubtedly acquired to defeat fascism and rebuild the country.
The same man who presented the Thesis on the Industry to the 12th Congress of the Bolsheviks, commissioned by the Political Bureau, characterizes his own activity that same year (1923) as an oppositionist. This paradox, which undoubtedly contains the enormous set of circumstances and ideas that originated the power struggle within the Party power and the destiny of the Revolution –fatal coincidence– is paramount to understanding the life of Trotsky and the history of socialism in the USSR.
Beyond his extraordinary and controversial political trajectory, in any case essential–for the establishment and consolidation of Soviet power,–Leon Trotsky remains the best historian of the 1917 process, the most rigorous and thorough critic of the USSR of “socialism in one country” and the most important critic of Russian literature of the 1920s. For these reasons, he transcends as a thinker, despite his stubborn attachment to the Marxist orthodoxy of the nineteenth century, or perhaps because of it.
While the critical examination of the socialist experience in the Twentieth Century is still pending, Trotsky´s work is indispensable.