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International Socialist Review Issue 36, July–August 2004

Classics of Marxism: The Revolution Betrayed


Todd Chretien is a member of the International Socialist Organization in the San Francisco Bay Area. Numbers cited at the end of quotes in this article refer to the page number in the 2002 Pathfinder Press edition of The Revolution Betrayed. The full text can also be found at the Marxists Internet Archive, at

THE OCTOBER Revolution in Russia in 1917 marked the first time in history that the working class successfully overthrew the ruling class and began to remake society in the interest of human need. Within hours of the workers’ victory, the Bolsheviks offered a peace treaty to all other governments to end the First World War, granted land reform to tens of millions of peasants, and established democratic workers’ control over industry. The revolution inspired revolts against the system across the globe, several of which came within a whisker of winning.

Yet, by the late 1920s revolutionary Russia was isolated, impoverished, and increasingly authoritarian. For the next sixty-five years, the "Russian question" was the central debate on the Left. Was Russia "socialist" as the Stalinists claimed? Was it a "transitional society" or a "degenerated workers state," not yet socialism but no longer capitalism? Or did Stalin’s regime enforce the same exploitative capitalist relations found in the West, only with different mechanisms? What you said about these questions defined your vision of socialism. Political opponents of Marxism laid the blame for Stalin squarely on the revolution itself and the party that led it. Trotsky analyzed the concrete historical obstacles that led to Stalinism in order to salvage the core of Marxism–workers’ self-emancipation.

A starting point for reclaiming Marxism

Written from exile in 1936 on the eve of the Moscow Trials, in which Stalin systematically "tried" and murdered all of the remaining leaders of the 1917 Revolution, Leon Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed was the starting point for reestablishing Marx’s idea of revolution and socialism, not as something done on behalf of workers from on high, but something workers do themselves to transform capitalism. In it, he defined the nature of workers’ revolution, defended the origins and accomplishments of 1917, and explained the concrete circumstances and weaknesses that led to Stalin’s rise to power.

Trotsky’s book draws together his insights from a decade of fighting the rising Stalinist bureaucracy. From 1923 until his exile in 1929, he organized the Left Opposition within Russia, for which he was first expelled from the Communist Party and then exiled in 1929. He continued his stubborn opposition until his death by a Stalinist assassin in 1940 in Mexico. As the best known leader of the revolution after Vladimir Lenin, and the former leader of the Red Army, Trotsky’s critique had great weight. The power of Trotsky’s critique of Stalinism sustained him and future generations of anti-Stalinist socialists through the darkest of times. Most of Trotsky’s family was murdered by Stalin, but he refused to be silent. Yet, when faced with an unexpected and novel situation, such as the rise of a bureaucracy on the back of a victorious workers’ revolution, parts of Trotsky’s analysis remained unclear and would need future experience to straighten out; principally, his claim that Russia remained a "workers’ state" even though workers had lost all power.

Trotsky begins by laying out the case for revolution in Russia in 1917:

The history of recent decades very clearly shows that, in the conditions of capitalist decline, backward countries are unable to attain that level which the old centers of capitalism have attained. Having themselves arrived in a blind alley, the highly civilized nations block the road to those in process of civilization. Russia took the road of proletarian revolution, not because her economy was the first to become ripe for a socialist change, but because she could not develop further on a capitalist basis. (11)

"The conditions of capitalist decline" to which Trotsky referred, included the First World War and the Great Depression, which would shortly give way to the Second World War and the Holocaust. Trotsky begins by praising the impressive rates of economic growth in Soviet Russia compared to the declining West. Yet the creation of socialism is premised on

so high a development of the economic powers of man that productive labor, having ceased to be a burden, will not require any goad, and the distribution of life’s goods, existing in a continual abundance, will not demand–as it does not now in any well-off family or "decent" boardinghouse–any control except that of education, habit and social opinion. (48)

In the immediate aftermath of the October 1917 revolution, the Bolshevik government attempted to put Marx and Lenin’s theories into practice: government officials’ wages were reduced to workers’ wages, delegates to the government and the Soviets, or workers’ councils, were immediately recallable, the standing army was abolished, women got the vote and were elected to high office, education and libraries greatly expanded, workers took over production at the factory level, etc. Indeed, "the state as a bureaucratic apparatus [began] to die away the first day of the proletarian dictatorship."

Yet something went terribly wrong. Instead of withering away, the bureaucratic state apparatus grew and strengthened. As Trotsky put it:

However you may interpret the nature of the present Soviet state, one thing is indubitable: at the end of its second decade of existence, it has not only not died away, but not begun to "die away." Worse than that, it has grown into a hitherto unheard of apparatus of compulsion. The bureaucracy not only has not disappeared, yielding its place to the masses, but has turned into an uncontrolled force dominating the masses. (52—53)

The degeneration of the revolution

Trotsky rooted his analysis of the revolution’s degeneration on the absence of the material abundance that Marx believed would give rise to the higher stage of communism. As Marx put it (and Trotsky quoted), "A development of the productive forces is the absolutely necessary practical premise [of Communism], because without it want is generalized, and that means all the old crap must revive." (56)

In 1917, Russia was the least developed part of Europe. Capitalism was only just beginning to take root. The unprecedented destruction of the First World War and the civil war launched by the counterrevolutionaries and imperialist powers reduced Russia’s already miserable forces of production even further. Trotsky wrote, "The collapse of the productive forces surpassed anything of the kind that history had ever seen. The country, and the government with it, were at the very edge of the abyss." (26—27)

The revolutionary government survived, but at a terrible price.

The revolution got no direct help from the West. Instead of expected prosperity of the country an ominous destitution reigned... Moreover, the outstanding representatives of the working class either died in the civil war, or rose a few steps higher and broke away from the masses. And thus after an unexampled tension of forces, hopes and illusions, there came a long period of weariness, decline and sheer disappointment in the results of the revolution. The ebb of the "plebian pride" made room for a flood of pusillanimity and careerism. The new commanding caste rose to its place upon this wave. (86)

Demobilized Red Army commanders assumed government posts and ran them, as they had the army, in a commandist manner. "Thus on all sides the masses were pushed away gradually from actual participation in the leadership of the country." (86)

The brutality of the war, the all-sided poverty, and their disappointment with the failure of the revolution to spread, left a psychological scar on the remaining revolutionaries that predisposed them towards hunkering down and hoping for stability. This signaled a retreat, but not yet the defeat of the revolutionary potential of what all the capitalists in the West still considered the "communist menace."

To survive, the Bolsheviks beat a retreat by re-legalizing the free market, the so-called New Economic Policy, in order to get the better-off peasants to grow more grain. This worked in terms of absolute production, as grain and industrial output recovered to nearly pre-war levels by 1926. However, the revival of the free market also overturned the rough equality that had reigned in the early years of the revolution. Famine existed alongside imported luxury foods, prostitution returned alongside the black market, and bribery and corruption oozed into the government as unemployment grew. All the "old crap" was coming back.

The increasingly powerful bureaucracy, then, did not arise out of some genetic defect inherent in human nature, but out of the concrete conditions particular to the class struggle in revolutionary Russia. As Trotsky explained,

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. It "knows"_who is to get something and who has to wait. (105)

In the early 1920s, the leading Bolsheviks remained confident that their isolation was temporary. Primarily, hope lay not in the internal development of the Russian economy, but through the spreading of the revolution to the more advanced European states.

Adding insult to the injuries of civil war, the German, Italian, British, French, and East European bourgeoisies survived the 1918—1923 wave of workers’ revolts. Kings were toppled, but the working class lacked Bolshevik-like parties strong enough to replace the tottering capitalist system with workers’ states. Capitalism was able to regroup and reestablish some degree of stability. Trotsky explained that this not only had a negative effect on the isolated Russian revolutionaries, but that the growing pessimism in the Russian leadership actually became a self-fulfilling prophecy internationally. The strength of the bureaucracy was in inverse proportion to the strength of the international working-class movement.

The international situation was pushing with mighty forces in the same direction. The Soviet bureaucracy became more self-confident, the heavier the blows dealt to the world working class. Between these two facts there was not only a chronological, but a causal connection, and one which worked in two directions. The leaders of the bureaucracy promoted the proletarian defeats; the defeats promoted the rise of the bureaucracy. (87)

Between Lenin’s death in 1924 and his expulsion from the Communist Party and eventual exile in 1929, Trotsky fought against the rise of the bureaucracy led by Stalin. Stalin’s slogan of "Socialism In One Country" marked the new ruling elite’s shift to Russian nationalism against socialist internationalism, hyper exploitation of workers as a means to economic development, and the creation of a totalitarian police state built around a cult of personality. As Trotsky later put it, "A river of blood runs between Stalinism and Bolshevism."

Trotsky’s appeal for Soviet democracy, international revolution, and suppression of class inequality ran directly counter to the interest of the millions of aspiring bureaucrats. Only a new wave of workers’ struggle could break their power and revitalize the revolution. Yet, the working class remained passive. It is that which explains Stalin’s strength and Trotsky’s weakness in this period.

Trotsky explains the peculiar rise of Stalin to power and the cult of personality that grew up around him:

The increasingly insistent deification of Stalin is, with all its elements of a caricature, a necessary element of the regime. The bureaucracy has need of an inviolable superarbiter, a first consul if not an emperor, and it raises up on its shoulders him who best responds to its claim for lordship.… Each of them at his post is thinking: l’état–c’est moi. [I am the state] In Stalin each one easily finds himself.… Stalin is the personification of the bureaucracy. That is the substance of his political personality. (250)

Militaristic threats from American and European capitalists in 1927—1928 and large-scale hoarding of grain by better-off peasants in 1928 created the crisis the bureaucracy needed to take the initiative and wipe out the last impediments to its rule. Trotsky and his followers were exiled or imprisoned; the first Five Year Plan simultaneously drove down workers’ wages and drove up the rate of exploitation; tens of millions of peasants were driven off the land they had seized in 1917 and sent to so-called collective farms; and most prohibitions on the accumulation of personal wealth were discarded. This assault on the working class, in the name of "Socialism In One Country" not only permitted the bureaucracy to industrialize rapidly, it also spawned dramatic class inequality. Trotsky estimates that "15 or let us say 20 percent of the population enjoys not much less of the wealth than the remaining 80 or 85 percent." (132)

Growth of oppression and inequality

Trotsky dedicates nearly half of The Revolution Betrayed to meticulously describing the dramatic growth of oppression and inequality created by the Stalinists. Chapters on the wages and lifestyles of top bureaucrats, the right-wing laws against youth, abortion, national minorities, culture, art, and the utter elimination of freedom of expression draw the contrast between the original aims of the revolution and the realities of life for Soviet workers and peasants. He singled out the bureaucracy’s decision to outlaw abortion in 1935 as a "disgusting hypocrisy" (153) and as a sign of the collapse of the revolution’s early commitment to women’s liberation. He catalogues the reports of "mass homelessness of children" and points out that it "is undoubtedly the most unmistakable and most tragic symptom of the difficult situation of the mother. Trotsky explains:

It is just for this reason that the revolutionary power gave women the right to abortion, which in conditions of want and family distress, whatever may be said on the subject by the eunuchs and old maids of both sexes, is one of her most important civil, political and cultural rights. (138)

In the realm of culture, Trotsky protested the strangling of artistic freedom and creativity.

The life of Soviet art is kind of martyrology. After the editorial orders in Pravda against "formalism", there began an epidemic of humiliating recantations by writers, artists, stage directors and even opera singers. One after another, they renounced their own past sins.... Literary estimates are transformed within a few weeks, textbooks made over, streets renamed, statues brought forwards, as a result of a few eulogistic remarks of Stalin about the poet Maiakovsky.... The Secretary of the Communist Youth said at a conference of writers: "The suggestions of Comrade Stalin are a law for everybody," and the whole audience applauded, although some doubtless burned with shame. As though to complete the mockery of literature, Stalin, who does not know how to compose a Russian phrase correctly, is declared a classic in the matter of style. (168)

For contemporary readers, these chapters may seem like old news. But at the time, for the former leader of the Red Army to shred the illusions held by millions of honest revolutionaries around the world, it was a bolt from the blue.

Revolution, not reform

Trotsky was not simply offering up advice to Stalin and his bureaucracy about how to run Russia better. He called for revolt: "The Soviet bureaucracy will not give up its positions without a fight. The development leads obviously to the road of revolution." (259)

For Trotsky to call for the violent overthrow of the Soviet government was truly radical. By this time, French, British, and American governments, as well as liberals and conservatives who had all violently opposed the Russian Revolution in its early mass democratic phase, were making their peace with Stalin in preparation for confronting Hitler, and Stalin was ordering world communist parties to make their peace with liberal parties in return.

Prior to The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky had maintained that the bureaucracy was a mere "faction" within the Communist Party, vacillating between the right wing that supported greater freedom for market relations and Trotsky’s left wing, which called for taxing the better-off, plowing all available money into industry to raise working-class living standards, democratizing the party, and continuing to emphasize the necessity of spreading the revolution internationally. When Stalin turned radically to eliminate market relations in the countryside by "collectivizing" the peasantry (really turning them into state surfs) and embarking on the five-year plans to build heavy industry, Trotsky first saw this as a response to the working class and the left-wing faction inside the party. In fact, even in The Revolution Betrayed, he argued that the economic "successes of the soviet regime" (1) based on the planned economy remained a positive gain for the workers in Russia and that the "practicality of socialist methods" (1) compared favorably to the Great Depression sweeping the Western free-market economies. From the point of view of the new rulers of Russia, this was true enough (though, as he noted, the Western countries remained economically far in advance of Russia). But from the point of view of the working class, Trotsky was badly mistaken.

Through the 1930s, it became more and more obvious that although the Russian economy grew, the working class was in a worse and worse position. Trotsky was highly critical all along, but maintained that Stalin’s bureaucracy could be "reformed" by workers’ militancy, much like the rank and file of a union wresting control from a corrupt bureaucracy. What drove Trotsky to break with this illusion in reform was not the relationship of classes in Russia, but Hitler’s assumption of power in Germany in 1933 and the German Communist Party’s incapacity to put up a fight under Stalin’s international leadership. Trotsky was right, of course, about Stalin’s criminal political policies in Germany, but he never fundamentally rethought his position on what Stalinism was in political and economic terms.

Though he called for a new workers’ revolution to smash the bureaucracy and liberate the working class, Trotsky did not believe that capitalism had been restored in Russia. Instead, he believed the bureaucrats were a parasitic "caste" that lived off the nationalized property relations that came as a result of the 1917 Revolution. Russia was neither capitalist nor socialist, but a "contradictory society halfway between" whose character was yet to be decided "by a struggle of living forces." (230)

Trotsky’s belief that Stalin’s bureaucracy was merely a parasite on the body of a "workers’ state," led him to make a distinction between "political" and "social" revolutions based on an analogy of the bourgeois revolution in France in 1789. There, France experienced a political counterrevolution which destroyed Jacobin democracy without restoring the old feudal relations. So too, argued Trotsky, the Stalinist bureaucracy could destroy workers’ democracy (a political degeneration) without destroying the state or collective property that had been established in 1917.

The revolution which the bureaucracy is preparing against itself will not be social, like the October revolution of 1917. It is not a question this time of changing the economic foundations of society, of replacing certain forms of property with other forms. History has known elsewhere not only social revolutions which substituted the bourgeois for the feudal regime, but also political revolutions which, without destroying the economic foundations of society, swept out an old ruling upper crust. (259)

The distinction works in cases where political power is passing from one faction of the bourgeoisie to another, or even a group of military officers or petty-bourgeois fascists. This is so because the bourgeoisie can still privately own the bulk of property and retain economic power, whoever is temporarily in control of the state. This is not true with workers’ power. Workers either have power over that state economy through democratic control (and they can even exert this control of vestiges of private enterprise after a revolution) or they do not have democratic control and are effectively in the same relationship to state property as they are to private property. It is not enough, in other words, to simply say that since the old capitalist individuals no longer own property, property is social. The crucial question is: Who owns the state? Or another way to put it: Which group, or class in Marx’s definition of the word, has effective control of the means of production?

Trotsky used many striking metaphors to attack bureaucratic privilege, yet didn’t recognize that he was undermining his own definition of Russia as based on "socialized property." For instance,

If a ship is declared collective property, but the passengers continue to be divided into first, second and third class, it is clear that, for the third class passengers, differences in the conditions of life will have infinitely more importance than the juridical [legalistic description] change in proprietorship. The first-class passengers, on the other hand, will propound, together with their coffee and cigars, the thought that collective ownership is everything and a comfortable cabin nothing at all. (216—17)

Trotsky used this example to argue that this "collective property" distorted by bureaucratic power is unstable, but it could just as easily be used to argue that the first-class passengers not only have more comfortable cabins, cigars, coffee, etc., but also have effective power to decide where the ship will go, how fast, and for who’s benefit. Rightly, Trotsky said that the "juridical" change is secondary to questions of social reality, but then doesn’t the effective power to run the ship by the first-class bureaucrats concretely destroy the notion that it is still owned "collectively?" Likewise, Trotsky’s description, cited earlier, of the bureaucracy as a policeman keeping order in a food line is inadequate. Clearly, the bureaucracy did more than just enforce order in the sphere of circulation–it also intervened as a gendarme at the point of production because it, and not the working class, owned the latter. Though Trotsky asserted that there "is not yet…a hint of socialism in the USSR," (9) and described the bureaucracy as a "very privileged commanding strata of the population, who appropriate the lion’s share in the sphere of consumption," (23) he was not prepared to take the next step and agree that the bureaucracy also appropriated the social surplus produced by workers and peasants, and was hence by definition a ruling class.

Stalin’s death warrant did not permit Trotsky to develop his analysis further, but even in 1936, Trotsky’s formulation of Russia as a "workers’ state" in which workers have no power was problematic.

As British socialist Duncan Hallas–a leading proponent of the theory that Stalinism was really a form of bureaucratic state capitalism–wrote in Trotsky’s Marxism,

[t]he fundamental nature of the break with his own earlier views can hardly be overstated. It was one thing to argue (as Lenin had done) that a workers’ state could be bureaucratically distorted, deformed, degenerated or whatever. Now what was being asserted was that the dictatorship of the proletariat had no necessary connection with any actual workers’ power at all. The dictatorship of the proletariat now came to mean, first and foremost, state ownership of industry and economic could remain extant even if the working class was atomized and subjected to a totalitarian despotism.1

Trotsky’s characterization of Russia as a "degenerated workers’ state," however, did not lead him to make excuses for the oppression and exploitation suffered by the working class. In fact, Trotsky went so far as to argue, "Stalinism and fascism, despite a deep difference in social foundation are symmetrical phenomena." (251) Indeed, his prescription for a "political" revolution in Russia seems hardly different from what workers would be required to do if the Stalinist bureaucracy were a new ruling class. Trotsky argued that to defeat Stalinism Russian workers must rebuild a revolutionary party that would carry out the revolutionary overthrow of the bureaucracy, restore "democracy in the trade unions," "restore the soviet parties," and "carry out a ruthless purgation of the state apparatus." Workers would have to also "abolish ranks"_and "all kinds of privileges,"_and radically change the "redistribution of income." (228)

However, by concluding that Stalin’s bureaucracy was simply parasitic and based on a nationalized economy that workers could seize power without a social revolution, Trotsky tended to underestimate the power of what had, in fact, become a new ruling class. A class that based its power on its ability to exploit the working class, enrich itself, and compete with the West through its total control of a totalitarian police state. Seeing the Stalinist bureaucracy as a new state capitalist power, instead of a vacillating layer, better explained its capacity to not only smash Trotsky and the Russian working class’s opposition, but also its ability to embark on a period of imperialist expansion into Eastern Europe after the Second World War, instead of its collapse after the war, as Trotsky before his death had predicted.

Why Trotsky clung to the "workers’ state" thesis

Why didn’t Trotsky develop the notion that Stalin’s bureaucratic police state had restored a form of capitalism in Russia? Trotsky, as was true for all the leading revolutionaries in Russia, believed that if capitalism were to be restored it would be either through foreign invasion or defeat in a civil war and would be based on the return of private property to the old capitalist ruling class, or a foreign, occupying capitalist class. No one had ever experienced the degeneration and exhaustion of an originally successful workers’ state before–nor did there yet exist a capitalist state in which the means of production were entirely owned by the state.

Trotsky’s confusion stemmed from the novel nature of the internal counterrevolution in 1928—1929. It took place without barricades or a formal declaration of victory by the bureaucracy, though it was much bloodier and more violent than the October 1917 workers’ revolution. Hundreds of thousands of workers were herded into work camps, millions of peasants lost their land, and thousands of leading Bolsheviks were jailed or exiled, and many later executed. But, the continuity of socialist rhetoric, the transformation of collectively owned property into state-controlled property, the mutation of the party apparatus and the managing caste into a ruling class in its own right were all new historical phenomena. If Trotsky failed to identify the exact nature of the Stalinist counterrevolution, he can be credited with having set down the most important Marxist analysis of the revolution’s degeneration.

The early economic success of Stalinist Russia’s five-year plans also appeared radically at odds with the crisis in free-market capitalism. Indeed, the model of state-directed investment and brutal labor control that Stalin pioneered was put to good effect by Hitler to build up Germany’s military might. After the Second World War, even the "free market" economies of the West turned to one form or another of massive state intervention in their own economies, not to overturn capitalism, but to smooth out some of the chaos. Had Trotsky lived to see it, he would have seen a world where aspects of Stalin’s "command economy" became normal capitalist practice. Indeed, the last, unfinished article found on Trotsky’s desk after his assassination clearly recognized these trends. He wrote:

The nationalization of railways and oil fields in Mexico has of course nothing in common with socialism. It is a measure of state capitalism in a backward country which in this way seeks to defend itself on the one hand against foreign imperialism and on the other against its own proletariat.2

In this article, Trotsky even goes so far as to argue that the management of these state-run enterprises by trade union leaders "has nothing in common with workers’ control over industry, for in the essence of the matter the management is effected through the labor bureaucracy which is…completely dependent on the bourgeois state." The aim of making trade union leaders industrial directors of state enterprises, writes Trotsky, is to "discipline the working class."

"Life proved more complicated than theory" for the Russian revolutionaries, but Trotsky’s ground-breaking study salvaged the inspirational and educational core of 1917 from the distortions of Stalinism, for use by future generations. (260) More than a brilliant analysis, The Revolution Betrayed confirmed Trotsky’s life-long assertion that, no matter how painful to recognize from time to time, "The motor force of progress is truth and not lies." (277) And the truth is that this world of war, famine, racism, and exploitation needs socialism as much today as the Russian workers needed it in 1917.

1 Duncan Hallas, Trotsky’s Marxism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2003), 51.

2 Leon Trotsky, "Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay," April 1940, available online at"1940/1940-tu.htm.

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