Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Once More With Feeling: musings on the Soviet Union


Ukrainian born Leon Trotsky assumed positions of prominence within both the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, holding high-ranking ministerial office within the newly formed Soviet government following the successive October revolution. During the early 1920s Trotsky led movements of opposition to the newly emerging Soviet bureaucracy, before his eventual expulsion in from the Communist Party and deportation from the Soviet Union in 1929.

It is during this subsequent period that Trotsky began to develop a theory of the Soviet Union’s development as conforming to that of a ‘degenerated workers state’. An understanding I will seek to expand upon in greater detail.

The starting point for a discussion of the nature of the soviet State remains the initial characterisation of the Soviet Union as that of the world’s first workers state emerging organically from the 1917 October revolution.

Within the early 1920s we begin to see the development of forms of 'bureaucratic deformation' within the USSR. The emergence of the young bureaucracy, originally subordinated to the wider agency of the working class, begins to grow independent from this constituency.

This growth of bureaucratic deformation remains bound with a series of historic catastrophes for the working class. The principle features of decisive importance included “the backwardness of the peasantry, the weariness of the proletariat and the lack of decisive support from the West” (1). The hasty retreat of the German Communist Party provides one glaring example of this. This retreat occurred during a period in which many Russians looked to Germany as the most likely basis for the international growth of revolution. This failure remains of decisive importance for the consolidation of power of the growing bureaucratic regime.

The characteristic features of the Bolshevik Party internal life during the initial years of the revolution may be broadly understood as belonging to the organizational method of democracy centralism; this enabled freedom of criticism and the intellectual struggle of competing ideas. As has been noted, “the history of Bolshevikism is the history of the struggle of factions” (2).

In the contexts of an escalating civil war, blockade and famine within the newly formed workers state, temporary measures of self-defense were taken to prohibit opposition parties.

A series of successive measures, “by means of a number of minor civil wars waged by the bureaucracy against the proletarian vanguard”, enable an understanding of the eventual dominance of a bureaucratic caste (1).

The prohibition of alternative parties and internal factions is transformed in understanding from a temporary evil necessitated by a hostile Civil War, to an elevated "principle" (3). The vibrant internal life of the Bolshevik Party, within which there existed a struggle of ideas, groups and factions, is replaced with the threat of internment in concentration camps, exile or death.

Power is transferred from the mass organizations upon which the successful revolution depended, as democratic centralism finds its distorted expression within the bureaucratic centralism of the ‘dictatorship of the bureaucracy’.

This usurpation of this power is enabled only because the “social content of this ‘dictatorship of the bureaucracy’ is determined by those productive relations that were created by the proletarian revolution” (1).

The ‘dictatorship of the bureaucracy’ is forced to defend the property relationships established by the proletarian revolution, for the purpose of maintaining its own interest; while at the same time representing the “worst domestic brake on progress, the greatest internal source of danger to the workers state, and an absolute obstacle to socialist revolutions outside the Soviet Union” (4).

The task that flowed from this is analysis was the need for a political movement to overthrow the bureaucracy for the purpose of the preservation of the existing property relations. Without the working class militating to crush the bureaucracy and open the way for socialism:

The bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers’ state, will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back into Capitalism (5)

Trotsky was entirely correct in this analysis, as substantiated by subsequent historical events, to the great misfortune of Russian workers who have witnessed a steep decline in life expectancy and the great many destructive uncertainties of capitalism. On the basis of the then still existent Soviet Union property relations, implying the curtailing of the rights of capital and the limited monopoly of foreign trade, adherents of global capital perceived the USSR as an irreconcilable enemy and welcomed this development. The subsequent restoration of capitalist property relations heralded a period within which the ideas of Marxism were said to be defeated.

Trotskyism ‘carried the torch’ during the dark years, highlighting the deformations that were elevated to ‘principles’ on the basis of the needs of the bureaucratic caste that had assumed power. It is upon the Marxist tradition, upheld by Trotsky, that we must seek to build to the appropriate lessons of the Soviet Union in our fight for new October revolutions.






1) http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1935/02/ws-therm-bon.htm

2) Trotsky, L. The Revolution Betrayed. Pg.91.

3) Trotsky. L. RB. Pg.240.

4) http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isr/vol21/no1/hansendeutscher.htm

5) http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/tia38.htm

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