Introduction to The Revolution Betrayed

In 1990, Labor Publications published a new English edition of Trotsky’s monumental 1936 work, The Revolution Betrayed. The new edition was accompanied by the following introduction, written by David North, at that time the national secretary of the Workers League, and today the national chairperson of the Socialist Equality Party and the chairperson of the World Socialist Web Site International Editorial Board.

Revolution Betrayed is available for purchase from Mehring Books here.

In the annals of political literature, few works have withstood the test of time so well as Leon Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed. More than 50 years after its initial publication, its analysis of the Soviet Union remains unsurpassed. A single reading of The Revolution Betrayed will still yield more knowledge of the structure and dynamics of Soviet society than would be acquired from a systematic review of the countless thousands of volumes which bourgeois “Sovietology” has inflicted on the public over the last few decades. The events of the last five years provide an objective means of comparing the scientific value of Trotsky’s masterpiece of Marxist analysis to the conformist and pedestrian works of innumerable stipend-laden academics and prize-winning journalists. Who among them predicted even after the accession of Gorbachev to power that the Soviet government would reject the principle of central planning, repeal all restrictions on private ownership of the means of production, proclaim the market to be the highest achievement of civilization, and seek the complete integration of the USSR into the economic and political structure of world capitalism?

But as far back as 1936, writing as an isolated political exile in Norway (from which he was soon to be deported on the orders of a Social Democratic government), Leon Trotsky warned that the policies of the Stalinist regime, far from having assured the triumph of socialism in the USSR, were actually preparing the ground for the restoration of capitalism. It can now be said without fear of contradiction that the course of events since the launching of perestroika in 1985 has to an astonishing degree validated Trotsky’s hypothetical formulation of the process through which the overturn of the nationalized property forms created on the basis of the October 1917 Revolution might be realized.

The point is not merely that The Revolution Betrayed was the work of a genius. What sets this book apart from all others written about the Soviet Union is the analytical method that its author employed. Trotsky was among the greatest exponents of the materialist dialectic which was, and remains, the imperishable contribution of Marxism to the development of human thought. The aim of The Revolution Betrayed was to uncover the internal contradictions underlying the evolution of a state that was the product of the first socialist revolution in world history. Whereas for bourgeois scholars and journalists the definition of the Soviet Union as a “socialist state” has generally been the assumed and unquestioned premise of their works, Trotsky rejected the facile use of the term “socialist” to describe the Soviet reality. The uncritical use of the term, he admonished, served to obscure rather than illuminate reality. The October Revolution, he insisted, did no more than lay down the initial political foundations for the transformation of backward Russia into a socialist society. Whether or not socialism finally emerged out of those foundations, and within what span of time, depended upon a complex interaction of national and international factors. In any event, maintained Trotsky, contrary to the boasts of the Stalinist regime, socialism—using the term as it had been traditionally defined in the lexicon of Marxism—did not at all exist in the USSR.

But if the Soviet Union was not socialist, could it then be defined as capitalist? Trotsky rejected this term as well, for the October Revolution had undoubtedly led to the abolition of private ownership of the means of production and placed property in the hands of the workers’ state. Therefore, in defining the Soviet Union Trotsky deliberately eschewed the use of finished and static categories, such as capitalism and socialism. Rather, he sought to formulate a concept of the Soviet Union which reproduced its dynamic features and indicated the possible forms of their further development. Trotsky concluded that the Soviet Union was a “transitional” society whose character and fate had not yet been decided by history. If the working class succeeded in overthrowing the Stalinist regime and, on the basis of Soviet democracy, regained control of the state, the USSR could still evolve in the direction of socialism. But if the bureaucracy retained power and continued to stifle, in the interests of its own privileged position, the creative possibilities of the nationalized productive forces and central planning, a catastrophic relapse into capitalism, ending with the destruction of the USSR, was also possible.

Trotsky was aware that his “hypothetical definition,” which projected two diametrically opposed variants of development for the Soviet Union, would bewilder those whose thought was guided by the precepts of formal logic. “They would like,” he noted, “categorical formulae: yes—yes, and no—no.” But social reality consists of contradictions that cannot be comprehended within the rigid framework of a logical syllogism. “Sociological problems would certainly be simpler, if social phenomena had always a finished character. There is nothing more dangerous, however, than to throw out of reality, for the sake of logical completeness, elements which today violate your scheme and tomorrow may wholly overturn it. In our analysis, we have above all avoided doing violence to a dynamic social formation which has had no precedent and knows no analogies. The scientific task, as well as the political, is not to give a finished definition to an unfinished process, but to follow all its stages, separate its progressive from its reactionary tendencies, expose their mutual relations, foresee possible variants of development, and find in this foresight a basis for action” (pp. 216-17).

In the course of a theoretical controversy that was to a large extent inspired by the analysis presented in The Revolution Betrayed, James Burnham argued that materialist dialectics was not a scientific method of historical and social investigation, but only a literary device that Trotsky employed in the formulation of striking metaphors.[1] A serious examination of the structure of Trotsky’s analysis is sufficient to expose the shallowness of this criticism. Dialectical logic is not a form of clever argumentation employed by those who possess a talent for inventing brilliant, but contrived, paradoxes; it is, rather, the generalized expression in the domain of thought of the contradictions which lie at the base of all natural and social phenomena. Trotsky set out to lay bare the antagonistic and at the same time interdependent economic, social and political tendencies which determined the movement of Soviet society.

The October Revolution was itself the product of the greatest of all historical paradoxes. The first socialist revolution began in 1917 not in one of the economically advanced countries of Western Europe and North America, but in the most backward of the major capitalist countries of the period—Russia. Within the space of eight astonishing months, from February to October, the Russian masses shattered the decrepit feudal institutions of the Romanov dynasty and, led by the most revolutionary party the world had ever seen, created a new state form, based on workers’ councils (soviets).

Contrary to the claims of the liberal opponents of Marxism, the inability of the bourgeoisie to create a viable political alternative to the tsarist regime stemmed not from the evil machinations of the Bolsheviks, but from the historically belated development of capitalism in Russia. In the “classic” democratic revolutions of England and France, the bourgeoisie established its political hegemony in the struggle against feudalism and for national unification under conditions in which a proletariat, in the modem sense of the term, either did not exist or was only in the formative stages of its development as a distinct social class. In Russia, however, the democratic struggle unfolded when the social and political development of the proletariat, created by the rapid growth of industry in the final decades of the nineteenth century, already outstripped that of the native bourgeoisie. The 1905 Revolution, the great “dress rehearsal” for the October Revolution twelve years later, saw the eruption of insurrectionary mass strikes and the emergence of a great soviet in St. Petersburg (whose chairman was Leon Trotsky), and confirmed the dominant role of the working class in the struggle against the autocracy. The upheavals of 1905 convinced the Russian bourgeoisie that it faced in the form of the socialist proletariat a far more dangerous enemy than the tsarist autocracy. The more the bourgeoisie recognized its own inability to politically dominate the working class, the less willing it became to utilize the methods of revolutionary mass struggle, with its uncertain consequences, against the old regime.

The events of 1917 quickly exposed the political paralysis of the bourgeoisie. Having played virtually no role in the downfall of the tsar, the bourgeoisie set up a Provisional Government that was incapable of implementing a single radical initiative that would satisfy the demands of the multi-millioned peasantry, let alone the urban proletariat. Moreover, hemmed in by its economic dependence upon the great imperialist powers and determined to satisfy the unscrupulous territorial ambitions of the Russian bourgeoisie, the Provisional Government was committed to continuing Russia’s participation in World War I. This set it on a collision course with the masses, who were demanding both an end to the war and the complete destruction of the feudal legacy in the countryside. These demands were ultimately realized through the victory of the proletarian revolution in October under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party. This paradoxical historical outcome—the consummation of the democratic revolution through the conquest of state power by the working class—could not but have the most far-reaching and unprecedented consequences. Led by the proletariat, the democratic revolution inevitably assumed a socialist character: that is, the wiping out of all remnants of feudalism in the countryside was accompanied by deep inroads into bourgeois property forms and the socialization of the means of production.

But there was a heavy price to be paid for the tremendous historical leap of 1917. The circumstances which had facilitated the conquest of power by the Russian proletariat created staggering obstacles to the process of socialist construction in the newly established workers’ state. A regime which had been established on the basis of the most advanced social program had at its disposal only the most meager economic resources. Furthermore, the extreme backwardness of Russian society—the legacy inherited by the Bolshevik regime from the tsarist past—was compounded by the economic devastation produced first by the world war and then by the civil war which erupted in 1918. If considered only from the standpoint of the situation existing in Russia, the Bolshevik conquest of power might have appeared to be a wild and foolhardy adventure. But the calculations of Lenin and Trotsky were based primarily on international, rather than national, factors. This was noted approvingly by their greatest contemporary, Rosa Luxemburg, who, despite her own critical attitude toward certain aspects of their policies, wrote in 1918: “The fate of the revolution in Russia depended fully upon international events. That the Bolsheviks have based their policy entirely upon the world proletarian revolution is the clearest proof of their political farsightedness and firmness of principle and of the bold scope of their policies” (Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961], p. 28).[2]

Just as international conditions underlay the eruption of the Russian Revolution and compelled the Bolsheviks to take power,[3] the potential for socialist construction in Soviet Russia was inextricably linked to the international class struggle. Only the victory of the working class in one of the European centers of world capitalism—Bolshevik hopes were centered on events in Germany—would place at the disposal of backward Russia the highly developed economic and technological resources upon which socialism depends. For Lenin and Trotsky, the Bolshevik conquest of power was only the beginning of the world socialist revolution. Its further development and completion depended upon the efforts of the world proletariat. The Communist International, in whose founding the Bolsheviks played the decisive role, was to serve as the strategical high command of the world struggle against capitalism.

The Bolshevik victory was, indeed, the beginning of a massive international upsurge of the working class. But in no other country did there exist a leadership whose political qualities approached those of the Bolshevik Party. The party of Lenin was the product of years of irreconcilable theoretical struggle against every current of opportunism in the Russian workers’ movement. The significance of the political divisions within the socialist tendencies existing in Russia and internationally in 1917 would not have been so clearly defined had it not been for Lenin’s previous labors. The split between Bolshevism and Menshevism in 1903 anticipated by more than a decade the split in the Second International produced by the outbreak of the world war in 1914. Lenin’s differentiation between Marxism and all forms of petty-bourgeois opportunism made possible the fruitful political struggle waged by the Bolsheviks in 1917 against the reformist (Menshevik) allies of the bourgeois Provisional Government. Even in Germany, no such preparation had preceded the outbreak of revolutionary struggles. There, the decisive organizational break with the opportunists and the founding of the Communist Party took place some six weeks after the outbreak of the November 1918 revolution. And only two weeks later, on January 15, 1919, the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, with the behind-the-scene approval of the Social Democratic government, deprived the German working class of its finest leaders. Between 1919 and 1923, the working class suffered a series of major defeats—in Hungary, Italy, Estonia, Bulgaria and, worst of all, in Germany. In each case the cause of the defeat lay in the treachery of the old Social Democratic parties, which still commanded the support of a significant section of the working class, and the political immaturity of the new Communist organizations.

The prolongation of the political and economic isolation of the Soviet Union was to have unforeseen and tragic consequences. Though the state created by the first workers’ revolution did not collapse, it began to degenerate. While the belated development of capitalism in Russia had made possible the creation of the Soviet state, the unexpected delay in the victorious development of the world socialist revolution was the principal cause of its degeneration. The form assumed by that degeneration was the massive growth of the bureaucracy in the apparatus of the Soviet state and the Bolshevik Party and the extraordinary concentration of power in its hands.

Disdaining historical subjectivism, which replaces the analysis of social processes with speculation about personal and psychological motivations, Trotsky demonstrated that the malignant growth of bureaucracy, culminating in the totalitarian regime of Stalin, was rooted in material contradictions specific to a workers’ state established in a backward country. From the standpoint of its property forms, the Soviet state was socialist. But the full and equal satisfaction of the material needs of all members of society could not even be contemplated in the backward, impoverished and famine-stricken conditions of Soviet Russia. The distribution of goods, under the supervision of the state, continued to be carried out with a capitalist measure of value and therefore unequally. That this inequality—or, what is the same thing, privileges for a minority—was, at least initially, necessary for the functioning of the state-controlled economy did not alter the fact that this mode of distribution remained bourgeois in character.

The Soviet regime expressed the tension between these two antagonistic functions of the workers’ state: defending social property in the means of production while at the same time supervising bourgeois methods of distribution and therefore defending the privileges of a minority. The bureaucracy arose on the basis of this contradiction: “If for the defense of socialized property against bourgeois counterrevolution a ‘state of armed workers’ was fully adequate, it was a very different matter to regulate inequalities in the sphere of consumption. Those deprived of privileges are not inclined to create and defend them. The majority cannot concern itself with the privileges of the minority. For the defense of ‘bourgeois law’ the workers’ state was compelled to create a ‘bourgeois’ type of instrument, that is, the same old gendarme, although in a new uniform” (p. 47).

The bureaucracy, Trotsky explained, functioned as a social “gendarme,” the policeman of inequality:

“We have thus taken the first step toward understanding the fundamental contradiction between Bolshevik program and Soviet reality. If the state does not die away, but grows more and more despotic, if the plenipotentiaries of the working class become bureaucratized, and the bureaucracy rises above the new society, this is not for some secondary reasons like the psychological relics of the past, etc., but is a result of the iron necessity to give birth to and support a privileged minority so long as it is impossible to guarantee genuine equality” (p. 47).

The bureaucracy arose out of the contradictions of a backward and impoverished workers’ state isolated by the defeats of the proletarian revolution. But it should not be imagined that the force of objective contradictions translated itself immediately and directly into the monstrosities of the Stalinist regime. The signals emitted from the economic base, however powerful their source, are received at the outer layers of the political superstructure and recorded in the form of program and policy only after they have been mediated by the contradictory influences of historical tradition, culture, ideology and even individual psychology. The crystallization of the bureaucratic strata into a definite political tendency which ultimately destroyed the Bolshevik Party was a complex, bitter and protracted process. It would be a mistake to believe that those who became the representatives of the bureaucratic faction started out with the aim of betraying and destroying the work of the Russian Revolution. Certainly, at the outset of the political struggle within the Bolshevik Party, Stalin and his supporters did not see themselves as the defenders of privilege and inequality, i.e., of the bourgeois function of the workers’ state. Stalin’s narrow empiricism—his inability to analyze day-to-day events in relation to more profound social processes or to follow the trajectory of class forces—permitted him to become the leader of the bureaucracy without being able to foresee the long-term consequences of his struggle against the Left Opposition. As Trotsky explained:

“It would be naive to imagine that Stalin, previously unknown to the masses, suddenly issued from the wings fully armed with a complete strategical plan. No indeed. Before he felt out his own course, the bureaucracy felt out Stalin himself. He brought it all the necessary guarantees: the prestige of an Old Bolshevik, a strong character, narrow vision, and close bonds with the political machine as the sole source of his influence. The success which fell upon him was a surprise to Stalin himself. It was the friendly welcome of the new ruling group, trying to free itself from the old principles and from the control of the masses, and having need of a reliable arbiter in its inner affairs. A secondary figure before the masses and in the events of the revolution, Stalin revealed himself as the indubitable leader of the Thermidorian bureaucracy, as first in its midst” (pp. 80-81).

The Revolution Betrayed was the culmination of the theoretical and political struggle against the bureaucracy that Trotsky had initiated in 1923. In the autumn of that year, Trotsky had written a series of articles, published under the title The New Course, in which he noted with alarm the growth of bureaucratic tendencies in the bloated apparatuses of the Soviet state and Bolshevik Party. He saw the suffocation of inner-party democracy as a symptom of the increasingly independent authority of the bureaucracy over all spheres of Soviet life.

When this struggle began, Trotsky still enjoyed immense prestige within the Bolshevik Party and among the Soviet masses. He was, alongside the ailing Lenin, the most authoritative leader of the October Revolution and the new Soviet state. His criticisms found broad support within the Bolshevik Party—especially among those layers which had played the most outstanding role in the period of the revolution and civil war. The New Course provided the initial platform for the creation of the Left Opposition, which sought to counter the growing influence of the bureaucracy. The vitriolic response which Trotsky’s articles provoked was itself an indication that the bureaucracy had already become a social force that was sufficiently aware of its interests to defend itself against Marxist criticism.

Lenin died on January 21, 1924.[4] By the autumn of that year, the divergence between the interests of the Soviet working class and the increasingly self-conscious bureaucracy found its expression in the formulation of a political line which was diametrically opposed to the internationalist program and perspectives upon which the Bolshevik Party had been based since its origin. That the development of socialism in the Soviet Union depended ultimately upon the victory of the socialist revolution in the advanced European centers of world capitalism had always been, as we have already noted, an unquestioned premise of the Bolshevik, i.e., Marxist, perspective. As long as Lenin was alive, no one in the leadership of the Bolshevik Party had ever suggested that the resources of the Soviet Union were sufficient for the creation of a self-contained socialist society. In fact, Marxist theory did not even attribute such possibilities to an advanced capitalist country. From the writing of the Communist Manifesto in 1847 to the victory of the October Revolution 70 years later, the guiding principle of the Marxist movement had been its unshakeable conviction that the achievement of socialism depended upon the unified international efforts of the workers of all countries and their victory over world capitalism.

Thus, when Stalin proclaimed, with the encouragement of Bukharin, that it was possible to build socialism in one country, his declaration represented more than a basic revision of Marxist theory. Though he did not realize this himself, Stalin was articulating the views of an expanding bureaucracy which saw the Soviet state not as the bastion and staging ground of world socialist revolution, but as the national foundation upon which its revenues and privileges were based.

The Stalinist faction did not all at once renounce the goal of world revolution; rather, it indignantly protested the accusations of the Left Opposition. Nevertheless, the propagation of the theory of “socialism in one country” signalled a profound shift in the direction of the international policy of the Soviet regime and in the role of the Comintern.[5] The Stalinists asserted that the USSR could arrive at socialism if only it was not thrown back by the intervention of imperialist armies. From this it followed that the realization of Soviet socialism required not the overthrow of world imperialism, but its neutralization through diplomatic means.

The Left Opposition did not object in principle to diplomatic agreements between the Soviet Union and capitalist states. At the height of Trotsky’s political influence, the Soviet Union had scored triumphs in the sphere of diplomacy, most notably the successful outcome of the negotiations at Rapallo in 1922. However, these agreements were frankly characterized as tactical maneuvers by Soviet Russia, aimed at stabilizing its position until the international proletariat came directly to its rescue. It was understood as a matter of course that the fate of the workers’ state was inextricably linked to that of international socialism. Moreover, the diplomatic initiatives of the Soviet Union imposed no obligations upon the local Communist parties, whose main concern had to be the maximum development of the independent revolutionary activity of the working class.

But under the influence of the Soviet bureaucracy, the role of the Comintern was transformed. The new theory of “national socialism” soon began to affect the strategy and tactics of the Communist International. The opportunist alliance formed in 1925 between the inexperienced British Communist Party and the trade union bureaucrats who participated in the Anglo-Russian Committee was encouraged by the Stalinists in the hope that the sympathy of these influential officials would weaken the anti-Soviet policy of the British government. Similar considerations provided at least part of the motivation for Stalin’s insistence between 1925 and 1927 that the Chinese Communist Party subordinate itself to the bourgeois nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek. In both cases, the attempts to cultivate friends overseas at the expense of the political independence of the working class led to disaster: the British Communist Party’s glorification of the trade union leaders facilitated the betrayal of the 1926 General Strike; the Chinese Communist Party’s submission to the leadership of the bourgeois Kuomintang led to the physical annihilation of its cadre by Chiang’s army in 1927.

Trotsky never claimed that the defeats in Britain and China had been consciously desired by the Soviet bureaucracy. He maintained, rather, that the catastrophic international setbacks—like the results of so many of his policies—took Stalin by surprise. But these and other defeats for which the political line of the Stalinists was responsible had an objective impact upon class relations within the Soviet Union. The defeats suffered by the international working class discouraged the Soviet workers, undermined their confidence in the perspectives and prospects of world socialism, and, therefore, strengthened the bureaucracy. It was by no means accidental that the annihilation of the Chinese Communist Party in May 1927, which had been clearly foreseen by Trotsky, set the stage for the political defeat and expulsion of the Left Opposition from the Soviet Communist Party. This was followed within a few months by the arrest of the leaders of the Opposition and their exile to the distant reaches of the USSR. Trotsky was transported to Alma-Ata near the border of China. One year later, in January 1929, Trotsky was expelled from the Soviet Union to the island of Prinkipo off the Turkish coast.

Stalin had hoped that the expulsion of Trotsky would deprive him of the possibility of developing the activity of the Opposition in the Soviet Union. But he had underestimated Trotsky’s ability to command the attention of a world audience. Though deprived of the trappings of power, Trotsky was the intellectual and moral embodiment of the greatest revolution in world history. In contrast to Stalin, who represented a bureaucratic machine and was dependent upon it, Trotsky personified a world-historic idea which found through his writings its most brilliant and cultured expression. Even within the Soviet Union, it was not always possible for the Stalinist regime to prevent Trotsky’s words from penetrating the sealed borders and evoking an impassioned response.[6] Despite the hardships of exile, the endless stream of political analysis that flowed from Trotsky’s pen, combined with a voluminous correspondence, transformed the Left Opposition into an international movement.

In the first years of Trotsky’s exile, the International Left Opposition considered itself a faction, albeit, an illegal one, inside the Communist International. It did not call for the formation of a new International, but fought for the reform of the Comintern and its national sections. Trotsky refused to abandon prematurely the possibility of returning the Communist parties, which remained the political home of the most class-conscious sections of the working class, to a Marxist program. Trotsky’s writings were specifically directed to the hundreds of thousands of workers who had joined the Communist International because they believed that it was the instrument of socialist revolution.

The struggle of the International Left Opposition to reform the Comintern assumed the greatest political urgency in Germany, where the working class was confronted with the menace of fascism. Despite the vast potential power of the German working class, it was disoriented and paralyzed by the policies of its mass organizations. While the Social Democrats pathetically depended upon the bourgeois state and its Weimar Constitution to save them from the Nazis, the Stalinists refused to fight for the unity of all working class organizations in the struggle against fascism. With the encouragement of Stalin, the German Communist Party asserted with criminal light-mindedness that there existed no essential difference between Social Democracy and the Nazi Party, and that the former were, in fact, “social fascists.” Therefore, the Stalinists claimed, it was impermissible for the Communist Party to enter into a “united front” with the Social Democracy in order to conduct a common defense of the workers’ movement against the fascist hordes. From Prinkipo Trotsky addressed fiery appeals to the ranks of the German Communist Party, calling upon them to prevent a catastrophe by reversing the policies of their leaders and implementing a united front of the entire workers’ movement against the Nazis.

“Worker-Communists,” he wrote, “you are hundreds of thousands, millions; you cannot leave for any place; there are not enough passports for you. Should Fascism come to power, it will ride over your skulls and spines like a terrific tank. Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. And only a fighting unity with the Social-Democratic workers can bring victory. Make haste, worker-Communists, you have very little time left!” (Leon Trotsky, Germany: 1931-32 [London: New Park Publications, 1970], p. 38).

The German Communist Party refused to change its policy and direct a unified struggle against the Nazi advance. Thus, on January 31, 1933 Hitler came to power without a shot being fired. Within a few months all the trade union and political organizations of what had been the largest and most powerful labor movement in Europe were declared illegal and destroyed. In the face of this unprecedented disaster, the Communist International issued a statement endorsing the policies which it had pursued and absolved itself of any responsibility for the defeat. For Trotsky, the defeat of the German working class was an event of world-historical magnitude. As the vote of the Social Democrats for war credits at the start of World War I in 1914 signified the collapse of the Second International, the Stalinists’ complicity in the tragic debacle of the German workers’ movement meant the collapse of the Third. In the face of the catastrophic defeat of the German working class, to which the Communist International responded by voting itself congratulations for the policies which enabled Hitler to take power, it was impossible to speak any longer of reforming the Stalinist parties. It was necessary to begin the work of constructing a new, Fourth International.

“The Moscow leadership has not only proclaimed as infallible the policy which guaranteed victory to Hitler, but has also prohibited all discussion of what had occurred. And this shameful interdiction was not violated or overthrown. No national congresses; no international congress, no discussions at party meetings; no discussion in the press! An organization which was not roused by the thunder of fascism and which submits docilely to such outrageous acts of the bureaucracy demonstrates thereby that it is dead and that nothing can ever revive it. To say this openly and publicly is our direct duty toward the proletariat and its future. In all our subsequent work it is necessary to take as our point of departure the historical collapse of the official Communist International” (Leon Trotsky, Writings of Leon Trotsky [1932-33] [New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972] pp. 304-5).

Of all the decisions taken by Trotsky in the course of his life, none was more irrevocable, controversial, profound and farsighted than the founding of the Fourth International. The Soviet regime and its international apparatus of toadies responded with hysterical denunciations that found within a few years their finished expression in the Moscow Trial indictments and the assassinations carried out by the GPU-NKVD, both within and beyond the borders of the Soviet Union. But even among many who considered themselves sympathetic to Trotsky, his call for the Fourth International seemed premature, ill-advised and even rash. These criticisms were generally based on the apparent “realities” of the political situation: Trotsky was too isolated to build an International, his call would go unnoticed, the prestige of the Comintern was still too great within the international workers’ movement, a new International could only be built on the basis of a victorious revolution, etc. But such “realism”—which amounted to little more than an empirical listing of conjunctural difficulties—was of a rather superficial character.

For Trotsky, the criterion of political realism was the correspondence of program and policy to the essential and law-governed development of the class struggle. He perceived that the role played by the Soviet bureaucracy in the defeat of the German working class and its reaction to this catastrophe marked a turning point in the political and social evolution—or, let us say, degeneration—of the Stalinist regime. Trotsky’s call for the Fourth International was not intended as punishment for the latest and most terrible crime of the bureaucracy and the Comintern; it was, rather, the necessary political response to the fact that the Stalinist regime and the prostituted Comintern were beyond reform. By giving its assent to the policies which had led to the destruction of the German workers’ movement, the Comintern demonstrated that it no longer served, even in the most tenuous manner, the cause of international socialism. The leaders of the Communist parties affiliated to the Comintern were hired flunkeys of the GPU-NKVD, prepared to carry out whatever instructions they received from the Kremlin. The revival of international Marxism could not be achieved through the reform of the Comintern, but only in a ruthless struggle against it. Thus, the only “realistic” course of action open to those who remained devoted to the cause of world socialism was to build a new, Fourth, International.

If the old International was beyond reform, so too was the regime whose orders it obediently executed. In the Soviet Union, where the Communist Party held state power, the Fourth International raised the banner of political revolution against the ruling bureaucracy. The revolutionary overthrow of the Stalinist regime was necessary because the material interests of the bureaucracy as a distinct social stratum had become so profoundly estranged from those of the working class that its domination of Soviet society was incompatible with the survival of the USSR as a workers’ state.

The political conclusions upon which Trotsky based his call for the founding of the Fourth International were theoretically substantiated and given a finished programmatic form with the writing of The Revolution Betrayed. Herein lies the essential significance of this work: As Lenin’s Imperialism had demonstrated in 1916 that the betrayal of Social Democracy was the political expression of its social evolution into an agency of international capital in the workers’ movement, Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed revealed the social relations and material interests of which the crimes of the Stalinist regime were the necessary expression. Like Social Democracy, Stalinism could not be “reformed,” i.e., made to serve the interests of the working class, because its own interests were tied to those of imperialism and hostile to the Soviet and international proletariat.

It was not long before Trotsky’s assessment was confirmed by events. In the aftermath of Hitler’s victory, the Stalinist regime and the Communist International lunged to the right. The reaction of the Soviet bureaucracy to the fascist triumph was to seek membership in the League of Nations, which Lenin had characterized as a “thieves’ kitchen.” This decision was symbolic of the transformation of the Soviet bureaucracy into a political agency of imperialism in the international workers’ movement. From 1933 on, the essential link between the defense of the USSR and the cause of world socialist revolution was repudiated. Instead, with ever greater cynicism, the Stalinist regime based the defense of the Soviet Union upon the preservation of the imperialist world order. Confronted with a fascist regime in Germany, whose existence was the product of the criminal policies of the Kremlin, the Stalinist bureaucracy sought salvation through the promotion of Soviet-imperialist “collective security.” The Communist International was transformed into a direct instrument of Soviet foreign policy, offering to protect bourgeois regimes against the threat of an insurgent proletariat in return for diplomatic agreements with the Kremlin.

This was the essential purpose of the “popular front” policy introduced by the Communist International in 1935. Bourgeois governments which professed friendly intentions toward the USSR and supposedly shared its hostility to Nazi Germany were to receive political support from the local Communist parties. All the fundamental Marxist criteria which traditionally had determined the attitude of the revolutionary workers’ movement to bourgeois parties and regimes were cast aside. Parties and states were no longer evaluated on the basis of the class interests and property forms they defended; instead, the scientific terminology of Marxism was replaced with deceptive and empty adjectives like “peace-loving” and “antifascist.” The local Communist parties assumed on behalf of the Kremlin responsibility for suppressing the struggle of the working class against governments which were so designated. Seeking alliances with the “democratic” imperialists—a designation which turned a blind eye to the plight of the colonial slaves of Britain, France, Belgium, Holland, etc.—the Soviet bureaucracy did everything it could to demonstrate that it was committed to the defense of the imperialist status quo. In an attempt to assuage the lingering concerns of the imperialists, Stalin told the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, in a celebrated interview conducted on March 1, 1936, that fears about the international revolutionary aims of the Soviet regime were a “tragicomic misunderstanding.”[7] The Soviet bureaucracy’s sabotage of the revolutionary struggles of the international proletariat found its most complete and bloody expression in Spain, where the Communist Party aborted the struggle against the fascists in the interests of defending bourgeois property. With the aid of the GPU, the bourgeois-liberal government suppressed the May 1937 uprising of the Catalonian working class and thereby guaranteed the ultimate victory of Franco.

The turn by the USSR toward direct collaboration with the international bourgeoisie was complemented by the intensification of state repression within the borders of the degenerated workers’ state. The inner connection between these parallel processes is generally ignored by bourgeois historians, who find it politically inconvenient to examine why the heyday of popular frontism—when Stalinism was being feted in the salons of the intellectual trend-setters—coincided with the wholesale extermination within the USSR of virtually all those who had played a leading role in the October Revolution and the civil war. The blood purges which were launched with the opening of the first round of the Moscow Trials in August 1936 were intended not only to eradicate all those who might become the focus of revolutionary opposition to the bureaucracy, but also to demonstrate to the world bourgeoisie that the Stalinist regime had broken irrevocably with the heritage of 1917. A river of blood now divided Stalinism from Bolshevism.

Trotsky, living in Norway, completed the introduction of The Revolution Betrayed and sent the final portions of the manuscript to the publishers barely two weeks before the beginning of the trial of Zinoviev and Kamenev in Moscow. The timing was fortuitous: One day after the trial’s conclusion and the execution of the 16 defendants, the Norwegian Social Democratic government, submitting to pressure from the Kremlin, demanded that Trotsky renounce the right to publicly comment on contemporary political events, i.e., on the Moscow frame-up trial. When Trotsky indignantly refused, the Norwegian Social Democrats issued orders for his arrest and internment. The police denied Trotsky direct contact with his political associates, stopped his correspondence, confiscated his manuscripts and even limited the hours he was permitted to exercise outdoors. These restrictions had their intended effect: for four crucial months, Trotsky was blocked from publicly answering the monstrous charges made against him by the Stalinist regime.[8]

The behavior of the Norwegian government was made all the more scandalous by the way it proceeded to organize the deportation of Trotsky from the country. Earlier in August, supporters of Quisling, the leader of the Norwegian fascist organization, attempted unsuccessfully to burglarize Trotsky’s residence. After they were apprehended, the burglars claimed that they had discovered material proving that Trotsky had violated the terms of his Norwegian exile. The police initially dismissed their outlandish claims. But, responding to pressure exerted by the Kremlin in the aftermath of the trial of Zinoviev and Kamenev, the Norwegian government decided to make opportune use of the lies of the fascist burglars. When Trotsky appeared to give evidence at a hearing supposedly called to investigate the burglary, he found himself instead the subject of an intense interrogation aimed at proving that he had abused the “hospitality” of Norwegian democracy. Standing in the Ministry of Justice before Trygve Lie (the future United Nations Secretary-General) and his associates, Trotsky confronted the frightened Social Democratic officials who were using the testimony of fascist hoodlums as a legal pretext for his deportation from Norway.

“At this point,” according to an account based on the recollection of witnesses to the proceedings and their ironic aftermath, “Trotsky raised his voice so that it resounded through the halls and corridors of the Ministry: ‘This is your first act of surrender to Nazism in your own country. You will pay for this. You think yourselves secure and free to deal with a political exile as you please. But the day is near—remember this!—the day is near when the Nazis will drive you from your country, all of you together with your Pantoffel-Minister-President.' Trygve Lie shrugged at this odd piece of soothsaying. Yet after less than four years the same government had indeed to flee from Norway before the Nazi invasion; and as the Ministers and their aged King Haakon stood on the coast, huddled together and waiting anxiously for a boat that was to take them to England, they recalled with awe Trotsky’s words as a prophet’s curse come true” (Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-40 [New York: Vintage Books, 1963], pp. 341-42).

After his deportation from Norway in December 1936, Trotsky did not conceal his disgust with the cowardice of the Norwegian Social Democrats: “When I look back today on this period of internment, I must say that never, anywhere, in the course of my entire life—and I have lived through many things—was I persecuted with as much miserable cynicism as I was by the Norwegian ‘Socialist’ government. For four months these ministers, dripping with democratic hypocrisy, gripped me in a stranglehold to prevent me from protesting the greatest crime history may ever know” (Leon Trotsky, Writings of Leon Trotsky [1936-37] [New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970], p. 36).

Even if one does not consider the conditions under which it was written, The Revolution Betrayed must be judged an astonishing literary and intellectual achievement. Living in a remote village in already remote Norway, cut off from all direct contact with Soviet citizens, compelled to follow events as best he could through the press, Trotsky nevertheless succeeded in producing an amazingly detailed, comprehensive, and enduring analysis of the Soviet Union. A profound and critical sense of realism animated Trotsky’s work, which sought to uncover and explain the problems of a backward country which, on the basis of a proletarian revolution, set out to construct socialism, but without the necessary economic, technical and cultural resources. In opposition to the anticommunist literature, The Revolution Betrayed carefully outlined the genuine and, in many areas, staggering advances realized by the Soviet state within less than two decades of its creation. These advances, Trotsky insisted, demonstrated the creative possibilities of the proletarian revolution and the vast progressive potential inherent in the principle of central planning. However, and here he was answering the numerous intellectual sycophants of the Kremlin, the policies of the Stalinist regime, despite the short-term successes, were intensifying the contradictions of the Soviet state and leading toward its destruction.

Today, the desperate crisis of the Stalinist regime has been seized upon by the bourgeoisie as final and conclusive proof that “socialism has failed.” However, the value of these pronouncements may best be judged not by what they say as by what they leave out. It is virtually impossible to find in either the capitalist press or “respectable” academic treatises any reference to the Trotskyist, i.e., Marxist, critique of the Stalinist sabotage of the Soviet economy. Yet Trotsky’s observations were astonishingly prescient. He anticipated virtually all the problems which have now assumed a terminal form, and he did this at a time when the successes of the Soviet economy inspired the uncritical admiration of broad sections of the Western intelligentsia. Trotsky’s insight into such problems as the productivity of labor, the role of money in socialist construction, the dangers of inflation, and the limitations of bureaucratic planning by itself proves that the attempt to identify Marxism with the bankrupt and ignorant policies of the bureaucracy is little more than slander.

Decades before the Soviet press discovered the evils of the “administrative-command economy,” Trotsky wrote:

“Administrative planning has sufficiently revealed its power—but therewith also the limits of its power. An a priori economic plan—above all in a backward country with 170 million population, and a profound contradiction between city and country—is not a fixed gospel, but a rough working hypothesis which must be verified and reconstructed in the process of its fulfillment. We might indeed lay down a rule: the more ‘accurately’ an administrative task is fulfilled, the worse is the economic leadership. For the regulation and application of plans, two levers are needed: a political lever, in the form of real participation in leadership of the interested masses themselves; and a financial lever, in the form of a real verification of a priori calculations with the help of a universal equivalent, which is unthinkable without a stable money system” (pp. 58-59).

The Revolution Betrayed also provided, many years before the word nomenklatura entered into the international vocabulary of sociology and politics, a concise summation of the social layers of which the bureaucratic elite was composed. He identified the real social basis of the Stalinist regime: the bloated general staffs of the state administration, trade unions, and cooperatives; the tens of thousands of chairmen and executive committee members of innumerable town, district and regional soviets; the upper echelons of the army, navy and the secret police; etc. Trotsky attempted to estimate the share of Soviet resources that were plundered by the vast strata of social parasites: “If you count not only salaries and all forms of service in kind, and every type of semi-legal supplementary source of income, but also add the share of the bureaucracy and the Soviet aristocracy in the theaters, rest palaces, hospitals, sanatoriums, summer resorts, museums, clubs, athletic institutions, etc., it would probably be necessary to conclude that 15 percent, or, say, 20 percent, of the population enjoys not much less of the wealth than is enjoyed by the remaining 80 to 85 percent” (pp. 121-22).

Trotsky was remarkably attuned to the realities of daily life in the USSR. He drew from the Soviet press and from the statements of the exalted leaders fleeting and veiled references—to homelessness, prostitution, marriages made for the sake of an extra room—which contradicted the official tributes to the “happy life” which Stalin had supposedly bestowed upon the masses. He noted with uncanny sensitivity those “small details” of life, occasionally reported in the press, which exposed the growth of social inequality: the worker employs the formal form of “you” when addressing the bureaucrat, while the latter utilizes the familiar form in his reply; workers make do with margarine and makhorka, while the bureaucrats enjoy butter, fine tobacco, and limousines. In a characteristic passage, Trotsky commented indignantly on the arrest of “hungry women who are selling homemade berets or cotton shirts on the street,” and scathingly dismissed Stalin’s pompous and cynical claim that the basis of speculation had been destroyed in the USSR and that it persists only due to “a lack of class vigilance.”

“The economic basis of speculation is destroyed?,” he wondered ironically. “But then there is no need of any vigilance whatever. If the state could, for example, guarantee the population a sufficient quantity of modest headdresses, there would be no necessity of arresting those unfortunate street traders” (p. 104).

The pages of this work resound with Trotsky’s angry protest against the debasement of the socialist vision by Stalinism. “The school and the social life of the student,” he wrote, “are saturated with formalism and hypocrisy” (p. 137). All forms of critical thought are stifled: “Gifted writers who cannot do sufficient violence to themselves are pursued by a pack of instructors armed with shamelessness and dozens of quotations. The most eminent artists either commit suicide, or find their material in the remote past, or become silent” (p. 156). Trotsky decried the brutal repression of the heritage and development of the nations which comprise the USSR: “There can be in reality no talk of uniqueness of national culture when one and the same conductor’s baton, or rather one and the same police club, undertakes to regulate all the intellectual activities of all the peoples of the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian, White Russian, Georgian, or Tiurk newspapers and books are only translations of the bureaucratic imperatives into the language of the corresponding nationality” (p. 150).

Protesting the witless and uncritical descriptions of Soviet life provided by “radical tourists” like George Bernard Shaw and the indefatigable Sidney and Beatrice Webb—who visited the Soviet Union at the invitation of the bureaucracy and were provided with deluxe accommodations at every stop on their stage-managed tours—Trotsky admitted that he found it “impossible not to be indignant at the passive and essentially indifferent optimism of those who shut their eyes to the growth of social contradictions, and comfort themselves with visions of the future, the key to which they respectfully propose to leave in the hands of the bureaucracy” (p. 135).

Trotsky insisted that the survival of the USSR and its progress along socialist lines depended upon two interconnected developments: the resurgence of the revolutionary movement of the working class in the major centers of world imperialism and the revolutionary overthrow of the bureaucracy by the Soviet working class. But in the absence of these favorable developments, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reestablishment of capitalism would prove inevitable.

Within the USSR, the bureaucracy, Trotsky warned, was the principal social source of counterrevolution. Here it is necessary to consider briefly his sociological appraisal of the bureaucracy. On numerous occasions he strenuously objected to popular definitions of the bureaucracy as a new ruling class. For Trotsky, the term class was a scientific concept, not a verbal epithet. From the standpoint of Marxism, a class is essentially distinguished by its independent roots in the economic structure of society. Its existence is bound up with historically specific forms of property and relations of production, which, in turn, are embodied in the activities of this social stratum. Within the Soviet Union, however, the bureaucracy, despite its political power, did not represent such a historical force. The property forms which prevailed in the USSR had been produced by a proletarian revolution; the proletariat, not the bureaucracy, provided the mass foundation of the new property forms. The bureaucracy attached itself to these new property forms and, on the basis of its usurpation of political power, derived its privileges from them.

However, though not a class, Trotsky conceded that the Soviet bureaucracy could not be simply compared to state bureaucracies within other societies: “the very fact of its appropriation of political power in a country where the most important means of production are concentrated in the hands of the state, creates a new and hitherto unknown relation between the bureaucracy and the riches of the nation. The means of production belongs to the state. But the state, so to speak, ‘belongs’ to the bureaucracy. If these as yet wholly new relations should solidify, become the norm and be legalized, whether with or without resistance from the workers, they would, in the long run, lead to a complete liquidation of the social conquests of the proletarian revolution” (p. 211). Trotsky stressed that the bureaucracy could not convert itself into a ruling class without first creating “social supports for its dominion in the form of special types of property” (pp. 211-12). But he warned that the social evolution of the ruling stratum proceeded irresistibly in that direction. Anticipating by several decades the present political situation in the USSR, Trotsky declared that the program of capitalist restoration “would find no small number of ready servants among the present bureaucrats, administrators, technicians, directors, party secretaries and privileged upper circles in general” (p. 216).

Trotsky depicted the immediate consequences of counterrevolution: “A collapse of the Soviet regime would lead inevitably to the collapse of the planned economy, and thus to the abolition of state property. The bond of compulsion between the trusts and the factories within them would fall away. The more successful enterprises would succeed in coming out on the road of independence. They might convert themselves into stock companies, or they might find some other transitional form of property—one, for example, in which the workers should participate in the profits. The collective farms would disintegrate at the same time, and far more easily. The fall of the present bureaucratic dictatorship, if it were not replaced by a new socialist power, would thus mean a return to capitalist relations with a catastrophic decline of the economy and culture” (pp. 212-13).

While Trotsky, as we see, did not at all underestimate the dangers confronting the USSR, he vehemently rejected the notion that the restoration of capitalism had already been accomplished or that it could be achieved peacefully and democratically. Regardless of the initial forms of its development, a social counterrevolution of such magnitude could be realized only through the bloodiest and most brutal methods. Capitalism could not be restored without crushing the Soviet working class. Thus, the fate of the USSR—towards capitalism or towards socialism—depended upon, as Trotsky so clearly foresaw, “a struggle of living social forces, both on the national and the world arena” (p. 216).

With the completion of The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky achieved a historic victory over Stalinism. At the height of Stalin’s apparent omnipotence, Trotsky demonstrated, on the basis of Marxism, the bankruptcy of the tyrant’s regime and the inevitability of its downfall. But the outcome of its downfall depended to a very great extent upon the development of revolutionary leadership in the working class and its ability to influence the course of the class struggle. If, outside the Soviet Union, the corrupt and reactionary bureaucracies of Social Democracy and Stalinism retained their control over the mass organizations of the working class and continued to sabotage the struggle against capitalism; and if, within the USSR, the working class was unable to create a new revolutionary organization, overthrow the bureaucracy and revive the soviets as genuine organs of the proletarian dictatorship, the first workers’ state would itself perish beneath the ruins of Stalinism. Having starkly posed the political and historical alternatives, the task of the Fourth International was to show the working class the way out of the impasse created by the betrayals of its old organizations and resolve the crisis of revolutionary leadership.

In the months leading up to the founding congress of the Fourth International, the GPU carried out a series of assassinations aimed at eliminating the leading cadre of the Trotskyist movement. Among its victims were Erwin Wolf, a political secretary of Leon Trotsky; Ignace Reiss, a defector from the GPU who denounced Stalin and declared his allegiance to the Fourth International; Rudolf Element, the secretary of the Fourth International; and Leon Sedov, Trotsky’s son. Despite these crimes, the founding congress was held in the suburbs of Paris on September 3, 1938. The program adopted at the congress, which had been written by Trotsky, concisely summarized the theoretical conceptions of The Revolution Betrayed'.

“The Soviet Union emerged from the October Revolution as a workers’ state,” it explained. “State ownership of the means of production, a necessary prerequisite to socialist development, opened up the possibility of rapid growth of the productive forces. But the apparatus of the workers’ state underwent a complete degeneration at the same time: it was transformed from a weapon of the working class into a weapon of bureaucratic violence against the working class and more and more a weapon for the sabotage of the country’s economy. The bureaucratization of a backward and isolated workers’ state and the transformation of the bureaucracy into an all-powerful privileged caste constitute the most convincing refutation—not only theoretically, but this time practically—of the theory of socialism in one country.

“The USSR thus embodies terrific contradictions. But it still remains a degenerated workers’ state. Such is the social diagnosis. The political prognosis has an alternative character: either 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 to capitalism; or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism” (Leon Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International: The Transitional Program [New York: Labor Publications, 1981] pp. 32-33).

Trotsky noted the divisions that existed within the bureaucracy itself and allowed that there still remained a “very small minority” that reflected, albeit passively, the interests of the working class. But far more powerful and influential, he warned, were “the fascist, counterrevolutionary elements, growing uninterruptedly, [who] express with ever greater consistency the interests of world imperialism. These candidates for the role of compradors consider, not without reason, that the new ruling layer can ensure their positions of privilege only through the rejection of nationalization, collectivization and monopoly of foreign trade in the name of the assimilation of ‘Western civilization,’ i.e., capitalism” (Ibid., p. 33).

Trotsky then outlined the transitional demands with which a Soviet section of the Fourth International would seek to mobilize the working class for the revolutionary overthrow of the Stalinist regime: freedom for the trade unions and factory committees, the regeneration of Soviet democracy, the legalization of Soviet parties, the ouster of the bureaucracy from the soviets and the abolition of its privileges, the revision of the planned economy in the interests of workers and consumers, the reorganization of the collective farms in accordance with the will of the workers, and the replacement of the bureaucracy’s collaboration with world imperialism with the Marxist program of proletarian internationalism. The demands, he insisted, could be secured only through “the victorious revolutionary uprising of the oppressed masses,” and the task “of leading the Soviet masses to insurrection” fell to the Fourth International.

Little more than one year after the founding of the Fourth International, the signing of the Stalin-Hitler Pact, the eruption of the Second World War, and the Soviet invasion of Finland led to a sharp conflict within the Trotskyist movement over the validity of the analysis presented in The Revolution Betrayed. Prior to August 1939 the attitude of the liberal intelligentsia to the Stalinist regime was decidedly sympathetic. Even in the United States, the influence of the Stalinists was so great that the decision of the aged and celebrated philosopher John Dewey in the spring of 1937 to chair a committee created to investigate the Moscow Trial allegations against Leon Trotsky was an act of considerable physical, intellectual and moral courage.[9] Trotsky had justly, if somewhat sardonically, defined popular frontism as the alliance between bourgeois democracy and the GPU. The Stalinists supported Roosevelt and endorsed the democratic pretensions of American imperialism; in return, the liberal bourgeoisie and the middle class democrats looked the other way as the GPU slaughtered Old Bolsheviks in Moscow, tortured and murdered revolutionists in Spain, and kidnapped and decapitated Trotskyists in Paris. However, when Stalin, as Trotsky had predicted, suddenly signed his “nonaggression” pact with Hitler and later invaded Finland, liberal sentiment turned sharply against the Soviet Union. It was not the fresh betrayal of the working class that offended liberal and democratic public opinion; rather, it was that the Soviet Union had deserted the camp of democratic imperialism and, therefore, placed itself in opposition to the foreign policy of the United States.

The shift in public opinion produced a political echo inside the American section of the Fourth International, which was then known as the Socialist Workers Party. A faction formed by James Burnham, Max Shachtman and Martin Abern declared that in the wake of the Stalin-Hitler pact, it was no longer possible to consider the USSR a workers’ state, even one that was degenerated. Therefore, they demanded that the Fourth International renounce its unconditional defense of the Soviet Union in a war with a capitalist state.

Trotsky rejected the revision proposed by Burnham, Shachtman and Abern in the program of the Fourth International. Marxists, he pointed out, did not change their definition of the class nature of the Soviet state to avenge the most recent crimes of the bureaucracy.[10] They studied the economic structure of Soviet society and sought to determine whether or not the property forms created on the basis of the October Revolution still existed or whether they had been overthrown. If, despite the crimes of the bureaucracy, the state property forms and central planning still survived, the Soviet Union remained a workers’ state, albeit one that had undergone a horrifying degeneration. Of course, the regeneration of that state was impossible without a revolutionary insurrection which overthrew the bureaucracy. But such a revolution would be political rather than social in character; for, once it had overthrown the bureaucracy, the victorious proletariat would not be compelled to carry through a change in property relations as it had after the overthrow of the Provisional Government in October 1917. The revived soviets would implement far-reaching and spectacular changes in the direction of the economy: they would ruthlessly purge the state budget of bureaucratic extravagance and caprice, institute strict accounting of the national resources, and address the pressing social needs of the masses in the area of housing, working conditions, medical care, education, environmental safety, and consumer goods. But these essential changes, directed by the democratic organs of workers’ power, would take place on the basis of the existing nationalized property.

Considered from the standpoint of the economic structure of the Soviet state, a war with a capitalist state would place at risk something far more important than the heads of bureaucrats. Therefore, in spite of and in opposition to the Stalinists, the Fourth International unconditionally defended the degenerated workers’ state against imperialism precisely because a military defeat raised the danger of the complete destruction of the remaining social conquests of the October Revolution.

“We must formulate our slogans,” Trotsky wrote, “in such a way that the workers see clearly just what we are defending in the USSR (state property and planned economy), and against whom we are conducting a ruthless struggle (the parasitic bureaucracy and its Comintern). We must not lose sight for a single moment of the fact that the question of overthrowing the Soviet bureaucracy is for us subordinate to the question of preserving state property in the means of production in the USSR; that the question of preserving state property in the means of production in the USSR is subordinate for us to the question of the world proletarian revolution” (Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, p. 26).[11]

There was yet another and more profound aspect of the debate over the class nature of the Soviet state. In the analysis advanced by Trotsky, the Stalinist regime was an “abhorrent relapse in the process of transforming bourgeois society into a socialist society” (Ibid., p. 11). This relapse was the product of the specific conditions which confronted Soviet Russia in the aftermath of 1917: i.e., the legacy of backwardness, the imperialist encirclement, the defeats of the European proletariat and the protracted delay of the world socialist revolution. The Stalinist regime did not represent the bankruptcy of the socialist perspective in general, but of the revisionist program of “socialism in one country.” Moreover, Trotsky firmly believed that the resurgence of the international proletariat would regenerate the October Revolution and purge Soviet society of the Stalinist excrescences.

Though the leaders of the SWP minority did not realize this at the time, the logical development of their arguments led, as Trotsky immediately recognized, to the denial of the validity of the Marxist historical perspective.[12] If the Soviet regime represented the birth of a new form of exploitative society, in which the bureaucracy functioned as the bearer of new property forms, then the revolutionary role of the proletariat was either already exhausted or it had been an ideological illusion to start with. If that were the case, it was necessary to acknowledge that the decay of capitalism led not to socialism, but to an unforeseen “bureaucratic collectivism” or, as Burnham put it, “managerial society,” based on the exploitation of proletarianized slaves by a technocratic elite. In accordance with this view, Stalin’s soviet system, Hitler’s Third Reich, Mussolini’s Corporate State, and even Roosevelt’s New Deal were all forms of this emerging post-capitalist world order. The predicament of the proletariat, however tragic, was the outcome of its organic inability to play an independent historical role in the reorganization of society.

Trotsky rejected these morbid conclusions, which sought to deduce from the betrayals of the labor bureaucracies, Stalinist and Social Democratic, the nonrevolutionary character of the working class. If the proletariat was congenitally incapable of becoming a ruling class, then there existed no possibility of a progressive solution to the contradictions of capitalism. Ever more horrible wars conducted by totalitarian regimes were thus the destiny of mankind. In other words, human society had arrived at an impasse. Such conclusions, so widespread among the petty bourgeoisie, were, in Trotsky’s view, an expression of moral and intellectual prostration before the recent defeats of the working class and the force of triumphant social reaction. In the grip of the embittered cynicism which so frequently accompanies the shipwreck of old hopes, the dejected and disillusioned petty-bourgeois intellectuals could not find the strength to examine the political process, including the struggle of conflicting tendencies within the workers’ movement, which preceded the defeats. It was easier to condemn the defeated, silent and suffering proletariat than to continue the political struggle against the powerful bureaucracies, Social Democratic and Stalinist, whose policies had led to catastrophe.

That the development of revolutionary leadership in the working class had proved to be a task of extraordinary complexity was readily acknowledged by Trotsky. And yet he insisted that the history of the Russian Revolution had demonstrated that such a leadership could be created. Just as the Russian Marxists had based themselves, during the many periods of reaction and exile, on the historical possibilities first revealed in the Paris Commune of 1871 and then in the Russian Revolution of 1905, the Fourth International based its own revolutionary optimism on the world-shaking and history-making power revealed by the working class in 1917.

Trotsky lived only long enough to witness the opening stages of World War II. On August 21, 1940 he died in Mexico City of a blow to the head inflicted the day before by an agent of the GPU. Ibn months later, as Trotsky had foreseen, Hitler threw his armies against the Soviet Union. Rather than the alliance of totalitarian “bureaucratic collectivist” states predicted by Burnham, the most awesome and terrible military conflict the world had ever witnessed unfolded between imperialist Germany and the Soviet Union. The rapid collapse of the workers’ state anticipated by both Hitler and by many experts in the United States did not materialize. The war revealed the immense productive capacity of the Soviet economy (which soon proved to be far superior to that of the German) and the profound internal bond between the masses and the USSR despite the Stalinist regime.[13]

The Soviet armies won a spectacular victory over German imperialism; and with the collapse of the fascist regime in May 1945 the international prestige of the Soviet Union stood higher than ever. Moreover, the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe led gradually, despite the initial opposition of Stalin himself, to the assumption of power by the local Stalinist parties, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie and the statification of the productive forces.

Beneath the impact of these developments, there emerged a new challenge to the analysis presented by Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed. It argued that Trotsky had been too categorical in his denunciation of Stalin’s regime and had failed to appreciate its residual revolutionary potential. Despite the mistakes and even crimes committed by the Soviet bureaucracy, it was still executing, albeit in its own brutal and pragmatic way, the historical legacy of the October Revolution and the Bolshevik Party. This theoretical and political apologia for Stalinism was first advanced in a 1949 biography of Stalin written by Isaac Deutscher, an emigrant from Poland who had once been active in the International Left Opposition, but had broken with Trotsky over his decision to found the Fourth International.[14] Deutscher’s Stalin made it clear that his opposition to the founding of the Fourth International was not, as he had claimed at the time, the product of merely tactical differences over the feasibility of the project. It was rooted in an entirely opposed appraisal of the nature of the Stalinist regime.

Deutscher rejected Trotsky’s insistence on the counterrevolutionary character of the Stalinist regime. He believed neither that it represented an instrument of imperialism within the Soviet and international workers’ movement nor that the Stalinist bureaucracy was preparing the ground for the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union. Furthermore, Stalin was not, as Trotsky had proclaimed, the “gravedigger of the revolution.” Deutscher wrote that Stalin belonged “to the breed of the great revolutionary despots, to which Cromwell, Robespierre, and Napoleon belonged.... He is great, if his stature is measured by the scope of his endeavors, the sweep of his actions, the vastness of the stage he has dominated. He is revolutionary, not in the sense that he has remained true to all the original ideas of the revolution, but because he has put into practice a fundamentally new principle of social organization...” (Isaac Deutscher, Stalin: A Political Biography [New York: Oxford University Press, 1949], pp. 565-66).

In the context of the complex and difficult situation which confronted the Trotskyist movement in the aftermath of World War II, the views of Isaac Deutscher found a response and were programmatically formulated by Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel, who were then the principal leaders of the International Secretariat of the Fourth International in Europe. The orthodox Trotskyist perspective seemed to them highly problematic in the light of postwar developments. Was it not true, they asked, that the international prestige of the Soviet regime and the authority of the local Communist parties were, despite all their crimes and betrayals, greater than ever? Was it also not true that the overturns of capitalist property in Eastern Europe were the product not of proletarian revolutions modeled on 1917 but of the intervention of the Red Army? Did this not mean that the Soviet bureaucracy could still play a historically progressive and even revolutionary role? The outcome of these impressionist and skeptical speculations was a fundamental revision of the Trotskyist program that had been developed on the basis of The Revolution Betrayed. They decided that (1) Soviet bureaucracy was not an agency of imperialism within the workers’ movement, but its revolutionary adversary; (2) the Stalinist regime was not a historical regression produced by the defeats of the international proletariat, but a necessary and legitimate form of the development of socialism; and (3) the East European regimes, created under the aegis of the Soviet bureaucracy, were the historical prototypes of “deformed workers’ states” through which socialism was to be realized in the course of several centuries.

While the practical political conclusions drawn by Pablo and Mandel were, on the surface, quite different from those formulated a decade earlier by Burnham and Shachtman, their underlying historical perspective was, on a more profound level, strikingly similar. Both theories rejected the independent and creative historical role attributed by Marxism to the working class. While advancing different conceptions of the character of “post-capitalist” society—totalitarian-collectivist “managerial societies” (Burnham-Shachtman) or socialist “deformed workers’ states” (Pablo-Mandel)—they agreed that the decisive instrument of the historical transformation was the bureaucratic elite.

In the formulation of their perspectives, Pablo and Mandel made the mistake of drawing sweeping theoretical generalizations from specific political events which they artificially detached from their international and historical context. Thus, they attributed great progressive significance to the Stalinists’ expropriation of bourgeois property in Eastern Europe, while forgetfully, or perhaps conveniently, ignoring the role played by the Kremlin in sabotaging the revolutionary movement of the Western European proletariat in the closing period and immediate aftermath of World War II. They overlooked the fact that the changes in property relations carried out bureaucratically in Eastern Europe did not substantially challenge and, in many respects, fortified the political accords agreed upon by the Kremlin and the imperialists at Yalta and Potsdam. More significantly, the bureaucratic expropriation of the bourgeoisie in territories occupied by the Soviet Army was accompanied by the ruthless suppression of all independent and revolutionary political activity of the working class.

Considered solely within the framework of Eastern European conditions—that is, abstracted from the international and historical context—the measures undertaken at the instigation of the Kremlin were of a progressive character. But the fact that the regimes erected by the Stalinists in Eastern Europe following World War II were undoubtedly superior to the military-fascist regimes of Horthy in Hungary, Pilsudski in Poland, and Antonescu in Romania, not to mention those of the other assorted Balkan monarchs, did not mean that they represented either a legitimate historical alternative to genuine proletarian revolutions or a new point of departure in the social development of mankind. Indeed, to the extent that the postwar policies of the Kremlin undermined the revolutionary initiative of the working class internationally and thereby contributed to the stabilization of the world capitalist order, the balance sheet of events in Eastern Europe was decidedly negative.

In a brilliant anticipation of the postwar situation, Trotsky had made precisely this point in late 1939 when he assessed the political implications of the expropriations carried out in the territory occupied by the Soviet army following the invasion of Poland:

“In order to gain the possibility of occupying Poland through a military alliance with Hitler, the Kremlin for a long time deceived and continues to deceive the masses in the USSR and in the whole world, and has thereby brought about the complete disorganization of the ranks of its own Communist International. The primary political criterion for us is not the transformation of property relations in this or another area, however important these may be in themselves, but rather the change in the consciousness and organization of the world proletariat, the raising of their capacity for defending former conquests and accomplishing new ones. From this one, and the only decisive standpoint, the politics of Moscow, taken as a whole, completely retains its reactionary character and remains the chief obstacle on the road to the world revolution....

“The statification of the means of production is, as we said, a progressive measure. But its progressiveness is relative; its specific weight depends on the sum-total of all the other factors. Thus, we must first and foremost establish that the extension of the territory dominated by bureaucratic autocracy and parasitism, cloaked by ‘socialist’ measures, can augment the prestige of the Kremlin, engender illusions concerning the possibility of replacing the proletarian revolution by bureaucratic maneuvers, and so on. This evil by far outweighs the progressive content of Stalinist reforms in Poland. In order that nationalized property in the occupied areas, as well as in the USSR, becomes a basis for genuinely progressive, that is to say socialist development, it is necessary to overthrow the Moscow bureaucracy. Our program retains, consequently, all its validity” (Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, pp. 23-24).

When Trotsky wrote those lines he did not expect that the extension of bureaucratic autocracy and parasitism would engender illusions about the “progressive” nature of Stalinism within the leadership of the Fourth International. “Objective social reality,” Pablo and Mandel wrote in the early 1950s, “consists essentially of the capitalist regime and the Stalinist world”—thereby dismissing the working class and its class struggle as significant, let alone independent and decisive, factors in the historical process. This view of social reality was incompatible with the conception that the future of mankind depended upon the construction of a mass revolutionary party in the working class. Pablo and Mandel reduced the political role of the Trotskyist movement to that of an informal behind-the-scenes adviser to the Stalinist parties in the creation of deformed workers’ states. On the basis of this incredible perspective—which found its most bizarre expression in the apocalyptic theory that socialism would arise out of a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States—Pablo and Mandel, abusing the political authority they exercised inside the International Secretariat, began to systematically dismantle the existing sections of the Fourth International. For example, when the leadership of the French section refused to carry out IS instructions to liquidate the organization into the French Communist Party, Pablo and Mandel peremptorily expelled the section’s majority from the Fourth International.

Pablo and Mandel found further justification for their revisions of the Trotskyist program and their proposed liquidation of the Fourth International in the political turmoil within the Kremlin following the death of Stalin in March 1953. Not only did they insist that the Soviet bureaucracy was preparing to carry through its “war-revolution” against world imperialism; they also argued that it had initiated a process of progressive self-reform. In the course of carrying through the historic mission attributed to it by Pablo-Mandel, the bureaucracy, led by reform-minded elements like Khrushchev or Mikoyan, would purge itself of its specifically Stalinist features and be reborn as a Bolshevik organization! This fantastic conception, like all the other ideas hatched by the Pablo-Mandel faction, was completely alien to the scientific analysis of the Stalinist regime presented by Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed. For Trotsky, the essence of Stalinism did not consist in the specific methods of political rule employed by the bureaucracy; the social character of the bureaucracy as a caste whose privileges depended upon its monopolization of political power determined the specific methods which it employed to maintain that monopoly. Thus, for the bureaucracy to reform itself in a fundamental manner—that is, change its own social essence and cease being a privileged caste—was politically inconceivable. In words that brooked no misinterpretation, except by those who did not agree with what they read, Trotsky wrote: “All indications agree that the further course of development must inevitably lead to a clash between the culturally developed forces of the people and the bureaucratic oligarchy. There is no peaceful escape from this crisis. No devil ever yet voluntarily cut off his own claws. The Soviet bureaucracy will not give up its positions without a fight. The development leads obviously to the road of revolution” (p. 245).

As the political implications of the Pablo-Mandel revisions became increasingly clear, the orthodox Trotskyists inside the Fourth International formed the International Committee to lead the struggle against the International Secretariat’s capitulation to Stalinism. The struggle was initiated by James P. Cannon, the founder of the Trotskyist movement in the United States. In an “Open Letter to the World Trotskyist Movement,” written in November 1953, Cannon reasserted the basic principles upon which Trotsky had founded the Fourth International. “From its inception,” Cannon reminded the cadre of the world movement, “the Fourth International set as one of its major tasks the revolutionary overthrow of Stalinism inside and outside the USSR.” He insisted that the main obstacle to the organization of the working class on the basis of a genuine revolutionary program remained Stalinism, “which attracts workers through exploiting the prestige of the October 1917 Revolution in Russia, only later, as it betrays their confidence, to hurl them either into the arms of the Social Democracy, into apathy, or back into illusions in capitalism” (C. Slaughter, ed., Trotskyism Versus Revisionism: A Documentary History [London: New Park Publications, 1974], vol. 1, p. 300).

Basing themselves entirely on the theoretical conceptions elaborated in The Revolution Betrayed 17 years earlier, the orthodox Trotskyists who founded the International Committee succeeded in producing an analysis of Stalinism in the aftermath of World War II and the death of Stalin whose remarkable prescience can best be appreciated in the light of recent developments. They stressed that the role of the Soviet bureaucracy at the close of the Second World War was fundamentally reactionary. “For example,” they explained, “the Kremlin’s whole postwar policy toward Germany, the key country in Europe (its participation in its division, its regime over East Germany, its diplomatic maneuvers regarding West Germany), aid capitalist reaction and facilitate the imperialist objectives.”

In opposition to the Pabloite glorification of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe as the political prototypes of a new world order of bureaucratically-created socialism, the orthodox Trotskyists declared that these hated regimes were not historically viable and would themselves fall victim to the revolutionary movement of the working class. They stated that the June 1953 uprising of the East German workers against the Stalinist regime not only demonstrated the irreconcilable conflict between the parasitic bureaucracy and the proletariat, but also revealed the shape of future events throughout Eastern Europe and within the USSR itself. “The Trotskyists,” they wrote, “base their revolutionary perspectives upon the maturing contradictions between the bureaucratic setup and the working masses which will lead the latter toward a forthright challenge to the totalitarian dictatorship. The East German events prefigure the developments within the Soviet Union in this respect.”

Historical events have vindicated the political and theoretical struggle waged by the International Committee against the revisions of Trotskyism by the Pablo-Mandel tendency. Indeed, the most recent developments have dealt the most savage blows to the Pablo-Mandel revisionists. The disintegration of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe constitutes the most eloquent refutation of the revisionist claim that the “deformed workers’ states” represented the necessary transitional form to socialism. Rather than spreading throughout the world and lasting for centuries, the Stalinist regimes lasted barely four decades.[15]

But history has not been content to merely refute Mandel. With his own clumsy assistance, it has succeeded in humiliating him. As recently as 1988, Mandel brought nearly 40 years of pro-Stalinist apologetics to a pathetic climax by authoring an enthusiastic tribute to Mikhail Gorbachev entitled Beyond Perestroika. Praising Gorbachev as one of the greatest political leaders of the twentieth century, Mandel denounced “the ridiculous theory that the Soviet leader is trying to reintroduce capitalism into the Soviet Union” (Ernest Mandel, Beyond Perestroika [New York: Verso, 1988], p. 129). And in a declaration of political solidarity with the policies of the Kremlin, Mandel asserted that “if Gorbachev’s reforms are allowed to continue and the impetus is not lost or reversed: then perestroika will begin to deliver fruits after a period of time and the living standards of the people will improve. In such a case, the Gorbachev experience will succeed” (Ibid., p. xv).

It is hardly necessary to answer Mandel’s defense of Gorbachev against the charge that he is restoring capitalism. As we have already pointed out, the “ridiculous theory” that the policies of the Soviet bureaucracy lead inexorably toward the restoration of capitalism was formulated by Leon Trotsky. But since the accession of Gorbachev to power, this analysis is not merely finding a theoretical verification in the form of a general historical tendency. The deliberate and systematic destruction of the nationalized property and central planning foundations of the Soviet economy has already brought the USSR to the brink of complete economic collapse. The closest advisers of Mikhail Gorbachev openly acknowledge their admiration for the theories of Milton Friedman and the policies of Margaret Thatcher. New Soviet property laws have been drafted under the supervision of bourgeois professors; and the economic “shock therapies” being devised by the Gorbachev regime are reviewed and corrected by the International Monetary Fund. The integration of the Soviet Union into the economic and political structure of world imperialism is far advanced. Thus, all the counterrevolutionary implications of Stalinism are being practically realized in Gorbachev’s perestroika.

As these lines are being written and the final preparations for the publication of this new edition of The Revolution Betrayed are being made, the international press is dominated by the most recent developments in Moscow, where the “democratic” Congress of People’s Deputies is granting Gorbachev virtually unlimited powers to deal with the crisis in the Soviet Union. Only months after receiving from the bourgeoisie one of its most prestigious accolades, the Nobel peace laureate is angrily shaking a mailed fist at the rebellious populace and threatening to restore “law and order.” The sudden collapse of the democratic pretensions of glasnost vindicates yet another prediction made by Trotsky: that capitalism cannot be restored peacefully and democratically in the Soviet Union, and, conversely, that the restoration of genuine, i.e., soviet democracy in the USSR is possible only on the basis of an antibureaucratic political revolution. Or, as Trotsky stated so succinctly, “on the road to capitalism the counterrevolution would have to break the resistance of the workers; on the road to socialism the workers would have to overthrow the bureaucracy.”


Books have their destiny and that of The Revolution Betrayed has been bound up with the fate of the principles and ideals it espoused. Within the Soviet Union and the other countries ruled by Stalinist parties, it was, like all the other writings of Trotsky, proscribed. Stalin did not attempt to answer The Revolution Betrayed with arguments; he sent a murderer to Mexico instead. Even after the death of Stalin, the so-called thaw never extended to Trotsky. It was not enough for the Stalinists to assassinate Trotsky; they sought to kill his ideas as well. Generations of Soviet students were given textbooks which systematically falsified the most basic facts about Trotsky’s life and grotesquely distorted his political ideas. As late as November 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev delivered a televised speech on the seventieth anniversary of the revolution in which he did not shrink from lying shamelessly about Trotsky’s role in 1917 and the early years of the Soviet state. The suppression of Trotsky’s writings was part of the wholesale destruction of the massive edifice of Marxist political culture that had once thrived within the Soviet working class and socialist intelligentsia. If in the first stages of the ongoing political disintegration of the Stalinist regime the opposition has been dominated by the anticommunist loudmouths, it is only because the great legacy of the Marxist struggle against the bureaucracy remains to this day—but, we are confident, not for much longer—largely unknown to the Soviet people. If the correspondence from Soviet workers and intellectuals that now streams into the offices of the International Committee of the Fourth International on an almost daily basis can be taken as an indication of the political renaissance of the Soviet masses from the Stalinist Dark Ages, then there can be no doubt that The Revolution Betrayed is destined to play a gigantic role in the Soviet revolution’s resurgence.

But the impact of The Revolution Betrayed will be felt far beyond the boundaries of the USSR. For decades the highly-skilled manufacturers of public opinion in the United States have sought, not without success, to quarantine the working class and critical elements among the intelligentsia from Marxism. Their success depended less upon direct repression than it did upon the activities of the Kremlin bureaucracy and its political agents. It is not simply a misunderstanding that accounts for the perennial description of the Stalinist gangsters as “Marxists” and “communists” in the bourgeois mass media. Of all the services rendered by Stalinism to world imperialism, none has been more important than its discrediting of socialism in the eyes of broad sections of the working class. The falsification and degradation of Marxism by the Stalinists has played the decisive role in the intellectual and political impoverishment of the workers’ movement in the capitalist countries, above all in the centers of world imperialism.

But the worsening crisis of the world capitalist order, combined with the impact of the political convulsions in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China, will lead inevitably to a renewed interest in the Marxist classics. The two great lies of the post-World War II era—that Stalinism represents socialism and that capitalism, at least in its metropolitan centers, is compatible with peace and democracy—are being shattered by the force of events. Neither the pragmatic bourgeois nostrums broadcast by the mass media nor the insipid existential fatalism cultivated in the universities are capable of satisfying the demands of the working masses for a way out of the social catastrophe to which capitalism is leading.

The principles of Leon Trotsky and the Fourth International, so brilliantly expounded in this volume, are destined to profoundly influence the future course of world history.

David North

Detroit, Michigan

December 29, 1990


James Burnham (1905-1987), who eventually achieved a degree of political renown in the United States as an ideological leader of the American right wing and advocate of a “preemptive” nuclear war against the Soviet Union, was a socialist in the 1930s and, during the latter half of that decade, a leading member of the Trotskyist movement. As a professor of philosophy at New York University, his views on logic were greatly influenced by Sidney Hook. For a time Burnham attempted to reconcile his political sympathy for the views of Trotsky with his increasingly hostile attitude toward the philosophical validity of dialectical materialism. But in May 1940, after a protracted polemical struggle inside the Socialist Workers Party, Burnham announced his break with Marxism. In 1942, he published The Managerial Revolution, a volume which was greatly acclaimed even though its thesis was plagiarized from The Bureaucratization of the World, a work written by Bruno Rizzi a decade earlier. Bumham moved rapidly to the extreme right and soon became a political adviser of William Buckley’s National Review. Shortly before his death, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan. Burnham’s political evolution vindicated the warning which he received from Trotsky during the polemic of 1939-40: “Anyone acquainted with the history of the struggles of tendencies within workers’ parties knows that desertions to the camp of opportunism and even to the camp of bourgeois reaction began not infrequently with rejection of the dialectic.”


There have been countless attempts to counterpose Luxemburg to the Bolsheviks, tearing her critical observations out of their proper political and historical context. Permit us, by way of tribute to the memory of this great revolutionist, to recall her final judgment on the historical significance of Bolshevism:

“What is in order is to distinguish the essential from the non-essential, the kernel from the accidental excrescences in the policies of the Bolsheviks. In the present period, when we face decisive final struggles in all the world, the most important problem of socialism was and is the burning question of our time. It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: ‘I have dared!’

“This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realization of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labor in the entire world. In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to ‘Bolshevism’” (Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, p. 80)


That the choice confronting Russia in 1917 was between a proletarian revolution and a liberal democratic regime modeled on Britain, France or the United States is a political fantasy. Had the Bolsheviks failed to seize power in October, the events of 1917 would have in all likelihood concluded with a successful replay of the counterrevolution which General Kornilov had attempted in August. The survival of capitalism would have been guaranteed, at least for a period, on the basis of a military dictatorship that would have smashed the workers’ movement. Not only the socialist revolution but the democratic struggle would have been aborted. Russia would have been picked apart by the imperialist powers upon the conclusion of the world war and reduced to a state of semicolonial dependency. Its level of economic, social and cultural development would today resemble that of India, where hundreds of millions of peasants remain illiterate and exist on the brink of starvation. We might add that if Lenin and Trotsky had behaved in 1917 as “respectable” social democrats, collaborated with the Provisional Government, cleared the way for Kornilov’s victory and then perished in a fascist debacle, liberal historians today would no doubt write of them as sympathetically as they do of Salvador Allende.


The Soviet historian Roy Medvedev cites evidence that suggests that Lenin’s fatal stroke was brought on by his anguish over the increasingly ferocious attacks being directed against Trotsky inside the party.

“Krupskaya [Lenin’s widow] tells us,” Medvedev writes, “that on 19 and 20 January 1924 she read out to Lenin the resolutions of the Thirteenth Party Conference which had just been published, summing up the results of the debate with Trotsky. Listening to the resolutions—so harshly formulated and unjust in their conclusions—Lenin again became intensely agitated. Hoping that it would have a calming effect, Krupskaya told him that the resolutions had been approved unanimously by the Party Conference. However, this was hardly reassuring for Lenin, whose worst fears as expressed in his Testament were beginning to come true. In the event, it was on the next day, and in a state of extreme distress, that Lenin died” (On Stalin and Stalinism [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979], p. 32).


Comintern was the name by which the Third, or Communist, International was commonly known.


For example, a young Chinese student who was won to Trotsky’s views while studying in Moscow described the impact of an open letter to the Soviet workers that Trotsky wrote in 1929 to refute the slanders of the regime: “His open letter was widely circulated among the masses, and was warmly received as it was brilliantly written and full of passion. I translated it into Chinese, and although it lost much of its original fire and beauty in the process, it still greatly charmed and moved our Chinese comrades, some of whom began to cry as they read it” (Wang Fan-hsi, Chinese Revolutionary [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980], p. 93).


Commenting on this interview, Trotsky suggested that if Stalin had been able to speak completely openly, without having to take into account the impact of his words among the more conscious sections of the international working class, he might have said: “Tn the eyes of Lenin the League of Nations was an organization for the bloody suppression of the toilers. But we see in it—an instrument of peace. Lenin spoke of the inevitability of revolutionary wars. But we consider the export of revolution—nonsense. Lenin branded the alliance between the proletariat and the national bourgeoisie as a betrayal. But we are doing all in our power to drive the French proletariat onto this road. Lenin lashed the slogan of disarmament under capitalism as an infamous swindle of the toilers. But we have built our entire policy upon this slogan. Your comical misunderstanding’—that is how Stalin could have concluded—‘consists of the fact that you take us for the continuators of Bolshevism, whereas we are its gravediggers’” (Leon Trotsky, Writings of Leon Trotsky [1935-36] [New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970] p. 277).


With Trotsky interned and unable to reply to his accusers, the responsibility for exposing the Moscow Trials fell to his son, Leon Sedov. Within a few weeks, he succeeded in publishing The Red Book on the Moscow Trials, which tore the indictment to shreds. Later, after Sedov’s death in February 1938 at the hands of Stalinist assassins, Trotsky recalled his joy as he read through a copy of The Red Book: “What a priceless gift to us, under these conditions, was Leon’s book, the first crushing reply to the Kremlin falsifiers. The first few pages, I recall, seemed to me pale. That was because they only restated a political appraisal, which had already been made, of the general condition of the USSR. But from the moment the author undertook an independent analysis of the trial, I became completely engrossed. Each succeeding chapter seemed to me better than the last. ‘Good boy, Levusyatka!’ my wife and I said. “We have a defender!’” (Leon Trotsky, Leon Sedov: Son, Friend, Fighter [New York: Labor Publications, 1977], pp. 21-22).


The Dewey Commission travelled to Coyoacan to question Leon Trotsky, who made all his files available for inspection and submitted to exhaustive examination that spanned more than a week. In December 1937 the Dewey Commission issued its report. It found Trotsky not guilty and condemned the Moscow Trials as a frame-up.


“Those who seek nowadays,” Trotsky wrote, “to prove that the Soviet-German pact changes our appraisal of the Soviet state take their stand, in essence, on the position of the Comintern—to put it more correctly, on yesterday’s position of the Comintern. According to this logic, the historical mission of the workers’ state is the struggle for imperialist democracy. The “betrayal’ of the democracies in favor of fascism divests the USSR of its being considered a workers’ state. In point of fact, the signing of the treaty with Hitler supplies only an extra gauge with which to measure the degree of degeneration of the Soviet bureaucracy and its contempt for the international working class, including the Comintern, but it does not provide any basis whatsoever for a reevaluation of the sociological appraisal of the USSR” (Leon Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism [London: New Park, 1975], pp. 3-4).


The further development of the war vindicated Trotsky’s position. The sudden collapse of the Stalin-Hitler pact and the Nazi invasion of June 1941 called into question the very survival of the Soviet Union. The Fourth International was not caught unprepared. Without retracting or modifying its irreconcilable hostility to the Stalinist bureaucracy, it called upon the working class to unconditionally defend the USSR against the fascist spearhead of world imperialism.


The leaders of the minority furiously objected to Trotsky’s characterization of their views as anti-Marxist. Burnham, in the course of his increasingly bitter polemic with Trotsky, insisted that he remained a firm partisan of Marxist politics, despite his denial of the philosophical legitimacy of dialectical materialism. However, in May 1940, barely six weeks after his break from the SWP, Burnham issued a statement in which he declared his rejection of Marxism and socialism. Shachtman’s political evolution to the right was a more protracted process; but he ended his days as a supporter of the Democratic Party and of the US intervention in Vietnam.


In 1934. seven years before the outbreak of war between the USSR and Germany, Trotsky offered this assessment of prospects of war and Soviet military strength:

“In order to appraise the strength of the Red Army, it is not in the least necessary to idealize things as they are. It is still too soon, to say the least, to speak about the prosperity of the peoples of the Soviet Union. There still are too much want, misery and injustice and, consequently, dissatisfaction. But the notion that the Soviet national masses tend to await assistance from the armies of the Mikado or Hitler cannot be regarded as anything except delirium. Despite all the difficulties of the transitional regime, the political and moral ties between the peoples of the USSR are sufficiently strong; at any rate, they are even stronger than those among her probable enemies. What has been said above does not at all imply that a war—even a victorious war—would be in the interests of the Soviet Union. On the contrary, it would throw her far back. But the preservation of peace depends, at least, on two sides. Facts must be taken as they are: not only is war not excluded but it is also almost inevitable. He who is able and willing to read the books of history will understand beforehand that should the Russian Revolution, which has continued ebbing and flowing for almost 30 years—since 1905—be forced to direct its stream into the channel of war, it will unleash a terrific and overwhelming force” (Leon Trotsky, Writings of Leon Trotsky [1933-34] [New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972], pp. 258-59).


In the concluding volume of his later biography of Trotsky, Deutscher acknowledged that he had authored the arguments against the founding of the Fourth International advanced by two Polish delegates at the 1938 conference. [See The Prophet Outcast, Vintage, p. 421.]


We might add that the events in Eastern Europe have been a no less crushing refutation of the sundry “new class” and “state capitalist” theories. If anything has been made manifestly clear by the collapse of the Stalinist regimes, it is that they represented neither a specific form of state-directed capitalism nor a new form of exploitative society based on historically unique forms of property worked out by the bureaucracy.

On the basis of the various “state capitalist” theories, it is impossible to explain the changes in property relations now being made in Eastern Europe. After the liquidation of the East German state, its economic structure could not simply be merged and integrated into that of West Germany. The reintroduction of capitalism is being carried out on the basis of a systematic destruction of the state property.

It is also clear that the rule of the bureaucracy was not rooted in forms of property that represented its own independent historical mission as a new ruling class. Once they were deprived of the support of the armed forces of the Soviet bureaucracy, the East European regimes lacked all independent means of sustaining their rule. Moreover, the opportunist, parasitic and, to a large extent, hostile relationship of the bureaucracy to the old nationalized property relations has been demonstrated by the speed with which large sections of the bureaucratic elite have embraced the capitalist market. No ruling class in history has ever accepted with such alacrity the destruction of the property forms and social relations upon which its own existence depended.