by Alan Woods
The Revolution Betrayed is one of the most important Marxist texts of all time. It is the only serious Marxist analysis of what happened to the Russian Revolution after the death of Lenin. Without a thorough knowledge of this work, it is impossible to understand the reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the events of the last ten years in Russia and on a world scale.
For Marxists, the October Revolution of 1917 was the greatest single event in human history. If we exclude the brief but glorious episode of the Paris Commune, for the first time the working class succeeded in overthrowing its oppressors and at least began the task of the socialist transformation of society.
The October Revolution has been completely justified by history. As Trotsky points out in The Revolution Betrayed, for the first time the viability of socialism was demonstrated, not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, coal, electricity and cement. The nationalised planned economy established by the October Revolution succeeded in a remarkably short time in transforming an economy as backward as Pakistan today into the second most powerful nation on earth.
However, the Revolution took place, not in an advanced capitalist country as Marx had expected, but on the basis of the most frightful backwardness. To give an approximate idea of the conditions that confronted the Bolsheviks, in just one year, 1920, six million people starved to death in Soviet Russia.
Marx and Engels explained long ago that socialism - a classless society - requires material conditions in order to exist. The starting point of socialism must be a higher point of development of the productive forces than the most advanced capitalist society (the USA for instance). Only on the basis of a highly developed industry, agriculture, science and technology, is it possible to guarantee the conditions for the free development of human beings, starting with a drastic reduction in the working day: the prior condition for the participation of the working class in the democratic control and administration of society.
Engels long ago explained that in any society in which art, science and government is the monopoly of a minority, that minority will use and abuse its position in its own interests. Lenin was quick to see the danger of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Revolution in conditions of general backwardness. In State and Revolution, written in 1917, he worked out the basic conditions - not for socialism or communism - but for the first period after the Revolution, the transitional period between capitalism and socialism. These were:
1) Free and democratic elections and the right of recall for all officials.
2) No official to receive a wage higher than a skilled worker.
3) No standing army but the armed people.
4) Gradually, all the tasks of running the state to be carried out in turn by the workers: when everybody is a "bureaucrat" in turn, nobody is a bureaucrat.
This is a finished programme of workers' democracy. It is directly aimed against the danger of bureaucracy. This in turn formed the basis of the 1919 Party Programme. In other words, contrary to the calumnies of the enemies of socialism, Soviet Russia in the time of Lenin and Trotsky was the most democratic regime in history.
However, the regime of soviet workers' democracy established by the October Revolution did not survive. By the early 1930s, all the above points had been abolished. Under Stalin, the workers' state suffered a process of bureaucratic degeneration which ended in the establishment of a monstrous totalitarian regime and the physical annihilation of the Leninist Party. The decisive factor in the Stalinist political counter-revolution in Russia was the isolation of the Revolution in a backward country. The way in which this political counter-revolution took place was explained by Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed.
The collapse of the USSR predicted
In 1936, the phenomenon of Stalinism was entirely new and unexpected. It was not explained or even anticipated in the classical texts of Marx and Engels. In his last writings, Lenin expressed his concern about the rise of bureaucracy in the Soviet state, which he warned could destroy the regime of October. But Lenin thought that the prolonged isolation of the Russian workers' state would inevitably lead to capitalist restoration. This eventually occurred, but after a period of seven decades, during which the Soviet workers lost political power and the democratic regime established by the Bolsheviks in 1917 was transformed into a monstrous bureaucratic and totalitarian caricature. Only the nationalised property forms and planned economy established by the revolution remained.
In The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky provided a brilliant and profound analysis of Stalinism from the Marxist standpoint. His analysis has never been improved upon, let alone superseded. With a delay of 60 years, it has been completely vindicated by history. Trotsky warned that the Bureaucracy was placing the nationalised planned economy and the Soviet Union in danger. In reply, he was subjected to an unparalleled campaign of vilification by the "friends of the Soviet Union". Today, all those so-called Communists and fellow travellers who sang the praises of Stalin and ridiculed Trotsky, hang their heads. Most of them have deserted the camp of Communism and Socialism altogether. The few that remain have nothing to say about what has happened to the Soviet Union. Not one of them can provide a Marxist analysis of the collapse of the USSR. But this is precisely what the new generation (and the best of the old generation also) are insistently demanding. They will find no answer to their questions from their leaders. But in the pages of The Revolution Betrayed they will find that Trotsky not only predicted the outcome sixty years in advance, but analyses it and explains it from a Marxist standpoint.
Bureaucracy undermined the Soviet economy
Nowadays the enemies of socialism try to maintain that the collapse of the USSR was the result of the failure of the nationalised planned economy, and that the latter is inseparable from a bureaucratic regime. This argument was answered by Trotsky in advance in The Revolution Betrayed. He explains that a nationalised planned economy needs democracy as the human body needs oxygen.
In The Revolution Betrayed, with the aid of facts, figures and statistics, Trotsky shows how Stalinism, on the basis of a nationalised planned economy, created a colossal productive potential, but was unable to use it because of its inherent contradictions. The needs of the nationalised planned economy were in complete contradiction to the bureaucratic regime. This was always the case. Even in the period of the first Five-Year Plans, when it still played a relatively progressive role in developing the means of production, the Bureaucracy was responsible for colossal waste. Trotsky said that they developed the means of production, but at three times the cost of capitalism. This contradiction did not disappear with the development of the economy, but, on the contrary, grew ever more unbearable until eventually the system broke down completely.
The productive forces of Russia were artificially constrained by the bureaucratic system. They had developed to a tremendous extent thanks to the nationalised planned economy, but were effectively sabotaged by the bureaucracy. The only way the problem could have been solved was through the democratic control and administration of the working class, as Lenin had intended. This could have been achieved on the basis of the advanced economy that existed in the 1980s. But the bureaucracy had no intention of going down that road. The movement towards capitalism did not arise from any economic necessity, but out of fear of the working class, and as a way to safeguard the power and privilege of the ruling caste.
Role of the 'Communist Party'
What strikes one is the brilliant way in which Trotsky anticipated the main lines of what is taking place in Russia at the present time. However, in certain respects, events have unfolded differently to what he expected. In the 1930s Trotsky was convinced that a capitalist counterrevolution could only come about as a result of civil war. He wrote: "The October Revolution has been betrayed by the ruling stratum, but not yet overthrown. It has a great power of resistance, coinciding with the established property relations, with the living force of the proletariat, the consciousness of its best elements, the impasse of world capitalism, and the inevitability of world revolution." (Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 252.)
And again: "If - to adopt a second hypothesis - a bourgeois party were to overthrow the ruling Soviet caste, it would find no small number of ready servants among the present bureaucrats, administrators, technicians, directors, party secretaries and privileged upper circles in general. A purgation of the state apparatus would, of course, be necessary in this case too. But a bourgeois restoration would probably have to clean out fewer people than a revolutionary party. The chief task of the new power would be to restore private property in the means of production. First of all, it would be necessary to create conditions for the development of strong farmers from the weak farms and for converting the strong collectives into producers' co-operatives of the bourgeois type - into agricultural stock companies. In the sphere of industry, denationalisation would begin with the light industries and those producing food. The planning principle would be converted for the transitional period into a series of compromises between the state power and individual "corporations" - potential proprietors, that is, among the Soviet captains of industry, the émi gré former proprietors and foreign capitalists. Notwithstanding that the Soviet bureaucracy has gone far toward preparing a bourgeois restoration, the new regime would have to introduce in the matter of forms of property and methods of industry not a reform, but a social revolution." (Ibid., p. 253.)
It is not the first time in history that a profound social transformation has occurred without civil war. There have been times when a given regime has so exhausted itself that it fell without a fight, like a rotten apple. One example is what occurred in Hungary in 1919 when the bourgeois government of Count Karolyi collapsed and handed power to the Communist Party. Something similar happened in Eastern Europe in 1989. The Stalinist regimes were so demoralised that they gave up without a fight. In Poland Jaruzelski just handed over the power to the opposition. This did not occur without the intervention of the masses, who, incidentally, did not want a capitalist restoration. But in the absence of the subjective factor, the pro-capitalist elements were able to fill the vacuum and derail the movement on capitalist lines. In Poland and Hungary this was done with the aid of the CP leaders.
The decisive factor has been the conduct of the so-called Communist Parties. In reality, the CPSU was not a Communist Party at all, but a bureaucratic club, with a membership of millions. It was an extension of the state, composed mainly of careerists and stooges, aimed at controlling the working class and subordinating it to the ruling caste. Possession of a Party card was not, as in Lenin's day, a pledge to a life of sacrifice and struggle for the cause of the working class, but a passport for a career. For every honest worker who joined the Party, there were a hundred careerists, toadies, informers and strike-breakers. The role of a Party member was not to defend the working class, but to defend the Bureaucracy against the working class.
In the moment of truth, these leaders went over to capitalism with the same ease with which a man passes from a second class to a first class compartment on a train. Overnight, the "Communist" Party collapsed like a pack of cards. When it became clear that the days of the Soviet Union were numbered, the first to jump from the sinking ship and embrace capitalism were the leaders of the "Communist Party", who rapidly transformed themselves into businessmen and rouble billionaires. Compared to this, the betrayal of the leaders of the Social Democracy in 1914 was child's play.
This colossal betrayal cannot be understood if one accepts the idea that what existed in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was "real socialism", as the CP leaders maintained for decades. The collapse of the Soviet Union was in reality the result of decades of bureaucratic degeneration. At a time when the Moscow bureaucracy was boasting about "building socialism" the USSR was in fact moving away from socialism. And, as Trotsky predicted in 1936, the ruling caste of officials would not be satisfied with their privileges and high salaries, but would want to secure their position and that of their children, by turning state property into private property. This was inevitable, unless the working class overthrew the bureaucracy and returned to the Leninist policy of workers' democracy and internationalism. In the end, it was exactly what happened.
The old CPSU collapsed overnight. Out of the 20 million members that were in it, only a mere 500,000 remained to form the CPRF. But this party also had nothing in common with communism except the name. Having been separated from the state, the leaders of the CPRF presented a semi-opposition to Yeltsin and the openly bourgeois wing. But in practice, they accepted capitalism and the market, and their opposition had a purely ritual and token character. The same can be said of the leaders of the official trade unions (the FNPR). Thus, the colossal anger, bitterness and frustration of the masses found no organised expression. Lacking the necessary vehicle to express itself, the discontent of the masses was dissipated, like steam without a piston-box.
It is a crushing comment on the degeneracy of the Stalinist ruling caste that, 80 years after October, they preferred to push the Soviet Union back to capitalist barbarism rather than hand power back to the working class. This was a development which the author of the present work had thought ruled out. And indeed for a whole period it was ruled out. As long as the productive forces in the USSR continued to develop, the pro-capitalist tendency was insignificant. But the impasse of Stalinism transformed the situation completely.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and of the so-called Communist Party, after decades of Stalinist rule, caused tremendous confusion and disorientation. Having been fed on a diet of lies and falsification for decades, lies manufactured by a gigantic propaganda machine that taught people to believe that socialism and communism had found their highest expression in a totalitarian regime, dominated by a corrupt and degenerate caste of bureaucrats, the consciousness of the masses had been thrown far back. When the regime finally collapsed - as Trotsky had brilliantly predicted in the pages of The Revolution Betrayed - the masses were caught by surprise.
Trotsky had pointed out that whereas revolution is the locomotive of history, reactionary regimes - especially totalitarian regimes such as Stalinism - act as a colossal brake on human consciousness. To an extent which even we did not appreciate, Stalin had succeeded in utterly destroying the old traditions of October. The physical extermination of the Leninist Old Guard and the Left Opposition left the proletariat leaderless. The decades of falsification and the suppression of Trotsky's writings in the USSR destroyed the last vestiges of the democratic and internationalist traditions of Bolshevism. One by one, those workers who had survived the nightmare of Stalinism died out, leaving a colossal vacuum, with nothing to fill it. In the moment of truth, the proletariat was left without leadership, to face the capitalist onslaught.
It is necessary to underline that what failed in Russia was not socialism. The regime established by the Stalinist political counter-revolution after the death of Lenin was not socialism, and not even a workers' state in the sense understood by Marx and Lenin. It was a hideously deformed caricature of a workers' state - to use Trotsky's scientific terminology, a regime of proletarian Bonapartism. After generations of totalitarian rule, the privileged élite was completely corrupted. With astonishing ease, a large part of the former "Communist" leaders have swung right over to capitalism.
Yes, all that is true. But what is the situation now?
The failure of the 'market'
Trotsky wrote in The Revolution Betrayed: "A collapse of the Soviet regime would lead inevitably to the collapse of the planned economy, and thus 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 industry and culture." (Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, pp. 250-1.)
From the standpoint of Marxist theory of history, a new ruling class - under any socio-economic system - can only emerge and establish itself on condition that it develops the means of production. We have shown elsewhere that the reason for the collapse of Stalinism was that it was no longer able to achieve growth rates higher than the advanced capitalist economies (see Ted Grant, Russia, from Revolution to Counter-revolution). Towards the end - in the so-called period of stagnation, under Brezhnev - it did not develop the means of production at all. This meant that it was doomed. Historically, as Marx explains, the bourgeoisie plays a progressive role because it develops the economy, thus laying the material foundation for a higher form of human society - socialism. That is the sole justification for its existence.
Thus, the only way that a capitalist regime could achieve consolidation would be through the development of the economy. Marx explains that this is the only way in which a given socio-economic system can maintain itself. In the words of Engels, "We regard economic conditions as that which ultimately conditions historical development." (Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 3, p. 502.) Ultimately this is reduced to the issue of labour productivity. Normally in the history of capitalism an increase in productivity of labour is achieved through investment. This is the secret of capitalist development. Unlike every other socio-economic system in the past, capitalism can only exist by constantly revolutionising the means of production.
Trotsky explained the colossal achievements made by the nationalised planned economy over decades, in spite of the bureaucracy. By 1980, a tremendous productive potential existed, which the bureaucracy was unable to develop. This is our starting point. The question that arises is: is the bourgeoisie capable of realising that potential? If the answer is affirmative, then we would have before us the prospect of a capitalist Russia which would rapidly challenge the USA as an economic power. Russian capitalism would not be a regime of decline as Trotsky predicted, but a mighty and prosperous super-power, and the October Revolution and the planned economy that issued from it would be mere episodes, the real significance of which was to prepare the way for the triumph of the Market. But that is a supposition that remains to be proved.
It has been estimated that if the Soviet car industry had produced enough cars, the level of car ownership in Russia would have been higher than in Britain in the early 1980s. The cars were not produced because the bureaucracy had other priorities, but the purchasing power was there. But what about now? Cars are still not being produced in anything like enough numbers. Foreign cars are being imported - mainly expensive Mercedes for the Mafia capitalists who pay in dollars. But the rouble savings of ordinary people have been wiped out by inflation. This is not progress but a monstrous regression. Quite apart from the disastrous human consequences, it does not develop the economy, but completely undermines the internal market by destroying the purchasing power of the masses and liquidating an important potential source of capital for investment.
A monstrous regression
Russian capitalism will stand or fall on its ability to develop the economy and above all raise the productivity of labour. How can this be done? Historically the main way of achieving an "economy of labour time" was by investing in labour-saving devices (machinery). This was, of course, not done out of any idealistic motives, but in the search after profit and in order to get an advantage over competitors. The contradiction is that, by increasing the amount of constant capital in relation to variable capital, the capitalist is faced, sooner or later, with the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. But that is another matter. Suffice it to say that the progressive function of capitalism consists precisely in this: that it leads to a greater economy of labour time through the general introduction of new machinery and techniques.
This raises the fundamental question: has the bourgeoisie developed the productive forces in Russia during the last ten years? The answer is clearly negative. The Russian bourgeoisie plays no progressive role whatever. Marx regarded the capitalists as merely the repositories of the productive forces. Their role was to use the surplus value extracted from the workers to invest in new production. The fact that they did so out of greed, and that they brutally exploited the labour of little children and so on, was secondary. As long as they developed the productive forces they were carrying society forward. But what is the position in Russia? In the period of so-called market reform Russia has experienced the biggest collapse in world economic history. Just in the first five years, the economy contracted by a staggering sixty percent. Such a drop is unprecedented in economic history. It is like a catastrophic defeat in war.
The real situation is almost certainly worse than even these figures imply. Two years ago, a Canadian university did a study on the question of the outflow of capital and concluded that it was in the region of $2 bn. per month. They calculated that this has meant a loss of at least $140 bn. over a period of six years, not seven as we had thought. In practice, even this figure is probably conservative. And this money will never return to Russia. The Russian bourgeoisie does not develop the productive forces, but loots and destroys them.
It might be argued that this is only a temporary state of affairs, and everything will be as right as rain in the long run. But as Keynes once said, in the long run, we're all dead! Naturally, the fall could not continue indefinitely. No economy can permanently move downwards. Since the 1998 collapse, the Russian economy has experienced a certain recovery, reaching a growth rate of 7.7 percent in 2000. But, in the second place, any growth must be set against the horrendous collapse of the last ten years. As The Economist sarcastically put it, anything that is thrown off a cliff will tend to bounce!
The defenders of capitalism point to the recent recovery of the Russian economy, but this was not the result of an organic improvement, but the consequence of episodic developments: the sharp devaluation of the rouble that followed the 1998 crisis, and the recent steep rise in oil prices. However, the effects of the devaluation have already evaporated, while the rise in oil prices seems to have been detained. If, as seems likely, the present slowdown in the USA proves to be the prelude to a world recession, the price of oil will experience a sharp fall, which will bring the period of partial recovery in Russia to a shuddering halt. The conclusion is inescapable. The experiment in market economics has ended in disaster. All the indices of the Russian economy point to a further collapse in the coming months and years.
The problem of investment
The most decisive question in the long run is the world economy. Russia is now far more dependent upon world markets than ever before. More dependent by far than the former Tsarist regime. On the face of it, Russia is the ideal country for foreign investors. It is potentially a big market, with a highly skilled and educated workforce, which currently receives ridiculously low wages, and almost limitless natural resources. Yet we are faced with a paradox. To the present time, the amount of direct foreign private investment in Russia has been extremely low. The flow of investment (i.e., company investment) from the West remain very feeble. To put this question in its context. China's incoming foreign investment over the past decade has been more than twenty times the figure for Russia. The question is Why is the investment in Russia so low? The answer was given by the general director of the Moscow office of Deutsche Morgan Grenville, the German-owned investment bank as follows:
"'I do not think anything has changed so drastically in Russia in the past few weeks. It is simply a question that a new year has come and fund managers have made new asset allocations,' he said. 'But we do not think that economic reform is irreversible in Russia, and that is why it is critical that the president remains at the helm'." (Financial Times, 10/1/97, my emphasis.)
Since these lines were written, the situation has not improved, but worsened. One year later, there was the collapse, which had as its consequence a massive outflow of foreign investment from Russia - a tendency that has only partially been reversed since. At the moment the dominant tendency is in the direction of capitalism. But it is not complete and may be reversed. The strategists of capital are realists. They know this very well. That is why they do not invest and also why they are pressurising the Russian government to proceed with a suicidal policy.
Foreign investment was always very feeble, but even that has evaporated after the crisis of the Summer of 1998. Even before that foreign investors were already disappointed with Russia. The dream of a huge market has rapidly turned sour. In the context of world capitalist crisis, Russia's increased participation on world markets is no solution. Nor can the Russian economy rely on its huge reserves of oil and other raw materials to get it out of difficulty. As long as the world economy was booming, there was the prospect of re-launching the economy on the basis of rising oil prices. But with the world economy beginning to stall, and the consequent falling off of demand, Russian oil, most of which is located in difficult places which require a lot of investment, is no longer so attractive.
Certain things flow from this. At present, it is true, the old order has broken down, but, although strenuous efforts are being made to move in a capitalist direction, nothing stable has yet been put in its place. This means that the whole situation remains incomplete, fluid and unstable. Russia's hopes of getting a large sum of money from the West were dashed after 1998. At present, Russia owes the West $150 billion. True, the West is alarmed by developments in Russia, but has made its "aid" conditional on the pursuance of monetary policies in line with its own interests - i.e. continuing the "reform" programme that has led to the present disaster. But this would cause a social explosion sooner rather than later.
The West is seriously worried about the social effects of the crisis in Russia. It has good reason to be. The collapse of the market has led to social disintegration. The elements of barbarism have begun to appear. Poverty, beggary, drunkenness, drug addiction, prostitution, crime, epidemics have spread to an unparalleled degree. Sections of the youth are affected by lumpenisation. To the age-old scourge of alcoholism, new problems are added, such as drug addiction. A large number of new cases of HIV are reported in Russia every month, and 90 per cent of these cases were those who contracted the disease from dirty needles. The official figures seriously understate the real situation. There are about 2.5 million sufferers, and no sign of a decline. This disease - traditionally identified with poverty and dietary deficiency - now affects 73 out of every 100,000 Russians. According to the World Health Organisation, anything over 50 cases per 100,000 constitutes an epidemic.
Many old people are faced with dire hardship, and even hunger, a fact depressingly evident from the large number of pensioners reduced to beggary even in Moscow and Petersburg. The problem is even worse in the provinces. Some pensioners exist on such miserable sums as 400 roubles a month (£16). These people, who after a life of struggle and sacrifice were entitled to look forward to a reasonably comfortable retirement, have seen their living standards slashed.
In the Soviet era, many workers were persuaded by the prospect of high wages to move north or east to inhospitable regions where new towns were built to exploit natural resources, like oil, coal, gas and minerals. Under the central plan, these remote areas were always kept supplied. But no longer. The regime of "private enterprise" which was supposed to be more efficient than central planning has left these people on their own. Supplies are erratic or non-existent. There is a serious threat of collapse posed by a disintegrating infrastructure.
Two years ago, power cuts caused chaos in places like Vladivostok and Kamchatka in the Far East, and Chukota in the Arctic Circle, where winter temperatures range between minus 38 and minus 55 degrees. Inside most apartments, temperatures were between five and thirteen degrees Celsius below zero. People resorted to the use of primitive stoves called burzhuyiki which burn anything from firewood to books from the family library. Many families have been forced to flee like penniless refugees in a war. But the enemy is not the Germans or the Americans, but the capitalist system and the "invisible hand of the market".
Siberia and the Kuzbass are potentially very wealthy regions of Russia. In fact, these industries up until recently provided a steady income. Only the wages were not necessarily paid! The whole area was based on two things: natural resources and the defence industry. There are big nuclear plants in Krasnoyarsk and Tomsk and a big military aircraft plants in Novosibirsk. High quality cooking coal is produced by the Kuzbass, which in the past was exported or used to fuel a large scale steel industry. The reason why the Soviet authorities built big plants in such remote and inhospitable areas was precisely to take advantage of coal and other raw materials in close proximity. For example, aluminium requires a lot of electricity. The abundance of cheap hydropower in this area creates an ideal base for the aluminium industry. In other parts of Siberia there are huge reserves of oil and gas. The population is either poor or not too badly off, depending on the area and the industry.
At Novosibirsk the arms industry is at a low ebb, but still survives. Living standards, while not disastrous yet, are noticeably lower than Moscow. But the general political scene presents a picture of corruption and crime. Wherever goods are exported - like aluminium and coal - the crooks take their cut, in the disguise of "middlemen" and "wholesalers", sucking the blood of industry. Often the directors themselves are implicated one way or another. In extreme cases, the Mafia actually has taken over whole industries and towns, as in the case of Leninsk-Kuznetsk where the mayor was a member of the Mafia. Eventually Yeltsin was forced to arrest him. If for the medieval church "all roads lead to Rome" for the Russian bourgeoisie, all roads lead to ruin.
Proletariat and peasantry
The difficulties in consolidating a capitalist regime in Russia are shown by the question of land privatisation. Trotsky envisaged that the move towards capitalist restoration would begin with the land - breaking up the collective farms and creating private agriculture. Whereas the workers would resist privatisation, he thought that capitalism would find an ally in the peasantry. However, this has proved not to be the case. After almost a decade, they have still not succeeded in privatising the land or breaking up the collectives. At this time of writing, there are only 260,000 private farmers in Russia - about a tenth of the total.
The situation is completely different to when Trotsky wrote The Revolution Betrayed. Generations of a nationalised planned economy and collective agriculture have fundamentally altered the class balance of forces in favour of the proletariat. In reality, the Russian peasantry no longer exists. What we have in Russia is a rural proletariat, which has no interest in transforming itself into a class of small proprietors. They are mainly old people. The young men for decades joined the army and were in no hurry to return to the village after they were discharged. Most of those left have got used to the collective system which, despite the low standard of living and poor conditions, at least gives them a certain security. That is why the plans for land privatisation have had almost no echo in the countryside, although they were first put forward by Gorbachov.
Putin is trying to push through the privatisation of the land - a measure that has been on the statute books since 1993. But there is widespread resistance and there is no guarantee that the measure will succeed. The unpopularity of land privatisation is recognised even in the West. A recent article in the Economist pointed out: "Russians have already heard the word latifundiya, and do not like the sound of it." (The Economist, March 10, 2001.) Even the arch-reactionary Alexander Solzhenitsyn has come out against this, arguing correctly that land privatisation would benefit "the greedy bands of robbers who have stolen billions from Russia".
What this shows is the deep unpopularity of market reform in Russia, where privatisation has long been a dirty word. The ground is thus being prepared for a powerful backlash at a certain stage. The West is under no illusions on this score: a fact reflected in the low levels of foreign investment in Russia.
Crisis in preparation
The present set-up in Russia is a hideous hybrid that manages to combine all the worst features of the old system with all the worst features of capitalism. True, the old totalitarian state has dissolved under the weight of its own contradictions, but the old state bureaucracy remains very much in place. In fact, the weight of bureaucracy has actually grown. There are 1.7 times more officials now than in the USSR, which had about 100 million more inhabitants. These officials are thoroughly demoralised, a fact that can be deduced from the massive increase in corruption and bribe-taking. Of course, these things existed before. But the scale of this corruption is now far worse than in the Soviet Union.
The stench of corruption is everywhere. It is like the Rasputin regime that signalled the death agony of Tsarism. Corruption and bribe-taking seeps through every pore of Russian crony capitalism. Corruption on a scale infinitely worse than even that of the old Stalinist bureaucracy now exists at all levels. The police, which is supposed to combat crime and corruption, is itself riddled with corruption in its own ranks. A few years ago, a number of top government officials were arrested and the police discovered $1 million in cash in their homes. They were members of the government's statistical service who had been paid by big business to falsify data to help companies dodge taxes. This is just the tip of a vast iceberg of corruption that is draining away the wealth of Russia, like a man slowly dying from a massive haemorrhage. "The government is so top-heavy with bureaucrats now it can barely function," says Oleg V. Vyugin, chief economist at Moscow's Troika Dialog and a former Deputy Finance Minister.
This unprecedented corruption, which makes the Stalinist regime appear a model of rectitude by comparison, could reach new levels, rousing the indignation of the proletariat to a fever-pitch. The Russian worker in general has a cynical attitude towards his rulers. But the workers could accept decades of Stalinist rule without an explosion because right to the end of Brezhnev's period the productive forces developed and conditions improved. This is in stark contrast to the present condition which is characterised by universal robbery and looting which is not accompanied by a development of the means of production.
The constant crisis of the regime, reflected in the never-ending rise and fall of ministers, is a clear reflection of the impasse of capitalism in Russia. The shifts at the top reflect the fact that, on a capitalist basis, there is no way out. The election of Putin has solved nothing. Only the lucky accident of rising oil prices has kept him afloat - so far. Little has changed, save a tax reform package which alters nothing fundamental. The rise in oil prices produced a 7.7 percent growth rate in the year 2000. But the gross domestic product is expected to grow by only 4 percent in 2001, at best. These figures in no sense make up for the horrific collapse of production since 1990, and the present relative improvement will not last. As it is, industrial production rates this year (2001) are the lowest for two years. The whole situation is clearly unsound. Inflation rose in the first three months of 2001 by 7 percent, a fact that will further undermine Russia's industrial growth. In turn, the decline in production will reduce the state's income from taxes, which will put into question its ability to pay wages and pensions, and also to service Russia's $150 billion debt. Moreover, all these indices are set to deteriorate still further in the coming period, characterised by an unfavourable economic climate on a world scale.
The stage is set for a convulsive period of Russia's history. Despite all the efforts of imperialism and the nascent Russian bourgeoisie, Russian capitalism remains a weak and sickly child. A note of alarm has crept into official statements. On April 3, Putin declared: "The country still has an unfavourable investment climate. If we don't take active steps - in particular, to implement structural reforms - we may get long-term stagnation." (BusinessWeek, April 16, 2001.) Such a perspective spells disaster for Russia. The present decay has gone so far that it threatens a social catastrophe on an unparalleled scale. A dramatic turn-about is essential if such a collapse is to be avoided. But to imagine that this is possible by relying on "market forces" is a hopeless illusion.
The depth of the collapse, the general disorientation, the decline of culture, the throwing back of consciousness as a result of decades of Stalinism, and above all the lack of the subjective factor - all this combines to produce the most grotesque and disgusting throw-backs. Great-Russian chauvinism, mysticism, religion, even monarchism (among a tiny minority) and anti-semitism. All this shows that Russian capitalism is incapable of playing any kind of progressive role.
Only the restoration of a nationalised planned economy can create the conditions for a revival of Russia's colossal productive potential. Under conditions of a deep slump, it is not theoretically ruled out that a section of the bureaucracy will move over to this position. But on a bureaucratic basis, without the democratic administration and control of the working class, this would ultimately end up in the same mess as before. As Trotsky points out in a most graphic and profound passage from The Revolution Betrayed, a nationalised planned economy needs democracy as the human body needs oxygen. Only a regime of real workers' democracy, on the lines of October 1917, can provide Russia with a way out of the present impasse.
The role of the proletariat
The key question remains the reaction of the workers. Thus far, the Russian workers have generally remained passive. This is the only explanation for the peculiar direction taken by events. This fact has puzzled many observers in the West, who try to explain it in terms of a mystical "Russian soul" and the supposedly infinite capacity of the Russian people for suffering. In reality, the explanation is simpler and more prosaic. The central problem for the Russian working class is the problem of leadership. In essence, it is the same problem faced by the workers of Spain, Britain and every other country.
There have, of course, been strikes - particularly of the miners and teachers. It must not be forgotten that the crisis of the Summer of 1998 was brought about by the movement of the miners who, along with other workers, came to Moscow and demonstrated outside the Duma. Since that time, the temporary improvement of the economy, permitting a partial improvement in the conditions of the masses, the payment of part of the arrears of wages, etc., has led to a lull in the workers' movement. In the absence of any kind of alternative, the attitude of most workers to Putin has so far been "wait and see".
But Putin's hold on power is extremely fragile. A new economic crisis will transform the situation. The patience of the masses has its limits and these are being sorely tested. The Chechen adventure has temporarily distracted the attention of the masses, but this cannot last. The pressing problems of everyday life remain and demand a solution. Moreover, to the degree that the Chechen conflict drags on, the attitude of the masses can change. From being a point of support for Putin, it will change into its opposite.
The workers are slowly regrouping. The slowness is entirely the result of the lack of the subjective factor. The mood of the population is one of sullen anger and frustration, but this anger has no point of reference, no organised vehicle through which to express itself. The central problem is the lack of political leadership. Not one of the political parties really stand for a Leninist policy. They offer no serious alternative to the workers.
If the CPRF were a genuine Communist party, standing on the programme of Lenin and Trotsky, there would be no problem. But this is very far from the case. The CPRF - the biggest of the "Communist" parties - regularly gets tens of millions of votes, reflecting the massive disgust and disillusionment with capitalism and "market economics". But Zyuganov has no intention of fighting for socialism, or even going back to the Brezhnev days, although the majority of his supporters would be in favour of this. The CPRF leadership have shown themselves to be utterly spineless and devoid of any serious perspective. In effect, they have accepted capitalism (although they speak of a "mixed economy", this is what they mean.) Above all, they fear the independent movement of the masses, and will do nothing to stir up a movement from below. They prefer to spend their time in endless manoeuvres and intrigues in the corridors of parliament.
In general, its political line is coloured by Russian nationalism. There is not a hint of class politics and socialism. Zyuganov is an opportunist and suffers from the disease of what Marx called "parliamentary cretinism". He imagines he is a clever statesman because he spends all his life in endless intrigues and manoeuvres at the top in search of potential "allies." These include the Russian Orthodox Church, of which he proclaims himself a devout believer! He is an enthusiastic supporter of the war in Chechnya. Just as his counterparts, the reformist labour leaders in Spain and Britain, Zyuganov turns out to be not clever at all, but extremely stupid. At a time when the CPRF should be gaining massively, the conduct of the leadership seems calculated to lose support. Of course, when the elections come around, they will still get the votes. But this will be in spite of Zyuganov, not because of him.
Despite the conduct of the leaders, a new upsurge of the workers' movement is inevitable in the next period. The contradictions are piling up, one upon another. A new economic crisis will blow all Putin's plans for reform to smithereens. He will be faced with the necessity of attacking wages, pensions and living standards. This is a finished recipe for an explosion of class struggle which must, at a certain stage, propel the CPRF leaders kicking and screaming into the government. Such a scenario fills Zyuganov with dread. The last thing he wants is to be pushed into power with a big majority by an aroused working class. Hence his reluctance to enter the government. But the final outcome - fortunately - does not depend on Zyuganov and the CPRF Duma faction.
In such a situation, the vacuum of power can only be filled by the unions and the workers' committees. Given the fact that their only point of reference is 1905 and 1917, the idea of soviets (workers' councils) has inevitably begun to re-emerge.
The role of the workers' committees
The workers' committees have existed at different times with different names in different areas - strike committees, workers' committees, salvation committees, or just plain soviets - but the essence of the thing is the same. The workers' committee effectively took over the running of the town of Anzhero-Sudzhalensk. The committee held its meetings in the city administration offices, in permanent session and in continuous discussion. It was these people who cut the Trans-siberian railway line two years ago. The main aim of the committees was to provide united class action, with the participation of the broadest possible number of working people.
In Russia, the idea that the working class needs its own representatives and elected bodies to co-ordinate the struggle has deep roots. It came to the fore in 1905 and again in 1917, and now has re-emerged. The Anzhero-Sudzhalensk committee was elected in the following way: the factory strike committees elected delegates to the city committee. All delegates were subject to the right of recall. This is precisely what Lenin advocated in State and Revolution. "The workers really do control," said one observer. What is this, if not a soviet? The role of "workers' control" here boils down to monitoring and inspection. The workers keep a close eye on things - especially on the activities of the administration and factory directors. This is understandable if we bear in mind the level of fraud, swindling and corruption that exists and amounts to wholesale sabotage of production. This corresponds exactly to what Lenin wrote in The Threatening Catastrophe and how to Combat it. Thus, spontaneously, the Russian working class returns to its old traditions.
To the degree that the workers take steps to interfere in the "god-given right to manage" and acquaint themselves with the secrets of the bosses, the books and so on, they are challenging the existing system and also preparing themselves practically to take the running of production into their own hands.
The need for workers' democracy is a lesson learnt by the masses from life itself. The workers' committees are the concrete, living expression of this fact. They are not seen as a substitute for the unions, or in opposition to them, but as a necessary complement. They have some clear advantages over the union structures: they are more flexible, broader-based, and able to meet in permanent session. Here all the workers get to know all that is going on. They consult, ask questions, discuss and learn collectively. There is full democracy. All trends are free to express their views. News travels fast, enabling the workers to react swiftly to events. The committees also serve another role - that of keeping the union leadership under continual pressure and prevent bureaucracy from forming.
The strength of the committees will naturally ebb and flow with the movement itself. But at every decisive moment they will re-emerge, drawing in an ever growing number of workers and other combative layers of society. This is the most decisive element in the equation. Under the leadership of a genuine Leninist current, the workers' committees could play the same role as the soviets in 1917. Even without such a leadership, they will play a key role in the events that impend.
The workers will turn to their unions and their committees. But there are limitations. The unions have no political programme. But a political programme is absolutely necessary. However, there is none on offer at present. The CPRF merely harps on the "national idea", while the workers are seeking a class alternative, but find nothing of the sort here. Not even the idea of a return to the Brezhnev period, seen as a golden era by many.
In areas like the Kuzbass, the workers' movement took on an exceptionally wide sweep in the last period, involving broad layers of the population, not just workers. Even some engineers (in effect, managers) have been drawn in. After all, they have also not been paid. They feel sympathy and solidarity with the working class. Thus, as Marx predicted, as the class moves into action to change society, a layer of "bourgeois intellectuals" breaks away from the ruling class and passes over to the side of the workers. These honest, intelligent and educated people place their energies and talents at the disposal of the proletariat. In the coming months, the movement will flare up again with renewed force. It is quite possible that it will begin, not in Moscow or Leningrad but in the provinces. But once the movement begins seriously, it can quickly take on a very wide sweep, spreading from town to town, from province to province. The existence of the committees will provide a ready-made structure to co-ordinate and extend the workers' actions. Under such circumstances, even a small revolutionary organisation could gain ground rapidly, provided it is equipped with the correct ideas, policy, orientation and perspective. But it is essential that such an organisation should exist before the movement gets on the road.
Prospects for Trotskyism
This is a critical moment in the history of Russia. The crisis that began in 1998 has been temporarily resolved, but the whole situation is extremely unstable. The reformers have tried everything to stabilise Russian capitalism and have failed. No lasting stabilisation has been achieved. The discontent of the population grows deeper and more bitter with every day that passes. The prospect of a major offensive of the working class looms. The ruling layer is plagued by splits and continuous crises. The middle layers, who previously looked to capitalism for salvation, are plunged into scepticism and uncertainty towards the future. Some of the main capitalist oligarchs have already fled abroad. The only factor that is missing is the revolutionary party and leadership. The leaders of the CPRF and the trade unions (FNPR) have done everything in their power to put the brakes on the movement. This has led to a surge of discontent, internal crises and splits in all the "Communist Parties."
Despite everything, millions still vote for the CPRF ("the Communists") for one very good reason. There is no alternative. The Communist Workers' Party (RKRP) is to the left of the CPRF, but much smaller. The other Communist Parties are too small to play any significant role. At present most of the CPRF's members are old age pensioners, not even workers in the main but retired functionaries who have lost a good deal and are desperate and furious. They are nostalgic for the past. These are the people who carry portraits of Stalin on demonstrations. But they have little or no echo among the workers. If there was a serious Trotskyist organisation with enough forces, many of the rank and file Communists could be won for a Leninist programme. A growing number are bitterly critical of Zyuganov and ready to support radical measures.
For historical reasons, the forces of genuine Leninism (the "Trotskyists") have been thrown right back. Today their numerical strength is small. But the strength of their ideas greatly outweighs their numerical weakness. For today, more than ever, the ideas of Trotsky are alive in Russia. Above all, the ideas contained in Trotsky's great masterpiece The Revolution Betrayed are a beacon to the new generation of working class youth who are seeking a way out on the revolutionary road. The Workers' Democracy (Rabochaya Demokratia) group, or RKP, by far the most important of the Trotskyist groups in Russia, has kept the banner of Trotskyism flying, against all the odds. The ideas of Trotskyism have recently gained an echo inside the ranks of the Communist Parties, where a growing number of activists are looking for ideas, and are even prepared to consider Trotskyism as a possible alternative.
The present situation in Russia is a graphic confirmation of the analysis of Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed. After nearly a decade of "market economics" the masses are disenchanted with capitalism. This is even recognised by Western observers. Recently BusinessWeek (April 16, 2001) admitted that "Many Russians identify reforms with the severe hardships that followed former President Yeltsin's pursuit of a shock-therapy treatment programme in the early 1990s."
Marx explained the process whereby free competition begets monopoly. But monopoly in turn prepares the way for state ownership. The spectacle of the big Russian monopolies enriching themselves at the expense of the people is provoking a burning sense of anger. It is not like the West where people have had generations to get used to capitalism. They might not like what flows from it, but most people regard it as inevitable and almost natural. They do not normally question the capitalists' God-given right to own industry and exploit labour. But in Russia things are different. For generations the people have got used to a society where the means of production were in the hands of the state and the state, at least nominally, was supposed to stand for the interests of the working people. The big majority believe that the owners of the privatised enterprises are just crooks who have stolen the people's property. And this is entirely correct. Capitalism has no legitimacy in the eyes of the working class. This is a very important difference with the West, and one that can have enormous consequences in the next period.
Looking back on the present period from a broader historical perspective, it will be seen that the temporary aberration was not the October Revolution, but Stalinism and the rotten regime of Mafia capitalism that attempted to replace it. The present regime does not represent progress but a monstrous regression. The horrors of corrupt gangster capitalism are impressed upon people's minds every day that passes. They bring new meaning to the words of Engels: "It is the Darwinian struggle for existence transferred from Nature to society with intensified violence. The conditions of existence natural to the animal appear as the final term of human development." (F. Engels, Socialism Utopian and Scientific, MESW, Moscow 1962, Vol. 2, p. 143.)
If we accept the argument of Marx and Engels, that the viability of a given socio-economic system depends in the last analysis on its ability to develop the productive forces, then we must draw the necessary conclusions. After nearly ten years of attempting to move in the direction of capitalism, Russia is in a blind alley.
The problem of leadership
Sooner or later the question of what direction Russia will move in must be resolved one way or another. How the contradiction is resolved is a question which cannot be settled in advance, like a mathematical equation, because it involves living forces. It involves the class struggle. Whereas, as Marx says, the material transformations of production can be determined "with the precision of natural science", this is not true of the political forms in which the class struggle is fought out, or the way in which human beings acquire consciousness of their true condition. These are much more complex and contradictory processes.
The only reason why the situation has evolved as it has is because of the temporary inertia of the proletariat. But that is now changing. The working class still remains the most important element in the equation. How is it prepared for the great events that impend?
Numerically, the Russian working class is an impressive force. Moreover, thanks to the way that central planning operated, it is concentrated in huge industrial centres involving hundreds of thousands of workers. If anyone wants to know what that can mean, let them look at what happened in Poland in 1980, when 10 million workers moved to change society. Nobody expected that explosion. And in the same way, the Russian working class which everybody has forgotten about or written off, can take the world by surprise. True, decades of totalitarian rule have had their effect, confusing and disorienting the masses. But life moves on. The workers have had a taste of "market economics" and are drawing their conclusions. The recent strikes indicate that they are flexing their muscles. They will inevitably move into action in the next period.
Marx and Engels maintained that the socialist revolution was inevitable. But they also pointed out, if the working class did not succeed, it might end up in "the common ruin of the contending classes." The choice is ultimately between socialism or barbarism. In Russia at the present time there are already elements of barbarism. The present chaos threatens to bring about a complete collapse. This is a real possibility, if the working class do not take power in the next period. Of course, in a broad historical sense, socialism is inevitable because the capitalist system has reached an impasse on a world scale. That is one of the main reasons which leads us to doubt the viability of capitalism in Russia, although it is not ruled out that they may succeed for a time on a very unstable basis. But even an unviable system must still be overthrown. And that requires organisation and - leadership.
The result of the class struggle can no more be predicted with certainty than war between the nations, It depends on many factors. Precisely for this reason, Napoleon said that war was the most complicated of all equations. Not just the numbers involved in fighting, but their morale, courage, discipline and experience, their supplies, weapons and equipment. Last but not least, the quality of their leadership, from the generals to the NCOs.
Fortunately, the subjective factor is not limited to the leading layer. Lenin said that the working class was more revolutionary than the most revolutionary party, and that is a thousand times correct. The Russian proletariat has a long and glorious revolutionary tradition. They will rediscover it in the course of struggle. Of course, this process would be far quicker and more effective if a genuine mass Leninist current were present. But they will learn anyway. The Russian proletariat was the first to set up soviets on the basis of the 1905 Revolution. We must never forget that the soviets were not the invention of the Bolsheviks or any other party, but the spontaneous invention of the working class.
The Russian workers will return to the traditions of 1905 and 1917. In fact, they are already returning to them, as we saw in the miners' strikes over the past few years. This shows that, despite everything, the old ideas and traditions have not been entirely lost but live on deeply rooted in the consciousness of the class. Although the workers' committees will tend to dissolve at the end of each strike, they will surely reappear again in new struggles, and will assume a far wider sweep as the crisis begins to affect the working class as a whole.
The destiny of Russia is still not decided by history. Despite the appearance of solidity, the regime in Russia is like the hut on chicken's legs of the old Russian folk tale. Once the proletariat begins to move, it can sweep all before it. The general crisis in society also affects the armed forces. The situation in the barracks, already tense before, will become explosive as the economic crisis deepens. As a result, it is extremely unlikely that the army could be used to suppress uprisings of the working class. More likely the army would join them - not just the soldiers but also the officers - as happened in Albania. Indeed, the Albanian events of a few years ago show what can happen in Russia.
Although Berisha had privatised virtually everything, when the explosion came, the state collapsed like a pack of cards. The whole thing was seen to be unsound - just as Russian capitalism is unsound. The pyramid scandal exposed a fatal weakness, and it erupted without any warning, when nobody expected it. Just like Putin, Berisha was a "strong man" who imagined he was in complete control of the situation. But in the moment of truth, he was swept away like a rag doll.
The only thing that prevented the success of the Albanian revolution was the lack of a revolutionary party and leadership. But Russia is not Albania. The working class is a thousand times stronger, its traditions more steeped in Bolshevism, and therefore its chances of success far greater. The threat of foreign intervention hung over the Albanian revolution. But who would dare intervene against the Russian working class?
In the heat of battle, the Russian workers can learn very quickly. The forces of genuine Leninism can grow very rapidly and occupy a leading role in the workers' committees. The success of the revolution depends on the adoption of a correct programme and policy, based on workers' democracy and internationalism. Armed with such a programme - the programme of Lenin and Trotsky - they would be invincible. The new Russian Revolution would transform the whole world situation far more quickly and radically than the ten days that shook the world in 1917. The way would be open for the victory of socialism, not only in Russia but on a world scale.
London, 6th June 2001
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