History of communism: Understanding the defeat, and preserving the vision of the future

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In the first part of this summary of the second volume (International Review 125) we looked at how the communist programme was enriched by the huge advances made by the working class movement during the world-wide revolutionary upsurge provoked by the First World War. In this second part, we consider how revolutionaries struggled to understand the retreat and defeat of the revolutionary wave, while showing that this too was a source of invaluable lessons for the revolutions of the future. 

1. 1918: the revolution criticises its mistakes - (International Review n°99)

If the Russian revolution was, in Rosa Luxemburg’s words, “the very first experiment in proletarian dictatorship in world history (The Russian Revolution), then it follows that any attempt to illuminate the path that a future revolution must follow must draw on the lessons of that experiment. Since the proletarian movement can only be harmed by any attempt to run away from reality, the effort to understand these lessons go back to the very earliest days of the revolution itself, even if it took many years of painful experience and equally painful reflection to fully understand the legacy that that the Russian revolution has left us.

The model for analysing the mistakes of the revolution is provided by Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet The Russian Revolution, written from prison in 1918. Luxemburg’s starting point is one of fundamental solidarity with the soviet power and the Bolshevik party, recognising that the difficulties they faced were first and foremost the result of the isolation of the Russian fortress, and could only be overcome if the world – and especially the German – proletariat assumed its responsibilities and carried out history’s execution order on capitalism.

Within this framework Luxemburg criticises the Bolsheviks on three counts:

  • the land question. While recognising that the Bolshevik slogan of “land to the peasant” had been tactically necessary to win the peasant masses to the cause of the revolution, Rosa felt that the Bolsheviks were piling up difficulties against themselves by formalising the parcelling out of the land. But while Luxemburg correctly foresaw that this process would eventually create a conservative stratum of small landowners, it was also the case that the collectivisation of the land was in itself no guarantee of a march towards socialism if the revolution remained isolated;
  • on the national question, Luxemburg’s criticisms of the slogan of national self-determination (which were echoed by certain elements within the Bolshevik party, such as Piatakov) were amply confirmed by experience. In reality “national self-determination” can only mean “self-determination” for the bourgeoisie; but in the epoch of imperialism and proletarian revolution, the countries (ie the bourgeoisies) granted “national independence” by the soviet power everywhere took the decision to subordinate themselves to the great imperialist powers against the Russian revolution. The proletariat could not ignore the national sensitivities of workers in “oppressed” nations, but they could only be won to the revolutionary cause by appealing to their class needs, not to their nationalist illusions;
  • on “democracy” and “dictatorship”, there are profoundly contradictory elements in Luxemburg’s views. On the one hand, she saw the Bolsheviks’ suppression of the Constituent Assembly as negative for the life of the revolution, revealing a curious nostalgia for the outmoded forms of bourgeois democracy. On the other hand, the Spartacus programme written shortly afterwards called for the replacement of the old parliamentary assemblies by congresses of workers’ councils, which indicates that Luxemburg’s views on this point had evolved quite rapidly. But Luxemburg’s criticisms of the Bolsheviks’ tendency to clamp down on free speech within the worker’s movement was well-founded: the measures taken against other working class groups and parties, and the transformation of the soviets into rubber stamps for the Bolshevik party-state, were indeed negative for the survival and integrity of the proletarian dictatorship.

Within Russia itself, the first reactions against the danger of the party going off course also date to 1918, and their principal focus (at least from within the current of revolutionary marxism) was the Left Communist tendency in the Bolshevik party.  This tendency is principally remembered for its opposition to the Brest-Litovsk treaty, which it feared would result in surrendering not only land but the principles of the revolution itself. In fact, at the level of principle, there is no comparison between Brest Litovsk and the Rapallo treaty only four years later: the first was conducted openly, with no attempt to hide its brutal consequences; the latter was drawn up in secret and involved a de facto alliance between German imperialism and the soviet state. On the other hand, the position put forward by Bukharin and other Left Communists in favour of a “revolutionary war” was, as Bilan later pointed out, founded on a serious confusion: the notion that the revolution could be extended primarily through military means in one form or another, whereas in fact it can only win the workers of the world to its banners through essentially political means (such as the formation of the Communist International in 1919).

More fruitful for understanding the lesson of the revolution were the first debates on state capitalism between Lenin and the Lefts. Lenin had argued for accepting German peace terms on the grounds that the soviet power needed a “breathing space” in which to reconstruct the minimum of social and economic life. The disagreements arose around two issues:

  • the methods used in this process. Lenin, preoccupied by the fight for productivity and efficiency against the enormous weight of Russian backwardness, advocated stern measures such as the adoption of the Taylor system and one-man management in the factories, while the Lefts insisted that such methods could be harmful to the self-education and self-activity of the proletariat. Similar debates raged about the degree to which the principles of the Commune could be applied in the Red Army;
  • the danger of state capitalism. For Lenin, precisely because of the fragmented and semi-mediaeval state of the Russian economy, state capitalism was a step forward. This was in line with his view that the huge strides taken by state capitalism in the developed countries during the war had been in some sense a preparation for the socialist transformation. The Lefts, on the other hand, tended to see state capitalism as an imminent threat to the power of the soviets, and warned of the danger of the party getting caught up in the process of bureaucratic state control, and eventually of opposing itself to the interests of the proletariat.

The Lefts’ critique of state capitalism was certainly embryonic and contained many confusions: it tended to see the main danger emanating from the petty bourgeoisie and were less clear that the state bureaucracy itself could take on the role of a new bourgeoisie; they also harboured illusions in the possibility of authentic socialist transformations within the confines of Russia. But Lenin was mistaken to see state capitalism as anything but the negation of communism; and in ringing the alarm bells about its development in Russia, the Lefts were proved to have been prophetic.                  

2. “1921: The proletariat and the transitional state” - (International Review n°100)

Despite the important differences within the Bolshevik party about the direction the revolution was taking, and in particular about the direction being followed by the soviet state, the necessity for unity faced with the immediate threat of the counter-revolution tended to keep these divergences within certain bounds. The same can be said for the tensions within Russian society as a whole: despite the frightful conditions endured by the workers and peasants during the civil war period, the nascent conflict between their material interests and the political and economic demands of the new state machine were kept in check through the struggle against the Whites. With victory in the civil war, however, the lid was off. And with the continuing isolation of the revolution due to a series of crucial defeats for the proletariat in Europe, this conflict now came to the fore as a central contradiction of the “transitional” regime.

Within the party, the fundamental problems facing the revolution were mediated through the debate on the trade union question, which came to a head at the 10th Congress of the Party, in March 1921. This debate was conducted through essentially three different positions, although there were many shades of opinion between and around them:

  • the position of Trotsky. Having led the Red Army to victory against the Whites, often in the face of overwhelming odds, Trotsky had now become an avid partisan of military methods, and wanted them to be applied in all spheres of society, particularly in the field of labour. Since the state applying these methods was now a “workers” state”, he argued that there could be no conflict of interests between the working class and the demands of this state. He even went so far as to theorise about the historically progressive possibilities of forced labour. In this context, he recommended that the trade unions should operate openly as organs of labour discipline on behalf of the workers’ state. At the same time, Trotsky began to develop an explicit theoretical justification for the notion of the dictatorship of the communist party, and for the Red Terror;
  • the position of the Workers’ Opposition around Kollontai, Shliapnikov and others. For Kollontai, the soviet state had a heterogeneous character, and was highly vulnerable to the influence of non-proletarian forces such as the bureaucrats and the peasantry. It was thus necessary for the creative work involved in the reconstruction of the Russian economy to be led by specific class organs of the workers, which for the Workers’ Opposition meant the industrial unions. Through the industrial unions, it felt, the working class could maintain control of production and make decisive strides towards communism. This current expressed a proletarian reaction to the growing bureaucratisation of the soviet state, but it also suffered from serious weaknesses: its advocacy of industrial unions as the best expression of working class interests signified a regression in understanding about the role of the workers’ soviets, which had emerged in the new revolutionary epoch as the proletariat’s instruments for managing not only economic but also political life. And at the same time, the Opposition’s illusions in the possibility of building new communist relations in Russia profoundly underestimated the negative effects of the isolation of the revolution, which was almost complete in 1921;
  • the position of Lenin: Lenin was firmly opposed to the excesses of Trotsky in this debate. He argued against the sophism that since the state was a workers’ state, there could be no divergence of interest between it and the working class on the immediate level. In fact, Lenin reasoned at one point that the soviet state was really a “workers and peasants” state”; but in any case, it was a state with a very marked bureaucratic deformation, and in such a situation, the working class would still need to defend its material interests, if necessary against the state. The trade unions should therefore not be seen merely as organs of labour discipline, but should be able to act as organs of proletarian self-defence. At the same time Lenin rejected the position of the Workers’ Opposition as a concession to anarcho-syndicalism.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious that there were deep flaws in the premises of this debate. To begin with, it was not accidental that the trade unions had lent themselves so readily to becoming organs of labour discipline for the state: that was a direction dictated by the new conditions of decadent capitalism. It was not the trade unions, but the organs created by the class in response to this new period – factory committees, councils, etc – which had the task of defending the autonomy of the working class. And at the same time, all the currents engaged in the debate were wedded to a greater or lesser extent to the idea that the dictatorship of the proletariat should be exercised by the communist party.

Nevertheless, the debate expressed an attempt to understand, in a situation of immense confusion, the problem posed when the state power created by the revolution begins to escape the control of the proletariat and turn against its needs. This problem was to be highlighted even more dramatically by the Kronstadt revolt, which broke out in the middle of the 10th Congress in the wake of a series of workers’ strikes in Petrograd. 

The Bolshevik leadership initially denounced the rebellion as a pure conspiracy of the White Guards; later, the emphasis was on its petty bourgeois character, but the crushing of the revolt was still justified on the grounds that it would have opened the doors, both geographically and politically, to the open counter-revolution. Even so, Lenin in particular was compelled to see that the revolt was a warning that the forced-labour methods of the War Communism phase could not continue and that there would have to be some “normalisation” of capitalist social relations. But there was no compromise on the notion that the sole defence of proletarian power in Russia was the exclusive rule of the Bolshevik party. This view was shared by many of the Russian left communists: at the 10th Congress, members of the opposition groups were among the first to volunteer for the assault on the Kronstadt garrison. Even the KAPD in Germany denied that it supported the rebels. With an equally heavy heart, Victor Serge defended the suppression of the revolt as a lesser evil than the fall of the Bolsheviks and the rise of a new White tyranny.

But there were many voices of dissent within the revolutionary camp. The anarchists of course, who had already made many correct criticisms of the excesses of the Cheka and the suppression of working class organisations. But anarchism offers little in the way of lessons about such an experience, since for them the Bolsheviks’ response to the revolt was inscribed from the beginning in the nature of any marxist party.

But within Kronstadt itself, many Bolsheviks joined the revolt on the basis of supporting the original ideals of October 1917: for soviet power and the world revolution. The left communist Miasnikov refused to join those who had participated in the attack on the garrison and glimpsed the catastrophic results that would flow from the smashing of a workers’ revolt by the “workers” state. At the time, these were only glimpses: it was not until the 1930s and the work of the Italian communist left that the clearest lessons were drawn. Unambiguously identifying the revolt as proletarian in character, the Italian left argued that relations of violence within the proletarian camp had to be rejected on principle; that the working class must retain the means of self-defence in the face of the transitional state, which by its nature runs the risk of becoming a point of attraction to the forces of the counter-revolution; and that the communist party could not become entangled with the state machine but must guard its independence from it. Placing principles above the appearance of expediency, the Italian left was prepared to say that it would have been better to have lost Kronstadt than to have retained power at the cost of undermining the fundamental goals of the revolution.

In 1921 the party was faced with an historic dilemma: retain power and become an agent of the counter-revolution, or go into opposition and militate within the ranks of the working class. In practise the fusion between party and state was already too advanced for the whole party to have taken this road; what was posed in more concrete terms was the work of the left fractions, operating inside or outside the party to counter its slide into degeneration. The banning of fractions within the party after the 10th Congress meant that this work would increasingly have to be pursued outside and ultimately against the existing party.    

3. “1922-3: The communist fractions against the rising counter-revolution” - (International Review n°101)

The concessions to the peasantry – for Lenin, an unavoidable necessity illuminated by the Kronstadt uprising – were encapsulated in the New Economic Policy, seen as a temporary retreat that would enable a war-ravaged proletarian power to reconstruct its shattered economy and thus maintain itself as a bastion of the world revolution. In practice, however, the search to break the isolation of the soviet state led to fundamental concessions on matters of principle: not merely trade with capitalist powers, which in itself was not a breach of principles, but also secret military alliances with them, as in the Rapallo treaty with Germany. And such military alliances were accompanied by unnatural political alliances with the forces of social democracy, formerly denounced as the left wing of the bourgeoisie. This was the policy of the “United Front” adopted at the Third Congress of the Communist International. 

Within Russia, Lenin in 1918 had already claimed that state capitalism was a step forward for such a backward country; in 1922, he continued to argue that state capitalism could be made to work for the proletariat as long as it was directed by the “proletarian state”, which increasingly meant the proletarian party.  And yet at the same time he was forced to admit that, far from directing the state inherited from the revolution, the state was more and more directing them – not towards the horizon they wanted to reach, but towards a bourgeois restoration.

Lenin quickly saw that the communist party was itself being deeply affected by this process of involution. At first he located the problem primarily in the lower strata of uncultured bureaucrats who had begun to flock towards the party. But in his last years he grew painfully aware that the rot had reached the highest echelons of the party: as Trotsky pointed out, Lenin’s last struggle was focused essentially against Stalin and emergent Stalinism. But trapped within the prison of the state, Lenin was unable to offer more than administrative measures to counter this bureaucratic tide. Had he lived longer, he would surely have been pushed further towards an oppositional stance, but now the struggle against the rising counter-revolution had to pass to other hands.

In 1923, the first economic crisis of the NEP broke out. For the working class, this crisis brought wage cuts and job cuts and a wave of spontaneous strikes. Within the party, it provoked conflict and debate, giving rise to new oppositional groupings. The first explicit expression of the latter was the Platform of the 46, involving figures close to Trotsky (now increasingly ostracised by the ruling triumvirate of Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev) and elements from the Democratic Centralism group. The Platform criticised the tendency for the NEP to be seen as the royal road to socialism, calling for more rather than less central planning. More importantly, it warned against the increasing stifling of the party’s internal life.

At the same time the Platform distanced itself from the more radical oppositional groups which were emerging at the time, the most important of which was Miasnikov’s Workers’ Group, which had some presence within the strike movements in the industrial centres. Labelled as an understandable but “morbid” reaction to the rise of bureaucratism, the Manifesto of the Workers Group was in fact an expression of the seriousness of the Russian communist left:

  • it clearly located the difficulties facing the soviet regime in its isolation and the failure of the revolution to spread;
  • it made a lucid critique of the opportunist policy of the United Front, reaffirming the original analysis of the social democratic parties as parties of capitalism;
  • it warned against the danger of the emergence of a new capitalist oligarchy and called for the reinvigoration of the soviets and factory committees;
  • at the same time it was extremely cautious in its characterisation of the soviet regime and of the Bolshevik party. Unlike Bogdanov’s Workers Truth group, it had no truck with the idea that the revolution or the Bolshevik party had been bourgeois from the beginning. It saw its task as essentially that of a left fraction, working inside and outside the party for its regeneration.

The left communists were thus the theoretical avant-garde in the struggle against the counter-revolution in Russia. The fact that Trotsky had, by 1923, adopted an openly oppositional stance was of considerable importance given his reputation as a leader of the October insurrection. But compared to the intransigent positions of the Workers Group, Trotsky’s opposition to Stalinism was marked by its hesitant, centrist approach:

Trotsky missed a number of opportunities to lead an overt fight against Stalinism, in particular through his reluctance to use Lenin’s “Testament” to expose Stalin and remove him from the leadership of the party;

he tended to lapse into silence during many of the debates within the Bolshevik central organ.

These failings were partly due to questions of character: Trotsky was not an accomplished intriguer like Stalin and lacked his overwhelming personal ambition. But there were more fundamental political motivations behind Trotsky’s inability to take his criticisms to the radical conclusions reached by the communist left:

Trotsky was never able to understand that Stalin and his faction did not represent a mistaken, centrist tendency within the proletarian camp, but was the spearhead of a bourgeois counter-revolution;         

Trotsky’s own history as a figure at the very centre of the soviet regime made it extremely difficult for him to detach himself from the process of degeneration. An ingrained “patriotism of the party” made it extremely difficult for Trotsky and other oppositionists to fully accept that the party could be wrong.         

4. “1924-28: the triumph of Stalinist state capitalism” (International Review n°102)

By 1927 Trotsky had accepted that there was a danger of bourgeois restoration in Russia – a kind of creeping counter-revolution without a formal overthrow of the Bolshevik regime. But he largely underestimated the degree to which this process was already all but complete:

  • because it was hard for him to understand that he himself had already contributed a great deal to the process of degeneration (through such policies as the militarisation of labour, the suppression of Kronstadt, etc);
  • because, while understanding that the problems facing the USSR were a product of isolation and the retreat in the international revolution, Trotsky was not able to see the scale of the defeat that had descended on the working class; most important, he was unable to recognise that the USSR had already begun to integrate itself into the world imperialist system;

Trotsky believed that “Thermidor” would come about through the victory of those forces pushing for a return to private ownership (NEPmen, kulaks, the Bukharinist right). Stalinism was defined as a form of centrism, not as the spearhead of a state capitalist counter-revolution.

The economic theories of the left opposition around Trotsky made it extremely difficult to understand that the “soviet state” itself was becoming the direct agent of the counter-revolution, without any return to classical “private” ownership. The significance of Stalin’s declaration of socialism in one country was grasped late, and never in sufficient depth. Emboldened by the death of Lenin and the obvious stagnation of the world revolution, Stalin’s proclamation was an open break with internationalism and a commitment to building Russia into a world imperialist power. This was in complete contrast with the Bolshevism of 1917, which had insisted that socialism could only be the fruit of a victorious world revolution. But the more the Bolsheviks became tangled up in the management of the state and the economy in Russia, the more they began to theorise about the steps towards socialism that they could accomplish even in the context of an isolated and backward country. The debate over the NEP, for example, was largely posed in these terms, with the right arguing that socialism could come through the operation of market forces, and the left insisting on the role of planning and heavy industry. Preobrazhinsky, the main economic theorist of the left opposition, talked about overcoming the capitalist law of value through a monopoly of foreign trade and accumulation in the state sector: this was even termed “primitive socialist accumulation”.

The theory of primitive socialist accumulation falsely identified the growth of industry with the interests of the working class and socialism. In reality, industrial growth in Russia could only come about through the increasing exploitation of the working class. In short, primitive socialist accumulation could only mean the accumulation of capital. This is why the Italian left, for example, warned against any tendency to see industrial growth, or the development of statified industries, as a measure of progress towards socialism.

In fact, the struggle against the theory of socialism in one country was initiated by the Zinovievites after the break up of the ruling triumvirate. This led to the formation of the United Opposition in 1926, which originally included the Democratic Centralists as well. Despite formally adhering to the ban on fractions, the new Opposition was increasingly compelled to take its criticisms of the regime to the lower ranks of the party and even to the workers directly. They were met with threats, abuse, trumped up charges, repression and expulsion. And yet they were still unable to grasp the nature of what they were fighting against. Stalin was able to exploit their desire for reconciliation within the party to force them to back down from any activity described as “fractionalist”. The Zinovievites and some of Trotskyists followers capitulated immediately; and in 1928, when Stalin announced his “left turn” and adopted a policy of rapid industrialisation, many of the Trotskyists, including Preobrazhinsky himself, thought that Stalin was at last adopting their policies.

At the same time, however, elements of the opposition were coming under the increasing influence of the left communists, who were better able to see that the counter-revolution had already arrived. The Democratic Centralists, for example, while still holding out hope for a radical reform of the soviet regime, were much clearer that state industry does not equal socialism; that the fusion of the party with the state was leading to the liquidation of the party; that the soviet regime’s foreign policy was increasingly opposed to the international interests of the working class. Following the mass expulsions of the opposition in 1927 the left communists more and more took the view that the regime and the party were beyond reform. The remaining elements of the Miasnikov group played a key role in this process of radicalisation. But over the next few years, these animated debates about the nature of the regime would be held above all in Stalin’s jails.            

5. “Unravelling the Russian enigma: 1926-36” - (International Review n°105)

Given the scale of the defeat in Russia, the focus for the effort to understand the nature of the Stalinist regime now shifted to Western Europe. As the Communist Parties were “Bolshevised” – i.e., transformed into pliable instruments of Russian foreign policy – a series of oppositional groups emerged within them, but either rapidly split or were excluded.

In Germany, these groupings sometimes comprised thousands of members, although their numbers shrank rapidly. The KAPD still existed and was carrying out consistent work towards these currents. One of the best known was the group around Karl Korsch; and the correspondence in 1926 between him and Bordiga in Italy illuminates many of the problems facing revolutionaries at the time.

One of the characteristics of the German left – and one of the factors which contributed to its organisational demise – was a tendency to draw hasty conclusions about the nature of the new system in Russia.  Able to see its capitalist nature, they were often incapable of answering the key question: how can a proletarian power turn into its own opposite? And very often the response was to deny that it had ever had a proletarian nature – to argue that the October revolution was no more than a bourgeois revolution and the Bolsheviks no more than a party of the intelligentsia.

Bordiga’s response typified the more patient method of the Italian left: opposing any attempt to build organisations in a hurry, without a sound programmatic base, Bordiga argued for the need for an extended and profound discussion about a situation which was throwing up many new questions. This was the only basis for any substantial regroupment. At the same time, he refused to budge on the proletarian character of the October revolution, insisting that the question confronting the revolutionary movement was to understand how a proletarian power isolated in one country could go through a process of inner degeneration.

With the victory of Nazism in Germany, the geographical focus of discussion once again changed – this time to France, where a number of oppositional groups held a conference in Paris in 1933 to discuss the nature of the regime in Russia. This included the “official” followers of Trotsky, but the majority of the groups were located further to the left, and included the exiled Italian left. The conference witnessed numerous theories about the nature of the regime, many of them self-contradictory: that it was a class system of a new type and should no longer be supported, that it was class system of a new type but should still be supported, that it remained a proletarian regime but should not be defended…All this was testimony to the immense difficulty revolutionaries faced in really understanding the direction and significance of events in the Soviet Union. But it also shows that the “orthodox” Trotskyist position – that despite its degeneration, the USSR remains a workers’ state and must be defended against imperialism – was under attack from numerous angles.

It was to a large extent because of these pressures from the left that Trotsky wrote his famous analysis of the Russian revolution in 1936, The Revolution Betrayed.

This book provides evidence that, although increasingly sliding into opportunism, Trotsky remained a marxist.  Thus, he eloquently lambastes the Stalinist claims about the USSR as a paradise for the workers, and, basing himself on Lenin’s statement that the transitional state is “a bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie”, provides valuable insights into the nature of this state and its incipient dangers for the proletariat. Trotsky had also by now concluded that the old Bolshevik party was dead and that the bureaucracy could no longer be reformed but must be forcefully overthrown. Nevertheless, the book is fundamentally flawed: arguing explicitly against the view that the USSR was a form of state capitalism, Trotsky sticks doggedly to the thesis that its nationalised property forms are proof of the proletarian character of the state. While theoretically conceding that there is a tendency towards state capitalism in the period of capitalist decline, he rejects the idea that the Stalinist bureaucracy could be a new ruling class simply because it owns no stocks and shares and cannot pass on property to its heirs, thus reducing capital to a juridical form rather seeing it as an essentially impersonal social relation.

As for the idea that the USSR could still be a workers’ state even though, by his own admission, the working class as such was entirely excluded from political power, this also revealed a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the proletarian revolution. This is the first revolution in history to be the work of a propertyless class, a class that cannot possess its own form of economy, and which can only achieve its emancipation through its ability to use political power as a lever to subject the “spontaneous” laws of the economy to conscious human control.

Most serious of all, Trotsky’s characterisation of the USSR condemned his movement to acting on the world stage as a radical apologist for Stalinism. This was evident in Trotsky’s argument that the rapid industrial growth under Stalin – based on the ferocious exploitation of the working class and part of the build-up of a war economy in preparation for a new imperialist redivision of the globe – proved the superiority of socialism over capitalism. It was evident above all in the Trotskyists’ unwavering defence of Russian foreign policy and the position of unconditional defence of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack – at a time when the Russian state itself had become an active player on the world imperialist arena. This analysis contains the seeds of this current’s final betrayal of internationalism during the Second World War.

Trotsky’s book did leave one door open to the idea that the question of the USSR had not been finally settled and that only decisive historical events such as world war could do so. In his last writings, perhaps aware of the fragility of his “workers’ state” theory, but still reluctant to accept the capitalist nature of the USSR, he began to speculate that, if Stalinism was shown to represent a new form of class society, neither capitalist nor socialist, then marxism would have been discredited. Trotsky himself was killed before he could pronounce on whether the war had indeed elucidated the “Russian enigma”. But only those among his former followers who discovered the trail blazed by the communist left and took up the state capitalist position (such as Stinas in Greece, Munis in Spain, and his own wife Natalia) were able to stay true to proletarian internationalism during and after the second world war.        

6. “The Russian Enigma and the Italian communist left 1933-46” - (International Review n°106)

The communist left found its most advanced expressions among those sections of the world proletariat who raised the greatest challenge to capitalism during the great revolutionary wave. Outside of Russia this was the German and Italian proletariat, and the German and Italian communist lefts were the theoretical avant-garde of the communist left everywhere else.

When it came to trying to understand the nature of the regime that had arisen in the ashes of defeat in Russia, the German left was often extremely precocious in the conclusions it drew. Not only was it able to see that the Stalinist system was a form of state capitalism, it also developed some keen insights into state capitalism as a universal tendency of capitalism in crisis. And yet all too often these insights were combined with a tendency to break solidarity with the October revolution and to declare Bolshevism as the spearhead of a bourgeois revolution – a view that fitted very well with a rush to abandon the very idea of a proletarian party and to profoundly underestimate the role of the revolutionary organisation.

The Italian left, by contrast, took a long time to come to a clear understanding of the nature of the USSR, but it approached the question with more patience and more rigour, beginning from certain fundamental premises:

  • there could be no going back on their conviction that October had been a proletarian revolution;
  • since world capitalism was a system in decline, the bourgeois revolution was no longer on the agenda in any of its component parts;
  • there could above all be no compromise on the principle of proletarian internationalism, which meant a total rejection of the notion of socialism in one country.

And yet despite these solid foundations, the Italian left’s view of the nature of the USSR in the 1930s was extremely contradictory. On the surface, it shared with Trotsky the idea that since the USSR retained its nationalised property forms, it was still a proletarian state: the Stalinist bureaucracy was defined as a parasitic caste rather than an exploiting class in its own right.

But here the profound internationalism of the Italian left set it apart from the Trotskyists, whose position of defence of the degenerated workers’ state led it towards the maws of participation in imperialist war. The theoretical journal of the Italian left, Bilan, began publication in 1933. After some initial hesitations, the events of the ensuing few years (Hitler’s accession to power, support for French rearmament, adhesion to the League of Nations, the war in Spain) convinced it that even if the USSR remained a proletarian state, it was now playing a counter-revolutionary role on a world scale. Consequently the international interests of the working class demanded that revolutionaries refuse any solidarity with this state.

This analysis was linked to Bilan’s recognition that the proletariat had suffered a historic defeat and that the world was heading towards another imperialist war. Bilan predicted with chilling accuracy that the USSR would inevitably align itself with one or other of the blocs forming in preparation for this massacre, rejecting the Trotskyist view that, since the USSR was basically hostile to world capital, the imperialist powers would be forced to unite against it.

On the contrary, Bilan argued, despite the survival of “collectivised” property forms, the working class in the USSR was subject to a ruthless level of capitalist exploitation: the accelerated industrialisation baptised as the “building of socialism” was building no more than a war economy that would allow the USSR to play its part in the next imperialist carve-up. It thus totally rejected Trotsky’s hymns of praise to the industrialisation of the USSR.

Bilan was also aware that there was a growing tendency towards state capitalism in the western countries, whether it took the form of fascism or the democratic “New Deal”. And yet it hesitated to take the final step: to recognise that the Stalinist bureaucracy was indeed a state bourgeoisie, describing it as an “agent of world capital” rather than a new embodiment of the capitalist class

However, as the arguments in favour of the “proletarian state” more and more came into conflict with events in the real world, a minority of comrades in the Fraction began to put the whole theory into question. And it was no accident that this minority was the best equipped to survive the initial disarray that the outbreak of the war brought to the Fraction, which had been led into a blind alley by the revisionist theory of the “war economy”, which had predicted that the world war would not happen.

It had always been axiomatic that the Russian question would be solved one way or the other by the outbreak of the war; and for the clearest elements in the Italian left, the USSR’s participation in a predatory imperialist war provided the final proof. The most coherent arguments in favour of defining the USSR as imperialist and capitalist were developed by the comrades who carried on the work of Bilan in the French Fraction of the Communist Left, and after the war in the Gauche Communiste de France. Integrating some of the best insights of the German left, but without sliding into the councilist denigration of October, this current showed why state capitalism was the essential form adopted by the system in its epoch of decline. With regard to Russia, the last vestiges of a “juridical” definition of capitalism were jettisoned, reaffirming the fundamental marxist view that capital is a social relation which can just as well be administered by a centralised state as by a conglomeration of private capitalists.  And it drew from this the necessary conclusions about the proletarian approach to the transition period: that progress towards communism must be measured not in the growth of the state sector – which actually contains the greatest danger of a return to capitalism – but in the tendency for living labour to dominate dead labour, for the replacement of the production of surplus value by production geared towards the satisfaction of human need.  

7. “The debate on ‘proletarian culture’ in revolutionary Russia” - (International Review n°109)

Against the increasingly superficial approaches to the problem of culture in bourgeois thought, which tend to reduce culture to the most immediate expressions of particular countries or ethnic groups, or even to the status of passing social fashions, marxism situates the question in its broadest and deepest historical context: in the fundamental characteristics of humanity and its emergence from the rest of nature, and within the great cycles of successive modes of production that make up human history.

The proletarian revolution in Russia, so rich in lessons regarding the political and economic goals of the working class, was also accompanied by a brief but powerful explosion of creativity in the sphere of art and culture – in painting, sculpture, architecture, music and literature; in the practical organisation of daily life along more communal lines; in the human sciences such as psychology, and so on. At the same time it posed the general question of mankind’s transition from bourgeois culture to a higher, communist culture.

One of the key issues at debate amongst the Russian revolutionaries was whether this transition would see the development of a specifically proletarian culture. Since previous cultures had been intimately linked to the world-outlook of the ruling class, it seemed to some that the proletariat too, once it had become the ruling class, would construct its own culture opposed to that of the old exploiting class. This was certainly the view of the Proletkult movement which developed a considerable following in the early years of the revolution.

In a resolution submitted to the Proletkult Congress of 1920, Lenin himself seemed to accept this idea of a specifically proletarian culture. At the same time, he criticised certain aspects of the Proletkult movement: its philistine “workerism”, which resulted in glorifying the working class as it is rather than seeing what it must become, and in an iconoclastic rejection of the previous cultural acquisitions of humanity. Lenin was also wary of Proletkult’s tendency to set itself up as a separate party with its own organisational apparatus and programme. Lenin’s resolution thus recommends that the orientation of cultural work in the Soviet regime should be under the direct aegis of the state. However, Lenin’s main interest in the cultural question lay elsewhere. For him, the question of culture was bound up less with the grandiose issue of whether there could be a new proletarian culture in Soviet Russia than with the problem of overcoming the immense cultural backwardness of the Russian masses, where mediaeval custom and superstition still exerted a powerful influence. In particular, Lenin saw the low cultural development of the masses as a breeding ground for the development of the scourge of bureaucracy in the Soviet state. Raising the cultural level of the masses was, for him, a means to combat this scourge and increase the capacity of the masses to maintain political power.

Trotsky, on the other hand, developed a more thorough-going critique of the Proletkult movement. In his view – expounded in a chapter of his book Literature and Revolution – the term proletarian culture itself was a misnomer. The bourgeoisie, as an exploiting class which was able to develop its economic power for a whole period within the framework of the old feudal system, could also develop its own specific culture. This is not the case for the proletariat, which as an exploited class does not have the material basis to develop its own culture within capitalist society. It is true that the proletariat must constitute itself as a ruling class during the transition period to communism, but this is only a temporary political dictatorship, the ultimate aim of which is not to indefinitely preserve the proletariat but to dissolve it into a new human community. The culture of this new community will be the first truly human culture, integrating into itself all the prior cultural advances made by the human species.

Literature and Revolution was written in 1924, and it was in effect an element in Trotsky’s struggle against the rise of Stalinism. Although in its early years Proletkult’s advocacy of proletarian self-initiative had often made it a rallying point for leftwing groups opposing the development of the Soviet bureaucracy, later on its heirs tended to identify with the ideology of socialism in one country, which seemed consistent with the idea that a “new” culture was already being built in the Soviet Union. Trotsky’s writings on culture exposed the hollowness of such claims and also vigorously opposed the transformation of art into state propaganda, advocating an “anarchist” policy in the cultural sphere, which could not be dictated to, either by the party or the state.    

8. “Trotsky and the culture of communism” - (International Review n°111)

Trotsky’s view of the communist culture of the future was contained in the last chapter of Literature and Revolution. Trotsky begins by reiterating his opposition to the term “proletarian culture” to describe the relationship between art and the working class during the period of transition to communism. Instead he offers the distinction between revolutionary art and socialist art. The first is defined essentially by its opposition to existing society; Trotsky even considers that it will tend to be marked by “a spirit of social hatred”. He also posed the question of what “school” of art would be most attuned to a period of revolution, and used the term “realism” to describe it. But this did not mean, for Trotsky, the mind-numbing subordination of art to state propaganda associated with the Stalinist school of “Socialist Realism”. Nor did it mean that Trotsky was blind to the possibility of incorporating the acquisitions of forms of art which were not directly linked to the revolutionary movement, or were even characterised by a desperate flight from reality.

Socialist art, for Trotsky, would be imbued with the higher and more positive emotions that will flourish in a society founded upon solidarity. At the same time Trotsky rejects the idea that, in a society which has abolished class divisions and other sources of oppression and anxiety, art would tend to become sterile. On the contrary, it will tend to suffuse all aspects of daily life with a creative and harmonious energy. And since human beings in a communist society will still be faced with the fundamental questions of human life – above all, love and death – there will still be room for the tragic dimension of art. Here Trotsky is fully in accord with Marx’s approach to art in the Grundrisse, where he explains why the art of previous human epochs does not lose its charm for us; it is because art cannot be reduced to the political aspect of human life, or even to the social relations of a particular epoch of history, but connects to the fundamental needs and aspirations of our human nature.

Nor would the art of the future become monolithic. On the contrary, Trotsky envisages the formation of “parties” arguing for or against particular artistic approaches or projects, in other words, a lively and continual debate amongst the freely-associated producers.

In this society of the future then, art will be integrated into the production of goods, into the building of cities and the shaping of the landscape. No longer the domain of a minority of specialists, it will become part of what Bordiga called “a plan for living for the human species”; it will express man’s capacity to build a world “in accordance with the laws of beauty”, as Marx put it.

In shaping the landscape around him, the man of the future will not be seeking to restore a lost rural idyll. The communist future will be founded upon the most advanced discoveries of science and technology. So too, the city rather than the village will remain the nodal unit of the future. But Trotsky does not turn his back on the marxist vision of new harmony between town and country, and thus of an end to the gargantuan, overcrowded mega-city which has become such a destructive reality in decadent capitalism. This is evident, for example, in Trotsky’s idea that the tiger and the wild forest will be protected and left in peace by future generations.

Finally, Trotsky dared to paint a picture of the human inhabitants of this far communist future. This will be a humanity which is no longer dominated by blind natural and social forces. A humanity no longer ruled by the fear of death, and thus able to give full expression to the instincts for life. The men and women of that future will move with grace and precision, following the laws of beauty in “work, walk and play”.  Their average type will “rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx”.  Even more can be said: in mapping and mastering the depths of the unconscious mind, mankind not only becomes fully human, but also, in a sense, evolves into a new species: “Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social/ biological type; or, if you prefer, the Surhomme, man beyond man”.

This is certainly one of the boldest ever attempts by a communist revolutionary to describe his vision of man’s possible destiny. Since it firmly based itself on mankind’s real potential, and on the world proletarian revolution as its indispensable precondition, it cannot be dismissed as a regression to utopian socialism; but at the same time it succeeds in planting the most inspired speculations of the old utopians on a more solid ground. This is communism as a sphere of unlimited possibility.