The Revolution Betrayed, by Leon Trotsky

Chapter 10

The Soviet Union in the Mirror of the New Constitution

1. Work “according to ability” and personal property

On the 11th of June, 1936, the Central Executive Committee approved the draft of a new Soviet Constitution which, according to Stalin’s declaration, repeated daily by the whole press, will be “the most democratic in the world.” To be sure, the manner in which the constitution was drawn up is enough to cause doubts as to this. Neither in the press nor at any meetings was a word ever spoken about this great reform. Moreover, as early as March 1, 1936, Stalin declared to the American interviewer, Roy Howard: “We will doubtless adopt our new constitution at the end of this year.” Thus Stalin knew with complete accuracy just when this new constitution, about which the people at that moment knew nothing at all, would be adopted. It is impossible not to conclude that “the most democratic constitution in the world” was worked out and introduced in a not quite perfectly democratic manner. To be sure, in June the draft was submitted to the “consideration” of the people of the Soviet Union. It would be vain, however, to seek in this whole sixth part of the globe one Communist who would dare to criticize a creation of the Central Committee, or one non-party citizen who would reject a proposal from the ruling party. The discussion reduced itself to sending resolutions of gratitude to Stalin for the “happy life.” The content and style of these greetings had been thoroughly worked out under the old constitution.

The first section, entitled Social Structure, concludes with these words: “In the Soviet Union, the principle of socialism is realized: From each according to his abilities to each according to his work.” This inwardly contradictory, not to say nonsensical, formula has entered, believe it or not, from speeches and journalistic articles into the carefully deliberated text of the fundamental state law. It bears witness not only to a complete lowering of theoretical level in the lawgivers, but also to the lie with which, as a mirror of the ruling stratum, the new constitution is imbued. It is not difficult to guess the origin of the new “principle.” To characterize the Communist society, Marx employed the famous formula: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” The two parts of this formula are inseparable. “From each according to his abilities,” in the Communist, not the capitalist, sense, means: Work has now ceased to be an obligation, and has become an individual need; society has no further use for any compulsion. Only sick and abnormal persons will refuse to work. Working “according to their ability” – that is, in accord with their physical and psychic powers, without any violence to themselves – the members of the commune will, thanks to a high technique, sufficiently fill up the stores of society so that society can generously endow each and all “according to their needs,” without humiliating control. This two-sided but indivisible formula of communism thus assumes abundance, equality, an all-sided development of personality, and a high cultural discipline.

The Soviet state in all its relations is far closer to a backward capitalism than to communism. It cannot yet even think of endowing each “according to his needs.” But for this very reason it cannot permit its citizens to work “according to their abilities.” It finds itself obliged to keep in force the system of piecework payment, the principle of which may be expressed thus: “Get out of everybody as much as you can, and give him in exchange as little as possible.” To be sure, nobody in the Soviet Union works above his “abilities” in the absolute sense of the word – that is, above his physical and psychic potential. But this is true also of capitalism. The most brutal as well as the most refined methods of exploitation run into limits set by nature. Even a mule under the whip works “according to his ability,” but from that it does not follow that the whip is a social principle for mules. Wage labor does not cease even under the Soviet regime to wear the humiliating label of slavery. Payment “according to work” – in reality, payment to the advantage of “intellectual” at the expense of physical, and especially unskilled, work – is a source of injustice, oppression and compulsions for the majority, privileges and a “happy life” for the few.

Instead of frankly acknowledging that bourgeois norms of labor and distribution still prevail in the Soviet Union, the authors of the constitution have cut this integral Communist principle in two halves, postponed the second half to an indefinite future, declared the first half already realized, mechanically hitched on to it the capitalist norm of piecework payment, named the whole thing “principle of Socialism,” and upon this falsification erected the structure of their constitution!

Of greatest practical significance in the economic sphere is undoubtedly Article X, which in contrast to most of the articles has quite clearly the task of guaranteeing, against invasion from the bureaucracy itself, the personal property of the citizens in their articles of domestic economy, consumption, comfort and daily life. With the exception of “domestic economy”, property of this kind, purged of the psychology of greed and envy which clings to it, will not only be preserved under communism but will receive an unheard of development. It is subject to doubt, to be sure, whether a man of high culture would want to burden himself with a rubbish of luxuries. But he would not renounce any one of the conquests of comfort. The first task of communism is to guarantee the comforts of life to all. In the Soviet Union, however, the question of personal property still wears a petty bourgeois and not a communist aspect. The personal property of the peasants and the not well-off city people is the target of outrageous arbitrary acts on the part of the bureaucracy, which on its lower steps frequently assures by such means its own relative comfort. A growth of the prosperity of the country now makes it possible to renounce these seizures of personal property, and even impels the government to protect personal accumulations as a stimulus to increase the productivity of labor. At the same time – and this is of no small importance a protection by law of the hut, cow and home-furnishings of the peasant, worker or clerical worker, also legalizes the town house of the bureaucrat, his summer home, his automobile and all the other “objects of personal consumption and comfort,” appropriated by him on the basis of the “socialist” principle: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his work.” The bureaucrat’s automobile will certainly be protected by the new fundamental law more effectively than the peasant’s wagon.

2. The Soviets and Democracy

In the political sphere, the distinction of the new constitution from the old is its return from the Soviet system of election according to class and industrial groups, to the system of bourgeois democracy based upon the so-called “universal, equal and direct” vote of an atomized population. This is a matter, to put it briefly, of juridically liquidating the dictatorship of the proletariat. Where there are no capitalists, there is also no proletariat – say the creators of the new constitution – and consequently the state itself from being proletarian becomes national. This argument, with all its superficial lure, is either nineteen years late or many years in advance of its time. In expropriating the capitalists, the proletariat did actually enter upon its own liquidation as a class. But from liquidation in principle to actual dissolution in society is a road more prolonged, the longer the new state is compelled to carry out the rudimentary work of capitalism. The Soviet proletariat still exists as n class deeply distinct from the peasantry, the technical intelligentsia and the bureaucracy – and moreover as the sole class interested right up to the end in the victory of socialism. The new constitution wants to dissolve this class in “the nation” politically, long before it is economically dissolved in society.

To be sure, the reformers decided after some waverings to call the state, as formerly, Soviet. But that is only a crude political ruse dictated by the same considerations out of regard for which Napoleon’s empire continued to be called a republic. Soviets in their essence arc organs of class rule, and cannot be anything else. The democratically elected institutions of local self-administration are municipalities, dumas, zemstvos, anything you will, but not soviets. A general state Legislative Assembly on the basis of democratic formulas is a belated parliament (or rather its caricature), but by no means the highest organ of the Soviets. In trying to cover themselves with the historic authority of the Soviet system, the reformers merely show that the fundamentally new administration which they are giving to the state life dare not as yet come out under its own name.

Of itself, an equalization of the political rights of workers and peasants might not destroy the social nature of the state, if the influence of the proletariat upon the country were sufficiently guaranteed by the general state of economy and culture. The development of socialism certainly ought to proceed in that direction. But if the proletariat, while remaining a minority of the population, is really ceasing to need political ascendancy in order to guarantee a socialist course of social life, that means that the very need of state compulsion is reducing itself to nothing, giving place to cultural discipline.

The abolition of elective inequalities ought in that case to be preceded by a distinct and evident weakening of the compulsive functions of the state. Of this, however, there is not a word said either in the new constitution or, what is more important, in life.

To be sure, the new charter “guarantees” to the citizens the so-called “freedoms” of speech, press, assemblage and street processions. But each of these guarantees has the form either of a heavy muzzle or of shackles upon the hands and feet. Freedom of the press means a continuation of the fierce advance-censorship whose chains are held by the Secretariat of a Central Committee whom nobody has elected. Freedom of Byzantine flattery is thus, of course, fully “guaranteed.” Meanwhile, the innumerable articles, speeches, and letters of Lenin, ending in his “testament”, will continue under the new constitution to be locked up merely because they rub the new leaders the wrong way. That being the case with Lenin, it is unnecessary to speak about other authors. The crude and ignorant command of science, literature and art will be wholly preserved. “Freedom of assemblage” will mean, as formerly, the obligation of certain groups of the population to appear at meetings summoned by the authorities for the adoption of resolutions prepared in advance. Under the new constitution as under the old, hundreds of foreign communists, trusting in the Soviet “right of asylum,” will remain in prisons and concentration camps for crimes against the dogma of infallibility. In the matter of “freedom”, everything will remain as of old. Even the Soviet press does not try to sow any illusions about that. On the contrary, the chief goal of the new constitutional reform is declared to be a “further reinforcement of the dictatorship.” Whose dictatorship, and over whom?

As we have already heard, the ground for political equality was prepared by the abolition of class contradictions. It is no longer to be a class but a “people’s” dictatorship. But when the bearer of dictatorship becomes the people, freed from class contradictions, that can only mean the dissolution of the dictatorship in a socialist society – and, above all, the liquidation of the bureaucracy. Thus teaches the Marxian doctrine. Perhaps it has been mistaken? But the very authors of the constitution refer, although very cautiously, to the program of the party written by Lenin. Here is what the program really says: “ . . . Deprivation of political rights, and all other limitations of freedom whatsoever, are necessary exclusively in the form of temporary measures . . . In proportion as the objective possibility of the exploitation of man by man disappears, the necessity of these temporary measures will also disappear.” Abandonment of the “deprivation of political rights” is thus inseparably bound up with the abolition of “all limitations of freedom whatsoever.” The arrival at a socialist society is characterized not only by the fact that the peasants are put on an equality with the workers, and that political rights are restored to the small percentage of citizens of bourgeois origin, but above all by the fact that real freedom is established for the whole 100 per cent of the population. With the liquidation of classes, not only the bureaucracy dies away, and not only the dictatorship, but the state itself. Let some imprudent person, however, try to utter even a hint in this direction: the GPU will find adequate grounds in the new constitution to send him to one of the innumerable concentration camps. Classes are abolished. Of Soviets there remains only the name. But the bureaucracy is still there. The equality of the rights of workers and peasants means, in reality, an equal lack of rights before the bureaucracy.

No less significant is the introduction of the secret ballot. If you take it on faith that the new political equality corresponds to an achieved social equality, then there remains a puzzling question: In that case why must voting henceforth be protected by secrecy? Whom exactly does the population of a socialist country fear, and from whose attempts must it be defended? The old Soviet constitution saw in open voting, as in the limitation of elective rights, a weapon of the revolutionary class against bourgeois and petty bourgeois enemies. We cannot assume that now the secret ballot is being introduced for the convenience of a counterrevolutionary minority. It is a question, evidently, of defending the rights of the people. But who is feared by a socialist people which has recently thrown off a tzar, a nobility and a bourgeoisie? The sycophants do not even give a thought to this question. Yet there is more in it than in all the writings of the Barbusses, the Louis Fischers, the Durantys, the Webbs, and the like of them.

In a capitalist society, the secret ballot is meant to defend the exploited from the terror of the exploiters. If the bourgeoisie finally adopted such a reform, obviously under pressure from the masses, it was only because it became interested in protecting its state at least partially from the demoralization introduced by itself. But in a socialist society there can be, it would seem, no terror of the exploiters. From whom is it necessary to defend the Soviet citizens? The answer is clear: from the bureaucracy. Stalin was frank enough to recognize this. To the question: Why are secret elections necessary? he answered verbatim: “Because we intend to give the Soviet people full freedom to vote for those whom they want to elect.” Thus humanity learns from an authoritative source that today the “Soviet people” cannot yet vote for those whom they want to elect. It would be hasty to conclude from this that the new constitution will really tender them this opportunity in the future. Just now, however, we are occupied with another side of this problem. Who, exactly, is this “we” who can give or not give the people a free ballot? It is that same bureaucracy in whose name Stalin speaks and acts. This exposure of his applies to the ruling party exactly as it does to the state, for Stalin himself occupies the post of General Secretary of the Party with the help of a system which does not permit the members to elect those whom they want. The words “we intend to give the Soviet people” freedom of voting are incomparably more important than the old and new constitution taken together, for in this incautious phrase lies the actual constitution of the Soviet Union as it has been drawn up, not upon paper, but in the struggle of living forces.

3. Democracy and the Party

The promise to give the Soviet people freedom to vote “for those whom they want to elect” is rather a poetic figure than a political formula. The Soviet people will have the right to choose their “representatives” only from among candidates whom the central and local leaders present to them under the flag of the party. To be sure, during the first period of the Soviet era the Bolshevik party also exercised a monopoly. But to identify these two phenomena would be to take appearance for reality. The prohibition of opposition parties was a temporary measure dictated by conditions of civil war, blockade, intervention and famine. The ruling party, representing in that period a genuine organization of the proletarian vanguard, was living a full-blooded inner life. A struggle of groups and factions to a certain degree replaced the struggle of parties. At present, when socialism has conquered “finally and irrevocably,” the formation of factions is punished with concentration camp or firing squad. The prohibition of other parties, from being a temporary evil, has been erected into a principle. The right to occupy themselves with political questions has even been withdrawn from the Communist Youth, and that at the very moment of publication of the new constitution. Moreover, the citizens and citizenesses enjoy the franchise from the age of 18, but the age limit for Communist Youth existing until 1986 (23 years) is now wholly abolished. Politics is thus once for all declared the monopoly of an uncontrolled bureaucracy.

To a question from an American interviewer as to the role of the party in the new constitution, Stalin answered: “Once there are no classes, once the barriers between classes are disappearing [‘there are no classes, the barriers between classes – which are not! – are disappearing’ – L.T.], there remains only something in the nature of a not at all fundamental difference between various little strata of the socialist society. There can be no nourishing soil for the creation of parties struggling among themselves. Where there are not several classes, there cannot be several parties, for a party is part of a class.” Every word is a mistake and some of them two! It appears from this that classes are homogeneous; that the boundaries of classes are outlined sharply and once for all; that the consciousness of a class strictly corresponds to its place in society. The Marxist teaching of the class nature of the party is thus turned into a caricature. The dynamic of political consciousness is excluded from the historical process in the interests of administrative order. In reality classes are heterogeneous; they are torn by inner antagonisms, and arrive at the solution of common problems no otherwise than through an inner struggle of tendencies, groups and parties. It is possible, with certain qualifications, to concede that “a party is part of a class.” But since a class has many “parts” – some look forward and some back – one and the same class may create several parties. For the same reason one party may rest upon parts of different classes. An example of only one party corresponding to one class is not to be found in the whole course of political history – provided, of course, you do not take the police appearance for the reality.

In its social structure, the proletariat is the least heterogeneous class of capitalist society. Nevertheless, the presence of such “little strata” as the workers’ aristocracy and the workers’ bureaucracy is sufficient to give rise to opportunistic parties, which are converted by the course of things into one of the weapons of bourgeois domination. Whether from the standpoint of Stalinist sociology, the difference between the workers’ aristocracy and the proletarian mass is “fundamental” or only “something in the nature of” matters not at all. It is from this difference that the necessity arose in its time for breaking with the Social Democracy and creating the Third International.

Even if in the Soviet society “there are no classes,” nevertheless this society is at least incomparably more heterogeneous and complicated than the proletariat of capitalist countries, and consequently can furnish adequate nourishing soil for several parties. In making this imprudent excursion into the field of theory, Stalin proved a good deal more than he wanted to. From his reasonings it follows not only that there can be no different parties in the Soviet Union, but that there cannot even be one party. For where there are no classes, there is in general no place for politics. Nevertheless, from this law Stalin draws a “sociological” conclusion in favor of the party of which he is the General Secretary.

Bukharin tries to approach the problem from another side. In the Soviet Union, he says, the question where to go – whether back to capitalism or forward to socialism – is no longer subject to discussion. Therefore, “partisans of the hostile liquidated classes organized in parties cannot be permitted.” To say nothing of the fact that in a country of triumphant socialism partisans of capitalism would be merely ludicrous Don Quixotes incapable of creating a party, the existing political differences are far from comprised in the alternative: to socialism or to capitalism. There are other questions: How go toward socialism, with what tempo, etc. The choice of the road is no less important than the choice of the goal. Who is going to choose the road? If the nourishing soil for political parties has really disappeared, then there is no reason to forbid them. On the contrary, it is time, in accordance with the party program, to abolish “all limitations of freedom whatsoever.”

In trying to dispel the natural doubts of his American interviewer, Stalin advanced a new consideration: “Lists of nominees will be presented not only by the Communist Party, but also by all kinds of non-party social organizations. And we have hundreds of them . . . Each one of the little strata [of Soviet society] can have its special interests and reflect [express?] them through the existing innumerable social organizations.” This sophism is no better than the others. The Soviet “social” organizations – trade union, co-operative, cultural, etc. do not in the least represent the interests of different “little strata”, for they all have one and the same hierarchical structure. Even in those cases where they apparently represent mass organizations, as in the trade unions and co-operatives, the active role in them is played exclusively by representatives of the upper privileged groups, and the last word remains with the “party” – that is, the bureaucracy. The constitution merely refers the elector from Pontius to Pilate.

The mechanics of this are expressed with complete precision in the very text of the fundamental law. Article 126, which is the axis of the constitution as a political system, “guarantees the right” to all male and female citizens to group themselves in trade unions, co-operatives, youth, sport, defensive, cultural, technical and scientific organizations. As to the party – that is, the concentration of power – there it is not a question of the right of all, but of the privilege of the minority. “ . . . The most active and conscious [so considered, that is, from above – L.T.] citizens from the ranks of the working class and other strata of the toiling masses, are united in the Communist Party . . . which constitutes the guiding nucleus of all organizations, both social and governmental.” This astoundingly candid formula, introduced into the text of the constitution itself, reveals the whole fictitiousness of the political role of those “social organizations” – subordinate branches of the bureaucratic firm.

But if there is not to be a struggle of parties, perhaps the different factions within the one party can reveal themselves at these democratic elections? To the question of a French journalist as to the groupings of the ruling party, Molotov answered: “In the party . . . attempts have been made to create special factions . . . but it is already several years since the situation in this matter has fundamentally changed, and the Communist Party is actually a unit.” This is proven best of all by the continuous purgations and the concentration camps. After the commentary of Molotov, the mechanics of democracy are completely clear. “What remains of the October Revolution,” asks Victor Serge, “if every worker who permits himself to make a demand, or express a critical judgment, is subject to imprisonment? Oh, after that you can establish as many secret ballots as you please!” It is true: even Hitler did not infringe upon the secret ballot.

The reformers have dragged in theoretical arguments about the mutual relations of classes and parties by the hair. It is not a question of sociology, but of material interests. The ruling party which enjoys a monopoly in the Soviet Union is the political machine of the bureaucracy, which in reality has something to lose and nothing more to gain. It wishes to preserve the “nourishing soil” for itself alone.

In a country where the lava of revolution has not yet cooled, privileges burn those who possess them as a stolen gold watch burns an amateur thief. The ruling Soviet stratum has learned to fear the masses with a perfectly bourgeois fear. Stalin gives the growing special privileges of the upper circles a “theoretical” justification with the help of the Communist International, and defends the Soviet aristocracy from popular discontent with the help of concentration camps. In order that this mechanism should keep on working, Stalin is compelled from time to time to take the side of “the people” against the bureaucracy – of course, with its tacit consent. He finds it useful to resort to the secret ballot in order at least partially to purge the state apparatus of the corruptions which are devouring it.

As early as 1928, Rakovsky wrote, discussing a number of cases of bureaucratic gangsterism which were coming to the surface: “The most characteristic and most dangerous thing in this spreading wave of scandals is the passiveness of the masses, the Communist masses even more than the nonparty . . . Owing to fear of those in power, or simply owing to political indifference, they have passed these things by without protest, or have limited themselves to mere grumbling.” During the eight years which have passed since that time, the situation has become incomparably worse. The decay of the political machine, exposing itself at every step, has begun to threaten the very existence of the state no longer now as an instrument for the socialist transformation of society, but as a source of power, income and privileges to the ruling stratum. Stalin was compelled to give a glimpse of this motive to the reform. “We have not a few institutions,” he told Roy Howard, “which work badly . . . The secret ballot in the Soviet Union will be a whip in the hands of the population against badly working organs of power.” A remarkable confession! After the bureaucracy has created a socialist society with its own hands, it feels the need . . . of a whip! That is one of the motives of the constitutional reform. There is another no less important.

In abolishing the soviets, the new constitution dissolves the workers in the general mass of the population. Politically the soviets, to be sure, long ago lost their significance. But with the growth of new social antagonisms and the awakening of a new generation, they might again come to life. Most of all, of course, are to be feared the city soviets with the increasing participation of fresh and demanding communist youth. In the cities the contrast between luxury and want is too clear to the eyes. The first concern of the Soviet aristocracy is to get rid of worker and Red Army soviets. With the discontent of the scattered rural population it is much easier to deal. The collectivized peasants can even with some success be used against the city workers. This is not the first time that a bureaucratic reaction has relied upon the country in its struggle against the city.

Whatever in the new constitution is principled and significant, and really elevates it high above the most democratic constitutions of bourgeois countries, is merely a watered-down paraphrase of the fundamental documents of the October revolution. Whatever has to do with estimating the economic conquests, distorts reality with false perspective and braggadocio. And finally whatever concerns freedom and democracy is saturated through and through with the spirit of usurpation and cynicism.

Representing, as it does, an immense step back from socialist to bourgeois principles, the new constitution, cut and sewed to the measure of the ruling group, follows the same historic course as the abandonment of world revolution in favor of the League of Nations, the restoration of the bourgeois family, the substitution of the standing army for the militia, the resurrection of ranks and decorations, and the growth of inequality. By juridically reinforcing the absolutism of an “extra-class” bureaucracy, the new constitution creates the political premises for the birth of a. new possessing class.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05