The question we previously raised in the name of the reader: “How could the ruling clique, with its innumerable mistakes, concentrate unlimited power in its hands?” – or, in other words: “How explain the contradiction between the intellectual poverty of the Thermidorians and their material might?” – now permits a more concrete and categorical answer. The Soviet society is not harmonious. What is a sin for one class or stratum is a virtue for another. From the point of view of socialist forms of society, the policy of the bureaucracy is striking in its contradictions and inconsistencies. But the same policy appears very consistent from the standpoint of strengthening the power of the new commanding stratum.
The state support of the kulak (1923-28) contained a mortal danger for the socialist future. But then, with the help of the petty bourgeoisie the bureaucracy succeeded in binding the proletarian vanguard hand and foot, and suppressing the Bolshevik Opposition. This “mistake” from the point of view of socialism was a pure gain from the point of view of the bureaucracy. When the kulak began directly to threaten the bureaucracy itself, it turned its weapons against the kulak. The panic of aggression against the kulak, spreading also to the middle peasant, was no less costly to the economy than a foreign invasion. But the bureaucracy had defended its positions. Having barely succeeded in exterminating its former ally, it began with all its power to develop a new aristocracy. Thus undermining socialism? Of course but at the same time strengthening the commanding caste. The Soviet bureaucracy is like all ruling classes in that it is ready to shut its eyes to the crudest mistakes of its leaders in the sphere of general politics, provided in return they show an unconditional fidelity in the defense of its privileges. The more alarmed becomes the mood of the new lords of the situation, the higher the value they set upon ruthlessness against the least threat to their so justly earned rights. It is from this point of view that the caste of parvenus selects its leaders. Therein lies the secret of Stalin’s success.
The growth of power and independence in a bureaucracy, however, is not unlimited. There are historical factors stronger than marshals, and even than general secretaries. A rationalization of economy is unthinkable without accurate accounts. Accounts are irreconcilable with the caprices of a bureaucracy. Concern for the restoration of a stable ruble, which means a ruble independent of the “leaders”, is imposed upon the bureaucracy by the fact that their autocratic rule is coming into greater and greater contradiction with the development of the productive forces of the country – just as absolute monarchy became in its time irreconcilable with the development of the bourgeois market. Money accounting, however, cannot fail to give a more open character to the struggle of the different strata for the distribution of the national income. The question of the wage-scale, almost a matter of indifference during the epoch of the food-card system, is now decisive for the workers, and with it the question of the trade unions. The designation of trade union officials from above is destined to meet more and more resistance. More than that, under piecework payment the worker is directly interested in a correct ordering of the factory management. The Stakhanovists are complaining more and more loudly of the faults of organization in production. Bureaucratic nepotism in the matter of appointing directors, engineers, etc., is becoming more and more intolerable. The co-operatives and the state trade are coming much more than formerly into dependence upon the buyer. The collective farms and the individual collective farmers are learning to translate their dealings with the state into the language of figures. They are growing unwilling to endure submissively the naming from above of leaders whose sole merit is frequently their closeness to the local bureaucratic clique. And, finally, the ruble promises to cast a light into that most mysterious region: the legal and illegal incomes of the bureaucracy. Thus, in a politically strangled country, money circulation becomes an important lever for the mobilization of oppositional forces, and foretells the beginning of the end of “enlightened” absolutism.
While the growth of industry and the bringing of agriculture into the sphere of state planning vastly complicates the tasks of leadership, bringing to the front the problem of quality, bureaucratism destroys the creative initiative and the feeling of responsibility without which there is not, and cannot be, qualitative progress. The ulcers of bureaucratism are perhaps not so obvious in the big industries, but they are devouring, together with the co-operatives’ the light and food-producing industries, the collective farms, the small local industries – that is, all those branches of economy which stand nearest to the people.
The progressive role of the Soviet bureaucracy coincides with the period devoted to introducing into the Soviet Union the most important elements of capitalist technique.
The rough work of borrowing, imitating, transplanting and grafting, was accomplished on the bases laid down by the revolution. There was, thus far, no question of any new word in the sphere of technique, science or art. It is possible to build gigantic factories according to a ready-made Western pattern by bureaucratic command – although, to be sure, at triple the normal cost. But the farther you go, the more the economy runs into the problem of quality, which slips out of the hands of a bureaucracy like a shadow. The Soviet products are as though branded with the gray label of indifference. Under a nationalized economy, quality demands a democracy of producers and consumers, freedom of criticism and initiative – conditions incompatible with a totalitarian regime of fear, lies and flattery.
Behind the question of quality stands a more complicated and grandiose problem which may be comprised in the concept of independent, technical and cultural creation. The ancient philosopher said that strife is the father of all things. No new values can be created where a free conflict of ideas is impossible. To be sure, a revolutionary dictatorship means by its very essence strict limitations of freedom. But for that very reason epochs of revolution have never been directly favorable to cultural creation: they have only cleared the arena for it. The dictatorship of the proletariat opens a wider scope to human genius the more it ceases to be a dictatorship. The socialist culture will flourish only in proportion to the dying away of the state. In that simple and unshakable historic law is contained the death sentence of the present political regime in the Soviet Union. Soviet democracy is not the demand of an abstract policy, still less an abstract moral. It has become a life-and-death need of the country.
If the new state had no other interests than the interests of society, the dying away of the function of compulsion would gradually acquire a painless character. But the state is not pure spirit. Specific functions have created specific organs. The bureaucracy taken as a whole is concerned not so much with its function as with the tribute which this function brings in. The commanding caste tries to strengthen and perpetuate the organs of compulsion. To make sure of its power and income, it spares nothing and nobody. The more the course of development goes against it, the more ruthless it becomes toward the advanced elements of the population. Like the Catholic Church it has put forward the dogma of infallibility in the period of its decline, but it has raised it to a height of which the Roman pope never dreamed.
The increasingly insistent deification of Stalin is, with all its elements of caricature, a necessary element of the regime. The bureaucracy has need of an inviolable superarbiter, a first consul if not an emperor, and it raises upon its shoulders him who best responds to its claim for lordship. That “strength of character” of the leader which so enraptures the literary dilettantes of the West, is in reality the sum total of the collective pressure of a caste which will stop at nothing in defense of its position. Each one of them at his post is thinking: l’etat c’est moi. In Stalin each one easily finds himself. But Stalin also finds in each one a small part of his own spirit. Stalin is the personification of the bureaucracy. That is the substance of his political personality.
Caesarism, or its bourgeois form, Bonapartism, enters the scene in those moments of history when the sharp struggle of two camps raises the state power, so to speak, above the nation, and guarantees it, in appearance, a complete independence of classes in reality, only the freedom necessary for a defense of the privileged. The Stalin regime, rising above a politically atomized society, resting upon a police and officers’ corps, and allowing of no control whatever, is obviously a variation of Bonapartism – a Bonapartism of a new type not before seen in history.
Caesarism arose upon the basis of a slave society shaken by inward strife. Bonapartism is one of the political weapons of the capitalist regime in its critical period. Stalinism is a variety of the same system, but upon the basis of a workers’ state torn by the antagonism between an organized and armed Soviet aristocracy and the unarmed toiling masses.
As history testifies, Bonapartism gets along admirably with a universal, and even a secret, ballot. The democratic ritual of Bonapartism is the plebiscite. From time to time, the question is presented to the citizens: for or against the leader? And the voter feels the barrel of a revolver between his shoulders. Since the time of Napoleon III, who now seems a provincial dilettante, this technique has received an extraordinary development. The new Soviet constitution which establishes Bonapartism on a plebiscite basis is the veritable crown of the system.
In the last analysis, Soviet Bonapartism owes its birth to the belatedness of the world revolution. But in the capitalist countries the same cause gave rise to fascism. We thus arrive at the conclusion, unexpected at first glance, but in reality inevitable, that the crushing of Soviet democracy by an all-powerful bureaucracy and the extermination of bourgeois democracy by fascism were produced by one and the same cause: the dilatoriness of the world proletariat in solving the problems set for it by history. Stalinism and fascism, in spite of a deep difference in social foundations, are symmetrical phenomena. In many of their features they show a deadly similarity. A victorious revolutionary movement in Europe would immediately shake not only fascism, but Soviet Bonapartism. In turning its back to the international revolution, the Stalinist bureaucracy was, from its own point of view, right. It was merely obeying the voice of self-preservation.
From the first days of the Soviet regime the counterweight to bureaucratism was the party. If the bureaucracy managed the state, still the party controlled the bureaucracy. Keenly vigilant lest inequality transcend the limits of what was necessary, the party was always in a state of open or disguised struggle with the bureaucracy. The historic role of Stalin’s faction was to destroy this duplication, subjecting the party to its own officialdom and merging the latter in the officialdom of the state. Thus was created the present totalitarian regime. It was his doing the bureaucracy this not unimportant service that guaranteed Stalin’s victory.
During the first ten years of its struggle, the Left Opposition did not abandon the program of ideological conquest of the party for that of conquest of power against the party. Its slogan was: reform, not revolution. The bureaucracy, however, even in those times, was ready for any revolution in order to defend itself against a democratic reform. In 1927, when the struggle reached an especially bitter stage, Stalin declared at a session of the Central Committee, addressing himself to the Opposition: “Those cadres can be removed only by civil war!” What was a threat in Stalin’s words became, thanks to a series of defeats of the European proletariat, a historic fact. The road of reform was turned into a road of revolution.
The continual purgations of the party and the Soviet organizations have the object of preventing the discontent of the masses from finding a coherent political expression. But repressions do not kill thought; they merely drive it underground. Wide circles of communists as well as nonparty citizens, keep up two systems of thought, one official and one secret. Spying and talebearing are corroding social relations throughout. The bureaucracy unfailingly represents its enemies as the enemies of socialism. With the help of judicial forgeries, which have become the normal thing, it imputes to them any crime it finds convenient. Under threat of the firing squad, it extracts confessions dictated by itself from the weak, and then makes these confessions the basis for accusations against the more sturdy.
“It would be unpardonably stupid and criminal,” teaches Pravda of June 5, 1936, – commenting upon the “most democratic constitution in the world,” – notwithstanding the abolition of classes to assume that “class forces hostile to socialism are reconciled to their defeat . . . The struggle goes on.” Who are these “hostile class forces”? Pravda answers: “Relics of counter-revolutionary groups, White Guards of all colors, especially the Trotskyist-Zinovievist.” After the inevitable reference to “spy work, conspiracies and terrorist activity” (by Trotskyist-Zinovievists!), the organ of Stalin gives this promise: “We will in the future too beat down and exterminate with a firm hand the enemies of the people, the Trotskyist reptiles and furies, no matter how skillfully they disguise themselves.” Such threats, daily repeated in the Soviet press, are but accompaniments to the work of the GPU. A certain Petrov, member of the party since 1918, participant in the civil war, subsequently a Soviet agricultural expert and member of the Right Opposition, who escaped from exile in 1936, writing in a liberal émigré paper, now characterizes the so-called Trotskyists as follows: “The lefts? Psychologically, the last revolutionists, genuine and fervent. No gray bargaining, no compromises. Most admirable people. But idiotic ideas . . . a world conflagration and such like raving.” We will leave aside the question of their “ideas.” This moral and political appraisal of the left from their enemy on the right, speaks for itself. It is these “last revolutionists, genuine, fervent,” that the colonels and generals of the GPU are arraigning for . . . counterrevolutionary activity in the interests of imperialism.
The hysteria of the bureaucratic hatred against the Bolshevik Opposition acquires an especially sharp political meaning in connection with the removal of limitations upon people of bourgeois origin. The conciliatory decrees in relation to their employment, work and education are based upon the consideration that the resistance of the former ruling classes dies away in proportion as the stability of the new order becomes clear. “There is now no need of these limitations,” explained Molotov at a session of the Central Executive Committee in January, 1936. At the same moment, however, it was revealed that the most malicious “class enemies” are recruited from among those who struggled throughout their whole lives for socialism, starting with the closest co-workers of Lenin, such as Zinoviev and Kamenev. In distinction from the bourgeoisie, the “Trotskyists”, according to Pravda, become more desperate, “the more clearly the features of a non-class socialist society are drawn.” The delirious character of this philosophy, arising from the necessity of covering up new relations with old formulas, cannot, of course, conceal a real shift in the social antagonisms. On the one hand, the creation of a caste of “gentry” opens broad opportunities for careers to the more ambitious offspring of the bourgeoisie: there is no risk in giving them equal rights. On the other hand, the same phenomenon produces a sharp and extremely dangerous discontent in the masses, and especially the worker youths. Hence, the exterminating campaign against “furies and reptiles.” The sword of the dictatorship, which used to fell those who wanted to restore the privileges of the bourgeoisie, is now directed against those who revolt against the privileges of the bureaucracy. The blows fall not upon the class enemies of the proletariat, but upon the proletarian vanguard. Corresponding to this basic change in its functions, the political police, formerly recruited from especially devoted and self-sacrificing Bolsheviks, is now composed of the most demoralized part of the bureaucracy.
In their persecution of revolutionists, the Thermidorians pour out all their hatred upon those who remind them of the past, and make them dread the future. The prisons, the remote corners of Siberia and Central Asia, the fast multiplying concentration camps, contain the flower of the Bolshevik Party, the most sturdy and true. Even in the solitary confinement prisons of Siberia the Oppositionists are still persecuted with searches, postal blockades and hunger. In exile wives are forcibly separated from their husbands, with one sole purpose: to break their resistance and extract a recantation. But even those who recant are not saved. At the first suspicion or hint from some informer against them, they are subjected to redoubled punishment. Help given to exiles even by their relatives is prosecuted as a crime. Mutual aid is punished as a conspiracy.
The sole means of self-defense in these conditions is the hunger strike. The GPU answers this with forcible feeding or with an offer of freedom to die. During these years hundreds of Oppositionists, both Russian and foreign, have been shot, or have died of hunger strikes, or have resorted to suicide. Within the last twelve years, the authorities have scores of times announced to the world the final rooting out of the opposition. But during the “purgations” in the last month of 1935 and the first half of 1936, hundreds of thousands of members of the party were again expelled, among them several tens of thousands of “Trotskyists.” The most active were immediately arrested and thrown into prisons and concentration camps. As to the rest, Stalin, through Pravda, openly advised the local organs not to give them work. In a country where the sole employer is the state, this means death by slow starvation. The old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced with a new one: who does not obey shall not eat. Exactly how many Bolsheviks have been expelled, arrested, exiled, exterminated, since 1923, when the era of Bonapartism opened, we shall find out when we go through the archives of Stalin’s political police. How many of them remain in the underground will become known when the shipwreck of the bureaucracy begins.
How much significance can twenty or thirty thousand Oppositionists have for a party of two million? On such a question a mere juxtaposition of figures means nothing. Ten revolutionists in a regiment is enough to bring it over, in a red-hot political atmosphere, to the side of the people. Not for nothing does the staff mortally fear tiny underground circles, or even single individuals. This reactionary general-staff fear, which imbues the Stalinist bureaucracy throughout, explains the mad character of its persecutions and its poisonous slanders.
Victor Serge, who lived through all the stages of the repression in the Soviet Union, has brought startling news to western Europe from those who are undergoing torture for their loyalty to the revolution and hostility to its gravediggers.
“I exaggerate nothing,” he writes. “I weigh every word. I can back up every one of my statements with tragic proof and with names. Among this mass of martyrs and protestants, for the most part silent, one heroic minority is nearer to me than all the others, precious for its energy, its penetration, its stoicism, its devotion to the Bolshevism of the great epoch. Thousands of these Communists of the first hour, comrades of Lenin and Trotsky, builders of the Soviet Republic when Soviets still existed, are opposing the principles of socialism to the inner degeneration of the regime, are defending as best they can (and all they can is to agree to all possible sacrifices) the rights of the working class . . . I bring you news of those who are locked up there. They will hold out, whatever be necessary, to the end. Even if they do not live to see a new revolutionary dawn . . . the revolutionists of the West can count upon them. The flame will be kept burning, even if only in prisons. In the same way they are counting upon you. You must – we must – defend them in order to defend workers’ democracy in the world, in order to revive the liberating image of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and some day restore to the Soviet Union its moral greatness and the confidence of the workers.”
Discussing the dying away of the state, Lenin wrote that the custom of observing the rules of social life can lose all need of compulsion if there is nothing which provokes indignation, protest and revolt, and thus creates the necessity for repression.” The essence of the matter lies in that if. The present regime in the Soviet Union provokes protest at every step, a protest the more burning in that it is repressed. The bureaucracy is not only a machine of compulsion but also a constant source of provocation. The very existence of a greedy, lying and cynical caste of rulers inevitably creates a hidden indignation. The improvement of the material situation of the workers does not reconcile them with the authorities; on the contrary, by increasing their self-respect and freeing their thought for general problems of politics, it prepares the way for an open conflict with the bureaucracy.
The unremovable “leaders” love to issue statements about the necessity of “studying”, of “acquiring technique”, “cultural self-education”, and other admirable things. But the ruling layer itself is ignorant and little cultured; it studies nothing seriously, is disloyal and rude in social contacts. Its pretension to patronize all spheres of social life, to take command not only of co-operative shops but of musical compositions, is the more intolerable for that. The Soviet population cannot rise to a higher level of culture without freeing itself from this humiliating subjection to a caste of usurpers.
Will the bureaucrat devour the workers’ state, or will the working class clean up the bureaucrat? Thus stands the question upon whose decision hangs the fate of the Soviet Union. The vast majority of the Soviet workers are even now hostile to the bureaucracy. The peasant masses hate them with their healthy plebian hatred. If in contrast to the peasants the workers have almost never come out on the road of open struggle, thus condemning the protesting villages to confusion and impotence, this is not only because of the repressions. The workers fear lest, in throwing out the bureaucracy, they will open the way for a capitalist restoration. The mutual relations between state and class are much more complicated than they are represented by the vulgar “democrats.” Without a planned economy the Soviet Union would be thrown back for decades. In that sense the bureaucracy continues to fulfill a necessary function. But it fulfills it in such a way as to prepare an explosion of the whole system which may completely sweep out the results of the revolution. The workers are realists. Without deceiving themselves with regard to the ruling caste at least with regard to its lower tiers which stand near to them – they see in it the watchman for the time being of a certain part of their own conquests. They will inevitably drive out the dishonest, impudent and unreliable watchman as soon as they see another possibility. For this it is necessary that in the West or the East another revolutionary dawn arise.
The cessation of visible political struggle is portrayed by the friends and agents of the Kremlin as a “stabilization” of the regime. In reality it signalizes only a temporary stabilization of the bureaucracy. With popular discontent driven deep, the younger generation feels with special pain the yoke of this “enlightened absolutism” in which there is so much more absolutism than enlightenment. The increasingly ominous vigilance of the bureaucracy against any ray of living thought, and the unbearable tensity of the hymns of praise addressed to a blessed providence in the person of the “leader”, testify alike to a growing separation between the state and society. They testify to a steady intensifying of inner contradictions, a pressure against the walls of the state which seeks a way out and must inevitably find one.
In a true appraisal of the situation, the not infrequent terrorist acts against representatives of power have a very high significance. The most notorious of these was the murder of Kirov, a clever and unscrupulous Leningrad dictator, a typical representative of his corporation. In themselves, terrorist acts are least of all capable of overthrowing a Bonapartist oligarchy. Although the individual bureaucrat dreads the revolver. the bureaucracy as a whole is able to exploit an act of terror for the justification of its own violences, and incidentally to implicate in the murder its own political enemies (the affair of Zinoviev, Kamenev and the others). 1 Individual terror is a weapon of impatient or despairing individuals, belonging most frequently to the younger generation of the bureaucracy itself. But, as was the case in tzarist times, political murders are unmistakable symptoms of a stormy atmosphere, and foretell the beginning of an open political crisis.
1. Translator’s Note: The reference here is to the January 1935 trial and not the August 1936 trial, the lines having been written prior to the latter.
In introducing the new constitution, the bureaucracy shows that it feels this danger and is taking preventive measures. However, it has happened more than once that a bureaucratic dictatorship, seeking salvation in “liberal” reforms, has only weakened itself. While exposing Bonapartism, the new constitution creates at the same time a semi-legal cover for the struggle against it. The rivalry of bureaucratic cliques at the elections may become the beginning of a broader political struggle. The whip against “badly working organs of power” may be turned into a whip against Bonapartism. All indications agree that the further course of development must inevitably lead to a clash between the culturally developed forces of the people and the bureaucratic oligarchy. There is no peaceful outcome for this crisis. No devil ever yet voluntarily cut off his own claws. The Soviet bureaucracy will not give up its positions without a fight. The development leads obviously to the road of revolution.
With energetic pressure from the popular mass, and the disintegration inevitable in such circumstances of the government apparatus, the resistance of those in power may prove much weaker than now appears. But as to this only hypotheses are possible. In any case, the bureaucracy can be removed only by a revolutionary force. And, as always, there will be fewer victims the more bold and decisive is the attack. To prepare this and stand at the head of the masses in a favorable historic situation – that is the task of the Soviet section of the Fourth International. Today it is still weak and driven underground. But the illegal existence of a party is not nonexistence. It is only a difficult form of existence. Repressions can prove fully effective against a class that is disappearing from the scene this was fully proven by the revolutionary dictatorship of 1917 to 1923 – but violences against a revolutionary vanguard cannot save a caste which, if the Soviet Union is destined in general to further development, has outlived itself.
The revolution which the bureaucracy is preparing against itself will not be social, like the October revolution of 1917. It is not a question this time of changing the economic foundations of society, of replacing certain forms of property with other forms. History has known elsewhere not only social revolutions which substituted the bourgeois for the feudal regime, but also political revolutions which, without destroying the economic foundations of society, swept out an old ruling upper crust (1830 and 1848 in France, February 1917 in Russia, etc.). The overthrow of the Bonapartist caste will, of course, have deep social consequences, but in itself it will be confined within the limits of political revolution.
This is the first time in history that a state resulting from a workers’ revolution has existed. The stages through which it must go are nowhere written down. It is true that the theoreticians and creators of the Soviet Union hoped that the completely transparent and flexible Soviet system would permit the state peacefully to transform itself, dissolve, and die away, in correspondence with the stages of the economic and cultural evolution of society. Here again, however, life proved more complicated than theory anticipated. The proletariat of a backward country was fated to accomplish the first socialist revolution. For this historic privilege, it must, according to all evidences, pay with a second supplementary revolution – against bureaucratic absolutism. The program of the new revolution depends to a great extent upon the moment when it breaks out, upon the level which the country has then attained, and to a great degree upon the international situation. The fundamental elements of the program are already clear, and have been given throughout the course of this book as an objective inference from an analysis of the contradictions of the Soviet regime.
It is not a question of substituting one ruling clique for another, but of changing the very methods of administering the economy and guiding the culture of the country. Bureaucratic autocracy must give place to Soviet democracy. A restoration of the right of criticism, and a genuine freedom of elections, are necessary conditions for the further development of the country. This assumes a revival of freedom of Soviet parties, beginning with the party of Bolsheviks, and a resurrection of the trade unions. The bringing of democracy into industry means a radical revision of plans in the interests of the toilers. Free discussion of economic problems will decrease the overhead expense of bureaucratic mistakes and zigzags. Expensive playthings palaces of the Soviets, new theaters, show-off subways – will be crowded out in favor of workers’ dwellings. “Bourgeois norms of distribution” will be confined within the limits of strict necessity, and, in step with the growth of social wealth, will give way to socialist equality. Ranks will be immediately abolished. The tinsel of decorations will go into the melting pot. The youth will receive the opportunity to breathe freely, criticize, make mistakes, and grow up. Science and art will be freed of their chains. And, finally, foreign policy will return to the traditions of revolutionary internationalism.
More than ever the fate of the October revolution is bound up now with the fate of Europe and of the whole world. The problems of the Soviet Union are now being decided on the Spanish peninsula, in France, in Belgium. At the moment when this book appears the situation will be incomparably more clear than today, when civil war is in progress under the walls of Madrid. If the Soviet bureaucracy succeeds, with its treacherous policy of “people’s fronts”, in insuring the victory of reaction in Spain and France – and the Communist International is doing all it can in that direction – the Soviet Union will find itself on the edge of ruin. A bourgeois counterrevolution rather than an insurrection of the workers against the bureaucracy will be on the order of the day. If, in spite of the united sabotage of reformists and “Communist” leaders, the proletariat of western Europe finds the road to power, a new chapter will open in the history of the Soviet Union. The first victory of a revolution in Europe would pass like an electric shock through the Soviet masses, straighten them up, raise their spirit of independence, awaken the traditions of 1905 and 1917, undermine the position of the Bonapartist bureaucracy, and acquire for the Fourth International no less significance than the October revolution possessed for the Third. Only in that way can the first Workers’ State be saved for the socialist future.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00