Leon Trotsky was the best and the brightest of the old Bolsheviks. A brilliant revolutionary and military leader, he played seminal roles in organizing both the 1905 and 1917 Bolshevik revolutions in Russia, and without him the Whites may well have won the Russian Civil War. A few years after he defeated the last of the White generals, Stalin ousted him from power. He gave his last public speech in 1927 at the funeral of fellow “left oppositionist” Adolf Joffe, was exiled in 1929, and finally murdered by one of Stalin’s henchmen in Mexico in 1940. While in exile, he was kept well-informed about events in the Soviet Union, including the slaughter of the Kulaks, the mass death in the Ukraine caused by Stalin’s forced collectivization of agriculture, the unabated hunger and misery of the survivors, and the persistent mass terror with its hundreds of thousands of executions and rapid expansion of the Gulag system. He treated with scorn the breathless praise of Stalin by the “friends” of the Soviet Union, such as Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Bernard Shaw, etc. And yet, in spite of it all, he continued defending the Bolshevik Revolution to the end. How could such an intelligent man continue to defend something so vile and destructive?
In fact, it isn’t so hard to understand. Human beings aren’t really particularly intelligent, except in comparison to other animals, and they have a strong tendency to believe what they want to believe. Trotsky was a convinced Marxist, and had a powerful incentive to believe that the revolution he had done so much to prepare and execute really was the path to a bright new future rather than the most bloody and destructive debacle in human history, as now seems clear in retrospect. No one likes to face the fact that their life’s work has been in vain, and based on an illusion. Trotsky’s rationalizations were probably similar to those of a great many other supporters of the Stalin regime in the 1930’s, including the “friends” he so despised.
The most concise summary of those rationalizations is probably his, The Revolution Betrayed, which was published in 1936. Here are some of the key quotes:
…by concentrating the means of production in the hands of the state, the revolution made it possible to apply new and incomparably more effective industrial methods. Only thanks to a planned directive was it possible in so brief a span to restore what had been destroyed by the imperialist and civil wars, to create gigantic new enterprises, to introduce new kinds of production and establish new branches of industry.
The vast scope of industrialization in the Soviet Union, as against a background of stagnation and decline in almost the whole capitalist world, appears unanswerably in the following gross indices. Industrial production in Germany, thanks solely to feverish war preparations, is now returning to the level of 1929. Production in Great Britain, holding to the apron strings of protectionism, has raised itself three or four percent during these six years. Industrial production in the United States has declined approximately 25 per cent; in France, more than 30 per cent. First place among capitalist countries is occupied by Japan, who is furiously arming herself and robbing her neighbors. Her production has risen almost 40 percent! But even this exceptional index fades before the dynamic of development in the Soviet Union. Her industrial production has increased during this same period approximately 3.5 times, or 250 percent. The heavy industries have increased their production during the last decade (1925 to 1935) more than ten times.
Gigantic achievements in industry, enormously promising beginnings in agriculture, an extraordinary growth of the old industrial cities and a building of new ones, a rapid increase of the number of workers, a rise in cultural level and cultural demands – such are the indubitable results of the October revolution, in which the prophets of the old world tried to see the grave of human civilization. With the bourgeois economists we have no longer anything to quarrel over. Socialism has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of Das Kapital, but in an industrial arena comprising a sixth part of the earth’s surface – not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity. Even if the Soviet Union, as a result of internal difficulties, external blows and the mistakes of its leadership, were to collapse – which we firmly hope will not happen – there would remain as an earnest of the future this indestructible fact, that thanks solely to a proletarian revolution a backward country has achieved in less than ten years successes unexampled in history.
This also ends the quarrel with the reformists in the workers’ movement. Can we compare for one moment their mouselike fussing with the titanic work accomplished by this people aroused to a new life by revolution?
As Milton put it in Paradise Lost, “So spake th’ Apostate Angel, though in pain, Vaunting aloud, but rackt with deep despair.” At the time Trotsky wrote these words, there was nothing deceptive about them. All of the above seemed to be quite factual. As it happens, he was actually well aware of some of the blemishes to this pretty picture that, in the end, resulted in the demise of Communism. For example,
But this same feverish growth has also had its negative side. There is no correspondence between the different elements of industry; men lag behind technique; the leadership is not equal to its tasks. Altogether this expresses itself in extremely high production costs and poor quality of product.
The tractor is the pride of Soviet industry. But the coefficient of effective use of tractors is very low. During the last industrial year, it was necessary to subject 81 percent of the tractors to capital repairs. A considerable number of them, moreover, got out of order again at the very height of the tilling season… Things are still worse in the sphere of auto transport. In America a truck travels sixty to eighty, or even one hundred thousand kilometers a year; in the Soviet Union only twenty thousand – that is, a third or a fourth as much.
A unique law of Soviet industry may be formulated this; commodities are as a general rule worse the nearer they stand to the consumer.
To the low productivity of labor corresponds a low national income, and consequently a low standard of life for the masses of the people.
In a word, Trotsky saw the Achilles heel. He just couldn’t convince himself it would be fatal. If a man as brilliant as him could still support the regime in spite of all these reservations, and in spite of his clear vision of the ongoing and escalating brutality, is it any wonder that millions of dupes in the West, not as well versed in economics and quick to take at face value the soothing assurances of Stalinist toadies like Walter Duranty that the starvation, executions, and Gulag were all an illusion, should support it as well, in the honest belief that it really did represent a portal to human progress and the workers’ paradise to come? One can grasp the psychology of the useful idiots, the parlor pinks like the Webbs who hadn’t advanced intellectually beyond the stage of seeing in Stalin nothing more threatening than a loving uncle, and reacted furiously to any suggestion that the real picture wasn’t quite so warm and fuzzy as the delusion they’d created for themselves. But what of a man like Trotsky? Again, it’s all there in The Revolution Betrayed.
9 Thermidor is a critical date in history for Marxists the world over. It has assumed a sort of mystical quality, supposedly representing the inevitable fate of all revolutions. It is the date that Robespierre was deposed as leader of the French Revolution, the terror that he promoted was ended, and a period of so-called “reaction” set in. For Marxists, Thermidor represents the victory of the counter-revolution. For Trotsky, the victory of Stalin was the Thermidor of the Russian revolution. No matter that the rise of Stalin didn’t end the terror, but vastly magnified it, and that, far from being “reactionary,” he ended the flirting with capitalism represented by the New Economic Policy of 1921, and collectivized agriculture, policies that had actually long been advocated by Trotsky and his “left opposition.” For a mind steeped in Marxist dogma, nothing was easier than to see the rise of Stalin as the “counter-revolution” in spite of all this. Indeed, chapter 5 of The Revolution is Betrayed is entitled “The Soviet Thermidor – Why Stalin Triumphed.” According to Trotsky, the “counter-revolutionaries” were the caste of bureaucrats, opportunist and careerist parasites who preached that, after the shock and exhaustion of revolution and civil war, the proletariat deserved a rest. Alas, the wearied workers were only too ready to listen to this siren song. As Trotsky put it,
The Opposition was isolated. The bureaucracy struck while the iron was hot, exploiting the bewilderment and passivity of the workers, setting their more backward strata against the advanced, and relying more and more boldly upon the kulak and the petty bourgeois ally in general. In the course of a few years, the bureaucracy thus shattered the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat.
To a Marxist like Trotsky, there had to be a class explanation for everything. Thus, Stalin was not a clever and unscrupulous manipulator who had gradually and insidiously gathered the threads of power into his own hands. Rather, he was a secondary figure who just happened to have the good fortune to be chosen by the “new class” of bureaucrats as its tool. Again quoting Trotsky:
It would be naive to imagine that Stalin, previously unknown to the masses, suddenly issued from the wings full armed with a complete strategical plan. No indeed. Before he felt out his own course, the bureaucracy felt out Stalin himself. He brought it all the necessary guarantees: the prestige of an old Bolshevik, a strong character, narrow vision, and close bonds with the political machine as the sole source of his influence. The success which fell upon him was a surprise at first to Stalin himself. It was the friendly welcome of the new ruling group, trying to free itself from the old principles and from the control of the masses, and having need of a reliable arbiter in its inner affairs. A secondary figure before the masses and in the events of the revolution, Stalin revealed himself as the indubitable leader of the Thermidorean bureaucracy, as first in its midst.
And what was to be the solution to this unfortunate ascendency of the reaction? After all the misery, starvation, and death, did Trotsky have second thoughts about the wisdom of “proletarian revolutions”? Hardly! He wanted to double down! The gains of the October revolution were to be saved by a new revolution of the resurgent workers that would sweep the bureaucracy aside. This new revolution was to be led by Trotsky’s fourth International, led, of course, by himself.
At the very end, Trotsky began to doubt this fine vision of a victorious proletariat. In In Defense of Marxism, a collection of essays and letters that was the last of his books to appear before his murder, he wrote,
If, however, it is conceded that the present war will provoke not revolution but a decline of the proletariat, then there remains another alternative; the further decay of monopoly capitalism, its further fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy wherever it still remained by a totalitarian regime. The inability of the proletariat to take into its hands the leadership of society could actually lead under these conditions to the growth of a new exploiting class from the Bonapartist fascist bureaucracy. This would be, according to all indications, a regime of decline, signaling the eclipse of civilization… Then it would be necessary in retrospect to establish that in its fundamental traits the present USSR was the precursor of a new exploiting regime on an international scale… If (this) prognosis proves to be correct, then, of course, the bureaucracy will become a new exploiting class. However onerous the second perspective may be, if the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of fulfilling the mission placed upon it by the course of development, nothing else would remain except only to recognize that the socialist program, based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, ended as a Utopia.
In the end, of course, the “proletariat” did not fulfill its “mission.” After the war, new Communist revolutions spawned new exploiting bureaucracies, just as had happened in Russia. In none of the new Communist regimes did the state ever show even the faintest sign of “fading away,” as predicted by Marx. But in 1936, all this was still more than a decade off, and the revolutionary hubris was still strong. Millions of parlor pinks and fellow travelers the world over were blinded by the “gigantic achievements” of the Soviet Union, lacked Trotsky’s ability to see the downside, and were convinced that the Great Depression signaled the “inevitable” demise of capitalism, and so, in vast number, became Communists. It is only remarkable that, in the United States, at least, the numbers remained so small. We must be grateful for the fact that we have always been so “politically backward” when it comes to accepting the “scientific” claims of socialist theoreticians. It remained for another one-time Communist, the brilliant Montenegrin Milovan Djilas, to confirm Trotsky’s worst fears, and describe the essential nature of the new exploiters in his The New Class, which appeared in 1957.
The fact that a man as intelligent as Trotsky could have deceived himself so completely for so long in spite of his respect for the truth and his clear perception of the fact that things were not quite going exactly as Marx had predicted does not encourage much hope regarding the collective wisdom of the rest of mankind. It seems that, unless we find a way to become smarter, we will probably eventually find a way to destroy ourselves. In the case of Communism, we have been given a respite. The God of this greatest of all secular religions failed after claiming a mere 100 million human lives. Let us hope we have learned something from the experience. If not, the next great messianic dogma to come along is likely to claim considerably more victims.