The Soviet Union could not overtake capitalism and advance to socialism because it did not dispose over the “highest productive forces” within its boundaries. Even basic necessities for survival could only be obtained through trade with the imperialist powers.
The immediate challenge was to catch up with capitalism, to conquer the “commanding heights” of the world economy, and so lay the basis for constructing socialism as an international system.
The Soviet Union’s fundamental weakness, in other words, lay in its economic and technical backwardness compared with the advanced capitalist countries. Backwardness was the root of bureaucratisation; bureaucratic rule excluded workers’ democracy, and formed an absolute barrier to socialist transformation.
The bureaucracy persisted in seeing the international problems of the revolution in essentially military terms, and gambled on the ability of the Soviet Union to defeat future imperialist invasions.
As Trotsky pointed out, even the military threat of imperialism resulted from its technical superiority. But, he added, “it is not so much military intervention as the intervention of cheaper capitalist commodities that constitutes perhaps the greatest immediate menace to the Soviet Union. (The Third International After Lenin.)
In other words: the Soviet masses would defend their gains, and fight the threat of open counter-revolution. But demoralised and disillusioned by bureaucratic rule, they could not be expected to defend their own backwardness against a capitalist enemy apparently offering them a superior way of life.
In the event it was not the armies of capitalist democracies that invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 but those of Hitler. With them, instead of “cheaper commodities” for the Russian masses, they brought barbed wire and the gruesome paraphernalia of slave-labour and extermination camps.
Subjected to barbarous racial repression by the Nazis, the Russian workers rallied heroically in defence of the Soviet Union.
Today the balance of forces internationally have swung massively against the imperialist powers, and there is no longer any possibility of capitalist restoration in the Soviet Union. The bureaucracy have diverted huge resources into military development, and transformed the Soviet Union into a nuclear superpower. The threat of imperialist invasion has effectively been ended.
But even this spectacular economic progress, possible only on the basis of a state-owned and planned economy, could not overcome the distortions in Russian society created by the rule of a privileged elite.
Bureaucratic repression stifled all initiative from below. The workers were driven forward through a combination of bribes and compulsion. The bureaucracy’s soothing phrase of building socialism “at a snail’s pace” (in Bukharin’s phrase) made a mockery of workers’ aspirations.
All it meant, in real terms, was the laborious struggle to develop the state-owned economy in a backward country – under their own rule.
Marx and Engels, as early as 1845, had anticipated why socialism could not be built under conditions such as these:
…this development of productive forces … is an absolutely necessary practical premise [of socialism] because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced.The German Ideology
This insight was starkly borne out by the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian workers’ state. The bureaucracy could only build a society of inequality. With inequality came increasing corruption and police repression on the part of the bureaucracy and, among the masses, a grim battle of “each one for himself”.
A letter from a kolkhoz (collective farm) worker, written in April 1930, summed up the new relations being created between the working people and their bureaucratic masters:
The members of the kolkhoz have for two months received no pay… Fifty percent of the revenue goes to the kolkhoz treasury, fifty percent for taxes and rent. What remains for the workers? No one knows. The president pays himself several flour certificates each month and refrains from all physical labor…
A factory worker in March 1930:
They are squeezing us, and how! Twenty-five percent increase in the productivity of labour and 1.9 percent increase in wages. For three years wages have not varied, though production has very much increased. Five men to the brigade instead of six, without change of equipment. The system of bonuses is applied in such a way that … they should be paid every six months, but in reality no one hopes to receive any…Quoted by Serge, From Lenin to Stalin
Socialism cannot be built under these conditions. The essential political condition for the development of socialism, created by the October revolution and destroyed by the bureaucratic counter-revolution, has still to be re-conquered: democratic working class rule.