From the late 1920s onwards the policies of the Soviet bureaucracy went through a series of bewildering zigzags, creating enormous confusion in the labour movement internationally.

The regime’s supporters applauded each contradictory new turn as a “correct” and “necessary” measure to defend “socialism” in the USSR. Some opponents, despairing at the hideous travesty of “Leninism” presented by the regime, claimed that the gains of the revolution had been destroyed, and that Russia could no longer be regarded as a workers’ state in any sense.

Trotsky, grappling with these questions in the early 1930s, concluded that the Soviet workers’ state had, in reality, degenerated into a regime of a new kind: “As the bureaucracy becomes more independent, as more and more power is concentrated into the hands of a single person, the more does bureaucratic centrism turn into Bonapartism [named after the French military dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte].” (Writings 1934-35.)

Bonapartism, Trotsky explained,

…was and remains the government of the bourgeoisie during periods of crisis… Bonapartism always implies political veering between classes; but under Bonapartism in all its historical transmigrations there is preserved one and the same social base: bourgeois [capitalist] property…

It is absolutely correct that the self-rule of the Soviet bureaucracy was built upon the soil of veering between the class forces both internal and international. Insofar as the bureaucratic veering has been crowned by the… regime of Stalin, it is possible to speak of Soviet Bonapartism.

“The Class Nature of the Soviet State”, in Writings 1933-34

The “proletarian” character of this bonapartist regime arises from the fact that it is based not on “bourgeois property”, but on the state-owned and planned economy created by the October Revolution, reflecting the historical interest of the working class.

The regime’s history from the 1920s onwards has been a graphic illustration of “veering between class forces both internal and international”.

By 1927, precisely as the Opposition had warned, the kulaks were holding a gun to the head of the regime. To force prices up they withheld their grain from the market, and hoarded gold and arms in preparation for a showdown.

The cities were threatened with hunger. The threat of capitalist restoration suddenly became real.

The bureaucracy reacted in panic, attempting to stamp-out the danger by administrative decree and, where that failed, by force. They imposed compulsory requisitions of grain. The kulaks resisted; the bureaucracy responded with an all-out attack.

The Left Opposition had long explained the need for collectivisation of the land, but stressed that this should be voluntary so as to keep the support of the peasants and minimise disruption. Stalin’s declaration of war of the peasantry had nothing in common with Marxism; it was a blind reflex action, with disastrous results.

As late as 1929 Stalin maintained that “individual farming could continue to play a predominant role in supplying the country with food…” (Quoted by I. Deutscher, Stalin.) Now, abruptly, the peasants’ land was collectivised by decree. By 1930, 55% of peasant land had been turned into state farms, and 88% by 1934.

Rural Russia was convulsed by civil war. Famine broke out as the peasants slaughtered their animals sooner than give them to the regime. An estimated ten million people perished as a direct consequence of these bureaucratic excesses. Whole peasant communities and even whole national groups were murdered or deported. In the cities, bread rationing returned.

These events shattered NEP, ended Stalin’s alliance with Bukharin and the party right-wing, and formed the real basis for his plunge into violent ultra-leftism between 1927 and 1934.

Industrialisation had long been argued for by the Opposition, and scornfully rejected under pressure from the right. Now Stalin could see no alternative to industrialisation – as a panic measure, under ruthless compulsion from above. In 1928, prompted by the Opposition, the bureaucracy had half-heartedly adopted a five-year plan of economic development. Now, abruptly, the order went out to complete the plan in four years!

Vast projects were launched – dams, power stations, steel plants, mines – which transformed the Soviet Union within the space of a decade. While the capitalist world was plunged into the Depression of the 1930s, Soviet industrial production leaped ahead by 250%. Amazingly, backward Russia by 1935 produced more tractors than any other country in the world.

Under capitalism, such concerted development would have been impossible. Russia, under capitalism, would have continued to languish in hopeless poverty like most of the third world to this day.

“Socialism”, said Trotsky, “has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of Das Kapital … but in the language of steel, cement and electricity.” (The Revolution Betrayed.)

The Soviet Union’s progress in the 1930s impressed working people the world over. But, under bureaucratic rule, it took place at a terrible cost.

Orders, often wildly unrealistic, were issued from bureaucrats’ offices. Failure to execute them was treated as sabotage. Forced labour was used on a vast scale. Up to 15 million Soviet citizens – peasants who opposed collectivisation and, later, opponents of every description – were herded into slave-labour camps. Countless numbers perished.

The working class swelled from 11 million in 1928 to 23 million in 1932. Passes, called “Labour Books”, were introduced in 1931 to chain workers to their jobs. While the bureaucracy cultivated a labour aristocracy, the value of workers’ wages dropped by two-thirds between 1928 and 1935.

Milk consumption per person dropped from 189 kgs per year in 1927-28 to 105 kgs in 1932; meat consumption from 27.5 kgs to 13.5 kgs – while the bureaucracy became entrenched in their privileged lifestyle.

But in spite of the workers’ superhuman sacrifices, the Soviet Union continued to lag far behind the industrialised capitalist countries in almost every aspect. Its cultural backwardness could not be overcome by bureaucratic dictate. Sophisticated new industries, requiring a high technical level, could not be built like railway lines.

To enforce industrialisation on this basis, driving millions of workers to the limit and crushing all opposition, the most ruthless centralisation of power was needed. The bureaucratic regime degenerated into out-and-out police dictatorship.

Stalin’s faction, having crushed both the left and the right, remained as supreme arbiters in the bureaucratised “Communist” Party. Stalin, once the scheming henchman of the bureaucracy, now became its master – the top bureaucrat, dispensing privileges and positions to his hangers-on.

Trotsky sums up: 

Stalin guards the conquests of the October Revolution not only against the feudal-bourgeois counter-revolution, but also against the claims of the toilers, their impatience and dissatisfaction; he crushes the Left-wing which expresses the ordered historical and progressive tendencies of the unprivileged working masses; he creates a new aristocracy, by means of an extreme differentiation in wages, privileges, ranks, etc.

Leaning for support on the topmost layers of the new social hierarchy against the lowest – sometimes vice versa – Stalin has attained the complete concentration of power in his own hands. What else should this regime be called, if not Soviet Bonapartism?

Writings 1934-35

Continue to Chapter Eighteen