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In Defence of the October Revolution

(Lecture given by Leon Trotsky to an audience of Social Democratic students in Copenhagen, November 27th 1932)

Introduction By Robin Clapp

The republication of Leon Trotsky’s marvellous ‘In Defence of the October Revolution’ is very timely. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a whole new industry of babblers and scribblers has sprung up determined to rubbish the accomplishments of the Russian Revolution and dedicated to spreading the lie that Socialism automatically begets dictatorship, poverty and human suffering.

Even second-rate literary dilettantes like Martin Amis have jumped on the bandwaggon. In an intellectually embarrassing attempt to prove that Fascism and Communism are political twins, he rails against Lenin and Trotsky, claiming their policies provided the foundation for the later horrors of Stalinism.

All the usual myths are resurrected in his shabby and incoherent little rant. Trotsky is indicted for being as bloodthirsty and amoral as Stalin. Amis denounces the international left for passing over in silence or seeking to justify the famine in Ukraine in 1932, the infamous show trials when a generation of Bolshevik leaders were tortured and murdered and the Kremlin’s crushing of the Hungarian workers’ rising in 1956.

Trotsky circa 1940This is a monstrous slur when extended to Leon Trotsky and the International Left Opposition, as Amis seeks to do. From 1923 when the embryo of Stalinism began to tighten its grip around the neck of the weak and isolated workers’ state, Trotsky courageously undertook what he was later to say was the most important task of his life, that of combating the rise of the bureaucratic machine around Stalin. His supporters were to be hounded, exiled and murdered.

Trotsky circa 1940

Let a leading Soviet figure from that period eloquently answer Amis’s literary lies. Leopold Trepper, the head of the legendary Soviet spy ring which managed to penetrate the highest echelons of the Nazi leadership and provided key information that decisively changed the course of the second world war, wrote when looking back on the nightmare years of purges and executions:

"But who did protest at that time? Who rose up to voice his outrage?

The Trotskyites can lay claim to this honour. Following the example of their leader, who was rewarded for his obstinacy with the end of an ice axe, they fought Stalinism to the death and they were the only ones that did…..Today, the Trotskyites have a right to accuse those who once howled along with the wolves. 

Let them not forget, however, that they had the enormous advantage over us of having a coherent political system capable of replacing Stalinism. They had something to cling to in the midst of their profound distress at seeing the revolution betrayed…" (‘The Great Game’ – 1973).

Why do these hired ‘theoreticians’ of capitalism with their perjured pens, feel compelled to keep returning to writing obituaries of the Soviet Union, if it’s so clear that Socialism is obsolete as a theory and bloodily discredited in practice?

Precisely because a new generation of workers and youth are moving into struggle and are looking for an alternative to the waste and madness of the market economy. Capitalism crows at ‘Socialism’s failure’ but remains deafeningly silent about its own diseased system. Wars, environmental catastrophes, persecution and poverty are the norm for millions. Even in the citadel of Imperialism – the United States – hunger still afflicts 10 million households.

Marxism remains the most modern theory of our epoch. It is the only theory which correctly estimates the course of development and can provide workers with the necessary strategy and tactics for challenging and overthrowing capitalism.

Trotsky was fond of stressing that Marxists don’t prepare revolutions, they prepare for revolutions. As he states in his speech:

"No tactical recipes could have called the October revolution into being, if Russia had not carried it within its body. The revolutionary Party in the last analysis can claim only the role of an obstetrician, who is compelled to resort to a Caesarian operation."

In Defence of October’ is a robust and startlingly clear explanation and justification of the October revolution. The speech is a condensing of the ideas elaborated in his mammoth 3-volume ‘History of the Russian Revolution’ published early in 1932. Trotsky explains the necessity for and key role of the Bolshevik Party and argues that Lenin’s understanding and clarity were decisive in 1917. He mocks those facile thinkers who try and label the revolution as a mere coup and succinctly elaborates his celebrated theory of Permanent revolution by explaining how in an economically-backward country like pre-1917 Russia, the numerically-small working class could overthrow capitalism before the more advanced German, British or French workers.

Already in exile on the Turkish island of Prinkipo, Trotsky received the invitation to make his speech from Social Democratic students in Copenhagen, capital of Denmark. The Danish government provided him with a visa for just 8 days and insisted that the speech be limited to a historic-scientific elaboration of the question of 1917.

Trotsky agreed and therefore scrupulously abstained from dealing in his speech with the reasons for the rise of Stalinism, limiting himself to a defence of the Russian revolution. For a comprehensive understanding of Trotsky’s critique of Stalinism, readers are advised to study his 1936 book ‘Revolution Betrayed.’

Sailing from Turkey on 14th November 1932, Trotsky was not allowed to disembark while the boat docked at Greek ports, though a pro-Left Opposition demonstration took place at Piraeus and another occurred at night as the boat made its way through the Corinthian canal. All along the canal, cries of "Long live Trotsky" and "Long live the Commune" could be heard from the throats of Greek workers.

Upon arrival at Marseilles, Trotsky was bundled into a car, which never stopped for 8 hours before arriving at Dunkirk where he was thrust onto a boat bound for Denmark.

The speech delivered on 27th November was the first public speech Trotsky had delivered for over 5 years and his first public speech to a western European audience since 1914. It was also to be his last. The dark curtain of Fascism was descending in Germany, while at the same time economic crisis in the western democracies caused the bourgeois politicians to fear Trotsky’s words more than ever. Countries and whole continents slammed their doors on him in a confirmation of the assertion he had made in his 1929 autobiography that the world for him was becoming a "Planet without a visa."

At the same time as highlighting the impressive economic progress made through the planned economy, Trotsky emphasises the challenges still confronting the young Soviet state. 

"But in the Soviet Union there is no Socialism as yet. The situation that prevails there is one of transition, full of contradictions, burdened with the heavy inheritance of the past and in addition is under the hostile pressure of the capitalistic states. The October revolution has proclaimed the principles of the new society. The Soviet republic has shown only the first stage of its realisation. Edison’s first lamp was very bad. We must learn how to distinguish the future from the mistakes and faults of the first Socialist construction."

In ‘Revolution Betrayed’ written 4 years later, Trotsky warned that the manacles of Stalinism had all but succeeded in snuffing out the last vestiges of genuine workers’ democracy. A nightmarish totalitarian regime had been established and at its head was the bureaucratic elite around the figure of Stalin, still resting on the planned economy and living off of its produce in a parasitic manner.

Trotsky defined the bureaucracy as a caste and refuted the incorrect assertion that the Stalinists had already transformed themselves into a property-owning class.

He argued that its position was more akin to that of a managing caste, forced to defend the planned economy but committed above all to the maintenance of its control of the state apparatus and to the extension of its rights of ever-greater consumption.

Such a regime was a hybrid, neither a restored capitalist state, nor a healthy workers’ state, but instead a regime characterised by Marxists as a proletarian Bonapartist state. Two scenarios presented themselves given this analysis. Either the working class would carry through a second revolution – a political revolution that would restore workers’ democracy, or the bureaucracy could transform itself into a property-owning class by literally destroying the still-existing, though heavily bureaucratised planned economy through a form of creeping social counter-revolution.

In the 1930s when the principal economic task lay in building gigantic factories and vast hydro-electric plants, then commandism from above and militarisation of huge armies of labour sufficed, though production was up to three times as expensive as in the west. 

But the requirements of a developed and modern economy were becoming more complex; a workers’ state needed democracy as a body needs oxygen. Without that it was impossible for bureaucrats in the Kremlin with little knowledge of the costs of production or even the purpose of the commodity being produced, to run 100,000 industrial enterprises, many of which employed over 100,000 workers who produced more than one million separate commodities.

From being a relative fetter, the bureaucracy gradually became an absolute fetter on the further development of production, reflected by the falling graph of GNP growth, which by the end of the 1970s limped along at just 2% per annum. 

The potential of the planned economy was caught in the straightjacket of bureaucracy – it is estimated that European Russia had a productivity potential approaching that of the west and in several key areas actually exceeded capitalism’s performance, but under Brezhnev and Gorbachev, fully half of output was wasted. For every act of waste, a case of corruption could be cited. In 1980 the state-auditing agency discovered that a new tractor repair factory, supposedly handling 14,000 tractor motors annually, had never been built.

Perestroika, under Gorbachev was a desperate last fling of the dice as far as the bureaucracy was concerned. While defending the privileges of the Soviet fat-cats who increasingly felt their remoteness from society, Gorbachev leaned on the younger middle layers of skilled technicians and managers, offering them greater incentives to boost production.

Tinkering with symptoms of malaise rather than removing the cause of slowdown (the bureaucracy itself), was to lead to the worst of all worlds. Encouraged by a new openness of debate (glasnost), workers scornfully rounded on the bureaucracy.

Statistics began to pour out revealing the true picture of the retrogressive economic and social policies of Stalinism; between 1975-1985 there was zero growth after taking out oil revenues and vodka sales. 15% of daily production was being lost through alcohol abuse, while in the two decades since 1960, infant mortality rates had risen from 24 per 1000 to 30 per thousand.

The breakdown of the benefits of the planned economy led to cracks within the formerly monolithic bureaucracy in every republic and throughout the eastern European satellite states. Openly pro-capitalist wings began to appear in the late 1980s. The bureaucrat reasoned empirically, just as Trotsky had foresaw he would; if the planned economy can’t deliver anymore, then why not transform myself into a capitalist. The boom of the 1980s in the west dazzled these scoundrels, many of whom as Trotsky had put it, did not need to unload any ideological baggage before reappearing as entrepreneurs with Swiss bank stashes.

The greatest indictment of Stalinism is that when workers finally took to the streets and built barricades, it was not to defend Socialism but to objectively help to clear the ground for capitalist restoration. By its crimes, Stalinism had temporarily thrown back the consciousness of workers in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, summed up by the bitter sign on a banner: ‘72 years on the road to nowhere.’

There is no question that the planned economy raised Russia from centuries-old backwardness. Despite the dead-weight of bureaucracy the achievements are without parallel. In 1913 there were 28,000 doctors in Russia. By 1982 there were 1 million. In 1989 alone 80,000 new inventions were patented – the same figure as in the USA. One third of the entire world’s scientists and engineers are educated and trained in the republics of the former USSR.

Unraveling this apparent paradox and refuting the allegations of those illiterates who seek to besmirch the potential latent in Socialism is a more vital task for Marxists today than at any time since Trotsky spoke to the Danish student youth. Millions of workers in the world seek an alternative to capitalism.

In ‘Marxism in Our Time’ written shortly before his murder, Trotsky put the question clearly:

"As a matter of fact, Marx never said that Socialism could be achieved in a single country and moreover in a backward country…the wonder is that under such exceptionally unfavourable conditions, planned economy has managed to demonstrate its insuperable benefits."

The enemies of Socialism claim that the Bolsheviks’ taking of power stopped the growth of democratic capitalism in Russia, plunging the masses into the long night of civil war, famine, forced collectivization, labour camps and show trials. The same people stay quiet about capitalism’s own ‘triumphs’ – fascism, the Somme, Auschwitz, and Hiroshima.

Elemental movements of the working class have never yet been halted by these finger-wagging critics however. When all other methods of settling class struggle have been exhausted, revolution presents itself as the only way out for the working class.

History did not stop in 1991 with the implosion of the Soviet Union. The idea that capitalism has won a final victory and that Imperialism represents humankind’s highest and final social and economic achievement is either a complacent display of arrogance on the part of those multi-billionaires and their scribes for whom Eden has arrived already, or a comfort-blanket for those who fear the working class and its power and hope that the contagion of revolution will never again affect the masses.

The Russian Revolution remains the greatest event in human history. In the future when the working class has taken power and hunger, prejudice, disease and illiteracy are just obscure words in very old dictionaries, the names of Lenin, Trotsky, Bolshevism and the Russian working class that shook the world will be properly honoured once again.

September 2002




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