“THE prohibition of oppositional parties brought after it the prohibition of factions. The prohibition of factions ended in a prohibition to think otherwise than the infallible leader. The police-manufactured monolithism of the party resulted in a bureaucratic impunity which has become the source of all kinds of wantonness and corruption.” You might forgiven for thinking that this quote comes from a Western historian. In fact it is from Leon Trotsky in his The Revolution Betrayed.
Writing in exile in 1936, Trotsky is sniping from the side lines. He writes: “Why now, after the cessation of intervention, after the shattering of the exploiting class, after the indubitable success of industrialization, after the collectivization of the overwhelming majority of peasants, is it impossible to permit the slightest word of criticism of the leader?” Of course, from Trotsky’s point of view, it wasn’t because of an inherent flaw in the Soviet system. For him, the rot set in with the advent of of the Civil War. “The opposition parties were forbidden one after the other. This measure, obviously in conflict with the spirit of Soviet democracy, the leaders of Bolshevism regarded not as a principle, but as an episodic act of self-defence.”
Trotsky was writing at a time of savage Stalinist pogroms. A year after he wrote this the Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam died in a transit camp. He was one of many. It is, however, worth pointing out, as Alan Woods does in the introduction, how things had deteriorated since the revolution in 1917. In The State and Revolution Lenin had stipulated that there must be ‘free and democratic elections and the right of recall for all officials’ and ‘gradually, all the tasks of running the state to be carried out in turn by the workers: when everyone is a “bureaucrat” in turn, nobody is a bureaucrat’ – thus introducing an element of direct, as well as elective, democracy. Remember that this a year before some women won the right to vote in the UK and 11 years before all women could vote.
As Woods writes: “Contrary to the calumnies of the critics of socialism, Soviet Russia in the time of Lenin and Trotsky was the most democratic regime in history.” Woods is obviously a socialist sympathiser but the non-Marxist historian E. H. Carr at this point agrees with Woods. In his epic The Bolshevik Revolution he approvingly quotes Lenin in the second All-Russian Congress of Soviets in 1917 as saying: “As a democratic government we cannot evade the decisions of the popular masses, even if we are not in agreement with them.” However, this appears to be a temporary position, according to Carr, who suggests that there was a ‘dilemma of a socialist revolution struggling retrospectively to fill the empty place of bourgeois democracy and bourgeois capitalism in the Marxist scheme’.
Interestingly, however, Carr makes a startling comparison between Marxism and Adam Smith – the darling of many right-wing thinkers. The latter, writes Carr ‘has not escaped in recent years the charge of utopianism commonly levelled at Marx and Engels and Lenin’. And he continues: “Both doctrines assume that the state will be superfluous in so far as, given the appropriate economic organisation of society, human beings will find it natural to work together for the common good.” And further ‘both doctrines are consistent with belief in an economic order determining the superstructure of political ideology and behaviour’. And let’s not forget that, like Marx, Smith also believed in a labour theory of value.
Returning to Trotsky, we find that he, in 1936, is still claiming that: “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.” Further: “No new value can be created where a free conflict of ideas is impossible.” This could be a criticism levelled by the 19th century liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill and his concept of the market of ideas.
At this point, however, we need a reality check. Despite Trotsky’s often apposite criticisms of Stalin, it is not at all clear whether things would have been any better under his rule. As Ian Thatcher writes in his biography Trotsky there were several ‘profound weaknesses in Trotsky’s writings. Above all, his alternative programme contained no guarantees that the USSR would be any richer or more democratic under Trotsky’s guidance’. And: “Given his strong conviction of the correctness of his political viewpoints, it is questionable how free and open debate would have been under Trotsky’s leadership. In any case, it is doubtful whether he would have submitted to a majority vote against him.”
Finally, however, Thatcher reminds us: “Even should capitalism flourish, there should be good reason to consider Marxism’s, and Trotsky’s, criticisms of its injustices and flaws. If there is no such thing as perfect planning, it is also highly unlikely that there is perfect competition.” And: “The best of today’s Marxists seek to learn from the mistakes of the past, and place far more emphasis on democracy and the importance of the independent initiative of the working class rather than on the tutelage of individuals.”