Problems of theory and history


The same weaknesses, abstract dogmatism and incapacity for concrete analysis were even more apparent when Trotsky was confronted with economic problems, pedestrian perhaps but decisive for the survival of Soviet power. Better equipped than anyone to ensure the application of the line adopted by Lenin and the Central Committee, he became dangerous when he tried to arrive at his own solutions to these problems.
    During the Civil War, then as Commissar of Transport, Trotsky demonstrated remarkable abilities as an organiser and leader. He effectively combatted disorder and slovenliness, firing his subordinates with his own zeal, and in this way redressing very dangerous situations in a very short time. But this gives no one the right to conclude, as the Trotskyists do, that he was capable of stepping into Lenin's shoes. The latter attacked him in his 'Testament' for his 'excessive preoccupation with the purely administrative side of things'.(7) From Lenin's pen, this criticism has a precise significance which refers to a latent defect in the person at whom it is aimed. Lenin's thoughts on this point are explicit when he made the same complaint about Piatakov, 'unquestionably . . . of outstanding ability, but shows too much zeal for administrating and the administrative side of the work to be relied on in a serious political situation'.(8)
    In other words, 'to show too much zeal for administrating', means to claim to resolve problems which are posed at the highest central level without taking into consideration the repercussions of any decisions in the arena of the class struggle or its effects as to the strengthening or weakening of proletarian power.
    How right Lenin was can be confirmed by considering some of the positions adopted by Trotsky on the questions of the economic reconstruction of the USSR after the introduction of the NEP.
    In the period of 'war communism', he had advocated the militarisation of labour, which undoubtedly corresponded to a necessity in the conditions of the period. But, while Lenin called 'war communism' a 'necessary error' (that is to say, one imposed by the circumstances) but an error nevertheless in the sense that it was impossible to draw from it a universal norm applicable to one of the stages on the transition to socialism, and also in the sense that this policy had to be abandoned as soon as this became possible, Trotsky himself retained and generalised his ideas at the 10th Congress, the Congress at which the New Economic Policy had been announced.(9) According to Trotsky, forced labour 'would reach its highest degree of intensity during the transition from capitalism to socialism'.(10) The militarisation of labour, he said, 'is the basis of socialism'. He did not hesitate to assimilate this forced labour to that of slaves and to the serf's corvée.(11)
    Elated with his success at putting transport back on its feet during the Polish campaign by using authoritarian, indeed bureaucratic methods, Trotsky aspired to erect into a rule what was only an expedient designed to meet a critical situation. He threatened 'to shake up' the elected leaders of the different unions as he had those in the transport unions. In other words he wanted to replace these elected leaders by others appointed by the state. He incurred a firm retort from Lenin but refused to be convinced and pushed blindness and obstinacy so far as to initiate a factional struggle against the Central Committee. During this controversy, Lenin showed that Trotsky was 'forgetting the ABC of Marxism' in wanting to keep the debate on 'economic' grounds. 'Politics must have precedence over economics . . . without a proper political approach to the subject the given class cannot maintain its rule, and consequently, cannot solve its production problems.' Now, 'the political mistake expressed in the shaking up policy that permeates the whole of Trotsky's pamphlet-platform . . . will lead to the downfall of the dictatorship of the proletariat'.(12)
    In short, it was a question of practising not economic administration but political economy, which can only be economically advantageous to the extent that it does not contain any political mistakes.
    It was these recent struggles which Lenin had in mind when he wrote in his letter to the Central Committee about Trotsky's preoccupation with the administrative side of things. He was thereby attacking him for being incapable of analysing concretely and dialectically the conjuncture of the class struggle in all its breadth and complexity in order to define the tasks of the moment.

    At the time of the dispute over planning under the NEP Lenin had been able to state, moreover, that Trotsky's method of thinking consisted of deducing from the most general principles of socialism the 'solutions' to economic problems posed by life, without any mediation between the two levels (without any concrete theoretical analysis), which occasionally gives the impression that he is skipping from one subject to another.
    Lenin, on the other hand, knew that in the situation of total destitution and semi-barbarity of Russia in 1921, in which small peasant production was broadly predominant, 'a complete integrated plan for us at the moment = a bureaucratic utopia'.(
13) In the following section we shall see how Lenin, as opposed to Trotsky, was able to determine the link which had to be grasped in order to draw the whole chain to him - in other words, how to go about restoring to health a Russian economy drained by eight years of foreign and civil war in order to create the premises of effective planning.


In 'The New Course' (January 1924), Trotsky described what a planned socialist economy ought to be. He then introduced what he called a 'complication', namely the existence of the market. He laid down a certain number of secondary exigencies to overcome it.
    Now the very essence of the NEP as it was defined by Lenin includes a procedure and a deduction which were exactly opposite to those of Trotsky, namely:

    1.  that Trotsky's 'complication' is its principal determination. It is the market which is the centre of gravity of the unity to be realised between industry and agriculture; henceforth it is the means through which the agricultural surplus has to be realised; industry works for and as a function of the peasant market;
    2.  that systematic planning - 'de jure' the principal determination of the socialist mode of production - is only relevant at this stage as a secondary determination.

How could a true centralised state plan be built on an immense, scattered, private, peasant market developing and reacting spontaneously on the basis of the laws of capitalism? Trotsky got around the difficulty by a new abstract demand: 'An exact knowledge of the market conditions and correct economic forecasts'.
    This demand is abstract:

    1.  because Trotsky does not establish the means by which to realise it, except in part - this is the question of 'the dictatorship of finance' which we shall consider later;
    2.  because even if some realistic means were given, the minimum of knowledge and forecasts (without which planning is only a joke or a utopia) required a radical upheaval of the structure of agricultural production and of the agricultural market (the upheaval which historically took the form of collectivisation in 1929).

Now in 1924 Trotsky did not consider collectivisation and the abandonment of the NEP. He thought that it would be possible for the state economy to adapt itself to the peasant market by a few 'corrections' and 'necessary modifications' as its development proceeded. He did not explain how it would be possible to obtain this result.

    Trotsky moves from the deductive definition of the socialist mode of production to the problem of its 'application' pure and simple - conceived, what is more, in an ultra-modest fashion: some detailed adjustments, a progressive adaptation - and thus entirely liquidates the Leninist science of strategy and tactics. He annihilates the phases, stages, moments and successive displacements of the contradictions; hence the atemporal character of his analysis.

    The abstract character of his argument is also revealed in the absence of any consideration of the concrete conditions of 'the current situation', the absence of any analysis into levels and instances - the 'de jure' principal contradiction being the 'de facto' principal contradiction, it being presupposed that the instruments of social practice are adequate to their object.

    Trotsky called for a centralised plan as early as 1922-3: but who was going to do the planning? Not an ideal state apparatus, not an ideal Gosplan, but the bureaucratic apparatus inherited from Tsarism which Lenin pitilessly criticised. When the state apparatus was still largely in solidarity with the former state of the social formation, it could not be the principal link in the economic offensive of Soviet power.

    Trotsky's position on the question of 'the dictatorship of finance or the dictatorship of industry' is a significant example of his method.

    In 1923 and 1924, a conflict developed between Gosplan and the People's Commissariat of Finance (Narkomfin). The former demanded the acknowledgment of the subordination of finance to industrial planning; that is to say, the power to fix the policy of credits to industry as a function not of the needs of a sound monetary policy, but of the necessities of industrial development. Narkomfin, for its part, defended its autonomy.

    'De jure', Gosplan's position was the only correct one for a socialist economy. But the NEP was not socialism; it was only a preliminary phase laying the groundwork for the offensive to come. By allowing the market to operate in almost normal conditions, the Soviet power restored the spontaneous process of accumulation interrupted by the war; moreover, in this way, it prepared the elementary stock of information without which a plan is impossible.

    As the principal tool of the market, money plays a decisive role at this level. Its stabilisation appears as a fundamental objective in relation to which the others are subordinate, as the ultimate is in relation to preliminary circumstances.

    Now Trotsky entirely supported Gosplan's claims, did not attribute any importance to the problem of money and was content to affirm without any justification that the stabilisation of money depended on the dictatorship of industry.

    The essence of the attitude of the Trotskyist opposition is visible here: an attitude of all or nothing which lays it down in principle that if the fundamental contradictions of socialism and the fundamental determinations of socialism are not put on the immediate agenda, anything else is simply unprincipled empiricism.

    In his refutation of the Trotskyist line in his report to the session of the expanded Executive on 3 April 1925, Bukharin exclaimed: 'To demand the dictatorship of industry over finance is to fail to see that industry depends on its agricultural outlets.'

    The inflation in 1923 - indispensable at the time for the realisation of the agricultural surplus - would normally have worried the private peasant and prompted him in the following year, if the situation was not stabilised, to hoard stocks of agricultural products rather than a steadily depreciating currency. Now, as it was taking place on the basis of the market, accumulation was easily jeopardised. In a general way, to acknowledge the market as the meeting point of the two economies without giving attention to the practical conditions for the functioning of the market - in the first place, money - was to talk abstractly. Furthermore, since money was invested under the NEP, in the framework of the market and of the normal functioning of the law of value, with the role of an 'indicator' of the broad lines of the structure of production, consumption and reproduction, its depreciation seriously prejudiced the preparatory work of planning.(15)

    'De facto', what the Opposition globally challenged in the name of 'a general schema of socialism', rigorous 'de jure' but presented as a 'preliminary "de facto" demand' (nothing can be done without centralised and planned accumulation for industry), was the very principle of a reformist (in the sense of non-revolutionary) stage; that is, one not bearing on what is essential in the long run and in a general theory of the modes of production. Now it is precisely the principle of a reformist phase (with all the incoherent, contradictory, apparently unprincipled aspects implied by such a phase) that was the great innovation theorised by Lenin under the name of the NEP - a phase of tactical retreat preparing the conditions necessary 'de facto' for the socialist offensive to come.

    It was this setting to work, at the level of the NEP, of the Leninist science of strategy and tactics as the revelation of the specific contradictions of the stage (contradictions which were not the principal contradictions in the phase of the NEP and even less those of socialism), that is denied in the Trotskyist explanation.

    In all questions of current political interest Trotskyism appears as a set of radical demands deduced from a general schema of the socialist mode of production - without consideration of stages and phases - and a refusal to accept any partial measures, as well as a systematic neglect of everything which relates to practical realisation.     The principal characteristic of Trotskyism is the absence of a theory of contradiction, the absence of a theory of phases and stages and consequently the absence of a theory of strategy and tactics.


Marxist theory did not have any ready-made formula to solve the concrete problem which Stalin came up against in 1928. The kulaks, who were the only farmers to have appreciable surpluses at their disposal, were hoarding their grain and threatening to starve the towns, as they were dissatisfied with being unable to get enough industrial goods at the prices which they were being offered for it.

On the other hand, the development of industry forecast by the First Five-Year Plan assumed an increase in the urban population and therefore an increased need for foodstuffs.
    There were two ways out of this vicious circle: one consisted of giving the kulaks a free rein, helping them to ruin the small peasants and to set up big capitalist farms with high productivity. Trotsky and his supporters (particularly Rakovsky) were absolutely convinced that Stalin would take this road. They obstinately clung to this prognosis even after the launching of the great offensive against the kulaks designed to liquidate them as a class. It was only at the beginning of 1930 that they began to take into consideration the historical upheavals taking place in the USSR. Even then, Trotsky considered that industrialisation and collectivisation were only a passing phase in Stalin's policy. Precisely because Stalin was not the counter-revolutionary Trotsky saw him as, this road - that of the development of traditional forms of capitalism - was closed to him.

    The other was collectivisation and accelerated industrialisation. Speed was essential otherwise there was a risk that the tensions produced by a struggle against the kulaks would become too dangerous. In fact, the kulaks had succeeded in uniting the majority of the peasants around them. They let loose a White terror against communist cadres and the poor peasants who wanted to join the kolkhozy. This resistance had to be smashed immediately, otherwise it would have smashed the proletarian power. If the communists had joined in a war of attrition with the kulaks they, not their enemies, would have been worn down. What was needed was a quick decisive engagement. Collectivisation and industrialisation had to keep pace, moreover, even if this initially demanded sacrifices. The former made possible the extraction of the surpluses thanks to which one could invest; the latter provided tractors and agricultural machines which made the kolkhozy attractive and led to an even higher productivity.

    As we have suggested, the line followed by Stalin in this conjuncture resembled in more respects than one the line advocated by Trotsky in 1924, which does not, however, make the latter right retrospectively, as is claimed by his supporters whose thought is as atemporal as their master's since the combined conditions in 1929 were not there in 1924. Declaring that Stalin had 'plagiarised' his programme (Lenin did as much to that of the Social[ist] Revolutionaries), Trotsky did not conclude from this that he should rally to the Central Committee as thousands of his supporters had at the time, but opted for a complete shift in his own ideas. In this way he continued to set himself apart from Stalin and preserved his 'raison d'Ítre' as leader of 'the Opposition'. He condemned the liquidation of the kulaks and argued that the kolkhozy were not viable and would collapse of their own accord because of their lack of modern machines. According to him the amalgamation of small farms with primitive equipment was equivalent to joining together small boats to make a liner. He did not understand that simple co-operation and the manual division of labour were enough to ensure a higher productivity to the kolkhozy. He argued, therefore, for the dissolution of the kolkhozy and the sovkhozy as unprofitable or even fictional. Thus, even if the bloc of Trotskyists and 'rightists' which Stalin spoke of did not have an organised existence, it is nevertheless true that from then on Trotskyist criticisms coincided with the positions of the Bukharinists in their defence of the rural petty bourgeoisie. Isaac Deutscher writes that 'the differences between the Right and Left Bolsheviks were becoming blurred and obliterated'.(16)

    The same Deutscher is struck by this rejection on Trotsky's part of the revolution in the countryside: 'He still thought . . . that . . . the "transition from capitalism to socialism" should proceed in an essentially peaceful and evolutionary manner. In his approach to domestic Soviet issues the author of "Permanent Revolution" was in a sense a reformist.'(17)

    Like all reformisms, Trotsky's was both utopian and reactionary: utopian, because a gradual and peaceful transformation of structures has always proved impossible; reactionary, because by pursuing this utopia one ends up maintaining the 'status quo'.

    Trotsky criticised Soviet planning for wanting to go too fast and for aiming at maximal and optimal results. In fact, the rise of fascism, with the threat of war which it involved, obliged accelerated industrialisation. It was necessary to advance by forced marches. It was a matter of the survival of the proletarian power. Stalin spelled it out in a speech in 1931:(18)

No, comrades, this is impossible' It is impossible to reduce the tempo' On the contrary, it is necessary as far as possible to accelerate it. This necessity is dictated by our obligations to the workers and peasants of the USSR. This is dictated by our obligations to the working class of the whole world . . . we are 50-100 years behind the advanced countries. We must cover this distance in ten years. Either we do this or they will crush us.

Ten years later, Hitler's armies invaded the USSR.
    The political line adopted at the time of the launching of the Five-Year Plans and accelerated collectivisation led to great successes but included some negative aspects, the most pernicious effects of which were not those felt immediately. Let us mention briefly some of the mistakes made in this period:
  - The exaggerated importance given to material incentives, illustrated by the Stakhanovite movement. These workers often earned ten or fifteen times as much as their comrades.
  - The enormous widening of wage differentials to the advantage of a narrow privileged stratum at the top of the hierarchy, in total contradiction to the Marxist-Leninist principles actually applied until Lenin's death.
  - The largely forced character of collectivisation.
  - The unilateral emphasis on the technical and material conditions of socialism to the detriment of the political and ideological conditions (economism).
    Some of these mistakes were culpable: others were avoidable but were not avoided owing to subjective weaknesses of the Soviet leadership; others were inevitable in the absence of a historical precedent; others, finally, were necessary, in other words imposed by the objective conditions.(19)

    Collectivisation, for example, must inevitably have appeared in the eyes of the peasants, even of the non-kulaks, as an externally imposed measure, for historical circumstances had not enabled the Soviet Communist Party to sink roots among the masses: to quote only one example, 'a slight misunderstanding with the women collective farmers . . . over the cow', which Stalin mentions, could have been avoided.(20) The women peasants who had to hand over their cows to the kolkhozy thought that they would be left without any milk for their children. In the end they should have been allowed to keep one per household. In the meantime a large part of their livestock had been sacrificed.

    The mistakes made during this struggle were combated very energetically by leading echelons of party and state. Even before the publication of Stalin's 'Dizzy With Success', urgent orders had been sent forbidding the imprisonment of poor and middle peasants for refusing to enter the kolkhozy. However, although the widespread coercion was the responsibility of local cadres who disobeyed their instructions, it was true, nevertheless, that they were driven into a corner, caught between the peasant resistance and the demands of the centre which had in 1929 fixed a rate of collectivisation too high to be reached in too short periods.(21) The end result was not the one sought, because Stalin's Central Committee did not apply the mass line in the elaboration of its policy. Hence it followed that the orders which it issued underwent a diffraction at the base, the effect of a concrete situation which had not been taken into account. Only the mass line enables this type of error to be minimised. Despite their relative efficacy in the struggle against abuses, the 'selkor' (village correspondents) of the newspapers, the personal and collective petitions, and the system of reciprocal surveillance by the representatives of the party and those of the police services, could not provide a valid substitute for control by the masses themselves.

    Some of Trotsky's criticisms at this time coincide formally with ours but they are an integral part of his analysis as a whole, which denounces the Stalinist state as a counter-revolutionary power and denies the necessary character of certain mistakes deriving from the unfavourable objective conditions inherited from the preceding periods. A comparison will clarify what we mean: in 1922 Lenin refused the Mensheviks the right to criticise the regime of war communism although the content of their criticism was the very same as that put forward by the Bolsheviks themselves. When the latter adopted the NEP their enemies gloated: 'What you are saying now we have been saying all the time, permit us to say it to you again!' they cried, and Lenin replied: 'Permit us to put you before a firing squad for saying that.'(22)

    Stalin's answer to the Trotskyists in the 1930s was somewhat, indeed very, similar; for even when they contained a grain of truth their criticisms from then on became those of anti-communists.

    We can be certain, moreover, that had they been in power and hypothetically chosen the socialist road, not only would they have made the same mistakes(
23) (Trotsky had erected their 'theoretical' justification in advance),(24) but also would have proved to be inflexible and ruthless in pushing a pernicious policy to its logical conclusions, whereas Stalin did know how to stop in time on a slippery slope because he did not feel compelled, like Trotsky, to base each change of course in the storms of the class struggle on eternal principles. It is interesting to record that the forced labour camps, the excessive sacrifices demanded of the workers (Trotsky said that they must give their blood and nerves), the idea of squeezing the peasants to the limit to extract investment funds: all this was theorised at the beginning of the 1920s by Trotsky and his friends under the absurd name of 'primitive socialist accumulation'.