The development of Trotsky’s analysis of the Soviet bureaucracy

Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin
By Thomas M. Twiss August 19, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — In his presentation, Paul Le Blanc has provided a brief account of the darkening situation in the Soviet Union in the years following the revolution, of the heroic resistance by members of the Left Opposition, and of the “deep black night” of Stalinism in the mid-late 1930s. He also summarized for us Leon Trotsky’s final theory of Soviet bureaucracy and — I think appropriately —emphasized its value for understanding that history. What I want to do is to briefly sketch the development of Trotsky’s analysis of the problem of Soviet bureaucracy in order to get a deeper understanding and appreciation of his final theory, with all of its strengths and limitations. For as Trotsky observed in a 1933 preface to a collection of his oppositional writings, “It is impossible to understand correctly either scientific or political ideas without knowing the history of their development.” [1] In early twentieth century Russia, as in the West today, the word bureaucracy had various meanings. Consistent with the original definition, the most common understanding was that bureaucracy referred to the “rule of the bureaus” or, by extension, to the “bureaus that ruled” over society. In line with this, after the revolution many Bolsheviks associated bureaucracy with the elevation of the state and party apparatuses above mass, proletarian or rank and file control. This understanding was expressed in Vladimir Lenin’s work The State and Revolution, written on the eve of the Russian Revolution, and was scattered through many of his writings and speeches afterwards. It was also especially prominent in the statements of the various opposition groups that flourished in the party and on its periphery between 1918 and 1923. For example, it can be heard in the complaint in 1921 by the Workers’ Oppositionist Aleksandra Kollontai that “The harm lies in the solution of all problems … by means of formal decisions handed down from the central institutions…. Some third person decides your fate: this is the whole essence of bureaucracy.”[2] A second general understanding of bureaucracy for the Bolsheviks — as for us today — involved red tape and inefficiency. Again, this was a common theme in Lenin’s speeches and writings in the first years of Soviet power. But in that period it was Trotsky who most consistently depicted the problem of bureaucracy in terms of inefficiency. The likely reason for this was that as War Commissar Trotsky was almost exclusively preoccupied with the efficient functioning of the Red Army and especially of the economic institutions that supplied it. Trotsky used the term bureaucracy in a number of specific ways during this period. But most frequently, when he spoke of biurokratiia between 1919 and 1923, his concern was about the inefficiency that he believed had been built into the “very structure of our [Soviet] economic institutions.”[3] Trotsky called this “glavkokratiia” — that is, the rule of the glavki and tsentry. The glavki and tsentry were the fifty-odd departments of the Supreme Council of the National Economy that directed the different branches of industry under War Communism. According to Trotsky there were two problematic aspects to glavkokratiia: on one hand, it was characterized by too much centralism in the rigid control of industry by the glavki from the summit down to the level of the enterprise; on the other, there was not enough centralism in the absence of a single plan to coordinate the work of all of the glavki.[4] Because of glavkokratiia, Trotsky argued, parts and supplies that were readily available in one factory often could not be transferred to another factory in the same region that urgently needed them. For example, in January 1920 he complained that one Moscow factory had been inactive recently for two months while it waited for a driving belt; another had to shut down several times because it had run out of canvas; and a third could not produce silicate brick because it had not received an armature for its steam engine. In each case the parts and materials had been available locally but these could not be transferred to the factory that needed them because of glavkokratiia.[5] Trotsky’s solution to this problem was to grant greater autonomy to the enterprises and to introduce economic coordination through district and regional organizations, and at the summit through centralized economic planning. In fact, Trotsky’s analysis of glavkokratiia was a persuasive critique of the inefficiency of Soviet industry under War Communism and during the first years of the New Economic Policy that followed. As the historian Lars Lih has noted, it struck a responsive chord in the popular consciousness.[6] Furthermore, it was cited approvingly by Grigory Zinoviev, Trotsky’s major rival at the time, as well as by the anti-Communist Russian-American economist, Leo Pasvolsky.[7] And in late 1922 Lenin ended up endorsing at least part of Trotsky’s recommendations regarding economic planning that were derived directly from Trotsky’s analysis of glavkokratiia.[8] But it is also clear that Trotsky’s exclusive focus on inefficiency in his statements on bureaucracy in this period was related to his “excessive preoccupation with the purely administrative side of the work” that Lenin noted in his final “Testament”.[9] It ignored the larger political issue of the decline of workers’ democracy that was documented especially by the opposition groups. Beyond that, I think it is fair to say that Trotsky’s single-minded preoccupation with efficiency was at least partially responsible for his own support in this period for centralist and authoritarian policies that actually contributed to the weakening of worker’s democracy. At any rate, by late 1923 Trotsky was already constructing a new analysis of bureaucracy. This was prompted by a number of developments, including the general worsening of the party regime in this period, Joseph Stalin’s nationalities policies in Georgia, and the maneuvering against Trotsky by his opponents. But to an equal or even greater extent this shift in Trotsky’s thinking grew directly out of his analysis of glavkokratiia. In April 1923, the Twelfth Party Congress finally adopted Trotsky’s proposal for central economic planning that he had advocated for years as a solution to glavkokratiia. But by October, in direct violation of the decisions of the Congress, nothing had been done to implement planning. This contributed greatly to Trotsky’s recognition that the problem of bureaucracy was a deeper one than inefficiency. Trotsky explained his new understanding most clearly during the party struggle of 1926-27. In that period he noted two different dimensions to “bureaucratism” in the state and the party. In part, for Trotsky the problem involved the excessive centralism, authoritarianism and decline of workers’ democracy in the state and party regimes. Along these lines, in June 1926 he defined the “essence of bureaucracy” as the “unlimited domination of the party apparatus.”[10] But in the same period Trotsky and the Opposition emphasized what they perceived as the class dimension of the problem. The Opposition’s 1927 Platform explained, “The question of Soviet bureaucratism is not only a question of red tape and swollen staffs. At bottom it is a question of the class role played by the bureaucracy, of its social ties and sympathies … its relation to the NEPman [or capitalist trader] and the unskilled worker … etc.”[11] For Trotsky and the Opposition this class role was evident in the economic policies of the leadership: specifically, its failure to address the economic concerns of workers through industrialization, and its orientation to the wealthy peasants or kulaks and the NEPmen. Internationally, the class role of bureaucracy took the form of commitments to restrictive alliances with petty bourgeois and bourgeois allies who were subverting the revolution — such as in Britain and China. Trotsky believed that the shifting balance of social classes in the USSR could explain both dimensions of the problem. He argued that by the early 1920s the Soviet proletariat had been exhausted by civil war and demoralized by the gap between its hopes and the realities of power. Meanwhile, the introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) had promoted the economic and political revival of bourgeois elements. This class shift in Soviet society had exerted a rightward pressure on the state and party apparatuses, resulting in a “backsliding from the proletarian class line”. Then, to implement its conservative policies, the leadership had resorted to undemocratic and repressive practices — especially against the Opposition, representing the proletarian section of the party.[12] In turn, the leadership’s conservative and authoritarian policies had contributed to further shifts to the right in the balance of class forces. As Trotsky described it, the Stalinist current that had been brought to power by this process was “centrist” in nature, occupying a space somewhere between complete opportunism on the right and the revolutionary proletarian position of Leninism on the left. The greatest danger was that new defeats of the proletariat or the Opposition could weaken the resistance of the Soviet working class, resulting in further shifts of power to the right, and perhaps even bringing about the restoration of capitalism. For Trotsky, the most likely path of such a restoration was what he called “Thermidor,” that is, “a special form of counterrevolution carried out on the installment plan ... and making use in the first stage, of elements of the same ruling party”.[13] In this context the Opposition’s goal was to block restoration and reinstitute proletarian policies. Its strategy, as long as the Soviet Union remained a “proletarian state,” was to reject revolution and confine its efforts to attempts at reforming the party and state. Trotsky’s theory of Soviet bureaucracy in this period was elegant and insightful, and it seemed quite plausible in the middle-to-late 1920s. But soon after this, events demonstrated just how flawed it really was. Trotsky had predicted that if the Opposition was defeated, the centrist current would disintegrate, the party right would take power, the party’s policies would shift further to the right, and capitalism would be restored — probably through Thermidor. In late 1927, the Left Opposition was defeated and thousands of oppositionists were expelled and exiled. But, of course, the right did not come to power. Instead, the center consolidated its dominance, turned on its moderate allies, and then introduced economic and international policies that, by Trotsky’s understanding, seemed so far “left” that they fell entirely outside of his theoretical framework. At the same time, despite these “left” shifts, the regime continued to deviate even more from workers’ democracy. From exile, Trotsky now offered intelligent criticisms of Soviet policy “from the right,” and he condemned the worsening of the regime. At the same he seemed to be at least partly aware that his earlier theory was inadequate for understanding the realities of the early 1930s. Consequently, he began to introduce a number of implicit and explicit adjustments to his theory that tended to emphasize the autonomy of the bureaucracy in relation to social classes. At the same time he continued to insist that his earlier analysis was essentially correct, and he continued to use it to understand what was happening. The result was a series of statements, conclusions and predictions that today seem deeply misguided. Some of these included: Trotsky’s repeated statements in 1928-29 doubting the seriousness of the change in Stalinist policy; his argument that the turn had been brought about by Oppositional pressure; his endorsement of the leadership’s claims that collectivization represented a spontaneous movement by the peasantry; his acceptance of the validity of the charges in the specialist show trials of 1928-31; his occasional assertions that the excesses of the industrialization and collectivization were due to capitalist sabotage; and his repeated warnings that the leadership was about to veer back to the right and institute a Thermidor. However, two developments ultimately precipitated what I have described as a revolution in Trotsky’s thinking. The first of these was Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1933. Trotsky recognized this as the greatest disaster for the world working class since World War I, and he blamed the Soviet leadership directly for it. The second was the repression following the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934, which led Trotsky to observe, “The domination of the bureaucracy over the country, as well as Stalin’s domination over the bureaucracy have well-nigh attained their absolute consummation”.[14] On the basis of these two events Trotsky began to introduce a whole series of modifications to his previous position. The cumulative effect of these modifications was a new theory that contained a vastly greater appreciation for the autonomy of the Soviet bureaucracy as a social formation. The most complete presentation of Trotsky’s new theory appeared in The Revolution Betrayed, completed in 1936. There, Trotsky offered essentially two different explanations for the origins of bureaucratic power: one functional, and one political and historical. In his functional account, Trotsky started from the recognition that the USSR was not a socialist society, as Stalin now claimed, since socialism was a society of abundance and relative equality. Instead, the Soviet Union was a backward society in transition from capitalism to socialism. In that context it had been necessary to create a gendarme — the bureaucracy — to regulate consumption. More specifically, its task had been to stimulate production through distributive inequality, or what Trotsky described as “bourgeois norms of distribution”.[15] But in the process of defending the advantages of a minority, Trotsky argued, the bureaucracy had drawn off the cream for its own use. So “out of a social necessity there … developed an organ which had outgrown its socially necessary function, and become an independent factor”.[16] Trotsky’s political-historical account was similar to the explanation he had offered in 1926-27. Again, he described the exhaustion of the proletariat and its disappointment. And again he wrote about the revival of confidence among the petty bourgeoisie. But this time he depicted the bureaucracy, rather than bourgeois elements, as the ultimate beneficiary of these developments. Relying on the passivity of the advanced workers and the support of backward workers and the petty bourgeoisie, the bureaucracy had defeated the Opposition and usurped power in a transition that Trotsky now characterized as a Thermidor.[17] Another important element of Trotsky’s new explanation was his admission that practices introduced by the Bolsheviks in the first years of Soviet power had contributed to the process of bureaucratization. One of these had been had been the ban on opposition parties, instituted as “an episodic act of self defense.” A second had been the 1921 ban on opposition factions within the party — again, instituted as “an exceptional measure,” but one that Trotsky admitted had “proved to be perfectly suited to the taste of the bureaucracy.”[18] Trotsky’s new emphasis on the autonomy of the bureaucracy was especially apparent in his discussion of Stalinist economic and international policy. Considering an even broader range of issues than in previous years, he again noted the deviation of Soviet policy from previous Bolshevik practice and/or from an ideal socialist policy. In each case, he conceded that backwardness and the transitional character of Soviet society had necessitated a portion of that deviation. But in each case, according to Trotsky, a major part of the deviation had been designed to benefit only the bureaucracy and the privileged layers associated with it. Trotsky’s emphasis on bureaucratic autonomy was also apparent in his new discussion of the prospects for capitalist restoration. Anticipating the outbreak of war, Trotsky warned that restoration might occur through imperialist intervention if the socialist revolution failed to materialize in the West.[19] But to a greater extent he emphasized a domestic path to restoration. In light of the autonomy of the bureaucracy and recognizing the effects of its recent policies, Trotsky no longer suggested that restoration would occur through the revolt or pressure of NEPmen and kulaks. Instead, he argued that the Soviet bureaucracy itself would eventually attempt to restore capitalism. For the time being, he explained, the bureaucracy defended state property “as a source of its power and income” and out of fear of the proletariat. But its privileges were unstable and could not be transferred to its offspring by inheritance. Consequently, the bureaucracy would inevitably “seek supports for itself in property relations”.[20] It is important to recognize that, like his earlier views on bureaucracy, Trotsky’s final theory contained major weaknesses as well as significant strengths. Probably the greatest of the weaknesses involved Trotsky’s continuing characterization of the Soviet Union as a “workers’ state.” It was simply counterintuitive to depict the USSR as a workers’ state at a time when the workers were unable to control the state in any way, and a when millions of workers and peasants and virtually the entire Left Opposition — a group described by Trotsky as the “proletarian vanguard” — were disappearing into the gulag. Another problem was that, despite the major revolution in his thinking that had begun in 1933, Trotsky often still tended to underestimate the autonomy of both the bureaucracy and Stalin. Because of this, he frequently exaggerated the bureaucracy’s responsiveness to alien class forces, and he sometimes assumed connections between the escalating repression and rightward policy shifts that simply could not be supported by the evidence.[21] There were also significant failures in Trotsky’s predictions. One of these was that, contrary to his expectation, the USSR emerged triumphant from the war, even though no revolution had occurred in the West. Another was that the final collapse of the Soviet Union occurred far later than Trotsky expected, for it is clear that he believed that, unless a political revolution occurred, capitalist restoration was near in the late 1930s.[22] In both cases Trotsky greatly underestimated the durability of the regime. Regarding the process of restoration, he was also wrong in predicting that the eventual collapse would provoke a civil war.[23] In fact, although there have been a series of wars and conflicts on the territory of the former Soviet Union, none of these has resembled the class war that Trotsky anticipated in either scale or character. Still, these weaknesses and failures should not prevent us from recognizing some of the impressive strengths of Trotsky’s final theory. For example, with its emphasis on the autonomy of the bureaucracy and of Stalin, and on the cleavages that divided the various layers of Soviet society and the bureaucracy, it was more complex, more plausible, and more sophisticated than his earlier analyses of bureaucracy. For those reasons, it has had a great influence, not only on Western Marxists, but also on academic specialists.[24] The theory presented in The Revolution Betrayed contained a creative application of categories and conclusions that were directly derived from classical Marxism, as well as from his own earlier analysis of the process of uneven and combined development. Another important feature of Trotsky’s interpretation — emphasized by Perry Anderson — was its remarkable “political balance.”[25] This was evident, for example, in Trotsky’s distinction between the necessary deviations of Stalinist policy from Bolshevik and socialist norms, and deviations that benefitted only the bureaucracy. This balance, built into Trotsky’s theory, helped him avoid succumbing to the extremes of either Stalinism or Stalinophobia. Additionally, we should note the especially striking confirmation of some of Trotsky’s predictions regarding the ultimate fate of the USSR. The most significant of these was Trotsky’s prediction that the bureaucracy itself would “seek supports … in property relations.” Various scholars have noted that this is precisely what happened in the late 1980s, and they have explicitly credited Trotsky for this insight.[26] Regarding the process of restoration, Trotsky predicted that, if a bourgeois party came to power, “it would find no small number of ready servants among the present bureaucrats,” etc.[27] Along these lines, we might note that a 1996 study found that 75% of the Boris Yeltsin leadership, 74% of the Russian government and 82% of the regional elite had a nomenklatura background.[28] Finally, there was Trotsky’s prediction that the regime that would ultimately emerge would be authoritarian and repressive, “a Bonapartist, or in modern terms, a fascist regime”.[29] Though “fascist” may be an exaggeration, “Bonapartist” seems a fairly accurate characterization of the Vladimir Putin regime. In conclusion, I would say that despite its deficiencies — and these were significant — Trotsky’s final theory of Soviet bureaucracy represented a remarkable intellectual and political achievement. It was, as Paul Le Blanc suggests, one of the brightest of the stars of the resistance against the dark night of Stalinism. And it remains a useful starting point for coming to grips with the historical experience of the Soviet Union and of Stalinism. This presentation was given at the Socialism 2016 conference on July 4, in Chicago, United States. Notes [1] Leon Trotsky, Writings of Leon Trotsky [1932-33], edited by George Breitman and Sarah Lovell (New York: Pathfinder Press, 19720, p. 87. [2] Alexandra Kollontai, Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai, translated by Alix Holt (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1977), pp. 191-2. [3] Leon Trotsky, Khoziaistvennoe stroitel’stvo Sovetskoi Respubliki, vol. 15 of Sochineniia, Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo, (Cleveland, OH: Bell and Howell, 1963), pp. 146-7. [4] At the Ninth Party Congress in late December 1920 Trotsky defined glavkokratiia as “the rule of separate, vertically centralized glavki, which are not linked organizationally, and which are badly coordinated in their work”. Trotsky, Khoziaistvennoe stroitel’stvo, p. 217. [5] Trotsky, Khoziaistvennoe stroitel’stvo, p. 39. [6] Lars Lih, “’Our Position Is in the Highest Degree Tragic’: Bolshevik ‘Euphoria’ in 1920”, in History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism, edited by Mike Haynes and Jim Wolfreys (London: Verso, 2007), pp. 129, 131. [7] RKP(b), Deviataia konferentsiia RKP(b), Sentiabr 1920 goda: Protokoly, Moscow: Izdatel’stvo politicheskoi literatury 1972, 141; Leo Pasvolsky, The Economics of Communism: With Special Reference to Russia’s Experiment (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1921), pp. 207-11. [8] See the correspondence between Lenin and Trotsky in Leon Trotsky, The Trotsky Papers, edited by Jan M. Meiher (The Hague: Mouton and Co., vol. 2, 1971), pp. 774-89. [9] V.I. Lenin, Collected Works (Moscow: Foreign Languages Pub. House, 1960-70), vol. 36, pp. 594-5. [10] Leon Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1980), p. 65. [11] Ibid., p. 341. [12] Ibid., pp. 103-4, 166, 168-9, 170, 206, 208, 255, 390-1, 491. [13] Ibid., 263. On the other hand, it was possible that restoration would occur through an “abrupt counterrevolutionary overturn” of the Soviet state, which had been weakened by the leadership’s policies. Trotsky, Challenge (1926-27), pp. 260-1. [14] Leon Trotsky, Writings of Leon Trotsky [1934-35], edited by George Breitman and Bev Scott (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971), p. 169. See also Thomas Twiss, Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), pp. 330-400. [15] Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed: What Is the Soviet Union and Where Is It Going? (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1937), pp. 52-60, 112-113. [16] Ibid., p. 113. [17] Ibid., pp. 88-92. [18] Ibid., pp. 95-6. [19] Ibid., pp. 226-7. [20] Ibid., pp. 249, 251, 254. [21] For example, in 1935 Trotsky mistakenly believed that the market reforms in agriculture were just the beginning of a rightward shift under pressure from well-to-do peasants. Trotsky, Writings [1934-35], pp. 159-60. In 1936 he described the Soviet government and Comintern as “the political agency of imperialism in relation to the working masses.” Leon Trotsky Writings of Leon Trotsky [1935-36], edited by Naomi Allen and George Breitman (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977), p. 274. And in 1935 he argued that increased repression was required for the leadership to implement its moderating initiatives in agricultural and international policy. Leon Trotsky, Trotsky’s Diary in Exile, translated by Elena Zarudnaya (New York: Atheneum, 1963), pp. 20-1, 66, 90. [22] In his 1938 work, The Transitional Program, Trotsky portrayed the Moscow trials as, in part, reflecting conflicts between supporters and opponents of restoration. And he asserted, “Each day added to its [the bureaucracy’s] domination helps rot the foundations of the socialist elements of the economy and increases the chances for capitalist restoration.” Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, edited by George Breitman and Fred Stanton (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), pp. 143-5. [23] See, for example, Leon Trotsky, Writings of Leon Trotsky [1937-38] (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1976), p. 37. [24] On this point, see for example, Duncan Hallas, Trotsky’s Marxism (London: Bookmarks, 1984), p. 28; John Plamenatz, German Marxism and Russian Communism (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1954), p. 303; Henry Reichman, “Reconsidering ‘Stalinism’”, Theory and Society, 17, 1, p. 67; Hillel Tickten, “Leon Trotsky’s Political and Economic Analysis of the USSR, 1929-40,” in The Ideas of Leon Trotsky, edited by Hillel Tickten and Michael Cox (London: Porcupine Press,1995), p. 65. [25] Perry Anderson, “Trotsky’s Interpretation of Stalinism,” in The Stalinist Legacy: Its Impact on Twentieth-Century World Politics, edited by Tariq Ali (Hammondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1984), p. 124. [26] R.W. Davies, “Gorbachev’s Socialism in Historical Perspective,” in Stalinism: Its Nature and Aftermath: Essays in Honor of Moshe Lewin, edited by Nick Lambert and Gabor Rittersporn (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1992), p. 69; Stephen White, Russia’s New Politics: The Management of a Post-communist Society (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 291; Allen C. Lynch, How Russia Is Not Ruled: Reflections on Russian Political Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 77; David Lane, The Capitalist Transformation of State Socialism: The Making and Breaking of State Socialist Society and What Followed (London and NY, Routledge, 2014), pp. 130-31. Various specialists have also identified “privatization from below,” initiated by state and party officials as early as 1987-88, as a major cause of the collapse of the USSR. See Thane Gustafson, Capitalism Russian Style (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 26-7; Lane, Capitalist Transformation, pp. 131-40; Lynch, How Russia Is Not Ruled, p. 74; Stephen Kotkin, Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse 1970-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 113-17; David M. Kotz and Fred Weir, Russia’s Path from Gorbachev to Putin: The Demise of the Soviet System and the New Russia (London and NY: Routledge), pp. 105-25; Stephen L. Solnick, Stealing the State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), pp. 7-8. [27] Trotsky, Revolution Betrayed, p. 253. [28] Olga Kryshtanovskaya and Stephen White, “From Soviet Nomenklatura to Russian Elite”, Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 48, No. 5 (Jul. 1996), p. 729; White, Russia’s New Politics, p. 421. [29] Trotsky, Challenge (1926-27), p. 493. This was a prediction from late 1927, but it is likely the later Trotsky would have agreed.

Tom Twiss here has managed to summarise his excellent book Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy in this narrative presentation.

I attempted to summarise the book itself in my review (at and found it very difficult. Not that the book is difficult, rather is succinctly transmitting its depths.

Anyone seriously interested in the internal debates within and around the Bolshevik Party as the activists grappled with the unfolding horror that was Stalinism has to read Tom’s book.

It is a very complex history and he manages to include all aspects without drowning in the detail.


Just to add that Thomas Twiss' book on Trotsky's writings on Soviet bureaucracy is an excellent work; I recommend it to anyone interested in the topic.