Trotsky’s interpretation of the historical meaning of Stalinism, to this day the most coherent and developed theorization of the phenomenon within the Marxist tradition, was constructed in the course of twenty years of practical political struggle against it. His thought thus evolved in tension with the major conflicts and events of these years, and can be conveniently periodized into three essential phases.footnote

Trotsky’s early writings on the subject date from the inner-party struggle that broke out in the cpsu after the Civil War. They do not name Stalinism as such. Their focus is what party tradition called ‘bureaucratism’. The New Course (1923) is the key text of this period. In it, Trotsky took over the two major terms of what had been Lenin’s explanations of this before his death. Bureaucratism, Lenin had argued, was rooted in the lack of culture of the Russian masses, rural or urban, that deprived them of the necessary aptitudes for competent postwar administration, and in the petty-commodity and subsistence character of the agrarian economy, whose immense dispersal of the primary producers rendered inevitable an over-centralization of the state apparatus in Russia. Trotsky subjoined a third cause—the inevitable contradiction between the immediate and long-term interests of the working class, amidst the great shortages and dire exigencies of postwar construction. More significantly, however, he insisted that bureaucratism was not ‘only the aggregate of the bad habits of office-holders’, but represented ‘a social phenomenon—a definite system of administration of men and things’.footnote1 The main locus of this phenomenon was the state apparatus, but the latter—by absorbing ‘an enormous quantity of the most active party elements’footnote2—was infecting the Bolshevik Party itself. The expression of this contamination was the increasing dominance of the central apparatus within the party, operating through an appointments system, repressing democratic debate, and dividing the Old Guard from the rank-and-file and younger generation. This development posed the danger of a ‘bureaucratic degeneration’footnote3 of the Old Guard itself. Bureaucratism was thus—here Trotsky broke clearly beyond Lenin’s analysis—‘not a survival of some preceding regime, a survival in the process of disappearing; on the contrary, it is an essentially new phenomenon, flowing from the new tasks, the new functions, the new difficulties and the new mistakes of the party’.footnote4

The New Course warned of the dangers of bureaucratism prior to the victory of Stalin’s grouping within the cpsu. After the consummation of that victory, Trotsky’s oppositional writings in the later 1920s attempt to provide a more comprehensive explanation of the phenomenon. The Third International after Lenin (1928) is probably the most important text for his views in this intermediary phase of his thought. There, he attributes the defeat of the Left Opposition within Russia, which sealed the triumph of a bureaucratic internal regime, to the downswing of the international class struggle: above all, the disasters that had overtaken the German Revolution in 1923 and the Chinese Revolution in 1927, respectively on the Western and Eastern flanks of the ussr. The shift in the world balance of class forces to the advantage of capital was inevitably translated into an increase in alien social pressures on the Bolshevik Party itself, within Russia. These were in turn compounded by the failure of Stalin’s faction to pursue rapid industrialization in the ussr to date, which would have strengthened the countervailing weight of the Soviet proletariat. After the effects of the First Five-Year Plan became visible, Trotsky modified this claim to argue that the new ‘labour aristocracy’ created by Stakhanovism, above the mass of the working-class, objectively functioned as a support of the bureaucratic regime within the party. Stalin’s own faction, which had won its victory on the social-patriotic slogan of Socialism in One Country, Trotsky still characterized as a Centre, poised between the party Right (Bukharin-Rykov-Tomsky) and the Left, the creature of the permanent apparatus of the cpsu.

In his autobiography My Life (1929), he sketched what he saw as the social-psychological mechanisms that had converted so many revolutionaries of 1917 into functionaries of this regime—‘the liberation of the philistine in the Bolshevik’—as the elan of the insurgent masses declined in the aftermath of the Civil War, and fatigue and apathy set in, creating a period of generalized ‘social reaction’ in the ussr. In subsequent essays on Stalin’s industrialization drive, Trotsky extended the notion of a factional ‘Centre’ into the more far-ranging category of Stalinist centrism—arguing that while centrism was an inherently unstable phenomenon in capitalist countries, a posture mid-way between reform and revolution in the labour movement, reflecting shifts from left to right or vice-versa in mass pressures, in the ussr it could acquire a durable material basis in the bureaucracy of the new workers’ state. The abrupt zig-zags of Stalin’s policies at home and abroad, from appeasement to all-out war on the kulaks, from class conciliationism to ultra-leftism in the Third International, were the logical expression of this centrist character of his regime, subject to complex and contradictory class pressures on it. The decisive court of these pressures, however, was international, not national.

Trotsky’s interpretation of Stalinism, hitherto still fragmentary and tentative in many respects, became systematic and conclusive from 1933 onwards. The reason, of course, was the triumph of Nazism in Germany, which convinced Trotsky that the Comintern—for whose rectification of line he had fought down to the last moment–was now unrecuperable, and with it the Stalinized cpsu itself. The decision to found a new International was thus the immediate impulse for his frontal engagement with the problem of the nature of Stalinism, which for the first time now became the direct object of extended theoretical interpretation in itself, rather than an issue treated in the course of texts discussing many other questions, as previously.

The crucial essay that provides nearly all the main themes of Trotsky’s mature thought on Stalinism was written within a few months of Hitler’s seizure of power: The Class Nature of the Soviet State (1933). In it, he set out the four fundamental theses that were to be the basis of his position down to his death. Firstly, the role of Stalinism at home and abroad had to be distinguished. Within the ussr, the Stalinist bureaucracy played a contradictory role—defending itself simultaneously against the Soviet working-class, from which it had usurped power, and against the world bourgeoisie, which sought to wipe out all the gains of the October Revolution and restore capitalism in Russia. In this sense, it continued to act as a ‘centrist’ force. Outside the ussr, by contrast, the Stalinized Comintern had ceased to play any anti-capitalist role, as its debacle in Germany had now irrevocably proved. Hence ‘the Stalinist apparatus could completely squander its meaning as an international revolutionary force, and yet preserve part of its progressive meaning as the gate-keeper of the social conquests of the proletarian revolution’.footnote5 Soon afterwards, Trotsky would argue that the Comintern performed an actively counter-revolutionary role in world politics, colluding with capital and shackling labour in the interests of protecting the Stalinist monopoly of power in Russia itself, which would be threatened by the example of any victory of a socialist revolution, creating a proletarian democracy, elsewhere.

Secondly, within the ussr Stalinism represented the rule of a bureaucratic stratum, emergent from and parasitic upon the working class, not a new class. This stratum occupied no independent structural role in the process of production proper, but derived its economic privileges from its confiscation of political power from the direct producers, within the framework of nationalized property relations. Thirdly, the administration over which it presided remained typologically a workers’ state, precisely because these property relations—embodying the expropriation of the expropriators achieved in 1917—persisted. The identity and legitimacy of the bureaucracy as a political ‘caste’ depended on its defense of them. Therewith, Trotsky dismissed the two alternative accounts of Stalinism most widespread in the labour movement in the 1930s (which had emerged within the Second International during the Civil War itself)—that it represented a form of ‘state capitalism’ or of ‘bureaucratic collectivism’. The iron dictatorship exercised by the Stalinist police and administrative apparatus over the Soviet proletariat was not incompatible with the preservation of the proletarian nature of the state itself—any more than the Absolutist dictatorships over the nobility had been incompatible with the preservation of the nature of the feudal state, or the fascist dictatorships exercised over the bourgeois class were with the preservation of the nature of the capitalist state. The ussr was indeed a degenerated workers’ state, but a ‘pure’ dictatorship of the proletariat—conformable to an ideal definition of it—had never existed in the Soviet Union in the first instance.