WORKERS' RUSSIA was not greeted by a revolution in Germany, by warm arms and offers of fraternal assistance. Instead, it was greeted by the invasion of 17 armies from 14 countries. Alone, isolated, encircled, revolutionary Russia undertook the heroic task of defending itself. Under the leadership of Trotsky, a Red Army was created that for nearly three years criss-crossed Russia battling the armies of world capitalism. In the end, the Red Army prevailed. But at a terrible price. Russia was bled dry. Its industry had collapsed. It could no longer feed its population. With economic and social collapse came political decay. As workers' democracy disintegrated, a new bureaucracy rose to power.
The dimensions of Russia's collapse are truly staggering. By 1920, industrial production had fallen to a mere 13 per cent of its 1913 level. There were massive shortages of every conceivable item. But most desperately, there was a chronic shortage of food. Famine swept the countryside. According to Trotsky, cannibalism emerged in some of the provinces. There was a huge flight of people from the cities, where food was nearly impossible to find, back to the country. The population of Petrograd, the major industrial city, fell from 2.5 million in 1917 to 574,000 in August of 1920. And even those workers who remained in the cities were often too sick or too hungry to work. Absenteeism reached an average of 30 per cent. Disease swept the country. Between 1918 and 1920, 1.6 million people died of typhus, dysentery and cholera. Another 350,000 perished on the battle field.
By 1920, the very face of Russia had changed. Workers' democracy, in the meaningful sense of the term, had disappeared--as had most of the working class through death or retreat to the countryside. In many cases elections to the soviets ceased. The Bolshevik Party remained alone in power confronted by a country that was slowly dying. In the early 1920s, this ruling party divided into a series of factions, each with a different view as to how society should be governed and socialism constructed. While many individuals crossed back and forth between the contending factions, a few years after Lenin's death in 1924 (he had been sick and largely incapacitated since 1922) there were two dominant points of view.
Grouped around Joseph Stalin were those forces that represented the rising Soviet bureaucracy. Stalin's group argued that the Russian government should go about the task of building 'socialism in one country'. For this group, 'socialism' lost all foundation in organs of workers' democracy, soviets, and the international economy of abundance. They came increasingly to identify socialism with a bureaucratic monopoly of power which allowed no place for organs of mass democracy. Further, they began to define socialism as a state-controlled and planned economy which would industrialise backward Russia on the basis of ruthless labour discipline and starvation wages.
Grouped around Leon Trotsky were the forces known as the 'Left Opposition'. At the urging of Lenin before he died, Trotsky had started to oppose many of Stalin's policies. By the mid-1920s, the programme of the Left Opposition had two central planks. First, democracy had to be re-established in the Bolshevik party and in the mass organisations such as the trade unions and the soviets. Secondly, the Soviet government had to abandon all such retrograde notions as socialism in one country-- which identified socialism with an impoverished and bureaucratically- dominated society--in favour of a revolutionary and internationalist perspective that understood that Russia's salvation lay in the spread of revolution abroad.
By 1927 the debate was over. Trotsky's revolutionary perspective fell on deaf ears. The working class, to the extent that it still existed, was hungry and demoralised. It remained largely indifferent to the rallying cry of the Left Opposition. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of careerist elements had joined the Bolshevik party. Many of these were former Czarist officials who foresaw the possibility of state employment if they announced themselves 'communists'. With the Bolshevik party dominated now by such elements (200,000 original communists had died during the Civil War), Stalin's victory was assured. In November of 1927, Trotsky was expelled from the Bolshevik party.
At that point, Stalin undertook to reshape the entire nature and direction of Russian society. This 'reshaping' had three main aspects: the elimination of all dissent; the liquidation of all forms of democracy and of working class organisation; the slashing of the living standards of the working class and the physical annihilation of millions of peasants. The purpose of these policies was to transfer economic resources from fulfilling the consumption needs of human beings to the building of a massive industrial/military complex that could compete on the same footing as western capitalism.
The elimination of dissent began with expulsions from the Bolshevik party in 1927. Then came sweeping arrests. In the mid-1930s a wave of 'show trials' led to the slaughter of the original Bolshevik leaders of the revolution. But the most astounding and gruesome form of repression came in the slave labour camps. By 1931, two million people had found their way into these camps. By 1933, the figure was five million. In 1942 it reached a staggering 15 million.
The destruction of the remnants of workers' democracy proceeded apace. Strikes were outlawed in 1928. After 1930 workers were no longer allowed to change jobs without state permission. Trade unions were reduced to bureaucratic playthings controlled by the state. Other democratic reforms of the revolution were buried. Access to divorce was severely curtailed. Abortion was made illegal. Homosexuality, made legal with the revolution, was once again made a criminal offence. A regime of police terror prevailed.
In 1929, the first Five-Year Plan was introduced. The aim Stalin announced, was to 'catch up and overtake' the West. In order to take control of food production, several million peasants were slaughtered. In the towns, workers' wages were cut in half between 1930 and 1937. A rate of growth of 40 per cent was declared. Such a growth rate could only be achieved through ruthless exploitation of the working class--by forcing workers to produce more and more output for lower and lower wages.
From this point on, the whole axis of Russian development changed. Gone was the commitment to workers' democracy and international socialism. In their place, a privileged bureaucracy had installed the aims of industrial and military development in order to build a world power. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union consciously adapted itself to the dynamics of world capitalism. The objective of defeating international capitalism through workers' revolutions was replaced by the aim of building a modern military/industrial complex. And it would happen at break-neck speed. Stalin expressed the logic clearly:
To slacken the pace would mean to lag behind; and those who lag behind are beaten. We do not want to be beaten ... We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this lag in ten years.
International socialism had thus been supplanted by state capitalism. All of economic life was subordinated to the objective of competing with western capitalism. The satisfaction of human needs was not the aim of production. Rather, production was geared to constructing steel mills and tank factories that could rival those of the West. After all, the price of survival for any state caught up in the world capitalist system is that it incessantly expand the industrial and military resources at its command. The living standards of the working class are, therefore, continually subordinated to the aim of endless expansion. For it is impossible to build ever more factories and produce ever more weapons unless workers are continually turning out more and more unpaid labour.
For Russia, competition is primarily military. But, in order to equal the West in sophisticated weaponry, Russia must be capable of matching the growth of western capitalism in all areas: in steel, electrical goods, industrial chemicals and so on. The pressure of world capitalist competition -- both military and economic-- shapes the structure and direction of Russian society. Russia is thereby reduced to little more than a state-owned economy that has adapted itself to the capitalist system as a whole.
It is for this reason that Russia, both in Stalin's day and today, can be described as state capitalist. For the defining feature of capitalism is not that individual businessmen produce for their own gain. Rather it is that owners of 'capital' (resources produced by workers) exploit workers who are forced to sell their ability to work in order to make a living. In a capitalist system, that exploitation takes place with a view to expanding the wealth and power at the disposal of a corporation or state so that they can hold their own in a world system of competition.