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Susan Green

Answering a Frequently Asked Question

What Was Trotsky’s Goal in Russia?

(26 August 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 34, 26 August 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Very often we hear the idea expressed that Russia would have been no different today if Trotsky had remained at the helm of the State instead of Stalin. This ideas is expressed in several forms. One hears it thus: “Trotsky would be the same as Stalin” – a positive statement made by people who lost faith in Socialism and have become cynical. These people seek to color the world with the brush of their own cynicism to make it appear that there is no such thing as a true revolutionary Socialist.

However, there are workers moving closer to Socialism, hot away from it, who honestly seek information and understanding. They wonder whether Trotsky in power would have been different from Stalin. They wonder because they want to be sure where they are going. They do not want to engage in a revolutionary fight against capitalism only to find themselves in a Stalinist type of prison-society. It is for these workers moving toward socialism that this article is written.

Let me say at the beginning that this article is limited in scope. It will just give one illustration of the difference in Trotsky’s conceptions and those held by Stalin. The illustration pertains to the ideas of these two men on how to increase the interest of the workers in their own work, in production as a whole, in economic planning. This is a most important problem; being nothing less than the question of how to draw every worker into an active, interested, efficient participation in the construction of Socialism after power has been wrested from the capitalists.

Exploiting the Worker

How Stalin solved this all-important matter is fairly well known. His was not a Socialist solution, but one that served the needs of the new ruling class, the bureaucrats. Thus Stalin used falsification, force, intimidation, and terror against the workers. All political and economic democratic rights were taken away from them. They became veritable slaves of the new regime.

The main ruse for raising the productivity of labor in Stalinist Russia is called Stakhanovism. A group of above-average workers in a plant are set to work under the most ideal conditions. For example, all auxiliary work in production is done for them. Naturally they make a production record. This record then is made the norm for the whole plant and for all workers notwithstanding the real conditions of the plant. If workers cannot make the grade, they simply suffer wage reductions.

This is how bureaucrats “solved” the problem of production. They add new wrinkles to exploitation, such as labor cards which enable plant superintendents to blacklist workers. It also prevents workers from leaving one job for another like serfs tied to the soil.

Another Stalinist method of dealing with the production problem are so- called trials for absenteeism and tardiness. If the biased judges of the secret police find a worker was not ill enough to warrant absence or tardiness, the punishment is a sentence at slave labor. This last is, of course, the crowning infamy of Stalinism, and nobody knows exactly how many tens of millions of prisoners of the secret police toil as slaves for the Stalinist bureaucrats.

Thus have Stalin’s conceptions been put into practice.

In contrast, Trotsky was deeply concerned with the problem of drawing every worker into active, interested and efficient participation in the construction of Socialism, not only by increasing his productivity but also by raising his standard of living, his cultural level and his understanding of what kind of a society he was working for. Trotsky spoke and wrote on this subject many times. In this article I want to take up some of his ideas on this subject as he presented them in his book Problems of Life, in the first chapter entitled Not by Politics Alone Does Man Thrive.

What Should Be Done

In the first place, Trotsky’s aim was to strengthen the workers as the ruling class, not to subjugate them once more. “The problem in Russia at the present moment is the constructiveness of the working class. For the first time in history the working class is doing constructive work for its own benefit and on its own plan ... All our separate and minor problems ... are parts of the general plan which will enable the ruling working class to overcome its economic weakness and lack of culture.” This is Trotsky’s basic approach: the advancement of the workers in their own behalf, for their own benefit.

He was concerned about the workmen who did not belong to the Communist Party, before its degeneration, when it was still a living, active party of the Russian working class. These “unpolitical” workers were on the side of the revolution. Some had fought on different fronts in the civil war; some supplied the Red Army with the needed munitions. But in peacetime they were primarily interested in their particular jobs. Trotsky showed his great respect for these workers, even though they did not join the party and were tired of political speeches. He wanted to reach these workers, whose primary interest was in their jobs, on their own level and to show them that their job was contributing to the building of Socialism.

Trotsky made several suggestions to accomplish this end. He emphasized the need for a series of new handbooks that could be given to the locksmith, the cabinet maker, the electrician, to appraise him of the up-to-date technics in his own trade. But these workers must also learn that the then existing poverty of the whole country affected their own jobs, and that the great possibilities under Socialist planning could be realized only by common effort. Trotsky did not conceive these handbooks as dry, routine stuff to be written by hacks removed from the problems of the workers who were supposed to read the handbooks. He saw them as living, educational material that would increase the technical knowledge, skill and productivity of the worker, and also deepen in him the feeling of community in the larger economic task. The authors of these handbooks, according to Trotsky’s plan, would be three in number for each: a specialist familiar with the technical conditions in the trade, a skilled worker in the particular trade, and a Marxist with political, industrial and technical understanding and knowledge.

These details are all very significant. They color the whole approach No fraud, force, intimidation, terror: but education, deep and true, to raise the cultural level of the worker and thereby his worth as a producer, and thereby his stature as a responsible member of the proletarian ruling class.

Trotsky also felt the responsibility of the Soviet Government to the workers: “The most telling political arguments, however, for the workers of that type are our practical achievements in industrial matters ...” Again, Trotsky did not consider dissatisfaction with conditions in the workshop and factory a matter for the secret police to handle, but a matter for earnest attention and correction. Nor did he place within the jurisdiction of the secret police the ill- feeling that workers harbor toward those in authority, who “get off with idle talk.” Trotsky’s ideal was a completely give-and-take relationship between the workers and those whom they had chosen as leaders.

A New Ruling Class

One final point as revealed in this one chapter of this little book. Trotsky aimed at the closest cooperation between the new generation, developing into qualified, devoted Socialist workers, and “the old men” skilled in their trades. The latter, though outside the party, would yet help build Socialism in all ways, including training the young.

But Trotsky didn’t carry these ideas out. That is true. Could he have carried them out in Russia as it developed after 1917? That is difficult to say. These ideas are Socialist ideas and could have been put into practice only if the forces for Socialism had advanced in Russia instead of the counter-revolution that triumphed. The crux of the situation then was that the European revolution did not succeed and did not come to the aid of backward Russia. Thus the exhaustion of war and civil war and the backwardness and the poverty, gave stimulus to the self-seekers to grab what little there was, at the expense of the masses.

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