I recently read the new biography of Trotsky by Oxford don Robert Service, published in 2009 by Pan Books. It is well-written and surprisingly interesting. The book does a great public service in describing the life of the actual Trotsky, whose previous “biographies” were little more than hagiographies written by his toady worshippers (people like Isaac Deutscher). The last time that I had taken any interest in Trotsky was when I was a teenager and had fleeting delusions of believing in “socialism.” Reading the new book as an adult and as an economist, I found it a useful opportunity to contemplate the rise of one of the most oppressive regimes in human history. I have gathered some thoughts and impressions here and I hope they will be of interest.
Hunger and starvation have so often accompanied “political revolution” that it would be safe to suggest that they are intrinsic parts of it. Communist revolutions have invariably produced famines and terror. The immediate trigger for “revolutionary terror” in early Soviet Russia was the same as in the French Revolution: the inability of the regime to obtain food for urban residents.
The Bolsheviks had never had very much interest in the peasants in the first place. As great believers in Marxist theology, they advocated the imposition by the “proletariat” of urban workers of “its” will upon the country, including upon the agricultural laborers who constituted the bulk of the population. Even if the Bolshevik party could seriously be thought to represent the urban “proletariat,” they would still have constituted a movement representing only a very small portion of Russian society. Thus bolshevism’s most basic operating principles were anti-democratic.
The other problem for the Bolsheviks was of course that they claimed to represent “the working class” of urban workers, but never considered it necessary to allow those same members of the “proletariat” a say in what they themselves considered their “class interests” to be. The communist party leaders claimed to represent the proletariat automatically, supernaturally, by dint of their having studied Marx and Engels. Under their theology they could automatically divine from the dusty 80 year old writings of Marx what served the interests of the Russian “working class,” without having to ask any actual workers, and in most cases without having to engage in actual work. Party leaders, led by Lenin and Trotsky, lived bourgeois lives even in the most difficult days of the Russian Civil War, often living in luxurious royal apartments inside the Kremlin (which had been the royal residence before the Revolution). Soviet leaders were attended by large numbers of servants, and Trotsky himself never went anywhere during the Civil War without both his large flock of servants and a 35-member military band. Bolshevik leaders (Trotsky in particular) generally had never done a day of honest labor in their lives in any factory or farm; their entire “careers” consisting of political activism.
The Bolsheviks believed that they could divine the answers to what the “workers” collectively needed in much the same way that Church clergy could conjure up the agenda of God, by reading the holy scriptures. And like other manifestations of theology, the Bolsheviks tended to bicker and break up into small factions over minor questions of belief. Like in the Church, the factionalism was suppressed by means of the proclamation of official dogma approved by the party’s Pope. It was the beginning of the thought police system, later perfected by Mao.
In the case of communists, these scriptures meant Marx and Engels, and later Lenin. The problem of course was that Marx and Engels never spelled out the nitty gritty details of what “workers” would need, and basically had no understanding whatsoever of economics. They can hardly be excused for this ignorance on grounds of writing before the advent of modern economic understanding, because it was already well on the course of development at that time.
As just one example of the problem, should the price of shoes in a “workers’ state” be high in order to benefit shoe workers producing shoes, or low to benefit workers who are consumers? And if the representatives of the proletariat cannot make up their minds about the price of shoes, then how the Devil can they decide what constitutes “worker interest” in thousands of other dilemmas. Asking the workers themselves what they wanted was quickly ruled out by the Bolsheviks as a counter-revolutionary nonstarter.
The solution of the early Soviet regime was essentially to suppress and terrorize urban workers, not just the peasants. Before the end of the Civil War, Lenin and Trotsky were ordering all independent labor unions, meaning those that were not simply servile fronts for the party, to be suppressed. Lenin and Trotsky insisted that unions represented and promoted only the narrow interests of selected groups of “proletarians” and not of the entire “class.” Exactly!
In fact, the “alienation” of the “urban workers” by the party had occurred even earlier. The Bolshevik coup and the storming of the Winter Palace were uprisings of the “working class” only in party mythology. The bulk of those rising up in support of the Bolsheviks were soldiers in the Czarist or Kerenski armies, who supported the party because of the promise by Lenin to surrender to the Central powers and end all fighting and mobilization of troops.
The Bolshevik banner may have featured the hammer of the urban worker with the sickle of the peasant, but at the time of the Revolution it was little more than a party of disgruntled soldiers and sailors, most from rural background, reluctant to be sent back to the World War I front to defend Russia. Their opportunistic support for the Bolsheviks largely vanished in thin air as soon as the party tried to mobilize them and send them out to fight the “whites” during the civil war. Trotsky was forced to recruit ex-czarist officers to serve as commanders in the Red Army.
The main groups of soldiers supporting the party with enthusiasm were non-Russians desiring the end of Russian domination over their native lands, like the brigades of Latvian riflemen who served as Lenin’s praetorian guards. By 1921, the same Kronstadt sailors who had been critical in bringing the Bolsheviks to power in 1917 were shooting them and organizing a massive mutiny, brutally suppressed by the communists. The suppression of the rebellion led Whittaker Chambers to label bolshevism a form of fascism, and persuaded many of those who contributed later to the book, “The God that Failed,” to abandon communism. As in the French Revolution, all opposition was automatically attributed by the “Revolutionaries” to foreign conspiracies. Dissent was a form of treason.
Bolshevik thinking in the early days carried strong features of theology. The Bolsheviks believed that if they were to follow the precepts of Marx to the letter, and pronounce the correct incantations, then magic would take place and socialist revolutions would spring up all over the world like adorable leprechauns. This voodoo Marxism eventually led to the rise of Stalin and totalitarian “socialism in one country.” And an ice pick in the skull of Trotsky.
Most Bolshevik leaders had no skills or experience in government administration, management, business, or anything else. Their only claim to legitimacy was their assertion that they understood the needs of the “proletariat.” Trotsky believed in command control and central “planning” of the economy until his last breath, and he was hardly alone. Within days of seizing power in their coup d’etat, the Bolshevik leaders were seeking to impose their “dictatorship of the proletariat,” by which they meant the dictatorship of those party officials, more often than not from middle class backgrounds, claiming to represent the proletariat. The Russian economy imploded under their rule. Output of Russian factories and mines in 1921 was only a seventh of what it had been under the Czar in 1913.
Their understanding of foreign powers and diplomacy was even more pathetic than their ignorance of economics, and was also dominated by belief in magic. During the first years of the Soviet regime, its leaders quite seriously expected communist revolutions to break out all over Europe. And they were truly surprised when none did, except pathetic attempts – quickly suppressed – to install bolshevism in Germany and Hungary.
Part of their problem was that Marx and Engels were themselves wrong with regard to just about everything. They were wrong, first and foremost, with regard to the claim that there exists some sort of monolithic “working class” with some sort of uniform set of “class interests.” Urban workers share no common interest, as the above example involving shoe prices illustrates. Urban workers indeed were a “class” with a common interest only in the most tautological sense, only in the sense that all those assigned to any “class” would favor increases in the incomes and wealth for all members of that “class.” By the same token, people with curly hair constitute a “class,” because any proposal to raise incomes for all those with curls would be supported by them. But regarding any other issue that would arise, the curly headed would have no common interest. Ditto for urban workers. And in the exact same sense, there is no capitalist class. An assembly of the “capitalist class” would similarly be incapable of agreeing over whether shoe prices should be high or low.
And just why were urban “workers” even considered to be politically superior to everyone else in society? Marx, Engels and the Soviet leadership had great difficulty conceiving of anyone doing productive work unless they were making “things.“ And heavy “things” were more valuable, important, and productive than light “things.” Certainly producing services was not understood by them as productive labor, explaining why the quality of services of all sorts in the Soviet block remained abysmal all the way down to the fall of communism.
But just what was a “worker”? Do not bankers and teachers and dentists and engineers and pharmacists work? In many cases, they work longer hours than factory workers. Marx and Engels had insisted that urban factory workers must seize political control of society, and they must do so by means of a dictatorship by the party claiming to speak in their name. In any case, Marx and Engels were pretty sure that peasants did not really provide important “work.” After all, they just produce food. So they need not really be part of any revolutionary regime.
Peasant reluctance to deliver food products to the urban “masses” without getting paid was “counter-revolutionary” and could be resolved by starving them to death, terrorizing them, and locking them up in non-productive collective farms. There food production would prove too low even to feed the peasants themselves, let alone export food to the cities. The Bolsheviks were truly surprised when it turned out that their policies had driven the bulk of the peasants to support the “whites” and other opposition forces in the Civil War. While agrarian collectivism was relaxed briefly under the “New Economic Policy” of Lenin’s last days, it then became an instrument of genocide under Stalin.
The other problem of the Bolsheviks was that, at least in the early stages of the “Revolution,” they were truly captivated by utopian delusions. The problem of all utopians is that they advocate systems and ideas that can only work with imaginary idyllic humans, but never with real human beings. When they discover that real human beings refuse to knuckle under and behave according to utopian expectations, the utopianists respond with violent rage. The greatest strength of capitalism is that it actually works with real human beings, people who are lazy, base, narcissistic, self-indulgent, foul-smelling, mean-spirited, and unsophisticated. Capitalism does not require idyllic fictional humans in order for it to work.
The most violent terrorists and oppressors of others have always been the utopians. The French Revolution turned violent and the guillotine was introduced to attempt to terrorize actual humans into behaving according to the expectations of the utopianists. The leaders of the Soviet Revolution were no slower or more squeamish in following the same route.