I think Martyn Hudson is fundamentally mistaken when he argues that “the bureaucracy was born of the one-party state” and that the party had been delivered to the Stalinist clique by Lenin and Trotsky. And his statement that “The Bolsheviks created the context for their own elimination” is utterly ahistorical (Solidarity 232, 1 February 2012).
Martyn commits the same methodological error as the totalitarian school and their mirror image Stalinist apologists, who both equate the rise of bureaucracy with the role of the party. It simply won’t do to condense the rise of bureaucratic rule in the USSR with the biography of one man and his coterie – this is history made by good and bad people, rather than a materialist approach. Martyn makes a further methodological error by largely ignoring the production relations and real social processes that developed well before Kronstadt.
A decent Marxist account of the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy would begin with the contradictions from the very outset of the new workers’ state, with the conditions after the successful workers’ revolution in 1917. The Bolshevik-led Soviets smashed the old state in October 1917 and established elementary organs of democratic workers’ self-rule. However in the context of an already backward economy, world war, civil war and invasion, the material with which the ruling workers' party reconstructed the new state still had huge vestiges from the old society.
I think our approach should start from the contest over the surplus product from 1917, between the party and the workers’ vanguard on the one side and the ‘new’ state (of industrial managers, civil servants and military specialists) on the other. The state’s personnel were often hostile to the Bolsheviks and sometimes contiguous with the old regime.
The Bolsheviks were absolutely right to try to utilise these managers. But these people were instrumental in strangling workers’ involvement in the new state through soviets, factory committees and unions. It was these agents who simultaneously sucked in and consumed elements of the party itself. This reconstituted bureaucratic social force, fusing and interpenetrating the new state with Stalin’s wing of the party, evolved in the twenties to become the ruling class - the sole master of the surplus product - by 1928.
I think Lenin saw the dangers more clearly than anyone else at the time, defining Russia as “a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations”. He warned persistently about the dangers of the state bureaucracy, with its hands on the levers on what little surplus could be extracted from the workers (and more significantly, from the peasants). Before he was completed debilitated by ill-health, these warnings became more and more shrill.
He told the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in December 1922: “Our machinery of state is to blame. We took over the old machinery of state, and that was our misfortune. Very often this machinery operates against us”. Whilst the Bolshevik party and its militant workers still exercised political power at the top, “down below government employees have arbitrary control and they often exercise it in such a way as to counteract our measures”. At best tens of thousands of class conscious workers battled with “hundreds of thousands of old officials” left over from the tsar and from bourgeois society.
It is not self-deception to seek to understand these contradictions and to map how the first workers’ state unravelled. Nor is it wishful thinking to look to the party as the means of reforming the degenerating workers’ state in the 1920s. After the civil war, there were only a few residual elements left of the workers’ democracy that had made the revolution and constituted the new workers’ state. These forces were concentrated principally in the Bolshevik party. These vanguard elements who led that revolution had also been decimated during the civil war. Many of the best, most class conscious militants had been killed, worn out or simply displaced into the machinery of the bureaucracy. That was the tragedy the Bolsheviks faced and why it needed to break out of its international isolation.
Martyn offers no explanation for the degeneration of the Russian revolution. On thin ground, he takes refuge in abstract platitudes. That is no basis to understand the history of the workers’ movement, nor the way to draw lessons for our own epoch.