The Darker the Night the Brighter the Star
Leon Trotsky’s struggle against Stalinism
This presentation was given at the Socialism 2016 conference on July 4, 2016 in Chicago.
The title of this session—”the darker the night, the brighter the star”—is the title of the fourth and final volume of Tony Cliff’s biography of Leon Trotsky, who was a central leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution of workers and peasants, which turned the Russian Tsarist empire into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. One of the founders of modern Communism and the Soviet state, Trotsky is also the best known of those who fought against the degeneration of that revolution and movement brought on by a vicious bureaucratic dictatorship led by Joseph Stalin.1
I went on-line to find out where that book title came from, and I learned that it is often attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s great novel Crime and Punishment. But I also learned that this is contested, and I personally couldn’t find it in Dostoevsky’s novel. When I wrote to Tony Cliff’s biographer, Ian Birchall, he checked with Cliff’s son—Donny Gluckstein—who responded: “I think he might have taken the phrase from the Friedrich Schlotterbeck Left Book Club book—The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars.” Schlotterbeck was a young working-class Communist in Germany when Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship was established in 1933, and his 1947 book is an inspiring and devastating account of left-wing workers’ resistance to Nazi tyranny, in which we learn of the heroism and horrific destruction of his many comrades, friends, and family members who remained committed to socialist and communist ideals.2
But Trotsky has told us: “No one, not excluding Hitler, has dealt socialism such deadly blows as Stalin. This is hardly astonishing since Hitler has attacked the working class organizations from without, while Stalin does it from within. Hitler assaults Marxism. Stalin not only assaults, but prostitutes it. Not a single principle has remained unpolluted, not a single idea unsullied. The very names of socialism and communism have been cruelly compromised…Socialism signifies a pure and limpid social system which is accommodated to the self-government of the toilers. Stalin’s regime is based on a conspiracy of the rulers against the ruled. Socialism implies an uninterrupted growth of universal equality. Stalin has erected a system of revolting privileges. Socialism has as its goal the all-sided flowering of individual personality. When and where has man’s personality been so degraded as in the USSR? Socialism would have no value apart from the unselfish, honest and humane relations between human beings. The Stalin regime has permeated social and personal relationships with lies, careerism and treachery.”3 So wrote Trotsky in 1937. And those in Soviet Russia who believed such things were repressed no less ruthlessly than the German Communists had been.4
The Left Oppositionists that Trotsky led persisted after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, and they were rounded up and sent to Siberian prison camps called isolators. “When you can no longer serve the cause to which you have dedicated your life—you should give it your death.” These were the words of Adolf Joffe, one of Trotsky’s close friends and co-thinkers who had committed suicide as a protest against Stalinism in 1927. His young wife Maria ended up in internal exile in 1929. As the situation of the condemned Oppositionists worsened by degrees, she held out, and when it became the horrific “one long night” that she describes in her memoir of the late 1930s, she was one of the few who somehow survived to tell what happened. She was sustained by the core belief: “It is possible to sacrifice your life, but the honor of a person, of a revolutionary—never.”5
Pressures to give in were intense, when capitulation could mean freedom, while remaining in Opposition meant never-ending jail and exile. By 1934, after seven years, Trotsky’s close comrade Christian Rakovsky himself was ready to capitulate, his views later recounted by Maria’s step-daughter, Nadezhda Joffe, in whom he confided and whom he won over: “His basic thoughts were that we had to return to the party in any way possible. He felt that there was undoubtedly a layer in the party which shared our views at heart, but had not decided to voice their agreement. And we could become a kind of common sense core and be able to accomplish something. Left in isolation, he said, they would strangle us like chickens.”6
Trotsky rejected this logic, as did many co-thinkers exiled in small village “isolators.” One survivor recalled the toasts they made [in the early 1930s] on New Year’s Day: “The first toast was to our courageous and long-suffering wives and women comrades, who were sharing our fate. We drank our second toast to the world proletarian revolution. Our third was to our people’s freedom and our own liberation from prison.”7
Instead, they would soon be transferred to the deadly Siberian labor camps into which hundreds-of-thousands of victims of the 1935-39 purges (including most of the capitulators plus many other Communist Party members) were sent as Stalinist repression tightened throughout the country. Arrested while in Moscow in 1936, Secretary of the Palestinian Communist Party Joseph Berger later remembered the Left Oppositionists he met during his own ordeal:
“While the great majority had ‘capitulated,’ there remained a hard core of uncompromising Trotskyists, most of them in prisons and camps. They and their families had all been rounded up in the preceding months and concentrated in three large camps—Kolyma, Vorkuta, and Norilsk.... The majority were experienced revolutionaries who had fought in the Civil War but had joined the Opposition in the early twenties.... Purists, they feared contamination of their doctrine above all else in the world.... When I accused the Trotskyists of sectarianism, they said what mattered was ‘to keep the banner unsullied.’”8
Another survivor’s account, published in the émigré publication of Russian Mensheviks, Socialist Messenger, recalls “the Orthodox Trotskyists” of the Vorkuta labor camp who “were determined to remain faithful to their platform and their leaders,” and, “even though they were in prison, they continued to consider themselves Communists; as for Stalin and his supporters, ‘the apparatus men,’ they were characterized as renegades from communism.” Along with their supporters and sympathizers (some of whom had never even been members of the Communist Party), they numbered in the thousands in this area, according to the witness. As word spread of Stalin’s show trials designed to frame and execute the Old Bolshevik leaders, and as conditions at the camp deteriorated, “the entire group of ‘Orthodox’ Trotskyists” came together. The eyewitness remembers the speech of Socrates Gevorkian:
“‘It is now evident that the group of Stalinist adventurers have completed their counter-revolutionary coup d’etat in our country. All the progressive conquests of our revolution are in mortal danger. Not twilight shadows but those of the deep black night envelop our country. …No compromise is possible with the Stalinist traitors and hangmen of the revolution. But before destroying us, Stalin will try to humiliate us as much as he can. …We are left with only one means of struggle in this unequal battle: the hunger strike.’9 The great majority of prisoners, regardless of political orientation, followed this lead.”
Lasting from October 1936 to March 1937, the 132-day hunger strike was powerfully effective and forced the camp officials and their superiors to give in to the strikers’ demands. “We had a verbal newspaper, Truth Behind Bars,” Maria Joffe was told by an Oppositionist who had survived, “we had little groups—circles, there were a lot of clever, knowledgeable people. Sometimes we issued a satirical leaflet, The Underdog. Vilka, our barrack representative, was editor and the illustrations were formed by people against a wall background. Quite a lot of laughing, too, mostly young ones there.” And then “everything suddenly came to an end.”10
In 1938 the Trotskyists of Vorkuta were marched out in batches—men, women, children over the age of twelve—into the surrounding arctic wasteland. “Their names were checked against a list and then, group-by-group, they were called out and machine-gunned,” writes Joseph Berger. “Some struggled, shouted slogans and fought the guards to the last.” According to the witness writing in Socialist Messenger, as one larger group of about a hundred was led out of the camp to be shot, “the condemned sang the ‘Internationale’ joined by the voices of hundreds of prisoners remaining in camp.”11
In her memoir Maria Joffe tells us the “tortures, murders, mass shootings of many thousands of Trotskyists in Vorkuta and Kolyma,” actually embraced many more, “the complete destruction of the October and Civil War generation, ‘infected by Trotskyist heresy…’” It has been estimated that more than two million people were condemned from 1934 through 1938—with more than 700,000 executions and over a million sent to increasingly brutalized labor camps where many more perished.12
In the rest of these remarks I want to touch on aspects of the so-called “Trotskyist heresy” that analyze how a profoundly democratic workers and peasants revolution, inspired by the deepest socialist idealism, could turn into one of the worst tyrannies in human history. This is something that Trotsky wrestled with as it was happening—and there is much we can learn from that, as my friend Tom Twiss brilliantly demonstrates in his important book.13
The bottom-line, however, is that Trotsky’s analysis clearly emerges from the fundamental analysis of Karl Marx eighty years earlier. It is also inseparable from the basics of his own theory of permanent revolution. In my remaining time I will offer both analyses in very broad strokes—permanent revolution and bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union.
The rise and industrial development of capitalism has done three things—according to both Marx and Trotsky. First there was a process sometimes known as “primitive accumulation” which involved a horrific and murderous displacement and oppression and brutal exploitation of masses of peasants and indigenous peoples on a global scale. Second, there has been a massive process of proletarianization—making a majority of the labor force and population into a modern working class (those whose livelihood is dependent on selling their ability to work, their labor-power, for wages). This working-class majority is the force that has the potential power, and the objective self-interest, to replace the economic dictatorship of capitalism with the economic democracy of socialism—and the awareness of all this is what Marxists mean when they speak of workers’ class-consciousness. Third, the spectacular technological development generated by capitalism—the ever self-renewing Industrial Revolution—creates the material basis for a new socialist society. As Marx put it in 1845, the creation of this high level of productivity and wealth “is an absolutely necessary practical premise [for communism] because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution [there is a resumption of] the struggle for necessities” generating a competition for who gets what, and then (according to one translation) the same old shit starts all over again.14
Drawing from Marx, Trotsky and a growing number of his Russian comrades came to see the coming revolution in backward Russia in this way. The democratic struggle against the semi-feudal Tsarist autocracy would only be led consistently and through to the end by the small but growing Russian working class in alliance with the peasant majority—and the success of such a revolution would place the organizations of the working class into political power. There would be a natural push to keep moving in a socialist direction (with expanding social improvements for the masses of people)—although the socialism that Marx had outlined and that the Russian workers were fighting for could not be created in a single backward country. But a successful Russian Revolution would help push forward revolutionary struggles in other countries, and as these revolutions were successful—especially in industrially more advanced countries such as Germany, France, Italy, and Britain—the Russian workers and peasants could join with comrades in a growing number of countries to development of a global socialist economy that would replace capitalism and create a better life and better future for the world’s laboring majority. This is why Lenin, Trotsky and their comrades labored to draw revolutionaries and insurgent workers from all around the world into the Communist International, to help advance this necessary world revolutionary process for international socialism. Because socialism cannot triumph if it is not global.15
But the anticipated revolutions in other countries were not successful, and seven years of relative isolation—with military invasions, foreign trade boycotts, civil war, and economic collapse, and other hardships—had three results. First, the projected government by democratic councils (soviets) of workers and peasants was delayed as the overwhelming social-political-economic emergency brought about what was originally seen as a temporary dictatorship by the Communist Party. Second, a massive bureaucratic apparatus crystallized in order to run the country and administer the economy. As Trotsky would later explain in The Revolution Betrayed, when there aren’t enough necessities to go around, there is rationing and people “are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy. It ‘knows’ who is to get something and who has to wait.”16
While some of the Communists remained absolutely dedicated to the original ideals and perspectives that had been the basis for the 1917 revolution, there were many who became corrupted or compromised or disoriented. Stalin was a central figure in the increasingly authoritarian bureaucratic apparatus, and along with the brilliant but disoriented Nikolai Bukharin, he dis-attached the idea of socialism not only from democracy, but also from the revolutionary internationalism that is at the heart of Marxism, advancing the notion of building socialism in a single country—the Soviet Union. Trotsky and his co-thinkers denounced this notion as “a skinflint reactionary utopia of self-sufficient socialism, built on a low technology,” incapable of bringing about genuine socialism. Instead, the same old shit would start all over again. But it was Stalin who won this battle, fiercely repressing Trotsky and the Left Opposition.17
Stalin didn’t stop there. While Bukharin and others had envisioned building their “socialism in one country” slowly and more or less humanely, Stalin and the powerful figures around him decided to initiate a so-called “revolution from above”—a forced collectivization of the land and rapid, authoritarian industrialization process (all at the expense of the peasant and worker majority) to modernize Russia in the name of “socialism in one country.”18
Bukharin and his co-thinkers were smashed politically, but unlike Trotsky and the intransigent Left Oppositionists, they quickly capitulated to Stalin—although this didn’t save them in the end. Peasant resistance was dealt with brutally, and famine resulted. Worker resistance was also savagely repressed. All critical discussion in the Communist Party was banned. All independent and creative thought and expression—in education, art, literature, culture—throughout the country was compelled to give way to authoritarian norms that celebrated the policies and personalities of Stalin and those around him—but especially, more and more, of Stalin himself.19
Although they claimed that the modernization policies they oversaw added up to socialism, and that they were the loyal and rightful heirs of Lenin and the 1917 revolution, the functionaries in the increasingly massive bureaucratic apparatus enjoyed an accumulation of material privileges, with authority and a lifestyle that placed them above a majority of the people. As Trotsky put it in The Revolution Betrayed, “it is useless to boast and ornament reality. Limousines for the ‘activists’ [that is, the bureaucrats], fine perfumes for ‘our women’ [that is, wives of the bureaucrats], margarine for the workers, stores ‘de luxe’ for the gentry, a look at delicacies through the store windows for the plebs—such socialism cannot but seem to the masses a new re-facing of capitalism, and they are not far wrong. On a basis of ‘generalized want,’ the struggle for the means of subsistence threatens to resurrect ‘all the old crap,’ and is partially resurrecting it at every step.”20
Several years later, the knowledgeable analyst David Dallin noted that government employees (the bureaucracy from top elite to lowliest functionaries), constituting at least 14 percent of the labor force, consumed as much as 35 percent of the wealth; that the working-class, constituting about 20 percent of the labor force, received no more than 33 percent of the wealth, that peasants, 53 percent of the labor force, received 29 percent of the wealth, and that forced laborers, estimated at a minimum of 8 percent of the labor force, received 3 percent of the wealth. By all accounts, the lifestyle of the elite rivaled that of capitalists in other lands. While this inequality is somewhat different from ours (where the top one percent has at least 40 percent of the wealth and the bottom 80 percent has no more than 20 percent of the wealth), what existed under Stalin was still a mockery of the socialist goal of 1917.21
In the 1930s, many in the USSR remembered the democratic and egalitarian ideals of the revolutionary cause and some remained committed to these. Among those dissident Communists defeated and repressed by the regime (including among those who capitulated) were experienced revolutionaries who had helped to overthrow the Tsar. They couldn’t be trusted, especially because all was not well in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Despite the unending pseudo-revolutionary propaganda, and positive improvements in economic and social opportunities for some workers, there was widespread suffering and dissatisfaction within the population. The dynamics of “socialism in one country” accelerated by the “revolution from above” was bound to explode into the murderous authoritarianism we looked at earlier. The program of the heroic Left Oppositionists who gave their lives was a definite threat to the Stalinist system, and it was outlined eloquently in Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed:
“It is not a question of substituting one ruling clique for another, but of changing the very methods of administering the economy and guiding the culture of the country. Bureaucratic autocracy must give place to Soviet democracy. A restoration of the right of criticism, and a genuine freedom of elections, are necessary conditions for the further development of the country. This assumes a revival of freedom of Soviet parties, beginning with the party of Bolsheviks, and a resurrection of the trade unions. The bringing of democracy into industry means a radical revision of plans in the interests of the toilers. Free discussion of economic problems will decrease the overhead expense of bureaucratic mistakes and zigzags. Expensive playthings—palaces of the Soviets, new theaters, show-off subways—will be crowded out in favor of workers’ dwellings. ‘Bourgeois norms of distribution’ will be confined within the limits of strict necessity, and, in step with the growth of social wealth, will give way to socialist equality. Ranks will be immediately abolished. The tinsel of decorations will go into the melting pot. The youth will receive the opportunity to breathe freely, criticize, make mistakes, and grow up. Science and art will be freed of their chains. And, finally, foreign policy will return to the traditions of revolutionary internationalism.”22
This continues to be relevant to our situation today.
Which brings us back to this session’s title. When we look up at night, the blackness of the universe is vividly punctuated by the stars, whose glow has traveled light-years for us to see. Even though some of those stars no longer exist, we see them shining from where we are. And their wondrous illumination may help us find our way in the dark terrain of our own times.
1 Tony Cliff, Trotsky: The Darker the Night, 1927-1940, Volume 4 (London: Bookmarks, 1993). A more succinct account is offered in Paul Le Blanc, Leon Trotsky (London: Reaktion Books, 2015), from which some elements in this presentation are drawn. Also see an intimately knowledgeable account in Victor and Natalia Sedova Trotsky, The Life and Death of Leon Trotsky (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), and Isaac Deutscher’s massive classic, The Prophet: The Life of Leon Trotsky (London: Verso, 2015).
2 Friedrich Schlotterbeck, The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1947). For more on this, see Allan Merson, Communist Resistance in Nazi Germany (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1986), and Donny Gluckstein, The Nazis, Capitalism and the Working Class (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012).
3 Leon Trotsky, “The Beginning of the End,” Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1936-37, ed. by Naomi Allen and George Breitman (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978), pp. 328-329.
4 Roy Medvedev, Let History Judge, The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism (New York, 1989); Mikhail Baitalsky, Notebooks for the Grandchildren: Recollections of a Trotskyist Who Survived the Stalin Terror (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1995).
5 Maria Joffe, One Long Night, A Tale of Truth (London: New Park, 1978), 162, 190.
6 Nadezhda Joffe, Back in Time: My Life, My Fate, My Epoch (Oak Park, MI: Mehring Books, 1995), p. 84.
7 George Saunders, ed., Samizdat: Voices of the Soviet Opposition (New York, 1974), p. 141.
8 Joseph Berger, Shipwreck of a Generation (London: Haverill, 1971), pp. 94-95.
9 Saunders, pp. 206, 210-211.
10 Maria Joffe, pp. 40-41.
11 Berger, 96-98; Saunders, pp. 215, 216.
12 Maria Joffe, p. 190. Moshe Lewin, The Soviet Century (London: Verso, 2005), 106-107; Vadim M. Rogovin, Stalin’s Terror of 1937-1938 (Oak Park, MI: Mehring Books, 2009), 446-447. Also see Oleg V. Khlevniuk, The History of the Gulag: From Collectivization to the Great Terror (New Haven, 2004).
13 Thomas M. Twiss, Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015). Trotsky’s analysis is capably compared with others in Marcel van der Linden, Western Marxism and the Soviet Union (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009).
14 Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972), 56; Karl Marx, “The German Ideology,” in Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, ed. by Loyd Easton and Kurt H. Guddat (Garden City, NY, 1967), 427. A more substantial summary of the revolutionary Marxist orientation can be found in Paul Le Blanc, From Marx to Gramsci (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), pp. 3-145.
15 Leon Trotsky The Permanent Revolution and Tasks and Prospects (London: Resistance Books, 2007); Michael Löwy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution. (Chicago: Haymarket Books 2014).
16 Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 112.
17 E.H. Carr, The Russian Revolution From Lenin to Stalin, 1917-1929. New York, 2004;Victor Serge, From Lenin to Stalin (New York, 1973); Michal Reiman, The Birth of Stalinism (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987).
18 Robert C. Tucker, Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928-1941 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992).
19 See Stephen F. Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1975) Moshe Lewin, Russian Peasants and Soviet Power: A Study of Collectivization (New York: W.W. Norton, 1975).
20 Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 120.
21 David Dallin, The Real Soviet Russia, second edition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1947), p. 121. Naturally, those at the top of the bureaucratic pyramid lived a variant of the “good life” much closer to that of our own top one percent—see Ernest Mandel, Power and Money: A Marxist Theory of Bureaucracy (London: Verso, 1992), pp. 72-74. A comparative analysis of ruling elites and inequality under capitalism and Stalinism is offered in Paul Le Blanc, Marx, Lenin and the Revolutionary Experience: Studies of Communism and Radicalism in the Age of Globalization (New York: Routledge, 2006), pp. 15-48.