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The Economics of the Left Opposition

John Ross, The Choices for Russia: The Economic Programme of the Left Opposition, Socialist Action, 1996. Pamphlet, Ł1.50.

Reviewed by Bob Pitt

THIS PAMPHLET is a reprint of an article which originally appeared in 1991 in Socialist Action, the journal published by a tendency that was at one time the official British section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. Unlike other groupings on the left – their own former comrades around Socialist Outlook, for example – Socialist Action from the beginning firmly rejected the view that the destruction of Stalinism through the restoration of capitalism, even in "democratic" guise, was a historically progressive development. The article’s prediction that "economic disaster looms for the peoples of the USSR as a result of the attempt to restore capitalism"1 has certainly been borne out in full.

Written by Socialist Action’s main theoretician John Ross, The Choices for Russia seeks to outline an alternative non-capitalist path of economic development for the nations of the ex-USSR, one which claims to be based on Trotsky’s writings on the Soviet economy. The pamphlet provides a useful collection of quotations covering a range of economic issues dealt with by Trotsky. It is evidently intended for an audience unfamiliar with Trotsky’s views, including, no doubt, members of the official Communist movement whom Socialist Action quite rightly seeks to influence, in contrast to the Stalinophobic sectarianism which affects most other Trotskyist groups. And Ross’s emphasis on Trotsky’s political struggles as a key to understanding the present, rather than reducing them to a source of heroic symbols as many do, is to be applauded.

The pamphlet stresses that for Trotsky democracy is a vital factor in socialist economic planning and the central objective of such planning is to raise the living standards of the working class. Ross points out that Stalinist-type economic plans based on bureaucratic diktat and the fetishisation of heavy industry at the expense of any concern for the production of consumer goods have nothing in common with the aims of socialism. This method, Ross argues, was the product of a futile attempt to build "socialism" in isolation within a single backward country. On the matter of Trotsky’s opposition to Socialism in One Country, he stresses that this didn’t just involve the conviction that the final triumph of socialism in Russia required the overthrow of capitalism in a number of advanced capitalist countries; it was based on the understanding that economic autarchy was a utopia and that, even before the success of revolutions abroad, the integration of the Soviet Union with the world economy was a necessity.

One problem with Ross’s approach, however, is that he amalgamates writings from the mid-1920s to the late 1930s, treating them as if they were aspects of a single economic programme. There were undoubtedly continuities in Trotsky’s thinking. But he was dealing with quite different situations – the Soviet Union of the New Economic Policy in the 1920s and the Soviet Union during and after the first Five Year Plan. Not surprisingly, on a number of important issues Trotsky’s analysis did undergo definite shifts, not only in response to changed circumstances but also as a result of his reassessment of earlier positions.

For instance, the historian Richard Day has made out a convincing case that in the early 1920s Trotsky was a confirmed isolationist and as such was thoroughly opposed to the integrationist policies advocated by Sokolnikov, the Commissar of Finance. It took until 1925 for Trotsky to revise his views and develop his own version of the integrationist position he had earlier rejected. It was in line with this approach that initially Trotsky didn’t recognise what a fundamental and destructive revision of Marxist internationalism Stalin’s theory of Socialism in One Country represented. The fight against this nationalist perversion of Leninism was first taken up by Zinoviev and Kamenev, and Trotsky himself didn’t make a stand against Stalin on this issue until late 1926.2 Trotsky’s extreme authoritarianism of the early 1920s, when he called for the militarisation of labour and the incorporation of the trade unions into the state, was also in conflict with the principle that democratic accountability is an essential component in economic planning, and it wasn’t until the 1930s that the latter view achieved any prominence in his analysis.

Another shift in Trotsky’s thinking took place in relation to the nature of Stalinist planning. He constantly grappled with the contradiction between the planned character of the Soviet economy and extent to which Stalinist bureaucratism destroyed the actuality of planning. As the chaotic character of the first Five Year Plan became apparent, Trotsky began to emphasise the essential planlessness of the bureaucracy’s methods, even going so far as to state that the Soviet Union economy was "neither a monetary nor a planned one. It is an almost purely bureaucratic economy".3 According to this formulation, bureaucratic mismanagement negated the existence of planning in any meaningful sense of the term. By the time he came to write The Revolution Betrayed, however, Trotsky’s views had been modified in the face of the reality of Soviet industrialisation. While he recognised the negative consequences of bureaucratic dictatorship, he argued that the advances of the Soviet economy provided "the experimental proof ... of the practicability of socialist methods".4 By this analysis, the Soviet Union did have a planned economy, even if the parasitic role of the Stalinist bureaucracy prevented the achievement of the results that would have been possible under workers’ democracy.

It was this latter strand in Trotsky’s economic thinking which came to influence the Fourth International and in particular its leading theoretician Ernest Mandel. Downplaying Trotsky’s warnings about the limitations to economic growth under Stalinism – notably his view that the system could make initial advances by borrowing existing technique from capitalism, but that the crushing of democratic initiative would eventually prove an insuperable barrier to innovation – Mandel believed that the bureaucracy could continue to play an economically progressive role. In 1974, writing in the journal Critique, he took issue with Hillel Ticktin’s view that the Soviet economy was characterised by systematic waste and consequently was not a historically viable system.5 In opposition to this view, Mandel argued that while the parasitism of the bureaucracy was in contradiction to the principle of planned economy, and prevented the full potential of planning from being realised, the Soviet system was "a bureaucratically deformed, degenerate and wasteful variant of a planned economy – but a variant nonetheless of a planned economy". The Soviet Union was, Mandel insisted, "something quite different from a stagnant or regressive society".6 History has now given its verdict on that particular debate, and it is not in favour of Mandel.

Faced with the actual collapse of the Soviet system, Ross is unable to maintain the traditional Mandelite line. The honest approach would be to recognise that there were contradictions in Trotsky’s analysis and that the tradition from which Socialist Action itself emerged took a one-sided view of Trotsky’s theoretical legacy. Instead, the pamphlet claims that Trotsky regarded the Stalinist model of economic planning as a "disaster".7 In order to justify this assertion, Ross leaves out Trotsky’s many statements about the successes of the Soviet economy and quotes heavily from those sections of his writings in which the weight of his analysis is on the inefficiencies and irrationalities of bureaucratic misplanning. By this method of quotation it is possible to prove virtually anything. And the actual richness of Trotsky’s thought is largely lost.

Not only did Trotsky change his own views, but within the Opposition a number of different positions on the Soviet economy existed, often in contradiction to those of Trotsky himself. Ante Ciliga, a Yugoslav oppositionist who spent some years in the Soviet "isolators" in the early 1930s, left an interesting account of the divergent opinions among Soviet oppositionists in his book The Russian Enigma.8 None of this appears in The Choices for Russia. Despite the pamphlet’s claim to provide a guide to "the economic programme of the Left Opposition", the fact is that the only writer who is quoted is Trotsky. It would thus appear that the Soviet Left Opposition had just one theoretician – Leon Trotsky himself.

In reality, while Trotsky was the major figure in the Left Opposition, he only emerged as its preeminent economic spokesman during his exile, after other leading oppositionists had capitulated or had been reduced to silence in Stalin’s isolators. During the early 1930s the Opposition’s leading economic analyst inside the Soviet Union was Christian Rakovsky, whose views on the essential planlessness of Stalinist "planning" were influential on Trotsky’s own thinking.9 Yet Rakovsky doesn’t even rate a mention in this pamphlet. In the 1920s, until his submission to Stalin in 1928, it was Evgeny Preobrazhensky who took the main responsibility for developing the Opposition’s economic programme. But the sole reference to Preobrazhensky here is a quotation from Trotsky which Ross describes as "criticising Preobrazhensky, who had formulated the laws of Soviet economic planning as being ’the planning principle versus the market principle’, and who therefore capitulated to Stalin with the launch of the first Five Year plan".10

The crudity of Ross’s attack on Preobrazhensky is at first surprising. Basing himself on what seems to be an uncritical acceptance of Isaac Deutscher’s suggestion that Preobrazhensky’s economic analysis led directly to capitulation to the theory of Socialism in One Country,11 Ross is apparently ignorant of the fact that this issue has been the subject of debate among historians of the Left Opposition.12 He also fails to grasp that, while Trotsky did warn of the possibility that Preobrazhensky’s arguments might be harnessed to Stalin and Bukharin’s vision of a national road to socialism, he in no way denied the existence of a conflict between the law of value and the principles of socialist planning. Hillel Ticktin has pointed out that Preobrazhensky’s "conception of two laws operating under the New Economic Policy was derived from Trotsky’s view of the forces of socialism fighting the forces of capitalism within the context of the NEP".13 Thus, addressing the Communist Party’s Twelfth Congress in April 1923, Trotsky defined the NEP as "a sphere legally recognised by us in which private capital is in competition with us", and argued that "the question is here posed sharply: is the exchange between town and country proceeding towards Socialism or towards capitalism?"14

Indeed, the Left Opposition always stressed the dangers inherent in the compromise with capitalist or potentially capitalist forces which the NEP of the 1920s represented, and they warned repeatedly that the economic programme of the Communist Party’s ruling faction opened the doors to capitalist restoration. The 1927 Platform of the Opposition described how emergent bourgeois forces, rural and urban, were becoming interpenetrated with the state bureaucracy: "The capitalist element finds its primary expression in the class differentiation in the countryside and in the increased numbers of private traders. The upper layers in the countryside and the bourgeois elements in the city are interweaving themselves more and more closely with the various components of our government and economic apparatus."15

For Trotsky, therefore, the economic growth and rising living standards of the NEP period had to be assessed on the basis of whether overall economic development was proceeding in a socialist or capitalist direction. This was what fundamentally distinguished the Left Opposition from the Bukharinist Right. As Trotsky wrote in condemnation of the economic policies of the Bukharin-Rykov tendency in 1929, after the latter had come into conflict with Stalin’s "left turn":

"The Rights believe that if the individual peasant enterprises were given more elbowroom, the current difficulties could be overcome. I do not undertake to deny this. Staking everything on the capitalist farmer (a Europeanised or Americanised ’kulak’) will undoubtedly yield its fruits, but these will be capitalist fruits, which would in one of the very next stages lead to the political collapse of Soviet power. In 1924-26 only the first steps were taken towards staking everything on the capitalist farmer. Nevertheless this led to an extreme growth of the self-assertion of the urban and rural petty bourgeoisie, to its seizure of many lower soviets, to the growth of the power and self-confidence of the bureaucracy, to increased pressure upon the workers, and to the complete suppression of party democracy. Those who do not understand the interdependence of these facts are generally able to understand nothing in revolutionary policy. The course towards the capitalist farmer is absolutely incompatible with the dictatorship of the proletariat. Here one must choose."16

The reason why Ross wants to skirt around the Left Opposition’s real attitude to the NEP becomes clear when we reach his recommendations for an economic programme in the ex-USSR in the 1990s. As an alternative to the destructive course that has been adopted there, he advocates the policies pursued in China and Vietnam. "De-collectivisation turned the countries’ agriculture from shortage and even famine, to surplus", Ross writes enthusiastically. "Chinese peasants have far exceeded Japanese industry in the rate of growth of productivity in the last decade. Small rural industry was thereby similarly created. China, whatever one thinks of its politics, is the greatest economic success story of the last decade." Ross attributes this to the adoption of an agricultural policy which "might be termed the ’original NEP’".17 In the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, according to Ross, it is impossible to say "at what pace, in what forms, and to what degree decollectivisation must proceed. But the rural economy must develop in that direction and towards the recreation of a rural petty bourgeoisie. This means that the limits on individual private agriculture must be removed".18

It is significant that Ross, who has a quotation from Trotsky for every occasion, can’t produce a single one in support of such a course. Here he would perhaps have been advised to look more widely at the economics of the Left Opposition. According to Ciliga’s account, in 1932 Rakovsky raised the slogan "Back to the NEP" with the support of Dingelstedt, Man Nevelson and other leaders of the mainstream "centre" tendency of the Soviet Opposition, whose agrarian specialist Sassorov did indeed call for the dissolution of all the collective farms. The right wing of the Opposition, however, was in favour of retaining collectivisation, while the left wing rejected the slogan "Back to the NEP" by an overwhelming majority.19 But this question, which produced such divisions within the Soviet Opposition, is treated as unproblematic by Ross.

Ross completely ignores the pressures towards capitalist restoration inherent in the Chinese bureaucracy’s economic programme. No doubt he would claim that he speaks only of a rural petty bourgeoisie, not of large capitalist farms. But the nature of the market is that small entrepreneurs inevitably produce bigger entrepreneurs – one capitalist kills many. The idea that the Chinese and Vietnamese bureaucracies will be able to avoid the fate of their Soviet counterparts and form instead a bulwark against the rising bourgeois forces seems naďve in the extreme. Admittedly, in a recent issue of Socialist Action it was argued that the absence of democratic control by the Chinese working class and the consequent widespread corruption within the bureaucracy "opens a chink in the Chinese state to international and indigenous private capital – creating a pro-capitalist wing of the bureaucracy linked to capitalist forces outside the Communist Party".20 But the possibility that the existing leadership of the Chinese CP is itself presently engaged in a restorationist project is dismissed on the grounds that a large state sector still exists within the economy.

This is a strange line of argument coming from a Trotskyist tendency. It doesn’t take much to spot that in China and Vietnam the local Stalinist bureaucracies are presiding over a slow-track restoration of capitalism while retaining their own monopoly of political power. Even commentators trained in the official Communist tradition are capable of recognising that "the Chinese regime [is] far from providing a model.... Its peoples are discovering the blessings of a corrupt and socially divisive capitalism without any of the traditional advantages of capitalist societies in terms of political liberalism".21

Perhaps it is unfair to hang such a weight of criticism on what, after all, is intended to be a short popular summary of Trotsky’s economic writings on the Soviet Union. Certainly anyone wanting an introduction to Trotsky’s ideas in this field could do worse than start here. But the pamphlet does embody some of the characteristic faults of writings within the Trotskyist tradition. A narrow study of Trotsky’s works is substituted for an examination of the ideas of the Trotskyist movement as a whole. And Trotsky himself is depicted as a leader of infallible judgement progressing from one correct analysis to the next, rather than as a man struggling to understand a complex and changing situation. The end result of all this, moreover, is to provide a Trotskyist veneer for an endorsement of the economic policies of Chinese and Vietnamese Stalinism. Hopefully one of the functions of What Next? will be to challenge this sort of "orthodoxy" and encourage a more critical and productive approach to the past record of the Trotskyist movement.


1. The Choices for Russia, p.3.

2. R.B. Day, Leon Trotsky and the Politics of Economic Isolation, 1973.

3. Writings of Leon Trotsky 1932-33, p.224.

4. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, 1973, p.1.

5. H. Ticktin, "Towards a Political Economy of the USSR", Critique, No.1, 1973.

6. E. Mandel, ‘"Some Comments on H. Ticktin’s ’Towards a Political Economy of the USSR’", Critique, No.3, 1974, p.25.

7. The Choices for Russia, p.21.

8. A. Ciliga, The Russian Enigma, 1979, passim.

9. See Rakovsky’s article "The Five Year Plan in Crisis", Critique, No.13, 1981.

10. The Choices for Russia, p.15. The passage from Trotsky which Ross quotes is in The Challenge of the Left Opposition, 1926-27, 1980, p.57.

11. I. Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed, 1970, p.238.

12. See for example R.B. Day, "Trotsky and Preobrazhensky: The Troubled Unity of the Left Opposition", Studies in Comparative Communism, Vol.10, Nos.1/2, 1977; and D.A. Filtzer, "Preobrazhensky and the Problem of the Soviet Transition", Critique, No.9, 1978.

13. H. Ticktin, "Leon Trotsky’s Political Economic Analysis of the USSR, 1929-40", in H. Ticktin and M. Cox, eds, The Ideas of Leon Trotsky, 1995, pp.66-7.

14. A. Richardson, ed, In Defence of the Russian Revolution, 1994, p.209.

15. Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1926-27, pp.303-4.

16. Writings of Leon Trotsky 1929, p.83.

17. The Choices for Russia, p.41.

18. Ibid., p.42.

19. Ciliga, pp.262, 265.

20. G. Owen, "Lessons of the Chinese Economic Reform", Socialist Action, April/May 1996.

21. Editorial in Socialist History, No.2, 1993.