What is the Soviet Union and where is it going?

By Leon Trotsky
Read by Jonathan Booth
tbc minutes


It is June 1936. Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) has finally been granted a visa for asylum in Norway, having been banned first from living in Paris, and then the whole of France.  With him comes the draft of The Revolution Betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and where is it going?, which is completed and sent to the publishers on the 4th of August. The book, published by Faber in 1937, is considered to be Trotsky’s major work on Stalinism. Trotsky’s passion for the spirit of the Revolution he co-founded, his disgust and sadness at how the people of Russia have been betrayed by Stalin and his acolytes, shows us the bleak lives of 170 million Russians under the absolute control of ‘the Ten Thousand’ of the bureaucracy. Trotsky reminds us of the high concepts of the 1917 October Revolution, (Marx’s “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”) with the sharing of the nation’s resources for the benefit of all. Prominent among such forward thinking was the commitment to lift women out of the trap of housework and childbirth by communal refectories and creches in the workplace.  He praises the positive economic advances of the USSR since the death of Lenin – the growth in areas such as industrial and electrical output. But he notes the continued and inevitable low productivity, (much lower than the capitalist Wes, he acknowledges), that is the result of lack of incentive for the Soviet worker. This, he argues, will never allow the country to lift itself up to full potential, despite Stalin’s ever-changing Five Year Plans.  Indeed, it is this zig-zagging of panicked policy and bovine directionlessness that frustrates Trotsky so much. It is bad enough that Stalin and his self-serving cohorts have formed a Thermidorian regime of brutal repression and conservative nest-feathering. But even worse, their economic adventurism is carrying ‘the nation to the edge of disaster’. Trotsky brings us a clear picture of the miserable existence of the vast majority of Russians, barely surviving on bad rations, endemic corruption and fear, and the promise of a tomorrow that will never come.  He laments the lack of a proletarian uprising in the West that might encourage Russians to change their own off-course regime. He notes the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, and seems, even in 1936, to see war as inevitable.  He predicts the toppling of Stalinism, but would have wept at how many decades it took, and how many millions of lives would be wasted by stupidity and war. Only 10 days after Trotsky sent this book to the publishers, Stalin announced the first of the Moscow show trials that began the Great Purge.  Trotsky and his wife were badly treated and muzzled by the Norwegians to prevent his protesting at Stalin’s actions, and they moved to Mexico City in early 1937.  There they lived, terrorized by Stalin’s determination to assassinate his old rival, until Trotsky’s death following a blow from an ice pick on August 20 1940. The Revolution Betrayed, with its vivid translation by Max Eastman, is presented with clarity and commitment by Jonathan Booth.


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