Tony Cliff

The Nature of Stalinist Russia

Chapter 1
An examination of Trotsky’s definition of Russia as a degenerated workers’ state



1. Can a state not under workers’ control be a workers’ state?

In Trotsky’s works we find two different and quite contradictory definitions of a workers’ state. According to one, the criterion of workers’ state is whether the proletariat has direct or indirect control, no matter how restricted, over the state power: that is, whether the proletariat cant get rid of the bureaucracy by reform alone, without the need for revolution. In 1931 he wrote:

The recognition of the present Soviet State as a workers’ state not only signifies that the bourgeoisie can conquer power in no other way than by armed uprising but also that the proletariat of the USSR has not forfeited the possibility of submitting the bureaucracy to it, or reviving the Party again and of mending the regime of the dictatorship – without a new revolution, wit the methods and on the road of reform. [1]

In a letter to Borodai, a member of the Opposition group called Democratic Centralists, he expresses this idea even more clearly. The letter is undated, but all indications show that it was written at the end of 1928. He writes:

“Is the degeneration of the apparatus and of the Soviet power a fact? That is the second question,” you write.

There is no doubt that the degeneration of the Soviet apparatus is considerably more advanced than the same process in the Party apparatus. Nevertheless, it is the Party that decides. At present, this means: the Party apparatus. The question thus comes down to the same thing: is the proletarian kernel of the Party, assisted by the working class, capable of triumphing over the autocracy of the Party apparatus which is fusing with the state apparatus? Whoever replies in advance that it is incapable, thereby speaks not only of the necessity of a new party on a new foundation, but also of the necessity of a second and new proletarian revolution.

Later in the same letter he says:

If the Party is a corpse, a new party must be built on a new spot, and the working class must be told about it openly. If Thermidor is completed, and if the dictatorship of the proletariat is liquidated, the banner of the second proletarian revolution must be unfurled. That is how we would act if the road of reform, for which we stand, proved hopeless. [2]

Trotsky’s second definition has a fundamentally different criterion. No matter how independent the state machine be from the masses, and even if the only way of getting rid of the bureaucracy be by revolution, so long as the means of production are statified the state remains a workers’ state with the proletariat the ruling class. Thus, in The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky writes:

The nationalisation of the land, the means of industrial production, transport, and exchange, together with the monopoly of foreign trade, constitutes the basis of the Soviet social structure. Through these relations, established by the proletarian revolution, the nature of the Soviet Union as a proletarian state is for us basically defined [3].

Three conclusions are to be drawn from this:

  1. Trotsky’s second definition of the workers’ state negates the first.
  2. If the second definition is correct, the Communist Manifesto was incorrect in saying: “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state”; and it was incorrect in saying: “the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class.” Furthermore, in this case, neither the Paris Commune nor the Bolshevik dictatorship were workers’ states as the former did not statify the means of production at all, and the latter did not do so for some time.
  3. If the state is the repository of the means of production and the workers do not control it, they do not own the means of production, i.e. they are not the ruling class. The first definition admits this. The second avoids it, but does not disprove it.



2. Russia’s definition as a workers’ state and the Marxist theory of the state

The assumption that Russia is a degenerated workers’ state must lead to conclusions in direct contradiction to the Marxist concept of the state. An analysis of the role of what Trotsky called political revolution and social counterrevolution will prove this.

In The Revolution Betrayed Trotsky writes:

In order better to understand the character of the present Soviet Union, let us make two different hypotheses about its future. Let us assume first that the Soviet bureaucracy is overthrown by a revolutionary party having all the attributes of the old Bolshevism, enriched moreover by the world experience of the recent period. Such a party would begin with the restoration of democracy in the trade unions and the Soviets. It would be able to and would have to, restore freedom of Soviet parties. Together with the masses, and at their head, it would carry out a ruthless purgation of the State apparatus. It would abolish ranks and decorations, all kinds of privileges, and would limit inequality in the payment of labour to the life necessities of the economy and the State apparatus. It would give the youth the free opportunity to think independently, learn, criticise and grow. It would introduce profound changes in the distribution of the national income in correspondence with the interests and will of the worker and peasant masses. But so far as concerns property relations, the new power would not have to resort to revolutionary measures. It would retain and further develop the experiment of planned economy. After the political revolution – that is, the deposing of the bureaucracy – the proletariat would have to introduce in the economy a series of very important reforms, but not another social revolution ...

If – to adopt a second hypothesis – a bourgeois party were to overthrow the ruling Soviet caste, it would find no small number of ready servants among the present bureaucrats, administrators, technicians, directors party secretaries, and privileged upper circles in general. A purgation of the state apparatus would, of course, be necessary in this case too. But a bourgeois restoration would probably have to clean out fewer people than a revolutionary party. The chief task of the new power would be to restore private property in the means of production ... Notwithstanding that the Soviet bureaucracy has gone far towards preparing a bourgeois restoration, the new regime would have to introduce in the matter of forms of property and methods of industry, not a reform, but a social revolution.

Let us examine this. During bourgeois political revolutions, for instance the French revolutions of 1830 and 1848, the form of government changed to a greater or lesser degree, but the type of state remained the same – “special bodies of armed men, prisons, etc.” independent of the people and serving the capitalist class. Hitler’s victory in Germany certainly brought with it a large-scale purge of the state apparatus, but the state machine as a whole was not smashed, remaining fundamentally the same. There is a much closer connection between content and form in a workers’ state than in any other state. Even, therefore, if we assume that political revolutions can take place in a workers’ state, one thing is clear: the same workers’ state machine must continue to exist as such after, as before, the political proletarian revolution. If Russia is a workers’ state, even though the revolutionary workers’ party may carry out a large scale “purge” of the state apparatus when it comes to power, it must be able to use and will use the existing state machine: on the other hand, if the bourgeoisie comes to power, it will not be able to use the existing state machine but it will be compelled to smash it and build another on its ruins.

Are those the conditions obtaining in Russia? To pose the question correctly goes half-way to answering it. It is surely evident that the revolutionary party will not use the NKVD [4] nor the bureaucracy nor the standing army. The revolutionary party will have to smash the existing state and replace it by Soviets, people’s militia, etc.

As against this, if the bourgeoisie comes to power, it can certainly use the MVD, the regular army, etc. Trotsky avoids the application of the Marxist theory of the state to the political revolution and social counter-revolution in Russia partly by saying that the revolutionary party “would begin with the restoration of democracy in the trade unions and the Soviets”. But actually there are neither trade unions nor Soviets in Russia in which democracy can be restored. The question is not one of reforming the state machine, but of smashing it and building a new state.

Whether we assume that the proletariat must smash the existing state machine on coming to power while the bourgeoisie can use it, or whether we assume that neither the proletariat nor the bourgeoisie can use the existing state apparatus (the “purgation of the State apparatus” necessarily involving such a deep change as would transform it qualitatively) – on both assumptions we must come to the conclusion that Russia is not a workers’ state. To assume that the proletariat and the bourgeoisie can use the same state machine as the instrument of their supremacy is tantamount to a repudiation of the revolutionary concept of the state expressed by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. To assume that different layers, groups or parties of one and the same class cannot base themselves on the same state machine is equally a repudiation of the Marxist concept of the state.



3. The form of property considered independently of the relations of production: a metaphysical abstraction

That the concept of private property in itself, independent of the relations of production, is a supra-historical abstraction is recognised by every Marxist. Human history knows the private property of the slave system, the feudal system, the capitalist system, all of which are fundamentally different from one another. Marx ridiculed Proudhon’s attempt to define private property independently of the relations of production. What transforms the means of production into capital is the sum total of the relations of production. As Marx said:

In each historical epoch, property has developed differently and under a set of entirely different social relations. Thus to define bourgeois property is nothing less than to give an exposition of all the social relations of bourgeois production. To try to give a definition of property as of an independent relation, a category apart – an abstract eternal idea – can be nothing but an illusion of metaphysics or jurisprudence. [5]

All the categories which express relations between people in the capitalist process of production – value, price, wages, etc. – constitute an integral part of bourgeois private property. It is the laws of movement of the capitalist system which define the historical social character of capitalist private property, and which differentiate it from other sorts of private property. Proudhon, who abstracted the form of property from the relations of production “entangled the whole of these economic relations [the capitalist relations of productions] in the general juristic conception of ‘property’.” Therefore, “Proudhon could not get beyond the answer which Brisset, in a similar work, had already, before 1789, given in the same words: ‘Property is theft’.” [6]

That one private property can have a different historical character to another, can be the stronghold of a different class than the other, was made quite clear by Marx. That the same can apply to statified property also, is not so evident. The main reason for this is that the known history of humanity has in the main been the history of the class struggle on the basis of private property. Cases of class differentiation on the basis of other than private property are not very numerous and on the whole not very well known. Nevertheless they have existed.

As the first example let us take a chapter from the history of Europe: the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.

The Church had tremendous tracts of land on which hundreds of thousands of peasants laboured. The relations between the Church and the peasants were the same feudal relations as existed between the feudal manor owner and his peasants. The Church as such was feudal. At the same time none of the bishops, cardinals, etc. had individual rights over feudal property. It is the relations of production which define the class character of the Church property, which was feudal, notwithstanding the fact that it was not private.

It might be said that the Catholic Church was only an appendage to the feudal system as a whole – hence its feudal character – but this argument is irrelevant, as we do not wish to explain why the Catholic Church rose, concentrating in its hands tremendous tracts of land and entering into feudal relations with the peasants tilling it. We only wish to show that one and the same relations of production can be expressed in different forms of property, the one private, the other institutional.

From the history of the east we may draw numerous examples of systems of economy wit deep class differentiations, based not on private property but on state property. Such systems existed in Pharaonic Egypt, Moslem Egypt, Iraq, Persia and India. That the state owned land was, it seems, mainly due to the fact that agriculture depended entirely on the irrigation system in these countries, which in turn was dependent on the activity of the state. The following example is sufficiently instructive to warrant the deviation made.



4. Arab feudalism: an example of class society based on state property

Let us examine the main characteristics of Arab feudalism under the Mamelukes. Here the subjugation of the peasants to the strong feudal state was much harsher than in medieval Europe, but the individual member of the ruling class had no individual property rights whatsoever. The Sultan was the only landowner and he used to divide the right to collect the rent in the various regions among the different nobles (called Multazims). While in Europe every feudal lord was the owner of a certain domain which was handed down from father to son, in the Arab East the feudal lord had no permanent domain of his own, but was a member of a class which collectively controlled the land and had the right to appropriate rent. In Syria and Palestine the area from which these feudal lords collected rent was changed from year to year. In Egypt they received the right to collect the rent in a certain area for their whole lives, and their heirs had a prior right in the appointment of the deceased’s successor. While in Europe the feudal lord was relatively an independent power as against the king, who was no more than the first feudal lord, in the Arab East only the feudal collective was a factor of any consequence; as individuals the Arab nobles were weak, because they were dependent on the state for their positions. The weakness of the feudal lord as against the state was clearly indicated by the way in which the fiefs were allocated: the Sultan distributed them by lot among the emirs and knights, each getting a portion of land differing in size and quality according to his rank. The Arab nobles were thus divided into different groups with different incomes, the distinction between them being very great (for instance, the “emirs of the hundred” got 80,000 to 200,000 dinar jayshi a year, “emir-al-tabl” 23,000 to 30,000, “emirs of the ten” 9,000 and below, “emirs of the five” 3,000 and so on). The form of appropriation was much more like that of a state official than that of a European feudal lord. As a result of this dependence pf the nobles on the state, an unusual phenomenon recurred in the Arab East. From time to time whole feudal strata were “purged” and annihilated, others arising in their places. The Arab lords were replaced by the Sultan’s freed slaves – the Mamehakes – who were not of Arab origin and did not speak Arabic but Turkish. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries they mostly originated from the Mongolian state, the Golden Horde, whose centre was on the banks of the Lower Volga; in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries they were mainly Caucasian. With the Tsar’s increasing resistance to conscription in the Caucasus for the Sultan, the Balkan elements (Albanians, Bosnians, etc.) came to the fore.

The ownership of the land by the state not only prevented the rise of feudalism based on private property, but also of any social group with individualistic tendencies, whatsoever. The town was a military camp; the majority of the artisans were not independent. Even when guilds (Hirfeh) did develop, they did not attain any importance at all in the towns and did not become an independent force of any importance. The government subordinated them to itself by appointing many of the heads of the guilds, making them its officials, and turning the guilds into government organisations.

The fact that the main means of production – the land – belonged not to individuals, but to the state, and that the Arab nobles and the Mamelukes lacked juridical footholds and therefore did not have the right to inherit, did not improve the position of the peasant masses. Nor did the plebeian origin of the Mamelukes effect any change. The concentration of the ruling class of the Arab East in the towns, afforded them great military power over the peasants and, furthermore, increased their appetites. In this, too, they differed from the European feudal lords in the Middle Ages. The produce which the European serfs gave to their feudal lords as rent, was generally not sent out to be sold; the serfs therefore cUd not need to give their feudal lord more than he and his household needed for the daily use. “The walls of his (the feudal lord’s) stomach set the limits to his exploitation of the peasants.” (Marx). The Arab feudals had different tastes, and their point of view might best be summed up in the words used by Khalif Suliman to his emissary about the peasants: “Milk till the udder be dry, and let blood to the last drop.”

The mode of production, the form of exploitation, the relation of the toilers to the means of production in the Arab East, was the same as in medieval Europe. The source of income of the ruling class was also the same; the only difference was in the mode of appropriation, in the legal expression of the right to exploit. [7]

From the form of property alone – whether private, institutional or state property – abstracted from the relations of production, it is impossible to define the class character of a social system. For this it is necessary to know the relation between people in the process of production, the relation between the toilers and teh means of production. Or, to repeat what Mrx said, “to try to gie a definition of property as an independent relation, a category apart – an abstract eternal idea – can be nothing but an illusion of metaphysics or jurisprudence.”



5. The Russian bureaucracy: a gendarme who appears in the process of distribution?

Trotsky writes that the Stalinist state’s coercion of the masses is the result of

... the fact that the present transitional structure is still bill of social contradictions, which in the sphere of consumption – most dose and sensitively felt by all – are extremely tense, and forever threaten to break over into the sphere of production. [8]


The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all. When there is enough goods in a store the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there is little goods the purchasers 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. [9]

Is it true that the bureaucracy appears as the “gendarme” in the process of distribution only, or does it appear so in the process of reproduction as a whole, of which the former is but a subordinate part? This is of infinite theoretical and political importance.

Before attempting to answer this question, let us examine what Marx and Engels thought about the connection between the relations of production and distribution. Marx writes:

To the single individual distribution naturally appears as a law established by the society determining his position in the sphere of production, within which he produces, and thus antedating production. At the outset the individual has no capital, no landed property. From his birth he is assigned to wage-labour by the social process of distribution. But this very condition of being assigned to wage labour is the result of the existence of capital and landed property as independent agents of production.

From the point of view of society as a whole, distribution seems to antedate and to determine production in another way as well, as a pre-economic fact, so to say. A conquering people divides the land among the conquerors establishing thereby a certain division and form of landed property and determining the character of production; or, it turns the conquered people into slaves and thus makes slave labour the basis of production. Or, a nation, by revolution, breaks up large estates into small parcels of land and by this new distribution imparts to production a new character. Or, legislation perpetuates land ownership in large families or distributes labour as an hereditary privilege and thus fixes it in castes.

In all of these cases, and they are all historic, it is not distribution that seems to be organised and determined by production, but on the contrary, production by distribution.

In the most shallow conception of distribution, the latter appears as a distribution of products and to that extent as further removed from, and quasi-independent of production. But before distribution means distribution of products, it is first a distribution of the means of production, and second, what is practically another wording of the same fact, it is a distribution of the members of society among the various kinds of production (the subjection of individuals to certain conditions of production). The distribution of products is manifestly a result of this distribution, which is bound up with the process of production and determines the very organisation of the latter. [10]

This extract from Marx, the essence of which is repeated time and time again throughout his works, is sufficient as a point of departure for the analysis of the place of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the economy.

Let us pose these questions in connection with the Russian bureaucracy:

Does the bureaucracy only administer the distribution of means of consumption among the people, or does it also administer the distribution of the people in the process of production? Does the bureaucracy exercise a monopoly over the control of distribution only, or over the control of the means of production as well? Does it ration means of consumption only or does it also distribute the total labour time of society between accumulation and consumption, between the production of means of production and that of means of consumption? Does not the bureaucracy reproduce the scarcity of means of consumption, and thus certain relations of distribution? Do the relations of production prevailing in Russia not determine the relations of distribution which comprise a part of them?



6. Trotsky’s last book

As the working class in Russia was the only one to hold power for any length of time, as its overthrow took an unpredictable form in the very complicated economic and political circumstances of Russia, it is no accident that even Trotsky with his brilliant analytical faculties had to re-evaluate his basic analysis of the Stalinist regime from time to time. A tremendous shift took place in Trotsky’s position, if only in emphasis from the time the acceptance of the theory of the degenerated workers’ state was a condition for membership of the Left Opposition till the time that Trotsky did not propose the exclusion of the anti-defencists from the International, although he did not accept their position. It was no accident that in his polemics with Shachtman at the end of 1939 and in 1940 he could say that even though he might be in a minority against Shachtman and Burnham, he would oppose a split and would continue to fight for his position in the united party. This declaration was of immediate consequence as it was quite possible that Shachtman would have had a majority at the next SWP Convention. [11]

A clear step in the direction of a new evaluation of the bureaucracy as a ruling class finds expression in Trotsky’s last book, Stalin. He writes:

The substance of the Thermidor was, is and could not fail to be social in character. It stood for the crystaillisation of a new privileged stratum, the creation of a new sub-stratum for the economically dominant class. There were two pretenders to this rule: the petty bourgeoisie and the bureaucracy itself. They fought shoulder to shoulder [in the battle to break]> the resistance of the proletarian vanguard. When that task was accomplished a savage struggle broke out between them. The bureaucracy became frightened of its isolation, its divorcement from the proletariat. Alone it could not crush the kulak nor the petty bourgeoisie that had grown and continued to grow on the basis of the NEP; it bad to have the aid of the proletariat. Hence its concerted effort to present its straggle against the petty bourgeoisie for the surplus products and for power as the struggle of the proletariat against attempts at capitalistic restoration. [12]

The bureaucracy, Trotsky says, while pretending to fight against capitalistic restoration, in reality used the proletariat only to crush the kulaks for “the crystallisation of a new privileged stratum, the creation of a new substratum for the economically dominant class”. One of the pretenders to the role of the economically dominant class, he says, is the bureaucracy. Great significance must be attached to this formulation especially if we connect this analysis of the fight between the bureaucracy and the kulaks with Trotsky’s definition of the class struggle. He says:

The class struggle is nothing else than the struggle for surplus-produce. He who owns surplus-produce is master of the situation – owns wealth, owns the State, has the key to the Church, to the courts, to the sciences and to the arts. [13]

The fight between the bureaucracy and the kulaks was, according to Trotsky’s last conclusion, the “struggle ... for the surplus products”.



7. The internal forces are not able to restore Individual capitalism in Russia: what conclusion as regards its class character?

When Trotsky spoke about the danger of social counter-revolution in Russia, he meant the restoration of capitalism, based on private property. Stalinist Bonapartism is represented as a balancing factor between two forces on the national arena – on the one hand the working class supporting statified property and planning, and, on the other, the bourgeois elements striving towards individual property. He writes:

It [the bureaucracy] continues to preserve State property only to the extent that it fears the proletariat. This saving fear is nourished and supported by the illegal party of Bolshevik-Leninists, which is the most conscious expression of the socialist tendencies opposing that bourgeois reaction wit which the Thermidorian bureaucracy is completely saturated. As a conscious political force the bureaucracy has betrayed the revolution. But a victorious revolution is fortunately not only a programme and a banner, not only political institutions, but also a system of social relations. To betray it is not enough. You have to overthrow it. [14]

This presentation exposes most clearly the juridical abstraction of the form of property, and it exposes most clearly, therefore, the internal contradictions of the analysis. The Russian proletariat was not strong enough to keep its control over the means of production, and was ousted by the bureaucracy, but it is strong enough to prevent the promulgation of this relation in law! The proletariat was not strong enough to check a most antagonistic distribution of the product, to prevent the bureaucracy from brutally depressing its standard of living and denying it the most elementary rights, to prevent the sentence of millions of its members to slave labour in Siberia; but it is strong enough to defend the form of property! As though there is any relation between people and property other than that based on the relations of production.

On the other hand, if the fear of the proletariat is the only factor preventing the restoration of private capitalism in Russia; if, as Trotsky said, the bureaucracy are conscious restorationists, his statement that the Stalinist regime is as stable as a pyramid standing on its head, would have proved correct, and his prognosis of the fate of the statified economy during the war would have been realised. He summed up his position thus:

In the heated atmosphere of war one can expect sharp turns toward individualistic principles in agriculture and in handicraft industry, toward the attraction of foreign and allied’ capital, breaks in the monopoly of foreign trade, the weakening of governmental control ova trusts, the sharpening or competition between the trusts, their conflicts with workers, etc. In the political sphere these processes may mean the completion of Bonapartism with the corresponding change or a number of changes in property relations. In other words, in case of a protracted war accompanied by the passivity of the world proletariat the internal social contradictions in the USSR not only might lead but would have to lead to a bourgeois-Bonapartist counter-revolution. [15]

That private capitalism could be restored in Russia without its occupation by an imperialist power was an understandable, even if incorrect assumption, before the experience of the World War II. The victory of the concentrated, statified Russian economy over the German war machine shattered all talk of the possibility that the statified economy be overthrown by the kulak, who does not even own machinery or horses.

(This does not exclude the fact that external forces could restore individual capitalism, or even that a devastating war, accompanied by the annihilation of most of the Russian population, could cast Russian society back to a much lower level of historical development than private capitalism.)

When Trotsky defined Russia as a society in transition, he correctly emphasised that as such it must by its own immanent laws lead either to the victory of socialism, or to the restoration of private capitalism. If the latter is ruled out, one of three possibilities remain:

  1. The internal forces in Russia lead in one direction only – towards communism. This point of view is held by the Stalinists and also by Bruno R. [16]
  2. Russian society is neither capitalist nor socialist, and although the productive forces rise uninterruptedly it will not lead to communism; although the exploitation of the masses continues unabated, it will not lead to capitalism. This is the theory of the “managerial revolution” and of bureaucratic collectivism in Shachtman’s 1943 formulation.
  3. Russian society is either a transitional society which has two possible paths before it – state capitalism or communism – or it is already state capitalism.

To deny the possibility of the internal forces leading to private capitalism and at the same time to denounce Stalinism, bureaucratic collectivism (according to both Bruno R and Shachtman) and Burnhamism, we are left with the third alternative only.

Seeing that under state capitalism as well as under a workers’ state, the state is the repository of the means of production, the difference between the two systems cannot be in the form of property. Therefore the state ownership of the means of production which Trotsky uses as the basis for his definition of the class character of Russia must be dismissed as an unsound criterion.



8. The “new democracies” and the definition of Russia as a workers’ state

The appearance of the “new democracies” provided a test of the definition of Russia as a workers’ state. It is possible to adopt one of three assumptions regarding them:

  1. While Russia is a workers’ state the “new democracies” are capitalist states.
  2. Russia is a workers’ state and so are the “new democracies”.
  3. Russia is not a workers’ state, nor are the “new democracies”.

The first assumption is subscribed to by the IS. [17] It should, however, not be difficult to disprove this by showing that Russia and the “new democracies” have the same fundamental features. Already more than 60 percent of industry in the “new democracies”, consisting of large-scale, key enterprises, is statified. It would be illogical to suppose that the less than 40 percent which remains in private hands will subordinate the statified industry to its interests. On the contrary, there is every reason to assume that after a certain time those industries will be statified. Plans of production, as well as a monopoly of foreign trade, are in existence. The state structures of these countries are also becoming more and more like the totalitarian dictatorship in Russia. it needs just a high degree of mental acrobatics to think that Micolajcik and his ilk who flee abroad or waste away are the rulers in poland as to consider that the rulers of Russia are the slave labourers in Siberia. Only such acrobats could assume that a degenerated workers’ state would impose a different regime on its satellites than exists inside Russia itself; that the Stalinist bureaucracy which can successfully loot a considerable part of the industries in the “new democracies” and statify over 60 percent of the industry should not be able to statify 100 percent; that a bureaucracy which overthrew German military might should not be able to smash the feeble bourgeoisies in the “new democracies”.

If, then, Russia and the “new democracies” represent fundamentally the same social system, we are left with the other two alternatives: that all of them are workers’ states, or none of them are. Let us begin by analysing the first alternative.

If state property, planning and the monopoly of foreign trade define a country as a workers’ state, then without doubt Russia, as well as the “new democracies”, are workers’ states. This means that in the latter proletarian revolutions have taken place. These were led by the Stalinists on the basis of national unity, governmental coalitions with the bourgeoisie and chauvinism which led to the expulsion of millions of German toilers and their families. Such policies merely served to oil the wheels of the proletarian revolution. [18]

What, then, is the future of the Fourth International – what is its historical justification? The Stalinist parties have all the advantages over the Fourth International socialists – a state apparatus, mass organisations, money, etc., etc. The only advantage they lack is the internationalist class ideology. But if it is possible to accomplish the proletarian revolution without this ideology, why should the masses come to us? To make an analogy, if a certain general has the confidence of the masses of soldiers because he leads them to many victories, the soldiers will on no account transfer their adherence to an unsupported general who claims to have a better strategy. The masses of workers have tremendous loyalty towards their organisations, and they will not change a mass organisation for a tiny one unless they are convinced that the mass organisation does not solve their problems.

If a social revolution took place in the Eastern European countries without a revolutionary proletarian leadership, we must conclude that in future social revolutions, as in past ones, the masses will do the fighting but not the leading. In all the struggles of the bourgeoisie it was not the bourgeoisie itself who did the fighting, but the masses who believed it was in their interests. The sans-culottes of the French revolution fought for liberty, equality and fraternity, while the real aim of the momement was the establishment of the rule of the bourgeoisie. this was the case at a time when the bourgeoisie was progressive. In reactionary imperialist wars, the less the masses – who are the cannon fodder – know about the war’s aims, the better soldiers they are. To assume that the “new democracies” are workers’ states means to accept that in principle the proletarian revolution is, just as the bourgeois wars were, based on the deception of the people.

If the “new democracies” are workers’ states, Stalin has realised the proletarian revolution; moreover he has carried it out quite speedily. Forty-seven years passed by from the Paris Commune till the establishment of the first workers’ state in a country of 140 million people. Less than forty years passed until a number of additional countries became workers’ states. In the West, Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia added their 75 million people (and this does not include the Baltic states, Eastern Poland and Bessarabia, containing 20 million people, which were annexed to the USSR). In the East, the state of Yenan in China with 150 million people was added. If these countries are workers’ states, then why Marxism, why the Fourth International? We could only be looked upon by the masses as adventurists, or at best impatient revolutionists whose differences with the Stalinists are merely tactical.

If the “new democracies” are workers’ states, what Marx and Engels said about the socialist revolution being “history conscious of itself” is refuted. Refuted is Engels’ statement:

It is only from this point [the socialist revolution] that men, with full consciousness, will fashion their own history; it is only from this point that the social causes set in motion by men will have, predominantly and in constantly increasing measure, the effects willed by men. It is humanity’s leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom. [19]

Rosa Luxemburg, too, must have spoken nonsense in her summing up of what all the Marxist teachers wrote about the place of proletarian consciousness in a revolution:

In all the class struggles of the past, carried through in the interests of the minorities, and in which, to use the words of Marx, “all development took place in opposition to the great masses of the people”, one of the essential conditions of action was the ignorance of these masses with regard to the real aims of the struggle, its material content, and its limits. This discrepancy was, in fact, the specific historical basis of the “leading role” of the “enlightened” bourgeoisie, which corresponded with the role of the masses as docile followers. But, as Marx wrote as early as 1845, “as the historical action deepens the number of masses engaged in it must increase!” The class struggle of the proletariat is the “deepest” of all historical actions up to our day, it embraces the whole of the lower layers of the people, and, from the moment that society became divided into classes, it is the first movement which is in accordance with the real interests of the masses. That is why the enlightenment of the masses with regard to their tasks and methods is an indispensable historical condition for socialist action, just as in former periods the ignorance of the masses was the condition for the action of the dominant classes. [20]

The IS writes:

To deny the capitalist nature of these countries [“new democracies”] amounts to acceptance, in no matter what form of this Stalinist revisionist theory [of gradual transition from capitalism], it means seriously to consider the historical possibility of a destruction of capitalism by “terror from above” without the revolutionary intervention of the masses. [21]

This is absolutely correct. But while denying that a revolution from above is possible, we cannot assume, as the IS does, that the “new democracies” are capitalist while Russia is a workers’ state. No. We are left with only the third possibility, that Russia is not a workers’ state, nor are the “new democracies”.



9. The nationalisations in England and the definition of Russia as a workers’ state

The nationalisations in England carried out by the Labour government bring us sharply to realise that the form of property alone is not the fundamental determinant of the class character of an economy and a state. The British Trotskyists correctly declare that, as in the nationalised industries there is no workers’ control, and the state, even though headed by Labour leaders, is still the same old bourgeois machine - the nationalisations are only state capitalist measures. The question of compensation, as Marx and Engels showed, is not of decisive importance in determining the class relations in the nationalised economy, and the working class on coming to power would not on principle oppose the buying out of the capitalist class (although the tremendous increase of the bourgeois state machine in the defence of bourgeois property today virtually excludes such action being taken). What has brought us to decide that the nationalisations are state capitalist is the lack of workers’ control in the nationalised industries, and the fact that the state is not a democratic workers’ state in the form of, or in a similar form to, soviets, but is still a bureaucratic state which raises itself above the people.

According to this criterion, Russia is certainly not a workers’ state. We cannot avoid this contradiction by saying that we define the nationalisations of the mines, railways, electricity, and steel as state capitalist measures only because they are carried out in the interests of the private capitalists in the other branches of industry. The present Labour government, it is true, intends to nationalise only 20 percent of the whole of industry (which makes up a very much larger percentage of large-scale industry alone). Supported by the workers, the government, in the interests of capitalism, nationalised the industries which are the most dangerous bottlenecks in the economy. Unless the social revolution circumvents it, international competition will continue, and with it the decline of British capitalism, in which case more far-reaching measures of coordination and amalgamation will be necessary. Under this pressure the British bourgeois state may nationalise all large-scale industry. Will the nationalisations cease to be state capitalist? Or if they continue to be state capitalist, is it because small-scale enterprises remain in private hands?



10. Are Russia’s war victories proof that Russia is a workers’ state?

Whereas Trotsky, following up his analysis that Russia is a degenerated workers’ state, predicted that the bureaucracy would not stand up to a war, many Trotskyists today conclude from these very victories that Russia is a workers’ state. This post factum argument, however, cannot stand up to criticism.

The argument can be broken into two parts: 1. The enthusiasm of the masses in the war proves that they have something to lose besides their chains – that they are the ruling class. 2. The industrial-military strength of Russia proves the historical superiority of the Russian regime over capitalism.

The first part of the argument, prevalent in the Fourth International press in 1941-43, had the bottom knocked out of it by the march of events. The German army, too, in the years when all hope of victory had already vanished, fought with all its strength to the very gates of Berlin. Had the German soldiers also something to lose besides their chains? Was the German working class also the ruling class?

As regards the second part of the argument, there is no doubt that large scale enterprise has tremendous advantages over small-scale. This is the main explanation why, although both British and American production are based on the same social system, the latter is superior to the former. Russian industry, newer and technically more modern, is built on an even larger scale than American. Besides this, the overlapping and lack of co-ordination prevalent in the countries of individual capitalism is avoided in Russia by state ownership of the means of production. And yet another facto of advantage to Russia in a war, which many other countries cannot claim, is that its workers lack all democratic rights. In Russia, as in Nazi Germany, it is possible to produce guns instead of butter, to transfer millions of workers from the West to beyond the Urals, housing them in dugouts in the ground, etc. The authority of the state over the economy and over the workers – these are the strong points of Russia’s industrial-military production. But the very same factors explain Nazi Germany’s military superiority over bourgeois-democratic France, which, as we know, collapsed before her advancing armies like a house of cards, and also Britain – this ex-”workshop of the world” – was saved from invasion by the English Channel, American help from the West and the Russian threat to Germany from the East.

Germany’s military victories of the beginning of the war fooled some people into believing that Germany was not a capitalist country, but represented a new and superior system of society. Burnham was notable among these.

The belief that the Russian military victories in themselves prove that Russia represents a new system of society has no more foundation than the belief that Nazi Germany did so.




1. Problems of the Development of the USSR. A Draft of the Thesis of the International Left Opposition on the Russian Question, New York 1931, p.36.

2. New International, April 1943.

3. L. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, London 1937, p.235.

4. Editor’s note: The NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Afairs) was the security service, including the secret service, and the forerunner of the KGB.

5. K.Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, London n.d., pp.129-130.

6. ibid., p.166.

7. Sources used on feudalism in the Arab East: A.N. Poliak, Feudalism in Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Lebanon, London 1939; A.N. Poliak, Les Révoltes Populaires en Egypte a l’Epoque des Mamelukes et leurs causes Economiques, in Revue des Etudes Islamiques, Paris 1934; A.N. Poliak, various articles that appeared in Hebrew in the periodical Hameshek Hashitufi, Tel Aviv; A. Kremer, Geschichte der herrschenden Ideen des Islams, Leipzig 1868; A. Kremer, Kulturgeschichte des Orients unter der Chalifen, Vienna 1875-1877; C.H. Becker, Beiträge zur Geschichte Ägyptens unter dem Islam, Strasbourg 1903.

8. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, op. cit., p.110.

9. ibid.

10. Marx, Introduction, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, op. cit., pp.285-286.

11. Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, New York 1942, pp. 63-70.

12. L. Trotsky, Stalin, London 1947, p.408.

13. L. Trotsky, The Living Thoughts of Karl Marx, London 1940, p.9

14. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, op. cit., p.238.

15. L. Trotsky, War and the Fourth International, New York 1934, p.22.

16. In his book La Bureaucratisation du Monde, Paris, 1939.

17. IS Draft Thesis, The Fourth International and Stalinism, November 1947.

18. This theory leads to the most absurd contradictions. We know when the workers of Petrograd took power. It was on 7 November 1917. When did they take power in Prague? If one says the last week of February 1948 it means that the workers came to power three years after 70 percent of the industry was nationalised and working according to a plan, i.e. three years after Czechoslovakia was already a workers’ state. If, on the other hand, one says that the workers took power at the same time as the major industries were nationalised, it means that the revolution was carried out by a coalition government with a communist’ minority, without any semblance of soviets or action committees, in the presence of the American army of occupation, and at the same time as about 3 million Germans were expelled. And it is surely strange that three years after a proletarian revolution the Marxists both inside and outside Czechoslovakia did not know it had taken place. The fact that even the date of the revolution cannot be fixed by those who declare Czechoslovakia to be a workers’ state shows how unfounded is their assertion. The mass demonstrations of February 1948 certainly prove that the overwhelming majority of the working class in Czechoslovakia has confidence in the Stalinist government, but by itself it does not prove anything about the class character of Czechoslovakia. The action committees, for the short time they existed, were auxiliary to the standing army and police, controlled by the Stalinists. They did not smash the old capitalist state machine and replace it. The replacement of ministers and generals while the structure of the army and the state bureaucracy remains the same not only diverges from what Marx and Engels visualised as the first step in a proletarian revolution – the smashing of the state machine – but is its very opposite.

19. Engels, Anti-Dühring, op. cit., p.312.

20. Quoted by L. Laurat, Marxism and Democracy, London 1940, p.69.

21. IS Draft Thesis, op. cit.


Last updated on 20.1.2004