Duncan Hallas

Origins of the International Socialists


Published in Origins of the International Socialists, Pluto Press (London) 1971.
Downloaded from REDS – Die Roten.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The main document reproduced here, The Class Nature of the People’s Democracies, was the platform around which the nucleus of what was to become the International Socialists came together. It was not, of course, a comprehensive platform. As the foundation conference of the group resolved:

That being a Trotskyist tendency, and believing that our position on Russia rounds off Trotskyism to the needs of our epoch, we shall fight for the building of the Fourth International as a genuine Trotskyist organisation. We shall apply for membership of the Fourth International. [1]

The founders of the group saw themselves as mainstream Trotskyists, differing on important questions from the dominant group in the international, but belonging to the same basic tendency.

Since that time all the various groups of Trotskyist origin have moved a long way from Trotskyism as it was understood between the first and second congresses of the Fourth International (FI) (1938-48). For the IS group this has been a conscious and acknowledged development. The group has sought to maintain the essence of the communist tradition, as represented by the left opposition, by applying a Marxist analysis to the changing situation and thus necessarily modifying the conclusions based on earlier conditions. The various “orthodox” groupings changed their positions not less but, in most cases, a good deal more. The difference is that the changes are for the most part unacknowledged. This is nowhere more obvious than on the question of Stalinism.

The Trotskyist tendency originated as a reform movement within the increasingly stalinised Russian Communist Party and in the world communist movement. For the first ten years of its existence the left opposition explicitly rejected the idea of a new revolution in Russia and the related idea of a new fourth international. A good factual account of developments in Russia during those years is given in C. Harman’s pamphlet How the Revolution was Lost. A knowledge of this is assumed in what follows.

Trotsky’s view of the degeneration of the Russian revolution in the twenties can be summarised as follows: that the material basis for socialism is a developed industry with a high productivity of labour; that this was lacking in the isolated Russia of the post civil war period; that, as Lenin put it, “We are far from having completed even the transitional period from capitalism to socialism. We have never cherished the illusion that we could finish it without the aid of the international proletariat ... The final victory of socialism in a single country is, of course, impossible” [2]; that nevertheless the positions gamed by the October revolution had not been lost, the temporary defeat of the international movement having produced merely a reaction in Russia, a reaction that could be reversed.

Specifically, a right-wing tendency reflecting, in a distorted fashion, the bourgeois counter-revolution, was growing fast in the Russian Communist Party. This was the Bukharin-Rykov group. It was consistently opposed by the left opposition. In between was a vacillating, inconsistent, centrist group, the Stalinist faction, which was based on the party and state bureaucracies. The main enemy was the right. Their policy – to industrialise at a snail’s pace and meanwhile to give the rural and urban petty capitalists (Kulaks and Nepmen) their heads – was leading, in Trotsky’s view, directly to counter-revolution. The Stalinists were attacked for opening up the road to the right, with whom they had a bloc in 1926–28. The opposition’s domestic programme centred on industrialisation and democratisation, which were seen as complementary aspects of a policy to revive the workers’ movement in Russia.

At a later time Trotsky wrote of his views in the mid-twenties as follows:

The left opposition argued that, although the elements of dual power had indubitably begun to sprout within the country, the transition from these elements to the hegemony of the bourgeoisie could not occur otherwise than by means of a counter-revolutionary overturn. The bureaucracy was already linked to the Nepman and the Kulak, but its main roots still extend into the working class. In its struggle against the left opposition, the bureaucracy undoubtedly was dragging behind it a heavy tail in the shape of the Nepmen and Kulaks. But on the morrow this tail would strike a blow at the head, that is, at the ruling bureaucracy. New splits within the bureaucratic ranks were inevitable. Face to face wit the direct danger of a counter-revolutionary overturn, the basic core of the centrist bureaucracy would lean on the workers for support against the growing rural bourgeoisie. The outcome of the conflict was far from having been decided. [3]

It followed that USSR remained a workers’ state. An essential criterion was the possibility of reform based on the assumption that the stalinist bureaucracy was a centrist tendency within the workers’ movement.

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 an armed rising but also that the proletariat of the USSR has not forfeited the possibility of submitting the bureaucracy to it, of reviving the party and of mending the regime of the dictatorship – without a new revolution, with the methods and on the road of reform. [4]

These ideas were under attack from the extreme left wing of the Russian opposition.

The late V.M. Smirnov – one of the finest representatives of the old Bolshevik school – held that the lag in industrialisation, the growth of the kulak and the Nepman (the new bourgeois), the liaison between the latter and the bureaucracy, and, finally, the degeneration of the party had progressed so far as to render impossible a return to the socialist road without a new revolution. The proletariat had already lost power. [5]

Smirnov, Sapronov, Ossinsky and others of the “Democratic-Centralist” faction held that already, by 1926, capitalism had been restored in Russia. The key question was that of power. Granted that the wages system, commodity production and social classes still existed in Russia – and this was common ground amongst all tendencies – the question was which class actually rules through the medium of the bureaucracy. The “Democratic-Centralists” answered, in the last resort, the bourgeoisie. The Trotskyists proper answered, in the last resort, the working class. Hence the fundamental difference in orientation between reform (Trotsky) and revolution (Smirnov).

In 1928-29 the right wing of the CP and the social forces it represented were smashed. The kulaks were “liquidated as a class”. A programme of industrialisation more ambitious than anything proposed by the opposition was undertaken. For the workers it meant speed-up, cuts in real wages and the elimination of the vestigial bargaining rights of the trade unions. The last remains of democratic rights in the party and the country were abolished. The working class was atomised. All opposition, left or right, became treason. The totalitarian state was established.

These tremendous changes took place under the auspices of the supposedly “centrist” Stalinist bureaucracy which now assumed uncontrolled power. They were totally unexpected by the Left Opposition which, as late as 1929, was still speaking of the coming capitulation to the right. The impact of events produced a political disintegration amongst the imprisoned and exiled oppositionists. The majority became “capitulators” – arguing that, since the main danger was from the right, and Stalin was now carrying through industrialisation, the duty of the left was to find a way back into the party. At the other pole were the “irreconcilables”, standing for a new revolution. “The two extreme wings were growing and only the shrinking rump of the opposition remained ‘orthodox’ Trotskyist.” [6]

In these circumstances Trotsky was forced to rethink and ultimately to revise his position on the USSR. The process took several years and it was not until 1933–35 that the synthesis that was to become the new “orthodox” position finally appeared.

This revised theory contained the following points: there is no longer any possibility of a return to a healthy workers’ state in the USSR by reformist methods, a new party and a new revolution are necessary; at the same time, “in its social foundation and economic tendencies, the USSR still remains a workers’ state”. [7] The bureaucracy is no longer a centrist tendency inside the working-class movement but a “Thermidorian oligarchy today reduced mainly to Stalin’s Bonapartist clique. [8] Indeed the apparatus “was transformed from a weapon of the working class into a weapon of bureaucratic violence against the working class and more and more a weapon for the sabotage of the country’s economy”. [9]

This view involves a major departure from the Marxist tradition. It is one thing to argue that, in a workers’ state, unfavourable conditions can produce bureaucratic deformations such as Lenin had argued existed in Russia in 1921. [10] It is quite another to argue, as Trotsky was now arguing, that a state which is a weapon of violence against the working class, in which “Stalin’s political apparatus does not differ, save in more unbridled rough-shoddedness” from that of fascist regimes [11], in which “only the victorious revolutionary uprising of the oppressed masses can revive the Soviet regime”. [12] could still be a workers’ state.

After all, Lenin, following Marx, had argued that

during the transition from capitalism to communism ... a special machine for suppression, the “state” is still necessary, but this is now a transitional state. It is no longer a state in the proper sense of the word; for the suppression of the minority of exploiters by the majority of wage slaves of yesterday is comparatively so easy ... And it is compatible with the extension of democracy to such an overwhelming majority of the population that the need for a special machine of suppression will begin to disappear. [13]

No amount of argument about dialectics, whether a damaged motor car is still a motor car [14] or a bureaucratised trade union is still a workers’ organisation, can obscure the fact that for Lenin, as for Marx, the workers’ state was an instrument of the working class against the exploiting minority and to extend this term to a state that was, on Trotsky’s own showing, an instrument of violence used by a privileged group against the working class, is as big a revision of Marxism as was ever attempted by Bernstein.

The fact is that Trotsky had adopted the political perspective of the Democratic-Centralists (revolution) whilst rejecting their theoretical justification for it (that a counter-revolution had taken place). It is easy to see why. Smirnov and his co-thinkers had been proved entirely wrong in their assessment that the “new bourgeoisie” of Nepmen and kulaks had seized power using the bureaucracy as their instrument. Industrialisation was proceeding apace on the basis of state-ownership and planning. But adopting a revolutionary position with respect to the bureaucracy destroyed what had previously been an essential element of Trotsky’s conception of Russia as a workers’ state – the idea that in the last resort the working class has not lost power, that there can be regeneration by reform. Therefore a new conception had to be introduced. It was the now familiar one, that so long as the decisive sectors of industry are in the hands of the state and that private capital plays little role in the economy we have a workers’ state, even though the workers are deprived not only of power but even of elementary democratic rights. Nor does the “Bonapartist” analogy help. Bonapartist regimes do not deprive the bourgeoisie of its ownership of the means of production – the ultimate source of its power. The working class can only exercise power through democratic organisation.

It was possible for Trotsky to adopt this highly “revisionist” view without his general political outlook being affected because he regarded the Russian bureaucracy as a very exceptional and highly unstable phenomenon. From being a force that would “lean on the workers for support” against restoration, it had become itself the main restorationist force. The bureaucracy was “becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers’ state” [15] and, either it “will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back to capitalism; or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism. [16] “Each day added to its domination helps to rot the foundations of the socialist elements of economy and increases the chances for capitalist restoration.” [17]

Theoretically, this was a very dubious conception. It is possible, of course, for a privileged class or layer in a country to become essentially an instrument of a foreign bourgeoisie. This was the situation of the Chinese “compradore” bourgeoisie in the early decades of this century. But in that case the mechanism for their dependence was clear. The compradores owed their wealth and influence to foreign trade in which they were the very unequal partners of the big foreign capitalist enterprises. No such mechanism could be shown in the case of the Stalinist bureaucracy. The bureaucracy maintained a state monopoly of foreign trade and the foreign capitalist had to deal with the Russian state – indeed he still does. The officials of the Commissariat of Foreign Trade were in no position to become compradores because they were merely cogs in a large and highly centralised machine. In fact the “restorationist” tendencies of the bureaucracy proved to be a myth.

It is true that at a much later period – the nineteen-sixties – conflicts arose within the bureaucracy about methods of running the economy, about “market socialism” and decentralisation. These have been used by some Maoists to justify their theory that capitalism was restored in the USSR by Khruschev. In fact, however, there is no essential difference in the class structure and power system of the USSR in 1950 and in 1970. Either the USSR ceased to be a workers’ state with the first five year plan, which marked the complete totalitarianisation of the regime – or it ceased to be a workers’ state even earlier as the Democratic-Centralists believed – or it is still a workers’ state today.

Whichever of these alternatives is correct, Trotsky’s analysis of the class struggle in the USSR after 1927 has clearly been shown to be erroneous. The point is important. No “orthodox” Trotskyist tendency today in fact defends Trotsky’s analysis – they substitute a label for the analysis. And this label covers a confused and shifting content.

In 1938 it did not seem to matter very much whether the formulations were entirely correct or not. The practical conclusions were clear. The FI stood for an uncompromising struggle against Stalinism and capitalism alike. It stood for revolution against both. But what is the position of the FI if the Stalinists start to overthrow bourgeois regimes? This was absolutely excluded.

The Third International has taken to the road of reformism at a time when the crisis of capitalism definitely placed the proletarian revolution on the order of the day. The Comintern’s policy in Spain and China today – the policy of cringing before the “democratic” and “national” bourgeoisie – demonstrates that the Comintern is incapable of learning anything further or of changing. The bureaucracy which became a reactionary force in the USSR cannot play a revolutionary role on the world arena. [18]

This indeed was the historical justification for founding the FI.

Trotsky’s final defence of his new position was made during the 1940 dispute in the Socialist Workers Party of the USA. A confused opposition led by Abern, Burnham and Shachtman, which had no common position of its own on the Russian question, raised, amongst other matters, the “unconditional defence of the USSR” after Stalin’s pact with Hitler, their joint partition of Poland, the Russian seizure of the Baltic states and the Russo-Finnish war. The opposition wished to adopt the following position: “If the imperialists assail the USSR with the aim of crushing the last conquest of the October revolution and reducing Russia to a bunch of colonies we will support the Soviet Union.” [19] On the other hand we oppose the Russian invasion of Finland.

Trotsky had no difficulty in disposing of this “conditional defencism” The Russo-German Pact and the consequent seizures of territory by Stalin with Hitler’s permission were incidents in the wider struggle – the Second World War. It was no more possible to support Finland against Russia in 1940 than to support Serbia against Austria-Hungary in 1914 even though, as Lenin had argued, the Serbian cause was progressive (on grounds of national self-determination) if taken in isolation. In fact it could not be taken in isolation. So too in 1940. Behind Finland stood Britain and France.

The importance of this discussion lies not in Shachtman’s arguments but in Trotsky’s. Sensing that the opposition was moving away from his estimate of the nature of the USSR – as they did in fact after splitting with the SWP – Trotsky reviewed his differences with the lefts and introduced two new arguments:

The Fourth International long ago recognised the necessity of overthrowing the bureaucracy by means of a revolutionary uprising of the toilers. Nothing else is proposed or can be proposed by those who proclaim the bureaucracy to be an exploiting class. The goal to be obtained by the overthrow of the bureaucracy it the re-establishment of the rule of the soviets, expelling from them the present bureaucracy. Nothing different can be proposed or is proposed by the leftist critics ... we called the future revolution political. Certain of our critics (Ciliga, Bruno and others) want, come what may, to call the future revolution social. Let us grant this definition. What does it alter in essence. To the tasks of the revolution which we have enumerated it adds nothing whatsoever. [20]

It may appear, then, that The differences are concerned with terminology, not with substance. However, they can lead to differences of substance. The logic of the leftist position, Trotsky argued, leads to the belief that socialism is not on the agenda.

The USSR question cannot be isolated as unique from the whole historic process of our times. Either the Stalin state is a transitory situation, a deformation of a workers’ state in a backward and isolated country or “bureaucratic collectivism” (Bruno Rizzi, La bureaucratisation du monde, Paris 1939) is a new social formation that is replacing capitalism throughout the world (Stalinism, fascism, New Deal etc.) ... Who chooses the second alternative admits, openly or silently, that all the revolutionary potentialities of the world proletariat are exhausted, that the socialist movement is bankrupt and that the old capitalism it transforming itself into “bureaucratic collectivism” with a new exploiting class. [21]

This erroneous argument was to have some weight in later discussions. It is completely unmarxist. Marx had held that two different social systems – the ancient and the Asiatic – had co-existed for many centuries. He had never adopted the concept of “universal stages” that is often attributed to him by bourgeois critics. It is true that capitalism is essentially a world system but that in no way prevents substantially different variants of that system from co-existing and it has nothing whatever to do with the question of the class nature of the USSR. Trotsky himself had earlier laid great stress on the effects of combined and uneven development in producing all kinds of hybrid social formations. In short the bureaucratic collectivist argument is a red herring. It was later to he taken up. in highly modified form by she Shachtman group, a vacillating and ultimately rightward-moving tendency which never at any time succeeded in arriving at a consistent position.

At the end of the Second World War (1944–45), the “People’s Democracies” of Eastern Europe and North Korea were created under Stalin’s auspices. Had a series of workers’ states – degenerated, deformed or whatever – been established by the counter-revolutionary, restorationist bonapartist bureaucracy? Certainly not, responded the dominant group in the FI. To argue that these states are workers’ states is the worst kind of revisionism which can only lead to capitulation to Stalinism. The Second World Congress of the FI in 1948 solemnly reaffirmed that the USSR was a degenerated workers’ state and that the “People’s Democracies”, including North Korea, were capitalist states. As to those heretics who thought either that they were workers’ states or that Russia was state capitalist, the parallelism of these two revisionist tendencies strikes the eye. There it no room for them in the revolutionary movement. [22]

By the Third World Congress (1951) one group of the revisionists for whom the movement had no room (the “workers’ statists”) had triumphed in the FI. Cliff’s document belongs to the discussion between the Second (1948) and Third (1951) World Congresses. The reader should note that Germain was the pen-name then used by Ernest Mandel, that John C. Wright was the “Russian expert” of the Socialist Workers Party of the USA and that the initials IS stood for International Secretariat – the leading body of the FI.

Two years earlier Cliff had written another document The Nature of Stalinist Russia which developed the view that Russian society was, and had been since 1928, “bureaucratic state capitalist”. The detailed arguments of that document are not reproduced here. They are available in Russia: A Marxist Analysis. [The current edition is called State Capitalism in Russia]

The other documents reproduced here are included to refute the false allegations, based on ignorance or malice, which are sometimes made about the early years of the group. The Nature or the Stalinist Parties was as a reply to an isolated individual influenced by the Shachtman tendency who had drifted into the group and very shortly drifted out again to the greener pastures of Labour reformism. It was adopted as the position of the group and, whatever its inadequacies, it demonstrates conclusively that, from the beginning, the group decisively rejected the Shachtmanite view on this question also.

The War in Korea appeared in the second issue of the group’s duplicated paper Socialist Review, in January 1951. It should finally nail the lie that the organisation “supported the Americans in Korea”. Incidentally it should he noted that, at the time it appeared, the FI position, as determined by world congress decision, was that North Korea was one of the states about which it had been resolved: “The capitalist nature of these countries imposes the necessity of the strictest revolutionary defeatism in war time.” [23] This fact did not prevent the British section of the FI from giving uncritical support to the Stalinist propaganda machine during the Korean war. The Theory of Bureaucratic Collectivism was written in 1948, and effectively demolishes that thesis in its Shachtmanite version. Finally, To the Members of the Club speaks for itself. The “Club” was, of course, the secret Trotskyist organisation in the Labour party which the Healy-Lawrence leadership was purging of all who were critical of their pro-Stalinist policies.

Cliff’s forecast of the political development of the FI was to be rapidly confirmed. The majority adopted Michael Pablo’s notorious document The Rise and Decline of Stalinism (Fourth World Congress 1954) which represented a return to the reformist Trotskyism of the twenties with respect to Stalinist states where they happened to be in actual or potential conflict with Russia.

Since both the Chinese CP and to a certain extent the Yugoslav CP are in reality bureaucratic centrist parties, which however still find themselves under the pressure of the revolution in their countries, we do not call upon the proletariat of these countries to constitute new revolutionary parties or to prepare a political revolution in these countries. We are working towards the Constitution of a left tendency within the JCP and within the Chinese CP. [24]

This fantasy was paralleled by a reformist perspective towards the mass Stalinist parties of Western Europe and the “Third World”.

These organisations cannot be smashed and replaced by others in the relatively short time between now and the decisive conflict. All the more so since these organisations will be obliged, whether they wish it or not, to give a leftward turn to the whole or at least a part of the leadership. [25]

It was a return to the womb. The resulting splits leading to the establishment of three “Fourth Internationals” plus a “Revolutionary Marxist Tendency of the Fourth International” which, however, maintains that the FI does not exist, were not solely due to the failure to come to grips with the problem of Stalinism. This failure, nonetheless, played a large part in the political disintegration and disorientation. The subsequent gyrations of various of these groupings on China, Cuba, Algeria, Guevarism, “structural reform” strategies, youth vanguardism etc. etc. have a common root in the abandonment of a fundamental tenet of Marxism – the conception of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class. This conception is at the core of Cliff’s 1950 critique. That is why it is still relevant and important today.

Duncan Hallas
August 1971



1. Minutes of Foundation Conference, 30 September/1 October 1950.

2. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 26, p. 465.

3. L. Trotsky, The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism, New Park edition pp. 39–40. Original dated 1 February 1935.

4. L. Trotsky, Problems of the Development of the USSR. Quoted in Cliff, Russia: A Marxist Analysis, p. 132.

5. L. Trotsky, The Workers’ State, Thermidor etc., p. 39.

6. I. Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, p. 65.

7. L. Trotsky, The Workers’ State, Thermidor etc., p. 61.

8. L. Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism, WIL edition, p. 38.

9. ibid., p. 37.

10. “In reality we have a workers’ state with the following peculiar features, it is the peasants and not the workers who predominate in the population and it is a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations.” Lenin, quoted by Trotsky in In Defence of Marxism, New Park edition, p. 150.

11. L. Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism, p. 40.

12. ibid., p. 41.

13. V.I. Lenin, State and Revolution, ML edition, p. 63. Emphasis in original.

14. See Trotsky’s defence of his position in In Defence of Marxism, pp. 29–30.

15. L Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism, p. 37.

16. ibid., p. 37.

17. ibid., p. 40.

18. ibid., p. 41. My emphasis – D.H.

19. Shachtman, quoted by Trotsky in In Defence of Marxism, p. 158.

20. L. Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, pp. 4–5.

21. ibid., p. 1.

22. The USSR and Stalinism. Resolution of Second World Congress of the FI, printed in Fourth International, June 1948.

23. ibid.

24. The Decline and Fall of Stalinism. Resolution of Fourth World Congress of the FI. Printed in The Development and Disintegration of World Stalinism, SWP 1970. This capitulation was not accepted by the SWP, the British section (Healy group) and others. They split to form the “International Committee of the FI”, which still exists. The SWP later (1963) returned to the Pablo-Mandel tendency from which Pablo and Posadas split, each to form his own “International” organisation.

25. ibid.


Last updated on 4 February 2017