Peter Binns & Duncan Hallas

The Soviet Union
State Capitalist or Socialist?

(Part 1)

What Purdy concedes

The most important single thing about Purdy’s pamphlet is what it does not claim. It does not claim that the working class (or the working class and the peasantry) hold power in the USSR. It does not claim that working people are able, collectively, to determine economic policy, social policy or any other policy. Indeed, it tacitly admits that they are not.

It states that “the continued violations and limitations of civil liberties both retard the social development of the socialist countries and handicap the struggle for socialism in the West” (p.33).

Purdy’s account of the origins of this state of affairs might almost have been taken straight from Trotsky. [4] Purdy writes:

The relatively small numerical size of the Russian working class left it particularly vulnerable after the initial seizure of state power. Thousands of cadres lost their lives in the civil war Others ceased to be workers and assumed positions in the state and party apparatus. The disruption caused by the civil war led to a catastrophic decline in industrial production: many workers, themselves only recently recruited into the urban industrial centres from the countryside, returned to their peasant origins; those who remained were reduced to the demoralising expedient of bartering their meagre produce in order to survive. The force which in 1917 had created the Soviet of Workers’, Peasants’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, the living cells of the new socialist state, was physically and morally decimated. The process could not help but take its toll on the party itself The decay of its essential class base left the CPSU dangerously isolated. It became like a head without a body, an elite in control of a besieged fortress, grimly defending the workers’ state in trust for a virtually non-existent working class. (pp.12-13)

After speaking of “increasingly authoritarian and coercive methods of rule: the formation and growth of the Cheka, the political police; the suppression of other political parties; the banning of inner-party factions and so on” (p14), Purdy continues:

All these steps were seen at the time as temporary defensive measures to be relaxed and withdrawn as the survival of the Soviet state became more assured. But with the continued isolation of the revolution it became evident that nothing endures like expedients. The decline of popular and democratic institutions and the growth of bureaucracy and arbitrariness in the CPSU and the state apparatus proceeded apace, unchecked by the vigilance of a vigorous and political/v conscious working class. (p.14).

Were these developments of the 1920s later reversed? Purdy makes no such claim. He notes, in explaining our position, that the first five year plan (1928-32) “is said to signify a counter-revolution because it was accompanied by the destruction of the final remnants of the workers’ state. Thus the Soviets became a facade, rubber stamping decisions taken by the ruling bureaucracy. In the factories the vestiges of workers’ control were abolished and a draconian labour code imposed. The trade unions ceased to function as workers’ defence organisations and were harnessed to the reins of the state. To promote the maximisation of output, material incentives were instituted which led to a sharp increase in the degree of social and economic inequality. The political police spawned an elaborate network of surveillance over all aspects of life. Stalin’s opponents were systematically eliminated, at first through exile and imprisonment, later through show trials and political executions” (p 16) and that the Stalinist system has “persisted in its essentials to this day” (p.17).

Well, is all this true or is it not? Purdy nowhere tells us what he thinks, nowhere comments. What tact! In reality he evidently agrees that the facts are as stated (but not, of course, that they amount to a counter-revolution).

It is an astonishing thing that an official CP publication makes no attempt at all to defend the regime in the USSR against what every CP worker has always been taught to believe to be “slanders”. But there it is. Purdy’s case rests on different considerations altogether as we shall see.

It is worth pausing a moment though, to reflect that this defender of the “socialist” character of the USSR is fortunate that he lives in Manchester rather than in Magnitogorsk. The public expression of the views advanced in his pamphlet, would, if he were a citizen of the “socialist” state cost him his party membership, his academic post and his right to publish-at the very least.



An unhealthy workers’ state?

What then, does this official CP publication have to say for the defence? A variant of some very familiar arguments unusual only in the source from which they come.

“A workers’ state ought to exhibit a high degree of popular self-activity, no marked differentials of income or status, election and accountability of all state officials”, and so on. Often theorists of state capitalism argue as tf the failure of the USSR to satisfy some or all of these requirements of health were sufficient to demonstrate that it cannot be a workers’ state. This line of reasoning is fallacious. The fact, assuming that it is a fact, that the USSR does not conform to the criteria for a healthy workers’ state, does not logically entail that the USSR is not a workers’ state of some kind, nor that the establishment of a healthy workers’ state is an unrealisable aim. (p.20)

And again: “to argue from the incongruence between reality and ideals that the USSR is not a workers’ state of any kind, however imperfect, presupposes that only one type of political regime is compatible with the socialist mode of production.” (p2)

And again: “We are first presented with a picture of the perfect workers’ state; then the USSR is found guilty of imperfection.” (p.40)

We shall look at these arguments later. But first, why does Purdy consider the USSR to be a workers’ state? He does not tell us. Not once does he spell out what, in his view, a workers’ state is, or why the USSR should be considered as such! The nearest we get is this:

The great bulk of the means of production - the land, the factories, offices and the equipment therein, the principal means of transport and communication - are not in private hands but are state owned. Widespread pub 1k ownership of the means of production means that the principle of economic planning is built into the bedrock of the Soviet economy. Basic production decisions which under capitalism are taken by atomised, capitalist enterprises, are in the hands of the state. (p.26)

It seems reasonable to infer (and we are forced to infer, since there is no direct statement) that this is what makes the USSR a workers’ state for Purdy. Since he also speaks of “the socialist mode of production” as completely synonymous with “planned economy” it evidently also, for him, makes the USSR socialist. Indeed Purdy seems to regard workers’ state and socialism as synonymous terms.

In passing, it may be doubted whether the “unhealthy”, “imperfect”, “deformed”, “degenerated” or whatever, “workers’ state” thesis has much future in Communist Party circles. It has the great disadvantage of drawing attention to the class nature of states in general, which does not go at all well with parliamentary roadism, historic compromises democratic juntas and the like.

Be that as it may, Purdy, and the more senior CP leaders who sanctioned the issue of his pamphlet under the party’s imprimatur, find it a useful stick to beat IS with. However, Purdy’s exposition is extraordinarily vague and confused. Let us try to clarify the matter.



The history of the question

According to Marx: “Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” [5]

This is the workers’ state, an instrument of repression like every state, an instrument used by the working class, collectively, to enforce its rule in the transitional period to socialism. In Engels’ words: “As therefore, the state is only a transitional institution which is used in the struggle, in the revolution, in order to hold down one’s adversaries by force, it is pure nonsense to speak of a free people’s state: so long as the proletariat still needs the state, it does not need it in the interests of freedom but in order to hold down its adversaries, and as soon as it becomes possible to speak of freedom the state as such ceases to exist.” [6] The workers’ state, then, is characteristic of the transition period to socialism, not of socialism itself.

Marx and Engels were heavily influenced by the experience of the Paris Commune. “Of late,” wrote Engels in 1891, “the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” [7]

The Commune was, of course, a highly popular and democratic regime – but a regime that directed the sharp edge of repression (including the shooting of hostages) against the bourgeois fifth column inside Paris. It was crushed by the overwhelming weight of the forces of reaction from outside Paris.

But what if such a “Commune State”, a workers’ state, a dictatorship of the proletariat, loses the support of the class whose interests it is supposed to serve? Marx and Engels never had to confront this problem. The notion of a “deformed workers’ state” was first introduced by Lenin.

Speaking against Trotsky and Bukharin, who advocated the incorporation of the trade unions into the state, he said in December 1920:

Comrade Trotsky speaks of a “workers’ state”. May I say that this is an abstraction. It was natural for us to write about a workers’ state in 1917; but it is now a patent error to say: “Since this is a workers’ state without any bourgeoisie, against whom then is the working class to be protected, and for what purpose?” The whole point is that it is not quite a workers’ state. That is where Comrade Trotsky makes one of his main mistakes . . . For one thing, ours is not actually a workers’ state but a workers’ and peasants’ state. And a lot depends on that. [Bukharin: “What kind of state? A workers’ and peasants’ state?”] Comrade Bukharin back there may well shout. “What kind of state? A workers’ and peasants’ state?” I shall not stop to answer him. Anyone who has a mind to should recall the recent Congress of Soviets and that will be answer enough. But that is not all. Our Party Programme-a document which the author of the ABC of Communism knows very well-shows that ours is a workers’ state with a bureaucratic twist to it. [8]

A month later, Lenin corrected and amplified his position:

While dealing with the December 30 discussion, I must correct another error of mine. I said: “Ours is not actually a workers’ state but a workers’ and peasants’ state.” Comrade Bukharin immediately exclaimed: “What kind of a state?” In reply I referred him to the Eighth Congress of Soviets, which had just closed. I went back to the report of that discussion and found that I was wrong and Comrade Bukharin was right. What I should have said is: “A workers’ state is an abstraction. What we actually have is a workers’ state with this peculiarity, firstly, that it is not the working class but the peasant population that predominates in the country, and, secondly. that it is a workers’ state with bureaucratic distortions.” [9]

A bureaucratically distorted workers’ state in a predominantly peasant country. That was Lenin’s view in 1920-21, a time when Purdy says (correctly) that the party was “grimly defending the workers’ state in trust for a virtually non-existent working class”.

In the next (NEP) period, as Purdy concedes, “the growth of bureaucracy and arbitrariness in the CPSU and the state apparatus proceeded apace”. Indeed it did. The working class had less and less influence. Joseph Stalin and his faction gained power [10] (although Stalin was not yet the despot of all the Russias).

The subsequent stage of the development was the crucial one. Every serious student recognises that the first five year plan marked a qualitative change in the USSR.

It ushered in a period characterised by these features: the direction of the economy according to an overall plan, rapid industrial growth, the forcible collectivisation of agriculture, the destruction of the remaining political and trade union rights of the working class, the rapid growth of social inequality, extreme social tension, forced labour on a mass scale, Stalin’s personal dictatorship and regime of police terror, the murder by shooting or by slow death in the camps of the vast majority of the original cadres of the CPSU and of an uncertain but very large number of other citizens of the USSR (and of many foreign communists). In short, it ushered in Stalinism.

Now, and this is the vital point, the imposition of the command economy’ and the atomisation of the working class, the establishment of a totalitarian regime, came together. Neither in the period of War Communism (1918-21) nor in the period of the NEP( 1921-28) can you speak of a planned economy in any real sense. On Purdy’s assumption that “planned economy” equals “socialist mode of production” the first five year plan marks the decisive step in the transition to socialism in the USSR.

It also marks the end of the “workers’ state with bureaucratic distortions”. The last elements of organised working class power were destroyed. There was now no question of the working class using the state “to hold down its adversaries”. The working class was itself held down.

What emerged was not “the withering away of the state”, which, for Marx, Engels and Lenin, was the necessary concomitant of socialism, but a bureaucratic monster of a state, a real behemoth, which survives (with certain modifications) to this day. And, of course, for a marxist the state is, by definition, an instrument of repression.

Different conclusions can be drawn from these facts – and they are facts, are they not, Comrade Purdy? One is that socialism is a reactionary utopia, that real democratic collective control over society is impossible, that class society and exploitation are the inevitable lot of mankind – the bourgeois theory, with all its numerous variants. Another is that a counter-revolution occurred in the USSR, a counter-revolution of a special type.

Purdy wishes to avoid these alternatives. Essentially, his evasion of them is borrowed from Trotsky’s views in the period of his last exile.



Purdy and Trotsky

It must be said at once that there are some fundamental differences between Trotsky’s final position and Purdy’s. Firstly, Trotsky never for one, moment accepted that socialism existed in the USSR. His roots in the marxist tradition were too deep for that.

In his last major book [11] he wrote:

The 7th Congress of the Communist International, in a resolution of August 20, 1935, solemnly affirmed that in the sum total of the successes of the nationalised industries, the achievement of collectivisation, the crowding out of capitalist elements and the liquidation of the kulaks as a class, “the final and irrevocable triumph of socialism and the all-sided reinforcement of the state of the proletarian dictatorship, is achieved in the Soviet Union”. With all its categorical tone, this testimony of the Communist International is wholly self-contradictory. If socialism has “finally and irrevocably” triumphed, not as principle but as a living social regime, then a renewed “reinforcement” of the dictatorship is obvious nonsense. And on the contrary, if the reinforcement of the dictatorship is evoked by the real demands of the regime, that means that the triumph of socialism is still remote. Not only a marxist, but any realistic political thinker, ought to understand that the very necessity of reinforcing the dictatorship-that is, governmental repression-testifies not to the triumph of a classless harmony but to the growth of new social antagonisms. [12]

Secondly, Trotsky, in his last years, believed in the necessity for the revolutionary overthrow of the regime in the USSR. “Only the victorious revolutionary uprising of the oppressed masses can revive the Soviet regime and guarantee its further development towards socialism[13] he wrote in 1938. Purdy, of course, rejects the very thought of “victorious revolutionary uprisings”, whether in Britain, the USSR or anywhere else. That is “insurrectionism”! There is a third difference too (see note 18).

Nevertheless, in spite of his rejecting the “socialist” nature of the regime in the USSR and calling for its overthrow by force (by the working classes of the USSR), Trotsky introduced a crucial innovation into the “bureaucratically distorted workers’ state” concept (Trotsky used the term “degenerated workers’ state”), an innovation that completely transformed its meaning, indeed stood it on its head.

Starting from a conception close to Lenin’s of 1920-21, and allowing for the development, the “degeneration” since then, he wrote, in a major theoretical article in 1931:

The recognition of the present Soviet state as a workers’ state not only signifies that the bourgeoisie can conquer power only by means of an armed rising but also that the proletariat of the USSR has not forfeited the possibility of subordinating the bureaucracy to it, of reviving the party again, and of regenerating the regime of the dictatorship- without a new revolution, with the methods and on the road of reform. [14]

So the Soviet state, deformed, degenerated or whatever, remains a workers’ state because it can be peacefully reformed (“without a new revolution”), can be “recaptured” from a parasitic bureaucracy, can be regenerated into a healthy workers’ state, an instrument of collective working class rule.

Factually this was wrong by 1931, as Trotsky himself later recognised. [15] But what is relevant here is the theory. The famous analogy with a bureaucratised trade union, actually in the hands of a class-collaborationist bureaucracy but potentially (and even to some extent actually) an instrument of working class struggle, is relevant to this definition of a degenerated workers’ state.

However, Trotsky was already, in 1931, operating with a dual definition. Although “the recognition of the present Soviet state as a workers’ state ... signifies ... that the proletariat of the USSR has not forfeited the possibility of subordinating the bureaucracy to it ...” we are also told:

The property relations in the USSR, like the reciprocal political relations of the classes, prove incontestably that the USSR, in spite of the distortions of the Soviet regime and in spite of the disastrous policy of the centrist bureaucracy, remains a workers’ state. [16]

In 1933 Trotsky abruptly revised his position on the possibility of peaceful reform in the USSR:

After the experiences of the last few years, it would be childish to suppose that the Stalinist bureaucracy can be removed by means of a party or soviet congress. In reality, the last congress of the Bolshevik Party took place at the beginning of 1923, the Twelfth Party Congress. All subsequent congresses were bureaucratic parades. Today, even such congresses have been discarded. No normal “constitutional” ways remain to remove the ruling clique. The bureaucracy can be compelled to yield power into the hands of the proletarian vanguard only by force. [17]

By force. A new revolution, “a victorious revolutionary uprising” is necessary for the working class to regain power in the USSR. So the working class has lost power and there is no peaceful, constitutional way for the working class to capture power again. So, clearly, therefore the workers’ state no longer exists? A counter-revolution has taken place?

On the contrary, maintained Trotsky. The USSR is still a workers state; specifically, it is a degenerated workers’ state, because “the property relations [i.e., state ownership of the means of production – PB, DH] ... prove incontestably that the USSR ... remains a workers’ state”.

This is the fundamental break with Marx and Lenin - and with Trotsky’s own earlier position. The dictatorship of the proletariat has no necessary connection with any actual workers’ power, distorted by bureaucratism or not. The dictatorship of the proletariat means, first and foremost, state ownership and economic planning and it remains in being even if the working class is atomised and subjected to a totalitarian despotism. The plan is not an instrument of the working class: the working class is an instrument of the plan. Idealist metaphysics replaces historical materialism.

This is what Purdy has borrowed from Trotsky [18] and, with one exception, all the arguments he uses to defend it are borrowed from Trotsky too.



State, mode of production and ruling class

Purdy tells us that “to argue from the incongruence between reahtv and ideals that the USSR is not a workers’ state of any kind, however imperfect, presupposes that only one type of political regime is compatible with the socialist mode of production.” However, “the capitalist mode of production has flourished within the most diverse forms of state power The same was true of the feudal and slave modes ... There seems to be no good reason for jettisoning this principle in the case of socialist social formations. A particular social formation can be said to be socialist according as the dominant mode of production within it.” (pp.2l-2)

Here we have a most extraordinary muddle. Purdy slides from “workers’ state” to “political regime’ to “social formation” to “mode of production”.

Now, of course, no form of state is compatible with the socialist mode of production. The socialist mode of production is, by definition, classless and therefore stateless. That is ABC for a marxist. As Lenin expressed it in his book on the subject:

The state is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The state arises where, when and insofar as class antagonisms objectively cannot be reconciled. And conversely, the existence of the state proves that the class antagonisms are irreconcilable. [19]

The existence of the state in the USSR, the People’s Republic of China and so on, comrade Purdy, demonstrates, by Lenin’s criteria, not only the existence but the “irreconcilability” of class antagonisms in those countries. And, of course, Lenin is merely, in the passage quoted, paraphrasing and summarising Engels’ exposition in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, an exposition that presents the essence of the marxist position on the matter.

Let us be clear. The view that “diverse forms of state power” are possible “in the case of socialist social formations” is totally incompatible with the marxist theory of the state. [20] Now if Purdy were your ordinary run-of-the-mill left Labourite, this would not worry him at all. He does in fact reject the marxist theory of the state, for Britain as for Russia, and that is his right. But Purdy, like Kautsky before him, chooses to masquerade as a marxist and this, necessarily, involves him in an attempt to confuse what should be simple and to muddle what should be clear.

Perhaps we can make some sense of Purdy’s case by assuming that he means that in societies transitional to socialism more than “one type of political regime” is possible? That was Trotsky’s position and it would probably also be Purdy’s – but for the fact that the CP has been telling us for years that “Today socialism is a reality for all to see. Countries with a population of hundreds of millions are socialist states.” [21]

At any rate, let us assume that this is Purdy’s meaning. Now it is certain that the proletarian dictatorship, the workers’ state, the instrument used by the working class “to hold down its enemies” in the transition period, can and will assume various forms. The political structure of the Commune was not that of the Soviet Republic of 1918 and future workers’ states will not simply mirror either of these examples. Within certain limits, it is possible to imagine various kinds of political structure for a workers’ state and reality usually turns out to be more complex than our imaginations anticipate. And, of course, this includes the possibility of various “distortions”, “deformations” and so on.

It is quite untrue that we present “a picture of a perfect workers’ state” and then disqualify, so to say, any actual workers’ state because of what Purdy calls “imperfections”. Not at all. The Commune and the early Soviet Republic had imperfections enough, as did, still more, the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919. For us, these are nonetheless examples of workers’ states, all of them, unfortunately, ultimately destroyed by counter-revolution.

But there are limits to the type of political regime compatible with a workers’ state. They arise from the nature of the working class as a majority class (in the developed capitalist countries) or as a large minority, where industrialisation is less developed, which can only control the means of production as a collective.

The working class can rule only collectively, only through organisations, through institutions, and it can only rule if there is a relatively high degree of political freedom within those organisations and institutions.

A workers’ state in which this political freedom is being choked is mortally sick and will surely die unless the process can be reversed. In the USSR, due to the combination of the isolation of the revolution and very unfavourable internal conditions - described by Purdy himself - the process was not reversed in time. The workers’ state was strangled.

Now we did not invent all this. To cite Lenin again, and again he is summarising and paraphrasing Marx and Engels:

Furthermore, during the transition from capitalism to communism suppression is still necessary, but it is now the suppression of the exploiting minority by the exploited majority. A special apparatus, 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 the wage slaves of yesterday is comparatively so easy, simple and natural a task that it will entail far less bloodshed than the suppression of the risings of slaves, serfs or wage labourers, and it will cost mankind far less. 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 ... Lastly, only communism makes the state absolutely unnecessary, for there is nobody to be suppressed- “nobody” in the sense of a class ... We are not utopians, and do not in the least deny the possibility and inevitability of excesses on the part of individual persons, or the need to stop such excesses ... no special apparatus of suppression, is needed for this; it will be done by the armed people themselves ... [22]

You can, of course, say that all this is utopian nonsense; that is the point of view of bourgeois and social-democratic opponents of socialism. In effect, they are saying that socialism is impossible because of “human nature” or some more complicated abstraction cooked up by bourgeois sociologists.

But if you believe in the possibility of and necessity for socialism you must accept, in general terms, at any rate, this description of the nature of a workers’ state. Political democracy is indispensable to it. Make all due allowance for deviations from the ideal, for deformations, and it is transparently obvious that the USSR is not a workers’ state, still less is it socialist.

Unless, of course, you redefine socialism so that it no longer has anything to do with the self-emancipation of the working class, the abolition of exploitation and social alienation, so that it stands for a totalitarian tyranny devoted to maximising capital accumulation at all costs.

But what of the argument that capitalism “has flourished within the most diverse forms of state power”? It is true. It is also irrelevant. The Britain of Callaghan and the Britain of William Pitt, the Germany of Schmidt and the Germany of Adolf Hitler, the USA of Jefferson and the USA of Richard Nixon are all examples of capitalist states, in spite of enormous political (and indeed social) differences. The capitalist mode of production; the wage labour-capital relationship and the subordination of labour to capital is common to all of them. (Yes, comrade Purdy, we are well aware that no “mode of production ever exists in its pure form” – that is another red herring in this context.)

It is the specific nature of capitalism as a system of exploitation with a minority exploiting class that makes this diversity possible. Normally, a bourgeoisie rules indirectly through its control of the means of production. That is the situation in Britain today. But, given the wage labour-capital relationship and the compulsion to accumulate capital, capitalism can exist even without a bourgeoisie, if a substitute “personification of capital” – the expression is Marx’s – exists and can enforce its rule over the working class. The diversity of forms of capitalist state is even greater than Purdy supposes.

It is true that the Maoists, following Mao’s dictum that “The Soviet Union today is under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, a dictatorship of the German fascist type, a dictatorship of the Hitler type[23], have argued that “a bureaucratic monopoly capitalist class, namely a new type of bourgeoisie[24] rules the USSR. This “state bourgeoisie” thesis, elaborated by Bettleheim and others, is an unnecessary complication of dubious scientific value. The bureaucracy differs in significant respects from a normal bourgeoisie:

But it is incomparably more realistic, more scientific, than Purdy’s wretched moralising. (“Those who occupy the leading positions in the Soviet party and state apparatus do not constituted distinct class at all ... Their role is to administer on behalf of the Soviet people the economy ...” p.36) At least the Maoist analysis focuses attention on the key aspects of the role of the upper ranks of the bureaucracy – privileged social position, monopoly of political power and function as the directors of capital accumulation, as “the personification of capital”.

According to Purdy the Russian bureaucrats cannot be a ruling class because they lack legal title to the means of production. He quotes Isaac Deutscher: “The bureaucracy ‘cannot save, invest and accumulate wealth in the durable and expansive form of industrial stock or large financial assets. They cannot bequeath wealth to their descendants; they cannot, that is, perpetuate themselves as a class’.” (p35)

Actually there is a lot of evidence that Russian bureaucrats can and do pass on a lot of their wealth and power to their children [25], but let us assume for the moment that this is not so. Would this prove that the bureaucracy was not a ruling class? Consider an analogous example: in feudal times huge tracts of landed property were owned by the Church.

The relationship of the serfs on the Church’s land to the Church authorities was exactly the same as that of neighbouring serfs to their feudal baron. But the bishops and the cardinals could not (legally) bequeath their wealth to relatives or otherwise dispose of it. Their ownership of it was collective. Yet their rights to control the land and serfs, and their decisions about how and where to consume the surplus produced, existed in precisely the same way as for the feudal baron.

If Purdy were right then class divisions would exist on the feudal land belonging to the baron but not on feudal land belonging to the Church. A revolt by the serfs on the lord’s estates would be a revolt against a ruling class, but as soon as it spread to the serfs on the Church-owned lands it would cease to be a class revolt!

Come to that, if we were to take Purdy seriously on this point we would have to conclude that the workers in the Fiat built plant at Volgagrad are exploited by a capitalist (Fiat. which receives part of the profits by agreement with the Soviet government) whereas the workers at the plant next door, getting the same pay and conditions, are not exploited because, their management owns no “industrial stock”. It just happens to control the disposal of the surplus and to enjoy vastly better pay and living conditions than the workers: a reward, no doubt, for directing the enterprise “on behalf of the Soviet people”! [26]

Purdy tells us that “the clasxc nature of the Soviet State cannot for marxists be established by listing the bureaucracies’ perks and privileges”( p34). We agree. It is necessary to know: who rules? who controls the means of production? who controls the disposal and allocation of the surplus product? The answer to each of these questions is – the bureaucracy. Isn’t that so comrade Purdy? Isn’t it true that the bureaucracy has a monopoly of decision making, of power therefore? And are these not the attributes of a ruling class?

Naturally, the fact that the bureaucracy is a ruling class does not, in itself, prove that the mode of production in the USSR is capitalist. That is proved by the social relations of production to which we will shortly turn. But first we must look briefly at the sole argument in Purdy’s armoury which is not borrowed from Trotsky.

Thus despite all the crimes and deformations of the Stalin period which have undoubtedly left their imprint on the features of contemporary Soviet society, there is a fundamental continuity between the achievements and conquests which issued from the October Revolution and the social role of the USSR’s present leaders. One expression of this continuity lies in the fact that the Soviet party leadership describe themselves as the legitimate descendants of the Bolshevik Party of 1917. (p.37)

This is an argument which Purdy evidently considers very weighty, since he develops it over two pages. Brezhnev claims to be Lenin’s legitimate heir, therefore he is! An astonishing deduction. But there is more: “to regard the official embrace which the Soviet Union extends to Marxism-Leninism as nothing more than a gigantic hoax is not just totally implausible; it is a flagrant abuse of the very concept of ideology.” (p.39)

Indeed. Tell us comrade Purdy, haven’t you heard of Christianity? Don’t you know that it developed as the religion bf the urban poor in the great cities of the Roman slave empire? Don’t you know that it was saturated with hatred of the rich and total rejection of “the powers and principalities of this world”? And is it possible that you are unaware of “the embrace” which the slave empire eventually “extended” to Christianity, turning it into an instrument of slave-owners and despots?

At any rate, Purdy can hardly fail to know that Christianity survived the collapse of the slave empire and became in time the official and only tolerated ideology of the rulers of feudal Europe, with a quite different mode of production, and that it even managed to survive the passing of feudalism and become, in some of its forms, a major capitalist ideology.

But the content of Christianity was transformed many times to suit the requirements of different classes? Of course. And the dissenters who resisted the changes in the name of old belief or new revelation were most murderously persecuted.

The forms of belief survived (with some modification) repeated changes of substance. And why did the chiefs of the barbarian conquerors of the Roman Empire accept Christianity? Because it was useful to them, because it gave “legitimacy” to their rule. Their “sincerity” or otherwise (a matter that concerns Purdy greatly with respect to the rulers of the USSR) is neither here nor there.

So it is with “Marxism-Leninism” in the USSR. It is an ossified dogma, a substitute religion, a state church (complete with persecution of “heretics”), which gives “legitimacy” to the rule of a substitute bourgeoisie – the bureaucracy. The forms remain (with some modification). The content has been completely transformed.

A final word on this matter. The “USSR’s present leaders” claim to be Lenin’s legitimate heirs. But didn’t Stalin make the same claim? Wasn’t the slogan “Stalin is the Lenin of today” once proclaimed in the Soviet press, in season and out of season? Doesn’t Mao Tse-Tung, who says the USSR is a fascist state, also lay claim to the mantle of Marx and Lenin? Does Purdy accept these claims simply because they are made? That would be too childish. Then why on earth is it “a caricature of the marxist theory of ideology to regard the homage paid by the leaders of the CPSU ... to marxism ... [as] cynically designed to perpetuate their rule” (p.37)?




4. And probably was. The bibliography lists The Revolution Betrayed and In Defence of Marxism as well as Deutscher’s Stalin and his three volumes on Trotsky. It is unfortunate that Purdy’s co-thinkers in the USSR and the other “socialist states” will not be able to study any of these sources-they are all rigorously proscribed.

5. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, Foreign Language Publishing House, Moscow 1959, p.35. Marx’s emphasis. When the French Communist Party, at its twenty-first congress (December 1975), deleted the reference to the dictatorship of the proletariat from its programme the British party was able to claim, with perfect truth, that already in 1951 (the year of the first publication of the British Road to Socialism) it had buried this inconvenient concept.

6. Engels, Letter to Bebel, March 18-28 1875, in Marx-Engels, Selected Correspondence, Progress Publishers. Moscow 1955, p.294. Engel’s emphasis.

6a. We must explain our use of terms here. Marx used the term “first” or “lower phase of communist society” to signify the economy of a workers state, where certain capitalist features persist, and the term “higher phase of communist society” to signify the classless, stateless society that succeeds it.

Lenin commonly used the words “socialism” for the “lower phase” and “communism” for the “higher”. This usage became part of the official ideology in the USSR.

We use “socialism” or the “socialist [A] mode of production” as equivalent, to communism. The nature of the mode of production in a workers state is discussed on page 24 [in the section Bureaucratic state capitalismMIA].

7. Engels, Introduction to Marx: The Civil War in France, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1968, p.18.

Trotsky, with characteristic honesty, met the difficulty of bracketing the Commune and Stalin’s Russia together as workers’ states by denying that the Commune [was a workers’ state. “If Marx and Engels called the Paris Commune] [B] ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ it was only because of the force of the possibilities lodged in it. But by itself the Commune was not yet the dictatorship of the proletariat.” The essential point, for Trotsky, was that the Commune “did not and indeed could not put through the overturn in property relations because it did not wield power on a national scale.” (The Class Nature of the Soviet State in Writings 1933-34, Pathfinder Press, New York 1972. p.106. Trotsky’s emphasis.)

8. Lenin, The Trade Unions, the Present Situation and Trotsky’s Mistakes, in Collected Works, Volume 32, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1964, p.24. Lenin’s emphasis.

9. Lenin, The Party Crisis, in Collected Works, Volume 32, p.48.

10. A very good short account of the rise of Stalinism is given in Russia: How the Revolution Was Lost by Chris Harman, International Socialists 1974, 15p. See also Communism and Stalinism in International Socialism 87.

11. The Revolution Betrayed (completed August 1936, published the following year). This is to exclude the posthumous and incomplete Stalin which, because of the unsatisfactory nature of the editing, cannot be accepted as a wholly accurate representation of Trotsky’s views.

12. Trotsky. The Revolution Betrayed, New Park Publications, London 1967, p.62.

13. Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, in The Founding Conference of the Fourth International, Socialist Workers’ Party, New York 1939, p49. Our emphasis.

14. Trotsky, Problems of the Development of the USSR, in Writings 1930-31, Pathfinder Press, New York 1973, p.225. Trotsky’s emphasis.

15. “The Thermidor of the Great Russian Revolution is not before us but already far behind. The Thermidoreans can celebrate, approximately, the tenth anniversary of their victory.” (Trotsky. The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism, written in February 1935 in Writings 1934-35, p.182)

On the 9 Thermidor (27 July) 1794 the Jacobin dictatorship was overthrown by the Convention and replaced by a rightist regime (the Directory from 1795) which presided over a political and social reaction in France. Thermidor marked the end of the Great French Revolution.

The “Thermidor Controversy” amongst left-wing oppositionists in the CPSU in the middle 1920s was about whether or not the analogous development had already occurred in the USSR (as the “Democratic Centralists”, V.M. Smirnov, Sapronov and others argued) or whether it was a danger for the future (as the Left Opposition argued).

Trotsky, in the article cited above, summarised Smirnov’s position as follows:

... the lag in industrialisation, the growth of the kulak and of 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. (op. cit., p167)

Both sides originally took the Thermidor to mean a counter-revolution. However, as Trotsky pointed out when he changed his position, the French original was a reaction on the basis of the bourgeois revolution, not a return to the ancien regime. This historically incontestable correction, and Trotsky’s backdating of the Soviet Thermidor to the middle twenties, took place after Trotsky had fundamentally changed his definition of a workers’ state.

Trotsky also concluded that the Thermidorean regime in the USSR had already had its 18 Brumaire (on 18 Brumaire-10 November 1799, Bonaparte overthrew the Directory and established his personal dictatorship). Stalin has attained the complete concentration of power in his own hands. What else should this regime be called if not Soviet Bonapartism?” (op. cit., p.181)

In our opinion these analogies, over which so much ink has been spilled, are fundamentally misleading because they do not take account of the basic and essential difference between a working class – which can only exercise power through its organisations – and a bourgeoisie which can – and usually does – exercise power indirectly through control of the means of production.

16. Trotsky, Problems of the Development of the USSR, in Writings 1930-31, p.230. The bureaucracy is called centrist because Trotsky had not yet, in 1931. abandoned the view that it was a tendency in the workers’ movement, not a “Thermidorean oligarchy”.

17. Trotsky, The Class Nature of the Soviet State, in Writings 1933-34, pp.117-8. Trotsky’s emphasis. The article also, however, contains the statement: “Today the rupture of the bureaucratic equilibrium in the USSR would almost surely serve in favour of the counter-revolutionary forces” (p.121). But this equivocal position soon gave way to a revolutionary orientation towards the régime in the USSR.

18. Purdy naturally only borrows those aspects of Trotsky’s analysis which suit his purpose. Trotsky also believed that the bureaucracy was “restorationist”, that it would bring about the reintroduction of “private” (i.e. monopoly) capitalism unless it was overthrown:

The USSR thus embodies terrific contradictions. But it still remains a degenerated workers’ state. The political prognosis has an alternative character: either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers’ state, 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. (Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, pp.46-7. Trotsky’s emphasis.)

And in his last polemic on the subject he wrote, in September 1939: “In the USSR the overthrow of the bureaucracy is indispensable for the preservation of state property.” (The USSR in War, in In Defence of Marxism, New Park Publications 1966, p.19.)

One of the present writers remembers the great interest in Trotskyist circles in Britain caused by the large scale issue of interest bearing bonds by the government of the USSR and the emergence of “Soviet Millionaires” in the early forties. Here was proof, it was thought, that the “new forms of property” were being undermined by the bureaucracy.

The illusion was soon dissipated and, with the emergence of a whole series of new Stalinist states, Trotsky’s epigones tacitly relegated the “restorationist” tendencies of the bureaucracy to the background or forgot about them altogether.

An amusing, if extreme, example is this gem from a Workers’ Press editorial (28.2.72):

Here is one of the main reasons for all the Tory enthusiasm over IS. For the foundation principles of Trotskyism are based on the inability of the Stalinist bureaucracy to destroy the nationalised property relations established by the October Revolution in the USSR in 1917. [!!]

19. Lenin, The State and Revolution, in Collected Works, Volume 25, p.387. Lenin’s emphasis.

20. To anticipate an objection; it is true that workers’ states (i.e., societies transitional to socialism) require the means to defend themselves from external and internal attack. That in no way explains the existence of the massive and elaborate military and police hierarchy of the USSR.

Like all great revolutionary thinkers, Engels tries to draw the attention of the class-conscious workers to what prevailing philistinism regards as the least worthy of attention, as the most habitual thing, hallowed by prejudices that are not only deep rooted but, one might say, petrified. A standing army and police are the chief instruments of state power. But how could it be otherwise? From the standpoint of the vast majority of Europeans of the end of the nineteenth century whom Engels was addressing, and who had not gone through or closely observed a single great revolution, it could not have been otherwise. They could not understand at all what a “self-acting armed organisation of the population” was. (Lenin, op. cit., p.389)

21. The British Road to Socialism, Communist Party, London 1968, p.17.

22. Lenin, ibid., pp.463-4. Lenin’s emphasis.

23. Mao Tse-tung, Editorial in Peking People’s Daily, 11.5.67. Quoted from Nigel Harris, Mao and Marx, in International Socialism 89, p.17.

24. Mao, op. cit., p.17.

25. E.g., “It was revealed that in 1968 Tokhadze (Minister of Trade of the Georgian SSR – PB, DH) received a large apartment allocated from the space of five apartments, in addition to his two storey summer cottage. It seems that Tdkhadze also assisted his son in providing false documents on the size of his family and making a down payment of 12,400 roubles to secure possession of a four-room family apartment in a housing cooperative; his son’s monthly salary was 105 roubles, hardly sufficient to provide the down payment.” (David Law, Corruption in Georgia, in Critique 3, p.100.) The average monthly wage – with workers and bureaucrats lumped together to conceal the enormous inequality – was 135 roubles in 1973. (Critique 4, p.19)

26. “On the basis of a Soviet source which lists wage rates (not actual earnings) we see that a top director could receive as much as thirteen times the wage of the lowest grade of worker” (Kostin, 1960, pp.17-19) ... In addition there are other non-monetary benefits such as cars, houses, holiday facilities and special shops; and taking such items into consideration, it has been asserted that the ratio between the income of a factory manager and a manual worker ranges from 25-30:! (Bottomore, 1965, p.47).”(Quoted from Lane, The End of Inequality?, Penguin 1971, pp.73-4)

Taking the lower ratio (25:1), and an average wage of about £60 a week in Britain, a British manager would be getting the equivalent of £1,500 a week or over £75,000 a year on this basis. However this grossly underestimates the degree of real inequality in the USSR because of the very low rates of income tax.

“The income tax rates are small compared with other countries, and not very steeply graduated; varying from 1½ per cent at the lower end of the scale up to 13 per cent on incomes above 1,000 (roubles per month – PB, DH).” (Dobb, Soviet Economic Development Since 1917, Sixth (revised) Edition, Routledge 1966, p.420.)

The rates have been adjusted since then as money wages have risen in the last decade, but the “bite” of income tax on high incomes remains trivial by British standards.

Factory managers are not, of course, at the top of the bureaucratic hierarchy. Lane (Politics and Society in the USSR, Weidenfeld 1970) quotes figures for 1960 indicating that a top government minister got more than twice the pay of the highest grade of factory manager (pp.399-400).

Finally, it is not true either that the bureaucracy cannot acquire “financial assets” or bequeath them. Anyone who can afford it can buy state bonds which bear interest and which can be inherited by heirs on payment of a modest inheritance tax.


Annotations by MIA

A. In the original text this read “capitalist”, but it is obvious from the context that this is a typographical error.

B. This note had to be reconstructed due to a typographical error that transposed a line on top of the part in square brackets.


Last updated on 6.10.2003