Max Shachtman


Introduction to Trotsky
on the Workers’ State

(April 1943)

From The New International, Vol. IX No. 4 (Whole No. 74), April 1943, pp. 121–124; signed S.
Transcribed & Marked up by Damon Maxwell for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Trotsky’s letter to Borodai, which we publish here for the first time in English, is of special interest and importance. The document is undated, but it was evidently written during Trotsky’s exile in Alma-Ata, toward the end of 1928, shortly before the author was banished from the Soviet Union to Turkey by the Stalinist regime. The importance of the letter lies in the fact that it is the first document known to us in which Trotsky debates with a Bolshevik anti-Stalinist the question of the class character of the Soviet state: Is it still or is it no longer a workers’ state?

Borodai, whose subsequent fate is unknown to us, was a militant of the Democratic-Centralist group, or “Group of the Fifteen,” as it was sometimes known, who was expelled from the Communist Party by the bureaucracy in 1927 along with all his fellow-thinkers, and sent into exile. The Democratic-Centralist group was founded as far back as 1920 by a number of left-wing communists in the Russian party, who sought to break through the rigid walls of the War-Communism regime and restore a democratic system in the party. The conditions of civil war were not conducive to their victory, and the one-sided emphasis they placed upon the democratic principle earned them the opposition of the most authoritative Bolshevik leaders, Lenin and Trotsky included.

In 1923, when Trotsky and his comrades launched the post-civil war struggle against a meanwhile swollen bureaucracy and for party democracy, they were joined by many of the original Democratic-Centralists, among them their outstanding leader, Timofey V. Sapronov, proletarian, trade union leader, and old, pre-war Bolshevik of high standing. It was Sapronov who took the initiative in bringing together and presiding over the first joint meeting of the representatives of the Trotskyist (or Moscow, or 1923) Opposition and the Zinovievist (or Leningrad, or 1925) Opposition. This meeting and the ones that followed led to the formation of the famous United Opposition Bloc, composed of the Trotskyists, the Zinovievists, the remnants of the old Workers’ Opposition (led by Shlyapnikov and Medvedyev) and of the Democratic-Centralists (Sapronov and Vladimir M. Smirnov).

Shlyapnikov and other Workers’ Opposition leaders soon capitulated to Stalin, as did virtually all the leaders of the Zinovievist Opposition in 1927–28. Most of the Democratic-Centralists, and outstandingly their leaders Sapronov and Smirnov, remained, in exile, incorruptible adversaries of the bureaucratic counter-revolution. There is no reason to believe that any of these militant revolutionists is still alive; they were murdered, gradually or outright, by the GPU.

In 1926, the former Democratic-Centralists broke away from the United Opposition Bloc because of the famous declaration in the middle of that year in which the Opposition pledged itself to refrain from factional activities – provided, of course, that a more or less normal internal regime was established in the party. The insurgents elaborated a platform of their own and set up a completely independent group. It became known as the “Group of Fifteen,” from the number of signatories to the platform. They were: T.V. Sapronov, V.M. Smirnov, N. Savaryan, V. Emelyanov (Kalin), M.N. Mino, M.I. Minkov, T. Kharechko, V.P. Oborin, I.K. Dashkovsky, S. Schreiber; M. Smirnov, F.I. Pilipenko, F. Duney, A.L. Slidovker, L. Tikhonov.

How Trotsky Formerly Answered the Question

At the Fifteenth Party Congress in November–December, 1927, adherence to the views of the Democratic-Centralists was declared incompatible with membership in the Russian party, as was adherence to the views of the Trotskyist Opposition. All supporters of both groups were expelled and the most prominent leaders and militants first sent into exile and, years later, shot. In exile, a rapprochement between the two groups proved unrealizable and, except for individual shifts from one group to the other, they remained as far apart as they had ever been.

What was the evolution of the political ideas of Sapronov and Smirnov, there is now no way of judging, and there probably never will be until the day the Russian proletariat makes public the confiscated documents in the secret archives of the Stalinist police. But what the ideas of the Democratic-Centralists were in the days of the following letter by Trotsky, that is, around the year 1928, is implicit in the questions put by Borodai. In a word, they were: The proletariat has already lost power; the triumph of Stalin over the Opposition marks the triumph of the Thermidor, that is, the counter-revolution; the working class does not rule in Russia and Russia is no longer a workers’ state; it is necessary to prepare a new revolution to restore the proletariat to state power.

These contents Trotsky denied, as is clear from his reply to Borodai. It is the arguments he employed in refuting Borodai’s views that are interesting and important, both for a knowledge of the situation in the Opposition in those days and, much more to the point, for a Marxian evaluation of the present situation in, and the class character of, the Russian state.

In the discussion and polemics over the class character of the Soviet or Russian state, Trotsky, years later, found himself obliged to alter his criterion radically from what it had previously been, not only for him but without exception for the entire revolutionary Marxian movement. “Found himself obliged,” we say, because of his insistence on maintaining his characterization of Russia as a workers’ state long after the objective basis for it had been destroyed by the Stalinist counter-revolution. Trotsky, in later years, argued that Russia is a workers’ state because the ownership of the principal means of production is vested in the state, that is, because property is nationalized.

The radical alteration of the criterion lay in converting nationalized property from a necessary characteristic of a workers’ state into an adequate characteristic. In other words, Trotsky began to argue that no matter how degenerated and anti-proletarian, and even counter-revolutionary the political regime in the country, Russia nevertheless remained a (degenerated or “counter-revolutionary”) workers’ state so long as property (the means of production and exchange) remained nationalized or state property.

It should be borne in mind that Trotsky did not hold that the existence of nationalized property was in itself adequate for a consistent development toward socialism. That required, he rightly emphasized, a socialist proletariat in political power and the victorious revolution in the advanced countries of the West. And, he added, given the absence of the political power of the workers and the revolution in the West, the workers’ state would continue to degenerate and eventually collapse entirely. But so long as nationalized property remained more or less intact, Russia still remained a workers’ state.

To repeat: for Trotsky, nationalized property was transformed from a necessary characteristic into the adequate characteristic, and the decisive one, at that.

This theory not only cannot withstand a fundamental Marxist criticism, but conflicts with the theory, with the criterion, originally and for a long time put forward and defended by Trotsky himself. The letter to Borodai is one of the many available evidences of this fact.

The State, Property and Class Rule

In his letter, aimed at refuting the thesis that Russia is no longer a workers’ state, Trotsky does not once so much as mention the existence of nationalized property! He employs a different criterion, entirely correct and fully decisive, namely, does the working class still have political power, in one sense or another, even if only in the sense that it is still capable of bringing a straying and dangerous bureaucracy under its control by means of reform measures?

Why is this criterion correct and decisive? Because without political rule, the proletariat simply does not rule at all, and whatever you call the state or government under which it lives and works, it is not a workers’ state. This is an iron law that derives from the fundamentally different nature of the class rule of the proletariat as contrasted with the class rule of any private-property-owning class. For example: Under a Bonapartist regime, be it of the early (Napoleon I or III) or the modern (Brüning or outright fascist) variety, the class rule of the bourgeoisie is maintained and fortified by virtue of two interrelated reasons:

The proletariat, however, is not, never was and never will be a private-property-owning class. It comes to power, and lays the basis tor an evolution to socialism, by nationalizing property and vesting its ownership in the hands of the state, making it state property as a preliminary to transforming it into social property. The state is not a class, but the complex of institutions of coercion (army, police, prisons, officials, etc.). Once the means of production and exchange have been made state property, the question, “Who is the ruling class” is resolved simply by answering the question: “In whose hands is the state?” It cannot be resolved by answering the question: “In whose hands is the property?” because no class then owns the property, at least not in the sense in which all preceding classes have owned property. To put it differently, the question must be posed in this way (because no other way makes sense): “In whose hands is the state which owns property?” Still more simply and directly: “Who rules politically?”

That is why a Marxist may argue, on the basis of empirical evidence, that Trotsky was right, or was wrong, in saying to Borodai that the workers in Russia (in 1928) still ruled politically, or could “regain full power, renovate the bureaucracy and put it under its control by the road of reform of the party and the Soviets.” But he must acknowledge that Trotsky’s criterion, his methodological approach to the question of the class character of the Russian state, was incontestable. All that is necessary and correct is stated by Trotsky when he writes to Borodai:

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.

Trotsky did not mean by this last a “political” revolution, as he said years later. He simply and rightly meant a social revolution. That is, the test of whether Russia was still a workers’ state could be made by asking if the proletariat could still reform the political regime. If not, Russia is no longer a workers’ state; a new party is needed, and a new social revolution to overthrow the ruling class and put the workers into power again. The idea is unambiguously stated.

Where Was Nationalized Property?

And nationalized property? It is, we repeat, not even referred to. Why not? Because, obviously, it is assumed as a necessary feature of a workers’ state, its indispensable economic foundation, but not by itself adequate or decisive for a workers’ state. That is right, and nothing Trotsky wrote years afterward can effectively refute his original and unassailable standpoint.

The formulation of the question in the letter to Borodai is not accidental. It is to be found in any number of Trotsky’s writings of that period and prior to the self-revision of his view. In his letter to the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, on July 12, 1928, he wrote:

... the socialist character of industry is determined and secured in a decisive measure by the role of the party, the voluntary internal cohesion of the proletarian vanguard, and conscious discipline of the administrators, trade union functionaries, members of the shop nuclei, etc. If we allow that this web is weakening, disintegrating and ripping, then it becomes absolutely self-evident that within a brief period nothing will remain of the socialist character of state industry, transport, etc. (Third International After Lenin, p. 300.)

That is, the class character of the political power is not determined by industry (nationalized property), as he later contended, but conversely, “the socialist character of industry is determined and secured in a decisive measure” by the party, that is, in Russia, by the political power. From which it follows that if that political power has been utterly destroyed, as Trotsky later acknowledged and insisted on, the class character of “industry” (nationalized property, again) has been fundamentally altered.

Again, in his theses on Russia, on April 4, 1931, he returned to the same question, and from fundamentally the same standpoint:

If we proceed from the incontestable fact that the CPSU has ceased to be a party, are we not thereby forced to the conclusion that there is no dictatorship of the proletariat in the USSR, since this is inconceivable without a ruling proletarian party? (Problems of the Development of the USSR, p. 34. My emphasis. – S.)

“This is inconceivable!” Why, then, is it a workers’ state notwithstanding? Because, wrote Trotsky, there still remain powerful and firmly-rooted elements of the party, traditions of the October, etc., and by virtue of these the bureaucracy can be submitted to the proletariat and its revolutionary vanguard by means of reform.

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 uprising 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. (Ibid., p. 36.)

It follows unambiguously and inexorably that to recognize – as the further degeneration of the Russian Revolution compelled us all, Trotsky included, to recognize – that the bureaucracy cannot be submitted to the proletariat, that the so-called Communist Party cannot be revived, that the regime cannot be reformed, that a new revolution must be organized – is to recognize that Russia is no longer a workers’ state.

That Russia did not degenerate into a capitalist state; why it did not go the road of capitalist counter-revolution, as Trotsky predicted; and, in general, a fundamental treatment of the class character of the present Russian state – these are the subject of studies made by us in previous issues of The New International, where our theory of the bureaucratic-collectivist state in Russia is set forth (December 1940, June 1941, July and August 1941, September 1941, October 1941, September 1942, November 1942). It is not necessary to deal with it in this introduction. It is not necessary, either, to dwell further on Trotsky’s letter to Borodai, except to call the reader’s attention to his remarks on the “duality of power” in Russia, concerning which Trotsky also drew erroneous conclusions, based on a faulty analysis, to which we will some day return.

Cannonite Tautology

What is worth noting, however, is that the Cannonites, who insisted three and a half year ago on discussing the “class character of the state” and nothing else, have maintained a most prudent silence since the day we began to develop our criticism of Trotsky’s fundamental position and to present our own analysis. They confine themselves to muttering simple and undigested ritualistic phrases, which have no meaning to them, which they cannot explain coherently and which they justify by one final and unanswerable appeal: “Well, Trotsky said so.” Fortunately, Trotsky also said that it is necessary for a Marxist to “learn to think.”

To the question, “Why is it a workers’ state?” they answer, “Because the state owns the property.” To the question, “But what is the class character of this state that owns the property?” they answer, “A workers’ state”! In this hopelessly vicious circle, the workers are reduced from a living, propertyless, stateless, oppressed and exploited class to a ... decorative adjective.

To the question, “What are the property relations at the basis of present Russian society?” they answer, “Nationalized Property” That is like asking the question, “What are the marital relations under feudalism?” and being given the answer, “Male and female.” That is, the answer says nothing. The whole question lies in this: “Just what are the relations of the classes or, if you wish, the social groups to the property? Just what are the production relations? Just what are the social relations?” But the answer, given with an increasingly mysterious look, remains, “Nationalized property.”

“The Stalinist Bonapartist regime preserves the nationalized property in its own way,” it is said. Correct! But why does that fact testify to the existence in Russia of a workers’ state? The bourgeois Bonapartist or fascist state preserves private property not primarily for the bureaucracy (although for it, too), but above all for the very tangible benefit of the ruling class, the bourgeoisie, whose economic and social position it protects, consolidates, expands. Does the Bonapartist regime of Stalin preserve nationalized property for the tangible benefit of the working class? If so, what benefit? Does it protect, consolidate, expand the economic and social (to say nothing of the political) position of the proletariat? If so, what sign (not signs, just one sign) is there of it? The present bourgeois Bonapartist state reduces the proletariat to slavery and enormously increases the wealth and power of the capitalists. Which class does the Stalinist Bonapartist regime reduce to slavery, and which class does it accord vast increases of wealth, social “position and power, while it is at work preserving nationalized property “in its own way”?

It would be interesting to hear something in detail on these matters from the Cannonites – not apart from abuse (that is Utopian) but, let us say, in addition to it. Our interest, we fear, is doomed to remain unsatisfied. To all that was said, Poe’s raven intransigently answered with two words, “Never more!” To all we have said in the past two years about Russia, the Cannonite raven has answered, when he did answer, with two words, “Nationalized property”! It is doubtful if he will some day become more articulate or logical.

[Letter to Borodai]
by Leon Trotsky

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