Max Shachtman


The Struggle for the New Course


The Character of the Russian State

But what about the socialist successes in economic life? The whole secret lies in the fact that while there have been successes, even extraordinary successes (Russia’s remarkable endurance in the war only emphasizes what we should have realized before war broke out), there is nothing socialistic about them. The Marxist, the socialist, has a very simple but altogether decisive measuring rod in the field of economic progress: Where such progress is accompanied by an improvement of the economic position of the workers, by a strengthening of their social position, by an extension of their political power (i.e., of their political freedom, of democracy), by a reduction of economic and social inequality, by a decline in the necessity and therefore the power of state coercion – the progress marks a socialist success.

The struggle for socialism is not a struggle for bigger and more efficient factories, but for the organization of production and distribution in such a manner as to contribute increasingly to the welfare, culture and liberty of the masses of producers. It is for them, the reader should please note, that the struggle for socialism is conducted. Economic progress made at their expense and for the social benefit of any other class, or any other “caste,” may be called what you wish except a socialist success.

The socialist criterion, we repeat, is clear and simple. It was set forth, so far as Russia is concerned, as early as 1923 in The New Course and earlier. It was repeated in the historic Platform of the Bolshevik-Leninist Opposition. It was stated all over again by Trotsky in November, 1928, when he pointed out that the “criterion of socialist upswing is constant improvement of labor standards”; or even more “vulgarly,” that wages “must become the main criterion for measuring the success of socialist evolution.”

If this is so, and it most decidedly is, then it is impossible for a Marxist to speak of Russia’s incontestable economic advances as “socialist successes.” The real wages, the standard of living – is it necessary to speak of the political rights? – of the Russian working class have steadily declined under the absolutist rule of the bureaucracy. In exchange, however, the economic standards and political power of the bureaucracy have increased tremendously. The gap between the rulers and ruled is wider in Russia, economically and politically, than in any capitalist country of importance.

“The authentic rise of a socialist economy in Russia will become possible only after the victory of the proletariat in the most important countries of Europe,” Trotsky wrote in 1922. The theoretician of “socialism in a single country” denounced him for this statement in every language (after 1924!), but events down to the present day have proved its validity to the very hilt. The failure of the revolution in the West made an “authentic rise of a socialist economy” impossible. The Russian proletariat was incapable of solving its fundamental problems by its own efforts. The “gloomy” predictions of Lenin and Trotsky, the internationalists, were confirmed, but as has been said and as can be seen, in a unique and unforeseeable way.

The economic successes? They are, we repeat, incontestable. But they are not socialist. Are they capitalistic? Unless that term is to be employed in a sense so broad as to make the bones of Marx shudder, in a sense that would be incomprehensible and even ludicrous to every known capitalist class, the answer to this question must be a categorical No. We know of the Workers’ Truth group in 1923 which proclaimed that Russia was already a capitalist state, that the state was the “collective capitalist” engaged in exploiting the proletariat. The same theory was developed in 1930 by the theoretician of the Second International, Karl Kautsky, with his customary ponderosity, accompanied by a badly-read, badly-digested and totally-misunderstood quotation from Frederick Engels which has since become the standard “proof” of the school of thought which holds Russia to be capitalist. Meanwhile, no bourgeoisie shares this view or shows the slightest inclination to introduce the present social system of Russia into its midst or allow it to be introduced.

The past fifteen years of economic progress and political transformation in Russia are the years of the rise and consolidation of a new type of slave-state, with a new type of ruling class. All modern nations experience the need of an economic organization and strength that will enable them to survive. In a predominantly capitalist world, some of these nations are foredoomed because of their smallness, or their lack of natural resources and modern machinery of their own, or their colonial status. Their independence from one or another of the big imperialist powers is a myth. Only the world socialist revolution can restore or give them genuine national freedom and the possibility of cultural development.

The Bolshevik Revolution tore Russia out of the grip of Russian capitalism. Russia was a country blessed with a tremendous population and immense natural resources. But prior to the revolution, the Russian capitalist class was not able to develop the productive forces of the country, not even with the aid and under the patronage (to a certain extent, under the control) of foreign capital, British, French and German. This inability did not lie in the “essential nature” of the capitalist class. In other countries, above all in England, the United States and Germany, the capitalist class played a prodigious, and historically progressive, part in the development of the productive forces. Marx and Engels were not the last to acknowledge and analyze this fact. The inability lay in the peculiar circumstances of the development of the Russian state, in which the bourgeois-democratic revolution was long delayed (almost a century and a half after it took place in France and the United States!) and the native capitalist class developed more as an abortion than as a viable social force.

Long before the Bolshevik Revolution, Trotsky ridiculed those mummified intellects who insisted that Marxism demanded of Russian evolution a more or less rigid copy of the evolution of the capitalist countries of the West: first, a bourgeois-democratic revolution against feudalism led by the bourgeoisie; second, a prolonged development of the productive forces by the “historically progressive” bourgeoisie in conditions of parliamentary democracy; third, the gradual training up of a working class, organized by the productive process, and educated to self-rule by reformist, oppositional participation in parliamentary institutions; finally, like their advanced brothers in England and Germany, the fairly painless and gradual introduction of socialism – not by themselves, to be sure, but by their great-grandchildren.

As is known, nothing of the sort “evolved.” The proletariat led the bourgeois revolution, but according to the formula of the permanent revolution. That is, it proceeded to the socialist revolution and to the first steps in the socialist reorganization of society when it took power, and, in passing, carried out the bourgeois-democratic revolution in the most radical possible manner. One of the profound causes for this astonishing “evolution” (not astonishing to Trotsky, who had foreseen and forecast it), was precisely the inability of the Russian bourgeoisie to develop the productive forces of the country on anything like a scale comparable to the developments of capitalism in the West. But neither was the proletariat of Russia alone capable of developing the productive forces! In the nature of things, it could not develop them on a capitalist basis – the proletariat in power cannot divide itself into an exploited working-class Jekyll and an exploiting capitalist Hyde. At the same time, it could not assure an “authentic rise of socialist economy” by its own national efforts – that was stated repeatedly by Lenin and Trotsky and confirmed by everything that happened. For such a rise, it required the fraternal aid of the workers in power in advanced countries, capable of assuring a fairly swift transition to socialism for this backward, agrarian land. But the workers did not take power in the West, and Russia remained isolated. All signs indicated, and they still do, that a restoration of capitalism in Russia would take place in the form of the reduction of the country to colonial appendages of the developed but decadent imperialist powers.

The workers’ bureaucracy (that is what it was to begin with) in Russia played a dual role in the situation that developed. On the one side, its reactionary, nationalist policies undermined the proletarian revolutions of the West (and of the Orient), and thereby contributed further to the weakening of the proletarian power in Russia in the face of its encircling and menacing imperialist enemies. The bureaucrats felt an instinctive fear and hatred of the world socialist revolution (what was instinctive to start with is now conscious and deliberate and physically organized), for such a revolution would put an end to the “need” for them and therefore to their special privileges.

On the other side, however, following the period of economic languor and the strengthening of capitalism that took place during the period of the real “Right-Center bloc,” the country revealed such weakness that its ability to resist a capitalist onslaught was questionable. The “Left” turn – that is, the turn toward massive industrialization and modernization of Russia, in town and country – was fundamentally a manifestation of the organic tendency of the bureaucracy to “extrude" a new organizer and ruler of the productive force, and therefore a new ruling class. But precisely because it was to be a new, that is, a different, organizer of production, the bureaucracy itself had to undergo a profound change.

We have already seen that as early as 1923 the Central Committee of the Russian party had to take special measures against those industrial directors who proceeded to develop production at the direct expense of the working class. It is an episode of the highest symptomatic importance, the first faint glow of the fires which were to consume the workers’ state. It was the first sign, we believe, of that organic tendency referred to above. The fact that the party bureaucracy took steps to restrain, if not to halt these “zealots,” is in our view an indication that it was still a workers’ bureaucracy defending the basic class interests of the proletariat, even if badly, even if as a function of the protection of its own privileges.

The period of “Right-Centrist downsliding,” as Trotsky called it, that is, the period between 1923 and 1928, comprised the years during which the increasingly conservative bureaucracy mobilized enemy forces, the bourgeois and petty bourgeois peasantry, to subdue the proletariat and its vanguard, the Left Opposition. But that period culminated in what was, at bottom, an attempted capitalist counter-revolution, the “bloodless kulak uprising,” generated involuntarily by the very bureaucracy against which it was directed. The attempt was abortive. But it brought home to the ruling faction the economic weakness of the country, its inability to resist alien class attacks. The increasingly ominous international situation only emphasized this. The “Left” course – not zigzag, but course – was the result.

The industrialization and collectivization of agriculture was begun by the bureaucracy as a measure of self-defense. But the task could not be carried out socialistically, that is, under democratic control of the masses, on the basis of a centralized plan arrived at by the decision of the masses and by virtue of that fact, yielding results to satisfy the needs of the masses. When Trotsky wrote, after the big Plan got under way and ran into its first difficulties, that “Soviet democracy has become an economic necessity,” he was stating an outstandingly important truth of socialist theory and practice. But Soviet democracy is an economic necessity for socialist planning. Planning for the economic and political needs of the bureaucracy did not need Soviet democracy; on the contrary, Soviet democracy was the main obstacle in the path of realizing of the Plan and of all its social implications. That is why the carrying out of the Stalinist Plan – it was and remains Stalinist; it was not “copied” from the Opposition – and the economic successes it yielded, went hand in hand with the systematic destruction of Soviet democracy, and therefore of the workers’ state.

The workers did not do the planning; they did not organize production; they did not manage production; the plan was not worked out with any consideration for the workers’ welfare or freedom. Just the opposite. That is why, as the Plan went ahead, the workers were turned into totally disfranchised state-slaves, the peasants ( in their mass) into equally disfranchised state-serfs, the Bolshevik Party wiped out root and branch, its traditions flouted and new ones invented in their place, the trade unions turned into a slave-driving apparatus, the Soviets gagged, gutted and finally read out of existence, the national republics deprived of their autonomy and all other rights.


Last updated on 9.4.2005