Leon Trotsky

The Workers’ State,
and Bonapartism

(February 1935)

Written: February 1, 1935.
First Published: July 1935 with the title: The Soviet Union Today.
Source: New International [New York], Vol. II No. 4, July 1935, ppp. 116–122.
Reprinted: International Socialist Review, Vol. 17 No. 3, Summer 1956, pp. 93–101, 105.
Transcribed/Edited/HTML Markup: Doug Fullarton in 1998; revised by David Walters, February 2005.
Public Domain: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive 2005. You can freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Marxists Internet Archive as your source, include the url to this work, and note the transcribers & proofreaders above.

Introduction by International Socialist Review

This article, first published in The New International in July 1935, is of exceptional interest today in the light of the end of the Stalin cult. Trotsky here concisely states his basic analysis of the Soviet Union and the Stalinist bureaucracy, utilizing as a historic analogy the period of Thermidorian and Bonapartist reaction in the Great French Revolution. The article constitutes the thesis that is elaborated in his well-known book The Revolution Betrayed. The reference to the appearance of terrorist activity among the Soviet youth is to the assassination of Kirov. Trotsky’s prediction that this would play into the hands of the worst reaction was fully confirmed in the Moscow Frame-up Trials which shortly followed, for Stalin blamed the, death of Kirov on the defendants in each of the trials. The death agony of the Stalinist bureaucracy has stretched out for a much longer period than Trotsky expected, largely due to the intervention of World War II. But the end of the Stalin cult is a signal that the Soviet workers are again in movement, pressing for an end to the dictatorship of the bureaucracy and a return to the democracy they knew under Lenin and Trotsky.

* * *

The foreign policies of the Stalinist bureaucracy – within both its channels: the primary one of diplomacy and the subsidiary channel of the Comintern – have taken a sharp turn toward the League of Nations, toward the preservation of the status quo and toward alliances with reformists and bourgeois democracy. At the same time, the domestic policies have turned toward the market and the “well-to-do collective farmer.” The latest drive against oppositionist and semioppositionist groups, as well as against isolated elements who are in the least critical, and the new mass purge of the party have as their object giving Stalin a free hand for the course to the right. Involved here is essentially the return to the old organic course (staking all on the kulak, alliance with the Kuomintang, the Anglo-Russian Committee, etc.) but on a much larger scale and under immeasurably more onerous conditions. Where does this course lead? The word “Thermidor” is heard again on many lips. Unfortunately, this word has become worn from use; it has lost its concrete content and is obviously inadequate for the task of characterizing either that stage through which the Stalinist bureaucracy is passing or the catastrophe that it is preparing. We must, first of all, establish our terminology.

The question of “Thermidor” is bound up closely with the history of the Left Opposition in the USSR. It would be no easy task today to establish who resorted first to the historical analogy of Thermidor. In any case, the positions on this issue in 1926 were approximately as follows: the group of “Democratic Centralism” (V.M. Smirnov, Sapronov and others who were hounded to death in exile by Stalin) declared, “Thermidor is an accomplished fact!” The adherents to the platform of the Left Opposition, the Bolshevik-Leninists, categorically denied this assertion. And it was over this issue that a split occurred. Who has proved to be correct? To answer this question, we must establish precisely what each group itself understood “Thermidor” to mean; historical analogies allow of various interpretations and may therefore be easily abused.

The late V.M. Smirnov – one of the finest representatives of the Old Bolshevik school – held that the lag in industrialization, 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. With the crushing of the Left Opposition, the bureaucracy began to express the interests of a regenerating bourgeois regime. The fundamental conquests of the October Revolution had been liquidated. Such was in its essentials the position of the group of “Democratic Centralists.”

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 counterrevolutionary 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 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 with the direct danger of a counterrevolutionary overturn, the basic core of the centrist bureaucracy would lean upon the workers for support against the growing rural bourgeoisie. The outcome of the conflict was still far from having been decided. The burial of the October Revolution was premature. The crushing of the Left Opposition facilitated the work of “Thermidor.” But “Thermidor” had not yet occurred.

We need only review accurately the gist of the controversies of 1926–27 for the correctness of the position of the Bolshevik-Leninists to emerge in all its obviousness, in the light of subsequent developments. As early as 1927, the kulaks struck a blow at the bureaucracy, by refusing to supply it with bread, which they had managed to concentrate in their hands. In 1928, an open split took place in the bureaucracy. The Right was for further concessions to the kulak. The centrists, arming themselves with the ideas of the Left Opposition whom they had smashed conjointly with the Rights, found their support among the workers, routed the Rights and took to the road of industrialization and, subsequently, collectivization. The basic social conquests of the October Revolution were saved in the end at the cost of countless unnecessary sacrifices.

The prognosis of the Bolshevik-Leninists (more correctly, the “optimum variant” of their prognosis) was confirmed completely. Today there can be no controversy on this point. Development of the productive forces proceeded not by way of restoration of private property but on the basis of socialization, by way of planned management. The world-historical significance of this fact can remain hidden only to the politically blind.

The Real Meaning of Thermidor

Nevertheless, today we can and must admit that the analogy of Thermidor served to becloud rather than to clarify the question. Thermidor in 1794 produced a shift of power from certain groups in the Convention to other groups, from one section of the victorious “people” to other strata. Was Thermidor counterrevolutionary? The answer to this question depends upon how wide a significance we attach, in a given case, to the concept of “counterrevolution.” The social overturn of 1789 to 1793 was bourgeois in character. In essence it reduced itself to the replacement of fixed feudal property by “free” bourgeois property. The counterrevolution “corresponding” to this revolution would have had to attain the reestablishment of feudal property. But Thermidor did not even make an attempt in this direction. Robespierre sought his support among the artisans, the Directory among the middle bourgeoisie. Bonaparte allied himself with the banks. All these shifts – which had, of course, not only a political but also a social significance – occurred, however, on the basis of the new bourgeois society and state.

Of the very same import was the Eighteenth Brumaire of Bonaparte, the next important stage on the road of reaction. In both instances, it was a question not of restoring either the old forms of property or the power of the former ruling estates but of dividing the gains of the new social regime among the different sections of the victorious “Third Estate.” The bourgeoisie appropriated more and more property and power (either directly and immediately or through special agents like Bonaparte) but made no attempt whatever against the social conquests of the revolution; on the contrary, it solicitously sought to strengthen, organize and stabilize them. Napoleon guarded bourgeois property, including that of the peasant, against both the “rabble” and the claims of the expropriated proprietors. Feudal Europe hated Napoleon as the living embodiment of the revolution, and it was correct according to its standards.

There is no doubt that the USSR today bears very little resemblance to that type of Soviet republic that Lenin depicted in 1917 (no permanent bureaucracy or permanent army, the right of recalling all elected officials at any time and the active control over them by the masses “regardless of who the individual may be,” etc.). The domination of the bureaucracy over the country, as well as Stalin’s domination over the bureaucracy, have well-nigh attained their absolute consummation. But what conclusions would follow from this? There are some who say that since the actual state that has emerged from the proletarian revolution does not correspond to ideal a priori norms, therefore they turn their backs on it. This is political snobbery, common to pacifist-democratic, libertarian, anarcho-syndicalist and, generally, ultraleft circles of petty-bourgeois intelligentsia. There are others who say that since this state has emerged from the proletarian revolution, therefore every criticism of it is sacrilege and counterrevolution. That is the voice of hypocrisy behind which lurk most often the immediate material interests of certain groups among this very same petty-bourgeois intelligentsia or among the workers’ bureaucracy. These two types – the political snob and the political hypocrite – are readily interchangeable, depending upon personal circumstances. Let us pass them both by.

A Marxist would say that the present-day USSR obviously does not approximate the a priori norms of a Soviet state; let us discover, however, what we failed to foresee when working out the programmatic norms; let us, furthermore, analyze what social factors have distorted the workers’ state; let us check once again if these distortions have extended to the economic foundations of the state, that is to say, if the basic social conquests of the proletarian revolution have been preserved; if these have been preserved, then let us find in what direction they are changing; and let us discover if there obtain in the USSR and on the world arena such factors as may facilitate and hasten the preponderance of progressive trends of development over those of reaction. Such an approach is complex. It brings with it no ready-made key for lazy minds, which the latter love so much. In return, however, it not only preserves one from the two plagues, snobbery and hypocrisy, but also presents the possibility of exerting an active influence upon the fate of the USSR.

When the group of “Democratic Centralism” declared in 1926 that the workers’ state was liquidated, it was obviously burying the revolution while it was still alive. In contradistinction to this, the Left Opposition worked out a program of reforms for the Soviet regime. The Stalinist bureaucracy smashed the Left Opposition in order to safeguard and entrench itself as a privileged caste. But in the struggle for its own positions, it found itself compelled to take from the program of the Left Opposition all those measures that alone made it possible to save the social basis of the Soviet state. That is a priceless political lesson! It shows how specific historical conditions, the backwardness of the peasantry, the weariness of the proletariat, the lack of decisive support from the West, prepare for a “second chapter” in the revolution, which is characterized by the suppression of the proletarian vanguard and the smashing of revolutionary internationalists by the conservative national bureaucracy. But this very same example shows how a correct political line enables a Marxist grouping to fructify developments even when the victors of the “second chapter” run roughshod over the revolutionists of the “first chapter.”

A superficial idealistic mode of thinking that operates with ready-made norms, mechanically fitting living processes of development to them, easily leads one from enthusiasm to prostration. Only dialectical materialism, which teaches us to view all existence in its process of development and in the conflict of internal forces, can impart the necessary stability to thought and action.

The Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Dictatorship of the Bureaucracy

In a number of previous writings, we established the fact that despite its economic successes, which were determined by the nationalization of the means of production, Soviet society completely preserves a contradictory transitional character, and, measured by the inequality of living conditions and the privileges of the bureaucracy, it still stands much closer to the regime of capitalism than to future communism.

At the same time, we established the fact that despite monstrous bureaucratic degeneration, the Soviet state still remains the historical instrument of the working class insofar as it assures the development of economy and culture on the basis of nationalized means of production and, by virtue of this, prepares the conditions for a genuine emancipation of the toilers through the liquidation of the bureaucracy and of social inequality.

Whoever has not seriously pondered and accepted these two fundamental propositions, whoever in general has not studied the literature of the Bolshevik-Leninists on the question of the USSR from 1923 on runs the risk of losing the leading thread with every new event and of forsaking Marxist analysis for abject lamentations.

Soviet (it would be more correct to say, anti-Soviet) bureaucratism is the product of social contradictions between the city and the village, between the proletariat and the peasantry (these two kinds of contradictions are not identical), between the national republics and districts, between the different groups of peasantry, between the different layers of the working class, between the different groups of consumers and, finally, between the Soviet state as a whole and its capitalist environment. Today, when all relationships are being translated into the language of monetary calculation, the economic contradictions come to the forefront with exceptional sharpness.

Raising itself above the toiling masses, the bureaucracy regulates these contradictions. It uses this function in order to strengthen its own domination. By its uncontrolled and self-willed rule, subject to no appeal, the bureaucracy accumulates new contradictions. Exploiting the latter, it creates the regime of bureaucratic absolutism.

The contradictions within the bureaucracy itself have led to a system of handpicking the main commanding staff; the need for discipline within the select order has led to the rule of a single person and to the cult of the infallible leader. One and the same system prevails in factory, kolkhoz, university and the government: a leader stands at the head of his faithful troop; the rest follow the leader. Stalin never was and, by his nature, never could be a leader of masses; he is the leader of bureaucratic “leaders,” their consummation, their personification.

The more complex the economic tasks become, the greater the demands and the interests of the population become, all the more sharp becomes the contradiction between the bureaucratic regime and the demands of socialist development, all the more coarsely does the bureaucracy struggle to preserve its positions, all the more cynically does it resort to violence, fraud and bribery.

The constant worsening of the political regime in face of the growth of the economy and culture – this crying fact finds its explanation in this, and this alone: that oppression, persecution and suppression serve today in a large measure not for the defense of the state but for the defense of the rule and privileges of the bureaucracy. This is also the source of the ever-increasing need to mask repressions by means of frauds and amalgams.

“But can such a state be called a workers’ state?” – thus speak the indignant voices of moralists, idealists and “revolutionary” snobs. Others a bit more cautious express themselves as follows, “Perhaps this is a workers’ state, in the last analysis, but there has not been left in it a vestige of the dictatorship of the proletariat. We have here a degenerated workers’ state under the dictatorship of the bureaucracy.”

We see no reason whatever to resume this argumentation as a whole. All that has to be said on this score has been said in the literature and in the official documents of our tendency. No one has attempted to refute, correct or supplement the position of the Bolshevik-Leninists on this most important question.

We shall here limit ourselves solely to the question whether the factual dictatorship of the bureaucracy may be called the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The terminological difficulty here arises from the fact that the term dictatorship is used sometimes in a restricted, political sense and, at other times, in a more profound, sociological sense. We speak of the “dictatorship of Mussolini” and, at the same time, declare that fascism is only the instrument of finance capital. Which is correct? Both are correct, but on different planes. It is incontestable that the entire executive power is concentrated in Mussolini’s hands. But it is no less true that the entire actual content of the state activity is dictated by the interests of finance capital. The social domination of a class (its dictatorship) may find extremely diverse political forms. This is attested by the entire history of the bourgeoisie, from the Middle Ages to the present day.

The experience of the Soviet Union is already adequate for the extension of this very same sociological law – with all the necessary changes – to the dictatorship of the proletariat as well. In the interim between the conquest of power and the dissolution of the workers’ state within the socialist society, the forms and methods of proletarian rule may change sharply, depending upon the course of the class struggle, internally and externally.

Thus, the present-day domination of Stalin in no way resembles the Soviet rule during the initial years of the revolution. The substitution of one regime for the other occurred not at a single stroke but through a series of measures, by means of a number of minor civil wars waged by the bureaucracy against the proletarian vanguard. In the last historical analysis, Soviet democracy was blown up by the pressure of social contradictions. Exploiting the latter, the bureaucracy wrested the power from the hands of mass organizations. In this sense we may speak about the dictatorship of the bureaucracy and even about the personal dictatorship of Stalin. But this usurpation was made possible and can maintain itself only because the social content of the dictatorship of the bureaucracy is determined by those productive relations that were created by the proletarian revolution. In this sense we may say with complete justification that the dictatorship of the proletariat found its distorted but indubitable expression in the dictatorship of the bureaucracy.

In the internal controversies of the Russian and the International Opposition, we conditionally understood by Thermidor the first stage of the bourgeois counterrevolution, aimed against the social basis of the workers’ state. [1] Although the substance of the controversy, as we have seen, did not suffer by it in the past, nevertheless, the historical analogy became invested with a purely conditional and not a realistic character, and this conditional character comes into ever-increasing contradiction with the demands for an analysis of the most recent evolution of the Soviet state. Enough to mention the fact that we ourselves often speak – and with ample cause – of the plebiscitary or the Bonapartist regime of Stalin. But Bonapartism, in France, came after Thermidor. If we are to remain within the framework of the historical analogy, we must necessarily ask the question: Since there has been no Soviet “Thermidor” as yet, whence could Bonapartism have arisen? Without making any changes in essence in our former evaluations – there is no reason whatever to do so – we must radically revise the historical analogy. This will enable us to gain a closer view of certain old facts and to understand better certain new manifestations.

The overturn of the Ninth Thermidor did not liquidate the basic conquests of the bourgeois revolution, but it did transfer the power into the hands of the more moderate and conservative Jacobins, the better-to-do elements of bourgeois society. Today it is impossible to overlook that in the Soviet revolution also a shift to the right took place a long time ago, a shift entirely analogous to Thermidor, although much slower in tempo and more masked in form. The conspiracy of the Soviet bureaucracy against the left wing could conserve its comparatively “dry” character during the initial stages only because the conspiracy itself was executed much more systematically and thoroughly than the improvisation of the Ninth Thermidor.

Socially the proletariat is more homogeneous than the bourgeoisie, but it contains within itself an entire series of strata that become manifest with exceptional clarity following the conquest of power, during the period when the bureaucracy and a workers’ aristocracy connected with it begin to take form. The smashing of the Left Opposition implied in the most direct and immediate sense the transfer of power from the hands of the revolutionary vanguard into the hands of the more conservative elements among the bureaucracy and the upper crust of the working class. The year 1924 – that was the beginning of the Soviet Thermidor.

Involved here, of course, is the question not of historical identity but of historical analogy, which always has as its limits the different social structures and epochs. But the given analogy is neither superficial nor accidental: it is determined by the extreme tension in the class struggle that prevails during the period of revolution and counterrevolution. In both cases the bureaucracy raised itself upon the backs of plebeian democracy that had assured the victory for the new regime. The Jacobin clubs were strangled gradually. The revolutionists of 1793 died on the battlefields; they became diplomats and generals; they fell under the blows of repression ... or went underground. Subsequently, other Jacobins successfully transformed themselves into Napoleon’s prefects. Their ranks were swelled in ever-increasing numbers by turncoats from old parties, by former aristocrats and by crass careerists. And in Russia? The very same picture of degeneration, but on a much more gigantic arena and a much more mature background, is reproduced some 130 to 140 years later by the gradual transition from Soviets and party clubs seething with life to the commandeering of secretaries who depend solely upon the “passionately beloved leader.”

In France, the prolonged stabilization of the Thermidorean-Bonapartist regime was made possible only thanks to the development of the productive forces that had been freed from the fetters of feudalism. The lucky ones, the plunderers, the relatives and the allies of the bureaucracy enriched themselves. The disillusioned masses fell into prostration.

The upsurge of the nationalized productive forces, which began in 1923 and which came unexpectedly to the Soviet bureaucracy itself, created the necessary economic prerequisites for the stabilization of the latter. The upbuilding of the economic life provided an outlet for the energies of active and capable organizers, administrators and technicians. Their material and moral position improved rapidly. A broad, privileged stratum was created, closely linked to the ruling upper crust. The toiling masses lived on hopes or fell into apathy.

It would be banal pedantry to attempt to fit the different stages of the Russian Revolution to analogous events in France that occurred towards the close of the eighteenth century. But one is literally hit between the eyes by the resemblance between the present Soviet political regime and the regime of the First Consul, particularly at the end of the Consulate when the period of the Empire was nigh. While Stalin lacks the luster of victories, at any rate, he surpasses Bonaparte the First in the regime of organized cringing. Such power could be obtained only by strangling the party, the Soviets, the working class as a whole. The bureaucracy upon which Stalin leans is materially bound up with the results of the consummated national revolution, but it has no point of contact with the developing international revolution. In their manner of living, their interests and psychology, the present-day Soviet functionaries differ no less from the revolutionary Bolsheviks than the generals and prefects of Napoleon differed from the revolutionary Jacobins.

The Soviet ambassador to London, Maisky, recently explained to a delegation of British trade unionists how necessary and justifiable was the Stalinist trial of the “counterrevolutionary” Zinovievists. This striking episode – one from among thousands – immediately brings us to the heart of the question. We know who the Zinovievists are. Whatever their mistakes and vacillations, one thing is certain: they are representatives of the “professional revolutionist” type. The questions of the world workers’ movement – these have entered into their blood. Who is Maisky? A right-wing Menshevik who broke with his own party in 1918, going to the right in order to avail himself of the opportunity to enter as a minister into the Trans-Ural White government, under the protection of Kolchak. Only after Kolchak was annihilated did Maisky consider the time ripe for turning his face towards the Soviets. Lenin – and I along with him – had the greatest distrust, to say nothing of contempt, for such types. Today Maisky, in the rank of ambassador, accuses “Zinovievists” and “Trotskyists” of striving to provoke military intervention in order to restore capitalism – the very same capitalism that Maisky had defended against us by means of civil war.

The present ambassador to the United States, A. Troyanovsky, joined the Bolsheviks in his youth; shortly afterwards he left the party; during the war he was a patriot; in 1917, a Menshevik. The October Revolution found him a member of the Menshevik Central Committee, in addition to which, during the next few years, Troyanovsky carried on an illegal struggle against the dictatorship of the proletariat; he entered the Stalinist party, more correctly, the diplomatic service, after the Left Opposition was crushed.

The ambassador to Paris, Potemkin, was a bourgeois professor of history during the period of the October Revolution; he joined the Bolsheviks after the victory. The former ambassador to Berlin, Khinchuk, participated, as a Menshevik, during the days of the October overturn, in the counterrevolutionary Moscow Committee for the Salvation of the Fatherland and the Revolution, together with Grinko, a right-wing Social Revolutionary, the present people’s commissar of finance. Suritz, who replaced Khinchuk in Berlin, was the political secretary of the Menshevik Chkheidze, the first chairman of the Soviets; he joined the Bolsheviks after the victory. Almost all other diplomats are of the same type; and in the meantime there are being appointed abroad – especially after the experience with Bessedovsky, Dimitrievsky, Agabekov and others – only the most dependable people.

Not so long ago dispatches appeared in the world press relating to the major successes of the Soviet gold-mining industry, with comments concerning its organizer, the engineer Serebrovsky. The Moscow correspondent of Le Temps , who is today successfully competing with Duranty and Louis Fischer as the official spokesman for the bureaucratic upper crust, took particular pains to stress the fact that Serebrovsky is a Bolshevik from 1903, a member of the “Old Guard.” That is what Serebrovsky’s party card actually states. As a matter of fact, he participated in the 1905 Revolution as a young student and Menshevik and then went over to the camp of the bourgeoisie for many long years. The February 1917 revolution found him holding the post of government director of two munitions plants, a member of the Board of Trade and an active participant in the struggle against the metal workers’ union. In May 1917, Serebrovsky declared that Lenin was a “German spy”! After the victory of the Bolsheviks, Serebrovsky along with other spetzes [technical experts, specialists] was drawn into technical work by myself. Lenin did not trust him at all; I had hardly any faith in him myself. Today, Serebrovsky is a member of the Central Committee of the party!

The theoretical journal of the Central Committee, Bolshevik (December 31, 1934), carries an article by Serebrovsky, On the Gold-Mining Industry of the USSR. We turn to the first page: “... under the leadership of the beloved leader of the party and the working class, Comrade Stalin ...”; three lines down: “... Comrade Stalin in a conversation with the American correspondent, Mr. Duranty ...”; five lines further down: “... the concise and precise reply of Comrade Stalin ...”; at the bottom of the page: “that’s what it means to fight for gold in the Stalinist way.” Page two: “... as our great leader, Comrade Stalin, teaches us ...”; four lines down: “... replying to their (the Bolsheviks’) report, Comrade Stalin wrote: ’Congratulations on your success’ ...”; further down on the same page: “inspired by the guidance of Comrade Stalin ...”; one line below: “... the party with Comrade Stalin at the head ...”; two lines following: “... the guidance of our party and (!!) Comrade Stalin.” Let us now turn to the conclusion of the article. In the course of half a page we read: “... the guidance of the genius leader of the party and the working class, Comrade Stalin ...”; and three lines later: “... the words of our beloved leader, Comrade Stalin ...”

Satire itself stands disarmed in the face of such a flood of sycophancy! “Beloved leaders,” one should imagine, are never in need of having declarations of love made to them five times on each page and, besides, in an article devoted not to the leader’s anniversary but to ... the mining of gold. On the other hand, the author of an article with a capacity for such fawning obviously cannot have anything in him of a revolutionist. Of such caliber is this former czarist director of large factories, bourgeois and patriot, who waged a struggle against the workers and who is today a bulwark of the regime, member of the Central Committee and 100 percent Stalinist!

Another specimen. One of the pillars of the present-day Pravda, Zaslavsky, propounded in January of this year that it was just as impermissible to publish the reactionary novels of Dostoyevsky as the “counter-revolutionary works of Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev.” Who is this Zaslavsky? In the dim past – a right-wing Bundist [Menshevik of the Jewish Bund], later a bourgeois journalist who carried on a most contemptible campaign in 1917 against Lenin and Trotsky as agents of Germany. In Lenin’s articles for 1917 there is to be found, as a refrain, the phrase, “Zaslavsky and other scoundrels like him.” Thus has Zaslavsky entered into the literature of the party as the consummate type of venal bourgeois calumniator. During the civil-war period, he was, while in hiding in Kiev, a journalist for White Guard publications. Only in 1923 did he go over to the side of the Soviet power. Today he defends Stalinism from the counter-revolutionists Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev! In the USSR as well as abroad, Stalin’s press is crammed with such individuals.

The old cadres of Bolshevism have been smashed. Revolutionists have been smashed. Revolutionists have been supplanted by functionaries with supple spines. Marxist thinking has been driven out by fear, flattery and intrigue. Of Lenin’s Political Bureau, only Stalin has remained: two members of the Political Bureau are broken politically and grovel in the dust (Rykov and Tomsky); two members are in prison (Zinoviev and Kamenev); one is exiled abroad and deprived of his citizenship (Trotsky). Lenin, as Krupskaya herself expressed it, was spared only by death from the repressions of the bureaucracy; failing the opportunity to put him in prison, the epigones shut him up in a mausoleum. The entire warp of the ruling layer has degenerated. The Jacobins have been pushed out by the Thermidoreans and Bonapartists; Bolsheviks have been supplanted by Stalinists.

To the broad stratum of the conservative and in-no-way-disinterested Maiskys, Serebrovskys and Zaslavskys, large, medium and petty, Stalin is the judge-arbiter, the fountain of all boons and the defender from all possible oppositions. In return for this, the bureaucracy, from time to time, presents Stalin with the sanction of a national plebiscite. Party congresses, like Soviet congresses, are organized upon a sole criterion: for or against Stalin? Only “counter-revolutionists” can be against , and they are dealt with as they deserve. Such is the present-day mechanism of rule. This is a Bonapartist mechanism. No other definition for it can be found as yet in a political dictionary.

Without historical analogies we cannot learn from history. But the analogy must be concrete; behind the traits of resemblance, we must not overlook the traits of dissimilarity. Both revolutions put an end to feudalism and serfdom. But one of them, in the shape of its extreme wing, could only strive in vain to pass beyond the limits of bourgeois society; the other actually overthrew the bourgeoisie and created the workers’ state. This fundamental class distinction, which introduces the necessary material limits to the analogy, bears a decisive significance for the prognosis.

After the profound democratic revolution, which liberates the peasants from serfdom and gives them land, the feudal counterrevolution is generally impossible. The overthrown monarchy may reestablish itself in power and surround itself with medieval phantoms. But it is already powerless to reestablish the economy of feudalism. Once liberated from the fetters of feudalism, bourgeois relations develop automatically. They can be checked by no external force; they must themselves dig their own grave, having previously created their own gravedigger.

It is altogether otherwise with the development of socialist relations. The proletarian revolution not only frees the productive forces from the fetters of private ownership but also transfers them to the direct disposal of the state that it itself creates. While the bourgeois state, after the revolution, confines itself to a police role, leaving the market to its own laws, the workers’ state assumes the direct role of economist and organizer. The replacement of one political regime by another exerts only an indirect and superficial influence upon market economy. On the contrary, the replacement of a workers’ government by a bourgeois or petty-bourgeois government would inevitably lead to the liquidation of the planned beginnings and, subsequently, to the restoration of private property. In contradistinction to capitalism, socialism is built not automatically but consciously. Progress towards socialism is inseparable from that state power that is desirous of socialism or that is constrained to desire it. Socialism can acquire an immutable character only at a very high stage of its development, when its productive forces have far transcended those of capitalism, when the human wants of each and all can obtain bounteous satisfaction and when the state will have completely withered away, dissolving in society. But all this is still in the distant future. At the given stage of development, the socialist construction stands and falls with the workers’ state. Only after thoroughly pondering the difference between the laws of the formation of bourgeois (“anarchistic”) and socialist (“planned”) economy is it possible to understand those limits beyond which the analogy with the Great French Revolution cannot pass.

October 1917 completed the democratic revolution and initiated the socialist revolution. No force in the world can turn back the agrarian-democratic overturn in Russia; in this we have a complete analogy with the Jacobin revolution. But a kolkhoz overturn is a threat that retains its full force, and with it is threatened the nationalization of the means of production. Political counterrevolution, even were it to recede back to the Romanov dynasty, could not reestablish feudal ownership of land. But the restoration to power of a Menshevik and Social Revolutionary bloc would suffice to obliterate the socialist construction.

The fundamental difference between the two revolutions and, consequently, between the counter-revolutions “corresponding” to them is of utmost importance for understanding the significance of those reactionary political shifts that compose the essence of Stalin’s regime. The peasant revolution, as well as the bourgeoisie that leaned upon it, was very well able to make its peace with the regime of Napoleon, and it was even able to maintain itself under Louis XVIII. The proletarian revolution is already exposed to mortal danger under the present regime of Stalin; it will be unable to withstand a further shift to the right.

The Soviet bureaucracy – “Bolshevist” in its traditions but in reality having long since renounced its traditions, petty bourgeois in its composition and spirit – was summoned to regulate the antagonism between the proletariat and the peasantry, between the workers’ state and world imperialism; such is the social base of bureaucratic centrism, of its zigzags, its power, its weakness and its influence on the world proletarian movement that has been so fatal. [2] As the bureaucracy becomes more independent, as more and more power is concentrated in the hands of a single person, the more does bureaucratic centrism turn into Bonapartism.

The concept of Bonapartism, being too broad, demands concretization. During the last few years we have applied this term to those capitalist governments that, by exploiting the antagonisms between the proletarian and fascist camps and by leaning directly upon the military-police apparatus, raise themselves above parliament and democracy, as the saviours of “national unity.” We always strictly differentiated between this Bonapartism of decay and the young, advancing Bonapartism that was not only the gravedigger of the political principles of the bourgeois revolution but also the defender of its social conquests. We apply a common name to these two manifestations because they have common traits; it is always possible to discern the youth in the octogenarian despite the merciless ravages of time.

The present-day Kremlin Bonapartism we juxtapose, of course, to the Bonapartism of bourgeois rise and not decay: with the Consulate and the First Empire and not with Napoleon III and, all the more so, not with Schleicher or Doumergue. For the purposes of such an analogy, there is no need to ascribe to Stalin the traits of Napoleon I; whenever the social conditions demand it, Bonapartism can consolidate itself around axes of the most diverse caliber.

From the standpoint that interests us, the difference in the social basis of the two Bonapartisms, of Jacobin and Soviet origin, is much more important. In the former case, the question involved was the consolidation of the bourgeois revolution through the liquidation of its principles and political institutions. In the latter case, the question involved is the consolidation of the worker-peasant revolution through the smashing of its international program, its leading party, its Soviets. Carrying the policies of Thermidor further, Napoleon waged a struggle not only against the feudal world but also against the “rabble” and the democratic circles of the petty and middle bourgeoisie; in this way he concentrated the fruits of the regime born out of the revolution in the hands of the new bourgeois aristocracy. Stalin guards the conquests of the October Revolution not only against the feudal-bourgeois counterrevolution but also against the claims of the toilers, their impatience and their dissatisfaction; he crushes the left wing that expresses the ordered historical and progressive tendencies of the unprivileged working masses; he creates a new aristocracy by means of an extreme differentiation in wages, privileges, ranks, etc. Leaning for support upon the topmost layer of the new social hierarchy against the lowest – sometimes vice versa – Stalin has attained the complete concentration of power in his own hands. What else should this regime be called if not Soviet Bonapartism?

Bonapartism, by its very essence, cannot long maintain itself; a sphere balanced on the point of a pyramid must invariably roll down on one side or the other. But it is precisely at this point, as we have already seen, that the historical analogy runs up against its limits. Napoleon’s downfall did not, of course, leave untouched the relations between the classes; but in its essence the social pyramid of France retained its bourgeois character. The inevitable collapse of Stalinist Bonapartism would immediately call into question the character of the USSR as a workers’ state. A socialist economy cannot be constructed without a socialist power. The fate of the USSR as a socialist state depends upon that political regime that will arise to replace Stalinist Bonapartism. Only the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat can regenerate the Soviet system, if it is again able to mobilize around itself the toilers of the city and the village.

From our analysis there follows a number of conclusions that we set down briefly below:


Our opponents – and they are welcome – will seize upon our “self-criticism.” So! they will shriek, you have changed your position on the fundamental question of Thermidor; hitherto you spoke only about the danger of Thermidor; now you suddenly declare that Thermidor already lies behind. This will probably be said by Stalinists, who will add for good measure that we have changed our position in order the more easily to provoke military intervention. The Brandlerites and the Lovestoneites, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, certain “ultraleft” wiseacres may express themselves in the same key. These people were never able to point out to us what was erroneous in the analogy with Thermidor; they will shriek all the louder now that we have disclosed the error ourselves.

We have indicated above the position of this error in our general appraisal of the USSR. It is in no case a question of changing our principled position as it has been formulated in a number of official documents, but only a question of rendering it more precise. Our “self-criticism” extends not to the analysis of the class character of the USSR or to the causes and conditions for its degeneration but only to the historical clarification of these processes by means of establishing analogies with well-known stages of the Great French Revolution. The correction of a partial, even though an important, error not only leaves unshaken the basic position of the Bolshevik-Leninists but also enables us to establish it more precisely and concretely by means of more correct and more realistic analogies. It should also be added that the disclosure of the error was greatly facilitated by the fact that the very processes of the political degeneration, which are under discussion, have in the meantime assumed much more distinct shape.

Our tendency never laid claim to infallibility. We do not receive ready-made truths as a revelation, like the high priests of Stalinism. We study, we discuss, we check our conclusions in the light of existence, we openly correct the admitted mistakes and – we proceed forward. Scientific conscientiousness and personal strictness are the best traditions of Marxism and Leninism. We wish to remain true to our teachers in this respect as well.


1. The Mensheviks also speak about Thermidorean degeneration. It is impossible to understand what they mean by this. The Mensheviks were opposed to the seizure of power by the proletariat. Even today, the Soviet state is non-proletarian, in their opinion (what it really is – remains a mystery). In the past they demanded the return to capitalism; today they demand the return to “democracy.” If they themselves are not representatives of Thermidorean tendencies, then what does “Thermidor” mean at all? Self-evidently, it is merely a current literary expression.

2. The Brandlerites, including the leaders of the SAP, remaining even today the theoretical pupils of Thalheimer, saw only “ultra-leftism” in the policies of the Comintern and denied (and continue to deny) the very meaning of bureaucratic centrism. The present “fourth period” when Stalin is pulling the European workers’ movement on the hook of the Comintern to the right of official reformism demonstrates how shallow and opportunistic is the political philosophy of Thalheimer-Walcher and Co. These people are incapable of thinking a single question out to its conclusion. Precisely for this reason have they such a revulsion for the principle of saying what is, i.e., the highest principle of every scientific analysis and every revolutionary policy.

return return return return return

Last updated on: 25 February 2016