Leon Trotsky

Not a Workers’ and
Not a Bourgeois State? [1]

(November 1937)

Written: November 25, 1937.
Published: Fourth International, Vol. 12 No. 4, July–August 1951, pp. 123–127.
Transcribed for the Trotsky Internet Archive: by Martin Schreader in 1999.

November 25, 1937

Political Form and Social Content

Comrades Burnham and Carter [2] have placed a fresh question mark over the class character of the Soviet state. The answer which they give is, in my opinion, completely erroneous. But inasmuch as these comrades do not attempt, as do some ultra-leftists, to substitute shrieking for scientific analysis, we can and should seriously discuss with B. and C. this exceptionally important question.

B. and C. do not forget that the main difference between the USSR and the contemporary bourgeois state finds its expression in the powerful development of the productive forces as a result of a change in the form of ownership. They further admit that “the economic structure as established by the October Revolution remains basically unchanged.” They deduce from this that it is the duty of the Soviet and world proletariat to defend the USSR from imperialist attacks. In this there is complete agreement between B. and C. and us. But no matter how great the degree of our agreement, it by no means covers the whole issue. Though B. and C. do not solidarize themselves with the ultra-lefts, they nevertheless consider that the USSR has stopped being a workers’ state “in the traditional (?) sense given to this term by Marxism.” But since the “economic structure ... still remains basically unchanged,” the USSR has not become a bourgeois state. B. and C. at the same time deny – and for this we can only congratulate them – that the bureaucracy is an independent class. The result of these inconsistent assertions in the conclusion, the very one the Stalinists draw, that the Soviet state, in general, is not an organization of class domination. What, then, is it?

Thus we have a new attempt at revising the class theory of the state. We are not, it goes without saying, fetishists; should new historical facts demand a revision of the theory, we would not stop at doing so. But the lamentable experience of the old revisionists should in any case imbue us with a salutary caution. We should, ten times over, weigh in our minds the old theory and the new facts before we attempt to formulate a new doctrine.

B. and C. themselves remark in passing that in its dependence on objective and subjective conditions the rule of the proletariat “is able to express itself in a number of different governmental forms.” For clarity we will add: either through an open struggle of different parties within the soviets, or through the monopoly of one party, or even through a factual concentration of power in the hands of a single person. Of course personal dictatorship is a symptom of the greatest danger to the regime. But at the same time, it is, under certain conditions, the only means by which to save that regime. The class nature of the state is, consequently, determined not only by its political forms but by its social content; i.e., by the character of the forms of property and productive relations which the given state guards and defends.

In principle B. and C. do not deny this. If they nevertheless refuse to see in the USSR a workers’ state, it is due to two reasons, one of which is economic and the other political in character. “During the past year,” they write, “the bureaucracy has definitively entered the road of destruction of the planned and nationalized economy.” (Has only “entered the road”?) Further we read that the course of development “brings the bureaucracy into ever-increasing and deepening conflict with the needs and interests of the nationalized economy.” (Only “brings it”?) The contradiction between the bureaucracy and the economy was observed before this, but for the past year “the actions of the bureaucracy are actively sabotaging the plan and disintegrating the state monopoly.” (Only “disintegrating”? Hence, not yet disintegrated?)

As stated above, the second contention has a political character. “The concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat is not primarily an economic but predominantly a political category ... All forms, organs, and institutions of the class rule of the proletariat are now destroyed, which is to say that the class rule of the proletariat is now destroyed.” After hearing about the “different forms” of the proletarian regime, this second contention, taken by itself, appears unexpected. Of course, the dictatorship of the proletariat is not only “predominantly” but wholly and fully a “political category.” However, this very politics is only concentrated economics. The domination of the Social Democracy in the state and in the soviets (Germany 1918–19) had nothing in common with the dictatorship of the proletariat inasmuch as it left bourgeois property inviolable. But the regime which guards the expropriated and nationalized property from the imperialists is, independent of political forms, the dictatorship of the proletariat.

B. and C. “in general,” as it were, admit this. They therefor have recourse to combining the economic with the political contention. The bureaucracy, they say, has not only definitively deprived the proletariat of political power, but has driven the economy into a blind alley. If in the previous period the bureaucracy with all its reactionary features played a comparatively progressive role, it has now definitively become a reactionary factor. In this reasoning there is a healthy kernel, which is in complete conformity with all former evaluations and prognoses of the Fourth International. We have more than once spoken of the fact that “enlightened absolutism” has played a progressive role in the development of the bourgeoisie only afterward to become a brake upon this development; the conflict resolved itself, as is known, in revolution. In laying the groundwork for socialist economy, we wrote, “enlightened absolutism” can play a progressive role only during an incomparably shorter period. This prognosis is clearly confirmed before our very eyes. Deceived by its own successes, the bureaucracy expected to attain ever bigger coefficients of economic growth. Meanwhile it ran up against an acute crisis in the economy, which became one of the sources of its present panic and its mad repressions. Does this mean that the development of productive forces in the USSR has already stopped? We would not venture to make such an assertion. The creative possibilities of nationalized economy are so great that the productive forces, in spite of the bureaucratic brake put on them, can develop for a period of years although at a considerably more moderate rate than heretofore. Along these lines it is scarcely possible at the moment to make an exact forecast. In any case, the political crisis which is rending the bureaucracy asunder is considerably more dangerous for it today than the perspective of a stoppage of the productive forces. For the sake of simplifying the question, however, let us grant that the bureaucracy has already become an absolute brake upon the economic development. But does this fact in itself mean that the class nature of the USSR has changed or that the USSR is devoid of any kind of class nature? Here, it seems to me, is the chief mistake of our comrades.

Up until the First World War bourgeois society developed its productive forces. Only during the past quarter of a century has the bourgeoisie become an absolute brake upon economic development. Does this mean that bourgeois society has ceased being bourgeois? No, it means only that it has become a decaying bourgeois society. In a number of countries, the preservation of bourgeois property is possible only through the establishment of a fascist regime. In other words, the bourgeoisie is devoid of all forms and means of its own direct political domination, and must use an intermediary. Does this mean then that the state has stopped being bourgeois? To the extent that fascism with its barbaric methods defends private property in the means of production, to that extent the state remains bourgeois under the fascist rule.

We do not at all intend to give our analogy an all-inclusive meaning. Nevertheless, it demonstrates that the concentration of power in the hands of the bureaucracy and even the retardation of the development of the productive forces, by themselves, still do not change the class nature of society and its state. Only the intrusion of a revolutionary or a counterrevolutionary force in property relations can change the class nature of the state. [A]

But does not history really know of cases of class conflict between the economy and the state? It does! After the “third estate” seized power, society for a period of several years still remained feudal. In the first months of Soviet rule the proletariat reigned on the basis of a bourgeois economy. In the field of agriculture the dictatorship of the proletariat operated for a number of years on the basis of a petty-bourgeois economy (to a considerable degree it does so even now). Should a bourgeois counterrevolution succeed in the USSR, the new government for a lengthy period would have to base itself upon the nationalized economy. But what does such a type of temporary conflict between the economy and the state mean? It means a revolution or a counter-revolution. The victory of one class over another signifies that it will reconstruct the economy in the interests of the victors. But such a dichotomous condition, which is a necessary stage in every social overturn, has nothing in common with the theory of a classless state which in the absence of a real boss is being exploited by a clerk, i.e., by the bureaucracy.

Norm and Fact

It is the substitution of a subjective “normative” method in place of an objective, dialectical approach to the question which renders it difficult for many comrades to arrive at a correct sociological appraisal of the USSR. Not without reason do Burnham and Carter say that the Soviet Union cannot be considered a workers’ state “in the traditional sense given to this term by Marxism.” This simply means that the USSR does not correspond to the norms of a workers’ state as set forth in our program. On this score there can be no disagreement. Our program has counted upon a progressive development of the workers’ state and by that token upon its gradual withering away. But history, which does not always act “according to a program,” has confronted us with the process of a degenerating workers’ state.

But does this mean that a workers’ state, coming into conflict with the demands of our program, has ceased thereby to be a workers’ state? A liver poisoned by malaria does not correspond to a normal type of liver. But it does not because of that cease to be a liver. For the understanding of its nature, anatomy and physiology are not sufficient; pathology too is necessary. Of course it is much easier upon seeing the diseased liver to say: “This object is not to my liking,” and to turn one’s back upon it. But a physician cannot permit himself such a luxury. Depending upon the conditions of the disease itself, and the resulting deformation of the organ, he must have recourse either to therapeutic treatment (“reforms”) or to surgery (“revolution”). But to be able to do this he must first of all understand that the deformed organ is a sick liver, and not something else.

But let us take a more familiar analogy; that between a workers’ state and a trade union. From the point of view of our program, the trade union should be an organization of class struggle. What then should be our attitude to the American Federation of Labor? [4] At its head stand manifest agents of the bourgeoisie. Upon all essential questions, Messrs. Green, Woll, and Company carry out a political line directly opposed to the interests of the proletariat. We can extend the analogy and say that if until the appearance of the CIO [5], the AFL accomplished somewhat progressive work, now that the chief content of its activity is embodied in a struggle against the more progressive (or less reactionary) tendencies of the CIO, Green’s apparatus has definitely become a reactionary factor. This would be completely correct. But the AFL does not because of this cease to be an organization of the trade unions.

The class character of the state is determined by its relation to the forms of property in the means of production. The character of a workers’ organization such as a trade union is determined by its relation to the distribution of national income. The fact that Green and Company defend private property in the means of production characterizes them as bourgeois. Should these gentlemen in addition defend the income of the bourgeoisie from attacks on the part of the workers; should they conduct a struggle against strikes, against the raising of wages, against help to the unemployed; then we would have an organization of scabs, and not a trade union. However, Green and Company, in order not to lose their base, must within certain limits lead the struggle of the workers for an increase – or at least against a diminution – of their share of the national income. This objective symptom is sufficient in all important cases to permit us to draw a line of demarcation between the most reactionary trade union and an organization of scabs. Thus we are duty bound not only to carry on work in the AFL, but to defend it from scabs, the Ku Klux Klan, and the like.

The function of Stalin, like the function of Green, has a dual character. Stalin serves the bureaucracy and thus the world bourgeoisie; but he cannot serve the bureaucracy without defending that social foundation which the bureaucracy exploits in its own interests. To that extent does Stalin defend nationalized property from imperialist attacks and from the too impatient and avaricious layers of the bureaucracy itself. However, the carries through this defend with methods that prepare the general destruction of Soviet society. It is exactly because of this that the Stalinist clique must be overthrown. The proletariat cannot subcontract this work to the imperialists. In spite of Stalin, the proletariat defends the USSR from imperialist attacks.

Historical development has accustomed us to the most varied kind of trade unions: militant, reformist, revolutionary, reactionary, liberal and Catholic. It is otherwise with a workers’ state. Such a phenomenon we see for the first time. That accounts for our inclination to approach the USSR exclusively from the point of view of the norms of the revolutionary program. Meanwhile the workers’ state is an objective historical fact which is being subjected to the influence of different historical forces and can as we see come into full contradiction with “traditional” norms.

Comrades B. and C. are completely correct when they say that Stalin and Company by their politics serve the international bourgeoisie. But this correct thought must be established in the correct conditions of time and place. Hitler also serves the bourgeoisie. However, between the functions of Stalin and Hitler there is a difference. Hitler defends the bourgeois forms of property. Stalin adapts the interests of the bureaucracy to the proletarian forms of property. The same Stalin in Spain, i.e., on the soil of a bourgeois regime, executes the function of Hitler (in their political methods they generally differ little from one another). The juxtaposition of the different social roles of the one and the same Stalin in the USSR and in Spain demonstrates equally well that the bureaucracy is not an independent class but the tool of classes; and that it is impossible to define the social nature of a state by the virtue or villainy of the bureaucracy.

The assertion that the bureaucracy of a workers’ state has a bourgeois character must appear not only unintelligible but completely senseless to people stamped with a formal cast of mind. However, chemically pure types of state never existed, and do not exist in general. The semifeudal Prussian monarchy executed the most important tasks of the bourgeoisie, but executed them in its own manner, i.e., in a feudal, not a Jacobin style. In Japan we observe even today an analogous correlation between the bourgeois character of the state and the semifeudal character of the ruling caste. But all this does not hinder us from clearly differentiating between a feudal and a bourgeois society. True, one can raise the objection that the collaboration of feudal and bourgeois forces is immeasurably more easily realized than the collaboration of bourgeois and proletarian forces, inasmuch as the first instance presents a case of two forms of class exploitation. This is completely correct. But a workers’ state does not create a new society in one day. Marx wrote that in the first period of a workers’ state the bourgeois norms of distribution are still preserved. (About this see The Revolution Betrayed, the section Socialism and the State, p.53.) One has to weigh well and think this thought out to the end. The workers’ state itself, as a state, is necessary exactly because the bourgeois norms of distribution still remain in force.

This means that even the most revolutionary bureaucracy is to a certain degree a bourgeois organ in the workers’ state. Of course, the degree of this bourgeoisification and the general tendency of development bears decisive significance. If the workers’ state loses its bureaucratization and gradually falls away, this means that its development marches along the road to socialism. On the contrary, if the bureaucracy becomes ever more powerful, authoritative, privileged, and conservative, this means that in the workers’ state the bourgeois tendencies grow at the expense of the socialist; in other words, that inner contradiction which to a certain degree is lodged in the workers’ state from the first days of its rise does not diminish, as the “norm” demands, but increases. However, so long as that contradiction has not passed from the sphere of distribution into the sphere of production, and has not blown up nationalized property and planned economy, the state remains a workers’ state.

Lenin had already said fifteen years ago: “Our state is a workers’ state, but with bureaucratic deformations.” In that period bureaucratic deformation represented a direct inheritance of the bourgeois regime and, in that sense, appeared as a mere survival of the past. Under the pressure of unfavorable historical conditions, however, the bureaucratic “survival” received new sources of nourishment and became a tremendous historical factor. It is exactly because of this that we now speak of the degeneration of the workers’ state. This degeneration, as the present orgy of Bonapartist terror shows, has approached a crucial point. That which was a “bureaucratic deformation” is at the present moment preparing to devour the workers’ state, without leaving any remains, and on the ruins of nationalized property to spawn a new propertied class. Such a possibility has drawn extremely near. But all this is only a possibility and we do not intend beforehand to bow before it.

The USSR as a workers’ state does not correspond to the “traditional” norm. This does not signify that it is not a workers’ state. Neither does this signify that the norm has been found false. The “norm” counted upon the complete victory of the international proletarian revolution. The USSR is only a partial and mutilated expression of a backward and isolated workers’ state.

Idealistic, ultimatistic, “purely” normative thinking wishes to construct the world in its own image, and simply turns away from phenomena which are not to its liking. Sectarians, i.e., people who are revolutionary only in their own imagination, guide themselves by empty idealistic norms. They say: “These unions are not to our liking, we will not join them; this workers’ state is not to our liking, we will not defend it.” Each time they promise to begin history anew. They will construct, don’t you see, an ideal workers’ state, when God places in their hands an ideal party and ideal unions. But until this happy moment arrives, they will, as much as possible, pout their lips at reality. A very big pout – that is the supreme expression of sectarian “revolutionaryism.”

Purely “historical,” reformist, Menshevik, passive, conservative thinking busies itself with justifying, as Marx expressed it, today’s swinishness by yesterday’s swinishness. Representatives of this kind enter into mass organizations and dissolve themselves there. The contemptible “friends” of the USSR adapt themselves to the vileness of the bureaucracy, invoking the “historical” conditions.

In opposition to these two casts of mind, dialectical thinking – Marxist, Bolshevik – takes phenomena in their objective development and at the same time finds in the internal contradictions of this development at a basis for the realization of its “norms.” It is of course necessary not to forget that we expect the programmatic norms to be realized only if they are the generalized expression of the progressive tendencies of the objective historical process itself.

The programmatic definition of a union would sound approximately like this: an organization of workers of a trade or industry with the objective of (1) struggling against capitalism for the amelioration of the workers, (2) participating in the revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, (3) participating in the organization of economy on a socialist basis. If we compared this “normative” definition with the actual reality, we should find ourselves constrained to say: there does not exist a single trade union in the world today. But such a counterposing of norm to fact, that is to say, of the generalized expression of the development to the particular manifestation of this same development – such a formal, ultimatistic, nondialectical counterposing of program to reality is absolutely lifeless and does not open any road for the intervention of the revolutionary party. In the meantime the existing opportunistic unions, under the pressure of capitalist disintegration, can – and given correct policies on our part in the unions must – approach our programmatic norms and play a progressive historical role. This, of course, presupposes a complete change of leadership. It is necessary that the workers of the United States, England, France, drive out Green, Citrine, Jouhaux and Company. [6] It is necessary that the Soviet workers drive out Stalin and Company. If the proletariat drives out the Soviet bureaucracy in time, then it will still find the nationalized means of production and the basic elements of the planned economy after its victory. This means that it will not have to begin from the beginning. That is a tremendous advantage! Only radical dandies, who are used to hopping carelessly from twig to twig, can lightmindedly dismiss such a possibility. The socialist revolution is too tremendous and difficult a problem for one to lightmindedly wave one’s hand at its inestimable material advancement and begin from the beginning.

It is very good that Comrades B. and C., in distinction from our French comrade Craipeau and others, do not forget the factor of the productive forces and do not deny defense of the Soviet Union. But this is completely inefficient. And what if the criminal leadership of the bureaucracy should paralyze growth in the economy? Can it be possible the Comrades B. and C. in such a case will passively allow imperialism to destroy the social bases of the USSR? We are sure this is not the case. However, their non-Marxist definition of the USSR as neither a workers’ not a bourgeois state opens the door for all kinds of conclusions. That is why this definition must be categorically rejected.

Simultaneously a Ruling and an Oppressed Class

How can our political conscience not resent the fact,” say the ultra-leftists, “that they want to force us to believe that in the USSR, under Stalin’s rule, the proletariat is the ‘ruling class’ ...?!” This assertion phrased in such an abstract manner can actually arouse our “resentment.” But the truth is that abstract categories, necessary in the process of analysis, are completely unfit for synthesis, which demands the utmost concreteness. The proletariat of the USSR is the ruling class in a backward country where there is still a lack of the most vital necessities of life. The proletariat of the USSR rules in a land consisting of only one-twelfth part of humanity; imperialism rules over the remaining eleven-twelfths. The rule of the proletariat, already maimed by the backwardness and poverty of the country, is doubly and triply deformed under the pressure of world imperialism. The organ of the rule of the proletariat – the state – becomes an organ for pressure from imperialism (diplomacy, army, foreign trade, ideas, and customs). The struggle for domination, considered on a historical scale, is not between the proletariat and the bureaucracy, but between the proletariat and the world bourgeoisie. The bureaucracy is only the transmitting mechanism in this struggle. The struggle is not concluded. In spite of all the efforts on the part of the Moscow clique to demonstrate its conservative reliability (the counterrevolutionary politics of Stalin in Spain!), world imperialism does not trust Stalin, does not spare him the mist humiliating flicks and is ready at the first favorable opportunity to overthrow him. Hitler – and therein lies his strength – simply more consistently and frankly expresses the attitude of the world bourgeoisie to the Soviet bureaucracy. For the bourgeoisie – fascist as well as democratic – isolated counter-revolutionary exploits of Stalin do not suffice; it needs a complete counter-revolution in the relations of property and the opening of the Russian market. So long as this is not the case, the bourgeoisie considers the Soviet state hostile to it. And it is right.

The internal regime in the colonial and semicolonial countries has a predominantly bourgeois character. But the pressure of foreign imperialism so alters and distorts the economic and political structure of these countries that the national bourgeoisie (even in the politically independent countries of South America) only partly reaches the height of a ruling class. The pressure imperialism on backward countries does not, it is true, change their basic social character since the oppressor and oppressed represent only different levels of development in one and the same bourgeois society. Nevertheless the difference between England and India, Japan and China, the United States and Mexico is so big that we strictly differentiate between oppressor and oppressed bourgeois countries and we consider it our duty to support the latter against the former. The bourgeoisie of colonial and semi-colonial countries is a semi-ruling, semi-oppressed class.

The pressure of imperialism on the Soviet Union has as its aim the alteration of the very nature of Soviet society. The struggle – today peaceful, tomorrow military – concerns the forms of property. In its capacity of a transmitting mechanism in this struggle, the bureaucracy leans now on the proletariat against imperialism, now on imperialism against the proletariat, in order to increase its own power. At the same time it mercilessly exploits its role as distributor of the meager necessities of life in order to safeguard its own well-being and power. By this token the rule of the proletariat assumes an abridged, curbed, distorted character. One can with full justification say that the proletariat, ruling in one backward and isolated country, still remains an oppressed class. The source of oppression is world imperialism; the mechanism of transmission of the oppression – the bureaucracy. If in the words “a ruling and at the same time an oppressed class” there is a contradiction, then it flows not from the mistakes of thought but from the contradiction in the very situation in the USSR. It is precisely because of this that we reject the theory of socialism in one country.

The recognition of the USSR as a workers’ state – not a type but a mutilation of a type – does not at all signify a theoretical and political amnesty for the Soviet bureaucracy. On the contrary, its reactionary character is fully revealed only in the light of the contradiction between its antiproletarian politics and the needs of the workers’ state. Only by posing the question in this manner does our exposure of the crimes of the Stalinist clique gain full motive force. The defense of the USSR means not only the supreme struggle against imperialism, but a preparation for the overthrow of the Bonapartist bureaucracy.

The experience of the USSR shows how great are the possibilities lodged in the workers’ state and how great is its strength of resistance. But this experience also shows how powerful is the pressure of capitalism and its bureaucratic agency, how difficult it is for the proletariat to gain full liberation, and how necessary it is to educate and temper the new International in the spirit of irreconcilable revolutionary struggle.


A. The London New Leader, under the editorship of Fenner Brockway, writes in an editorial, dated November 12 of this year: “The Independent Labour Party does not accept the Trotskyist view that the economic foundations of socialism in Soviet Russia have been destroyed.” [3] What can one say about these people? They do not understand the thoughts of others because they do not have any of their own. They can only sow confusion in the minds of the workers. – L.T.


1. Not a Workers’ and Not a Bourgeois State?, Internal Bulletin (OCSPC), No. 3, December 1937. This was a contribution by Trotsky to the internal discussion that preceded the founding convention of the Socialist Workers’ Party. Internal Bulletin, No. 2, November 1937, had published a draft resolution on the Soviet Union by the Convention Arrangements Committee, and a longer amendment by Burnham and Carter, which Trotsky analyzes here. (Internal Bulletin, No. 3, December 1937, was to contain Burnham and Carter’s answers to Trotsky.)

2. James Burnham and Joseph Carter were leaders of the Bolshevik-Leninist faction of the Socialist Party left wing and later of the SWP. In the pre-convention discussion they represented a tendency in the leadership that sought to change the party’s characterization of the Soviet Union as a workers’ state, but insisted that they continued to support the defense of the USSR against imperialist attack. In addition, they were beginning to express apprehensions about the centralist aspects of Bolshevik organizational policy. At the SWP convention their resolution on the USSR received the votes of three delegates against sixty-nine for the majority resolution. The Burnham-Carter resolution on the organization question was withdrawn when the majority agreed to minor amendments in its resolution. In 1940 Burnham and Carter, this time joined by Shachtman and Abern, broke with the SWP over the class nature of the Soviet state. Burnham soon withdrew from the Shachtmanite Workers’ Party, and later became a propagandist for McCarthyism and other ultra-right movements and an editor of the right-wing National Review.

3. The New Leader was the paper of the British Independent Labour Party. The ILP was founded in 1893 and helped to found the Labour Party, left it in 1931, and was now associated with the centrist London Bureau. It returned to the Labour Party in 1939. Fenner Brockway (1890–1979) was an opponent of the Fourth International and secretary of the London Bureau. He was also a leader of the ILP.

4. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was a conservative craft union federation, whose president was William Green (1873–1952) and one of whose vice presidents was Matthew Woll (1880–1956).

5. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was originally set up in 1935 as a committee within the AFL. The AFL leaders refused to respond to the demand for power new organizations to represent radicalizing workers on an industry-wide basis, and expelled the CIO unions in 1938, forcing them to establish their own national organization. The AFL and CIO merged in 1955.

6. Sir Walter Citrine (1887–1976) was the general secretary of the British Trades Union Congress from 1926 to 1946. He was knighted for his service to British capitalism in 1935, and was made a baronet in 1946.

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Last updated on: 21 November 2014