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International Socialism, Summer 1979


Pete Goodwin

‘Razor sharp factional minds’ –
the Fourth International debates Kampuchea

(Summer 1979)


From International Socialism, 2:5, Summer 1979, pp. 106–114.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott.
Marked up for by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Our party, the SWP, was born out of Trotskyism. We were conceived, in the Trotskyist movement of the late 1940s on the basis of our different analysis of Stalinist Russia and the other so-called socialist countries.

Until his death Trotsky maintained that Stalin’s Russia was a ‘degenerated workers state’. In his hands the theory had the great operational merit that it pointed clearly to the counter-revolutionary role of Stalinism. And, applied to Russia alone, it at least maintained some historical connection between socialism and the working class, for no-one can deny that the October revolution was a workers revolution.

But after the Second World War Russia no longer remained alone. It was to be joined by Eastern Europe and North Korea, and soon China and North Vietnam. After two or three years indecision the self proclaimed representatives of ‘orthodox Trotskyism’ resolved, to their own satisfaction, the theoretical problems this posed by proclaiming these to be ‘deformed workers states’ (they could scarcely be ‘degenerated’ given their ill-health from birth).

For Tony Cliff, and a tiny group of co-thinkers, on the other hand, it seemed that such thinking, in proclaiming the creation of ‘workers’ states’ without any elements of workers’ democracy and without intervention by the workers themselves, abandoned the very basis of Marxism – that socialism is the self-emancipation of the working class. From this stemmed our analysis that Russia, Eastern Europe, China and so on, were not any type of ‘workers’ state’ but were in fact state-capitalist.

The Vietnamese invasion of Kampuchea has given rise to new problems for the ‘orthodox Trotskyists’. It has prompted a debate in the Fourth International which, among other things, concerns the analysis of the ‘socialist countries’ for the first time in many years. This debate at the least sheds some interesting new light on the ‘orthodoxy’ of ‘orthodox Trotskyism’ and at the best may prompt some of its more open-minded adherents into critical reflection.

The debate is contained in the pages of Intercontinental Press-Inprecor. The protagonists are, on the one hand Ernest Mandel (representing the – largely European based – majority of the United Secretariat) and, on the other, the American Socialist Workers Party (the American co-thinkers of the Fourth International – the similarity between them and us in the British SWP extends no further than the name). The central issue of the debate is this: the American SWP argue that Pol Pot’s Cambodia was capitalist, Mandel argues that it was a workers state

A word of caution is necessary before we examine the debate. The American SWP do not represent a tendency which is in practice making hesitant move towards the theory of state-capitalism. So far as the present class nature of all the other ‘socialist’ countries is concerned they are in complete agreement with the rest of the Fourth International. (Although, as we shall see, there is a fundamental disagreement on the reasoning behind this). In recent years, despite a penchant for hard Trotskyist categories (they insist, to the obvious minor irritation of much of the rest of the FI in constantly referring to the Vietnamese Communist Party as Stalinist), the American SWP displayed a remarkably uncritical attitude to a number of the so-called ‘deformed workers states’, particularly Cuba but also Vietnam. The majority of the Fourth International has (in our view quite correctly) condemned the Vietnamese invasion of Kampuchea (on the grounds of national self-determination). The American SWP has, on the other hand, vigorously defended the invasion. And it is our opinion that their equally vigorous argument that Cambodia was capitalist is largely motivated by post hoc theoretical justification for this stance. (In fact their defence of the invasion seems more motivated by their relatively uncritical attitude to Vietnam). Having made that caution the debate remains of considerable interest.

The American SWP’s position can best be presented under four headings: (1) what happened in Kampuchea; (2) the drawing of parallels with at least partially similar events in other countries; (3) a fundamental theoretical statement of the relationship between nationalisation and workers states; (4) a number of passing comments on China, Vietnam and Cuba designed to show that what happened in these countries was fundamentally different from what happened in Kampuchea.

(1) According to the Americans ‘guerrilla forces led by the relatively young Cambodian Communist Party began to grow’ in the aftermath of the 1967 peasant uprising in Battambang. Gaining further impetus from Sihanouk’s call for armed resistance to the Lon Nol regime (established by a US backed coup in 1970) ‘the Kampuchean Stalinists became leaders of a peasant army – the National United Front of Kampuchea (FUNK) – that eventually grew to 50,000 or more ... the peasant rebels won the vast bulk of the countryside and held on to it until the fall of Lon Nol in April 1975.

‘As in Vietnam, the military command structure that headed the peasant army was not revolutionary socialist but Stalinist. The Kampuchean CP, and thus the FUNK, adhered to the strategy of ‘peoples war’, which called for peasants fighting in the countryside to the exclusion of the revolutionary mobilisation of the urban working class and poor ...

‘... Like the National Liberation Front’s in Vietnam, the FUNK’s program promised to preserve capitalism after the fall of the old regime. With this perspective, the rebel forces had no interest in forging an anti-capitalist alliance with the working class, students and urban poor. It failed to take advantage of the massive anti-Lon Nol, anti-war, and anti-US demonstrations that shook Pnompenh and other Kampuchean cities in 1972. To the contrary, the Khmer Rouge leaders viewed the cities as enemy bastions to be conquered.’

Nevertheless ‘when the first Khmer Rouge troops marched into Pnompenh, they were greeted tumultuously by workers, students, village refugees and rank-and-file soldiers, who were convinced that an era of war and imperialist domination was ending ...’ But ‘the Khmer Rouge commanders had come to power in a country whose economic and social structure had been devastated by five years of barbaric US bombing, puppet rule and civil war ...’ And they ‘quickly demonstrated they had no intention of organising and relying on the masses to overcome Kampuchea’s social crisis or of acting in their interests. Having come to power on the crest of a revolutionary upsurge in the countryside they not only brutally smashed and dispersed the urban population but they drove back the land seizures and redistribution begun by the peasants.’ A process which they then vividly and horrifically describe.

‘The defeat of Lon Nol’s imperialist backed forces was a devastating blow to Kampuchea’s bourgeoisie, almost all of whom had fled by the fall of Lon Nol in 1975. The government came into the hands of the “Angkar” (the Kampuchean CP apparatus), as did all urban property and a growing portion of the agricultural land.’ The economic policy the ‘Angkar’ followed ‘... aimed to maximize exploitation of labour and minimize consumption, so as to become self-sufficient in food and accumulate an agricultural surplus that could be sold on the world market. Through these exports, it would finance industrialisation’.

(2) That then is the basic skeleton of what the American SWP describes as having happened in Kampuchea. As we shall see it is a description with which Mandel has no dispute. And, we should make it clear at this stage, nor do we. It is a sober and accurate assessment which former romantic apologists for the Khmer Rouge and the Pol Pot regime could study with profit. But, what is more interesting, the American SWP, while recognising the particularities of the Kampuchean situation (specifically its devastation) draw a number of parallels which we also think are absolutely correct.

We have already seen parallels drawn with the Vietnamese National Liberation Front. These are made absolutely explicit: ‘Despite the extreme character of the measures taken by the Pol Pot regime such policies offer no puzzle if it is understood that Stalinist and other petty-bourgeois nationalist currents are alien from the working class in program and, in China and Indochina, in social composition as well.’ And they go on to quote from an article written by Trotsky in 1932 on the communist guerrillas in China where he argues ‘The absence of a strong revolutionary party and mass organisations of the proletariat renders control over the commanding stratum (of the guerrilla army) virtually impossible. The commanders and commissars appear in the guise of absolute masters of the situation and upon occupying the cities will be rather apt to look down from above on the workers ...’

And according to the American SWP exactly these dangers were present in China after revolution: ‘When the peasant armies marched into China’s cities in 1949, the Maoist leaders did implement an anti-working class policy, although not mass evacuations as in Kampuchea. They banned strikes and demonstrations. They sought to draw capitalist forces in the government.’

The American SWP authors draw a second parallel of perhaps even greater importance. ‘Despite the scope of the nationalisations, the degree of disintegration of the Lon Nol regime, and the wartime devastation of the Kampuchean economy, the nationalisations under Pol Pot have numerous parallels in history. They are in the same family with the extensive nationalisations by regimes in Egypt, Burma, Mozambique and Angola ... Neocolonial regimes are frequently forced to foster the primitive accumulation of capital through the state apparatus.’

(3) And it is on this question of nationalisations that the American SWP make their most profound point: ‘... the nationalization of property is not by itself sufficient to establish a workers state. The intervention of the workers – the only force in modern society capable of establishing and maintaining a progressive economic structure – is needed. The nationalizations in Kampuchea came about not through mobilizations of the working class – even limited and controlled ones – but following the Khmer Rouge’s crushing of the urban workers.’

‘... The Kampuchean working class had no stake whatever in the nationalization of property, carried out without its participation, by the petty-bourgeoisie in the Angkar. These were the actions of a new bourgeoisie gestating in the state apparatus, they were not anticapitalist actions by the Kampuchean workers.’

Now how do the American SWP square this position, coupled with the perceptive parallels they have drawn outside Kampuchea, with their position, held in common with Mandel, that Russia, Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam, Cuba etc. are all workers states?

In the case of Cuba, China and Vietnam, they provide an answer in the self same article from which all the above quotations are drawn. In each of these cases they argue that the ‘Stalinist’ or ‘petty-bourgeois’ leaderships (their own words) were ‘forced’ or ‘chose’ (again their own words) to initiate mass-mobilisations which implemented nationalisation some time after they seized power. It was these, and not the seizure of power itself, which in their view transformed these countries into workers states.

Their argument is most clearly spelt out with regard to China. We have already quoted their description of how, on their seizure of power in 1949 the ‘Maoist leaders did implement an anti-working class policy.’ They then continue ‘but when the Chinese government was compelled to take on US imperialism in the Korean War, it had to change course. Land reform was extended to all of southern China. (Previous waves of reform had affected only the North.) The resulting peasant mobilisations spurred anticapitalist mobilizations beginning in 1951. A workers and peasants government thus came into being and began carrying out – under the auspices of the Maoist bureaucracy – the urban mobilizations and economic measures that in 1953 transformed China into a workers state.’

Similarly they argue that South Vietnam became a workers state, not with the fall of Saigon in 1975, but with ‘the mass mobilisations that overturned capitalist property relations ... in the spring of 1978 ...’

Most of our readers will, we think, feel instinctively very uneasy about this last line of argument. We agree. But we will leave it to Ernest Mandel to demolish it.

With regard to what actually took place in Kampuchea Mandel has little significant difference with the American SWP. In particular, he make’s no attempt to contradict what his opponents have quite clearly established, that the Kampuchean revolution was one in which the working class had no significant (and certainly no leading) part. But then this is not what concerns him. Nor indeed is it the specific question of the class nature of Kampuchea taken in isolation. As he puts it ‘Kampuchea is a border case, given the extreme backwardness of the country, compounded by the catastrophic results of the American bombing and the ensuing disruption of economic and social life. In and by itself, a difference on the exact definition of the class nature of the Pol Pot regime and the class nature of the state under that regime wouldn’t be so serious, if it were not combined with the question of what criteria one uses in order to determine the class nature of a state. It is the use of wrong criteria which makes the position defended by comrades Mary-Alice Waters, Fred Feldman, and Steve Clark so potentially dangerous. For these have obvious implications with regard to our assessment of the class nature of many other workers states, and even with regard to our basic positions towards the class nature of the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China.‘ (my emphasis)

He then goes on to restate ‘what has been the unchanged majority position of the Fourth International on this subject for at least a quarter of a century’ and concludes ‘where a radical agrarian revolution has occurred, where the existing bourgeoisie has lost state power and is no more a ruling class, where private property has been essentially suppressed, where the economy obviously does not operate any more on the basis of capitalist production and property relations and does not function any more according to the laws of motion of capitalism, a workers state has come into being, independently of the conditions under which this has occurred.’ (My emphasis)

Never before, to my knowledge, has Mandel spelt out so explicitly how little his ‘workers states’ have to do with the revolutionary action of the workers themselves. And he goes on to develop the point. He explicitly singles out the American SWP’s formula that ‘The nationalisation of property is not enough to establish a workers state. The intervention of the workers is necessary.’ For Mandel this is simply a ‘working hypothesis’ and a working hypothesis which for him has been tested and found wanting in Eastern Europe where, in Mandel’s words ‘workers mobilisations were nonexistent or extremely marginal.’

What is wrong with the American SWP, according to Mandel, is that the make the role of the working class into a ‘dogmatic schema’ whereby ‘when nationalisations do not occur through the mobilizations of the working class, when capitalists do not become expropriated by the workers, then, by definition, capitalism continues to rule ... We could then have two countries with identical property relations, identical relations of production, identical socio-economic systems and identical laws of motion, the first of which would be a workers state and the second of which would be a bourgeois state, merely because of the historical conditions under which these identical systems had been established.’

Now in one important respect Mandel is absolutely correct here. The social and economic structures of Russia, Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam etc. are essentially similar. And yet in only one, Russia, can nationalisation in any way be traced back historically to a workers’ revolution (a point with which, as we shall see, Mandel seems more or less in agreement). Should one then consistently accept the American SWP’s criterion and only that, one would arrive at the position that Russia is a workers state and that all the rest are bourgeois. A manifestly absurd position. (Though that does not stop the French ‘Trotskyist’ organisation, Lutte Ouvriere, from holding that position to this day, nor did it stop Mandel and the majority of the Fourth International from holding exactly that position from 1945 to 1948.)

There is however a solution to this problem that maintains as a fundamental the revolutionary role of the working class without falling into the obvious absurdity to which Mandel points. And that is the theory of state capitalism which we have long advocated, which recognises that the Stalinist counter-revolution in Russia produced a state capitalist society. It is precisely with the spectre of the theory of state capitalism that Mandel tries to frighten his opponents within the Fourth International:

Once one accepts the utterly revisionist idea that one can have a capitalist state without capitalists, without a ruling capitalist class, without capitalist property and production relations, and without the economy obeying the laws of motion of capitalism, then 99 per cent of the traditional Marxist case against the various theories of state capitalism – commencing with those of the Mensheviks and the Social Democrats, throughout those of the Bordighists, C.L.R. James, and Tony Cliff, up to those of the Maoists and Bettelheim – collapses. The miserable remnants of that case then hang on the single thin thread of the “origins” of nationalisations and on them alone. The razor-sharp factional minds of the state capitalists will find no difficulty in cutting through that thread.’

On this last point Mandel is of course absolutely correct and, earlier on in his article, he demonstrates it with a short demolition of the American SWPs attempt to square the circle over China:

Comrades Feldman and Clark claim that the Chinese state remained bourgeois after the proclamation of the Chinese People’s Republic in 1949. But leaving aside the fact that one will not find a single Chinese capitalist who believes that he remained in power in 1950 or 1951 in his country, the extension of land reforms and the generalized nationalisations of the subsequent years were obviously realized by the state power (the army, the government, the administration, the state apparatus) established in October 1949. How could a bourgeois state be used to abolish capitalism? Under the “pressure of the masses”? Under the “compulsion” of imperialist pressure? Aren’t those the very revisionist theses of the Social Democrats, the Stalinists since 1935 and the Eurocommunists?’

So much for the American SWP’s ‘mass mobilisations in China after 1951.’ But Mandel is also clear of the even shakier claim to be workers states of a number of other countries he (and the American SWP) would like to label as such. He asks them rhetorically (but very perceptively),

If Pol Pot has squeezed “extreme capitalist accumulation” of the forced collectivization of the Kampuchean peasantry, didn’t Stalin do likewise with the forced collectivisation of the Russian peasants, which was an otherwise large and bloody affair? What then remains of the non-capitalist nature of the Russian state and economy after that “extreme capitalist accumulation” that occurred in Russia in 1929-1934? If in order to have a workers state one needs to have the bourgeoisie expropriated by the workers, how can one then have a workers state in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and North Korea where, by no stretch of the imagination, could these expropriations be interpreted as having been carried out by the workers themselves (a few street demonstrations by rigidly controlled workers in support of these expropriations are obviously something less than expropriations by the workers)?’

Now we would answer these questions as follows. Yes. Stalin did squeeze extreme capitalist accumulation out of the Russian peasants. No. Nothing did remain of the non-capitalist nature of Russian state and economy after this. And yes. Romania, Poland, and so on are not workers states precisely because the workers played no part in their ‘revolutions’. We suspect that many of our readers who do not entirely share our views would also instinctively give the same answers to these questions posed in isolation.

But of course that is not what Mandel intends. He expects his opponents to throw up their hands in horror once the full implications of their analysis of Kampuchea have been revealed, and once it has been shown that they cannot wriggle out of these. To achieve this result, now that he has clearly abandoned any connection between ‘workers states’ and the working class, Mandel has but one argument and he uses it prolifically. Put simply it is this: once the state takes private property into its hands, then capitalism ceases to exist, therefore we must have a workers state. Remember his reference to ‘the utterly revisionist idea that one can have a capitalist state without capitalists, without capitalist property, and production relations, and without the economy obeying the laws of motion of capitalism.’ It is a typical quote, repeated in different forms again and again. Mandel sees no need to argue it in this article, he simply feels that to repeat it often enough will surely draw his opponents in the Fourth International back into line.

Now it must be noted that Mandel is right in one small aspect of this, and that is as follows: it is absurd to talk about a capitalist state without (private) capitalists, unless one is talking about state capitalism, that is a formation in which the state acts as collective capitalist and the top echelons of the state bureaucracy constitute a capitalist class. Any theories which try and maintain that the self styled socialist countries are capitalist without recognising that this is state capitalism are merely more or less sophisticated name calling.

What we suspect alarms Mandel most about the American SWP is that they do, in effect, recognise the Pol Pot regime as state capitalist (though they baulk at the name). So Mandel’s argument reduces itself to simply pronouncing the notion of state capitalism to be a theoretical absurdity. That is a bit lame, especially in one of such erudition as Mandel. He must be aware of the various fragmentary but coherent remarks pointing to such a theoretical possibility in Marx, Engels and Lenin. He must be aware of the extremely suggestive analyses put forward by Bukharin in Economics of the Transformation Period. But we will just remind him of one rather less obscure (for him) reference: from Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed: ‘Theoretically, to be sure it is possible to conceive a situation in which the bourgeoisie as a whole constitutes itself a stock company which, by means of its state, administers the whole national economy. The economic laws of such a regime would present no mysteries ...’

Trotsky of course adds ‘Such a regime never existed, however, and because of profound contradictions among the proprietors themselves, never will exist ...’ And Trotsky was probably correct as far as he went, state capitalism is indeed most unlikely to come about as a result of a capitalist super merger. But there are two quite different circumstances which can and have led to the formation of state capitalist regimes. Firstly there is the quite exceptional case of a successful workers’ revolution which removes the old bourgeoisie from power (Russia 1917), but which then degenerates. Secondly, there is the much more general case of weak, compromised bourgeoisies, sitting on top of a peasant rebellion with a petty bourgeoisie desperate for national development and organised in a Stalinist or nationalist party as the prospective recipient of the collective national capital.

And that is precisely the situation that dominates most of the neo-colonial world and that has given birth to the more partial state capitalist regimes of Algeria, Angola and so on, and the more complete ones of China, Vietnam etc.

The Fourth International has tried to draw a blood red proletarian line between those state capitalist regimes it labels ‘workers states’ and those it characterises ‘bonapartist capitalist regimes’. The line is not an easy one to draw for the simple reason that it does not exist. Once before (over the Algerian revolution) the Fourth International nearly tripped over itself trying to draw it. Today, it is doing so again. And we can confidently predict that it will continually do so until it recognises these regimes for what they are – state capitalist.

The irony is that the present debate has all the elements to resolve the problem. The American SWP clearly demonstrates how the Pol Pot regime was established and maintained not by but against the working class, it draws the essential parallels with movements and events in the rest of the neocolonial world to show that this was not an isolated freak. Taking its stand on the revolutionary role of the working class it pronounces Pol Pot’s regime to be capitalist. Mandel generalises the argument, and clearly demonstrates that if this is the case then there is no escaping the fact that the same goes for the rest of the so-called ‘workers states’.

But the tragedy of the debate is that while the American SWP only advance their theses as a by-product of their defence of the Vietnamese invasion, Mandel only develops them in order to frighten his opponents back into ‘Trotskyist’ ‘orthodoxy’. But in doing so he has clearly established that that orthodoxy is reconstituted on two bases, and two only: (1) The revolutionary role of the working class is no longer essential, is at best a ‘working hypothesis’ tried and found wanting. (2) A crude assertion that a statized economy and capitalism are absolutely exclusive. Both sides in the debate belong to the Fourth International. That tendency prides itself on the recognition as a starting point for its politics of a world economy and a world working class. It also prides itself on its ability to apply revolutionary Marxism to the modern world. If that really is the case then we are confident that within it there are those who will use the material in the debate more profitably.

Bibliographical Note

The debate in the Fourth International on the Indo-China wars encompasses many other issues than the class nature of Kampuchea. Readers wanting to follow it can find the full texts of the lengthy majority and minority resolutions in Intercontinental Press-Inprecor, Vol. 17 No. 21 (June 4 1979).

The discussion over the class nature of Kampuchea is best developed in two articles from which all quotations in the present article are taken. They are ‘Pol Pot Regime – Was it a Workers State?’ by Fred Feldman and Steve Clark (this represents the position of the American SWP) and ‘Behind Differences on Military Conflicts in Southeast Asia’ by Ernest Mandel. They are contained respectively in Intercontinental Press-Inprecor Vol. 17 Nos. 7 and 13 (Feb 26 and April 9 1979)

The foundations of our state capitalist analysis as originally formulated in our break with ‘orthodox Trotskyism’ are contained in Tony Cliffᰱs State Capitalism in Russia (Pluto Press 1974) and On the Class Nature of the “People’s Democracies” contained in The Fourth International and the Origins of International Socialists (Pluto Press 1971). It is developed with regard to Eastern Europe in Chris Harman Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe (Pluto Press 1974) and with regard to China in Nigel Harris The Mandate of Heaven – Marx and Mao in Modern China (Quartet 1978). Further amplification can be found in numerous articles in International Socialism (old series). One of these may be particularly singled out for those who share Mandel’s curious belief in the theoretical impossibility of state capitalism, namely Peter Binns’ The theory of state capitalism in International Socialism (old series), no. 74. Finally those who would like to read a representative polemic between our position and the Fourth International should consult Ernest Mandel’s pamphlet The inconsistencies of State Capitalism (IMG 1970) and our reply The inconsistencies of Ernest Mandel by Chris Harman in International Socialism (old series), no. 41.

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