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The New International, May 1940


M. Lebrun

Mass and Class in Soviet Society


From New International, Vol. 6 No. 4, May 1940, pp. 87–91.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The definition of the USSR as a “degenerated workers’ state” does not free us of the necessity of examining in each concrete case the role that it must play in this war. From its definition as a “workers’ state” cannot be deduced the absolute necessity for its defense, no matter under what conditions the war is made. History knows cases where the bourgeoisie or other ruling classes were defeatists in their own country (in Russia in the Russo-Japanese war, in the United States the northern bourgeoisie in the war against Mexico that was led by the slave-holding South, etc.).

In the case of Soviet Russia a defeatist attitude on the part of its own proletariat would be even more justifiable. For, although theoretically the ruling class, it does not exercise any control nor take any responsibility lor the policy of its stale. According to Trotsky, the dominant trait of this state is its dual character; he even insists on the fact that this duality instead of tending to disappear is growing from day to day. Bourgeois social law, which at first only dominated the field of distribution, tends to invade further and further the decisive field of production.

The social “fruits” of statified property themselves demand, in order to be grabbed, both the violence and the coercion of the bourgeois law of distribution, against ... toiling masses. But it is already no longer against – properly speaking – bourgeois tendencies that statified property is defended. It is above all defended against the petit bourgeois tendencies of misery, or the miserable tendencies of the individual left to himself – that is to say, the petit bourgeois; for Soviet society of the Stalinist epoch is, like every totalitarian society, an atomized society. The suppression of classes is not the same thing as the disappearance of classes. As by a sort of retreat into the far-distant past, before the organized class struggle had come into existence, the USSR is the field of a general, and blind, struggle of individuals, and of all against the state.

An Atomized Society

A society cannot live long under such conditions. Individuals, citizens, divided and separated, tend to re-group themselves again, on the basis of their common interests. The victorious proletariat organized its State in order to beat down the hereditary enemy, the bourgeoisie. Having exterminated it, the proletariat however did not enjoy the fruits of its victory. Its State was turned against it, expropriating the proletariat in its turn from the benefits of its victory over the bourgeoisie. It has lost its immediate means of defense (the union), it has lost its means of political representation (the Soviet), it has lost its means of conscious expression (the Party). It has seen itself atomized like the other classes, the peasants and the bourgeoisie. In the State that it itself created, all its own means of defense, of representation and of expression aer as scattered, as indirect and oblique, as improvised or spontaneous, as underground or illegal as those of the other social groupings. In the general misery the only thing which can distinguish the proletariat by any sign whatsoever of superiority, from all the other social groupings, and this includes the totalitarian bureaucracy, is that it alone can find in the still existing social relationship of property, in the statified property, a road towards progress and the future.

But in the given economic and political situation, national as well international, that is rather a theoretical advantage. For in the totalitarian impasse of Soviet .society under Stalin, development tends to follow the line of least resistance. And in the present conditions in Russia no one can hold that the easiest way out is that of the integral maintenance of collectivized property and centralized economy. The road of the proletariat, being the only progressive one, is perhaps here too the most difficult and the most radical. (We must never forget that unlike capitalism, the process of builidng socialism is a conscious one, that is to say, a voluntary, political task.) In any case, the road of the political restoration of the proletariat is not a “dry” road but a revolutionary one. On the other hand, the road of counter-revolution, which has been followed for a long time, marked from time to time by violent explosions, by a sort of spasmodic civil war, can, with the war, be finished the “dry” way. The war, without a victorious revolution, will be fatal to the Russian proletariat, even though it ends in the military victory of the ruling Bonapartist clique. The most important channel of the counter-revolution is the bureaucracy itself.

Why then cannot the proletariat of Russia, even if it be considered the ruling class, be defeatist in “its” State? After all, a defeatist attitude is the natural consequence of the lack of national cohesion of a given social or political regime. Can you conceive of a solid national cohesion in an atomized, totalitarian society?

The Necessity for Defeatism

But here we have to do not with a theoretical question but rather with a practical policy that must be determined according to immediate perspectives. Which is the best tactic in the given conditions – defensism or defeatism?

Under the tension and in the atmosphere of war, the rhythm of historical processes becomes increasingly accelerated. In the USSR the danger comes from the fact that counter-revolution may advance faster than revolution. The policy of unconditional defense can slow up even more a process that is already lagging behind. Lacking conscious or semi-conscious organs of expression, the social groupings in the atomized society manifest themselves through whatever channels or accidental means they happen to find along their road. Or by improvising. In a totalitarian society, all roads lead to the State. Once war comes, all those groups or individuals who see security for themselves in the partial or complete enlarging of private property and individualistic accumulation will find themselves together, in a broad united front. The proletariat, already in retreat all along the line, may find itself isolated in the bargain. The revolutionary vanguard must not tie its hands in advance, a priori, by a defensist tactic, that is to say a legitimist loyalist attitude towards the bureaucracy. This policy in a certain sense a passive one, will not help us prepare in time those subjective factors necessary for action when the chance comes.

We must not lose sight of the inner nature of the struggle of the Russian proletariat: it wants to defend the statified property against all its enemies, both external and internal. But it is precisely the war that is the. shortest and surest means for the destruction of this property. We do not mean that the most immediate and most dangerous threat comes from an invasion by a foreign army, but, at least in the present phase of the war, that the main danger is from within.

The construction of socialism is above all a conscious process. This means that the economic relationships by themselves do not decide: there is no automatic organic evolution from statified property towards socialism. For this is required the political domination of the proletariat, which must exercise active control through its specific organs, parties, unions, Soviets, etc. It is therefore necessary that the proletariat be in a position to direct, to use effectively and in actuality, the economic process based upon collectivized property. This collectivized economy in itself, above all in an isolated and backward country, given the general retreat of the world proletariat, given the fact that a usurping bureaucracy has robbed the national proletariat of the fruits of its victory over the bourgeoisie – given all this, and the collectivized economy is only a secondary factor with relation to the subjective, conscious factor of political power. If, in order to give to the statified property all the possibilities of a socialist development, the proletariat ought to defend it against the bureaucracy, ought to snatch it out of the hands of the bureaucracy, then we cannot exclude by any affirmation of a principle (i.e., “Russia is a degenerated workers’ state”) the necessity in certain concrete cases, according to the character or historic role of the war into which the bureaucracy wants to drag the entire country, of a defeatist tactic on the part of the working class.

The “Free State”

The Soviet State, like its economy, is torn apart by the same irreducible antagonisms. The inherent tendency of every State, if left to itself, to elevate itself above classes, above society, has been able in Russia, thanks to exceptional historical circumstances, and perhaps for the first time in history, to work itself out to the end. This development of the process has been possible because the proletariat, the dominant class, has been too weak to exercise its control over the bureaucracy, the incarnation of the State. The bureaucracy has identified itself with the State. In so identifying itself, it has attained an absolute development, as far as it can go as a bureaucracy. This means that the bureaucracy, too, has come to the end of its process of development and now cannot but cease to be itself – that is, it must transform itself or die. Now that the State is its private property, the end of the process of introversion is reached: from being a servant of the State, the bureaucracy has become its master.

By the same process of evolution, of realization of its absolute nature, the State, completely bureaucratized, places itself above society, becoming in the process asocial or antisocial. In order not to recognize its master, the ruling class (the proletariat), it proclaims the classless society, it becomes the whole society, the totalitarian providence, socialism. At this stage of hypertrophy, it puts itself in opposition to all of society, suffocates and crushes all the class groupings in society – classes whose very existence it disowns, by proclaiming their disappearance. The life of society is menaced by this excrescence, by this unceasing and evergrowing invasion by a State which has reached a kind of social elephantiasis.

In order to restore the equilibrium that society has lost, war breaks out between the Frankenstein State and society as a whole. But the organized class struggle (violence which is not arbitrary and unilateral, but rather, organized and counter-balanced by other forces) – the motive power of history – is not present to re-establish the vital equilibrium of society and its dynamism – a process which must go on until classes die a natural death as the true socialist society is achieved. And so the bureaucratized State continues to rot and dry out the vital lifesprings of the social organism. The bureaucratized State must therefore be overthrown so that the normal process of class struggle may resume its natural place, its organic limits, its true functions as servant of the ruling class, the instrument par excellence of history. Then the State will be constrained within these limits, and its innate asocial tendencies will be repressed, by the play of the class struggle, by the defensive action of other, non-ruling classes. This will be the task of the restored working-class democracy, that is to say, of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Basing itself on the statification and planning of the economy, extending its discretionary power over the entire economic life of society, the State has secured complete freedom. It has become what Engels, in a letter to Bebel criticizing the draft of the Gotha Program, defined as the “Free State”: “a State which is free in relation to its citizens, hence a State with a despotic government.” The USSR today might give us a rough idea of this bureaucratized “Free State.” But such a State has no future and no possibility of surviving.

At any rate, it would seem we are not going outside of Marxist tradition if we call into question the theoretical correctness of the formula of the “degenerated workers’ state” in order to admit the hypothesis, under exceptional and transitory conditions, as a temporary phenomenon, of a certain monstrous deformation of the Marxist concept of the State, such as that of a Bureaucratized Free State.

In any case no theoretical analysis can exhaust the question of the nature of the Soviet State. Yesterday’s analysis no longer suffices for today’s situation. Engels spoke of a “Free State in relation to its citizens.” Marx, speaking of the bureaucracy of Louis Bonaparte, called it an “artificial class.” Lenin, speaking of the Soviet State itself, criticized the expression “workers’ state” as inexact, because, according to him, the Russian State was “worker ... and peasant,” or rather, as he defined it, a bureaucratic State dominated by the proletariat. And finally, Trotsky, in characterizing the Stalinist bureaucracy, recognized that it is “something more than a simple bureaucracy.” And more recently, he affirmed: “The Soviet bureaucracy at present has united within itself in a sense the characteristics of all the old classes, but without either their social roots, or their traditions.” (The Totalitarian Defeatists, La Quatrième Internationale, Nov.–Dec., 1938) A new and unique phenomenon in history, the degenerated Soviet State, or Free State, is an extremely transitory process. Enclosing it in a formula which lacks any great scientific precision – “degenerated workers’ state” – does not resolve our practical problem.

But, on the other hand, to know whether we should refuse to defend it in a concrete case in the present war, we do not have to proclaim that a new ruling class has taken the place of the proletariat in the USSR. Historical perspectives and the development of events alone can decide the question. What we can and must do is to weigh the perspectives in an effort to analyze and foresee the meaning and tendencies of the development. It is these tendencies that can give us the best answer to the question of the social nature of the bureaucracy. For our part, we believe that the bureaucracy has no future; that its immediate future does not point in the same direction as the historical current, ‘but quite the contrary, in the reverse direction, towards certain decline. (Our basis for this belief, we shall try to explain below.)

Now of all the instruments of production, said the young Marx, the most important is a new social class. At least from this angle, it is difficult to reconcile Marx’s concept with the reality of the Stalinist bureaucracy. According to the vital and dialectical standards of the young Marx, the Soviet bureaucracy as a class does not pass the test of history. This class that exhausts itself in less than a generation, guiding the society that it leads straight towards a blind alley and ruin, is rather an abortion of a class.

Stalin Seeks A New Economic Base

Let us now leave aside, for the moment, the purely theoretical dispute over the nature of the Soviet State. Let us limit ourselves to an analysis of practical perspectives. There lies the answer. This is all the truer because the foreign policy of the USSR does not necessarily flow from what remains for us to defend in Russia: the statified property and planned economy. In fact, it is quite the contrary.

Just as the foreign policy takes on a character more and more consciously hostile to the interests of the world revolution, so the internal policy of the bureaucratic party in power takes on a character more and more antagonistic towards the collectivized economic structure.

For years the bureaucracy has been conducting a systematic offensive against the Soviet proletariat. A consideration of the past few years from the angle of the present Stalinist policy (in the light of the pact with Hitler) clarifies the meaning of the struggle to exterminate the old generation of Bolsheviks and the revolutionary or independent representatives of the Youth. As our transitional program puts it, this general extermination “has destroyed even more the political equilibrium, in favor of the bourgeois right wing of the bureaucracy and of its allies in the country.” It was in this sense, moreover, that Comrade Trotsky interpreted the hypothesis of an alliance between Russia and Germany. In fact, trying to weigh the possibilities of such an alliance before the “Commision of Inquiry,” he believed that if it should take place it would be against the will of Stalin himself. He thought that it would be rather the work of a section of the bureaucracy seeking “to assure its position at any price, even at the price of an alliance or friendship with Hitler.” Trotsky supposed that Stalin was not at all inclined to travel in this direction. His interpretation seemed to be that such an alliance would be the result of a victorious struggle of one section of the bureaucracy against the wish of the “father of the peoples.” This faction would be composed “of a large layer of the upper and middle bureaucracy.” The removal of Litvinov, we can clearly see now, is in line with that view. Finally, this whole struggle within the bureaucracy has resulted in the current triumph of the policy of the Fascist “right wing,” the Boutenko wing; the alliance with Hitler is the expression of this triumph. Stalin has gone over to the program of the right wing.

Why? Because Stalin seeks a new basis of support for his tottering regime. The country of socialism is floundering in a general crisis of under-production. The crisis of underproduction is chronic in light industry and consumers’ goods. The terrible exhaustion of basic capital has become acute since 1937. The impossibility of its renewal by national resources alone is aggravated by the increased necessities of the military machine, on a war footing. Stalin is tempted to seek in the industrial power and high technical level of Germany the means of renewing this basic capital, or, above all, of reducing the ever more alarming unbalances in the fundamental branches of Soviet economy. In compensation, he promises to re-vitalize Germany with raw materials, with food products, even perhaps at the risk of re-introducing famine in the USSR, unless he prefers to start out with Hitler on a policy of brigandage and the conquest of colonies. (Let no one raise loud cries of pious indignation because we dare to suppose that the “degenerated workers’ state” is capable of imperialist brigandage. Let it be remembered that it was Comrade Crux himself who was the first to believe the bureaucracy capable of “every imaginable crime,” including the capacity of “carrying out an imperialist policy,” that is, by taking a piece of China for its services to Chiang Kai-shek. – See Discussion on the Chinese Question, August 11, 1937)

Stalinism is obliged to get more and more involved in policies which seek a way out of the blind alley, no longer within the country, but outside its borders. Within the country, the national resources no longer suffice or are no longer as available as they were in 1928-29. This time he can no longer skin the peasantry as he did then; the can no longer set afoot the same campaign of primitive accumulation at the expense of the peasantry as he did in the years of the first Five-Year Plan. He can no longer count on the support of the workers, whose enthusiasm, devotion and confidence have since fallen catastrophically. Rakovsky foresaw this general crisis of under-production in a masterful fashion in his study of the problems of Soviet economy, in 1930. (Problèmes de l’Economie de l’USSR in La Lutte des Classes, May 15, 1932)

Economic Effects of The Pact With Hitler

The Russo-Gennan agreement is the most convincing expression of the necessity in which Stalin finds himself of seeking a way out ol the general crisis by going outside of Russia. Under the pressure of necessity, a “liaison” is being formed between the peasant economy (the Kolkhoz aristocracy) and German industry, that is to say, in the old, more precise language, between “the kulak and world capitalism.” As Trotsky said, “It was not worth while to make the October revolution for that.” (The Revolution Betrayed)

The intensive exploitation of the national resources and of the Soviet masses’ capacity for work – the corner-stones of the first industrialization – saved, for a time, the economic basis of the October revolution by assuring the development of the productive forces of Soviet economy. But we are now faced with a new cycle of reproduction. The promissory notes of the first industrialization have fallen due. Thus, all the accumulated capital must be renewed. At bottom, it is a question of finding the bases for a new accumulation. On the basis of the first two Five-Year Plans, the bureaucracy has exhausted its progressive role, that is, its role as a working class bureaucracy. It has thus succeeded in “saving” the economic foundations of the workers’ state, but by definitively dethroning the proletariat. By means of the planned economy it has made the means of production and the national income its exclusive monopoly. It therefore is in the same relation to the entire economic process as the great imperialist magnates are to the monopolized branches of capitalism; they also need not be the nominal proprietors of the majority of the stocks and bonds of the large corporations in order to dispose of them at their wish and according to their convenience. By controlling production and credit they dispose of the property of others, the little stockholders, the little coupon-clippers, the little savings of the little people, as if they were their own.

The bureaucracy begins to understand that it cannot repeat the history of the first industrialization. It now has much more to lose. It wants to get the country out of the crisis, but to its own exclusive profit, and no longer as a simple working class bureaucracy such as it was essentially in 1928 and ’29. It is here that the difference of historical perspective between the two periods is most clearly marked.

To solve the crisis, consolidating its position once for all, the bureaucracy hesitates between two methods: peace and war. Stalin is now half in the war and half out. But he has no choice. He would much prefer peace, a peace dictated by Hitler, for he would hope not only to hold what he has already taken, but also to get a share of the booty without risking a real war. Also, with peace, the Russo-German economic “collaboration” would be able to reach its full development. The latter, however, would really mean the “peaceful” colonization of Russia by Germany. But even this perspective of peace is more and more problematic. Stalin fears war, but he is tempted. He already plays at war, and after all in reality his game can only lead to war. This can prove fatal to the bureaucracy, or at the very least for the ruling oligarchy. Economically, however, it would not have consequences very different from those of an immediate peace, with the triumph of Hitler. War would put an end to the monopoly of foreign trade as a barrier to foreign, that is to say German, industry. The economic plan, already breached by the sudden needs of mobilization and the annexation of new territories, would be definitely put aside in order that the entire national economy might he adapted to the necessities of the war and cooperation with German economy. The accelerated movement of the centrifugal forces of the economy and of individualistic accumulation in some of the most fundamental sectors of the economic life of the country (agriculture, light industry and consumers’ goods, artisan production which is already in the process of legal decentralization, etc.) will break down all the juridical barriers and end up by being sanctioned by the State. This will not only be in line with the “historical” interests of the bureaucracy itself. It is also the path of least resistance. For the bureaucracy to act otherwise would mean to return to the proletariat, to the revolution, to its own self-destruction.

Towards The Restoration of Private Property

The bureaucracy, especially the top bureaucracy, hopes to increase the productive forces of the country by more and more thoroughgoing concessions in the way of the denationalization of the land and of light industry and artisan production. (It seems that this is the policy that has been adopted in the newly-annexed territories.) It would (hen find in this (temporary!) growth of the productive forces a more solid and autonomous base upon which to support itself and survive.

On such a base, it would be easier for the bureaucracy to develop fully every tendency within itself that might lead to its transformation into a new independent social formation. It is as restless as a hen that is looking for a sale place to lay her egg. It wants to get itself a proper, stable, economic and social base on which it can spread itself at ease and assure itself a permanent place in history as a true social class. It is precisely this that it seeks by its policy of foreign adventures!

If it succeeds, that is to say, if its policy of conquest is successful or if it goes through this entire war period without set-back or bankruptcy, then the old question of whether or not it is already a new social class will have been decided in the affirmative. The theses on the USSR in the transitional program predicted the political unfolding on the basis of the economic policy that we have just indicated. Here is what they said:

“It is from that direction, that is, from the right, that we can expect in the next period increasingly determined attempts to reconstruct the social regime of the USSR by reconciling it with ‘Western civilization,’ particularly in its Fascist form.”

It is this process of restoration that we have now before our eyes – seen no longer as a perspective but as something already in process.

Since the road back to the revolution is definitely blocked to the bureaucracy, we must not let ourselves be deceived by the “left” phrases and twists of the agents of Stalin.

Thanks to a momentarily favorable historical situation, the Stalinist bureaucracy has adopted a tone much more independent of the outside world than it has permitted itself for some time past. This is due to the surprising and unpredictable fact that the inter-imperialist war has broken out without Russia being drawn in at the first shot on the first day. Sheltered behind Germany, the adversary it feared most, the bureaucracy has plucked up a little courage, and Moscow now apes Berlin in its manner of treating small neighbors and hurling thunderbolts. Once more it is able to radicalize its vocabulary and to paint over its hideous visage with a little rouge. None of this is of the slightest real significance. It is simply a matter of frightening others, on one hand, and on the other, of salvaging the remnants of the Comintern in the democracies who arc cither at war with Germany or hostile to the Russo-German entente, so as to exploit it against Anglo-French and American imperialism. By this maneuver the bureaucracy disembarrasses itself of the ambiguous ideology of anti-Fascism, while at the same time, under cover of its leftist phrases, it turns decisively towards an alliance with Nazi imperialism, which has already been whitewashed by Molotov as the camp of peace forced to defend itself. As for the manifesto of the Communist International, that is merely an irresponsible echo of Molotov’s voice, a holiday speech delivered on an anniversary.

Hitler’s Flag is Also “Red”

Internally as well as externally, the progressive role of the Stalin bureaucracy was exhausted a long time ago. Internally, the bureaucracy “from (being) the guardian of Socialist property has become its principal destroyer”. (Theses of the First International Conference in 1936) Externally, it has long been the most powerful brake on the world revolution. Stalin’s continuing in power, in war or in peace, means either the colonization and dismemberment of the USSR or Fascism. His victory in the war means Fascism in Russia as well as in the world. The flag of the swastika is “red” also. The victory of Stalin allied to Hitler would transform the bureaucracy into a new class, after a certain process of rationalization with the bureaucracy itself as object. We have no reason to help directly or indirectly the victory of any imperialist camp. The victory of any bandit whatsoever would mean the triumph of the Fascist counter-revolution, if it were possible to conceive that this war could end without revolutionary intervention by the masses.

EDITORS’ NOTE: The above article is an extract from a contribution by M. Lebrun to the recently concluded discussion on the “Russian Question” within the Socialist Workers Party. This contribution was titled, The Defense of the USSR in the Present War, and was dated November 9, 1939.

M. Lebrun is now working on two more articles, one on the hind of exploitation of the masses now developing in the Soviet Union; the second on the tendencies and the interrelation of the German and the Russian economies. These will be published in early issues of The New International.

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