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The New International, February 1941


Milton Alvin


Is the Soviet Bureaucracy a New Class?

Russia – A Workers’ State


From New International, Vol. 7 No. 2, May 1940, pp. 27–30.
Transcribed & marked up by Damon Maxwell for ETOL.


THE EPOCH OF THE DECLINE of capitalism is characterized by world wars and unprecedented destruction of cities and countries together with their states and cultures and the production of misery on a hitherto unknown scale. This has caused some individuals, not content with the Marxian analysis of history and perspectives, which failed to produce a revolution in time to avoid the Second World War, to cast about for other explanations. It is in place, therefore, to review, briefly, our method and its application to the Soviet Union which is usually the starting point for attempts to revise our theory.

I. Classes in Society

In defining the Marxian method of historical materialism, Engels wrote, “The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in man’s better insight into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange.” (Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Chap. III.) Thus we see that classes in society arise out of the needs of production and for no other reasons.

The progress of historical development has produced classes and societies based upon class exploitation to a point in modern times where, under capitalism, two classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, remain two opposing and irreconcilable forces, one of which must, ultimately, move humanity forward on the road to complete social and economic freedom. The bourgeoisie, today in its death-agony because of its inability to solve the multifarious contradictions existing in capitalist society, is excluded from playing this progressive historical role. Its continued rule can only lead to continuous wars, crises, depressions, etc., the accumulated results of which may very well lead humanity back to barbarism. On the other hand, the proletariat, the only class in modern society able to transform production from capitalist anarchy to production for use on a higher level commensurate with the potentialities inherent in modern technology, can play a progressive role.

The proletariat, itself a product of the needs of capitalist production, can fulfill its historic mission only by so organising production as to release from it the fetters of private property and all its concomitant restrictions. To do this it is necessary to expropriate the bourgeoisie, to statify, i.e., own in common, the means of production, and to develop these means of production to the highest possible level in accordance with a plan. This mode of production, state ownership plus production according to plan, constitutes a different mode of production from the capitalist, based upon production for profit, and consequently, determines the nature of the social structure resting upon it. Common ownership of the means of production makes it unnecessary for exploiting and exploited classes to exist and, therefore, the ultimate result is the classless, socialist society.

Relations of classes to property forms (private property, state property) do not exist in the abstract but in the concrete needs of production itself and are determined by those needs. Every ruling class in history has defended the particular mode of production which existed as a result of its particular form of property ownership, the latter being interrelated to and interdependent upon what was produced, how it was produced and how the products were exchanged. The bourgeoisie, for example, as a property-owning class, has an indivisible relationship to the property forms peculiar to the social production of commodities for private profits, i.e., capitalist production. Under the feudal system, the landed aristocracies also had an indivisible relationship to the then existing property forms and defended them tooth and hide against the challenge of the rising bourgeoisie who wanted to introduce into society a new mode of production and a new form of property. The modern proletariat, seeking to release from the productive forces the restrictions placed upon them by private property relations, is just as indivisibly bound up with another property form: common ownership of the means of production. The proletariat does not seek to abolish property in general, but to abolish bourgeois property. Relations of classes to property forms are material questions, based upon the historical development of the needs of production and dependent upon the given level of this development in any particular epoch. In our epoch, “the death-agony of capitalism,” the form of property existing under bourgeois rule, capitalist property, is in conflict with the productive forces and generates a class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat which can be resolved only by the victory of the proletariat and the consequent change in the mode of production. The emergence of a new class in society must be based upon a new mode of production. History has never known of a class which appeared for any other reason, and, in fact, there is no other reason. Trotsky wrote, “The historical justification for every ruling class consisted in this – that the system of exploitation it headed raised the development of the productive forces to a new level.” And, “A social organ (and such is every class, including an exploiting class) can take shape only as a result of the deeply rooted inner needs of production itself.” (U.S.S.R. in War, N.I., Nov. 1939.)

II. The Soviet Union

The proletariat struck out on the road of world revolution in Russia in 1917. The result of the October Revolution was the establishment of a Workers’ State which expropriated the bourgeoisie and nationalized all important factories, banks, mines, railroads, means of communication and established a state monopoly of industrial enterprise and foreign trade. The workers’ state established new property forms in the Soviet Union. This was the outstanding and the fundamental result of the proletarian revolution. The large-scale development of the productive forces, even though carried out by the reactionary Stalin regime, testifies to the superiority of these new forms over the old and supplies us with the historical justification of the proletariat as a “ruling class.” The relations to these new property forms on an international scale were divided according to classes. The bourgeoisie sought to destroy and the proletariat to defend the new property forms.

During the upsurge of the proletarian revolutionary movement internationally, the workers exercized direct control of the state, which directed the economy of the country, through the Soviets, trade unions, factory committees, army committees and the revolutionary party. However, when this upsurge failed to bring the workers to power in the more advanced western European countries, an ebb set in in the Soviet Union, then isolated from world economy.

III. The Bureaucracy

This ebb, the fundamental cause of which was the defeat of the workers of western Europe, plus the exhaustion of the Soviet masses, living in a backward country with many remains of Czarist economy, culture and social traditions, brought about the political victory of Stalinism, the embodiment of the defeat of the international revolution. Stalinism proceeded, in stages, to destroy one by one the gains of the revolution. It usurped political control, eliminated workers’ control completely by destroying or rendering useless the organs of that control. This destruction of the gains of the revolution has assumed a frightful degree of quantity as it has invaded almost every aspect of Soviet life. Without listing each one, it has brought the Soviet masses to the point at which it is impossible to visualize a peaceful reform of the Stalin bureaucracy, thereby necessitating a violent removal of this malignant growth upon the workers’ revolution. This violent removal we characterize as a “political” revolution as differentiated from a “social” revolution for the reason that with all the changes introduced into Soviet life by the bureaucracy, it has not yet decisively changed the economic foundations, that is, the new mode of production established by the proletarian revolution. This remains, together with the monopoly of foreign trade, substantially unaltered, and is the indispensable characteristic of the proletarian revolution.

The resolution adopted by the Founding Convention of the Socialist Workers Party, January, 1938, stated, “... The wiping out of the entire revolutionary generation, occurring simultaneously with the complete deprivation of all democratic rights of the masses and the sanctification of the Bonapartist regime of absolutism, has been carried through by the Stalinist bureaucracy with the deliberate purpose of creating all the political preconditions for a fundamental assault upon the economic basis of the workers’ state, namely, the nationalization of the means of production and exchange. Just as the revolutionary proletariat, in seizing power in 1917, created the political conditions for the expropriation of private property, so the counter-revolutionary bureaucracy, by consummating its dispossessing of the proletariat from political power, has created the political conditions for the destruction of nationalized economy and the restoration of private property.” (Sec. 21.) The bureaucracy, therefore, can establish itself definitively as a class in the Soviet Union only by destroying the proletarian property forms and reestablishing capitalist property forms. It is inconceivable that it is or can become a new and hitherto unknown class, a reactionary one at that, based upon property forms peculiar to the proletariat. If it is a new class, it must, first, arise out of the needs of production and, second, construct new property forms.

But the bureaucracy, instead of finding in the new, i.e., proletarian mode of production established by the October Revolution an economic basis conducive to its stable existence, found itself in conflict with that mode of production. “This was veiled for a certain time by the fact that Soviet economy was occupied for two decades with transplanting and assimilating the technology and organization in advanced capitalist countries. The period of borrowing and imitation still could, for better or for worse, be accommodated to bureaucratic automatism, i.e., the suffocation of all initiative and all creative urge. But the higher the economy rose, the more complex its requirements became, all the more unbearable became the obstacle of the bureaucratic regime. The constantly sharpening contradiction between them leads to uninterrupted political convulsions, to systematic annihilation of the most outstanding creative elements in all spheres of activity. Thus, before the bureaucracy could succeed in exuding from itself a ‘ruling class,’ it came into irreconcilable contradiction with the demands of development. The explanation for this is to be found precisely in the fact that the bureaucracy is not the bearer of a new system of economy peculiar to itself and impossible without itself, but is a parasitic growth on a workers’ state.” (Leon Trotsky, U.S.S.R. in War, N.I., Nov. 1939. My emphasis. – M.A.)

“The Soviet oligarchy possesses all the vices of the old ruling classes,” Trotsky wrote, “but lacks their historical mission.” (Ibid.) One may even say that it has these vices in much greater degree, but this will not solve the question: is it a class or a caste? Comrade Shachtman has now come forward as the discoverer of a new ruling class in the Soviet Union. He finds that the complete control of the state which is the repository of the means of production, by the Soviet bureaucracy results in its becoming a class. He says, “... what is crucial are not the property forms, i.e., nationalized property, whose existence cannot be denied, but precisely the relations of the various social groups in the Soviet Union to this property, i.e., property relations!” (Is Russia a Workers’ State?, N.I., Dec. 1940. Emphasis in original.) But property relations do not exist in the abstract nor are they the result of political causes, but of economic causes. The complete control of the state based upon nationalized property by the bureaucracy does not guarantee the ownership of this property by the bureaucracy. “The bureaucracy has neither stocks nor bonds. It is recruited, supplemented and renewed in the manner of an administrative hierarchy, independently of any special property relations of its own. The individual bureaucrat cannot transmit to his heirs his rights in the exploitation of the state apparatus. The bureaucracy enjoys its privileges under the form of an abuse of power. It conceals its income; it pretends that as a special social group it does not even exist.” (Leon Trotsky, Revolution Betrayed, p. 249. My emphasis – M.A.) The bureaucracy, in order for it to become a class, must have special property relations of its own. In other words, it must destroy the existing forms of property, nationalized property, and construct a new form of property which will give it some measure of stability. Then we can speak of it as a new class. Comrade Shachtman says, “For the given system – the property relations established by the counter-revolution – the Stalinist bureaucracy is the indispensable ruling class.” (Ibid., his emphasis.) What different property relationship did the counter-revolution establish? He does not say. And he cannot, because the counter-revolution has not yet fundamentally changed Soviet economy. The form of property established by the October Revolution remains substantially unaltered and though the bureaucracy acts as a fetter upon it and is in conflict with it, Shachtman admits that it still remains. This testifies not to the adaptability of the bureaucracy, if it is a class, to proletarian forms of economy, but rather to the historical “staying power” of the new forms despite their isolation from a world economy in its last stages of decay and the relatively low technological development of industry in the Soviet Union.

Comrade Shachtman says, “The conquest of state power by the bureaucracy spelled the destruction of the property relations established by the Bolshevik revolution.” And further: “... it is the product of a conjunction of circumstances ...” (Ibid.) Trotsky gave adequate answer to this method in a polemic against Craipeau, “The bourgeoisie came into the world as an element born of the form of production; it remained an historic necessity as long as the new form of production had not exhausted the possibilities. The same assertion can be made with regard to all previous social classes; slave-owners, the feudal lords, the medieval master-artisans. In their time they were all the representatives and leaders of a system of production which had its place in the advance of humanity. How then does Craipeau appraise the historic place of the ‘bureaucracy-class?’ He doesn’t say anything on this decisive question. Nevertheless, we have repeated many times, with the aid of Craipeau himself, that the degeneration of the Soviet state is the product of the retardation in the world revolution, that is to say, the result of political and ‘conjunctural’ causes, so to speak. Can one speak of a new ‘conjunctural’ class? I really doubt that. If Craipeau will consent to verify his rather precipitate conception from the point of view of the historic succession of social regimes, he will surely recognize himself, that to give the bureaucracy the name possessing class is not only an abuse of terminology, but moveover a great political danger which can lead to the complete derailment of our historic perspective. Does Craipeau see sufficient reasons to revise the Marxist conception on this capital point? As for myself, I do not see any. That is why I refuse to follow Craipeau.” (Once Again; the U.S.S.R. and Its Defense, Internal Bulletin, No. 1, Organizing Committee for S.P. Convention, Nov. 1937. My emphasis – M.A.) One has but to substitute the name Shachtman for Craipeau. Both use the same method, this is the important feature.

Shachtman states, “Thereby it compelled us to add to our theory this conception, among others: Just as it is possible to have different classes ruling in societies resting upon the private ownership of property, so it is possible to have more than one class ruling in a society resting upon ... the collective ownership of property – concretely, the working class and the bureaucracy.” (Ibid.) This is a master-piece of over-simplification and destroys the Marxist method of historical materialism. Shachtman does not approach this problem from the point of view of the historical development of classes which arose out of the needs of production and played a socially necessary role, each in turn. He divides all former ruling classes into “classes ruling in societies resting upon the private ownership of property” and “more than one class ruling in a society resting upon the collective ownership of property.” But the property owning classes that have existed in the past, the bourgeoisie, feudal, slave-owners, each owned different forms of property to which each had established its own relationship. How does it happen now, then, that proletarian forms of property established by the October Revolution can serve as a base for another class? Shachtman does not go into this question.

Comrade Shachtman finds theoretical justification for his new discovery in Trotsky’s article, “U.S.S.R. in War (N.I., Nov. 1939, p. 327). In order to obtain a clear picture it is necessary to quote at some length:

“If this war provokes, as we firmly believe, a proletarian revolution, it must inevitably lead to the overthrow of the bureaucracy in the .U.S.S.R. and regeneration of Soviet democracy on a far higher economic and cultural basis than in 1918. In that case the question as to whether the Stalinist bureaucracy was a ‘class’ or a growth on the workers’ state will be automatically solved. To every single person it will become clear that in the process of the development of the world revolution the Soviet bureaucracy was only an episodic relapse. (Emphasis in original. – M.A.)

“If, however, it is conceded that the present war will provoke not revolution but a decline of the proletariat, then there remains another alternative: the further decay of monopoly capitalism, its further fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy wherever it still remained by a totalitarian regime. The inability of the proletariat to take into its hands the leadership of society could actually lead under these conditions to the growth of a new exploiting class from the Bonapartist fascist bureaucracy. This would be, according to all indications, a regime of decline, signalizing the eclipse of civilization.

“An analogous result might occur in the event that the proletariat of advanced capitalist countries, having conquered power, should prove incapable of holding it and surrender it, as in the U.S.S.R., to a privileged bureaucracy. Then we would be compelled to acknowledge that the reason for the bureaucratic relapse is rooted not in the backwardness of the country and not in the imperialist environment but in the congenital incapacity of the proletariat to become a ruling class. Then it would be necessary in retrospect to establish that in its fundamental traits the present U.S.S.R. was the precursor of a new exploiting regime on an international scale.

“We have diverged very far from the terminological controversy over the nomenclature of the Soviet state. But let our critics not protest: only by taking the necessary historical perspective can one provide himself with a correct judgment upon such a question as the replacement of one social regime by another. The historic alternative, carried to the end, is as follows: either the Stalin regime is an abhorrent relapse in the process of transforming bourgeois society, or the Stalin regime is the first stage of a new exploiting society. If the second prognosis proves to be correct, then, of course, the bureaucracy will become a new exploiting class. However onerous the second perspective may be, it the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of fulfilling the mission placed upon it by the course of development, nothing else would remain except openly to recognize that the socialist program based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, ended as a Utopia.”

Trotsky’s article poses the possibility of the bureaucracy becoming a new ruling class, but he also says something about our program, if this should be the case.

Shall we discard the Marxist method and thereby risk a “complete derailment of our historical perspective” in favor of Shachtman’s schematism? This would be a major tragedy. Trotsky wrote, “Twenty-five years in the scale of history, when it is a question of profoundest changes in economic and cultural systems, weigh less than an hour in the life of man.” Can we adorn the bureaucracy with a class mantle on the basis of its role – less than two decades in development – just before its disappearance from the world? We would cut a pretty picture were we to do this. The present world crisis and the war have forced upon the bureaucracy the necessity to arrogate to itself a greater share of the dwindling produce of the country, thereby further aggravating both the economic and political situations. Witness the recent ukases regarding education, working conditions, etc. The bureaucracy is balanced on the razor edge between outright capitalist restoration or its own destruction by the proletariat. No state in the world today is so unstable as the bureaucratically deformed workers’ state in the U.S.S.R. The large-scale purges, etc., indicate not a stable, powerful class taking bold measures, but a panicky, outlived and unneeded historical excrescence of usurpers trying to maintain itself in power. It has made itself master in every field, raised itself above the masses and crushed all opposition precisely because it wants to change the form of economy and thereby constitute itself as a class. This has not yet happened and we have no right to characterize a probability, even a strong one, as an accomplished fact.

The proletariat which made the October Revolution has proved itself the most powerful class in all history. Starting in a backward country, laid waste by several years of wars and revolutions, it has maintained in one-sixth of the earth’s surface a form of economy historically justified as far superior to any known to man, and has defended this form against a hostile amalgam of every reactionary element that can be found in every part of the world. Its monumental achievement still stands, although threatened from without and seriously undermined internally, after more than two decades of unprecedented world reaction now culminated in the most destructive of all wars. Let us not lose faith in the ability of the proletariat to regenerate the Soviet Revolution and let us not surrender to a new class the new form of economy which remains to this day a weapon of the proletariat.

Jan. 6, 1941.

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