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The New International, July 1941


W. Kent

Discussion Article:

The Russian State


From New International, Vol. VII No. 6 (Whole No. 55), July 1941, pp. 148–51.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


IT IS NOT BY ACCIDENT that it was the Russian question that brought about the split in the American section of the Fourth International. The revolutionary workers movement today can take no serious steps forward unless it has a clear theoretical grasp of the Russian experience, unless it can answer unequivocally the question: What is the present Russian state? Should we defend it or fight against it?

In recent years there were two theories concerning the character of Stalinist Russia represented among adherents of the Fourth International. Some were of the opinion that contemporary Russia, despite all manifestations of degeneration, is basically still a workers’ state. Others held Stalinist Russia to be an exploiters’ state. Many were for a long time of the opinion that both of these views could exist side by side in one international organization. Trotsky, too, believed that we could discuss this “theoretical question” within the framework of one organization, without splitting, as long as there is unity on political conclusions. But in reality opposing evaluations of the basic character of Stalin’s state had to lead, in the final analysis, to opposing political conclusions. For if Russia is really a workers’ state – even if it be a degenerated one – then every one of its wars must be considered as basically progressive and just, and Russia must be defended. In that case, opposition to Stalin’s regime can at most have the task of showing how the war may be better waged – how it could be won. It is a “political opposition” under the slogan of defense of the Soviet Union. If, on the other hand, Russia is an exploiters’ state, where the workers and the peasants form the exploited and oppressed class, and if its wars are imperialist, unjust, reactionary, then the task of the Russian workers is to utilize the war to overthrow their exploiters and oppressors by means of a social revolution.

This deep contradiction could remain hidden or partly obscured as long as it was not faced with a practical test. War, however, is the deepest social crisis; it tests every theory in practice and forces every tendency to show itself in its true colors. The war also sweeps away the illusion that the defenders of Stalin’s “workers’ state’” can work peaceably together with adherents of the new social revolution in Russia, without fighting out their deep-going differences. The war has shown that it was impossible for them to do so.

If the Fourth International had had a section of Russia, its parts would now have stood on different sides of the barricades. The Russian “Cannonites” would have supported the attack on East Poland, the Baltic countries, Finland – even though critically; they would, so long as Stalin would not kill them, have been “the best soldiers of the Red Army” and they would most likely have had shot as “counter-revolutionary defeatists” and “saboteurs of the progressive war” those followers of the Fourth International who had been opposed to these predatory attacks, who would have agitated for evacuation of these countries by the Russian troops of occupation, and for a social revolution against the bureaucracy.

Comrade Trotsky once said, quite rightly, that just as a conscientious housewife will tolerate no dirt and no cobwebs in her household, so, likewise, in the long run, no theoretical rubbish can be tolerated in the household of the proletarian party. Even if today it perhaps does not yet lead to tragic political mistakes (the theory that Russia is a degenerated workers’ state), it will, if not attacked in time, certainly do so tomorrow. I believe he was fundamentally right in this remark. Except that in my opinion the theoretical rubbish in the Russian question is not the theory of a new class society, but the false assertion that Stalin’s Russia is still a workers’ state. To prove this is the task of this article.

Theory Is a Mockery of Reality

If you free yourself for a moment from the confused mass of “theoretical” juggling, if you visualize concretely contemporary Russian reality and apply to it Marxist criteria, then one must really marvel at the fact that there are still people who consider Russia to be a workers state. Here I do not have in mind the simple worker influenced by the Stalinists. He just doesn’t know the facts. He imagines conditions in Russia to be entirely different from what they really are. But participants in discussions of the Fourth International are people who, presumably, know the facts. And they are these:

The Russian worker is exploited in the most shameless fashion. His standard of life is not only deeply below the level of the poorest European worker, but also way below the level of the Czarist times. The position of the worker in Russia has become monstrously worse since the end of the NEP. In the whole course of the Stalin regime, the relative income of workers (compared with the income of bureaucrats) decreased systematically, today the worker’s real wages are decreasing even absolutely. The workers (and a large part of the kolhhoz peasants) are starving, whereas the bureaucracy is leading a “better and happier” life. The difference between the standard of life of the exploited and the exploiters in Russia is not narrower than, but rather at least as large as in the capitalist countries; the relation of 1 : 100 in income being no exception. And the disproportion is continually growing. According to conservative estimates, 15 per cent of the population receive over half of the national income. The appropriation of the surplus product by the exploiter is at least as extensive as in capitalist countries.

Furthermore, the workers have no political or economic rights at all. In the management of the factories and of the state they have literally nothing to say. They cannot even express their opinion, except under the threatened penalty of death. Management of the economy and of the state is a monopoly of the bureaucracy. It alone decides what should be produced, where and how, and the manner in which the social product shall be distributed; it alone dictates all wages and prices. Not even in the determination of their wages and conditions of work do the workers have a voice. They may not go on strike nor bargain collectively for their wages, let alone complain of them. They are not permitted to leave their factory, the penalty being jail. They may go to prison for having once come to work 15 minutes late. They must upon order accept any and every kind of work for any wage. They are imprisoned if production norms are not reached, or if the quality of the product does not correspond to demands. They must not only accept, without criticism, prolongation of hours of work or reductions in wages, but also express thanks to the Leader for them in “unanimous” resolutions. In short, far from being lords of the means of production, the Russian workers are rather their living appendages.

The bureaucrats are no longer ashamed of their privileges. They live “better and happier lives.” They display their luxury in the midst of widespread misery. They bequeath their privileges to their children by means of individual inheritance as well as monopoly of education and open nepotism. They have developed frankly exploiter and nouveaux riches tendencies in al! fields of ideology and psychology. At the 18th party congress they constituted themselves rather openly as a special class with a new, fine-sounding name: the “Soviet intelligentsia.”

These are all incontestable facts. Why then should not every worker ask: How can you call that a workers’ state? And how can you expect him to be satisfied with the poor excuse: Yes, of course, it is not the ideal workers’ state, but the ideal is one thing, you see, and raw reality another ... Such stutterings have been dished out from time immemorial by each and every defender of exploitation and oppression.

No one can argue away the simple truth that a workers’ state is a state where the workers have control over the means of production. Or that such a state, where the workers have no voice at all in the management of the social means of production, where they are completely enslaved, politically and economically, is not a workers’ state.

The defender of the workers’ state can save himself least of all by the allusion to Bonapartism. However one may think otherwise of the theory of Bonapartism, this much is certain, namely, that Bonapartism at most means the political expropriation of the ruling class in order better to defend its economic power against the oppressed. Bonapartism never attacked capitalist ownership of the means of production. Quite the contrary, it promoted and defended it. Under Bonapartism the capitalists remained the lords of their enterprises. Have the Russian workers under Stalin perhaps remained lords in the factories? No; precisely there, they have become slaves. Reference to Bonapartism in this case has neither rhyme nor reason to it.

According to Marxist theory, the state is the organ of forceful oppression of one class by another. If the present Russian state were a workers’ state, then it would be the expression of the organized power of the working class. Against whom? Against the Russian bourgeoisie which acknowledgedly does not exist? Against the world bourgeoisie, in whose plunderings it participates? Or perhaps against ... the bureaucracy?

The theory that Stalin’s state is a workers’ state is a mockery of reality, a mockery of Marxist theory and of the exploited masses in Russia. Now let us take a look at the “theoretical arguments by which this theory is defended.

What Does State Ownership Mean?

To be exact, there is only one argument in defense of the theory of the “workers’ state” which most “defensists” repeat time and again like a mystical or magic formula, and which obscures the relations between people and classes. This argument is as follows: Russia is a workers’ state because the means of production there have been “nationalized,” that is to say, they have been statified. Consequently, there is also planned production. The plan, it is true, functions swinishly; nowhere on earth is there so disordered an economy as in Stalin’s country. Nonetheless, according to the social type, virtually complete centralization of the means of production in the hands of the state, results in basis for statewide planning.

Well and good. Now we are faced with the question: is statification of the means of production in itself identical with the essentially socialist method of production? If so, then essentially there is socialism in Russia, and all we can do is to agree with the wonder working rabbi in Radek’s anecdote who, in answer to the question “Is socialism possible in one country?” replied “Yes,” but immediately added “but you should live somewhere else.” But if not, then the whole argumentation of the “workers’ statists” fall together like a house of cards.

Fortunately Marxists have always had an unequivocal answer to this question: the statification of the means of production of and by itself is not identical with the socialist mode of production or with the rule of the working class. Even old Engels made fun of those who welcomed every statification as a piece of socialism. According to that, he said, the military regiment’s tailor would be the first socialist institution. He also foresaw the possibility of a large measure of statification under the continuance of capitalist exploitation, and wrote as follows in Anti-Duehring:

“But the conversion into either joint-stock companies or state property does not deprive the productive forces of their character as capital. In the case of the joint-stock company, it is obvious. And the modern state, too, is only the organization with which bourgeois society provides itself in order to maintain the general external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against encroachments either by the workers or by individual capitalists. The modern state, whatever its form, is an essentially capitalist machine; it is the state of the capitalists, the ideal collective body of all the capitalists, the more citizens it exploits. The workers remain wage-earners, proletarians.”

And Lenin wrote in The Threatening Catastrophe in 1917:

“For, once a large-scale capitalist enterprise becomes a monopoly, this means that it serves the entire people. Once it has become state monopoly, this means that the state ... directs the enterprise ... in whose interests? Either in the interests of the landowners and capitalists; then we have not a revolutionary democratic but a reactionary bureaucratic state, an imperialist republic; or in the interest of revolutionary democracy; then this is in reality a step toward socialism.”

In this last sentence of Lenin you have merely to substitute “exploiting bureaucracy” for “landowners and capitalists” in order to get a striking picture of the contemporary Russian situation. But it never occurs to the “workers’ statists” to pose, together with Lenin, the question “in whose interests!” They repeat the magic formula “state ownership means workers’ power” with the stubbornness of Stalinist believers.

Hundreds of quotations could be found to prove that revolutionary Marxism never identified per se the statification of the means of production with socialism or workers’ power. However, even without quotations, this is perfectly clear to anyone who has a head with which to think. And in case there were no quotations, bitter reality itself has taught us that statification of the means of production and the corresponding “planned economy” are compatible with the worst enslavement and exploitation. Not even an ostrich can bury his head from that.

Comrade Shachtman has quite correctly emphasized the difference between property forms and property relations. He proved that even under the property form of “statified property,” real property relations can be such that one class exploits the other by means of this state property. What I can not understand is why he calls these exploiting production relations “state socialism.” One can of course choose any term he wants for new phenomena, if its content is clearly understood. But why should we further disgrace the word “socialism”? Stalin’s “state socialism” has as little to do with socialism as her Hitler’s “national socialism.”

But perhaps our friends who defend the “workers’ state” will correct themselves a little. Perhaps they will say: statification in itself does not mean a workers’ state; we know that too. But when the means of production are in the hands of the workers’ state, then that is the socialist mode of production or at least a preliminary step to it.

Now, we can agree to this formulation. However, the position of the “workers” statists” in our fight is not bettered by it, but only made worse. Their position becomes simply ridiculous. They are saying that Russia is a workers’ state because there are essentially socialist production relations. These production relations, however, are essentially socialist, because it is a workers’ state which owns the means of production. Or, to put it briefly, Russia is a workers’ state for the very reason that it is a workers’ state. The whole method of proof is an insipid tautology: if the state which owns the means of production is really a workers’ state, then the working class is the ruling class in Russia. However, simply pose the question “Is that really so? How do you prove it?” and the entire rotten spell will be broken.

Is the Bureaucracy a Class?

The question as to whether or not Russia is a workers’ state cannot be answered by mere reference to statification or to “planned economy.” We have to ask, with Lenin, “In whose interests?” We have to analyze the real class relations within the statified economy. And here we come to the question: is contemporary Russia a class state? Is the exploiting bureaucracy a ruling class?

In order to answer this question, we must first clarify our conception of what a class is. Happily, all participants in this discussion – insofar as they profess Marxism – agree on this conception. They know that those people form a class, who have, essentially the same relation to the means of production, which relation is basically different from that of the members of other classes. The ruling class is that one which has a monopolistic control over the social means of production, and which exploits economically the other class, forced to work with these means of production. The oppressed or exploited class is that one which itself disposes of no means of production and which therefore is robbed by the ruling class, by those who control the means of production of a part of the product of its labor (the surplus product). We all know clearly, too, that differences in consumption (in the “standard of life”) alone do not yet determine class differences. On the other hand, we know that “distribution” is not independent of production relations, but that it rather forms their reverse side, as Marx so wisely proved in the preface to The Critique of Political Economy.

Armed with this knowledge, we now return to Russia. Comrade Trotsky once wrote that in Russia, it is true, the difference in consumption between a washerwoman and a red marshall is indeed tremendous, but that there is no difference as regards their relation to the means of production. In this example “washerwoman” means “worker” and “marshall” means “bureaucrat.” And this statement is (and was even at that time) a heap of nonsense. For between the washerwoman and the worker on the one hand, and the marshall, the people’s commissar and the party secretary on the other, there is a tremendous and basic difference precisely in their relation to the means of production. The washerwoman and the worker belong to that group of people who have nothing to say as to what should be produced, and how and where, how the means of production (and the workers) should be distributed, and how the social product should be divided. The marshall and the people’s commissar, on the other hand, belong to that group of people which decides all these things in a monopolistic fashion, which distributes the social product and which keeps for itself the lion’s share. The difference between these two groups is a difference in the relation to the means of production – one group controls them, the other is exploited because it does not control them. This is a classical class difference. And the differences in the standard of life, which Trotsky has so well described, are, as always, the result of this different position to the means of production, the result of this “production relation.” These differences did not fall from the sky. To label them as “simple thievery” is just as witty as to substitute for the analysis of capitalist society the remark that capitalists are thieves and that property is robbery. This is a relapse from Marxism to Proudhonism.

Who Owns the Means of Production?

But the bureaucrats don’t own the means of production in Russia, do they? To this we must clearly answer: Yes, indeed, they do own them! They do not own them individually (each his own factory), but rather they own them collectively, as an hierarchically organized class. This is the “new form” of property, peculiar to the bureaucratic class.

Permit us then a counter-question: Who otherwise owns the means of production in Russia? Are they perhaps (in the class sense) without rulers, res nullius; do they lie around on the street, so to speak? There is no bourgeoisie in the old sense of the word. The only possible alternative to our answer is the assertion that the working class owns the means of production. The working class, which not only has no voice at all in management, but which is completely without rights, enslaved and exploited by these very means of production!

Upon what can this absurd assertion (that the workers own the means of production) base itself? Well – it says so in the Soviet Constitution. Now, we are not small children. Not for nothing have we undergone a Marxist education and learned that a society cannot be judged by what it says of itself, but rather by an analysis of the relations existing between people (and classes). Marxism has taught us to distinguish between juridical fiction and real social relations. We do not believe that all citizens are equal in capitalist society just because bourgeois law says so. Just as little do we believe that the means of production in Russia belong to “all those who work,” because it says so in the Soviet Constitution.

Then, however, there remains for the “workers’ statists” only one escape, namely, the theory of the “unfaithful steward.” The working class still owns, don’t you see, the means of production, but an unfaithful steward, the bureaucracy, has taken over its management and enriches itself thereby. Well and good. Just try to imagine: I have a house. This is run by a manager. This manager gives me no accounts whatsoever. He manages the house entirely according to his own desires and for his own benefit. He pockets the entire profit. I have no chance of removing him by legal means. And finally he locks me up in the cellar and, armed with a whip, makes me work for him.

Now I ask: who is the owner of this house, he or I? Perhaps here and there a juridical cretin will be found who replies: the house is yours, the deed says so! Every Marxist and every sensible person, however, will say: this house now, in reality, belongs to the robber.

What is property, according to bourgeois jurisprudence? Property is the right to dispose of something as one sees fit. This right of disposal – originally absolute – is limited in many ways in practice. When, however, nothing of this right any longer remains, then property also disappears. Of the right of disposal by the working class over the means of production in Russia, nothing has really remained. To say that the working class owns the means of production is utter nonsense.

The bureaucracy does not own the means of production individually, but collectively. Collective bureaucratic ownership of the means of production has been substituted for the private property of the capitalists; the bureaucrats are not organized democratically, within their class, but hierarchically. Is there such a thing as a class without individual private property? Of course. History contains countless examples of class property, which was not individual private property. Up to now no one has contested the class character of these societies.

(To be concluded in the August issue)

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