Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


New class?

Dear Editors,

I think it was a mistake for your Editorial (Volume 3, no.1) to polemicise in the way it did against advocates of ‘new class’ theories. Firstly, because the all too familiar triumphalism (Trotsky’s analysis “has now received confirmation”) is precisely what I, and I believe other readers, hoped your journal would try to avoid, and even combat. Secondly, on the issue itself, it is simply not fair, without specifying who you had in mind, to say that ‘new class’ theorists “ridiculed” Trotsky’s insistence that the proletariat remained the ruling class in the Stalinised USSR. For example, some of the pioneers of the theory of ‘bureaucratic collectivism’, coming as they did from the Trotskyist movement themselves, took its founder’s ideas very seriously. (Max Shachtman’s The Bureaucratic Revolution may be wrong about Stalinism, but it is serious.)

It should also be said that Trotsky paid them the same compliment, to the extent of conceding that in the event of the Second World War culminating neither in the overthrow of the Stalinist regime in the USSR nor in the victory of the workers in the West, “it would be necessary in retrospect to establish that in its fundamental traits the present USSR was the precursor of anew exploiting regime on an international scale” (In Defence of Marxism, p.9, Merit Publishers). Understandably, this declaration caused unease amongst Trotsky’s supporters in the factional struggle, but he refused to retract it. Indeed, anticipating Orwell (whom you seem to decry for his alleged pessimism), Trotsky regarded with genuine foreboding the possibility of, to use your words, “the rise of a new totalitarian order” and the onset of “an age of darkness in the second half of the twentieth century”. And surely that is just what it has been for that one third of humanity oppressed by Stalinist totalitarianism (a term, incidentally, used frequently by Trotsky). Many have fought their way to the light, but for one billion Chinese it is still darkness at noon. It is small consolation to be told that the Peking massacre was carried out under the rule of an ‘old class’. Its survivors may well ask ... which one? Had Trotsky lived to witness the historic test of his hypothesis (the postwar extension of Stalinist rule to Eastern Europe and China, and the revival or consolidation of capitalism in the West) would he have responded in the rather smug manner of your editorial?

The origins, nature and fate of the Stalinist regimes are not closed questions. You say – correctly in my opinion – that Stalinist rule is a regime of crisis. Marx and his followers said – and still say – similar things about capitalism, yet at the same time saw and still see it as being dominated by a ruling class. A regime of crisis does not exclude, but indeed seems to suggest, a ruling class; one that also is in crisis. The question that you could be understood (perhaps wrongly) as regarding as settled is in my opinion (and I hope of others of your readers) still open for discussion, and it is this: is this regime of crisis a form of rule of the proletariat, of a ‘state capitalist’ bourgeoisie or of something else again ... perhaps a ‘new class’? Trotsky did not rule out the last possibility. Why should we?

In view of the importance and complexity of these questions, might it not be better to leave such polemics to articles rather than create the impression (one that I hope is false) that there is an editorial ‘line’ on the ‘class nature’ of the Stalinist states, and that recent events have simply served to confirm it? I think you would be doing your readers a disservice if you were to define revolutionary history so narrowly that you run the risk of excluding traditions and currents of thought that might not be ‘orthodox Trotskyist’, however that is understood, but nevertheless could have something of value to tell us. As I said at the beginning, I hope we will all manage to outgrow such habits.

Best wishes
Robin Blick

Updated by ETOL: 18.7.2003