Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Walter Daum, The Life and Death of Stalinism: A Resurrection of Marxist Theory, Socialist Voice, New York, 1990, pp.380, $15.00

The rapidity and extent of the political, social and economic changes now taking place in Eastern Europe, and the fact that they are clearly the outcome of a very long process, make it all the more urgent for revolutionaries to grasp the meaning of what is happening, a task that cannot even be started without an appreciation of the class character of these states and of their laws of motion and development. The reaction of the international Trotskyist movement to this most fundamental of ideological challenges has been most disappointing, and what has so far appeared can be placed in two clearly defined categories, those that are works of apologetic, of the ‘we-were-right-all-the-time’ kind of argument, where the organisation had failed to foresee a single thing, and those that continue to hedge their bets, of the ‘confused-situation-that-can-go-either-way’ variety, where the group which publishes them clearly does not have a clue. A disappointing feature of both types is the lack of any attempt to trace the development of Soviet and Eastern European society as a whole since 1917.

It is one of the many strengths of this book that its author has not only seen that this is the main problem, but has done his utmost to address it. It is a thoughtful, and indeed in many ways, an ideologically exciting book. Whether you accept its main thesis or not, and it will emerge from what is written below that this reviewer does not, it will still challenge your presuppositions and force you to rethink your ideas from top to bottom in the most rigorous way. And unlike most would-be Marxist texts these days, it is written in intelligible English, which is no small gain as well.

The most arresting part of it is that it reminds us of Lenin’s basic definition in State and Revolution, so long ignored or forgotten by those who regard themselves as revolutionaries, of what a workers’ state really is, a “bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie” (p.119). This workers’ state, he points out, “in effect creates a single capital” (p.132). There was thus no question of the immediate abolition of wage labour, that essential component of capitalism, in the Soviet Union: “... the workers’ state inherits a capitalist economy and must therefore live with it at the same time that it transforms it – it is indeed a bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie” (p.125). “It would not be incorrect”, he concludes, “to call the post 1917 Soviet Union a ‘deformed workers’ state’ almost from the start, a workers’ state whose transition was disastrously hampered by its backwardness and isolation” (pp.142-3).

Here he comes close to the heart of the matter, that the very term ‘workers’ state’ is a dialectical contradiction. It remains bourgeois in the sense that, like any other state, it defends property, but with this proviso, that the property in question is public rather than private. But since the historic task of this state is its own abolition, its withering away, although the workers have created it by means of a revolution, and the state is thus ‘owned’ by them, it still remains a bourgeois instrument and rests upon the exploitation of wage labour, thereby having a high bourgeois content from the start. The author has thus stumbled on a truth that few Trotskyists have ever even noticed, that there is not, and never could be, any such thing as a ‘healthy’ workers’ state, “a grotesque label, if ever there was one, given the reality”, notes Daum carefully (p.143), even when applied to that of Lenin and Trotsky. Thus, if instead of withering away this state power strengthens itself – and in the conditions of the Soviet Union following 1917 there was no question of any other development – its bourgeois content must increase, and it ceases by slow and imperceptible degrees to represent much of the interests of the working class.

Another highly successful part of this exercise is Daum’s destruction, down to the last brick, of the theory of ‘structural assimilation’ created by the International Secretariat to explain the establishment of the ‘peoples’ democracies’ in Eastern Europe after 1945 (pp.310-5). If the nationalisation of the majority of the economy is really the touchstone of what a workers’ state is, he points out, the Soviet Union itself did not become one until the end of 1918; and the idea that a bourgeois state can become a workers’ state by ‘structural assimilation’ really amounts to saying that “Socialist transformation can be achieved without overthrowing the bourgeois state” (p.313). “Such a theory echoes the revisionist method of Bernstein”, he rightly points out (p.312), describing it as “the hallmark of reformism” (p.313). But whilst successfully highlighting Mandel’s dilemma, we shall see that Daum abandons his own methodology when it comes to the Soviet Union, which he believes was a workers’ state until 1936-39, when it was replaced by a bourgeois state, created not as a result of the smashing of the state by armed conquest or internal counterrevolution.

It is precisely in his attempt to apply his own real insights to Eastern Europe that he halts halfway. He correctly draws our attention to that elementary proposition of Marxism, so long and so often forgotten by its would-be practitioners, that the working class revolution is qualitatively different from the revolutions of all other classes by its conscious character; “the creation of a workers’ state”, he points out, “is not just a matter of economic forms; it is the result of a social revolution that places state power in the hands of the working class. Since it inaugurates the period of transition it is in fact the Socialist revolution. And it must be the conscious achievement of the masses.” (p.311) Since he believes that in seizing state power from the Nazis and their puppets, the Stalinists carried out political, not social, revolutions (p.315), he argues that “the proletarian label for the Stalinist states amounts to a cynical rejection of the Marxist conclusion that a workers’ state can be established only through the workers’ conscious activity” (p.13). He is thus obliged to argue that the only feasible theory, that of Haston and Vern/Ryan, is impossible per se: “if the date of the Eastern European revolution is put at 1944-45, then the Stalinist forces became the agent of proletarian revolution at the very moment when they were crushing the movement of workers’ revolt“ (pp.322-3). But in stressing the conscious factor to the exclusion of everything else, he forgets his previous insight, that the workers’ state, being a bourgeois state, also has features in common with all other states, one of which is that it consists of armed men standing in defence of property. Social overturns can take place by armed conquest from abroad, and the possibility of this arose within the lifetime of Lenin in Poland, and its realisation actually took place in the case of Georgia. In the light of the development of Eastern Europe we can surely now affirm that if the Soviet army had indeed conquered Poland in 1919, without the involvement of the Polish working class, and, indeed, in contradiction with their wishes, we would have had a ‘Stalinist’ state in Poland nearly a decade before we got one in the Soviet Union, which actually happened in the case of Georgia, a couple or so years later. For it was Marx himself who explained a long time ago, with reference to the imperialism of the nineteenth century, that the victor in a war involving states of a different socio-economic character imposes its property forms upon the vanquished, that in effect a war between states of a different class nature partakes of the character of an international civil war.

We might add, incidentally, that those who believe that it requires individual, separate revolutions to form new states have certainly got a lot of explaining to do, as the spread of the bourgeois revolution in Europe after 1789 in the first instance took place on the bayonet points of Napoleon’s troops rather than by separate insurrections of the bourgeois class in each country. Daum thus signally fails to grasp what was really at issue in Trotsky’s analysis of the changes in the property forms of Eastern Poland in 1939 as set forth in In Defence of Marxism. “Trotsky seems torn between crediting a revolutionary overturn to the masses and denying the revolutionary character of the Stalinists’ acts”, he concludes (p.318). Yet he himself has already supplied the answer to this conundrum. If a workers’ state really is “a bourgeois state without a bourgeoisie”, and if the workers subject to wage labour within it are simultaneously a ruling and an oppressed class, then the operations of this counter-revolutionary workers’ state are bound to take on precisely this character. Daum contradicts his own theory by stating that “the Stalinist social overturn came only later” (p.313), when, in Eastern Europe in the late 1940s, “the old bourgeoisies were overthrown” (p.310). He is evidently oblivious of the fact that it was Hitler, not Stalin, who destroyed the embryo capitalist classes in Eastern Europe, and that the complete annihilation of capitalist property forms in the region, by then dominated by German imperialism, came upon Hitler’s defeat. In fact, the truth is that Stalin tried to recreate a native capitalist class in these areas, an attempt he had to abandon when it was obvious that Marshall Aid could well succeed where he was failing, and recreate these classes as clients of American finance capital.

There is far more to this book, however, than can be restricted to these considerations. On the purely historical side Daum provides a devastating picture of the ideological degeneration of the Fourth International, that is, if you accept that there still was one, which this reviewer would not. He shows how the postwar theory of the Trotskyists did not even explain what was happening at the time, still less being able to predict anything, and certainly being utterly useless as a guide to any action of any sort. It began as a complete failure to understand the nature of the postwar world (pp.292ff), continued happily on its way in the ridiculous somersaulting over the nature of the Eastern European states in 1948 (p.311), and when it finally settled down – if it ever did – it left them with an outlook that would not allow them to identify which were workers’ states and which were not (p.313), when this crucial class transformation was supposed to have taken place (p.314), and even with the view that it was possible to have states that had no class characterisation at all (p.314). In terms of activity Daum rightly highlights the importance of the betrayal of the Bolivian Revolution of 1952 (pp.325-6), whilst strangely neglecting the lack of reaction to the behaviour of the LSSP during the Great Hartal a year later (cf. Revolutionary History, Volume 2 no.1, Spring 1989, pp.38-43). But whilst it may be true that Bolivia 1952 was the ‘Fourth of August’ of the Fourth International, to use Trotsky's phrase of Germany in 1933, Daum’s analysis leads him to look for the roots of this Stalinist-type degeneration after the end of the war and in the confusion over Eastern Europe. He is thus obliged to accept the myth of ‘Pabloite revisionism’, that it is a creation of the European leadership of the mid- and later 1940s. This is contrary to the clear evidence that adaptation to Stalinism originates with the SWP during the war (as Natalia Trotsky and Grandizo Munis pointed out), and indeed with James P. Cannon himself, in his support for the activity of the Red Army in Eastern Europe in 1944-45, and in the contention that it was still “Trotsky’s army” and not Stalin’s (cf. Max Shachtman, From the Bureaucratic Jungle, part 2, in The New International, Volume 11 no.2, March 1945, pp.48-9).

It is no coincidence that the SWP dropped transitional politics at exactly the same time, and Daum shows that, coming from the same American milieu with the lack of an autonomous working class political movement of any sort, he has no real grasp of them eithcr. “In Britain”, he notes solemnly, “instead of exposing a Labour Party that helped bury the British miners’ strike of 1984-85, the left dug itself ever more deeply into it” (p.22). He thus belongs to that school of idealist ‘Marxism’ that thinks that you can destroy the Labour Party by ‘exposing’ it, i.e. by mere name-calling from outside. Perhaps a bit more reading might come up with the information that it was Engels who urged the trade unions to set up such a party, and that it was Lenin and Trotsky who advised us to “dig more deeply” into it. The “leftward motion of the workers” (p.295), for example, that Daum seems to think is a necessary condition for it, was far from taking place in the British Labour Party when Trotsky advised entry in 1936, and indeed did not take place until 1944. In fact, he shows on more than one occasion that he does not understand the ‘workers’ government’ slogan of the Transitional Programme at all. According to him, when the Bolsheviks raised the slogan of ‘All power to the Soviets’, “the purpose of Lenin’s tactic was to place the Mensheviks in office so that their subservience to capitalism would be made visible to all” (p.316). But that is the whole point; the slogan means exactly what it says – power, not ‘office’, for part of the time the Bolsheviks were using that slogan the Mensheviks were already in ‘office’, in Kerensky’s government! If it were possible for a reformist party to break with the bourgeoisie and take power, the result would be a workers’ revolution, not a government that “could only have a fleeting existence”, which could either lead “to the workers’ revolution, or it is defeated” (p.316). The whole point of this slogan as a practical, non-sectarian, united front method of demonstrating the class character of the reformists, of really ‘exposing’ them, is to show to their followers that they do not want power for their party at all, but office in a bourgeois state.

There are other indications that Daum’s grasp of Marxism is not as sure as it could be. At one point he argues against Lenin’s concept that revolutionary consciousness had to be brought to the working class from outside, from the declassed bourgeois intelligentsia, in other words (pp.105ff). Apart from the argument about conditions determining consciousness, he has clearly forgotten from which class Marx, Engels, Trotsky, etc., really originated. A very strained argument (pp.274-6) tries to prove that the Soviet Union can still be imperialist, even if it does not export capital in the Leninist sense, giving as its clinching argument that “Czardom had little capital to export” (p.275). Now this really is playing with words, for however penetrated Czarist Russia was becoming by capital, and however ‘feudal’ some of its institutions appeared to be, its ‘imperial’ character was that of an Asiatic Empire, a state form that long predates capitalist society, and indeed every other form of class society as well. He also indulges in over generalisations, categorically denying what Engels treats as a possibility in Anti-Dühring when he states that “no bourgeoisie has gone so far as to abolish private property completely by entrusting its ownership function to the state” (pp.80-1), an assumption that may well need modification if we look at short periods in the history of Israel just after its foundation and of Chiang’s China as it tottered to its doom in 1945-49.

But it is a measure of the power of the author’s reasoning that it supplies the main refutation to the thesis defended by his own book. A major part of his argument against the theory of ‘structural assimilation’ is that by molecular change a state that was once a bourgeois state cannot become a workers’ state without a smashing and recreation of the state apparatus. Such a theory, he argues, leaves us with no guidelines for deciding when a state ceases to be a bourgeois state and becomes one ruled by the workers. But these same arguments are equally valid when applied to the reverse process – counter-revolution. Despite the claim that “this book’s political standpoint is Trotskyist” (p.7), this is demonstrably not the case. It is, in fact, a ‘state capitalist’ analysis of Russia that places the period of the erection of a bourgeois state in 1936-39. Yet the state had the same structure, and even the same personal dictator, before and after this period. This argumentation (pp.170ff) is quite the least convincing part of the book. All sorts of elaborate rationalisations are indulged in to prove the point, as regards both domestic and foreign policy. A quite extraordinary juridical significance is ascribed to the Stalin Constitution of 1936, in spite of the fact that both its author and reviser were shot within two years. In going over the work methods, the exploitation, the labour code, the purges and the terror, he is unable to surmount the problem that the state that implemented them was the same state before and after, which had developed by uninterrupted stages from 1917 onwards. He even tries to pretend that the outright class collaboration of the Popular Front was qualitatively different from previous betrayals, such as Pilsudski’s accession to power in Poland, Chiang’s smashing of the Second Revolution in China in 1927-28, or Hitler’s rise in Germany.

In fact, the same disarray exists amongst state capitalist analyses of the Soviet Union as Daum identifies among the Trotskyists with regard to Stalinism after 1945. When did it become a bourgeois state? Along the way he supplies a pretty effective demolition job on the views of Tony Cliff, that the crucial counter-revolution in class terms came about in the period of 1928-29, but in so doing supplies the ammunition for destroying his own dating of this alleged change. State capitalism as a concept turns out to be quite as unscientific as the ‘Pabloism’ he so roundly castigates, since unless it becomes part of the totality of what a ‘workers’ state’ really is, it comes into head-on collision with the class theory of the state. The truth is that the only state capitalist theories that can lay claim to any scientific basis at all are those of the Socialist Party of Great Britain and of some of the Mensheviks, who would place Russia’s bourgeois revolution in the setting up of this very state form in 1917.

But the basic thesis of this very fine book, that what we have since 1917 is a continued degeneration of a workers’ revolution in the direction of pure capitalist forms, becoming ever more alienated in structures (Pol Pot’s Cambodia!) and in methods (military bureaucratic conquest and peasant insurrection) cannot be faulted. Comrade Daum is of the opinion – and he argues his case with vigour and imagination – that the crucial change from quantity into quality took place in the Soviet Union in 1936-39. I would argue that we are on the point of witnessing it now, but that it will still require a break at the level of state power, in spite of the ever more warped and degenerated forms through which workers’ power is still expressed.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 24.7.2003