Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 2/3


Party, Class and State

Dear Editor

Ian Birchall does less than justice to Al Richardson’s introduction to In Defence of the Russian Revolution in his review of that book (Revolutionary History, Volume 6, no. 1). Birchall accuses Richardson of overreaching himself for trying to construct an explanation of the collapse of the Soviet regime: ‘since there is no record of Richardson having predicted it either, the mildly messianic tone in which everyone but the editor is pronounced to be out of step is not really justified’. As far as I know, Richardson does not claim to have correctly predicted the events leading to the cataclysm of 1991. In fact, he specifically includes himself amongst those who were taken unawares: ‘What was worse, for those of us who envisaged it at all, the circumstances attending the disintegration of the Soviet state in no way accorded with our expectations.’

The gist of the rest of Richardson’s introduction is an attempt, using the texts from 1917–23 of the Old Bolsheviks, to arrive at a better explanation than he and others had up to then given of the dynamics of change in the former Soviet Union.

It is not my intention to defend Richardson. He is quite capable of doing that for himself. My purpose is to take up a fundamental question he poses. After pointing out that contrary to the expectations of Trotskyists, the workers did not resist the counter-revolution, that no Marxist party arose to lead the struggle to restore working class control, that the expected soviet forms did not emerge, and that the new born trade unions proved to be supporters of the free market, Richardson makes the important point:

‘And what was not expected was that these states would collapse without an armed counter-revolutionary overturn accompanied by a civil war. Can one property form really change into another with so little dislocation in its state apparatus, no visible destruction of it caused by revolution or counter-revolution? Is not this phenomenon a direct challenge to the class theory of the state?’ (My emphasis)

Birchall does not attempt to reply to this question. Also I am not quite sure that Richardson himself entirely rejects the class theory of the state, or whether he merely wants to refine it. I suspect the latter. He writes:

‘The tools of analysis used by thinkers of the left are quite inadequate for a true appreciation of the problem. The debate on the class nature of the Soviet state has hitherto been conducted as a clash of set definitions, of workers’ state versus state capitalism as if each excluded the other, an arid encounter between fixed Aristotelian categories bereft of dialectical content.’

I agree with him. But I would go further. The trouble with the Marxist theory of the state is that it too rigidly identifies state power with class power, and sees a too rigid one-to-one correspondence between economic base and political superstructure. And this applies not only in relation to an analysis of the former Soviet Union, but also to our understanding of the capitalist state and of the future possible transitions of advanced industrialised capitalist societies to Socialism.

But let us deal here with the Soviet Union. From 1917 to 1991 the same state apparatus (superstructure) presided over a number of different economic systems (economic bases). From October 1917 to mid-1918, the young Soviet state presided over a disintegrating capitalist economy. The enterprises had not yet been nationalised, and were still under nominal capitalist ownership, although the owners’ actual control was effectively challenged from below by workers’ committees, and from above by the Soviet state apparatus. From 1918 to 1921 the economic base was War Communism, characterised by centralised military control of industry, the replacement of workers’ control by one-man management, and the abolition of commodity exchange and money. From 1921 to 1929 the New Economic Policy saw the development of a mixed economy, combining private capitalist ownership, petty production for the market by independent producers, and state ownership. The perspective of the Bolshevik leadership, as expounded by Bukharin at the time, was of a gradual process of transition, whereby the ‘Socialist’ (state owned) sector would by its superiority gradually overtake the private sector, the peasants would peacefully be persuaded to abandon private agriculture for collectives, and commodity production and the market. Stalin’s forced collectivisation and industrialisation cut across this whole process, and from 1929 to 1991 the Soviet state presided over and directed a centralised state-owned command economy. And from 1991 to now we have seen basically the same state apparatus carry out the privatisation of state enterprises and the replacement of the command economy by the free market, and the reintegration of the Soviet economy into the capitalist world market.

And yet all these different economic bases and property relations succeeded each other under the same superstructure, the same one-party bureaucratic Soviet state. And not only this, but the changes in the economic base – from War Communism to the NEP, from the NEP to the command economy, and back to capitalism – were brought about by the conscious decisions and actions of the superstructure. So much for the economic base determining political superstructure! It was the other way around. It is true, of course, that the material base, the level of the productive forces, sets the limits to what the superstructure can do. But this does not alter the fact that property relations were changed by edict from above – the state decreed whether enterprises and farms were collectively or privately owned.

All these developments in the Soviet Union were touched upon in Richardson’s introduction, and those from 1917 to 1923 were the subject of the Bolsheviks’ texts in the book. The facts are not in dispute, but the conclusions from the facts are. Richardson complains that the tools of analysis used by the thinkers of the left are inadequate. I would go further and argue that the reason they are inadequate is that the thinkers of the left are trapped by a mechanical and reductionist view of the state and society which conceives only of a one way causal relationship between the material base and the superstructure, and between class and state – from base to superstructure, and from class to state. A consequence of this mechanical and reductionist view is to seek a rigid one-to-one correspondence between the economic base and the political superstructure, and between class power and state power. Richardson, to his credit, seems aware of this when he criticises the participants in the debate on the class nature of the state for conducting it as a clash of set definitions – workers’ state versus state capitalism – as if each excluded the other. Basing himself on the texts of Lenin and others, he points out that Soviet society contained within itself contradictory strands (including some inherited from Tsarism and capitalism) on which the eventual development of the Soviet regime depended, and shows which strands prevailed and which perished in a continual struggle in the context of the Soviet Union’s position within the global set-up.

If this is so, and if Lenin had to qualify the definition of the Soviet Union as a workers’ state by describing it as also being a bourgeois state without a bourgeoisie, and if he had to say ‘that Socialism is merely state capitalist monopoly which is made to serve the interests of the whole people and has to that extent ceased to be capitalist monopoly’ (as quoted by Richardson), then does this not indicate that we should drop the attempt to stick a neat class label on every phenomenon and structure, and categorically reject the reductionist strand that runs through the Marxist theory of the state?

We should substitute for this a holistic concept, seeing base and superstructure as a complex whole in which both mutually interact, without attempting to attribute causal primacy to one or the other. Is this still compatible with the Marxist theory of the state? I would suspect that Richardson and others would argue that it is, and that I am merely rejecting a crude and therefore mistaken interpretation of Marx. Maybe so, but unfortunately a hell of a lot of those who claim to be Marxist stick by it; and if ‘Marxism’ is what the majority of ‘Marxists’ say it is, then – like Marx – I would say: ‘I am no longer a Marxist.’

Another aspect of reductionist Marxism that needs to be re-examined is the concept that classes act as coherent and unitary – that is, organic – entities; the concept that classes as ‘classes’ act, take power, lose power, that classes are the prime actors on the historical stage, and that parties, organisations and states are merely the ‘forms’ that classes take. This is an abstraction that does not correspond to concrete reality. The prime actors on the historical and political stage are not ‘classes as such’, or ‘classes in the raw’. It is parties, movements, organisations, etc., that are the prime actors. Of course, these parties and organisations function in a society composed of classes. None can be effective unless it draws support from substantial strata and interests in that society. But these are not necessarily whole classes, rather they are sections of classes, and coalitions of sections of classes. No party or state is identical with a class.

This is well illustrated by the development of the Bolshevik party and the Soviet state, and the relationship between them and the working class. The Bolshevik party arose not out of the working class, but as a current within the Marxist intelligentsia who ‘went to the workers’. For most of their existence, the Bolsheviks had the support of a tiny minority of the working class. For a short period from 1917 to 1918 they won the support of the active majority of the class. But it was not the working class that seized power. It was the Bolshevik party which as a result of its conscious decision that took power, albeit with the support of the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets. Even at its peak, the Bolshevik party was not the whole class, or coterminous with the class. And by 1919 the soviets were emasculated, and workers’ control in the factories was abolished. By the 1920s the Soviet state represented nothing but itself, and remained in power by balancing between what remained of the working class, the peasantry and world capitalism. And, as explained above, this same state itself initiated changes in the economic base and property relations. Where then does this leave the Marxist identification between party and class, or state power and class power?

Another aspect of the class theory of the state, as expounded by Leninist-Trotskyists, is the concept that classes rule directly, so to speak; the over-rigid identification of class and state ‘as the executive of the ruling class’. I accept that in a class society, such as capitalism, the overall function of the state is to ensure the continued functioning of that society, that is, the continuation and preservation of capitalist property relations, and that therefore in a general sense it is justifiable to describe that state as a capitalist state. But this is only part of the truth. Leninist-Trotskyists seem to forget that Marx and Engels themselves made a distinction between the ‘economically dominant class’ and the ‘politically leading or ruling caste’: ‘The governing caste... is by no means identical with the ruling class.’

In nineteenth century Britain, the economically dominant class was the capitalist class, but the state machine was the preserve of the landed aristocracy, even after the 1832 Reform Act gave the industrial bourgeoisie the vote. In Germany, capitalism developed under the Prussian Junker state. (For an elaboration of these arguments, see my article Class, Party, Ideology and State, in New Interventions, Volume 7, no. 1, Winter 1995–96.)

Even today capitalists do not rule directly, but by delegation. The heads of businesses and banks occupy themselves with their businesses. The state is run by professional politicians. The fact that businessmen often go into politics, and retired cabinet ministers end up on the boards of merchant banks does not alter the fact that there is a division of labour. The capitalist class rules through the intermediary of the state, and this, plus the fact that the capitalist class contains groups with conflicting interests, and the further fact that the state has to keep class conflicts within bounds, gives the state a relative autonomy. We have also seen how in the Soviet Union the Stalinist state achieved an independence from both the working class and the peasantry, and the fact mentioned by Richardson and amplified by me that property relations have several times been transformed since 1917 without the destruction of the existing state apparatus and its replacement by a new one.

It is obvious that the class theory of the state needs refining, and that mechanical reductionism needs rejecting.

This also has implications for the strategy and policies needed to bring about the possible future transformation from capitalism to a Socialist society. The crude reductionist class theory of the state underpins the idea that this transformation can only come about after the destruction of the existing capitalist state and its replacement by a ‘workers’ state’. By rejecting or devaluing the possibility of using the gains of past struggles – universal franchise, elected parliaments and democratic liberties – to take the fight into the state, and in the process transform it, and by insisting that only its violent overthrow is meaningful, Leninists and Trotskyists castrate themselves politically, and isolate themselves from the mass labour movement. We would be wrong to go to the other extreme and argue that Socialism can be brought about by purely parliamentary activity. History is only too replete with instances of class conflicts developing into extra-parliamentary conflicts, military coups, civil wars, etc., for us to have any illusions on that score. But the road of October 1917 of soviets and dual power is not the only possible road. It was a road taken in particular historical circumstances. In 1996, in different historical circumstances, we need to explore other roads. A re-examination of the class theory of the state will help us to map out new roads. Al Richardson’s introduction is a contribution.


Harry Ratner

Updated by ETOL: 29.9.2011