From New International, Vol.12 No.3, March 1946, pp.74-77.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The Russian armies, after their victory over Germany, have occupied Eastern Europe and, in great part, Central Europe. Nobody, of course, expected that they would stop at the borders of the USSR, and the mere fact of crossing borders, in the last act of a gigantic war, has no independent political significance in itself: its military necessity is obvious. The problem to be examined is not the mere crossing of borders, but the policy followed by the occupying authorities.
The first point to be noted in this policy is the total absence of internationalism. The Soviet authorities sow and cultivate with great care blind chauvinism, a spirit of revenge. Internationalism and even every elementary human compassion are trampled. This fact alone would be sufficient for our condemning Stalinist policy in Europe. But in this there is nothing new. Only illusions about Soviet reality could have made one expect something else.
As the second point, it is necessary to mention the conduct of the Soviet soldiers. There is no reason to embarrassedly keep silent on this repulsive aspect of the occupation, provided that the cause of it is properly explained and the responsibility placed where it belongs. Twenty years of Stalin’s political barbarism have not passed without leaving their mark. The Soviet soldier, constantly inoculated with strong doses of chauvinist hatred, treated as cattle by his officers, compensates himself by brutalities against the local population, by plunder and rape. Cars full of plundered goods were recently crossing Poland, according to an American journalist, decorated with the Soviet star (!) and with inscriptions like this one: “We belong to a nation of conquerors.” This moral depravity is a direct product of the brutal regime of the bureaucracy. To keep silent on this aspect of the occupation is to keep silent on one of the most monstrous crimes of Stalin.
However, when everything has been said about the reactionary chauvinist policy of the bureaucracy, about the corruption of the Soviet army, there remains a series of facts, such as the truly fantastic indemnities, the dismantling of factories, the forced labor on a grand scale, etc., that cannot be explained except by deeper economic and social causes. The dismantling of factories, systematically practiced from Austria to Korea, is not merely due to the depravity of some Soviet general or bureaucrat We have here a series of phenomena whose social and economic roots are to be looked for in the bureaucratic management of Soviet economy. This last aspect of the occupation I propose to name imperialism, more precisely bureaucratic imperialism, for a series of reasons that I will try to present.
Still more precisely, it is more correct to speak of elements of imperialism. We have observed these new phenomena only during a period that, historically, is still very brief. They have been until now explosions, violent indeed, but concentrated in an interval of time still very short. These elements of imperialism are playing in Soviet economy a role still secondary; they are still very far from having engendered a whole system, such as the British Empire. However, as elements, their existence is undeniable.
The imperialism that now dominates the world is finance imperialism. Bureaucratic imperialism is obviously not finance imperialism. Quite the contrary. Finance imperialism has its inner spring in a superabundance of capital, previously accumulated, in quest of investments. The distinctive feature of Soviet economy is still the low degree of industrialization, and the problem that confronts it does not at all resemble the one that confronts mature capitalism, but rather the one that nascent capitalism had to solve, namely the problem of primitive accumulation.
The country that came first in capitalist development, England, solved the problem of primitive accumulation through barbaric methods which Marx has so vividly described in the next to last chapter of the first volume of Capital: the laws against paupers and vagrants, the kidnapping of children, etc. In the countries that followed England on the road of capitalism the same methods were combined to various degrees, with the investment of British capital, previously accumulated, which permitted solving the task more easily.
Soviet economy is still far from having realized an industrialization of the country comparable to that of the advanced capitalist countries. However, Stalinist bureaucracy manages Soviet economy in such a way that the yearly fund of accumulation is greatly reduced. Not only does the bureaucracy appropriate a disproportionate share of the national income, but also – and that is the more important point – by its methods it retards the increase of the productivity of labor, multiplies losses and, in general, increasingly hampers the development of the economy. Thus, the bureaucracy finds itself forced, lest the rate of accumulation fall to a ridiculously low level or even become negative, to plunder means of production and labor power, everywhere it can, in order to cover the costs that its management imposes on Soviet economy. The parasitic character of the bureaucracy manifests itself, as soon as political conditions permit it, through imperialist plundering.
The policy of the Soviet bureaucracy outside the USSR is but the continuation of its policy inside. From this fact, incontestable in itself, some may conclude that the eruption of bureaucratic imperialism hardly deserves any special attention and that it is merely a geographical extension of an already existing system; therefore, nothing politically new. This means to simplify the problem too much, for the action of the bureaucracy, inside and outside of the USSR, does not operate in the same milieu.
Russian armies have occupied in Europe regions that are much more advanced than the USSR in the development of the productive forces and of technique, in the cultural level of the workers and of the working population in general (the extreme cases are those of the industrial regions of Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Austria).
The bureaucracy found its historical raison d’étre in the USSR in the barbaric condition of the country, in the necessity of transplanting foreign technique. It fulfilled these tasks in its own way, that is, very badly, and, to the extent to which it partly fulfilled them, it became a greater and greater brake on the further development of industrialization, of technique, of culture.
The extension of the power of the Kremlin bureaucracy to a backward country, such as Outer Mongolia for instance, may still signify for such a country a quicker industrial development. (Even in this case one may now be skeptical after the dismantling of factories in Manchuria and in the part of Korea occupied by the Russian army.) But in the highly industrialized parts of Central Europe, Soviet occupation has directly and terribly reactionary consequences.
The “abolition of the kulaks as a class,” fifteen years ago, did not lack in horrors. According to a testimony cited by Trotsky, the troops of the GPU took away boots of young “kulak” children. However, whatever may be our indignation at such methods, the expropriation helped fulfill the first Five Year Plan.
The present situation in Europe is very different. When the Soviet bureaucrats dismantle factories in Vienna, they condemn the Viennese worker to a death more terrible than just physical death; it is the death of his class, his social death. It means to condemn the country not to get out of economic, social, political and cultural stagnation. It means to instigate the disintegration of the proletariat, the only class from which the salvation of Europe can come. It means to deal a blow at the very heart of the perspective of socialism.
According to official figures, the Kremlin bureaucracy had already last September dismantled and shipped to Russia twenty per cent of Czech industry, thirty per cent of Polish industry. These are “allied” countries. What has happened in Austria, in Silesia, etc.? And these figures are merely quantitative: the bureaucrats have certainly not taken the least modern material. Moscow has claimed the privilege of seizing in the occupied countries, “friendly” or enemy, every machine of German make; in fact, it means to claim the right to grab all the industrial equipment of these countries. The economy of the enemy countries is, moreover, crushed by tremendous war indemnities for an indefinite period.
To the dismantling of factories must be added forced labor. War prisoners, Polish and Baltic exiles of 1939-40, political prisoners, German minorities deported from the Volga or from Rumania, etc., form a herd of unfortunate forced laborers, the number of which is certainly higher than eight millions and maybe not lower than fifteen or twenty.  The fate of these unfortunates is below that of slaves, for the owner of slaves ordinarily provides conditions that allow their indefinite reproduction. But the Soviet bureaucrat, because of his own situation, thinks only of drawing from the forced laborers all the possible labor in the shortest possible time. From one group of 100,000 German prisoners, six thousand were still alive three months ago, after three years of captivity, according to one of these unfortunates who had escaped.
Forced labor has occupied, in Soviet economy, a place which is far from being negligible compared to wage-labor. With eight to twenty millions of forced laborers side by side with the Russian working class, forced labor has not only a political, but also an economic importance. With the bureaucratic management of Soviet economy, the problem of manpower and efficiency is insoluble. The most immediate result of such management, with its uncontrolled command and its arbitrariness, its iniquities and brutalities, is to keep the productivity of labor at an extremely low level. The worker, deprived of every right and every protection, hardly feels inclined to produce more, to take better care of his tools and of his machines, etc. 
The bureaucrat tries to solve this problem by his methods: Stakhanovism, extreme differentiations in wages and, finally, forced labor on a great scale. The latter penetrates the more easily into the system since the efficiency of wage-labor is very low, often hardly higher than that of forced labor, and therefore there are many works which are less costly to execute with forced labor than wage-labor, especially when these forced laborers are deprived of all social life and reduced to being mere givers of labor-power until their death. It would be economically impossible to use forced labor on such a great scale in the United States, for instance, where the labor-power of well-paid workers, equipped with modern machinery, usually would be cheaper than the labor-power of forced labor with a very low efficiency. Thus the bureaucratic management of the economy, while keeping the productivity of labor at a low level, calls for, and at the same time makes possible, the use of forced labor on a great scale.
The most vivid manifestations of bureaucratic imperialism – plunder, requisitions, dismantling of factories, forced labor – are thus the direct consequences of the bureaucratic domination of the Soviet economy and not the product of Zhukov’s caprice, or Stalin’s thirst for power, or the depravity of Soviet soldiers. The whole bureaucratic management of the economy calls for such methods. In this sense, it is fully legitimate to speak of bureaucratic imperialism as a system growing out of definite economic needs.
Every imperialism springs from difficulties in the economy of the country. What this imperialism seeks reveals what these difficulties are. Finance imperialism, in quest of investments, reveals in the metropolis a superabundance of capital that does not find a sufficient rate of profit. Bureaucratic imperialism, with its millions of forced laborers and its carrying away of machines, reveals the need of an economy suffocating under the bureaucratic management.
At this point someone will probably remark that war has destroyed so much in the USSR that this destruction is sufficient to explain the needs of Soviet economy, independently of the disorder and waste of the bureaucracy. This remark remains too abstract. Soviet economy does not start from scratch. In the years immediately preceding the war, in 1938-40, the existence of the bureaucracy weighed more and more heavily on the economy. The rates of development of the key industries had very much decreased in those years. War, with the poverty it has wrought, has deepened, materially and spiritually, the gulf between the bureaucracy and the people. Feeling itself surrounded everywhere by the hatred, the bureaucracy can less and less appeal to emulation, to enthusiasm, to voluntary sacrifice, in order to get out of a terribly difficult situation. How could a bureaucrat ask the Czech or Hungarian peoples to voluntarily collaborate with the Soviet people for the building of a better future? Such appeals coming out of the mouth of a parvenu do not have the accent of truth and remain ineffective. The bureaucrat, in his own way, knows that very well. Nothing remains but the way of violence and plunder.
Does the appearance of elements of imperialism imply the revision of the theory that the USSR is a degenerated workers’ state? Not necessarily. The Soviet bureaucracy feeds in general on an appropriation of the work of others, and we have already, long ago, recognized this fact as part and parcel of the degeneration of the workers’ state. Bureaucratic imperialism is only a special form of this appropriation.
If they do not necessarily imply a revision of the theory, the various manifestations of bureaucratic imperialism force us, nevertheless, to see how far the degeneration has advanced. It is not possible any more to simply speak of workers’ state and to add, as if between parenthesis, degenerated. Of the two attributes, “workers” and “degenerated,” it is the latter that we must now underline with greater emphasis. The degeneration has made such an advance and the impact of this degeneration on Europe has such terribly reactionary consequences that it is impossible to automatically apply to the USSR of today propositions that would be valid for a “normal” workers’ state. The Soviet Union is as far from being a “normal” workers’ state as a rotten apple is a “normal” apple, and nobody would think of biting into a rotten apple. With the present imperialist plundering, the degeneration has reached the last stage of rottenness.
As the result of historical circumstances, which we have very often analyzed, a social formation has appeared which really is a monster of history. As the biologists explain to us, a monster is due to disturbances occurring during the development of the embryo; likewise the isolation of a proletarian revolution in a barbaric country has engendered a society not only without any precedent, but also very different from all the outlined norms.
To repeat today that “fundamentally” the USSR is a workers’ state because the means of production are nationalized is to dupe oneself with words. If it were so, the Poland of Bierut would be a good approximation of the dictatorship of the proletariat! If an economic form is separated from the social and political context in which it is immersed, it becomes an empty abstraction. Trotsky saw much more clearly than all these amateurs of empty phrases when, as early as 1936, he wrote that in the USSR “the character of the economy as a whole depends upon the character of the State power.”
If the Soviet Union still remains today, in my opinion, a degenerated workers’ state, it is because, from that monstrous society, nothing new and stable has yet come out. In the rotten apple no germ has appeared. The personal position of each bureaucrat still remains very precarious. The manifestations of imperialism that we can now observe reveals precisely the parasitic character of a bureaucracy that lives from day to day by plunderings and expediencies. If the monster would reveal itself capable of reproducing itself, it would not be a monster any more, but a new species. If the system of political absolutism combined with state-ownership of the means of production were to extend over the world, the Soviet bureaucracy would already today be, of course, the prototype of this system. But history has not yet proven that from the Stalinist bureaucracy can emerge a social system of an historical scope, in the full sense of the word. To accept today that the proof has been given means, it seems to me, to overlook all that is monstrous, exceptional, parasitic and unstable in the Stalinist bureaucratic regime.
The various features of bureaucratic imperialism which we now observe are a new phenomenon and, like any new phenomenon, it is difficult to label them. We have to create a new term or use a term already applied to other phenomena. To create a new word is easy, but to create a new word that would be understood by everybody, that could be used in our daily propaganda and agitation, is much more difficult, and Until now, nothing of that kind has been proposed. We are, therefore, reduced to using a term already used for other phenomena, that is to say, to extend its meaning to a certain degree. Two names have already been used: expansionism and imperialism, and the question of choosing between the two would be very paltry if very often deeper disagreements were not hiding behind that choice. Let us weigh a moment the relative advantages and disadvantages of the two terms.
The term “imperialism” is used most of the time to designate the finance imperialism of advanced capitalist countries. (Not only, however. Trotsky, describing Tzarist imperialism, discovers in it many features which do not belong at all to classical finance imperialism.) If we want to use the term for the Soviet bureaucracy, we are then obliged, in order to avoid confusion, to state clearly what are the economic and social roots of bureaucratic imperialism, and that is what I have tried to do above. This task once accomplished, there remains the formal argument that to speak of bureaucratic imperialism means to identify the USSR with the capitalist countries, for it means to use the same word for the two camps. But, the same objection, if it were valid, would equally invalidate the term “expansionism” (and many other terms too, such as oppression, plunder, etc.) for the great capitalist powers also practice expansionism (and oppression, plunder, etc.). Thus, every formal argument directed against the word imperialism strikes also the word expansionism. If the disadvantages are the same, the term imperialism is the better under the heading of advantages. For, what constitutes the difference? Expansionism is a much more neutral term, equally applicable, for instance, to a peaceful expansion into a virgin continent. Imperialism designates much more precisely the oppression and exploitation of foreign peoples and is much more charged with opprobrium, considerations which, in face of the monstrous crimes of the Soviet bureaucracy, should decide us to adopt the term in our propaganda and agitation.
In October 1939, after the occupation of eastern Poland, Trotsky wrote:
Can the present expansion of the Kremlin be termed imperialism? First of all it is necessary for us to agree on the social content which we put in this term. History has known the imperialism  of the Roman state based on slave labor, the imperialism of feudal land-ownership, the imperialism of the Tzarist monarchy, etc. The driving force behind the Moscow bureaucracy is indubitably the tendency to extend its power, its prestige, its revenues. This is the element of “imperialism” in the widest sense of the word which was a property in the past of all monarchies, oligarchies, ruling castes, medieval estates and classes. However, in contemporary literature, at least Marxist literature, imperialism is understood to mean the expansionist policy of finance capital which has a very sharply defined economic content. To employ the term “imperialism” for the foreign policy of the Kremlin, without explaining exactly what one means by it, means simply to identify the policy of the Bonapartist bureaucracy with the policy of monopolistic capitalism on the basis that both one and the other utilize military force for expansion.
From this citation it appears dearly that Trotsky is irritated with those who employ the term imperialism in regard to the USSR as a simple insult in order to vent their indignation, but “without explaining exactly what one means by it.” However, to demand that one explains is to accept implicitly that it is possible, once the demand is satisfied, to extend to the Soviet Union the term imperialism.
In 1940 we were entering a gigantic war that would bring an answer to many questions, and it was legitimate to hesitate at that moment to introduce a theoretical innovation. Moreover, the territories occupied then were economically insignificant, their occupation had almost entirely a military meaning on the eve of an imminent war, the few dismantlings of factories which were then carried out were not known abroad at the time Trotsky was writing. Today, however, it is a question of half of Europe, plus large territories in Asia. A little before the war we were still criticizing the Kremlin for its actions in the League of Nations, for pacifism, pacts, etc. All this appears today almost like child’s play compared to the regime of violence and pillage which has been extended over Europe. Countries with advanced working classes are being condemned to economic, social and cultural disintegration. In the eyes of large masses, communism is being discredited. The parties of petty bourgeois democracy suddenly recover prestige and votes. The very perspective of socialism is placed in jeopardy.
The oppression and exploitation, pillage on a grand scale, the millions of forced laborers, the hopeless situation of the occupied countries – all these facts are undeniable. I have tried to show that it is not a matter of simple political episodes but that it results from the bureaucratic management of Soviet economy and that it is therefore legitimate to speak of bureaucratic imperialism. The reality is so complicated that there is room for discussions on this point. But even on the exact mechanism of finance imperialism the discussions have never ceased among Marxists during a half century! With much greater reason the teratological character of the Soviet Union impels us to a constant reexamination of our conceptions. What is necessary to ask of anyone who takes part in this discussion is, rather than immediate agreement, a desire to learn, a willingness to weigh all arguments, a firm decision to reduce to silence those who want to fetter the analysis by considerations foreign to the discussion. It is only thus that we will be able to advance.
December 25, 1945
[Editor’s Note – THE NEW INTERNATIONAL holds the position that Russia is not in any way a workers’ state, but a bureaucratic collectivist state. We will comment on the above article from this point of view in a future issue.]
1. Official statistics are, of course, silent on this sector of “socialist” (!) economy. Light is thrown on a small bit of the reality by information which the Mensheviks have Just published on one colony of the GPU. In northeastern Siberia, near the river Kolyma, there are gold deposits so rich that they can be exploited without a great amount of machinery. The whole region, an area about that of France, was given to the GPU. It exploits the deposits with the help of five million forced laborers, Poles deported in 1939-40 or German war prisoners, reduced to a regime of bread and water, deprived of all social life, treated, in the strictest sense of the word, as cattle, in a region with the most inclement weather in the world.
2. This well known aspect of Soviet economy was again underlined recently in a report of a delegation of the Iron and Steel Trades Conference at its return from the USSR: “The workers are competent, but ‘in spite of the stories about fabulous increases in production, we believe that their output per man-hour is considerably lower than ours.’ The delegates were unfavorably struck by the ‘little importance attached to the care of the machine’.” (New York Times, November 17, 1946.)
3. In the English translation (In Defence of Marxism, p.26) the term imperialism is at this point placed between quotation marks, which is not the case in the original Russian. The American translator has taken upon himself the right to “correct” (and here it is where it is necessary to use quotation marks) Trotsky, who had dared mention Roman imperialism without quotation marks. What breadth of view!
Last updated: 3.10.2005