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Irving Howe

Workers Party Pre-Convention Discussion ...

Communist Parties Not Working Class

(20 May 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 20, 20 May 1946, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The articles that appear below are DISCUSSION ARTICLES published as part of the pre-convention discussion in the Workers Party. Because our space is limited, it will be impossible to devote more than two columns per issue to this material. Contributions will therefore have to be brief, not exceeding 750 words. Pre-convention discussion articles are also appearing in The New International and in the Workers Party Bulletin. Copies of the latter may be obtained by sending 25 cents to the Workers Party, 114 West 14th Street, New York 11, N.Y. Readers will understand that these articles represent neither the views of the party nor of Labor Action, but are written with a view toward establishing policy at the coming convention of the WP.


One of the major differences of opinion facing the coming convention is the problem of how to characterize the international Stalinist movement. This traditional position of the Trotskyist movement was that, just as Russia was a “degenerated workers state,” so the Stalinist parties were degenerated and even counter-revolutionary workers parties, but workers parties nonetheless. The Workers Party, having rejected the false theory that Russia was a workers state and having characterized it rather as a new social formation, bureaucratic collectivism, now faces the need of giving a new characterization to the international agency of the Stalinist state, the Communist parties. Correspondingly, the International Resolution of the Majority of the National Committee proposes that the coming convention of our party characterize the Stalinist parties as being non-working class in character, and totalitarian agents of a totalitarian bureaucratic collectivist state in Russia. Comrade Johnson, who believes that there is fascism in Russia, persists, however, in continuing to characterize the Stalinist parties as working class.

In my opinion, the position of the Majority is correct for the following reasons:

  1. The various Stalinist parties do not in any way represent the interests of the working class or any section of the working class. The traditional, classical Social-Democracy has represented the labor aristocracy, the highly skilled sections of the workers and the labor bureaucracy – all parts of the working class or working class movement. The Stalinist parties on the contrary represent the Russian dictatorship. Now whether one applies the sociological characterization of bureaucratic collectivism or of fascism to Russia, the basic fact is that all of us in the Workers Party reject the idea that Russia is a workers state. Correspondingly, we must reject the illusion that a party so completely and thoroughly under the domination of this state, functioning as its agent, can be a working class party. Exactly how comrade Johnson proposes to reconcile his characterization of Russia as a fascist state with his idea that the agent-parties of this state are working class parties, is a bit of a mystery.
  2. The Stalinist party, unlike every party that can in any way be characterized as working class, is the agent first and foremost of a counter-revolutionary bureaucracy in Russia. It is not in any fundamental way amenable to the pressure of “its” working class. If it is to the interest of Russia to prevent strikes in America, the American Stalinists will oppose strikes no matter how much they are in the interests of the workers and no matter how much the workers want them. Even the Social-Democracy at its worst has been amenable in various degrees to the pressure of the working class.
  3. The Stalinist parties are thoroughly and completely totalitarian in their internal structure. No matter how bureaucratized, no working class party can be checked in the same way – and here again, not even the Social- Democracy at its worst. Comrade Johnson offers a rather bizarre objection to this point by writing in his resolution that the Stalinist parties are not totalitarian because “membership in the Stalinist party is voluntary. The party holds no power of life and death over its membership. It cannot prevent secession and the formation of other parties.” But Johnson’s logic leads to the conclusion that a party is totalitarian only when it has state power for that is the only time it can fulfill the requirements which he lists as essential to the definition of a totalitarian party. In that case Hitlers’ Nazi party, which before it seized power also didn’t have “the power of life and death over its membership” was NOT a totalitarian party and became one only after its accession to power. That seems to me a patently absurd point of view.
  4. Stalinism has as its purpose the destruction of democracy, proletarian and bourgeois democracy. It aspires to create a state of affairs similar to that of its model and inspirer in Russia; and it has succeeded in doing so in certain eastern European countries. Here again we see where it is totalitarian in structure, purpose, ideology and method.

Comrade Johnson offers only one reason for calling the Stalinist parties working class: “their program and practical activity appeal to the working class on the basis of the class struggle against the capitalist class for the socialist society.” But the fact that the Stalinist demagogically utilize the socialist tradition for their own reactionary ends does not make them a working class party. Consider the following: The Nazi movement has as its basic purpose the buttressing of finance capitalism, Big Business. Yet, both in its “program and practical activity,” it appealed to the middle class. It had a mass base in the middle class, as Stalinism has in the working class. Nonetheless, Nazism remained essentially in the historic interest of, and essentially to be characterized as, a movement of Big Business. Similarly, with Stalinism in relation to the working class.

We must recognize a new fact in history when it thrusts itself in our faces. Stalinism is a new, unique historical phenomenon. It is an international totalitarian movement, the completely subservient agent of the Russian bureaucratic ruling class; its method, purpose, structure, ideology and historical character are – despite its mass base in the working class – not working class in character.

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