Tom Kemp 1962

Class, Caste and State in the Soviet Union

Source: Labour Review, Volume 7, no 2, Summer 1962.
Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

For those who wish to make a serious study of the Soviet Union and reach conclusions about its social character and the direction in which it is moving there are no sacred texts. Everything which has been written by Marxists and others must be checked and re-checked against the facts in their development. Such a study is not only important, it is also unavoidable, for it is impossible to operate in politics today without having in mind a definite conception of what the USSR is and where it is going – what form of society it is, what relation its leaders have to that society, what their real aims are and how they are related to their ideology, that is, to what they say these aims are. Even among those who are critical of, or hostile towards, the Soviet Union there are wide divergences of opinion on these questions: but the need for an opinion of some kind, backed up by a coherent theory, is generally accepted to be inescapable. In the working-class movement insufficient independent thought is given to these questions, for understandable reasons. On the one hand there are the official or self-appointed apologists of the Soviet regime who claim that ‘socialism’ was achieved in about 1936 and that the present period is one of the threshold of communism. If such views are only accepted in full by Communist Party members and fellow-travellers, such is the power of the Russian revolution that, at least in some part, and particularly at the rank-and-file level, they influence even many who, in other respects, are far from being on the Left. On the other hand, especially since the onset of the Cold War, the ranks of the labour movement in Britain, America and the non-communist sections in the Western European countries have been strongly receptive to the anti-Soviet theories current among the propagandists and ideologists of the capitalists. Given all the difficulties standing in the way of fathoming the ‘Russian enigma’, and the impact of the ‘revelations’ of the period since 1956, it is perhaps understandable that some people, even on the ‘Left’, should seek to wash their hands of these questions, claiming that they are irrelevant to the tasks of British socialists. Such a withdrawal into a perplexed insularity was characteristic of many of those who broke with the Communist Party in or after 1956 and subsequently presented themselves as ‘the New Left’. In fact, unwillingness to pursue to the end the necessary discussion of Stalinism and its origins was a major source of the weakness of this trend and, paradoxically, a reason for its failure to establish a place in the politics of the labour movement in Britain, since it meant that policies on a whole series of questions were left vague, hesitant, obscure and confusing.

We have today, then, the disarray of the apologists, making the best of the achievements of the Soviet Union and vainly trying to evade the question of how Stalinism arose; at the other pole those who accept that the USSR is nothing but an oppressive and aggressive force bent on world conquest; there are all manner of other interpretations between these extremes. What has to be counted with, in particular, is the force of the revulsion against Stalinism found among many socialists and the pressure of ‘public opinion’ created by this, enhanced by the Cold War and cleverly exploited in intellectual circles by such organs as the Congress for Cultural Freedom. We should not be surprised to find on the Left, then, a number of ‘theories’ of rejection of the Soviet Union with a certain degree of attractive power for young people and intellectuals who are looking for correct explanations and yet, at the same time, are sensitive to the pressures in their own social milieu.


The theories which we are about to examine have in common that they discern in the set-up in the Soviet Union a new form of class-divided, exploiting society with its specific ruling class and political system. Apart from this they have secondary differences: some consider that this represents a form of capitalism – ‘state capitalism’, ‘bureaucratic capitalism’; others see in it something quite distinct from capitalist society and describe it as ‘bureaucratic collectivism’, ‘managerial society’ or ‘state socialism’. Various other sub-classifications may be made: for example, there are several variants of the ‘state capitalist’ theory, which is of special interest both because it claims to analyse Soviet economy in the precise terms of Marx’s Capital and because, in a looser way, many people today speak of the Soviet Union as ‘state capitalist’ without really having thought out the reasons for doing so. In addition, adherents of this theory represent a definite trend in the ‘Left’ in Britain and a number of other countries to a much greater extent than the adherents of the ‘bureaucratic collectivist’ theory.

All these theories can claim intellectual roots in discussions in Marxist circles which go back to before 1914, to the classic tenets of anarchism or anarcho-syndicalism and, more particularly, to the attempts made, first in Russia, then in the workers’ movement internationally, to describe and account for the degeneration of the Soviet power from the early 1920s onwards. A full history of such trends would thus have to deal with the Bordigists and other groups which broke from the Communist International in this period, the Workers Opposition in Russia, the rise of the Left Opposition and the discussions which arose within its ranks from its very inception. There is certainly little novelty in the principal ideas of the versions which have found currency more recently in the writings of James Burnham, Tony Cliff, the French review Socialisme ou Barbarie, [1] Shachtman and his group in the USA, Milovan Djilas and many others. What is important at this stage is less the differences which undoubtedly exist between these theories than the common ground which they share. However, relatively more attention will be given to the theory of ‘state capitalism’ than to the others.

The problems presented by the development of the Soviet Union and the emergence of other states with a similar social system are undoubtedly difficult because of the unprecedented character and scale of the social transformation involved, as well as the deliberate policy of concealment and falsification of data pursued by the rulers of these states. In the years following the Russian revolution, for example, features developed in Russia, owing to the isolation of the revolution in a backward country, very different from those which socialists had expected after the overthrow of capitalism. The process of degeneration which took place in the Bolshevik Party, which changed it out of all recognition; the altered relations between the party, the state and the working class; and the emergence of a politically dominant stratum enjoying economic privileges amid general hardship and poverty, strained the resources of description, theoretical perception and vocabulary. The search for a short-cut, the need for a simple key to the unravelling of complex and disheartening problems, soon brought suggestions that nothing had changed or that there had been a relapse into capitalism or into a new exploiting society. After all, the Mensheviks had argued that the revolution ought to have been a bourgeois revolution leading to the full establishment of capitalism in backward Russia; what was more natural than to see in the developments of the 1920s the carrying out of capitalist tasks by capitalist methods leading to the installation of capitalism of a new type? Either the Russian revolution had been a mistake or, presumably by a series of imperceptible stages, power had been taken from the workers and assumed by a new exploiting class corresponding to the bourgeoisie under capitalism.

In their earlier forms such theories were not worked out to their logical conclusion. That came later, and what it meant, in short, was that the categories of Capital, intended to apply to competitive private enterprise capitalism, could be affixed to Russian society in the Stalinist phase. Instead of many competing capitalists there was now a single capitalist, the state. The complete fusion of economic with political power brought into being ‘integral bureaucratic capitalism’ which only ‘applies to the whole of the economy and society the methods which private capitalism created and applied in each particular factory’. Far from being socialism, or anything resembling it, ‘it is the most finished realisation of the spirit of capitalism, it pushes to the limit its most significant tendencies. Its essence consists, like that of capitalist production, in reducing the direct producers to the role of pure and simple executants of orders received.’ [2] All that Marx wrote about the impoverishment, alienation and divorce from the means of production of the worker is regarded as strictly applicable to the USSR. If one enquires about the reason for the absence of periodical crises of over-production, or of problems arising from the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, these are held to be ‘inessential’ aspects of Marx’s analysis of capitalism. [3]

Although some bourgeois observers have pointed out parallels, in fact superficial ones, between Soviet and capitalist societies, economists have not fallen into the error of establishing such an identity. [4] The kind of economic theory accepted as orthodox in capitalist countries does not recognise the kinship of Soviet economy with that in these countries. This theory is, indeed, for the most part incapable of analysing Soviet economy in the same terms as that which it employs in relation to capitalist economy; the former it sees as a planned economy, the latter as economies which, in greater or lesser degree, are beholden to the laws of the market. It has been left to self-styled Marxists to turn superficial resemblances into the claim that Soviet ‘state capitalism’ is the ‘most finished realisation of the spirit of capitalism’, prefiguring in fact the situation towards which monopoly capitalism in America and Western Europe is tending.


A detailed theoretical refutation of these claims is not necessary; it cannot be made on a point-by-point basis. The theories are vitiated by the premises from which they start. Once one has made up one’s mind that, in a literal sense, the understanding of Soviet society can be read off from Capital it is only a question of finding the most convincing analogies; affixing the right labels and glibly discarding what does not fit the thesis. Isolated aspects of Soviet experience are abstracted unhistorically and compared to equally isolated aspects of capitalist society. This method itself depends greatly on a display of ‘Marxist’ erudition and upon emotional reference to disagreeable sides of Stalinism. It is typical, for example, that it should hold up the ugly reality of Russian experience for comparison with some abstract model of a healthy workers’ state, as though this clinched the argument about the social nature of the USSR. The reader does not realise that he is being gripped by his emotions and blinded by knowledge, but a moment’s pause will show that the reasoning is entirely mechanical. It is based on the conception of some ideal type for a workers’ state, torn out of all historical reference, and of the Soviet Union as a finished social formation, subject, at any rate according to the ‘state capitalists’, to the same laws of capitalism as were analysed by Marx, and with a new ruling class represented by the bureaucracy, the collective capitalist.

Adherents of the theories of ‘state capitalism’ and ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ want us to believe that in the USSR and Eastern Europe a functional bureaucracy has become a new ruling class. Thus we find assertions like the following:

The bureaucracy does not individually own, it collectively controls – and hence prevents other strata from participation in decision-making. Individual members of the bureaucracy, like individual entrepreneurs, may run the risk of elimination from its ranks, but the bureaucracy as such is a self-perpetuating ruling class whose power is defined by its relation to the means of production, that is, by its relation to the state. Far from being a parasitic excrescence on a healthy body it is an integral element in a corrupt social structure. [5]

It was against theories of this kind, put forward inside the American Socialist Workers Party in 1939–40, that Trotsky fought his last theoretical battle, as he had fought before against those who had maintained that the Soviet Union had become a new form of exploiting society. [6] He fought to maintain a view which, in association with the Left Opposition, first in Russia, then outside, he had evolved over the previous ten years. This view finds its most complete expression in a book which, at the same time, is a major contribution to Marxist theory, The Revolution Betrayed. It takes the form, not of a snap definition, but of a sociological characterisation too long to quote here. Trotsky does not accept the view that the question has been finally settled by history but says that it ‘will be decided by a struggle of living social forces, both on the national and the world arena’. [7] Trotsky maintained that despite the usurpation of political power by the bureaucracy the essential conquests of the revolution had been preserved: nationalised property and planned economy corresponded to the social basis of proletarian hegemony. In the special conditions of Russian development the bureaucracy had emerged from the working class and became ‘the sole privileged and commanding stratum’. Trotsky was prepared to admit that ‘the very fact of its appropriation of political power in a country where the principal means of production are in the hands of the state, creates a new and hitherto unknown relationship between the bureaucracy and the riches of the nation’. [8] A real qualitative leap would, however, be required before the bureaucracy could legitimise its rule and make itself a new ruling class. In 1939, with the conclusion of the Hitler-Stalin pact – which blew sky-high the tacit pro-Sovietism of progressive petty-bourgeois and intellectual circles – the minority in the SWP argued that somewhere along the line such a change had taken place; they were not sure when, but they were anxious to find coherent theoretical reasons no longer to have to defend the Soviet Union at a time when this had become difficult and unpopular.

In the course of the discussion which subsequently took place Trotsky, as it were, put into the mouths of his critics arguments which they accepted and built upon. We have already examined the basis of these arguments. In fact Trotsky did accept that a ‘bureaucratic collectivist’ society was a theoretical possibility. One of the leaders of the struggle against Trotsky, Max Shachtman, has recently argued that this marked a sharp change in Trotsky’s thinking. [9] In fact this was not so; perhaps less explicitly he had said much the same thing in his earlier polemic against Urbahns, [10] as well as in The Revolution Betrayed. What Shachtman dare not face up to is that Trotsky set certain conditions for accepting that the corner had been turned and that a new exploiting society had been established in the USSR. It would have been necessary to accept that the definite defeat of the Russian working class at the hands of the bureaucracy had taken place and that the social conquests of the revolution of 1917 had been finally liquidated. The significance of this on the international plane would be correspondingly immense. The way would be open for the assumption of power by such a new ruling class on a world scale, as Bruno Rizzi and later Burnham argued was taking place. It would suggest that the working class was incapable of assuming power, or at least of holding it for any length of time. It would assume the indefinite continuance of capitalism, or its supersession, in decline, by something worse. The logic of this, too, was accepted by Burnham: the real theme of his The Managerial Revolution is the failure of the Russian revolution and abandonment of all confidence in the working class. [11] Burnham went logically, and rapidly, into the camp of reaction. The movement of Shachtman was slower: he wanted to accept part of the sociological analysis, without accepting all the political implications. Even so, he accepted the basic one in the situation of 1940: the abandonment of defence of the Soviet Union. This meant then, as it does now – as a direct derivation from the theory of ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ or, for that matter, of ‘state capitalism’ – that there was no difference between the USSR and a capitalist country: the defeat of the USSR was of no particular concern to the world working class. But, as Trotsky pointed out in the course of the controversy:

... the system of planned economy [despite the profound deformations introduced by the bureaucracy], on the foundation of state ownership of the means of production, has been preserved and continues to remain a colossal conquest of mankind. The defeat of the USSR in a war with imperialism would signify not solely the liquidation of the bureaucratic dictatorship, but the planned state economy; the dismemberment of the country into spheres of influence; a new stabilisation of imperialism; and a new weakening of the world proletariat. [12]

This remains as true in the era of Cold War as it was at the time when it was written. It is not true, as Shachtman argues, that Trotsky determined the nature of a social order (that is, the USSR) by appraising the prospects for political success of its upholders and opponents. Trotsky tried to work out the dialectical relationship between them in the whole international context of the struggle between classes. Shachtman eventually tired of his ambiguous position; after many years he led his followers into the bosom of American Social Democracy which had long since come to terms with the State Department. [13]

In the course of this prolonged itinerary, during which Shachtman showed many flashes of polemical skill, he and his followers cooperated with the adherents of ‘state capitalist’ theories. This was typical of the unprincipled politics which followed from the position both had adopted on political questions. Because they temporarily drew similar political conclusions they were quite prepared not to raise the very different sociological paths which had led them to such conclusions. In the article already quoted he sums up his opposition to ‘state capitalism’.

A social order [he writes] in which there is no capitalist class, no capitalist private property, no capitalist profit, no production of commodities for the market, no working class more or less free to sell its labour power on the open market – can be described as capitalist no matter how modified by adjectives, only by arbitrary and meaningless definition. [14]

One would hardly imagine that he cooperated with ‘state capitalists’ for many years; presumably no explanation ever took place between the two trends on such questions. Certainly Shachtman’s arguments against ‘state capitalism’ are dealt with in all the expositions of the theory and dismissed as concerning the inessential attributes of capitalism, and the ‘bureaucratic collectivist’ theory remains weakest on its economic side.


Before we can deal satisfactorily with these theories it is necessary to discuss, from a Marxist point of view, the meaning to be given to key terms in the controversy. We shall therefore need to say what we understand by ‘class’, ‘ruling class’, ‘bureaucracy’, ‘capital’ and ‘capitalism’ and shed light, as this is done, upon the issues which are in question. Of course, this can only be done very inadequately within the limits of a single article. In fact, Marxists need to give much more attention than they do to these questions. It is not surprising that those Marxists who owe allegiance to the official Communist Party line can offer little or no assistance in this field. It is notorious that Soviet sociologists do not dare to ask the most elementary questions about their own society. The ideological bankruptcy of the Stalin period was officially admitted at the Twenty-Second Congress, and a great theoretical void now exists in the world communist movement – which is temporarily filled by vacuous declarations and misquotations from Lenin. The inability and unwillingness to consider the social roots of Stalinist degeneration has made it necessary to attribute all excesses to the personal characteristics of one man – a hair-raising disregard for the elements of Marxism. The few attempts which have been made to carry on a discussion in Marxist terms have been hastily scotched. When the basic questions have been raised the answers given have generally been puerile. In fact, however, there can be no development of Marxist analysis which does not consider carefully, in Marxist terms, the social and class nature of the Soviet state. The inability of the ‘orthodox’, that is, Communist Party, Marxists, to reply to the theories of ‘state capitalism’, ‘bureaucratic collectivism’, etc, derives from the fact that they cannot begin to do so without treading on dangerous ground. [15] The great merit of Trotsky, and in this he developed Marxism in a creative way, was that he did carry forward such an analysis – pointing out much which even the apologists for the ruling clique had to admit, 20 years after – and drew the necessary political conclusions. No apology is necessary, therefore, for the fact that this exposition and polemic are made along the lines which he indicated. In fact, no one can venture into this field with any authority without having mastered The Revolution Betrayed and In Defence of Marxism. Nothing much of what the state capitalists and ‘bureaucratic collectivists’ claim as their own thought will not be found, duly refuted, in these works.

The existence of classes is determined by the fact that different social groups stand in different specific relationships to the means of production, and thus to the allocation of the social product.

It is often said that Marxists have never clearly defined their approach to the concept of class. Perhaps the following quotations may take the place of a full exposition:

Classes are large groups of people which differ from each other by the place they occupy in an historically definite system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed and formulated in laws) to the means of production, by the dimensions and method of acquiring the share of social wealth that they obtain. Classes are groups of people one of which may appropriate the labour of another owing to the different places they occupy in the definite system of economy. [16]

A class is defined not by its participation in the distribution of the national income alone but by its independent roots in the economic foundation of society. [17]

The ruling class is that class which, through its ownership of the main means of production, is able to appropriate the social surplus, that is, that part of total output over and above what is received by the direct producers.

To a given ruling class, therefore, correspond particular property forms and specific relations between it and other classes in the society. Such a ruling class will itself be stratified; there may also be conflict between its different sections. The relation between political power, concentrated in the state, and the ruling class as a whole shows considerable variation. In complex, class-divided societies of the capitalist type, the actual exercise of state power may be in the hands of a stratum which enjoys some independence from the ruling class as such, though it is ultimately answerable to it. Indeed, there is room for considerable variation in the form of capitalist rule – parliamentary democracy, bonapartist dictatorship, presidential government, fascism. In any case, the actual authority of the state is vested not in capitalists as such, not in property owners, but in a hierarchy of salaried servants – the upper layers of which will have the closest ties with the economic ruling class – who form a functional bureaucracy. Even in business considerable powers, but not ultimate determining power, have, of necessity, to be vested in similar people. The relations between the ruling class and the bureaucracy which is an emanation of it are not fixed and constant; they vary with innumerable factors, some of which tend to increase the autonomy of the latter while others restrict it. There is no recorded case, however, in a capitalist society of such a bureaucracy (even taken in the widest sense, to include business executives, party bosses, etc) establishing itself as a ruling class. The test of a state apparatus and those who occupy positions in it is whether their policies and exercise of power, internally and externally, have the function of preserving the social foundations, legal protections and ideological domination of the class which owns the main means of production. It would be a very foolhardy man who suggested that the political regime of the USSR had acted in any way to stabilise, strengthen and legitimise the power and privilege of the managers and technical intelligentsia since Burnham’s book was written. In practice, as distinct from the manuals of speculative sociology of The Managerial Revolution type, the ruling class under capitalism has remained firmly based upon the ownership of the means of production, and the attempt to establish a distinction between this and ‘control’ has remained a fiction.

It is a mistake of many writers to use the term ‘capitalism’ with no discrimination. Eminent economic historians, for example, have been known to argue that capitalism began when primitive man began to use a digging stick, and have subsequently distinguished numerous varieties of capitalism from that day to this. Other non-Marxists refuse to use the term at all. Marx, however, was interested in precisely what distinguished what he called the ‘capitalist mode of production’ from all economic systems which preceded it. He recognised, of course, that it had certain features in common with its predecessors and, as though to anticipate the misuse of his own terms, he made it clear that a distinction had to be made between these and the essence of capitalist relations which defined that mode of production. Answering those who wished to blur the distinction between capitalism and other forms of economy he wrote:

Because a form of production may... be brought into line with its forms of revenue – and to a certain extent not incorrectly – the illusion is strengthened so much the more that the capitalist conditions are the natural conditions of any mode of production. [18]

As for the division of the product he went on to say ‘if we deprive both wages and surplus labour of their specifically capitalist character, then we have not these forms, but merely their foundations, which are common to all social modes of production’. [19] Nor does accumulation necessarily indicate the presence of capitalism.

In economic forms of society of the most different kinds [wrote Marx], there occurs not only simple reproduction, but, in varying degrees, reproduction in a progressively increasing scale. By degrees more is produced and more consumed, and consequently more products have to be converted into means of production. This process, however, does not present itself as accumulation of capital, nor as the function of a capitalist, so long as the labourer’s means of production, and with them, his product and means of subsistence, do not confront him in the shape of capital. [20]

Anyone who wants to apply the term ‘capitalist’, however qualified, to the form of production which prevails in the Soviet Union has therefore to prove that the means of production are ‘capital’ and do so confront the working class. Whether some of the ‘forms’ are similar to those in unquestionably capitalist countries: whether there are wages, surplus value or classes, are secondary matters. From the very first chapter of Capital Marx is concerned with social relations, relations between men, whose real character is hidden and deformed. Thus, under capitalism these relations take the form of the exchange of commodities, with labour power itself a commodity bought in the market by the owners of the means of production, the capitalists. When the means of production acquire the form of capital, that means that they – ‘dead labour’ – have the power to extract a surplus from the living labourers which is appropriated by the owners of the means of production. The capitalists personify this relationship between the means of production and the working class, with nothing to sell but its labour power. The capitalists produce not for their own enjoyment, or to satisfy social needs, but in order that, from the surplus value extracted from the workers, they may accumulate. This they do, not from choice, but from necessity; not to accumulate is to fall behind in the race and eventually to perish. The standstill of accumulation is the decline of capitalism.

To the basic capitalist relationship in production correspond the intricate ‘laws of motion’ of the capitalist mode of production with which Marx was concerned. With this relationship, too, goes the allocation of social power to the class which owns the means of production and appropriates surplus labour: that is, the predominance of the bourgeoisie and the various state forms by which this class preserves its hegemony. Correspondingly, the division of society into classes, determined by ownership or non-ownership as the basic criterion, gives rise to the struggle between classes in which the maintenance or winning of state power is, in the last analysis, at stake.

In the Soviet Union the means of production are not owned by the bureaucracy, they are nationalised, state property. The additions which are made to them from the surplus labour of the direct producers become part of the nationalised property and cannot be appropriated either individually or collectively by the bureaucracy. This inability to appropriate the means of production does not prevent the bureaucrats, as effective controllers of the means of production through their monopoly of political power, from according themselves excessive incomes either for services rendered, at their own valuation, or by illicit means. Yet if the bureaucracy controls the state, it is not avowedly in its own name but as the representative of the proletariat. The distribution of the social product is, in part, arbitrarily determined by those who possess the monopoly of political power. On the other hand the disposal of the surplus product, as part of the social product, is neither under the control of the bureaucracy to do as it likes with nor is it subject to the pressure of accumulation for accumulation’s sake, as under capitalism, bringing into existence more ‘capital’ in the shape of means of production alienated from the workers.

Those who argue that the bureaucracy ‘really’ own the means of production through their control of the state have produced no economic analysis to explain the specific workings of this new exploiting system. Certainly the bureaucracy has great privileges in income, but even the greatest of these differentials can only lead to differences in consumption, whereas the surplus appropriated by capitalists plays a specific role in the whole productive mechanism, constantly consolidating the ‘domination of dead labour over living labour’. The high incomes of the bureaucrats can in no way be used to build up their power over the direct producers. In many ways, the high income of the bureaucrats weakens rather than strengthens the base of their power: by exposing the parasitic role of the bureaucracy and contributing to the corruption and isolation of its members from the workers and peasants, it produces contradictions precisely in that sphere of the political and ideological superstructure where the bureaucracy’s power is rooted. In this way the specific contradictions of the bureaucracy’s rule necessitate the political revolution which began in the 1953 rising in Eastern Germany and in Hungary in 1956.

Nominally the means of production are the property of the whole people. Far from being able to renounce this conquest of the revolution of 1917 and replace it by a frank assertion of supremacy, the ruling stratum is obliged, by propaganda and programme, by education and the distribution of the works of Marx and Engels and Lenin, to conceal itself behind an ideological smokescreen. Even when the variance between the officially proclaimed theory and current practice is most glaring, nevertheless their consistency must be proclaimed or, by some subtle casuistry, an explanation must be offered for popular consumption.

This is not the behaviour of a ruling class. Nor does the individual insecurity of its members which, under Stalin could lead to instant physical elimination, find an easy explanation within the terms of state capitalist theory. More and more, on investigation, and in the light of actual developments since Stalin’s death, does the view of the bureaucracy as a ruling class prove inacceptable. It has no necessary place as such in the circuit of exchange. The source and form of its incomes, leaving aside its illicit predations, however high, are precisely the same as those of the working class as a whole. The pressure of the working class and peasants for increased consumption, as well as the internationally-imposed need to build up and extend the means of production – always outside its ownership – provide objective limits to its distributive share. [21] In those circumstances it is by no means free to use and abuse the means of production in its custody. Certainly the bureaucracy as a whole has to wage a struggle against such abuses getting out of hand on the part of individual members. Collectively it is increasingly sensitive to the fact that its continued political predominance depends upon delivering the goods and concealing its economic privileges. Its continued predominance is not made necessary by a specific form of property. The form of property corresponds already to the hegemony of the proletariat brought about through a social revolution. The bureaucracy was always an historical anomaly; its role was, and remains, parasitic. [22] It cannot back up its political rule by establishing a new form of property, nor does it personify capital, as required by the state capitalist theory. [23]

Of course, all this does not prevent the appearance in the Soviet Union of all sorts of abhorrent practices, but these horrors were tied up from the first with the parasitism of the bureaucracy. They followed precisely from its insecurity, from its anomalous position, from its usurpation, from the contradiction between theory and practice – which, in the special conditions of backward Russia’s isolation in a period of capitalist decline, led to Stalinism. The bureaucracy, like Stalinism, did not spring from nowhere. Both had the same social roots and were interlaced for a whole era. The procedures of Stalinism were inescapable for the bureaucracy in a particular phase of Russian development. When those conditions changed it sought to rationalise those procedures as a way of maintaining its power, confronted as it was by a large, growing and increasingly self-conscious working class which wanted to enter fully into its legacy, the legacy of the October Revolution. For this to become effective there will be no need to change the property relations, which correspond fully to those of a workers’ state. What must go is the usurping political function of the bureaucracy which it exercises, of course, already in the name of the working class. The way to put paid to the political degeneration which led to the rule of the bureaucracy lies in the political revolution which, through workers’ councils and militias, enables the working class to rule in its own right.

The conclusion of this discussion must be that in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe what is called the bureaucracy does not form a new ruling class and that there is not to be found in these countries a new form of exploiting society. Appearances apart, the evidence of history and the conclusions of Marxist sociology are conclusive on these points. Traditional terminology, even that of Marxists, is not always adequate to cope with the infinite variety of living social forms. Certainly what we call ‘the bureaucracy’ comprehends a social layer representing some 10 to 15 per cent of the population, larger in size and more varied in composition than those generally included in the term in orthodox sociology. There is no doubt that many of these people are carrying out functions which would be necessary in a healthy workers’ state. Large sections, however, such as the secret police, or those concerned with industrial discipline, only exist because of the antagonisms which result from the privileged and usurping position of the stratum as a whole. It is this special and anomalous position which, while preventing the bureaucracy from being a class, makes necessary the use of some other term. When Trotsky hit on the term ‘caste’ he was aware that this, too, had its shortcomings:

We frequently call the Soviet bureaucracy a caste, underscoring thereby its shut-in character, its arbitrary rule, and the haughtiness of the ruling stratum which considers that its progenitors issued from the divine lips of Brahma whereas the popular masses originated from the grosser parts of his anatomy. But even this definition does not of course possess a strictly scientific character. Its relative superiority lies in this, that the makeshift character of the term is clear to everybody, since it would enter nobody’s mind to identify the Moscow oligarchy with the Hindu caste of Brahmins. [24]

An important point is that a caste is not defined by its relationship to the means of production; it is not economically necessary but is a product of superstructural forces – ideology, religion, war, conquest. Thus, in these states, the caste-like peculiarities of the bureaucracy arise from the political degeneration of the Stalin era, the isolation of the revolution in a backward country and the precautions which the bureaucracy has taken to preserve its anomalous position and social privileges. It performs no function in the course of production which justifies its de facto monopoly of political power. Its role is not made necessary by the form of property. Its existence is bound up with the preservation of the conquests of a working-class revolution, but is actually in conflict with the property forms. In fact no independent basis for its rule exists; in that respect it is not a class, independent of the working class of which it is, historically, an emanation and from which, in terms of source of income, it is not distinguished. If it absorbs a disproportionate share of the social product that is because it disposes of the social surplus – but still can do no other than deploy most of it in the building up of additional means of production. In doing so, however, it does not create capital or behave as a capitalist class. It cannot alter the nationalised basis of the economy nor is it, as a specially privileged ruling stratum, necessary to it. It is best described, then, as a parasitic excrescence which arose in the course of the process of degeneration which went on in the USSR or, by transference, affected the East European countries. It can be removed by a political revolution which will not only leave intact the social-economic base but will enable the full flowering of the latter to take place. The road to socialism in these countries thus lies through the re-establishment of workers’ power; the Hungarian Commune of 1956, based as it was on workers’ councils, foreshadows the future line of development. Whatever adaptations the bureaucracy may make, it is confronted by an increasingly powerful and self-conscious working class which no attempt at self-reform will satisfy. The political monopoly of the bureaucracy is, indeed, the only basis for its social existence in these countries. The fragile and contingent nature of its rule, which now moves from crisis to crisis as the events since 1953 have demonstrated, removes any possibility that it can consolidate its position and create a new form of class rule. A product of international defeats for the working class and of hardship and penury in the USSR, it cannot survive a period of international working-class advance.

Trotsky, in all his writings on the social character of the Soviet Union, never lost sight of the international and political conditions of the domination and the overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Succeeding in the period of exhaustion of the Russian masses, and contributing with its strategy of ‘socialism in one country’ to the international defeats which further isolated and discouraged the Russian workers in the 1920s, the bureaucracy came to stand between the Soviet proletariat and its true role beside the workers of the world in the struggle against imperialism. The basic class antagonisms remain the same: the struggle between the imperialists and the international proletariat, with the Russian workers having made a major breakthrough in 1917, but prevented from playing the necessary role of ally with the workers of the advanced and colonial countries by the political policy of the Stalinist bureaucracy: ‘The bureaucracy upon which Stalin leans is materially bound up with the results of the consummated national revolution, but it has no point of contact with the developing international revolution.’ [25] The combination of the struggles of the large and developed industrial working class in the USSR itself together with the solution of the ‘crisis of leadership’ in the labour movements of the advanced countries, is the death-knell of the bureaucracy. This perspective points clearly to the major responsibility of Marxists in relation to the USSR: defence of the conquests of October, together with implacable struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy in the creation of a Marxist leadership, both in the capitalist countries and in the ‘Soviet bloc’.


Something has already been said about the practical political conclusion which should be expected to follow from the type of theory now under consideration. In the light of events, while adherents of these trends have rejected defence of the Soviet Union, they have not always been able to resist being impressed by the economic, and even by the social, accomplishments of that country. Since they have decided that the bureaucracy is a new ruling class, moreover, it is difficult for them to deny it a valid place in history and thus to ascribe to it these very accomplishments, albeit achieved with the help of exploitation and ruthless oppression. Remarkably enough, therefore, a rapprochement takes place between the open apologists of the bureaucracy and the ‘state capitalists’ (the ‘bureaucratic collectivists’, strongest in the USA, are more consistently anti-Soviet): for both historical necessity and objective laws made Russian development what it was and justify, or legitimise, the rule of the bureaucracy, including at least some of its draconian measures. The position adopted on this question is not free from contradiction and is obscured by the weakness of the ‘state capitalist’ analysis of the post-Stalin developments in the Soviet Union. Thus, in one place, Cliff, writing of the bureaucracy, states:

Unable to rely on the self-activity of the people, denying all working-class democracy, Khrushchev has to rely on bureaucrats to control other bureaucrats. The hydra of bureaucratic anarchy and its concomitant bureaucratic control, grows on the soil of worker’s alienation from the means of production and exploitation of the labourer. [26]

But a page or so further on in the same article he says:

The efforts and self-sacrifice of the people have raised Russia, despite bureaucratic mismanagement and waste, to the position of a great industrial power from being, in terms of industrial output, fourth in Europe and fifth in the world to being first in Europe and second in the world. She has stepped out of her sleepy backwardness to become a modern, powerful, industrially advanced country. The bureaucracy has thus earned as much tribute as Marx and Engels, paid to the bourgeoisie. [My emphasis – TK] [27]

Why, under the conditions of extreme exploitation described in his earlier book Stalinist Russia the people should display such efforts and self-sacrifice is not explained; nor, in a study which lays heavy emphasis on bureaucratic mismanagement and waste, is it clear why he should wish to praise the bureaucracy, if only in the same terms as those used by Marx and Engels of the bourgeoisie. The only feasible explanation seems to be that the ‘state capitalists’ have become impressed by the indices of industrial production and by the scientific and technological achievements to which even the most hostile publicists are now obliged to pay tribute and are trying to integrate as best they can into their scheme of things. Since, according to them, all the conquests of the revolution have been filched away by the new bureaucratic ruling class of state capitalists, inevitably a large share of the credit must go to them – in fact it is but a short step to accepting that they have earned, and deserve, the large incomes and extensive privileges which they indeed enjoy. The implication is already there.

Moreover, if the bureaucracy is responsible for these achievements in state capitalist Russia, where it has expropriated the workers and now exploits them, and if in the advanced capitalist countries the working class has not been able to shake off the ruling class and even displays a certain political apathy, well that may mean that capitalism has the upper hand and will itself be freer to move towards the ‘state capitalist’ model as the result of further defeats of the workers. Such a line of thought can lead, through rejection of the conquests of the revolution of 1917, and acceptance of the inevitability of the defeat of the Russian working class by the new ruling class, to pessimism towards the whole prospect of socialism – unless some sharp and unexpected turn in the situation comes along, like a severe economic crisis or imminent threat of war. At least in the advanced countries the ‘state capitalists’ do not see very much hope for independent working-class action, although they talk about ‘autonomous and conscious action of the working masses’ free from control of party organisation and discipline. Indeed for some of its adherents all leadership is now rejected in a way which has become a positive obsession removed not only from Marxism but from all practical possibility of effective intervention in the labour movement as it is today except as an element of confusion and division. One such ‘theoretician’, for example, even finds the ‘effective essence of class relationship in production’ in ‘the antagonistic division of those participating in production into two fixed and stable categories: those who give the orders and those who execute them’.

The socialist revolution sets out [he continues] from the very beginning to eliminate the distinction between directors and executors as fixed and stable categories in production as well as in all other fields of collective life; because it is in this distinction that the division of societies into classes takes concrete form. [My emphasis – TK] [28]

Although even Socialisme ou Barbarie has not been able to refrain from some form of organisation to propagate its ideas, it emphasises that: ‘The organisation does not aim to lead the class and to impose itself on it, but will be an instrument of its struggle.’ [29] Why a presumably spontaneous struggle should require any organisation at all is not explained, nor what happens if the struggle employs methods, or seeks ends which are not those of the organisation which wishes to be its instrument. But Marxists must seek to win leadership and to wrest it from the hands of the Social Democratic and Stalinist bureaucracies in whose hands it now resides, which can only be effected through organisation.

The logic of the state capitalist position is drawn clearly enough by Socialisme ou Barbarie, less explicitly, perhaps, by its counterparts in Britain. Amongst other things it must be to oppose those who do seek to lead the working class and to unseat the existing leadership with cries about bureaucracy, substitutionism, dictatorship and so on. Meantime it means in practice knuckling down to the existing leaders, while waiting for the working class to get moving spontaneously, without benefit of organisation. Hence the explanation of some of the curious combinations, alliances and manoeuvres which have taken place in recent years inside the Labour Party and the Young Socialists. No doubt many of these people have been acting in good faith: nonetheless they have been following out to its logical and disastrous end a wrong theory which has taken many out of the labour movement altogether. If for no other reason the theories of ‘state capitalism’ and ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ must be understood, combatted and exposed.


The appearance of varied theories of the Soviet Union as a new form of capitalist, or exploiting, society couched in purportedly Marxist terms represents a running away from the real issues presented by Stalinism and its aftermath, generally under the pressure of public opinion in the capitalist countries. That they can win some support from people who genuinely desire to be Marxists is, at the same time, partly the result of the abysmal theoretical level of Communist Party writing on the Soviet Union and the sheer lack of renewal in Marxist thinking in circles influenced by it. In this and other articles we try to fill this vacuum and contribute to the theoretical arming of the genuine Marxist movement. It would be stupid, however, to adopt a too facile attitude to those who are led astray by theories like those of ‘state capitalism’ or ‘bureaucratic collectivism’. [30] Not only do these raise real problems – often echoing bourgeois sociology – which require to be dealt with, but, as Trotsky’s lengthy and patient rebuttals of such theories show, doing so is a real political task – a task not simply of hitting out, but of winning over those confused by such ideas. Some discussions of these theories by self-styled Trotskyists or Marxists show a desire to find a simple answer, or are simply unwilling to take up the real points raised by their adherents. We intend, in subsequent articles, to deal more fully with some of the problems involved in the analysis of modern advanced societies which have a bearing on this controversy.


1. Burnham wrote his book The Managerial Revolution after his departure from the American Socialist Workers Party following a lengthy factional discussion in 1939-40 over the nature of the USSR. It was, in the main, a working out, even to the point of absurdity, of themes which had been prominent in this discussion. The principal ideas had already found expression in writings by Laurat, Hilferding and Bruno Rizzi (the latter in a work entitled La Bureaucratisation du Monde). Whether or not Burnham was directly inspired by Rizzi has been the cause of some controversy. See Le Contrat Social, November 1958, January and March 1959, Arguments, no 17 and no 20 with communications from Naville, Hal Draper, Rizzi himself and others. Shachtman was co-leader of the SWP minority and developed, in the magazine The New International, the theory of ‘bureaucratic collectivism’. Socialisme ou Barbarie has been published in Paris since 1949. The fullest statement of its own ‘state capitalist’ theory is in no 2, ‘Les rapports de production en Russie’ by P Chaulieu. Tony Cliff is the only consequential theorist of the ‘state capitalist’ tendency in Britain. His book Stalinist Russia appeared in 1955 [available at M.I.A.]; the implications of the theory appear in the pages of the magazine International Socialism. Djilas, former Yugoslav partisan leader and minister, developed a ‘state capitalist’ theory to explain Soviet society in the period after the break between Stalin and Tito. When he extended it to Yugoslavia as well he soon found himself in gaol. His book The New Class, theoretically inferior to the former works, nevertheless became a best-seller. See my discussion in Labour Review, Volume 3, no 3, 1958. Bordiga seems to have found no disciples in Britain, but his tendency continues to exist in Italy and France (where it publishes Le Programme Communiste). The ‘Johnson-Forrest’ tendency in the USA developed a rather incoherent ‘state capitalist’ theory, an exposition of which, State Capitalism and World Revolution, was published in Britain in 1956. More ‘academic’ versions of the same or similar trends of thinking are represented by Wittfogel, Seton-Watson, etc (see D. Bell, ‘Ten Theories in Search of Soviet Reality’, World Politics, April 1958).

2. ‘The concrete development of the Russian economy under bureaucratic domination differs in no way, as far as its general orientation is concerned, from that of a capitalist country... the essential objectives and the fundamental means (the exploitation of the workers) are identical with those of capitalist economies.’ (Socialisme ou Barbarie, no 2, p 20, my emphasis – TK)

3. Socialisme ou Barbarie, no 2.

4. For example, R de Jouvenel, ‘Some Fundamental Similarities Between the Soviet and Capitalist Economic Systems’, The Soviet Economy (Congress for Cultural Freedom, 1956).

5. L Coser and I Howe, editors of the American review Dissent, a haven for ex-radicals of varied hues, in Voices of Dissent, p 98. They were members of, or sympathetic towards, the Shachtman group of ‘bureaucratic collectivists’.

6. See LD Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism. [Available at M.I.A.]

7. The Revolution Betrayed, p 255. [Available at M.I.A.] This comes at the end of an almost page-long definition of the transitional nature of the Soviet Union. ‘Doctrinaires’, Trotsky added, prophetically, ‘will doubtless not be satisfied with this hypothetical definition. They would like categorical formulae: yes-yes, and no-no. Sociological problems would certainly be simpler, if social phenomena always had a finished character.’

8. The Revolution Betrayed, p 249. [Available at M.I.A.] See also ‘The USSR in War’, In Defence of Marxism. [Available at M.I.A.]

9. In Survey, no 41, April 1962, p 106: ‘Having insisted that Russia remained a workers’ state because the rule of the bourgeoisie had not been restored and nationalised property still prevailed, he – Trotsky – now conceded that the workers’ state could be utterly destroyed even if the bourgeoisie did not come to power and even if property remained nationalised.’ [Available at M.I.A.] Note that Trotsky was speaking about Russia as a degenerated workers’ state and traced out the processes of that degeneration. To concede the theoretical possibility, which Shachtman takes to be a change in Trotsky’s thinking, is one thing; to establish its actuality is another. For what this would imply see the text of this article.

10. Urbahns, a German Communist leader, adopted a state capitalist position after breaking with the Comintern. Trotsky’s polemic against him, first published as The Soviet Union and the Fourth International, but subsequently as The Class Nature of the Soviet State, dates from 1933, at a time when Shachtman had not yet discovered his differences. [Available at M.I.A.] Trotsky then wrote: ‘The bureaucracy is not a ruling class. But the further development of the bureaucratic regime can lead to the inception of a new ruling class: not organically through degeneration, but through counter-revolution.’ Such a counter-revolution has not, in the intervening period, been in the bureaucracy’s power to make; its defensive position in Soviet society has been increasingly evident since the death of Stalin in 1953.

11. Burnham claimed the support of the discoveries of modern bourgeois sociology for his view of the new ‘managerial society’. Michels and others argue that administrative power as such gives rise to undemocratic and privileged rule, and since administration will always be required there will always be class divisions and class power. One of the assumptions behind this is the lack of initiative and interest on the part of the vast mass of mankind, who remain incompetent to take on the responsibility of rule. They, and Burnham along with them (see his book The Machiavellians) [available here – MIA], fail to see that this characteristic which they claim to see in the masses is itself a product of the separation of mental and manual labour and the monopoly of education and culture in the class societies they know. Their own position in these societies prevents them from understanding the real initiative and ability of the masses. Some historical accounting by the founder of the ‘managerial revolution’ theory would not be out of place. In 1940 Burnham saw all the advanced countries and particularly the USSR as examples of the triumph or impending triumph of the managerial ‘class’. But in which of these countries has the managerial ‘class’ been able to consolidate its rule as the leader of the new social order? German ‘national socialism’ is in ruins; the Soviet bureaucracy is experiencing a prolonged and bitter crisis because it stands in contradiction to the nationalised property forms; victories against the ‘old’ capitalism? (See Pierre Naville, in Arguments, no 17.)

12. In Defence of Marxism, p 122. [Available at M.I.A.]

13. Shachtman’s ‘Independent Socialist League’, formerly ‘The Workers Party’, ingloriously dissolved itself in 1958 and its members entered the SP-SDF. Its final statement stated: ‘We do not subscribe to any creed known as Trotskyism or defined as such ... We are strongly in favour of a broad party with full party democracy for all, which does not demand creedal conformity on all questions, etc. ...’ The sudden demise of the journal The New International was a shock to the ‘state capitalists’ in Britain who had cooperated closely with it for some years.

14. Survey, no 41, p 104. [Available at M.I.A.]

15. One may instance the discussions in the Italian Communist Party which, while aware of the incompatibility of the Khrushchev ‘explanations’ of the ‘personality cult’ with historical materialism, have not dared to go much further than to state this fact, and which have now been reined in by Togliatti in any case. As an example of theoretical banality we may quote from the book Inside the Khrushchev Era by G Boffa, L'Unità correspondent in Moscow, which has enjoyed some vogue in Europe among fellow-travellers for its ‘admissions’, now part of the new apologetics – the starry-eyed, Dean of Canterbury type being vieux jeu. Daringly raising the question – ‘The social democrats, the Trotskyists, and later the Yugoslavs spoke of a “new class” emerging from the so-called “Stalinist bureaucracy”’ – he goes on to provide ‘the answer’: ‘This concept of new class is completely invalid. At no time was the bureaucracy able to change the relations of production in its own favour. It never even approached this area. Not one of the fundamental principles of socialism was ever undermined [sic]. Bureaucratic elements do tend to separate out and form distinct strata, detached and isolated from the people – this is the nature of bureaucracy, its outstanding characteristic. But such a tendency does not strengthen bureaucracy. Instead it brings it into open conflict with Soviet society.’ The feebleness of this argument requires no demonstration. It is interesting, that Boffa, like all the orthodox, deliberately confuses the use of the term ‘bureaucracy’ as applied to a distinct social layer – whose existence is denied – with that of certain administrative vices, red tape, etc, which causes accidental divisions between some functionaries and the public at large.

16. Lenin, ‘A Great Beginning: The Heroism of the Workers in the Rear. On Communist Subbotniks’, Selected Works, Volume 9, p 432. [Collected Works, Volume 29, available at M.I.A.]

17. Trotsky, The Class Nature of the Soviet State. [Available at M.I.A.]

18. K Marx, Capital, Volume 3, p 1021 (Kerr edition); p 853 (FLPH edition). [Available at M.I.A.]

19. K Marx, Capital, Volume 3, p 1022 (Kerr edition); p 854 (FLPH edition). [Available at M.I.A.]

20. Capital, Volume 1, pp 609-10 (Allen & Unwin edition). [Available at M.I.A.]

21. Any such objective limits are denied by P Chaulieu, ‘Les rapports de production en Russie’, Socialisme ou Barbarie, no 2.

22. As Trotsky puts it, ‘in so far as the bureaucracy robs the people (and this is done in various ways by every bureaucracy) we have to deal not with class exploitation in the scientific sense of the word, but with social parasitism although on a very large scale’ (The Class Nature of the Soviet State, Ceylon edition, p 13). [Available at M.I.A.]

23. Needless to add, the formulations of the official sophists, as expressed, for example, in The Political Economy Textbook, which claim to have ‘abolished the antagonistic contradiction between accumulation and consumption’ (p 549) because the means of production are ‘at the disposal of society for further production, serve the interest of the whole people and cannot provide the basis for exploitation’ (p 512), have no scientific value. They merely provide the verbal smokescreen behind which the bureaucracy maintains its usurpation.

24. In Defence of Marxism, p 6. [Available at M.I.A.]

25. LD Trotsky, The Workers’ State and the Question of Thermidor (1935), Socialist Labour League pamphlet. [Available at M.I.A.]

26. International Socialism, no 1, Summer 1958, p 45. [Available at M.I.A.]

27. International Socialism, no 1, Summer 1958, p 52. [Available at M.I.A.]

28. P Cardan, ‘Declarations of Principles of Socialisme ou Barbarie’, The Review of the Imre Nagy Institute, no 6.

29. Statement on back cover of Socialisme ou Barbarie, no 33, 1962.

30. For example, the treatment by Ernest Mandel in Traite d'Economie Marxiste, Volume 2, Chapter XV would hardly disturb any adherents of these theories. He merely asserts: ‘Contrary to what is affirmed by numerous sociologists who claim to utilise the Marxist method of analysis, the Soviet economy does not display any of the fundamental aspects of capitalist economy.’ His main proof rests on the view that the accumulation of means of production is an accumulation of use values, that there is no profit and no anarchy of the market and that there is no bourgeoisie. According to him the adherents of the state capitalist theory are right when they say that the norms of distribution remain bourgeois and the adherents of the bureaucratic collectivist theory are right when they deny the capitalist character of Soviet production. Trying to keep purely within economic categories he says: ‘In fact, the Soviet economy is characterised by the contradictory combination of a non-capitalist mode of production and a mode of distribution which is still fundamentally bourgeois.’ This is most inadequate and is no real answer to the theories of which he claims to have disposed. Pierre Frank, on the other hand, in his preface to the recent reprint of the French translation of The Revolution Betrayed, argues that such theories all have their starting point ‘in the strengthening of the extraordinary weight of the state in the whole of social life’. He draws attention to the increased importance of the ‘new middle classes’. But apart from discussing various hypotheses, it must be said that he does not squarely meet the arguments of those whom he assumes that he has disposed of. See also W Edwards, ‘The Soviet Union, What It Is, Where It Is Going’, Bulletin of Marxist Studies, no 2, 1958.