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Stalinist Expansion, the Fourth International and the Working Class

Proletarian Revolution No. 64 (Spring 2002)
Transcribed, Edited and Formatted by Damon Maxwell and David Walters in 2008 for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line.

In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the Fourth International (FI) made a great leap backward, a major step in its collapse as the world communist revolutionary vanguard. After years of understanding that the post-World War II expansion of Stalinism into East Europe had developed state capitalist regimes there, the FI suddenly declared these nations to instead be “deformed workers’ states.” The term “deformed” was used instead of “degenerated,” because nobody could pretend that these states had ever been revolutionary workers’ states. Thus, with the stroke of a pen, an organization which claimed the unstained banner of Trotskyism, turned the fundamental principles of the Marxist world view into their opposites.

In the course of the FI discussion on East Europe, James P. Cannon, the leader of the Socialist Workers Party of the U.S., pointed out in 1949:

I don’t think you can change the class character of the state by manipulations at the top. It can only be done by a revolution which is followed by a revolution in fundamental property relations. ... If you once begin to play with the idea that the class nature of the state can be changed by manipulations in top circles, you open the door to all kinds of revisions of basic theory. (SWP Internal Bulletin , October 1949.)

Soon Cannon, like Michel Pablo, Ernest Mandel, Gerry Healy, Nahuel Moreno and the other leaders of the FI not only opened this door, they broke it down. Nevertheless, Cannon had been right in pointing to the extensive revisionist consequences of the new “deformed workers’ state” theory. Among those Marxist fundamentals which had been necessary to revise were:

1. That only the working class can make the socialist revolution, i.e., establish a proletarian dictatorship, a workers' state.

2. That socialist revolution can only occur when the proletariat is led by its most conscious advanced sector, organized into a Bolshevik-Leninist vanguard party. Proletarian class consciousness is the key element.

3. That Stalinism constituted an alien and counterrevolutionary invasion force within the working-class movement. By 1940, the Stalinist bureaucracy had become, in Trotsky’s words, an “absolute obstacle in the path of the country’s development” and an imperialist tool. Its murderous struggle against Trotskyism was designed to prevent socialist revolutions, not to lead them.

4. That Popular Fronts are class-collaborationist blocs created to prevent socialist revolution, not aid and abet it.

5. That the bourgeois state apparatus must be destroyed by an actual revolution (a civil war by the working class against the capitalist class) rather than reformed or manipulated at the top—if a workers’ state is to be created.

6. That the purpose of Marxist theory and analysis is to broadly predict developments in the class struggle and thereby guide “the line of march” for our class, the proletariat. Its aim is not to serve as a retrospective rationalization for tailism; especially with an analysis which lacks any predictive capability.

At the close of World War II in 1944-5, the Soviet army marched into Eastern Europe and dominated most of the new governments set up by the Stalinists. In country after country, the masses rose up as the Nazi German occupation forces were weakened and in retreat. In several countries, workers’ councils and soldiers’ councils raised the red flag of revolution. All such workers’ uprisings were crushed by the Soviet armies—except in Poland, where the Russian divisions halted their advance in order to allow the Nazis to destroy the rebellion.

Stalin then moved to organize the new regimes as “Peoples’ Democracies.” These Popular Front governments were rotten blocs: servants of the previous pro-Nazi regimes, outright fascists, pogromists, old counterrevolutionary military figures, liberal bourgeois, social democrats, even a king—in addition to indigenous Stalinist Communist Party members. And the ranks of the CPs themselves had been swelled by the admission of large forces from the fascists like the Romanian Iron Guard.

Years before, Trotsky had predicted that the bourgeoisie would never engage in full nationalization of the means of production, even though he thought it theoretically possible. The capitalists, he wrote, would be too frightened of the opportunity that statified property would present for seizure by the working class. Thus before the People's Democracies could transform their economies according to the Soviet model, the Stalinists had to first behead and smash the proletarian forces.

In 1947 the leading FI theoretician, Ernest Mandel, summed up the events: “The bureaucracy in general began by curbing and breaking the revolutionary upsurge of the masses. A year and a half later, however, the situation in these countries is marked by a more or less widespread introduction of agrarian reforms and nationalization of heavy industry.” [“The Soviet Union After the War,” IIB, March 1947.] Mandel denied that nationalization signified anything more than private capital's inability to run these economies. He labeled as "absurd" any idea that workers' states, degenerated or not, could arise without proletarian revolutions.

Extensive sectors of these economies had already been nationalized during the Nazi occupations. The process was continued over the next years until nationalization was nearly complete by 1948 and the Stalinists had ejected most of their coalition partners. The decapitated and demoralized working class played no role in these events, except in Czechoslovakia where there were police-dominated and staged events which gave formal agreement to the changes made at the top.

The new regimes in Yugoslavia and Albania had been created by indigenous Stalinist guerrillaist forces. However, they were just as intent as the Soviet dominated governments on preventing any proletarian upsurge. In 1948, when Tito broke with Moscow, the first reaction of the FI was to support Yugoslavia, which it still regarded as state capitalist, against the Soviet Union, which it still considered a “degenerated workers’ state.” This absurdity was soon resolved by a further one; a retrospective declaration that four years before, there had been a “socialist revolution” in Yugoslavia. Of course, when Tito’s “workers’ state” supported Western imperialism in the Korean War, this proved even more embarrassing than when he ignored the Pabloite FI’s embarrassing and indeed criminal offer for Tito to join the FI.

By 1951, the FI declared all of the Peoples' Democracies to be “deformed workers’ states,” even though neither the workers nor even the Stalinist rulers considered them anything of the kind. The degenerating FI could never resolve the question of precisely when these states had become “workers’ states.” If the date of the social transformation was 1947-48, then the transformation from popular frontist capitalism to workers’ state was made without a revolution and without the smashing of the state apparatus. After all, the Soviet Army and the Stalinists held effective power both before and after the peaceful change.

On the other hand, if the date was set at 1944-5, that meant that the “socialist revolution” had occurred at the very moment that the Soviet armies were crushing the workers’ struggles. Further, if these armies created socialist revolutions by their occupation, how could eastern Austria and Finland revert to capitalism without a violent counterrevolution when Russian control ended in those countries?

Neither scenario can answer the fundamental question of how the socialist revolution could be accomplished without leadership by the proletariat, spearheaded by its conscious vanguard. The whole structure of the Marxist world view is rooted in the understanding that the working class is the sole agency of the socialist revolution.

“Orthodoxy” is anathema for genuine Marxists. The factional struggles waged by the “orthodox” tendencies led at times by Cannon, Healy, Lambert, Moreno, et al, as opposed to the groups led by Pablo and Mandel, were fought over secondary questions. All sides embraced the “deformed workers’ state” rationalization that counterrevolutionaries could carry out socialist revolution. We designate them all as Pabloites after the inventor of the theory. Some decided that Stalinism was not in fact counterrevolutionary; they were the first to capitulate to the Stalinist parties at home.

One attempt to justify tossing out the proletarian essence of Marxism was to distort Trotsky’s point in the Transitional Program that under exceptional circumstances the petty bourgeoisie, including the Stalinists, might be forced to go further along the revolutionary road than they wished and break with the bourgeoisie. True enough, but nowhere does Trotsky suggest that the petty bourgeoisie could make the socialist revolution. Had Trotsky come to the conclusion that Marx had erred in believing that the working class was the only revolutionary agency, he would have devoted far more than a glancing reference to this new shattering conclusion!

For the FI, the exceptional circumstances soon proved to be the rule. The revolutions in China, North Korea, North Vietnam and Cuba—all of which were bourgeois-democratic anti-imperialist revolutions that suppressed and decapitated the working class, were again designated as “socialist revolutions” by Trotsky’s false followers. Eventually the Pabloites called the new regimes workers' states; they disagreed among themselves over whether these “workers’ states” were deformed or healthy!

They also disagreed about the nominally anti-imperialist regimes that had taken power in Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, Algeria, Cambodia, South Yemen, Nicaragua, Afghanistan and Burma. Were these workers' or bourgeois states?

Another damning fact is that for the duration of all these “workers’ states,” over half a century of history, Pablo, Mandel wrote no analytic works describing the dynamics of these economies and how they worked. The “deformed workers’ state” name proved to be not a theory that helped explain reality but a rationalization.

Once the idea that proletariat was not the necessary agent for the socialist revolution became dominant in the FI, it opened the floodgates to every form of tailism toward peasant-based guerrillaism and social-democratic electoralism, in counterposition to revolutionary Bolshevism. It led some to support the Stalinists when they shot down workers, as with the Berlin Wall and in Jaruzelski’s crackdown in Poland. One of the greatest examples of the practical as well as theoretical collapse of the FI occurred over the Bolivian revolution of 1952. The Bolivian POR led by Lora capitulated to the left nationalists, and the FI as a whole supported its policy. For us this event marked the end of the Fourth International as a revolutionary organization.

Today, the various tendencies who believe that the collapse of Stalinism in the East has led to the creation of bourgeois states cannot explain how counterrevolution occurred without the smashing of the workers' state apparatuses and without civil war. The same state police agencies which once defended nationalized property today defend private property.

In Proletarian Revolution magazine and in our book The Life and Death of Stalinism , the LRP/COFI has developed the point of view that the Stalinist counterrevolution had finally succeeded in overthrowing the degenerated workers’ state in the Soviet Union by the end of the 1930'’s. Like Trotsky, we saw the Great Purge as a “civil war.” He thought the slaughter of the old Bolsheviks was a violent and desperate last resort of the Stalinist Bonapartist caste, trying to keep control over the fragile remains of a “hollow workers’ state” which could not outlast the coming world war. In contrast, we see these counterrevolutionary events as the final blow in the restoration of capitalism on a statified basis; the elimination of the last representatives of October in the state and party apparatus and the consolidation of the Stalinists as a ruling class, a regent class for the missing bourgeoisie.

Unable to fully destroy proletarian property forms and other gains of the October revolution, the Stalinist USSR was fragile compared to U.S. imperialism, but far stronger than Trotsky believed. His predicted collapse of the USSR not only did not occur, but the USSR rapidly expanded its area of rule in the wake of the world war.

As opposed to the degenerated “Fourth International,” we have no problem in explaining the Stalinist transformations in a Marxist manner; they were political but not social transformations within capitalism. We believe that our analysis reflects the outlook of authentic Trotskyism, despite our difference with Trotsky as to the rapidity of the collapse of the Soviet workers’ state. We were also able to use our theory to foresee, as early as the mid-1970's, the Stalinists’ inevitable turn to openly bourgeois methods of exploitation by wiping out the surviving gains of the workers’ revolution.

We in the COFI have begun to seriously study the literature of the POR and the LBI. Our obvious disagreements concern the nature of the Stalinist USSR, the deformed workers' states and the class nature of the police under capitalism. But there are also very important points of agreement, such as the trenchant criticisms of the capitulations of the FI made by these comrades. So far, however, we have not seen a class analysis of the collapse of the Fourth International. Trotsky pointed out, in the faction fight against the petty bourgeois Shachtmanites in 1939-40, that every important split in the Marxist movement is not simply the result of bad ideas and wrong leaders; they reflect class differences at concrete turning points in history.

We believe that the Pabloites in the West saw the Stalinist transformations in the East as progressive because their class position at home was changing. The growing post-war prosperity and the huge expansion of the middle-class intelligentsia and labor aristocracy led to a new political world view. The reformist social democratic, labor and Stalinist parties in the West, understood by Trotsky to be counterrevolutionary, were now deemed moderately progressive “blunt instruments” that could be pressured to work in the interest of the proletariat rather than the bourgeoisie. That is, social chauvinist parties were now seen as stepping stones to socialism. Shachtmanites, Cliffites and Pabloites of all sorts entered these parties, not as Trotskyists to break the ranks from the misleaders, but with illusions in the reformists. Others embraced the middle-class-led guerrillaists. The once-revolutionary parties of the FI became prisoners of the rising new “progressive” middle strata; their tailism of Stalinism in the East reflected capitulations at home.

Today, the various petty-bourgeois Pabloite tendencies even acknowledge that they believe that the proletariat itself cannot achieve revolutionary consciousness. This is directly counterposed to Lenin’s view as it evolved after 1903 and to Trotsky’s very explicit statements on this most vital question. Those of us who are fighting to re-create the authentic, revolutionary anti-imperialist Fourth International must recognize that our struggle is not simply against false theories but a crucial front in the proletarian class war, the driving force of Marxism.

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Last updated on 25 April 2008. This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Trotskism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.