Trotskyism and the Class Character of the Stalinist States (August 2009)

The Internationalist Socialist League was created at the end of 2007, originating from a group which was expelled from the International Marxist Tendency (IMT). Since then the League has adopted positions that contrast starkly with its background in the centrist ideological current known as “Orthodox Trotskyism.”


The USSR and Trotskyism after WWII


Leon Trotsky, after Vladimir Lenin, was the main leader of the Bolshevik revolution that created the Soviet workers’ state. Both realized the need for a political struggle against the Stalin faction of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). After Lenin’s death, Trotsky led the fight against the Stalinists’ theory of “socialism in one country” – the false, anti-Marxist position that socialism can be constructed in a single country, without the need for a worldwide revolution. After a lengthy struggle, Trotsky was expelled from the CPSU, and after several years of being forced to move from one country to another, finally settled in Mexico in 1936.


Trotsky developed a theory according to which the USSR had become a “degenerated workers’ state.” The failure of the CPs in the world (especially in Germany and China) to spread the socialist revolution led to a widespread feeling of despair among advanced workers, including Soviet workers. This in turn led to the transformation of the political regime in the USSR to a counterrevolutionary and conservative one, petit-bourgeoisie in class composition, with an interest in preventing new socialist revolutions. The revolutionary attitude to the USSR, according to this theory, was revolutionary defense of the state combined with a political struggle for the overthrow of the Stalinist regime to replace it with a proletarian one.


Trotsky called attention to the political counterrevolution that had seized control of the USSR. However, he did not recognize that the Stalinist counterrevolution continued into a social overturn that destroyed the workers’ state. The culmination took place during the Great Purges of 1936-38, in which the bulk of the remaining old Bolshevik leadership was killed, the state apparatus – especially its armed force – was decimated, all-out exploitation of the working class via speed-up and piece-work became the norm, and the USSR began to enter into imperialist deals with various Western powers.


After Trotsky’s murder at the hands of a Stalinist agent in 1940, the world Trotskyist movement, the Fourth International (FI), still held on to the degenerated workers’ state theory. However, after WWII, the Trotskyists witnessed a phenomenon which completely contradicted their theory: the USSR took over countries in Eastern Europe, and after several years of collaboration with the local bourgeoisie, the Stalinists nationalized the means of production and brought the local CPs to power, creating economies which were fundamentally the same as that of the USSR.


According to Marxist theory, only a working-class revolution can create a workers’ state. A workers’ state is a transitional society from capitalism to socialism in which the law of value – the fundamental operating law of capitalism – still applies, but which effects are countered by the workers to provide for their interests. It is not socialism, which is a society in which there are no classes, and which can only be created after the socialist revolution is victorious worldwide, but only a society transitional to socialism. A socialist revolution can only be successful if it is led by a revolutionary party, composed of the most politically advanced layers of the working class – a vanguard party.


Marxism has always argued fiercely against all tendencies that claimed that the petty-bourgeoisie can establish socialism, or that a ruling class can be overcome without a revolution. The Trotskyistshad to choose: either recognize that the new states in Eastern Europe are capitalist, and therefore so is Russia, or to take the position that the petty-bourgeois Stalinists have created workers’ states, albeit deformed ones, and thus in practice break away from Marxism.


In the first few years after the Stalinists’ takeover, when the local bourgeoisie and fascists from the old regimes still cooperated with the Soviets, the FI still recognized that the new states are capitalist. FI leaders still considered the idea that these states are progressive or proletarian in any way to be ridiculous. But the FI was already in a state of progressive decay, and when in 1948, it glorified Tito after his feud with Stalin (and just shortly before his rapprochement with Western imperialism), it was clear that all the talk by Cannon and others about Stalinism’s counterrevolutionary nature were just the remains of yesterday’s rhetoric.


In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the FI shattered into many different fragments. The fragments, most of which still exist today in varying degrees of activity, can be divided into two main tendencies:


Orthodox Trotskyists: Most of the fragments of the FI continued to claim that the USSR is a degenerated workers’ state, and that the new states created by it (and other states which fulfilled the arbitrary criteria set by different groups) are “deformed workers’ states” – workers’ states born degenerate, without a revolutionary and “healthy” phase like Soviet Russia’s early years. Theories of that kind had already been put forward before the FI’s disintegration, but the most important theorists of this school were Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel, who after the war became two of the FI’s main leaders. Despite their various splits and squabbles, all “orthodox Trotskyists” adhere to Pablo’s theory, which shows that they have given up on the Marxist understanding that only the workers themselves can build a workers’ state.


State Capitalists: Another tendency is represented mainly by the followers of Tony Cliff, the main theoretician of the International Socialist Tendency, which left the FI by 1950. Cliff was not the first theorist to offer a state capitalist analysis of the USSR, but his theory has become the best known. (Others that arose within the FI include those of the Johnson-Forrest tendency and Hugo Urbahns.)


Cliff developed a theory according to which the USSR ceased to be a workers’ state in 1928, when the Stalinists smashed workers’ supervision over production, and began their capital accumulation through the Five-Year Plans. According to this theory, the state’s economic base then became state capitalist, and the law of the capitalist economy (law of value) operated in it not because of internal class conflicts, but due to the arms race against American imperialism.


This theory has two main problems: first, even though it does not grant the Stalinist state any progressive character, it still allows for a change of a state’s class character without a revolution or counter-revolution. Second, if capitalism lacks an internally generated law of value deriving from exploitation, then it lacks laws of motion that drive the class struggle, and so the necessary revolutionary role of the working class is missing.


For years, the Pabloists continued to defend the USSR as a workers’ state, even though it was clear that there was no remnant of working-class rule, and in fact every working-class protest against miserable conditions was brutally suppressed by the so-called “workers’ state.” On the other hand,Cliffites continued to claim that state capitalism is the highest stage of capitalist development, thus revising the Leninist theory of imperialism, according to which imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism, which signals its epoch of decay. Not only that, but their theory implied that the Stalinist state was a more successful variant of a capitalist state than the Western capitalist state, and therefore could not foresee its more rapid decay.


Both currents, lacking a theory of the evolution of this society, have adopted theories that led to the assumption that Stalinism could not collapse because its economy was supposed to be more progressive. Pablo even expected that “centuries of deformed workers’ states” are necessary to arrive at socialism.  The growing economic crisis of Stalinism and the frequent working-class uprisings against it in Eastern Europe never led these currents to renounce their theories.


Meanwhile, the Cliffite theory would suggest that to overcome economic problems, the Stalinists would want to make their economy more statified and planned. Both theories, then, were completely useless in trying to explain the collapse and privatization of the Stalinist economies in the late 80’s and early 90’s.


When some writers try to explain the disintegration of the FI, they usually refer only to its position regarding Stalinism. However, Marxists are materialists; for us positions don’t come out of thin air. We explain the FI’s disintegration by examining its class composition. Even before the war, a large percentage of the FI’s membership came from the middle class and better-off sections of the working class, as one can see in the fact that Max Shachtman’s centrist split in 1940 took around forty percent of the American SWP’s membership. The trial of SWP leaders due to the party’s propaganda regarding WWII saw James P. Cannon, the party’s leader, make arguments in which there were serious accommodations to U.S. chauvinism.


After the war, many middle-class Marxists came to envy the role and power of some intellectuals in the Stalinist states. Hence the preoccupation of this class with the state and its support of the reformist social-democratic and Stalinist parties. To this day, the orthodox Trotskyists remain blind to what the Stalinists themselves came to realize in the late 80’s: that state ownership of the economy was not the Stalinist states’ strength but their weakness, which made them inherently backwards.


Marxists do not look at politics alone to prove that a certain group has ceased to be revolutionary. A theory must be tested in practice, and the theories of the different currents in the FI were tested in two cases that proved their worth:


In 1952, a workers’ revolution broke out in Bolivia, and a bourgeois nationalist regime was brought to power. A large Trotskyist party, the POR, existed in Bolivia, with a large presence in the trade unions. If the POR, like the Bolsheviks in 1917, took an independent class line opposing the regime, they had a real chance of coming to power and thus galvanizing the proletarian vanguard all over the world, including the USSR.


However, the POR betrayed the revolution and supported the bourgeois government without any protest on the part of any of the sections of the FI. Like Trotsky, who saw the CP’s suicidal policy in Germany in 1933 that allowed Hitler to come to power, as well as the lack of protest on the part of any Comintern section, as the final signs of its degeneration, we see this betrayal as the final proof of the FI’s becoming an organically centrist organization.


The FI’s betrayal was intimately connected to its theory on Stalinism. Stalinist parties were just one expression of the petit-bourgeoisie; why can another expression not create a workers’ state just as easily? In the 1950’s in Bolivia and today in Venezuela and other states in South America, orthodoxTrotskyists always implicitly expect the bourgeois nationalists to overthrow the bourgeoisie and create a deformed workers’ state, like the Stalinists supposedly did in Eastern Europe and Asia in the 1940’s and 50’s.


Some orthodox Trotskyists attempted to correct this revision by making another – that Stalinism specifically signifies workers’ power. The Spartacist League, for example, takes such a position. This position, however, is no better and is perhaps even worse for its clear glorification of Stalinism.


In the Korean War in 1950-1953, U.S. imperialism was attempting to overthrow the Stalinist regime of Kim Il Sung through its puppet regime in the South. The Cliffite group at the time, the International Socialists, refused to support the North, claiming that it was supported by the USSR and therefore the war was an imperialist proxy war. However, being given support by an imperialist power does not make one an imperialist proxy by definition. Considering that the U.S. was the dominant imperialist that helped squash the serious workers’ movement in the South, and that all Koreans were for a unified country, the correct position at the time would have been to favor the victory of the North while politically opposing the Kim regime. Since then, the IS also supported sending British troops to Ireland during the wave of pogroms in 1969. In 1982, when British imperialism went to war with Argentina over the Malvinas (Falklands) Islands, the British SWP – the main section of the IST – did not call for the defeat of the imperialist forces (incidentally, the Spartacists and the IMT took the same position, along with other centrist groups). The SWP is very good at supporting bourgeois nationalist forces politically when these are not explicitly in conflict with Britain, but has problems opposing British imperialist troops that are suppressing an oppressed nation. There is a name for those whose anti-imperialism extends to all but “their” bourgeoisie – social-chauvinists.


The Character of the Soviet State Under Stalin


Before his murder, Trotsky wrote what he believed the possible outcomes of the Second World War would be concerning the USSR:


If this war provokes, as we firmly believe, a proletarian revolution, it must inevitably lead to the overthrow of the bureaucracy in the USSR and regeneration of Soviet democracy on a far higher economic and cultural basis than in 1918. In that case the question as to whether the Stalinist bureaucracy was a “class” or a growth on the workers’ state will be automatically solved. To every single person it will become clear that in the process of the development of the world revolution the Soviet bureaucracy was only an episodic relapse.


If, however, it is conceded that the present war will provoke not revolution but a decline of the proletariat, then there remains another alternative: the further decay of monopoly capitalism, its further fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy wherever it still remained by a totalitarian regime. The inability of the proletariat to take into its hands the leadership of society could actually lead under these conditions to the growth of a new exploiting class from the Bonapartist fascist bureaucracy. This would be, according to all indications, a regime of decline, signalizing the eclipse of civilization.


An analogous result might occur in the event that the proletariat of advanced capitalist countries, having conquered power, should prove incapable of holding it and surrender it, as in the USSR, to a privileged bureaucracy. Then we would be compelled to acknowledge that the reason for the bureaucratic relapse is rooted not in the backwardness of the country and not in the imperialist environment but in the congenital incapacity of the proletariat to become a ruling class…


The historic alternative, carried to the end, is as follows: either the Stalin régime is an abhorrent relapse in the process of transforming bourgeois society into a socialist society, or the Stalin régime is the first stage of a new exploiting society.


We believe that the source of this incorrect prediction regarding the Stalinist state’s collapse is in Trotsky’s belief that the Soviet bureaucracy is an unstable caste destined to fall once socialist revolution breaks out after the war. Trotsky thought that this revolution was a certainty because fascism and the decay of bourgeois democracy showed that liberal democracy is dead and could never return. This position is admirable in its optimism regarding the revolutionary capacity of the working class. But the historical alternative that Trotsky overlooked was the defeat of the proletariat by capitalism, including its Stalinist statified component. The workers were not set back historically, to a form of slavery; and the ruling classes still needed to exploit the masses as workers. The fact that the workers under Stalinist rule rose up repeatedly against their exploitation through wage labor is further evidence of the nature of the regime they struggled against.


Max Shachtman, one of the American SWP members against whom Trotsky conducted his polemic in “In Defense of Marxism,” is maybe the most prominent theoretician to use this quote to claim that the USSR is a new exploiting society. However, according to Marxist theory, new classes and exploiting societies do not rise randomly – they serve a defined historical role in the development of the means of production. The economic failure of the Stalinist states makes a mockery of this theory, as well as those of Pablo, Cliff and their ilk, all of whom tried to show that Stalinism is a necessary or progressive stage in human development.


What, then, is the class nature of the Stalinist states? In the 1930’s, the CPSU was already dominated by the Stalinists, and proletarian supervision over production was broken. The soviets and trade unions became devoid of content, transforming from working-class organizations defending the workers against the state to tools for the subordination of the workers to the state.


Lenin referred to the workers’ state as a “bourgeois state without a bourgeoisie.” The main difference between a bourgeois state and a workers’ state, then, is that the conscious working class is in power. What the Stalinists had to do to destroy the USSR as a workers’ state was to destroy the remnants of revolutionary consciousness in the USSR (the old Bolsheviks, and the Trotskyist Left Opposition which continued to uphold the interests of the working class against those of the bureaucracy) and to smash the state apparatus of the workers’ state – thereby transforming themselves into a full-fledged ruling class.


To his credit, Trotsky understood the show trials and mass murders to be a “pre-emptive civil war” on the part of the bureaucracy. However, Trotsky thought that the Stalinists were unable to restore capitalism. In reality, capitalism was brought back in a statified form – and the Soviet state became an imperialist state, with a nationalized economy inherited from the workers’ state.


Objectors often point to the fact that if the USSR was indeed a capitalist state, its ruling class looked nothing like the bourgeois ruling classes that we are familiar with. And they are right. Indeed, the failure of past state capitalist theories is that they never explained where state capitalism came from: Cliff invented a law of value imposed from the outside, and the Johnson-Forrest tendency merely asserted that the existence of the law of value proved that Russia was capitalist, overlooking that value exists under a workers’ state as well.


To give an adequate answer, we must remember that Marxist analysis isn’t static, but dialectic and historical. A workers’ state, even the healthiest one, rests on capitalist economic foundations, even though the working class is in power. Thus, when the working class was ousted from power, the capitalist foundations remained, even though they had been significantly distorted to favor the workers. The restored class society, then, had to be capitalist – but it was necessarily deformed by the remaining gains of the workers, and therefore weaker from a capitalist point of view than traditional capitalism. We learn from Marx that while competition is not the motor force of capitalism, it is a necessary expression of that force – so that since competition was suppressed under Stalinism, it would have to eventually be restored. This explains the weakness and eventual collapse of the Stalinist economies.


The collapse of Stalinism in the USSR and Eastern Europe was the final proof of the falsity of all the theories that saw the Stalinism as either more progressive or more dynamic than capitalism. The rapidly intensifying economic crises of these states in the 1980’s produced considerable unrest in the working class; the Polish workers’ revolt in 1980-81 was the prime example. Many in the ruling classes saw the handwriting on the wall, and when mass movements started to topple regimes in 1989, Stalinists as well as dissident intellectuals hijacked the mass oppositional movements and used them to make the transformation from purely nationalized economies to mixed private-state economies.


Our theory is the only theory that can explain how Russia and its satellites moved from the Stalinist regimes in the direction of market capitalist economies. The transformation was not social, in that it did not change the state’s class character, but political, in that it replaced a certain type of ruling class regime with another regime of the same class. The key factor missing was a revolutionary leadership – a proletarian party – that could have clearly exposed the class nature and political roles of the Stalinists and the reformist oppositions and outlined a program to show the workers the way to a genuine workers’ state. Without such a party, the struggles against Stalinism were usurped by forces drawn from the Stalinists themselves and from bourgeois elements that their decaying system had nourished. In this way, the Stalinist system of statified capitalism gave way to a hybrid system that allowed the ruling class to wipe out most of the remnants of the working-class gains which it had previously been compelled to preserve under the false name of socialism.



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