Stalinist and Trotskyite Crisis

The staple shibboleth denoting the rival factions on the British left over the past few decades has been drawn from the dispute concerning the nature of the regime in the Soviet union and its satellites. The orthodox Trotskyists (Militant, Workers Power) proclaim that the Stalinist regimes were (degenerate) Workers' States. The neo-Trotskyists (the SWP) pronounce the same regimes State Capitalist. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that these conflicting dogmas have provided a unique unifying focus for their respective members and have played no small part in the continued existence of the organisations themselves.

Marx himself identified The Paris Commune as the dictatorship of the proletariat - in other words, a workers' state. Why? Because it constituted the first consistent Workers' democracy in history. Not for any other reason. Both he and Engels approached the question simply in terms of the political power or rule of the proletariat; The Trotskyists systematically disregard this first principle.

The primary concern of the present article is to confirm the negative thesis that however Marxists analyse the Stalinist regimes, they were not in any interesting sense workers' states. This is considered by Red Action to be a vital task in that it is self-evidently impossible to convince the working class that a state in which workers are exploited, persecuted and powerless, represented the rule of the class (the 'dictatorship of the proletariat') or a system worth fighting for. A corollary of this is a belief that emerges within the class that socialism itself is not worth fighting for. To insist that the class is wrong and that the 'partial negation of the law of value' (or whatever) proves them wrong (because they don't understand the dialectic) is a reactionary piece of dogmatism of the very worst kind.

The crisis of the Stalinist states has brought in its train a crisis for the Trotskyite left. With the exposure of the utter material and ideological bankruptcy of Soviet Russia and the eastern bloc, the foundation of the Trotskyists analysis of these regimes, and with it their entire historical perspective regarding the nature and development of socialism, has exploded. For both orthodox and unorthodox Trotskyists maintained that the Soviet state represented in some sense, the construction of socialist society in contrast to decaying capitalism. The disintegration of the Stalinist machines has allowed people to some extent, to see for themselves whether this perspective bears any conceivable relation to the truth. A few irrelevant dogmatists apart, no one believes it does.

The orthodox Trotskyite position, exemplified by Militant in it's pure form, comes down to the following propositions.

1. That the Stalinist regimes, in particular the Soviet Union were 'degenerate' (or 'deformed') workers' states. i.e. that the 'dominant' or ruling class in these countries was the proletariat.

2. That the bureaucracies that appear to be the ruling class are not in fact a class at all, but a 'caste' or 'strata' independent of the proletariat but nonetheless objectively acting in the interests of the workers.

3. The reason that the proletariat did not constitute a class is that the means of production are formally owned by the state; there is no private property in the means of production.

4. Stalinism was historically progressive since it developed the forces of production at a faster rate than decaying capitalism.

The neo-Trotskyists confuse this simple landscape by conceding that the Soviet state represented not a workers' state, but state capitalism which was progressive only in a qualified sense. The confusion is redoubled by the insistence that the Soviet state was a workers state roughly up until the death of Lenin (1924), and was then gradually transformed into a degenerate workers' state capable of reform until the political death of Trotsky himself through exile in 1928. Then it suddenly ceased to be a degenerate workers' state and became bureaucratic state capitalism.
These propositions may appear to be frankly incredible in the face of common sense and recent events, but bear a more detailed examination in order to be clear exactly why they are so unacceptable within a Marxist perspective, This will tell us a great deal about the nature of the parties currently dominant on the British left and the problems they now face.

Remarkably enough, there is virtually no discussion by the respective gurus of the orthodox Trotskyite position and the neo-Trotskyite variation, Ted Grant (Militant) and Tony Cliff (SWP) of the fundamental Marxist criterion of the character of a workers state, workers control. Both acknowledge that it is a criterion, but both then fail to say anything more about it. The discussion in both cases centres on the economic basis of a workers' state. This 'gentlemen's agreement', to mention the subject only to ignore it, stems from the fact that both are obliged to recognise that the political expropriation of the proletariat by the Bolshevik party in Russia was virtually complete by 1921. Marx of course is insistent that the transition to socialism can only be the work of the self-emancipation of the working class. As Grant says,

'Marxists insist on the control of the masses, to ensure that the state should not be allowed to develop into an independent force.'

Presumably Grant meant to say 'control by the masses' in this context. What happened in Russia, he asserts, is that the state gained a 'certain independence' from the proletariat. This so-called 'relative' independence includes the control of the political apparatus, control of the means of production and the appropriation of the surplus product, i.e. surplus value within
Capitalism, resulting from the exploitation of the working class. He points up the difficulty for the neo-Trotskyists - if workers' control is essential to the characterisation of the workers' state, then they,

'will have to reject the idea that there was a workers' state in Russia, except possibly in the first few months.'

This is quite true - orthodox Trotskyism admits it and ditches workers' democracy altogether; the neo-Trotskyists fudge it.

Grant is quite straightforward in substituting party dictatorship for class democracy.

'Even here it is necessary to reiterate that the dictatorship of the proletariat is realised through the instrumentality of the vanguard, i.e. the party, and in the party through the leadership.'

More than this:

'The party, no more than the state, can not automatically and directly reflect the interests of the class.'

Grant goes on to eulogise Lenin's defence of the possibility of the dictatorship of the proletariat being implemented through the dictatorship of one man. The idea that a workers' state consists essentially in workers' democracy and proletarian class rule is dismissed:

'It is in the inter-relation between the class and its state under historical conditions that we find the explanation of Stalinist degeneration, not in the mystical idea that a workers' state .... must be a perfect workers' democracy'.

The most essential element within the Marxist concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat is condemned as a 'mystical idea'! Whatever Grant has in mind as an example of a 'perfect' workers' democracy isn't clear, but even he would probably admit some working arrangement between 'perfect' and 'non-existent'.

Not only is such a perspective contrary to Marxism, it is entirely contrary to what Lenin himself insisted upon on the eve of the October revolution and for some time after. Writing of the need for Russian socialists to learn from the example of German large scale planning and organisation he says,

'Try to substitute for the Junker capitalist state, for the landowner capitalist state, a revolutionary democratic state, i.e. a state which in a revolutionary way abolishes all privileges and does not fear to introduce the fullest democracy in a revolutionary way. You will find that, given a really revolutionary-democratic state, state monopoly capitalism inevitably and unavoidably implies a step ... towards socialism.' This step would be greater, he adds, under the dictatorship of the proletariat 'in the Soviets'

For the Lenin of this period, clearly the direct political and democratic control of the proletariat was the essential condition of the progressive role of state (monopoly) capitalism. In the summer of 1918, he asserts that 'planned state organisation' is necessary for the construction of socialism, but that,

'At the same time is inconceivable unless the proletariat is the ruler of the state. This also is ABC.'

Unfortunately, under the strains of the civil war, Lenin himself unlearnt the ABC he had spelt out when the implementation of a genuine workers' state was a reality. State capitalism remained on the agenda long after workers' democracy, the only true form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, had been forcibly removed.

It is necessary for Trotskyists to maintain that the bureaucracy, though controlling and allocating the means of production (such as factories, raw materials, plant, etc.) the mode of distribution (who gets what) and exercising unrestrained political power, does not form a class. Political structures within Marxism are defined in terms of class: If the Stalinist bureaucracy is admitted to form a class, then the definition of the Soviet state as a proletarian or workers' state would look precarious indeed, given the realities of power. The fiction therefore is maintained that the bureaucracy is merely a caste or strata, and since that leaves the proletariat as the only class in the Stalinist states, then it must be a proletarian state. It sounds pretty silly and it is. The defence goes like this:

The state is by its very nature composed of bureaucracy, officers, generals, heads of police etc. But these do not constitute a class; they are the instruments of a class even if they may be in antagonism to the class. They cannot themselves be a class.'

The principle question in deciding the character/ existence of a class is its relation to the means of production and the distribution of surplus product. In most cases, in bourgeois states within classical capitalism for example, the state functions in Marx's phrase as a 'committee' of the bourgeoisie, i.e. maintains the interests of the capitalist class in general without itself having any necessary relation to the means of production or control of surplus value.

But, in the Soviet state, the bourgeoisie had been economically expropriated by the bureaucratic apparatus who themselves directed the means of production and appropriated surplus production. As Grant writes of the Napoleonic counter-revolution against the French revolution of 1789.

'It was counter-revolution on the basis of the new form of property introduced by the revolution itself.'

That is to say, the developing bureaucratic class in post-revolutionary Russia seized power on the basis of, not in spite of the property form, nationalisation that the 1917 revolution had itself introduced. The complete restoration of bourgeois capitalist property relations would have undermined its control. This is precisely because they represented a new class, though not the old bourgeoisie (though no doubt incorporating elements of the old disenfranchised class within itself).
This seizure of power in relation to the means of production is confirmed by Grant in the course of his objection to the neo-Trotskyites that:

'The abuse of power and the legal and illegal consumption of surplus value by the bureaucracy necessarily took place even in the early stages of bureaucratic control.'

In 1927, the Left opposition affirmed that:

'the swollen and privileged administrative apparatus is devouring a very considerable part of the surplus value.'

And, as Trotsky himself affirms:

'He who owns surplus produce (value) is the master of the situation - owns wealth, owns the state, has the key to the church, to the courts, to the sciences and to the arts.' (my

These functions of political and economic control were fused in the bureaucratic monopoly of state power and the simultaneous statification of property. Incidentally, if Grant and his disciples are right, then there is only one class in Russia, the proletariat, and either the bureaucracy, the politburo and the KGB chiefs are proletarians or they are literally classless! But, if there is only one class in society, that is exactly the same as claiming that the entire society is classless since it is impossible for a class to oppress itself. The Trotskyists attempt to paint a picture according to which a bureaucratic 'strata', although existing outside of the class structure, nonetheless intervenes decisively within the class struggle. Yet class struggle in such a society would be impossible.
As Lenin wrote in 1917, in 'State and Revolution',

'The state withers away insofar as there are no longer any capitalists, any classes, and, consequently no class can be oppressed.'

Is this 'withering away' an accurate description of the Stalinist terror and subsequent all-pervading authoritarianism characteristic of the Soviet state? So what, according to the Trotskyists, could have been happening in the Soviet Union? Contrary to the Trotskyists, Marxists are bound to define the bureaucracy as a class precisely through its location, intervention and practice in the class struggle.

The formula used by the Trotskyists to categorise the Stalinist regime is 'proletarian Bonapartism', This is an attempt to hijack some remarks of Marx and Engels concerning the possibility of a bureaucratic, militaristic state which ruled not through its own class base, but by 'rising above' the conflict between two rival classes, neither of which is strong enough to subdue the other. As Engels says:

'Exceptional periods occur when the warring classes are so nearly equal in forces that the state power, as the apparent mediator, acquires a certain independence in relation to both'.

Again, Engels insists that the 'whole secret' of Louis Napoleon's success (for Marx and Engels the archetype of the 'Bonpartist' regime) was that he had been placed in a position to hold, 'the balance of the contending classes of French society'. Just to make it absolutely clear, Engels refers to, 'the equilibrium between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat' as the 'basic condition of modern Bonapartism

Marx himself is equally clear:

'The characteristic role of Bonapartism vis-a-vis workers and capitalists is to prevent these two classes (bourgeoisie and proletariat) engaging in open struggle.'

He explains the emergence of the Bonapartist regime as based upon the fact that:

'It was the only form of government possible at a time when the bourgeoisie had already lost, and the working class had not yet acquired, the faculty of ruling the nation.'

But this certainly doesn't apply to the Stalinist state where the bourgeoisie has been expropriated and, as Grant himself points out, doesn't even exist. The elimination of the Kulaks represented no more than the crushing of an emergent petty bourgeois strata - a conflict which in any case was over by the Thirties. How can it be explained that in our own time the sole class in Russia, the proletariat, has been the subject, of an internal 'counter-revolution', a counter-revolution apparently implemented by a non-existent class or by a bureaucratised section of the 'proletariat' against itself. For as Grant insists,

'the state must be the instrument of a class'.

He contends that:

'If we take the history of modern society, we get many examples where the bourgeoisie is expropriated politically, and yet remains the ruling class.'

Both Marx and Engels repeatedly stress that this must be the case within Bonapartist regimes: The bourgeoisie in a Bonapartist state is to a degree politically expropriated, yet retains control of the means of production which ultimately reverses the political balance of power in its favour. As Marx summarises it:

'In order to preserve its social power intact, its (the bourgeoisie's) political power must be broken.'

It would be possible to argue about the degree or nature of this 'expropriation', but that does not touch the central point. The reason why the bourgeoisie would remain the 'ruling class' in such circumstances is in virtue of its relation to the means of production. There are certainly no instances of the bourgeoisie being expropriated politically and economically and remaining the ruling class as the Russian proletariat is supposed to be under such circumstances.

Engels reminds us that the state:

'in all cases remains essentially a machine for keeping down the oppressed, exploited class.'

There is therefore no possibility in any circumstances of the Bonapartist state being a 'workers' state'. How could it sensibly be said that the workers exploit themselves, which is what the 'degenerate workers' state' theory amounts to? Consequently, Marx's remark concerning the 1848 revolutions serves very well as an epitaph on the social and political character of Stalinism:

'The programme of revolution in the hands of Reaction turns into a satire on the revolutionary strivings involved, and thus into the deadliest weapon in the hands of an irreconcilable enemy.'

As Grant continually emphasises, and as all Marxists must agree, the primary factor within historical development is always ultimately economic:

'When considering the development of society, economics must be considered the dominant factor.'

Grant immediately introduces a substitute formula into play without acknowledging the fatal change of content:

'The thread of history is the basic economic structure of society or the property form, its legal reflection.'

He further insists that for Marxists the 'criterion' in defining a mode of production is:

'Only the one thing; the form of property, the private ownership of the means of production.'

Hands up all those who saw the card dealt from the bottom of the pack; the substitution of the form of property for the relations of production in reality (who controls what, appropriates what and consumes what). It is simply not the case that for Marx, the form of property relations and the property relations themselves are the same thing. The form of property is merely the indirect and distorted reflection in the superstructure of the material economic reality.

Marx is explicit in his insistence that without an examination of the concrete conditions and circumstances of a particular economic formation, no conclusion can automatically be drawn as to the character of the corresponding superstructural forms. It is a basic premise of Marxism that it is the economic 'base' that ultimately determines the superstructural formations that develop from it. So if Marx warns us that no inferences can be made from the general form of the economic base of a society 'upwards' to the nature of the Judicial and ideological superstructure (including the 'legal expression' of social relations) to the concrete conditions of the relations of production. But this is the entire Trotskyite method!

Grant argues that the bureaucracy itself may be hierarchically divided. Quite so. He then asks rhetorically:

'Which section of the bureaucracy owns the state? It cannot be all the bureaucrats...'

If this were a good argument, then the capitalists would be able to argue in precisely the same way; sections of capital are frequently antagonistic to each other, so the capitalist class as whole cannot control the state, so the state cannot be a capitalist state. How many Marxists would accept that?

Divisions within the bureaucracy do not prevent its ownership and control of the state and of the statification of property as precisely the 'legal expression' or ideological reflection of that control, any more than secondary antagonisms within capital prevent the state being controlled in the interests of capitalism.

Grant attempts to generate a further argument based on the formal contradiction Marx develops between the social mode of production meaning that production takes place not in individual units but in collective units (factories etc) and the individual mode of appropriation. It maintains that since property is statified or nationalised in the USSR, then this basic contradiction within capitalism has been resolved and the resulting system cannot be state capitalism or any other form of capitalism - it must in fact be transitional to socialism. But this again refuses to acknowledge the actual mode of appropriation forming the material stratum beneath the legal expression.

Within capitalist states it is argued that perfect democracy and equality are guaranteed formally through universal suffrage - but no Marxist accepts this appearance for the reality of capitalist
exploitation. Even if it were argued that the bureaucracy as a collective appropriates the surplus product of the working class, this does not at all alter the reality of the appropriation. This by no means amounts to the socialisation of property. The crucial issue is that the bureaucracy as a class appropriates the surplus product for itself. Just as the capitalists as a class also appropriates the surplus product for itself. In fact, with the advent of the joint-stock company and the shareholder, the capitalist class also is increasingly organised collectively at the point of appropriation.

As Engels writes:

'Neither the conversion into joint stock companies nor into state property deprives the productive forces of their character as capital ... The modern state, whatever its form, is an essentially capitalist machine; it is the state of the capitalists, the ideal collective body of all capitalists.'

Engels develops his point:

'The more productive forces it takes over, the more it becomes the real collective body of all the capitalists, the more citizens it exploits. The workers remain wage earners, proletarians. The capitalists relationship is not abolished; it is rather pushed to an extreme. But at this extreme it is forced into its opposite.'

Obviously. Engels envisaged this process occurring at a relatively gradual, even pace, not as the result of proletarian revolution. But this does not alter the essential features of his analysis. Grant seizes upon Engels statement that in this situation, the capitalist relationship is transformed into its 'opposite'.

But Engels immediately insists:

'State ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but it contains within itself the formal means the key to the solution.'

He says therefore, that state ownership is not the solution of the antagonism between the exploiters and the exploited, i.e. the class struggle but contains the 'formal means' to such a resolution. Now 'formal' means 'in form only' or appearance, not on content or reality. It is the form of the thing opposed to reality. But the whole of the Trotskyist analysis of the Soviet Union relies exclusively upon this 'formal' expression of the relation between classes, and Engels here explicitly says that it is not the solution of the conflict. Plainly the 'key' as Engels refers to it, is wholly dependent upon being in the hands of the producers themselves. Otherwise, as he says. the capitalist relationship is not abolished.

He says explicitly;

'The old mode of production must be revolutionised from the bottom up, and above all the old division of labour must disappear. Its place must be taken up by an organisation of producers in which ... no individual can throw on the shoulders of others his share in productive work'.

Engels has set out three conditions for the transition to socialism in this brief passage. First, the transition must be implemented 'from the bottom up', not through the dictatorship of a non-proletarian party bureaucracy. Second, the division of labour whereby one class is condemned to manual work while the exploiting class monopolises intellectual production must be abolished; in the Soviet Union, this principle was turned on its head in the political and economic antagonism of bureaucracy and proletariat. Finally, the producers themselves must organise and control the mode of production and eliminate the appropriation of surplus product by a privileged class. In its seventy-year history, did the ruling class of the Soviet Union show any progress towards achieving even one of these objectives? Have a laugh.

Furthermore, supposing that revolutionary workers' movement succeeded in overthrowing the current bureaucracy. Would the workers' then simply step into the seat of the existing political apparatus? Would the military hierarchy be retained along with the KGB? Would the party apparatus continue to nominate every candidate in elections? would trades unions continue to be branches of the bureaucratic apparatus and strikes forbidden? Every Marxist must say, no, the workers must first smash the existing state apparatus and substitute the direct democratic control of the producers. This could not be anything less than a social revolution. New Trades Unions would have to be formed, workers' militia replace the hierarchical military units. democratic elections replace party nomination etc. etc.

Once again we therefore have to ask, in what sense is a state 'transitional' to socialism if as a condition of progress towards a socialist society, its political machinery would first have to be utterly destroyed and the ruling class expropriated!