The controversy over the class character of the USSR
… has always been a certain apparatus which separated out from society and consisted of a group of people engaged solely, or almost solely, or mainly, in ruling. People are divided into ruled and into specialists in ruling, those who rise above society and are called rulers, representatives of the state.
This apparatus, this group of people who rule others, always takes command of a certain apparatus of coercion, of physical force, irrespective of whether this coercion of people is expressed in the primitive club or – in the epoch of slavery – in more perfected types of weapons, or in the firearms which appeared in the Middle Ages or, finally, in modern weapons which, in the twentieth century, are marvels of technique and are entirely based on the latest achievements of modern technology.
The methods of coercion changed, but whenever there was a state there existed in every society a group of persons who ruled, who commanded, who dominated and who, in order to maintain their power, possessed an apparatus of physical coercion, an apparatus of violence, with those weapons which corresponded best to the technical level of the given epoch. And by examining these general phenomena, by asking ourselves why no state existed when there were no classes, when there were no exploiters and no exploited, and why it arose when classes arose – only in this way shall we find a definite answer to the question of the essence of the state and its significance.
The state is a machine for maintaining the rule of one class over another. (LCW, The State, Vol. 29, p. 477.)
Why is it, as Marx stated, that the working class cannot take over the ready-made capitalist state machine and use it for its own ends? Not for mystical reasons but because of certain very concrete facts. In the modern state, all the key positions are in the hands of those people who are under the control of the ruling class: they have been specially selected by education, outlook, and conditions of life, to serve the interests of the bourgeoisie. The army officers, particularly the higher ranks, the civil servants, and the key technicians, are moulded in their ideas and outlook to serve the interests of the capitalist class. All the commanding positions in society are placed in the hands of people whom the capitalist class can trust. That is the reason the state machine is a tool in the hands of the capitalists which cannot be used by the working class and must be smashed and swept away by them. Now, what does the smashing of the state machine mean?
It is possible that many, perhaps even the majority of the officials of the capitalist state, will be used by the working class once it comes to power. But they will be subordinate to the workers’ committees and organisations. For example, in the Soviet Union, in the early days after the tsarist army had been dissolved, the Red Army was forced to employ the services of ex-tsarist officers, under the control of the political commissars. Likewise, in the Soviet state apparatus a considerable proportion of the officials were made up from ex-tsarist officials. Because of unfavourable historical factors this was later to play an important role in the degeneration of the Russian regime. Not for nothing did Lenin say that the Soviet state is “a bourgeois tsarist machine … thinly varnished with socialism”.
The proletariat, according to the classical concept, smashes the old state machine and proceeds to create a semi-state. Nevertheless, it is forced to utilise the old technicians. But the state, even under the best conditions, say in an advanced country with an educated proletariat, remains a relic of class society, and implicit within it is the possibility of degeneration. For that reason, Marxists insist on the control of the masses, to ensure that the state should not be allowed to develop into an independent force. As speedily as possible, it should be dissolved into society. For the very reasons given above, under certain conditions, the state can gain a certain independence from the base which it originally represented. Engels explained that though the superstructure – state and ideology – is dependent on the economic base, it nevertheless has an independent movement of its own. For quite a lengthy period, there can be a conflict between the state and the class which that state represents. That is why Engels speaks of the state normally or in typical periods directly representing the ruling class. Thus, one can only understand class society if one takes into account the many-sided dialectical interdependence and antagonisms of all the factors within it.
When considering the development of society, economics must be considered the dominant factor. The superstructure which develops on this economic base separates itself from the base and becomes antagonistic to it. After all, the essence of the Marxist theory of revolution is that the gradual changes in production, at a certain stage, come into conflict with the old form of superstructure in both property and state. According to Marx: “From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.” A profound contradiction develops which can only be resolved by abolishing the superstructure and reorganising society on the base of the new mode of production which has developed within the old.
Although it does not exhaust the question of the class nature of the state, which at different times is defined in different ways, economy and property relations are decisive in the long run. Because of this, as all the Marxist teachers were at pains to explain, in the last analysis the superstructure must come into correspondence with it. “With the change of the economic foundation, the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed,” as Marx expressed it. If one abandons this criterion, all sorts of superficial and arbitrary constructions become possible. One would inevitably be lost in the maze of history, like Perseus in the mythology of ancient Greece who was lost in the Palace of Minos, but without a thread to lead one out. The thread of history is the basic economic structure of society, or the property form, its legal reflection. In the words of Engels: “We regard economic conditions as that which ultimately conditions historical development.” (MESW, Engels to W. Borgius in Breslau, Vol. 3, p. 502.)
In 1793 the French Jacobins seized power. As Marx and Engels pointed out, they went beyond the framework of bourgeois relations and accomplished in a few months what would have taken the bourgeoisie decades to accomplish: the complete cleansing from France of all traces of feudalism. Yet this regime remained rooted in bourgeois property forms. It was followed by the French Thermidor and the rule of the Directory, to be followed by the classic dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon reintroduced many feudal forms, had himself crowned Emperor and concentrated the supreme power in his hands. But nevertheless, we still call this regime bourgeois. With the restoration of Louis XVIII, the regime still remained capitalist. And then we had not one but two revolutions – 1830 and 1848. These revolutions had important social consequences. They resulted in significant changes even in the personnel of the state itself. Yet we characterise them both as bourgeois political revolutions in which there was no change in the class which held power: the bourgeoisie.
Let us proceed further. After the Paris Commune of 1871 and the shake-up of the social relations which this involved, we had the organisation of the Third Republic with bourgeois democracy which lasted for decades. This was followed by Pétain, then the de Gaulle regime, and then a whole array of governments up to the present time. Consider for a moment the amazing diversity of these regimes. To a non-Marxist it would seem absurd to define in the same category, shall we say, the regime of Robespierre and that of de Gaulle or Chirac. Yet Marxists do define them as fundamentally the same – as capitalist regimes. What is the criterion? Only the one thing: the form of property, the private ownership of the means of production. Take, similarly, the diversity of regimes in more modern times to see the extreme differences in superstructures which are on the same economic base. For instance, compare the regime of Nazi Germany with that of British parliamentary democracy. They are so fundamentally different in political superstructure that many theorists of the non-Marxist or ex-Marxist school have found in fascism a new class structure and a new system of society entirely. Why do we say that they represent the same class and the same regime? The answer is: despite the difference in superstructure, the economic base of these given societies remains the same.
The transitional state after October
As we have seen, it is impossible to pass directly from capitalism to socialism. Even in an advanced society, a transitional period would be necessary in which the state would continue to exist for a time, along with money and the law of value. But, as Marx explains, the working class would not require the kind of monstrous state that exists under capitalism, but a very simple state, a workers’ state, which would begin to disappear from the first day. Two months before the seizure of power, Lenin wrote in The State and Revolution:
The proletariat needs a state – this is all the opportunists can tell you, but they, the opportunists, forget to add that the proletariat needs only a dying state – that is, a state constructed in such a way that it immediately begins to die away and cannot help dying away.
A transitional state inevitably has a contradictory character. The Soviet regime was based on the new property relations that issued from the October Revolution, but still had many elements taken over from the old bourgeois society. The nationalisation of the means of production is the prior condition for moving in the direction of socialism, but the possibility of really carrying society onto a higher stage of human development depends on the level of the productive forces. Socialism presupposes a higher level of technique, labour productivity and culture than even the most developed capitalist society. It is impossible to build socialism on the basis of backwardness.
The bourgeois norms of distribution, by hastening the growth of material power, ought to serve socialist aims – but only in the last analysis. The state assumes directly and from the very beginning a dual character: socialistic, insofar as it defends social property in the means of production; bourgeois, insofar as the distribution of life’s goods is carried out with a capitalistic measure of value and all the consequences ensuing there from. Such a contradictory characterisation may horrify the dogmatists and scholastics; we can only offer them our condolences. (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 54.)
Only the victory of the revolution in Western Europe, particularly Germany, could have changed this state of affairs. The union of German industry and technique with the huge natural and human resources of Russia in a socialist federation would have created the material conditions for the reduction of the working day, the prior condition for the participation of the working class in the running of industry and the state. But the betrayal of the Social Democrats shipwrecked the German Revolution and doomed the Russian Revolution to isolation in a backward country. The victory of the bureaucracy flowed directly from this. From 1920 onwards, the bureaucracy legally or illegally absorbed part of the surplus value produced by the working class.
This would be the case to some extent even in a healthy workers’ state. The officials and managers would receive part of the surplus value, but they would only be entitled to what Marx called “the wages of superintendence”. We would have, to use Lenin’s expression, “a bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie” or, in Trotsky’s expression, a state without Mandarins, a general staff without Samurai. In such a state, the officials would have no special privileges. But given the extremely low level of the productive forces and culture in Russia, the working class was unable to run the state without the aid of the old tsarist officials and army officers who from the beginning demanded, and got, salaries far in excess of the average. Given the isolation of the Revolution in a backward country, this was inevitable. This was the fundamental reason why the proletariat was unable to maintain its hold on power. After the end of the civil war, the workers were gradually pushed aside by the upstart officials who felt themselves to be indispensable to the running of society.
Lenin and Trotsky did not envisage a situation where the Revolution could survive for long in the absence of the victory of the workers of the advanced capitalist countries. They assumed that, under such conditions, the capitalist elements would liquidate the gains of October. This did not take place, although it was possible in the 1920s, particularly in the period of the NEP, when the Bolsheviks were compelled to make big concessions to the rich peasants and the nascent bourgeoisie. Shortly before his last illness, Lenin proposed a bloc with Trotsky to fight against the bureaucracy, which he feared was creating the conditions for the victory of open bourgeois counter-revolution.
In January 1921, Lenin wrote:
I stated, “our state is in reality not a workers’ state but a workers’ and peasants’ state.”… On reading the report of the discussion, I now see that I was wrong … I should have said: “The workers’ state is an abstraction. In reality we have a workers’ state with the following peculiar features, (1) it is the peasants and not the workers who predominate in the population and (2) it is a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations”. (LCW, Vol. 32, p. 48.)
The question of the class nature of Russia continued to occupy Trotsky’s attention right up to his death. How could this type of reaction develop on the basis of a proletarian revolution? Shortly before his expulsion from the Soviet Union, Trotsky grappled with this question:
We must say clearly and distinctly: The five years after the death of Lenin were years of social and political reaction. The post-Lenin party leadership became an unwitting, but all the more effective, expression of this reaction, as well as its instrument.
Periods of reaction, as distinct from those of counter-revolution, arise without changing which class rules. Feudal absolutism knew periods of ‘liberal’ reform and periods of counter-reform strengthening serfdom. The rule of the bourgeoisie, beginning with the epoch of the great revolutions, knew alternating periods of stormy advance and periods of retrogression. This among other things determined the succession of different parties in power during various periods of the domination of one and the same capitalist class.
Not only theory but also the living experience of the last 11 years shows that the rule of the proletariat can go through a period of social and political reaction as well as through a period of stormy advance. Naturally, it is not a matter of reaction ‘in general’ but of reaction on the basis of the victorious proletarian revolution, which stands opposed to the capitalist world. The alternation of these periods is determined by the course of the class struggle. The periods of reaction do not change the basis of class rule – that is, they do not signify the passage of power from one class to another (that would mean the counter-revolution) – but they signify that there is a change in the relation of class forces and a regrouping of elements within the class. In our country, the period of reaction that followed the period of powerful revolutionary advance was called forth chiefly by the fact that the former possessing classes, defeated, repulsed, or terrorised, were able, thanks to objective conditions and to the errors committed by the revolutionary leadership, to gather their forces and pass gradually to the offensive, using mainly the bureaucratic apparatus.
On the other hand, the victorious class, the proletariat, not supported from without, encountered ever new obstacles and difficulties; it lost the strength and spirit of the first days; differentiation set in, with a bureaucracy emerging at the top and acting more and more in its own interests, and with tired or completely despairing elements breaking off down below. Correlative to the decreased activity of the proletariat came the growing activity of the bourgeois classes, above all, those strata of the petty bourgeoisie striving to advance by the old ways of exploitation.
It is unnecessary to demonstrate that all these processes of internal reaction could develop and gain in strength only under conditions of cruel defeats of the world proletariat and an ever-stronger position of the imperialist bourgeoisie. (Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1928-29, pp. 304-5.)
Thermidor and Bonapartism
There are broad similarities between the processes that occur in revolutions, even when their class nature is different. The comparison between the Russian Revolution and the Great French Revolution of 1789-94 can shed light on some of the fundamental processes within certain limits. This applies to the use of terms like ‘Thermidor’, which refers to the episode on the 27th July (9th Thermidor, in the old revolutionary calendar) 1794, when the right wing of the revolutionary Jacobins combined with the opportunist Centre (the ‘Swamp’) to overthrow Robespierre, thus beginning the slide towards political reaction which ended in Napoleon’s Bonapartist dictatorship. It signified the end of the period of revolutionary ascent and the beginning of a downturn. This is reflected in the fact that, whereas in the period of ascent (from 1789-94) the Terror was directed almost entirely against the enemies of the revolution and those who wanted to compromise with reaction, after Thermidor, it was directed against the revolutionary wing.
By extension, Thermidor can be taken to signify a point in the revolution where a certain weariness and exhaustion sets in, reflected in a retreat which paves the way for open reaction. In France, this occurred when a section of the ‘Mountain’ (the revolutionary wing of the National Convention) became tired of the Terror and the storm and stress of revolution in general. The split in the ‘Mountain’ led to the Thermidorian reaction. In the same way, the origins of the Stalinist reaction in Russia can be traced to a vague mood among the Soviet officials and petty bourgeois after the end of the civil war that it was time to call a halt to revolutionary innovations and set about ‘re-establishing order’. This mood of reaction was summed up in the theory of socialism in one country. Of course, like every historical analogy, the use of the term Thermidor was only an approximation, and as such had a conditional character. Trotsky in his 1929 articles explained his position as follows:
I am referring here primarily to the question of Thermidor, and by this very reason, to the question of the class nature of the Soviet state. The formula of Thermidor is of course a conditional formula, like every historical analogy…Thermidor signalises the first victorious stage of the counter-revolution, that is, the direct transfer of power from the hands of one class into the hands of another, whereby this transfer, although necessarily accompanied by civil war, is nevertheless masked politically by the fact that the struggle occurs between the factions of a party that was yesterday united… It indicates the direct transfer of power into the hands of a different class, after which the revolutionary class cannot regain power again except through an armed uprising. The latter requires, in turn, a new revolutionary situation, the inception of which depends upon a whole complex of domestic and international causes. (Trotsky, Writings 1929, pp. 278-9.)
Some years later, in an article entitled The Workers’ State and the Question of Thermidor and Bonapartism, Trotsky re-evaluated this position on Thermidor. He explained that the analogy of Thermidor had been open to misinterpretation. The ultra-left group of the late Vladimir Smirnov, the Democratic Centralism group, in opposition to the Left Opposition, had stated in 1926 that the proletariat had already lost power and that capitalism had been restored in Russia. For Trotsky, this was totally false and was burying the revolution while it was still alive. Without historical analogies, we cannot learn from history. But we must also understand their limits, their similarities and their differences. Such was the case with Thermidor.
Thermidor in 1794 produced a shift of power from certain groups in the Convention to other groups, from one section of the victorious ‘people’ to other strata. Was Thermidor counter-revolutionary? The answer to this question depends upon how wide a significance we attach, in a given case, to the concept of ‘counter-revolution.’ The social overturn of 1789 to 1793 was bourgeois in character. In essence it reduced itself to the replacement of fixed feudal property by ‘free’ bourgeois property. The counter-revolution, corresponding to this revolution, would have had to attain the re-establishment of feudal property. But Thermidor did not even make an attempt in this direction. Robespierre sought his support among the artisans – the Directory among the middle bourgeoisie. Bonaparte allied himself with the banks. All these shifts – which had, of course, not only a political but a social significance – occurred, however, on the basis of the new bourgeois society and state.
Of the very same import was the Eighteenth Brumaire of Bonaparte [this was the new date for 9th November 1799, when Napoleon Bonaparte seized power and created a military dictatorship], the next important stage on the road of reaction. In both instances, it was a question of restoring neither the old forms of property, or the power of former ruling estates; but of dividing the gains of the new social regime among the different sections of the victorious ‘Third Estate.’ The bourgeoisie appropriated more and more property and power (either directly and immediately, or through special agents like Bonaparte), but made no attempt whatever against the social conquests of the revolution; on the contrary, it solicitously sought to strengthen, organise and stabilise them. Napoleon guarded bourgeois property, including that of the peasant, against the ‘rabble’ and the claims of the expropriated proprietors. Feudal Europe hated Napoleon as the living embodiment of the revolution, and it was correct according to its standards. (Trotsky, Writings 1934-35, pp. 168-9, my emphasis.)
What we are dealing with here are a series of political counter-revolutions on the same bourgeois property relations. Using this analogy by comparison, Trotsky reveals the character and dynamics of Stalinism, not as a new class system of exploitation, but as a social parasitism on the workers’ state. A political counter-revolution had taken place on the basis of nationalised property forms. The working class had lost political power, but the counter-revolution had not restored the bourgeoisie. The Stalinist bureaucracy itself had usurped political power. It was a product of social contradictions emerging from a workers’ state isolated in chronically backward conditions.
The political counter-revolution carried out by the bureaucracy completely liquidated the regime of workers’ Soviet democracy, but did not destroy the new property relations established by the October Revolution. Raising itself above the workers, the bureaucracy sought to regulate these internal contradictions in its own interests. It based itself on the nationalised, planned economy and played a relatively progressive role in developing the productive forces, although, in the words of Trotsky, at three times the cost of capitalism, with tremendous waste, corruption and mismanagement. Far from eradicating these social contradictions, the bureaucracy accumulated new ones. In the end, it raised itself above the proletariat and established a regime of bureaucratic absolutism, where the working class was politically expropriated, without rights or a say in the running of society.
What is Bonapartism?
On the basis of events, Trotsky was able to extend and deepen his analysis of the class nature of the USSR even further, making his definitions more precise. By 1935, he had abandoned the term ‘centrism’ to describe the bureaucracy, and adopted a more suitable definition of its nature: a form of proletarian Bonapartism. In order to understand Trotsky’s reasoning, it is first necessary to restate the Marxist theory of the state.
According to Marxists, the state arises as the necessary instrument for the oppression of one class by another class. The state can be defined in various ways. One of the most common ways for Marxists to do so is by referring to the state as “armed bodies of men in defence of private property”. In the last analysis, all forms of state are reduced to this. But in practice, the state is much more than the army and the police. The modern state, even under capitalism, is a bureaucratic monster, an army of functionaries absorbing a huge amount of the surplus value produced by the working class. From that point of view, there is a germ of truth in the arguments of the monetarists, whose demand for cutting down the state is a modern echo of the demand of the nineteenth century liberals for ‘cheap government’. Of course, as Marx explains in The Civil War in France, the only way to get cheap government is by the revolutionary abolition of the bourgeois state, and the setting up of a workers’ state, or semi-state, like the Paris Commune.
Marx, Engels and Lenin all explained that the state is a special power, standing above society and increasingly alienating itself from it. As a general proposition, we can accept that every state reflects the interest of a particular ruling class. But this observation does not at all exhaust the question of the specific role of the state in society. In reality, the state bureaucracy has its own interests, which do not necessarily and at all times correspond to those of the ruling class, and may even come into open collision with the latter. The state in the last analysis, as explained by Marx and Lenin, consists of armed bodies of men and their appendages. That is the essence of the Marxist definition. However, one must be careful in using their broad Marxist generalisations, which are undoubtedly correct, in an absolute sense. Truth is always concrete but if one does not analyse the particular ramifications and concrete circumstances, one must inevitably fall into abstractions and errors. Look at the cautious way in which Engels deals with the question, even when generalising. In The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels writes:
But in order that these antagonisms, classes with conflicting economic interests, shall not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, a power, apparently standing above society, has become necessary to moderate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order,’ and this power, arisen out of society, but placing itself above it and increasingly alienating itself from it, is the State. (MESW, The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, by Engels, p. 194.)
And later he adds:
…It is enough to look at Europe today, where class struggle and rivalry in conquest have brought the public power to a pitch where it threatens to devour the whole of society and even the state itself.
Engels goes on to show that once having arisen, the state within certain limits, develops an independent movement of its own and must necessarily do so under given conditions:
In possession of the public power and the right of taxation, the officials now present themselves as organs of society standing above society.
As the state arose from the need to keep class antagonisms in check, but also arose in the thick of the fight between the classes, it is normally the state of the most powerful, economically ruling class, which by its means becomes also the political ruling class, and so acquires new means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class… Exceptional periods, however, occur when the warring classes are so nearly equal in forces that the state power, as apparent mediator, acquires for the moment a certain independence in relation to both… (Ibid., p. 196, my emphasis.)
Again, Engels says that:
The central link in civilised society is the state, which in all typical periods is without exception the state of the ruling class, and in all cases continues to be essentially a machine for holding down the oppressed, exploited class… (Ibid., p. 201, my emphasis.)
Note the extremely careful, scientific way in which Engels expresses himself. “In all typical periods”, “it is normally the state of the most powerful, economically ruling class”, etc. Engels clearly understood that there were untypical and abnormal situations in which this general principle of Marxist theory could not be applied. This dialectical approach to the question of the state was developed by Marx in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, where he explains the phenomenon of Bonapartism, in which the relationship between the state and the ruling class does not correspond to the norm. Marx pointed out how the drunken soldiery of Louis Bonaparte, in the name of “the law, order and the family”, shot down the bourgeoisie whom they presumably represented. Were the bourgeoisie under Louis Bonaparte the ruling class? It does not require a profound knowledge of Marxism to answer this question. The bare generalisation “armed bodies of men” does not take into account either bourgeois or proletarian Bonapartism. If we take the history of modern society, we get many examples where the bourgeoisie is expropriated politically and yet remains the ruling class. This is what we call Bonapartism, or as Marx calls it, “the naked rule by the sword over society”. Let us consider some examples.
In China after Chiang Kai-shek had crushed the Shanghai working class with the aid of the dregs of the Shanghai gangs in 1927, the bankers organised banquets in his honour, and applauded him as the benefactor and saviour of civilisation. But Chiang wanted something more material than the praise of his masters. Unceremoniously, he clapped all the rich industrialists and bankers of Shanghai in jail and extracted a ransom of millions before he would release them. He had done the job for them and now demanded the price. He had not crushed the Shanghai workers for the benefit of the capitalists, but for what it meant in power and income for him and his gang of thugs. Yet who will presume to say that the bankers who were in jail were not still the ruling class though they did not hold political power? The Chinese bourgeoisie must have reflected sadly on the complexity of a society where a good portion of the loot in the surplus value extracted from the workers had to go to their own watchdogs and where many of their class were languishing in jail.
The bourgeoisie is politically expropriated under such conditions; naked force dominates society. An enormous part of the surplus value is consumed by the top militarists and officials. But it is in the interests of these bureaucrats that the capitalist exploitation of the workers should continue, and therefore while they squeeze as much as they can out of the bourgeoisie, nevertheless, they defend private property. That is why the bourgeoisie continues to be the ruling class, although it has lost direct political power. Here lies the answer to those advocates of state capitalism who assert that it is sophistry to claim that Russia was a deformed workers’ state, and the Soviet working class could be a ruling class when they were under the heel of Stalinism and a proportion of them were in labour camps. Unless we are guided by the basic property forms of society we will lose our bearings completely.
Many examples could be given in history of the way in which one section of the ruling class has attacked other sections and the state has risen above society. For example, in the wars of the Roses in Britain, the two factions of the ruling barons virtually exterminated one another. At one time or another big sections of the ruling class were either in jails or were executed, and the throne occupied by adventurers of one gang or another. Finally, a new dynasty emerged, the Tudors, which balanced between the classes to establish an absolutist regime. Analogous processes occurred in other countries. What was the class nature of absolutism? These absolute monarchs, in an attempt to consolidate themselves as a power standing above society, and increasingly alienating themselves from it, frequently leaned on the nascent bourgeoisie to strike blows against the feudal nobility. Yet the class nature of the regime remained feudal. It was determined by existing property relations, not by the political configuration of the government. A similar situation existed in the period of decay of slave society. The Roman emperors rose above society and viciously oppressed the ruling class, the slave owners, who found themselves looted by taxation, arrested, tortured and murdered by the emperors, who were ‘elected’ by the Praetorian Guard. In fact, Marx originally used the term ‘Caesarism’ to describe this phenomenon. Yet this fact did not change one iota the class nature of the Roman state as a slave state. And the slave owners remained the ruling class even under the iron heel of Caesarism.
Caesarism, or its bourgeois form, Bonapartism, enters the scene in those moments of history when the sharp struggle of two camps raises the state power, so to speak, above the nation, and guarantees it, in appearance, a complete independence of classes – in reality, only the freedom necessary for a defence of the privileged. (L. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 277.)
In the present century, in the period of capitalist decay, we have seen the phenomenon of fascism, which differs from Bonapartism in its origins, but also has many things in common with it. A fascist regime, unlike Bonapartism, comes to power on the backs of a mass movement composed of the enraged petty bourgeoisie and lumpen-proletariat. Once in power, however, it rapidly loses its mass base and becomes a Bonapartist regime, leaning on the army and the police. Trotsky likened the Nazi bureaucracy in Germany to the ‘Old Man of the Sea’ who sits on the shoulders of the bourgeoisie, and, in return for guiding it on the road to safety, at the same time abuses it, spitting on its bald patch and digging its spurs in its sides.
In In Defence of Marxism, Trotsky outlines the difference between Bonapartism and fascism:
The element which fascism has in common with the old Bonapartism is that it used the antagonisms of classes in order to give to the state power the greatest independence. But we have always underlined that the old Bonapartism was in a time of an ascending bourgeois society, while fascism is a state power of the declining bourgeois society. (Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, p. 227.)
One has only to consider Hitler’s treatment of his capitalist opponents. The Nazis, who defended capitalist property relations, not only robbed the bourgeois and confiscated their property, but also occasionally executed them. Of course, there is no doubt that the class nature of the Nazi state was bourgeois. But, on the other hand, the German bourgeoisie lost control of the state, which fell into the hands of Hitler’s irresponsible and criminal adventurers, who used it for their own advantage. Here the relation between the state and the ruling class is dialectical and contradictory. In fact, by 1943, the interests of the ruling class in Germany were in open conflict with the state. By that time, Germany had already lost the war. It was in the interests of the ruling class to arrive at a peace with Britain and America, in order to wage war against the Soviet Union. But surrender would have been the death sentence for the Nazi clique that controlled the state. The German bourgeoisie tried, and failed, to remove Hitler by a military coup (the generals’ plot). Hitler fought the war to the bitter end and Germany paid the price with the loss of its eastern half to Stalinist Russia.
Stalinism: a form of Bonapartism
In dealing with the role of the state, the most important question that must be answered is this: which class does it represent? The state must be an instrument of a class – which class did it represent in Russia? It could not represent the capitalist class because they were expropriated in 1917. It cannot be argued that it represented the interests of the peasant class, or the petty owners in the cities. It clearly represented the interests of the Stalinist bureaucracy. But as a special form of proletarian Bonapartism, in the last analysis, it represented the working class in so far as it defended the nationalisation of the means of production, planning and the monopoly of foreign trade.
Under a fascist or Bonapartist regime, as we have seen, even though these gangsters might have the bourgeoisie by the throat, nevertheless there remains a capitalist class in whose interests the economy as a whole operates and on to which this parasitic excrescence clings. Some formalists say that the Soviet bureaucracy constituted a new ruling class in Russia. But serious consideration would show that this could not be the case. What they are saying is that the state is a class. The bureaucracy ‘owned’ the state, the state ‘owned’ the means of production, therefore the bureaucracy ‘owned’ the means of production, and was therefore a ruling class. But this is simply dodging the issue. The premise is false. The bureaucracy does not own the state. They are saying, in effect, that the state owns the state. Thus, the attempt to solve the matter through the method of formal logic ends in a pure tautology, which solves nothing at all.
Was the bureaucracy then the ruling class in Soviet society? This argument is clearly unsound. In capitalist society, or in any class society, no matter how privileged the top officials may be, they wield the instrument to protect the ruling class which has a direct relationship to the means of production, through their ownership. We know who Napoleon represented. We know who Louis Bonaparte, Bismarck, Chiang Kai-shek, Hitler, Churchill and de Gaulle represented. But who did the Stalinist bureaucrats represent? Themselves? This is clearly false. The state by its very nature is composed of bureaucrats, officers, generals, heads of police, etc. But these individuals do not constitute a ruling class; they are the instrument of a class even if they stand in antagonism to that class. They cannot themselves be a class. The bureaucracy consists of millions of individuals at different levels in the state apparatus. There is the petty local official and there are the high-ranking dignitaries. So, which section of the bureaucracy would ‘own’ the state? It cannot be all the bureaucrats, because they (the bureaucracy itself) are hierarchically divided. The little civil servant is part of the bureaucracy as much as the big bureaucrat.
In his work Germany, the Only Road, Trotsky deals with this question of Bonapartism as follows:
In its time, we designated the Brüning government as Bonapartism (‘a caricature of Bonapartism’), that is, as a regime of the military police dictatorship. As soon as the struggle of two social strata – the haves and the have-nots, the exploiters and the exploited – reaches its highest tension, the conditions are given for the domination of bureaucracy, police, soldiery. The government becomes ‘independent’ of society. Let us once more recall: if two forks are stuck symmetrically into a cork, the latter can stand even on the head of a pin. That is precisely the schema of Bonapartism. To be sure, such a government does not cease being the clerk of the property owners. Yet the clerk sits on the back of the boss, rubs his neck raw and does not hesitate at times to dig his boots into his face.
It might have been assumed that Brüning would hold on until the final solution. Yet, in the course of events, another link inserted itself: the Papen government. Were we to be exact, we should have to make a rectification of our old designation: the Brüning government was a pre-Bonapartist government. Brüning was only a precursor. In a perfected form, Bonapartism came upon the scene in the Papen- Schleicher government. (Trotsky, Germany, The Only Road, in The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, p. 276.)
The Bonapartism in the epoch of decay and crisis differs from the Bonapartism of capitalism’s youth. It can take many forms, involving different combinations, depending on the concrete conditions. The rule of Napoleon or Oliver Cromwell – a classical Bonapartism – was based upon the emergence of bourgeois society. The Bonapartism at the stage of capitalism’s rise is strong and confident. Under the conditions of a powerful development of the productive forces, it attains a certain stability. But the Bonapartism of capitalism’s decline is affected by senility. Rising out of the crisis of capitalist society, it cannot solve any of the problems with which it is faced. The crisis of the inter-war period gave rise to a whole host of Bonapartist regimes, attempting to balance between the forces of revolution and counter-revolution. In the ex-colonial world, given the weakness of bourgeois democracy, again many of these regimes are Bonapartist in character. Here we see periods of weak parliamentary rule giving way to military dictatorship.
In contrast, fascist rule represents the complete political expropriation of the bourgeoisie. All democratic rights are crushed. The capitalist class hands over all power into the hands of the fascist upstarts, which use the mass forces of the frenzied petty bourgeois as a battering ram against the working class. The proletariat, on the basis of fascist rule is completely atomised.
There is an element of Bonapartism in fascism. Without this element, namely, without the raising of state power above society owing to an extreme sharpening of the class struggle, fascism would have been impossible. But we pointed out from the very beginning that it was primarily a question of Bonapartism of the epoch of imperialist decline, which is qualitatively different from Bonapartism of the epoch of bourgeois rise… The ministries of Brüning, Schleicher, and the presidency of Hindenburg in Germany, Pétain’s government in France – they all have proved, or must prove, unstable. In the epoch of imperialist decline a pure Bonapartist Bonapartism is completely inadequate; imperialism finds it indispensable to mobilise the petty bourgeois and to crush the proletariat under its weight. (Trotsky, Writings 1939-40, p. 410.)
Innumerable references could be given to show that a capitalist state presupposes private property – individual ownership of the means of production. The state is the apparatus of rule: it cannot itself be the class which rules. The bureaucracy is merely part of the apparatus of the state. It may ‘own’ the state, in the sense that it lifts itself above society and becomes relatively independent of the economically dominant class, i.e., the ruling class. That was the case in Nazi Germany, where the bureaucracy dictated to the capitalists what they should produce, how they should produce it, etc., for the purposes of war. So, with the war economy of Britain, USA and elsewhere, the state dictated to the capitalists what and how they should produce. This did not convert them into a ruling class. Why? Because these measures were in defence of private property and in the interests of the capitalist class as a whole.
Clearly, the bureaucracy manages and plans industry. But whose industry do they manage and plan? In capitalist society, the managers plan and manage industry in the individual enterprises and trusts. But it does not make them the owners of those enterprises and trusts. The nationalised industries in Britain, for instance, were run by a managerial bureaucracy, but they were not the owners of these industries. They were owned by the state – the capitalist state – and run in the interests of the capitalist economy as a whole. The bureaucracy in the USSR managed the entire industry. In that sense, it is true that it had more independence from its economic base than any other bureaucracy or state machine in the whole of human history. But as Engels emphasised and we must re-emphasise, in the final analysis, the economic basis is decisive.
Bourgeois sociologists resort to arbitrary definitions in order to characterise all sorts of social groupings and sub-groupings as classes, obscuring the real class basis of society. By contrast, Marxism defines a class in terms of property relations. To argue that their function as managers somehow makes the bureaucrats into a ruling class makes no sense at all. It certainly has nothing in common with the Marxist definition of a capitalist class. The bureaucracy, in its role as a managerial stratum, did play a role in production, in the same way as managers in capitalist enterprises do. But there is a fundamental difference. Managers in the West work for private owners of industry (or for the bourgeois state, which operates as the handmaiden of the private sector). They do not own industry, and do not constitute a separate social class.
As managers, they are entitled to what Marx called “the wages of superintendence”, and nothing more. Exactly the same is true of the managers in a workers’ state, including a healthy workers’ state for that matter, where in the transitional period there would still be a differential between the wages of skilled and unskilled labour. But what characterised the Stalinist bureaucracy was that it devoured a colossal part of the wealth produced by the working class. This had nothing whatever to do with its managerial functions, or the “wages of superintendence”.
If they take more, it is in the same way as the fascist or Bonapartist bureaucracy consume part of the surplus value produced by the workers. But they are not a class in the Marxist sense of the word, but a parasitic caste. “In its intermediary and regulating function,” states Trotsky, “its concern to maintain social rank, and its exploitation of the state apparatus for personal goals, the Soviet bureaucracy is similar to every other bureaucracy, especially the fascist. But it is also in a vast way different. In no other regime has a bureaucracy ever achieved such a degree of independence from the dominating class.” (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 248.)
The privileges of the Stalinist bureaucracy began precisely where its productive functions (such as they were) ended. In fact, they arose, not in the sphere of production at all, but in that of distribution. Under conditions of general poverty, it was necessary to decide who received what. Trotsky compares this to a queue outside a baker’s shop. If there is a shortage of bread, and the queue is a long one, it can become unruly. A gendarme is necessary to keep the queue in order, and make sure everyone gets his share. In the process, it often happens that the gendarme takes more than anyone else. This may not create the most favourable attitude towards the gendarme. But it certainly does not make him into a ruling class in the Marxist sense of the word!
The Stalinist bureaucracy was not a new ruling class, as argued by J. Burnham, M. Shachtman, M. Djilas, J. Kuroń and T. Cliff (in company with the bourgeois and the Labour Right Wing), but a parasitic caste, which plays no necessary role in the production process. Precisely for this reason, meaningful reform from the top is ruled out. The ignorant Polish ‘dissident’ intellectuals reasoned that if free trade unions were possible under capitalism, why should they not be allowed by ‘state capitalism’? Indeed, for the capitalists under normal circumstances, bourgeois ‘democracy’ (i.e. formal democracy, in which the workers are permitted certain rights, but where the banks and monopolies ultimately decide what happens) is the most economic and secure form of government, far preferable to the monstrous waste and looting of the state which occurs under fascism or Bonapartism. But under Stalinism, democratic rights immediately threaten the position of the bureaucracy. Formal democracy and Stalinism are incompatible.
This time he draws his smashing argument from a statement in The Revolution Betrayed to the effect that ‘all the means of production belong to the state, and the state belongs, in some respect, to the bureaucracy.’ Craipeau is jubilant. If the means of production belong to the state, and the state to the bureaucracy, the latter becomes the collective proprietor of the means of production and by that alone, the possessing and exploiting class. The remainder of Craipeau’s argument is almost purely literary in character. He tells us once again, with the air of polemicising against me, that the Thermidorian bureaucracy is evil, rapacious, reactionary, bloodthirsty, etc. A real revelation! However, we never said that the Stalinist bureaucracy was virtuous! We have only denied it the quality of a class in the Marxist sense, that is to say, with regard to ownership of the means of production. (Trotsky, Writings 1937-38, p. 36.)
The state is the instrument of class rule, of coercion, a glorified policeman. But the policeman is not the ruling class. The police can become unbridled, can become bandits, but that does not convert them into a capitalist, feudal or slave-owning class. The character of the bureaucracy as a parasite is shown by the fact they are forced to pretend they do not exist as a privileged stratum. In the words of Trotsky: “Its appropriation of a vast share of the national income has the character of social parasitism.” It enjoys its privileges under the form of an abuse of power. It conceals its income. “The biggest apartments, the juiciest steaks, and even Rolls Royces are not enough to transform the bureaucracy into an independent ruling class,” commented Trotsky. (Trotsky, Writings 1933-34, p. 113.)
The workers’ democracy under Lenin and Trotsky was replaced by the bureaucratic regime of Stalin. Although the political forms are radically different from those of the initial years of the revolution, what remained was the nationalised property relations. It was this fact – the existence of a nationalised planned economy – that defined the basic class nature of the Soviet Union. It was a workers’ state that had become horribly deformed by a bureaucratic counter-revolution. “A tumour can grow to tremendous size and even strangle the living organism, but a tumour can never become an independent organism,” remarked Trotsky. (Ibid., p. 19.)
The Soviet bureaucracy was similar to other bureaucracies, especially the fascist bureaucracy, with one very important difference. The fascist bureaucracy rested on the private ownership of the means of production, and was the most monstrous expression of a regime of decline. The Stalinist bureaucracy rested on the new property forms established by the revolution, which for a whole period demonstrated a colossal vitality. It was compelled to defend state property as the source of its power and income. This fact alone enabled it to play a relatively progressive role in developing the productive forces. However, even in the best period, it remained a parasitic growth on the workers’ state, the source of endless waste, corruption and mismanagement. It had all the vices, but none of the historical virtues of a ruling class.
As Trotsky put it: “If the Bonapartist riff-raff is a class this means that it is not an abortion but a viable child of history. If its marauding parasitism is ‘exploitation’ in the scientific sense of the term, this means that the bureaucracy possesses a historical future as the ruling class indispensable to the given system of economy.” (Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, p. 24, New York, 1970.) This is clearly not the case. Without doubt, the Soviet economy has taken massive strides forward, but this impulse was not due to the bureaucracy as such, but the nationalised planned economy. The bureaucracy has become a massive brake on the technical and cultural development of Russia. At best, the Soviet bureaucracy played a relatively progressive role in developing heavy industry, but with tremendous wastage.
The state under Stalin had nothing in common with that of October, except state ownership and planning. Every gain of the revolution aimed at the introduction of workers’ administration and control of industry and the state was abolished. The bureaucracy had complete control. The so-called elections were a farce, in which the candidates of a single party were regularly elected with 99 per cent of the votes – something which is even technically impossible (people sometimes move house, and even die). The working class was at the mercy of the bureaucracy, subject to arbitrary dismissal, exile, arrest, confinement in mental hospitals, and all the other methods whereby a totalitarian state maintains its people in a state of all-pervading fear. In addition to the usual organs of repression, the bureaucracy had the services of an army of spies, informers and trusties, present in every workshop, office, classroom or block of flats.
It is true that in later years, especially after Stalin’s death, big reforms were introduced, which led to rising living standards, better social services and so on. But at all times, control remained firmly in the hands of the bureaucracy. Such reforms that were made always came from the top and did not in any way modify the fundamental relationship between the working class and the ruling caste. There was no element of workers’ democracy whatsoever.
Did Stalinist Russia represent some new form of society not envisaged by Marx or Lenin? Clearly if Stalinism is not socialism, a society based upon the harmonious satisfaction of human needs, what does it represent? Some have looked at the Soviet Union, been repulsed by the Purge trials, the labour camps, the monstrous frame-ups, and the general totalitarian nature of the regime and drawn the conclusion that Stalinism is a new exploitative society with its own bureaucratic ruling class. There have been many descriptions given to this conclusion from ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ (Bruno Rizzi and Max Shachtman) to ‘state capitalism’ (Tony Cliff). In reality, these conceptions are all false from beginning to end.
The theory of state capitalism was based on the idea that the Stalinist political counter-revolution in Russia signified a new stage in capitalism. This did not differ in any essential way from ‘ordinary’ capitalism. The bureaucracy was alleged to be a new ruling class. The Soviet economy was supposed to obey the normal laws of capitalism, and so forth. However, such an argument immediately found itself entangled in a host of contradictions. To look no further, we must point out that, if the Soviet Union was capitalist (or state capitalist, it makes no real difference to the substance of the argument), then it had to have the same law of motion as capitalism – i.e., booms and slumps. However much you twist and turn, you will not find any such phenomenon. Thus, the adoption of a false theory necessarily leads to the abandonment of the basic standpoint of Marxism. Here we have a kind of capitalism which has succeeded in eliminating the fundamental contradiction of a market economy – a capitalism without unemployment, capable of developing the means of production at unheard-of rates of growth, uninterrupted by crises of overproduction.
Such a conclusion would inevitably require us to revise all the basic postulates of Marxism – if it were true. But it is not true. The whole conception rests upon a complete misunderstanding of the Marxist theory of the state, the class nature of society and the transitional period. The general schema of Marx and Lenin as to how the transition from capitalism to socialism would unfold is undoubtedly correct, in general. But the truth is always concrete. It is not possible to understand complex and contradictory social phenomena on the basis of theoretical generalities alone. These can provide a useful framework and starting-point, but one can only grasp the nature of the thing itself by a careful analysis of the facts and processes, in an all-rounded way, bringing out all the contradictory tendencies. By contrast, the attempt to marshal facts to justify a preconceived definition necessarily ends in an abortion.
What strikes one about the theory of state capitalism in all its varieties is its completely arbitrary character. Far from solving anything, it leads to a mass of new contradictions. Trotsky’s explanation of Stalinism as a deformed workers’ state, a form of proletarian Bonapartism, so much simpler and completely in accord with Marxist theory, closely corresponds to everything which we have witnessed in the USSR from the death of Lenin to the fall of the Berlin Wall. By accepting this standpoint, we do not need to revise the basic ideas of Marxism, which alone provide us with a scientific understanding and a guide to action in the new situation.
It is not possible to grasp a living, developing process by means of abstract definitions and formal logic. As Trotsky explained:
The fundamental flaw of vulgar thought lies in the fact that it wishes to content itself with motionless imprints of a reality which consists of eternal motion. Dialectical thinking gives to concepts, by means of closer approximations, corrections, concretisation, a richness of content and flexibility; I would even say a succulence which to a certain extent brings them close to living phenomena. Not capitalism in general, but a given capitalism at a given stage of development. Not a workers’ state in general, but a workers’ state in a backward country in an imperialist encirclement, etc. (Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, pp. 65-6.)
The theories of state capitalism in Russia go back a long way. The theory of bureaucratic collectivism to describe the USSR was put forward by Bruno Rizzi and Max Shachtman more than 50 years ago. In his book La Bureaucratisation du Monde, Bruno Rizzi explains: “In our opinion, the USSR represents a new type of society led by a new social class: that is our conclusion. Collectivised property actually belongs to this class which has introduced a new – and superior – system of production. Exploitation is transferred from the individual to the class.” (B. Rizzi, La Bureaucratisation du Monde, p. 31.)
Again: “In our opinion, in the USSR, the property owners are the bureaucrats, for it is they who hold force in their hands. It is they who direct the economy as was usual amongst the bourgeoisie; it is they who appropriate the profits to themselves, as was usual amongst all exploiting classes, and it is they who fix wages and the prices of goods: once again, it is the bureaucrats.” (Ibid., p. 56.) Rizzi concludes: “Exploitation occurs exactly as in a society based on slavery… The Russian working class are no longer proletarians; they are merely slaves. It is a class of slaves in its economic substance and in its social manifestations.” (Ibid., pp. 72-4.) Ironically, he later concludes that on the basis of increased productive development this bureaucratic collectivism will end up in a “classless society and socialism”.
For good measure, he also lumps in Hitler’s Germany as bureaucratic collectivist. The whole of Bruno Rizzi’s argument is completely unscientific. The Soviet bureaucrats were not property owners, in the sense of owning the means of production. They owned no stocks or shares. Nor could they hand down any property as such through inheritance. They certainly did not own the working class as the slave-owners of Rome owned their slaves. How such a class society could then develop into socialism remains a mystery. However, these outlandish ideas were taken up by James Burnham, who achieved fame as the author of The Managerial Revolution, which equated Stalinism with Fascism and the New Deal. Burnham also gained notoriety as an open advocate of atomic war against the USSR. At bottom, all this reflected the deep pessimism and despair of a layer of middle class intellectuals as a result of the defeats of the working class. The notion of bureaucratic collectivism, was more than a theory, it was the expression of the mood of this layer, which was most vividly conveyed by the nightmarish vision of the future in the pages of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Max Shachtman also adopted the theory of bureaucratic collectivism after breaking from the Trotskyist movement in 1940. “It is a cruel realisation of the prediction made by all the great socialist scientists, from Marx and Engels onwards, that capitalism must collapse out of an inability to solve its own contradictions and that the alternatives facing mankind are not so much capitalism or socialism as they are: socialism or barbarism. Stalinism is that new barbarism,” states Shachtman. (Max Shachtman, The Bureaucratic Revolution, p. 32.) Shachtman also went so far as to maintain that the workers of the USSR were not workers at all, but slaves of the bureaucratic state. Despite this, at the time, he regarded this bureaucratic collectivism as more progressive than capitalism.
According to the resolution on Russia passed at the 1941 Convention of his organisation, the Workers’ Party: “From the standpoint of socialism, the bureaucratic collectivist state is a reactionary social order; in relation to the capitalist world, it is on an historically more progressive plane.” This was really an attempt by Shachtman to justify his accommodation to American petty bourgeois public opinion which had become deeply anti-Stalinist after 1939. Eventually, he shifted further to the right and ended up as a supporter of US foreign policy. The theory of bureaucratic collectivism subsequently fell into disuse as a description of the USSR.
The theory of state capitalism, on the other hand, continued to be put forward in certain quarters. Its most recent contemporary exponent is Tony Cliff in his book Russia: A Marxist Analysis (1964) republished as State Capitalism in Russia (1974). This work is based upon an earlier version entitled The Nature of Stalinist Russia published in June 1948. Given its theoretical weaknesses, and the criticism of this work made by ourselves at the time, its arguments were later modified. Initially, Cliff argued that Russia had undergone a transformation in 1928, the first year of the Five-year Plans, from a deformed workers’ state to state capitalism because it can conclusively “be said that with the introduction of the Five-Year Plans, the bureaucracy’s income consisted to a large extent of surplus value”. (T. Cliff, The Nature of Stalinist Russia, p. 45.)
However, this key argument was dropped after it was made clear to Cliff that from 1920 onwards, the bureaucracy had consumed a great part of the surplus value produced by the working class, legitimately and illegitimately. As Marx had correctly explained, in a workers’ state in the transitional period, the production of surplus value would be used for the speedy building up of industry and so prepare the way for the quickest possible transition to equality and then complete communism. No Marxist could maintain that the class nature of the Soviet state had changed because of this. Tony Cliff unceremoniously abandoned this argument without any explanation and subsequently developed new ones in an attempt to strengthen his theory of state capitalism. This summed up his whole eclectic approach to this question for the past 40 odd years.
The theories of bureaucratic collectivism and state capitalism were demolished by Trotsky in the 1930s. Trotsky used the Marxist method to understand the nature of Stalinism. Far from being rigid and formalistic, as Tony Cliff claimed, Trotsky was scrupulously dialectical in his analysis of Stalinism, meticulously examining the contradictory features of the process unfolding at each stage. For him, the process was not simply black or white, but far more complicated and complex. He was not looking for nice neat categories to satisfy the laws of formal logic, but sought out the contradictory reality of what was actually taking place within the Soviet Union.
Cliff’s method was totally different. In a most shallow way, he examined the surface characteristics of Stalinism in Russia and then drew a superficial analogy with certain aspects of capitalism, without understanding the real nature of the Soviet Union and the contradictory processes taking place within it. Without doubt, there were similarities with capitalism, but there were also fundamental differences. “In Russia, the horrors of forced industrialisation, of brutal collectivisation of the peasantry, the deprivation of workers’ rights to organise in trade unions or to strike, the police terror, all were by-products of an unprecedented rate of capital accumulation,” states Cliff. (Binns, Cliff and Harman, Russia: From Workers’ State to State Capitalism, p. 11.) These features of Stalinism existed, but they were not due to the primitive accumulation of some alleged state capitalist society.
Trotsky explained these developments, not as the result of the workings of capitalist economic laws, but arising from the actions of the Stalinist bureaucracy attempting to consolidate its privileged position by catching up with the West. Other bureaucracies have acted in a similar ruthless fashion – for example, the Nazi bureaucracy, which sought world domination. However, this fact did not change the class nature of the regime. Given Cliff’s fundamentally different approach, he rightly concludes: “Our analysis of the class nature of Russia under Stalin, and today, differs from that made by Leon Trotsky.” (Ibid., p. 12) The point is that Trotsky was correct in his method and analysis, and Cliff is wrong.
Tony Cliff asserts that the Stalinist bureaucracy is a new ruling class, but nowhere in his writings is a real analysis made or evidence adduced as to why and how such a class constitutes a capitalist class. This is not accidental, it flows from his method. Starting off with the preconceived idea of state capitalism, everything is artificially fitted in to that conception. Instead of applying the theoretical method of Marxism to Russian society in its process of motion and development, he has scoured the works of the great Marxists to gather quotations and attempted to compress them into a new theory.
The main criterion for Marxists in analysing social systems is this: Does the new formation lead to the development of the productive forces? Cliff skirts around this question by false comparisons of individual capitalist growth rates and the fact that world industrial production has actually grown since 1891. But what needs to be compared is the growth rate of the Soviet Union and the rest of the capitalist world. The theory of Marxism is based on the material development of the forces of production as the moving force of historical progress. The transition from one system to another is not decided subjectively, but is rooted in the needs of production itself. It is on this basis and this basis alone that the superstructure is erected: of state, ideology, art, science and government. It is true that the superstructure has an important secondary effect on production and even within certain limits, as Engels explained, acquires its own independent movement. But in the last analysis, the development of production is decisive.
Marx explained the historical justification for capitalism, despite the horrors of the industrial revolution, despite the slavery of the blacks in Africa, despite child labour in the factories, the wars of conquest throughout the globe – by the fact that it was a necessary stage in the development of the forces of production. Marx showed that without slavery, not only ancient slavery, but slavery in the epoch of the early development of capitalism, the modern development of production would have been impossible. Without that the material basis for socialism could never have been prepared. In a letter to P.V. Annenkov, 28th December 1846, Marx wrote:
Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery, you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry, it is slavery that has given the colonies their value; it is the colonies that have created world trade, and it is world trade that is the precondition of large-scale industry. Thus, slavery is an economic category of the greatest importance.
Without slavery, North America, the most progressive of countries, would be transformed into a patriarchal country. Wipe out North America from the map of the world, and you will have anarchy – the complete decay of modern commerce and civilisation. (MESW, Letter – Marx to P.V. Annenkov in Paris, Vol. 1, pp. 523-4.)
Of course, the attitude of Marx towards the horrors of slavery and the industrial revolution is well known. It would be a gross distortion of Marx’s position to argue that because he wrote the above, therefore he was in favour of slavery and child labour. Similarly, no more can it be argued against the Marxists that because they supported state ownership in the USSR that they therefore justified the slave camps and other crimes of the former Stalinist regime. Marx’s support of the German ruler Bismarck in the Franco-Prussian war was dictated by similar considerations. In spite of Bismarck’s ‘blood and iron’ policy and the reactionary nature of his regime, because the development of the productive forces would be facilitated by the national unification of Germany, Marx gave critical support for the war of Prussia against France. The basic criterion was the development of the productive forces. In the long run, all else flows from this.
Any analysis of Russian society must start from that basis. Once Cliff admits that while capitalism was declining and decaying on a world scale, yet preserving a progressive role in Russia in relation to the development of the productive forces, then logically he would have to say that state capitalism is the next stage forward for society, or at least for the backward countries. Contradictorily, he shows that the Russian bourgeoisie was not capable of carrying through the role which was fulfilled by the bourgeoisie in the West and consequently the proletarian revolution took place.
If we say that there was state capitalism in Russia (ushered in by a proletarian revolution), then it is clear that the crisis of capitalism is not insoluble but only the birth pangs of a new and higher stage of capitalism (state capitalism). The quotation that Cliff himself gives from Marx – that no society passes from the scene till all the possibilities in it have been exhausted – would indicate that if his argument is correct, a new epoch, the epoch of state capitalism, would have opened up before us. The idea of Lenin that imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism would be false. The whole of Marxism would have to be revised from beginning to end.
‘A trade union in power’
In dealing with ‘state capitalism’, we see the kind of fetishism of which Marx spoke and which can even affect the revolutionary movement – change the name of a thing and you change its essence! Trotsky described it as ‘terminological radicalism’. But sticking these labels on to the phenomenon of Stalinism does not change the character of the regime. Such a method has nothing in common with Marxism. As a matter of fact, if the idea of state capitalism or bureaucratic collectivism is correct, then the whole theory of Marx becomes a Utopia. Let us proceed from fundamental propositions. According to the theory of Marx, no society passes from the scene of history until it has exhausted all the potentialities within it. For a whole historical period, the Soviet regime made unexampled strides forward, much greater than anything seen in the West. We have the absurdity of a new revolution, according to the advocates of state capitalism, a proletarian revolution in 1917, changing the economy into – state capitalism. As Trotsky explained: “An attempt has been made to conceal the enigma of the Soviet regime by calling it ‘state capitalism’. This term has the advantage that nobody knows exactly what it means.” (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 245.)
Where Trotsky found proof of a workers’ state in the transformation of the forms of property, the supporters of the theory of state capitalism find proof of the reverse. They may argue that unless the working class has direct control of the state, it cannot be a workers’ state. In that case, they will have to reject the idea that there was ever a workers’ state in Russia, except possibly in the first few months after October. Even here it is necessary to reiterate that the dictatorship of the proletariat is realised through the instrument of the vanguard of the class, i.e. the Party, and in the Party through the Party leadership. Under the best conditions this will be effected with the utmost democracy within the state and within the Party. But the very existence of the dictatorship, its necessity to achieve the change in the social system, is already proof of profound social contradictions which can, under unfavourable historical circumstances, find a reflection within the state and within the Party. The Party, no more than the state, can automatically and directly reflect the interests of the class. Not for nothing did Lenin think of the trade unions as a necessary factor for the defence of the workers against their state, as well as a bulwark for the defence of their state.
Here again, we see the results of substituting formalistic thinking for dialectical analysis. The advocates of this theory base themselves on pure abstractions – a workers’ state in general, as opposed to the real workers’ state formed under conditions of frightful backwardness, poverty, illiteracy. A materialist approaches the subject in an entirely different way. While it is the most homogeneous class in society, the proletariat is not entirely homogeneous. There are important differences between different layers of the class – skilled and unskilled, backward and advanced, organised and unorganised, and so on. The same processes can take place in the working class as in other classes, according to the concrete conditions.
The history of the workers’ organisations under capitalism, which can experience a process of bureaucratisation under certain conditions, especially where the workers are not participating actively, is a useful analogy. Trotsky in the last analysis compared a workers’ state to a trade union which has conquered power. After a long strike, with no victory in sight, the workers tend to lapse into inactivity and apathy, beginning with the most backward elements. Likewise, in Russia, after years of war, revolution and civil war, the workers were exhausted. Gradually, they fell into inactivity. The soviets, the unions and other organs of workers’ power became bureaucratised over a period as a result. A similar process can be seen in the French Revolution, although with a different class content. If it was possible for the party of the working class (the Social Democracy), especially through its leadership, to degenerate under the alien pressures of capitalism, why is it impossible for the state set up by the workers to follow a similar pattern? Why cannot the state gain independence from the class, and at the same time (in its own interests) defend the new economic forms created by the revolution? In reality, the transition from one society to another was found to have been far more complex than could have been foreseen by the founders of scientific socialism.
No more than any other class or social formation has the proletariat been given the privilege of inevitably having a smooth passage in the transition to its domination, and thence to its painless and tranquil disappearance in society, i.e., to socialism. That was a possible variant. But the degeneration of both Social Democracy and the Soviet state under the given conditions was not at all accidental. It represented in a sense the complex relations between a class, its representatives, and the state, which, more than once in history the ruling class, bourgeois, feudal and slave-owning, had cause to rue. It mirrors in other words, the multiplicity of historical factors which are the background to the decisive factor: the economic.
Contrast the broad view of Lenin with the mechanistic view of the exponents of state capitalism. Lenin emphasised over and over the need to study the transition periods of past epochs especially from feudalism to capitalism, in order to understand the laws of transition in Russia. He would have rejected the conception that the state which issued from October would have to follow a preconceived norm, or thereby cease to be a workers’ state. Lenin knew very well that the proletariat and its party and leadership had no God-given power which would lead, without contradictions, smoothly to socialism once capitalism had been overthrown. That is necessarily the only conclusion which must follow from the Kantian norms categorically laid down by proponents of state capitalism. That is why in advance Lenin emphasised that the dictatorship of the proletariat would vary tremendously in different countries and under different conditions.
However, Lenin hammered home the point that in the transition from feudalism to capitalism the dictatorship of the rising bourgeoisie was reflected in the dictatorship of one man. A class could rule through the personal rule of one man. Ex post facto Tony Cliff is quite willing to accept this conception as it applies to the bourgeoisie. But one could only conclude from his schematic arguments that such a development would be impossible in the case of the proletariat. For the rule of one man implies absolutism, arbitrary dictatorship vested in a single individual without political rights for the ruling class whose interests, in the last analysis, he represents. But Lenin only commented thus to show that under certain conditions the dictatorship of the proletariat could also be realised through the dictatorship of one man. Lenin did not develop this conception. But today, in the light of the experience of Russia and Eastern Europe, China, Cuba and the other deformed workers’ states, we can deepen and understand not only the present but the past developments of society as well.
Under certain circumstances, the dictatorship of the proletariat can take the form of the dictatorship of one man. We are not talking about a healthy workers’ state, but a distortion that can arise from the separation of the state from the class it represents. This means that the apparatus will almost inevitably tend to become independent of its base and thus acquire a vested interest of its own, hostile and alien to the class it represents. That was the case in Stalinist Russia. When we study the development of bourgeois society, we see that the autocracy of one individual, with the given social contradictions, served the needs of the development of that society. This is clearly shown by the rule of Cromwell and Napoleon. But although both stood on a bourgeois base, at a certain stage bourgeois autocracy becomes, from a favourable factor for the development of capitalist society, a hindrance to the full and free development of bourgeois production.
However, the dictatorial regime of absolutism does not then painlessly wither away. In France and England, it required supplementary political revolutions before bourgeois autocracy could be changed into bourgeois democracy. But without bourgeois democracy a free and full development of the productive forces to the limits under capitalism would have been impossible. If this applies to the historical evolution of the bourgeoisie, how much more so to the proletariat in a backward and isolated country where the dictatorship of the proletariat degenerated into the dictatorship of Stalin – of one man?
In order that the Russian proletariat should take the path of socialism, a new revolution, a supplementary political revolution was necessary to turn the Bonapartist proletarian state into a workers’ democracy. This entirely fits in with the experience of the past. Just as capitalism passed through many stormy contradictory phases (we are far from finished with them yet, as our epoch bears witness), so in the given historic conditions did the rule of the proletariat in Russia. So also through a mutual reaction, Eastern Europe and China passed through this proletarian Bonapartist phase.
The peculiar notion that a workers’ state is always born as immaculate as the Virgin Mary, and must under all conditions appear in the classical form of a perfect workers’ democracy, or else must be damned as a ‘new class state’, is a mystical idea which has nothing whatever to do with the materialist method of Marxism. It is the product of thinking in abstract, formal categories. In point of fact, it is in the interrelation between the class and its state under the given historical conditions that we find the explanation of Stalinist degeneration, not in supra-historical abstractions.
As a matter of fact, even now the class nature of the Russian state has not been decisively determined. But the protagonists of the empty and superficial theory of state capitalism are least of all capable of shedding light on the processes that are unfolding in the former Soviet Union. If the present move in the direction of capitalist restoration proves unsuccessful, in the long run, the economic factor (property relations), after many upheavals and catastrophes, will prove decisive. It is a question of which property forms will ultimately prevail – nationalisation or private property. This struggle is still unfolding, but the result is not yet decided. Of course, if we accept that Russia has been capitalist (even if ‘state capitalist’) for the past 60 or 70 years, then this is just a little detail, about which we should not concern ourselves too much.
The Russian working class, through painful experience, has come to understand that there is indeed a fundamental difference between a nationalised planned economy and capitalism. At the moment of writing, the Russian miners are striking against the bourgeois government in Moscow. An increasing number of workers are learning the need to defend what is left of nationalised industry against the depredations of the nascent capitalist class. Does this mean some kind of capitulation to the bureaucracy? Not at all. The Russian workers will fight against the nascent bourgeoisie with their own methods, strikes, demonstrations, general strikes. In so doing they will soon rediscover the great revolutionary traditions of the past. But the prior condition for this is the realisation of the need to wage an all-out struggle against the immediate threat of capitalist counter-revolution.
Having blocked the road to capitalist counter-revolution in struggle, they will acquire a sense of their own strength and the necessary consciousness that will enable them to overthrow the bureaucracy and organise a healthy workers’ democracy on a higher level. Such a development will not be a return to the position of the weak and impoverished Soviet state of 1917. On the basis of the technological and scientific advances made possible by the achievements of the nationalised planned economy in the past, they will be able to decree immediately a general reduction of the working week. Within one or, at most two, five-year plans, with the democratic control and participation of the masses, the whole situation will be transformed. Given the present level of development, it should be possible quite soon to introduce the 32-hour week, followed by a further reduction of hours and a general raising of living standards and culture. Then the workers’ state will, more or less, correspond to the ideal norm worked out by Marx and Lenin.
The theory of ‘state capitalism’ today
The debate over the class nature of the USSR is not an academic exercise, but has very serious practical consequences. Trotsky had previously warned that the tendency that adopts the false theory of state capitalism runs the risk of becoming “the passive instrument of imperialism”. But at the very time of a move to restore capitalism in Russia and Eastern Europe, the theories of state capitalism play the most pernicious role imaginable. The thinness and lack of theoretical insight of Cliff and his supporters is shown by their complete inability to explain the processes that are unfolding before our eyes in Russia. The whole thing is dismissed with the threadbare, flippant phrase that the bureaucracy just took a ‘step sideways’ (!), which, typically, explains nothing about the social regime in Russia either before or after. It tells us nothing about the relations of production, the class nature of the state, or the social content of the counter-revolution that is taking place. This is logical. Having denied the revolutionary significance of state ownership, the defenders of the theory of state capitalism are, in effect, compelled to deny that a counter-revolution is taking place at all! Thus, the concept of state capitalism stands revealed in the moment of truth as not merely theoretically bankrupt, but disastrous in practice.
In arguing his case Cliff dismissed Trotsky’s analysis of the class character of the Soviet Union as ‘contradictory’ to Marxism. According to him, Trotsky’s analysis “suffered from one serious limitation – a conservative attachment to formalism, which by its nature is contradictory to Marxism that subordinates form to content”. (Cliff, Russia: A Marxist Analysis, p. 145.) This view is also upheld by another prominent colleague of Cliff, Duncan Hallas, who states: “ Trotsky’s analysis of the class struggle in the USSR after 1927 has clearly been shown to be erroneous.” (T. Cliff and others, The Fourth International, Stalinism and the Origins of the International Socialists, p. 8.) Again, “there can be no doubt that by 1928 a new class had taken power in Russia…” says another supporter of Cliff’s theory, Chris Harman. “The Left Opposition was far from clear about what it was fighting. Trotsky, to his dying day, believed that the apparatus that was to hunt him down and murder him was a degenerated workers’ state.” (Binns, Cliff and Harman, op. cit., p. 35.) Trotsky and his supporters resisted Stalinism, but, claims Harman, their “own theories about Russia made this task more difficult…” (Ibid., p. 36.)
As early as 1936, Trotsky, in a brilliant deduction, predicted that the bureaucracy would inevitably turn to individual ownership of the means of production, if the workers did not take power. How about the advocates of state capitalism? The move to restore individual ownership caught these ladies and gentlemen completely by surprise. What alternative could they offer to the denationalisation of industry and the abolition of the plan? This is not merely a theoretical question, but a vital one for the interests of the Russian working class. It is necessary to give a concrete answer. How does this square with state capitalism?
Despite the fact that all the bourgeois commentators in the West and the bourgeois press are expressly behind the moves for capitalist restoration, Chris Harman claims that, “the move from the command economy to the market is neither a step forward nor a step backwards, but a step sideways, from one way of organising capitalist exploitation to another”! (C. Harman and E. Mandel, The Fallacies of State Capitalism, p. 79.) For Tony Cliff, “privatisation was an irrelevant question”.
This position is, of course, quite logical if you accept that the capitalist counter-revolution had happened decades ago. Belatedly they now say they are opposed to privatisation in the ex-Stalinist states, in the same way they are opposed to privatisation in the West, although why they should do so remains a mystery. Is ‘state capitalism’ progressive after all? In this way, the advocates of this position proceed from bad to worse! The resulting contradictions are not lost on at least some of them. A leading speaker at their summer school in 1990 put forward the view that Trotsky “had a fetish about the nationalised economy”. To call into question the very notion of a nationalised planned economy as the prior condition of a movement in the direction of socialism is, indeed, implicit in their whole position. But what conclusions are we supposed to draw from this?
If nationalisation is ‘irrelevant’ and what has taken place in Russia is only a ‘step sideways’, then why oppose it? Surely it should be a matter of indifference whether the nascent bourgeoisie takes over from state capitalism? Of course, for the workers threatened with privatisation, things do not look so simple! But from the standpoint of the theory of state capitalism, there is absolutely nothing to choose between the two, and thus the only consistent position would be complete neutrality. (This would also apply to the question of privatisation in the West.) However, the last thing the proponents of this theory can be accused of is consistency!
Whether East or West, it is the elementary duty of every class-conscious worker to defend the gains of the past. The only remaining historic gain of the Russian Revolution is the nationalised planned economy. The pro-bourgeois government of Yeltsin, backed and promoted by Western imperialism, is attempting to destroy the nationalised economy, break it up, and sell if off through privatisation. If they succeed in this, it will represent the complete elimination of the gains of the October Revolution. It will mean the destruction of the deformed workers’ state and the establishment of a new capitalist state. That is after all the aim of the nascent bourgeois in Russia and the Western imperialists. The situation could not be clearer. And yet the theory of state capitalism seeks to turn things on their head and sow the maximum confusion.
Since the success of the October Revolution, Marxists have consistently defended the nationalised property rights that issued from the revolution. We did not support the Stalinist reaction or the policies of the Stalinist regime. These policies, far from defending the revolution, were assisting to weaken and undermine it. Eventually, as envisaged by Trotsky, the bureaucracy would move to consolidate its position by capitalist restoration. That is what has been taking place for the last six years or so in Russia and Eastern Europe. For Cliff and his supporters, state capitalism not only existed in the USSR, Eastern Europe and other Stalinist states where private property has been abolished, but apparently was also widespread in Asia, Africa, and Latin America during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. In the words of Harman, “state intervention went further in many so-called developing countries, where the individual capitalist groups were too weak to stop the state dominating the industrial sector of the economy”. He gives the examples of Egypt, Syria, Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Ireland and South Korea as varied forms of state capitalism.
“It [the state] behaved very much as the East European states did…” states Harman. “It was an expression of a tendency throughout the world, from the 1930s through to the mid-1970s to resort to administrative, state capitalist interventions in economies prone to crisis. That phase of capitalist history is, however, drawing to a close. The state still intervenes, but with decreasing effectiveness. In the West that has meant a return to the classic slump; and in the East, it means that the bureaucracies find it increasingly difficult to avoid going down the same path.” (C. Harman, Class Struggles in Eastern Europe 1945-83, p. 327.)
Harman tortuously twists the facts to fit the theory of state capitalism. Countries like Argentina under Perón and Egypt under Nasser, were not new state capitalist societies, but were capitalist economies that used state intervention, which is characteristic of all capitalist countries in the epoch of imperialism, to protect the interests of the national bourgeois against competition from the big imperialist powers. Given the extent of state intervention, using Harman’s logic, the system of state capitalism would be practically universal! It appears that the cold war and the hostile relations between the USSR and the West was simply a big misunderstanding as state capitalist countries were on either side of the Iron Curtain, instead of a fundamental antagonism between two social systems. If they were basically the same, why all the fuss, the diplomatic and military tensions and the arms race?
“How are we to view the end of the cold war, the collapse of the USSR and Russia’s initial orientation on the US?” asks Dave Crouch, Cliff’s co-thinker in Moscow. According to him, the collapse of Stalinism was no victory for US imperialism – despite what all the bourgeois commentators internationally said. “There was no ‘capitulation’ to the Americans. When the Russian ruling class stopped reeling from the defeats inflicted on it by the population after 1989 it set about strengthening its position both at home and abroad. The big show of post-cold war friendship between Russia and the US was necessary to both sides. The Kremlin needed to persuade its people that the bad old days were over and that reform would take them to an affluent market future.” (International Socialism, No. 66, Spring 1995, pp. 12-4.)
How muddled can you get? According to Dave Crouch, the collapse of Stalinism has resulted in strengthening of state capitalism “both at home and abroad”! Crouch, despite being based in Moscow, evidently lives on another planet. He does not see the collapse of the productive forces, the chaos, the misery of the masses, the political convulsions, the military catastrophe that has overtaken the Russian people. No. Not only has there been no real change, but by some mysterious means which only Dave Crouch understands, the former regime has actually strengthened itself! Here we take leave of Marxism altogether and enter the realm of science fiction.
Apparently, the ‘state capitalists’ of Russia and Eastern Europe, in an attempt to overcome their problems, were forced to move towards a more conventional form of market capitalism. In other words, the upheavals in Russia and Eastern Europe are purely ‘tactical’ problems for different sections of the capitalist class to sort out. Privatisation, the key note of the bourgeois counter-revolution, is considered a trick of some kind because ownership was not really being transferred at all; selling shares was merely a ‘device’ by which the ‘state capitalists’ could raise revenue! According to these gentlemen, socialists could not defend one form of capitalism against another. In the early 1950s, this position resulted in Tony Cliff remaining neutral during the Korean war when the deformed workers’ state of North Korea was under imperialist attack. But in the Vietnam war, due to the pressure of the students and petty bourgeois in their ranks, it was fashionable to support ‘state capitalist’ North Vietnam against American imperialism. Today it is unfashionable to defend the planned economies of the former USSR and Eastern Europe against counter-revolution, but is fashionable to support the Romanian student’s demands for capitalist restoration.
Life always takes its revenge on a false theory. The whole artificial construction of state capitalism lies in ruins. Yet instead of honestly admitting their mistake, they attempt to cling to the wreckage by their fingernails. They now try to maintain that no real change has taken place. This immediately leads them into a small error – that of being unable to distinguish between revolution and counter-revolution! According to the theory of Tony Cliff and others, capitalist counter-revolution in Russia today is impossible. Since the bureaucracy ‘owned the state’ and played the same role as the capitalist class, where is the difference? From this point of view, it is a matter of indifference whether state property is privatised or not, since it is all ‘capitalism’! Thus, the so-called theory of state capitalism, if it were accepted by the Russian workers today, would completely disarm them in the face of the nascent bourgeoisie. This fact alone is sufficient to underline the vital importance of theory, which, sooner or later must be manifested in practice.
To be sure, the nationalisation of the means of production in one country, and a backward one at that, still does not insure the building of socialism. But it is capable of furthering the primary prerequisite of socialism, namely, the planned development of the productive forces. To turn one’s back on the nationalisation of the means of production on the ground that in and of itself it does not create the well-being of the masses is tantamount to sen tencing a granite foundation to destruction on the grounds that it is impossible to live without walls and a roof. The class-conscious worker knows that a successful struggle for complete emancipation is unthinkable without the defence of conquests already gained, however modest these may be. All the more obligatory therefore is the defence of so colossal a conquest as a planned economy against the restoration of capitalist relations. Those who cannot defend old positions will never conquer new ones. (Trotsky, Writings 1939-40, p. 199.)