Unravelling the Russian enigma: 1926-36

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In the last article in this series (‘1924-28: The Thermidor of Stalinist state capitalism’, International Review 102) we looked at the attempts of the various currents on the left wing of the Bolshevik party to understand and combat the degeneration and demise of the October revolution. As these groups gradually succumbed to the merciless terror of the Stalinist counter-revolution, the focus of this political and theoretical struggle shifted to the international arena, particularly to western Europe. The next two articles will concentrate on the attempts of the international communist left to provide a clear marxist analysis of the regime which had arisen in the USSR on the ashes of the proletarian revolution.

Understanding the nature of the Stalinist system is a key aspect of the communist programme: without such an understanding, it would be impossible for communists to outline clearly what kind of society they are fighting for, to describe what socialism is and what it is not. But the clarity that communists have today about the nature of the USSR was not easily attained: it took many years of intensive debate and reflection within the proletarian political movement before a truly coherent synthesis could be achieved. Never before had revolutionaries been compelled to analyse a proletarian revolution that had perished from within. As a result, for a long time, the USSR appeared as a kind of enigma1, a problem unforeseen in the annals of marxism. Our aim in the following articles will therefore be to chronicle the main stages by which the groups of the marxist vanguard, in the dark years of the counter-revolution, gradually succeeded in unravelling the enigma and bequeathing the analysis of Stalinist state capitalism to their present-day heirs

Bordiga’s letter to Korsch

We take up the story in 1926. The Communist Party of Germany, the KPD, is being ‘Bolshevised’, ostensibly to bring all the Communist parties outside Russia into synch with the intransigent and disciplined methods of the Russian party. But the campaign of Bolshevisation launched by the Communist International in 1924-5 is in truth part of the process of the destruction of Bolshevism. The party which had led the revolution in 1917 is being turned into a mere annex of the Russian state; and the Russian state has become the axial point of the capitalist counter-revolution. Stalin’s theory of ‘socialism in one country’, first announced in 1924, is a declaration of war against the real internationalist traditions of the Russian party. By 1926, all the remaining Bolsheviks – including Zinoviev, under whose auspices the Bolshevisation campaign had been imposed on the International – have gone over to the opposition and shortly afterwards will be expelled from the party.

In Germany too there is widespread resistance to the increasing opportunism and bureaucratism of the KPD, to the attempt to silence all serious questioning about the internal situation within Russia and the foreign policy of the CI. The inability of the KPD apparatus to tolerate any real debate has resulted in the mass expulsion of nearly all of the most revolutionary elements within the party, of a whole series of groups influenced not only by the (today) better known opposition around Trotsky, but also by the German communist left. The KAPD, although far weaker than in its hey-day during the revolutionary wave, still exists and has carried out consistent work towards the KPD, which it defines as a centrist organisation still capable of giving rise to revolutionary minorities.

Our book on the German-Dutch left contains precise evidence of the scale and importance of this split, which involved the following groups:

  • the group around Schwarz and Korsch, the ‘Entschiedene Linke’ or Intransigent Left, which regrouped about 7000 members;

  • The Iwan Katz group, which together with Pfemfert’s group formed an organisation of 6000 members, close to the AAUE. It operated in the name of a cartel of left communist organisations and published the journal Spartakus. This became the organ of the Spartakusbund mark II;

  • the Fischer-Maslow group, which had 6000 militants;

  • the Urbahns group, the future Leninbund, which regrouped 5000 members;

  • the Wedding opposition, excluded in 1927-28 was later, with part of Urbahn’s Leninbund, to create the German Trotskyist opposition” (The Dutch and German Communist Left, chapter 6).

The Korsch group is the one which is most strongly influenced by the KAPD – later on a rather hasty and short-lived fusion will take place between them. The platform of this group is not widely known or available – a measure of the degree to which the German left has disappeared from history. Better known is the letter to Korsch, commenting on the platform, by Amadeo Bordiga, at that point the most important figure of the Italian communist left, which has been conducting a particularly powerful polemic against the growing opportunism of the CI. Our attention thus moves on to this correspondence because it gives us a valuable insight into the different approaches adopted by the German and Italian left communists towards the fundamental problems that confronted them at that time – understanding the nature of the regime in the USSR and defining a coherent policy towards the International and its component parties.

The first noticeable thing about Bordiga’s reply (dated 28th October 1926) is that there is no trace of the sectarianism which led him to consider himself the sole repository of truth, nor of the slightest refusal to discuss with other currents on the left. In short, we are very far away from the ‘Bordigism’ of today, which claims to be the true heir of the Italian left communist tradition, and which has theorised a refusal to hold any kind of debate with groups who do not fit into a very restricted definition of this tradition. It is certainly true that the Bordiga of 1926 does not consider that there is as yet sufficient political homogeneity for a regroupment or even for the publication of a common international declaration. But his whole emphasis is on the necessity for discussion and for a work of clarification in which the various currents of the international left will have a role to play: “I think in general that the priority today, rather than manoeuvring and forming organisations, is the preliminary work of elaborating a political ideology of the international left based on the eloquent experiences undergone by the Comintern” Later on he adds that parallel declarations about the situation in Russia and the Comintern by the different left groupings will contribute to this work, even if he is anxious to avoid “going as far as a fractionist ‘plot’”

Bordiga’s argument is founded on the conviction that “we are not yet at the moment of definite clarification”: ie, it is too early to write off the Communist Parties or the International. Revolutionaries must carry on the struggle within the Communist Parties as long as possible, in spite of the increasingly artificial and mechanical discipline which reigns within them: “we have to respect this discipline in all its procedural absurdities, without ever renouncing positions of political and ideological criticism and without ever solidarising with the dominant orientation”. Defending the decision of the Russian left opposition to submit to discipline and so avoid a split, he argues that “the objective and external situation is still such that, not only in Russia, the fact of being chased out of the Comintern leaves one with still less chance of influencing the course of the working class struggle than one could have from within the party”.

In hindsight we can take issue with some of Bordiga’s conclusions: while it was certainly true that struggle for the ‘soul’ of the Communist parties was far from over in 1926, his reluctance to recognise the necessity for forming organised fractions – including, when possible, an international fraction – goes some way to explaining why he was unable to play a part in the next phase in the history of the Italian left: the phase initiated precisely by the formation of the Left Fraction of the Communist Party of Italy in 1928. But what is important here is Bordiga’s method, which was without doubt handed on to those who did participate in the work of the Fraction. The priority he accords to the work of clarification in an unfavourable objective situation, the insistence on the necessity to fight to the end to save organisations which the proletariat has created with such difficulty – this was the hallmark of the Italian left and provides a key to understanding why it was destined to play the central role in “elaborating a political ideology of the international left” during the bleakest years of the counter-revolution. By contrast, the German left’s premature dismissal of the Communist Parties and the CI had been one of the weightiest causes of its rapid organisational disintegration.

The same can be said when Bordiga takes up the question of the nature of the regime in Russia, which is in fact the first issue addressed in the reply to Korsch. The ‘Intransigent Left’, like previous currents of the German communist left (Rühle as early as 1920, the KAPD from around 1922 onwards) had already declared that capitalism had triumphed over the revolution in Russia. But in both cases this conclusion, arrived at impressionistically and without a through-going theoretical inquiry, had resulted in the proletarian nature of the revolution being put into question, and in a de facto regression to the positions of the Mensheviks or the anarchists, many of whom had from the start denounced the October insurrection as a coup d’Etat by the Bolsheviks, installing a new variety of capitalism in place of the old. The KAPD, on the whole, did not go this far, but it did develop the theory of the “double revolution”, proletarian in the cities, bourgeois in the countryside, and it had tended to see the New Economic Policy introduced in 1921 as the point where a kind of “peasant capitalism” had gained supremacy over the remains of proletarian power.

Another irony for latter-day Bordigism: Bordiga’s reply to Korsch contains no hint of the “double revolution” theory which he elaborated after the second world war, and which defined the bourgeois economy of the USSR as the product of a “transition towards capitalism” which had taken place under the auspices of the Stalinist apparat. On the contrary: Bordiga’s overriding concern is to defend the proletarian character of October, no matter what subsequent degeneration has taken place:

“…your ‘way of expressing yourself’ on the subject of Russia does not seem right to me. One cannot say that the Russian revolution was a bourgeois revolution. The 1917 revolution was a proletarian revolution even if it was an error to generalise its ‘tactical’ lessons; now the problem is posed as to what happens to the dictatorship of the proletariat in one country, if the revolution does not carry on in other countries. There can be counter-revolution, there can be a process of degeneration whose symptoms and reflections within the Communist Party have to be discovered and defined. One cannot simply say that Russia is a country tending towards capitalism. The thing is much more complex: it’s a question of new forms of the class struggle which have no precedent in history. It is a question of showing how the Stalinist conception of relations with the middle classes is equivalent to renouncing the communist programme. It would seem that you exclude the possibility of a policy by the Russian Communist Party which would not lead to the restoration of capitalism. This would end up justifying Stalin or supporting the unacceptable policy of ‘resigning from power’. On the contrary we must say that a correct class policy would have been possible in Russia, avoiding the series of grave errors in international policy committed by ‘The Leninist old guard in its entirety’”.

Again, with the benefit of hindsight it is possible for us to answer some of Bordiga’s conclusions: at the time of writing, capitalism – not based on concessions to the middle classes, but on the very state that had emerged out of the revolution – was indeed becoming the master of Russia, not only economically (since it had never been vanquished at this level) but also politically, and the longer the Communist Party tried to hang on to political power, the more it was separating itself from the proletariat and becoming subsumed to the interests of capital. But here again the essential thing is the method, the theoretical starting point: the revolution was proletarian, but it was isolated; now it is a question of understanding something that has never happened in history: the degeneration of a proletarian revolution from within. And here again, even if Bordiga’s heirs in the Fraction took a long time coming to the correct conclusions about the nature of the regime in the USSR, the solidity of their analytical method was to ensure that they did so with much greater depth and seriousness than those who had proclaimed the capitalist nature of the USSR much earlier on, but only by breaking solidarity with the October revolution. The German left was to pay heavily for this: cutting the roots that connected it to October and Bolshevism also meant cutting its own roots, and without roots a tree cannot survive. To this day it is evident that it is virtually impossible to maintain any organised proletarian political activity that is not grounded in the lessons both of the October victory and of its subsequent defeat.

The debate within the international left opposition

We move on to 1933. The defeat of the German proletariat has been sealed by Hitler’s assumption of power. The workers of the two other main centres of the international revolutionary wave of 1917-23 – Russia and Italy – have also been crushed. The defeats result in the disappearance or dispersal of the revolutionary vanguard. The political life of the working class no longer takes place in the Communist parties, which have been thoroughly Stalinised and are on the verge of capitulating to the ideology of national defence. It survives nonetheless in a very much reduced milieu of opposition groupings and fractions. By now the crux of this oppositional activity has shifted to France, and in particular to Paris, the traditional city of European revolutions.

By 1933 some of these groups have already come and gone. Such had been the fate of one ‘wing’ of the Italian left in exile, the Reveil Communiste group around Pappalardi. Formed in 1927, this group had attempted a bold synthesis between the Italian and German lefts. Without rejecting the proletarian character of the October revolution, it had come to the conclusion that a bourgeois counter-revolution had taken place in Russia. And yet the group’s tendency towards impatience and sectarianism soon led it to lose its connection with the thorough-going methodology of the Italian left. By 1929 its synthesis had mutated into a wholesale conversion to the tradition of the German left, to its weaknesses as well as its strengths. This mutation was marked by the appearance of the paper L’Ouvrier Communiste, which worked closely with the Russian left communist exiled in Paris, Gavril Miasnikov2. Very quickly the new group had succumbed to anarchist influences and ceased publication in 1931.

In 1933, the majority of the ‘native’ oppositional groups are influenced by Trotsky, although the Left Fraction of the Communist Party of Italy, formed in the Paris suburb of Pantin in 1928, is extremely active within this milieu. The official section of the International Left Opposition is the Communist League, formed in 1929 on a very heterogeneous basis strongly criticised by the Italian Fraction. Already ‘Trotskyism’ has begun to adopt an unprincipled, activist approach to regroupment which is not founded on any solid programmatic agreement. Such approaches can only result in splits, especially because it is combined with an increasingly opportunist approach to such key questions as relations with the Communist and Socialist parties and the defence of democracy against fascism. The League has already been through a number of splits. The first, fuelled by but not limited to personal antagonisms and clan loyalties, had taken place after the feud between the Molinier group and the Rosmer-Naville group. Trotsky’s intervention in the situation from exile in Prinkipo had been unfortunate to say the least, since he was already growing impatient to form new mass organisations and had been taken in by the activist schemes of Molinier, who was in essence a political adventurer. Rosmer’s tendency had at least been more concerned with the need to reflect and develop a clearer understanding of the conditions facing the class, but Trotsky’s ‘Prinkipo peace’ led to Rosmer’s virtual withdrawal from militant life. But the split also gave rise to an organised current – the Gauche Communiste group around Collinet and Naville’s brother. It was followed in 1932 by another split, resulting in the formation of the Fraction de Gauche animated by the former Zinovievist Albert Treint, and by Marc, later of the Gauche Communiste de France and the ICC. The cause of the split was the group’s rejection of a growing tendency within the League towards conciliation with Stalinism. By the beginning of 1933, the League is on the verge of another and even more damaging split, as a growing minority reacts against the politics of conciliation towards social democracy which will culminate in the ‘French turn’ of 1934 – the policy of ‘entrism’ into the social democratic parties, once denounced by the Communist International as instruments of the bourgeoisie.

It is at this point that another oppositional group known as the ‘15th Rayon group’, whose best-known militant is Gaston Davoust (Chaze) issue an invitation to all the oppositional currents to hold a series of meetings aimed at programmatic clarification and eventual regroupment. This initiative is warmly welcomed by the Italian Fraction, which had been manoeuvred out of the International Left Opposition by 1932, but which sees these meetings as the possible basis for the formation of a Left Fraction of the Communist Party of France, to use its terminology of the time. There is a positive response as well from virtually all the French groups, while some groups outside France also participate or send their support (Ligue Communiste Internationaliste in Belgium, the Austrian opposition group, etc). Over the next few months there is a series of meetings which involve an impressive list of groups: the Fraction de Gauche and the Gauche Communiste, Davoust’s group, the Communist League as well as a separate delegation of its latest minority; the Italian Left Fraction; a number of small (and ephemeral) groups such as Pour une Renaissance Communiste, made up of three elements who have split from the Italian Fraction over the Russian question, considering the USSR to be state capitalist; Treint’s new group Effort Communiste, which had left the Fraction de Gauche because it too no longer saw anything proletarian in the ‘Soviet’ regime, and had begun developing the theory that Russia was now under the sway of a new exploiting class; and a number of individuals such as Simone Weil and Kurt Landau.

The nature of the regime in the Soviet Union is one of the key issues on the agenda. At this point, the majority of the invited groups formally defend the view, enshrined in the 1927 platform of the Russian opposition and still vigorously advocated by Trotsky, that the USSR is a proletarian state, albeit in a condition of severe bureaucratic degeneration, because it has not done away with the state ownership of the principal means of production. But what is particularly interesting about the discussions at this conference is the way they provide us with an illustration of the evolution taking place on this question within the opposition milieu.

Thus for example the report on the Russian question is made by the Gauche Communiste group. This text is highly critical of Trotsky’s arguments: “Comrade Trotsky, in order to explain the bureaucracy’s offensive against the peasantry and Stalinism’s conversion to a policy of industrialisation, despite the ‘liquidation of the party as a party’, is led to argue that while the economic infrastructure of the proletarian dictatorship has got stronger, its political superstructure has continued to weaken and degenerate. A proposition that is hard to make sense of when you take into account the marxist thesis that ‘politics is only concentrated economics’, especially when we are talking about a regime where the essential political issue is the direction of the economy”. It concludes that the bureaucracy has indeed constituted itself into new class, neither proletarian nor bourgeois. But unlike Treint, and without any apparent consistency, the text also argues that this bureaucratic state still contains some proletarian vestiges and thus still needs to be defended by revolutionaries against any attack by imperialism. A resolution drawn up by the Chaze group expresses equally contradictory conclusions – the USSR remains a workers’ state, but the bureaucracy is “playing the role of a real class, whose interests are more and more opposed to those of the working class” More important, perhaps, than the actual content of these texts is the approach adopted by the conference, its open attitude to the question. Thus, when the ‘orthodox’ Trotskyist group, the Communist League, proposes a resolution excluding all those who deny the proletarian nature of the USSR, it is almost unanimously rejected.

The conference does not succeed in unifying all the groups that had taken part, nor in creating a French Fraction: in a period of defeat, the dominant tendency is inevitably towards dispersal and isolation. But a partial regroupment does take place and this too is significant: the Fraction de Gauche, Davoust’s group, and later on the minority of the Communist League – a minority of 35 members whose departure virtually crippled the League – unite to form the Union Communiste group which continued up until the war. Although it begins with a heavy baggage of Trotskyism, and is later found wanting when it comes to the ordeal of the Spanish civil war, a process of evolution does take place in this group: it calls the ideology of anti-fascism into question and by 1935 has concluded that the Stalinist bureaucracy is a new bourgeoisie. A similar position is adopted by the LCI in Belgium.

When we consider as well that the Italian Fraction, though still talking about the USSR as a proletarian state, also moves rapidly towards rejecting any defence of the USSR during this period, we can see that by the mid 1930s Trotsky’s position on the USSR has already been challenged or abandoned by an important component of the Trotskyist movement, just as it had been within the Russian opposition itself. And the importance of this component is both quantitative and qualitative: quantitative because by the mid-30s it is actually larger than the ‘official’ Trotskyist group in the country which is the ‘heartland’ of the International Left Opposition; and qualitative because it is generally the most intransigent and consistent elements, many of them formed during the revolutionary wave or soon afterwards, who have rejected the defence of the USSR and begin to grasp, albeit in an incomplete and often contradictory manner, that a capitalist counter-revolution has taken place in the ‘Land of the Soviets’. Small wonder that the history of these currents is systematically ignored by the Trotskyist historians.

Trotsky’s response to the left: The Revolution Betrayed

In order to understand the evolution of Trotsky’s position on the USSR, it is necessary to recognise these pressures on him from the left. If we look briefly at Trotsky’s most important statement on the nature of the USSR during this period – his book The Revolution Betrayed, written during his exile in Norway and published in 1936 – we can readily grasp that he was engaging in a polemic on two fronts: on the one hand, against the Stalinist deception that the USSR was a paradise for the workers, and on the other hand, against all those currents on the left who were converging towards the view that the Soviet Union had lost all connection with the proletarian power of 1917.

Let us state first of all that contrary to conclusions that have been put forward within the communist left, and even by the Italian Fraction at the time, the Trotsky of 1936 had not ceased to be a marxist, and The Revolution Betrayed contains ample proof of this. The main thrust of the book is aimed at refuting Stalin’s absurd claim that the USSR had already achieved full ‘socialism’ (though not yet ‘communism’) by 1936. Against this monstrous lie, Trotsky marshals the full force of his statistical knowledge, his acerbic wit and his political clarity to expose the absolutely miserable conditions of the working class and the peasantry, the deplorably shoddy character of the goods produced for mass consumption, the growing privileges of the bureaucratic elite, the increasingly reactionary, nationalistic, and hierarchical trends in the spheres of art and literature, education, the army, family life, and so on. Indeed Trotsky’s depiction of the mentality and practices of the bureaucracy is so sharp that he all but proves that we are in the presence of an exploiting class. In the article ‘The unidentified class: Soviet bureaucracy as seen by Leon Trotsky’, written for International Review n°92 by one of the comrades involved in the emerging proletarian milieu in Russia today, this point is made very clearly: “Trotsky is in fact describing the following picture [in The Revolution Betrayed]: there exists a fairly numerous social stratum which controls production, and therefore its produce, in a monopolistic manner, and which appropriates a large part of production (in other words, exercises a function of exploitation), which is united around an understanding of its common material interests, and is opposed to the producing class. What do marxists call a social stratum that displays all these characteristics? There is only one answer: this is the ruling social class in every sense of the term. Trotsky leads his reader to the same conclusion. But he does not come to it himself…Trotsky starts with ‘a’, but after describing the exploiting ruling class, Trotsky hesitates at the last moment, and refuses to go on to ‘b’”.

Trotsky’s book also poses an extremely important question about the nature of the transitional state, and why it is particularly vulnerable to the pressures of the old social order. Taking up Lenin’s suggestive phrase from State and Revolution that the transitional state is in a certain sense a “bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie”, Trotsky adds: “This highly significant conclusion, completely ignored by the present official theoreticians, has a decisive significance for the understanding of the nature of the Soviet state – or more accurately, for a first approach to such understanding. In so far as the state which assumes the task of socialist transformation is compelled to defend inequality – that is, the material privileges of a minority – by methods of compulsion, insofar does it also remain a bourgeois state, even though without a bourgeoisie…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: socialist in so far as it defends social property in the means of production; bourgeois, in so far as the distribution of life’s goods is carried out with a capitalistic measure of value and all the consequences ensuing therefrom. Such a contradictory characterisation may horrify the dogmatists and scholastics; we can only offer them our condolences” (Revolution Betrayed, Pathfinder press, p 53-4). This line of questioning about the nature of the transitional state could, if properly developed have led Trotsky to understand how the state established after the October revolution had become the guardian of the statified capital; but again, Trotsky was unable to pursue the question to its final daring conclusions.

The more directly political conclusions embodied in the book – although Trotsky had already reached some of these by 1933 – also represent a certain advance on his previous thinking. In 1927, as we saw in the last article in this series, Trotsky had issued a warning about the danger of a Thermidor, a “counter–revolution on the instalment plan”, within the USSR. But he had as yet not accepted that this was already an accomplished fact. By the time he writes The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky has revised his view and concluded that Thermidor had already taken place under the aegis of the bureaucracy; as a result “the old Bolshevik party is dead, and no force will resurrect it” ibid, p100). And he concludes that the bureaucracy which had strangled Bolshevism can no longer be reformed – it must be forcefully overthrown in what he calls a “political revolution” by the working class. By this time he has also decided that the Communist International had also breathed its last and that the formation of new parties is on the agenda in all countries.

Finally, it is important to remember that Trotsky’s book does not completely close the question of the nature of the USSR. He considers that history has yet to determine this question, insisting that the reign of the bureaucracy cannot be a stable one: either it will be overthrown by the workers, or by an overtly bourgeois counter-revolution, or it will transform itself into a possessing class in the fullest sense. And as the world lurched towards a new world war, it became more evident to Trotsky in his final years that the role that the USSR played in the war would be a decisive factor in finally fixing its class nature.

Despite all these positive aspects, the book is also a vigorous defence of the thesis that the USSR remains a workers’ state because it has carried through the integral nationalisation of the means of production, thus “abolishing” the bourgeoisie. When his book talks about Thermidor, it is not used in quite the same sense as Trotsky had used it in 1927. Then Thermidor had meant a bourgeois counter-revolution. Now it leans more heavily on the ambiguity of this comparison with the French revolution. In France, Thermidor had not meant a feudal restoration, but the coming to power of a more conservative fraction of the bourgeoisie. By the same token, Trotsky argues that the Soviet Thermidor has not restored capitalism but installed a kind of “proletarian Bonapartism”, in which a parasitic bureaucratic stratum defends its privileges at the expense of the proletariat, but is still dependent for its survival on the continuation of the “proletarian property forms” ushered in by the October revolution. This is why he calls not for a complete social revolution in the USSR, but merely a political revolution which will eliminate the bureaucracy while retaining the basic economic form. And this too is why Trotsky remains entirely devoted to the “defence of the Soviet Union” against the hostile intentions of world capitalism, which, he argues, still sees the USSR as an alien body within its midst.

Here we come to the reactionary side of Trotsky’s work – and it is a thesis directed against the left. This becomes explicit in the latter part of the book when Trotsky poses, and dismisses, the question of whether the USSR could be seen as state capitalist or the bureaucracy as a ruling class. With regard to state capitalism, Trotsky is aware of the general trend towards state intervention in the economy within capitalism, and sees it as an expression of the historic decline of the system. He even accepts the theoretical possibility that the entire ruling class of a given country could constitute itself into a single trust via the state, and goes on to say that “the economic laws of such a regime would present no mysteries. A single capitalist, as is well known, receives in the form of profit, not that part of the surplus value which is directly created by the workers of his own enterprise, but a share of the combined surplus value created throughout the country proportionate to the amount of his own capital. Under an integral ‘state capitalism’, this law of the equal rate of profit would be realised, not by devious routes – that is, competition among different capitals – but immediately and directly through state bookkeeping”. But having described in a nutshell the operation of the law of value in the USSR, he quickly adds the disclaimer that “such a regime never existed, however, and, because of profound contradictions among the proprietors themselves, never will exist – the more so since, in its quality of universal repository of capitalist property, the state would be too tempting an object for social revolution” (Revolution Betrayed, p245). We could add that the most advanced bourgeoisies have also shunned the model of integral state capitalism because, as in the collapse of the ex-Stalinist countries confirmed, it has proved to disastrously inefficient. But what Trotsky entirely fails to do in this chapter is to ask this obvious question: could an integral state capitalism arise out of a unique situation where the proletarian revolution has expropriated the old bourgeoisie, and then degenerated due its international isolation?

As for Trotsky’s argument that the bureaucracy cannot be a ruling class, due to the fact that it has no stocks and shares or any right of inheritance enabling it to pass on property to its heirs, our Russian comrade AG writes a very lucid rejoinder: “In Revolution Betrayed Trotsky tries to refute theoretically the thesis of the bureaucracy’s bourgeois class nature with arguments as weak as the fact that ‘it has neither stocks nor bonds’ (p249). But why should the ruling class necessarily possess them? For it is obvious that the possession of stocks and bonds is of no importance in itself: the important thing is whether this or that class appropriates to itself a surplus product of the direct producers. If yes, then the function of exploitation exists whether the distribution of the appropriated product is done via dividends on shares, or through a salary and privileges attached to a job. The author of Revolution Betrayed is just as unconvincing when he says that the representatives of the leading stratum cannot bequeath their privileged status (…) it is highly unlikely that Trotsky thought that the children of the elite could become workers or peasants”. By attributing this decisive significance to the law of inheritance, Trotsky clearly deviates from the fundamental marxist axiom that juridical relations are only the superstructural expression of the underlying social relationships; equally, by insisting on finding such proof of personal membership of a ruling class, Trotsky forgets that marxists define capital as a wholly impersonal power; it is capitalism which creates capitalists, not the other way round.

Equally, behind Trotsky’s notion that the class nature of the Soviet state is determined in the last instance by its economic structure there is a deep confusion about the nature of the proletarian revolution. As an exploited class, the one and only way the working class can transform society towards socialism is by establishing and holding political power. It has no ‘property’ of its own, no economic laws functioning in its favour: its method of struggle against the laws of the capitalist economy is based entirely on its ability to impose conscious control and planning against the anarchy of the market, human needs against the needs of profit. But this ability can only derive from its organised strength and its political consciousness – from its ability to assert its programme at every level of social and economic life. There is no guarantee whatever that the expropriation of the bourgeoisie and the collectivisation of the means of production will automatically lead in the direction of new social relations. They are a mere starting point: the work of creating these new social relations can only be carried out through the mass social movement of the working class. Actually, Trotsky comes close to recognising this when he writes “The predominance of socialist over petty bourgeois tendencies is guaranteed, not by the automatism of the economy – we are still far from that – but by political measures taken by the dictatorship. The character of the economy as a whole thus depends upon the character of the state power” But, as with the rest of his thesis, Trotsky is unable to draw the essential conclusion – that if the proletariat no longer exerts the slightest control over the state power, then the economy will automatically go in one direction: towards capitalism. In sum, the existence of a ‘workers state’, or proletarian dictatorship to be more precise, depends not on whether the state formally owns the economy, but on whether the proletariat really holds political power.

The most serious result of Trotsky’s failure to recognise that the October revolution had indeed been definitively defeated is that it leads him to “theoretically” justify the radical apology for Stalinism, which was to be the ultimate function of the movement he founded. In The Revolution Betrayed this apologia is already explicit, in spite of all the criticisms of the real conditions facing the Russian working class: “With the bourgeois economists we have no longer anything to quarrel over. Socialism has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of Das Kapital, but in an industrial arena comprising a sixth part of the earth’s surface – not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity” (p 8). Thus, Trotsky insists that despite all the bureaucratic deformations, Stalinism’s “development of the productive forces” is progressive because it is laying the basis for a true socialist society; indeed, Trotsky could never escape from the idea that Stalin’s turn towards rapid industrialisation at the end of the 20s was a victory of sorts for the economic programme of the Left Opposition. But the real character of the industrialisation of the USSR must be judged within the context of the world-wide development of the productive forces. The Russian revolution of 1917 had been made on the premise that the world was already ripe for communism. The development that took place under Stalin was founded on the defeat of the first world wide attempt to create a communist society; it was predicated on the necessity to build up a war economy to prepare for the resulting imperialist re-division of the world. Seen in this light, the triumphs of Soviet industrialisation are in no way a factor of human progress, but an expression of the decadence of the capitalist mode of production; and Trotsky’s hymns to the production of concrete and steel are a justification for the ruthless exploitation of the working class.

Worse: the defence of the Soviet Union against world capitalism led to a policy of support for the imperialist appetites of Russian capital, a policy already put in practice in 1929 when Trotsky supported Russia’s dispute with China over possession of the Manchurian railway. As the world moved rapidly towards another war, and as the USSR increasingly took its part in the global imperialist arena, the official Trotskyist position of ‘defending the workers’ state’ would lead the movement closer and closer to the bourgeois camp.

As we pointed out in the article on Trotsky’s death in International Review n°103, the slide towards war led Trotsky himself to pose some very fundamental questions. Within the Trotskyist movement, he was to face further challenges to his notion of the degenerated workers’ state. This time it came not so much from the left but from the likes of Bruno Rizzi in Italy, and in particular Burnham and Schachtman in the US, all of whom developed different versions of the idea that the USSR represented an exploiting society of a new type, unforeseen by marxism. Trotsky was opposed to this conclusion, but his later writings show that he was quite strongly influenced by it, even though – because he was a marxist, and above all a far better marxist than the likes of Schachtman – he understood quite clearly that if a new system of exploitation could arise from the entrails of capitalist society, the whole marxist perspective, and above all the revolutionary potential of the working class, had to be put into question. “Taken to its historic conclusion, the historical alternative appears thus: either the Stalinist regime is an awful setback in the process of the transformation of bourgeois society into a socialist society. Or else the Stalinist regime is the first step towards a new society of exploitation. If the second forecast proved correct, then of course the bureaucracy would become a new exploiting class. However dire this second perspective may appear, should the world proletariat indeed prove itself unable to carry out the mission entrusted to it by the course of historical development, then we would be forced to recognise that the socialist programme, based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, has finally turned out to be a utopia. It goes without saying that we would need a new ‘minimum programme;’ to defend the interests of the slaves of the totalitarian bureaucratic society” (‘The USSR in the war’, 1939).

For Trotsky the outcome of the impending war would be decisive: if the bureaucracy revealed itself to be stable enough to survive the war, it would be necessary to conclude that it had indeed crystallised into a new ruling class; and if the proletariat failed to end the war by making the revolution, then this would prove that the socialist programme was indeed a utopia. Here we can see how Trotsky’s refusal to accept the capitalist nature of the USSR had led him to doubting the convictions that had inspired his whole life.

By the same token, the definition of the USSR as capitalist proved to be the only firm basis for the defence of internationalism during the second world war and its aftermath. The defence of the ‘degenerated workers’ state, coupled with the ideology of supporting democracy against fascism, led the official Trotskyist movement to capitulate directly to chauvinism and to integrate itself into the allied imperialist camp; after the war, it placed Trotskyism in the position of propagandists for the Russian imperialist bloc against its American rival. Those who put forward the theory of a new bureaucratic society soon concluded that western democracy was more progressive than the barbaric regime in Russia - or they simply ceased pretending that marxism had any further validity. By contrast, all the groups or elements which broke from Trotskyism in the 1940s because of its abandonment of internationalism had become convinced that Russia was a capitalist and imperialist state – the group around Munis, the German RKD, Agis Stinas in Greece…and of course Natalia Trotsky, who followed her husband’s political advice and had the courage to re-examine ‘Trotskyist’ orthodoxy in the light of the second world war and the preparations for a third that followed immediately afterwards.


The next article in this series will focus on the position of the Italian left on the Russian question, and will show why it was this current which provided the best framework for finally solving the “Russian enigma”.

1 We have adapted, for our own title, the title of an article written by the French oppositionist Albert Treint in 1933 (‘To unravel the Russian enigma: comrade Treint’s theses on the Russian question’, which was written for the 1933 conference. However, it must be said that Treint’s theory of a new exploiting system, which featured state capitalism, but no capitalist class, only succeeded in creating new mysteries.

2 It is worth noting here Miasnikov’s final statement on the question of the USSR. In 1929, Miasnikov was exiled to Turkey and began a correspondence with Trotsky: despite their deep differences, he recognised Trotsky’s importance for the whole international opposition against Stalinism. He wrote a pamphlet on the Soviet bureaucracy and sent a copy to Trotsky, asking him to contribute a preface. Trotsky declined, because the text argued that Russia was a system of state capitalism and that the bureaucracy was a ruling class. According to Avrich in his essay ‘Bolshevik opposition to Lenin: G.T. Miasnikov and the Workers’ Group’, published in The Russian Review, vol. 43, 1984, Miasnikov’s text shed little light on the process whereby the proletariat lost power and through which the Stalinist bureaucracy consolidated its rule. Avrich also says that “Insofar as state capitalism organised the economy more efficiently than private capitalism, Miasnikov considered it historically progressive”; in a footnote, he adds that Tiunov, another member of the Workers’ Group who was in jail with Ciliga, considered state capitalism to be regressive. Miasnikov’s pamphlet was eventually published in France in 1931, in the Russian language, under the title Ocherednoi obman (The Current Deception). To our knowledge it has not yet been translated into any other language, a task which could perhaps be taken up by the newly emerging proletarian milieu in Russia. The ICC can make a copy of the Russian text available if there are offers to translate it.