Saturday, 26 January 2008

The Nature of the Soviet State - The Marxist and Subjectivist Analysis

Workers Liberty 3/8 carries a series of articles about the split in the US Trotskyist movement between the Cannonites and Schactmanites. A significant aspect of the disputes leading up to the split was the characterisation of the Soviet Union. Trotsky had characterised the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers state i.e. a state which had come into existence as a workers state, but which had degenerated due to the political supremacy of a bureaucratic elite that controlled the state apparatus, and whose position itself had been created by the particularly unpromising material conditions that the revolution had taken place under. The Schactmanites arrived at a different conclusion. Looking at the reactionary politics of the Stalinist bureaucracy its destruction of an independent workers movement in Russia, and its reactionary politics on the world stage consummated in its alliance with Hitler at the beginning of the World War they concluded that this state could not be a workers state. The issue was not just one of theoretical significance, but one of practical politics. As World War broke out Marxists were presented with the immediate political question of what their attitude to the defence of the Soviet Union should be. Trotsky’s response was clear – for the defence of the workers state, but no support for Stalinism. The Schactmanites were unable to make this distinction between the actual economic and social relations which underpinned the new society, and the political domination of the state by the Stalinists. For them unconditional defence of the Soviet Union necessarily meant accommodation to, if not support for Stalinism. The question is not one of purely theoretical significance for Marxists today either. Cuba along with a number of other states were created in the image of Stalinist Russia. With the death of Castro looming in the near future, and the almost certain attempt by the US to use this opportunity for regime change in that country, Marxists once more are faced with the question of what their response should be. How should Marxists deal with the need to defend the interests of Cuban workers, including the very real gains they have achieved in things like healthcare and education, without at the same time giving any political support for the Cuban Stalinists?

Whatever, Trotsky’s characterisation of the Soviet Union in the 1920’s or even the late 1930’s, or for that matter the characterisation of his wife Natalia Sedova in 1951, the fact is that such characterisations are irrelevant to what the Soviet Union was by the time it collapsed, still less for what Cuba is now. To refer to such characterisations as holy writ is as ridiculous as referring to Lenin’s characterisation of imperialism as though time had stood still. But similarly, referring to Trotsky’s speculation as to what the Soviet Union might become as Sean Matgamna does in his editorial “The Other History of American Trotskyism”, referring to Trotsky’s reference to Bureaucratic Collectivism in “Again and Once More on the Defence of the Soviet Union”, with the implication being that had Trotsky lived he would have become a Bureaucratic Collectivist, is equally irrelevant and misleading. It is like the dispute between Lenin and Kautsky over Imperialism. Kautsky developed a theory of Imperialism, which in the long term has, in my opinion, proven to be more accurate than that of Lenin. But at the time of the debate Kautsky’s position was speculative, whereas Lenin’s was based on the political reality of the time. It made no sense for Marxists to base their politics and practical activity on a speculation of what Imperialism might become 30 years or more down the line. As Lenin often said, “The truth is concrete”. It goes to the heart of Marxism, a theory that starts not from what “ought”, or what “might” be, but what “is”. The first two of these are purely subjective they reflect the ideas and ideals of the individual, their concept of how the world should be. They are necessarily moralistic views of the world. The latter, the Marxist approach has no room for morals, any more than a physicist has a moral view of whether gravity is a good or a bad thing, whether in future it should be more or less powerful than it is now. That does not mean that the Marxist themselves might not hold moral views, any more than does the physicist, it does mean that they are not allowed to impinge on the objectivity of their analysis, an analysis which begins not from a personal view of how things should be, but from a sober assessment of the facts. It is this fundamental difference of approach that marks out Trotsky’s Marxist method of analysis of the Class Nature of the Soviet Union, from the Bureaucratic Collectivist and State Capitalist analyses, which are from their inception based upon subjectivism. It is why, whatever Trotsky’s reservations about the Cannonite regime in the US SWP, he fought so determinedly, until his last breath, against the Schactmanites on this question. And for good reason. Without materialism there can be no Marxism. The subjectivist method is not materialist, it is inherently idealist, it is the ideological standpoint of the bourgeois or petit-bourgeois, and to have allowed the infant Trostkyist movement to be infected with it would have meant to strangle it at birth.

That is not to side with the Cannonites either in terms of the factional dispute, a dispute, which as the history of every other Trotskyist organisation around the world has since demonstrated was to be far from unique. It is a history which necessarily flows from the Leninist conception of the revolutionary party, and which has crippled the Labour Movement for 100 years. It is a conception, which necessarily throws up prima donnas each seeking to build their own organisation often at the expense of building the Labour Movement itself, the very thing that Marx and Engels put all their efforts into, recognising that it is the working class, not some vanguard party, that is the vehicle of socialist revolution.

Philosophy is divided into two main camps. The idealist and the materialist. It is hard for most people today to understand the Idealist conception, so used are we to understanding the world in scientific, and therefore necessarily materialist terms. The Idealist believes that the material world is merely a reflection of the ideas in the human mind. In this view the human being is at the centre of the Universe, and it is no wonder that Idealism is closely linked to religion, because it is simple in this view to put God at the centre of the Universe, for it to be God’s ideas and their unfolding which are the source of the material world we see around us – part of his Plan. Some may be aware of these Idealist concepts from questions such as “Does the tree fall in the forest if there is no one there to see it?” The materialist would answer decisively in the affirmative, recognising that the tree exists in a material world of which Man is merely a part. Logically, Idealism ends up in solipsism – the idea that my mind is the only thing which exists. If everything in the material world is merely a reflection of the ideas in my mind, then other human beings, including my parents are not real but merely aspects of those ideas. No one can exist but me, and what I see of my corporeal self is again just a reflection of my mind. Only my mind can exist. It is a thoroughly reactionary and dead end philosophy, and no wonder that with the advance of science Idealism had to effectively abandon these more fundamentalist beliefs.

Materialism on the other hand takes the existence of a material world for granted, knows it existed before Man existed, will exist after he has disappeared, and is not at all dependent upon Man or what goes on in his head. On the contrary, what goes on in his head is in fact a reflection of what goes on in this real material world. And what goes on in this material world can be analysed and understood. That is because in this world there is cause and effect. Nothing happens without their being a cause for that effect. Some of those causes are themselves the result of the actions of Man. That is history. Marx began from this starting point – historical materialism. In analysing capitalism he did not start from a moralistic objection to the horrors of capitalist exploitation, he did not pick out as crucial to his theory the particular behaviour of the ruling capitalists. He began where his method required him to begin with an objective, honest and clinical analysis of the material world in which he lived, and an analysis of the historical events which had led up to that condition, of the series of causes and effects. He spent decades accumulating all of the facts about this world, and in particular the way in which it produced and distributed its wealth. Only on the back of that mass of facts was he then able to set out how this material world functioned, and how the functioning of this world necessarily created a class of people that owned the means of production, and were thereby enabled to exploit a much larger class of people that had been deprived of them, and how this necessarily lead to conflict between these two classes, and the forms that conflict assumed.

During the 19th century Idealist philosophy took shape in a different form. It still put ideas at the centre, but this was expressed in a different way. The division was apparent in many branches of social science but in Economics and Sociology most markedly. Marx’s Economic Theory like that of all the Classical Economists was thoroughly materialist. Individuals might view different commodities as having different use-values for themselves, might derive more utility from one than another, but this individual subjective value was irrelevant in terms of what the economic value of the commodity was. This economic value was not something subjective differing from one individual to another, but was objective and measurable in the same way that anything else in the material world was measurable. It was measurable because everything that is produced requires labour to produce it, and the producers of this good when they come to sell it will want something that would have required an equal amount of their time to have produced.

But long before Jevons, Bohm-Bawerk and others developed the neo-classical theory of economics Samuel Bailey was arguing a subjectivist theory of his own. Bailey argued that all commodities had only relative values. The value of any commodity could only be measured by how much of another commodity had to be given up to acquire it. And these relations one with another continually varied Bailey argued, and the reason they varied was because the proportion in which the individuals valued or preferred one with another was continually changing. Value was not objective, but subjective determined solely in the minds of men. In “Theories of Surplus Value” Marx disposes of this thoroughly spurious argument, and in so doing disposes of the later neo-classical arguments too. He points out that Bailey merely puts back the question of analysing values by a further step. It is necessary to ask the question what is it that leads the buyers and sellers of these commodities to arrive at these subjective valuations of the products they are buying and selling. They do not come out of thin air. In the end the subjective values themselves are merely reflections of objective values. Gold has a high value because it is rare and requires much labour to find and produce. The producers of gold will not continue to produce it unless the labour they expend in doing so is paid for by the gold being exchanged for a large quantity of other commodities with lower value. In arriving at his valuation of gold the buyer must take into account how much labour he would have had to expend to have acquired it himself, compared to the labour he has expended in acquiring the goods he wishes to exchange for it. The buyer will have to take into consideration how much other buyers would be prepared to give up for it etc.

The reason that this subjectivist theory of economics became dominant, and now constitutes the bedrock of orthodox economic theory is that from the point of view of the capitalist class it fulfils a useful function. It puts the individual at the centre of the economic world reinforcing the individualist ideology of capitalism. In addition if all values are purely subjective then the question of where that value comes from is resolved to the satisfaction of capitalism. If wages are low then it is because capitalists and workers as buyers and sellers value labour-power at that level. Both are happy with the deal. Finally, it obscures the fact that the source of value is Labour, and that profits are only possible because a portion of the value created by Labour is not paid for.

The subjectivist approach is the manifestation of bourgeois ideas. It is an indication of the dominance of those bourgeois ideas, and the infection of the Labour Movement with them, that few even Marxist economists vigorously defend Marx’s Labour Theory of Value. Most pay lip service to the theory, but use orthodox economics, confining themselves to normative analyses with some moralistic condemnation of the evils of capitalism tagged on as conclusions.

Similarly, the subjectivist approach was developed in sociology in the 19th century, notably by Comte. In place of Marx’s starting point being the economic relations of production, and the way this throws up classes depending upon the relationship of these classes to the means of production, the subjectivist approach divides society up by other methods, their social status, function etc., ignoring the fact as did Bailey in relation to economics that all of these aspects are themselves secondary to the primary objective factor of class determined by the relationship to the means of production. Rather as subjective changes in people’s preferences might lead to ephemeral movements in prices that give the appearance that prices themselves are the result of these preferences, so these subjective assessments of social groupings give pointers to ephemeral aspects of behaviour of these groupings. But again it is necessary to separate out the ephemeral from the fundamental. Once again the subjectivist approach fulfils the requirements of bourgeois ideology glossing over the real class contradictions within capitalist society, and replacing it with an analysis based on superficial evaluations of the positions of individuals and groups within society.

An excellent example of the difference between this subjectivist method of analysis and the Marxist method is given by Lenin in his early writings where he takes up the cudgels against the Liberal Narodniks on the question of the nature of Tsarist Russia at the end of the 19th century. The early Narodniks had been radicals based on the struggle of the peasants, and adopting aspects of Marx’s economic theory as part of that struggle. The Liberal Narodniks that Lenin was arguing against were not. They were thoroughly bourgeois in character. They continued to pay lip service to Marx – at the end of the 19th century nearly every intellectual paid lip service to Marx – but their method of analysis was imbued with subjectivism, completely lacking in Marx’s and Lenin’s materialist method. Rather than beginning with “what is”, they began with “what ought” to be the case were Russia really travelling down a road to capitalist development.

The Narodniks wanted to portray a picture of a Russia that was not developing down a capitalist path, but was in fact going down a new historical path, one not envisaged by Marx, though the Narodniks did try to dishonestly use some comments by Marx on the possibility of Russia developing down a route to socialism based on the village communes. The parallels with the debate on the nature of the Soviet Union here are obvious. The main difference of course being that the Narodniks in their subjectivist analysis wanted to paint a picture of Tsarist Russia as developing in a progressive direction, whereas the Bureaucratic Collectivists want to paint a picture of the Soviet Union progressing in an increasingly reactionary direction. Marx raised the possibility of the village communes being used as a basis for socialist construction only if a socialist revolution had already occurred, Trotsky pointed to the theoretical possibility that the Stalinist Bureaucracy could develop into a new class as a straw man to be knocked down, and as a theoretical possibility that could arise only on the back of fundamental further changes in the nature of economic and social relations in the Soviet Union – changes which did not occur.

In a series of pamphlets such as “The Economic Content of Narodism”, “What the Friends of the People Are”, and culminating in his “The Development of Capitalism in Russia”, Lenin mercilessly exposed the subjectivist nature of the Narodniks analysis, and demonstrated by use of the Marxist method of objective analysis the way in which the development of the productive relations in Russia had led to a differentiation in the peasantry increasingly dividing it up into a class of bourgeois that owned the majority of animals, and equipment, that rented land from smaller peasants, and employed workers on its lands, and a larger class of peasants that were increasingly forced to rent out their land because they could not farm it effectively, and who were forced to sell their labour-power in order to survive.

In the same way that the Bureaucratic Collectivists claim that the Soviet Union could not have been a workers state because the Stalinists had transformed property relations rather than the workers themselves, so the Narodniks claimed that where capitalism did exist in Russia it was unnatural and due to it being transplanted on to Russian soil. Lenin exposed both the inadequacy of the Narodniks subjectivist theory, showing that they had completely falsified the real economic relations of production as a result of that method, and that capitalism was developing in Russia’s countryside as a result of its own internal resources just as it had done in the rest of Europe. Some of the causes of that may well have arisen from actions by the State, for example the Emancipation of the Serfs, and the requirement for peasants to make redemption payments in order to effectively buy back their own land, created conditions under which large landlords and capitalists could prosper and speeded up the process of differentiation, but nevertheless a process of capitalist transformation was going on.

Once again the difference between the subjectivist and Marxist methods is apparent. The subjectivist says, our theory says that capitalism looks like, works like this. This is how capitalism “ought” to work, “ought” to look. The Marxist says, “This is how it is.” The truth is always concrete, and as Trotsky once said the Marxist that looks for socialism to be created in accordance with some textbook description is bound to be disappointed.

The Marxist method begins with the facts, begins with the material conditions of production, and builds up from there to examine the social relations that spring out of them that is its fundamental criteria in determining the type of society that it is examining. The ideological, legal and political superstructure arises out of and on the basis of those material conditions and social and economic relations. But there have been many occasions in history when the two have been out of synch one either lagging or sometimes being ahead of the other. Where the political superstructure has lagged behind the social relations, e.g. the continued political dominance of the British aristocracy long after capitalist productive relations became dominant, then either those political relations are brought into conformity as they were in Britain, with a fairly peaceful Parliamentary political revolution symbolised by the 1832 Reform Act and the Repeal of the Corn Laws, or else by a not so peaceful political revolution such as those in France, or else the politically dominant class must destroy the new economic and social relations, throwing the society back to some lower level of development. Such happened with the victory of the Barbarians over the Romans, and with the feudalists of Pol Pot in Cambodia. Something similar could occur with feudalist Islamists though most of them seem tied to sections of the bourgeoisie.

But capitalism offers examples of the converse. Not only did capitalism’s low prices act as the battering ram that broke down all Chinese walls, but capitalist classes themselves used the political power they had in their own state, to transform economic and social relations in other societies. And faced with the challenge of capitalist economic power the Junkers in Germany, Tsarism in Russia, the Mikado in Japan took the lead in transforming the economic and social relations in their own societies. Where the Narodniks misrepresented the actions of the state in Russia, and sowed illusions in the idea that the state could be used, and was being used to promote the interests of the peasants, Lenin exposed the real capitalist nature of that state, and its actions as being those of a capitalist state promoting the interests of the bourgeoisie. The fact that Germany, Russia and Japan were far from being liberal bourgeois democracies did not change one jot the characterisation of the economic and social relations in these societies as being capitalist, and just as the state in Britain had been a capitalist state acting to promote the interests of the capitalist class prior to the reflection of that in the political supremacy of the bourgeoisie, so the states in these other countries were capitalist states too, acting in the interest of the capitalist class, despite the continued political dominance of classes and individuals of a bygone age, and whose continued political dominance acts not to define the class character of the state, but to deform it. The Marxist looks through that deformity, and focuses instead on the objective reality behind it. The subjectivist is transfixed by the deformity, and can look no further. The more obnoxious the deformity the more he is transfixed by it. Such is the case with the subjectivist analysis of Stalinism and the USSR that lies behind the Bureaucratic Collectivist and State Capitalist theories.

Looking at the main tenets of these theories their subjectivist nature becomes apparent.

1. These cannot be Workers States because Workers do not hold state power.

But as set out above there have been many occasions when the economic and social relations that predominate in society do not directly correlate with the needs of the social class that owns those means of production, and is the dominant social class in consequence of them. The British State that presided over the Corn Laws, which were detrimental to the interests of the socially dominant capitalist class, was still a Capitalist state. The Corn Laws, and many other such laws which benefited the old feudal landlord class, were merely a reflection of their political power, a deformation of the state as a capitalist state, not a decisive characteristic of it. The function of a Capitalist State is to promote the conditions under which Capitalist property can be defended, and capitalist economic relations promoted, including acting against those classes that threaten those relations. The function of a Workers State likewise is to defend workers and state property, and to promote those conditions under which such property can develop, including acting against those classes that threaten that property.

In Nazi Germany threatened with the possibility of workers revolution and battered by the economic penalties imposed on it by the Treaty of Versailles the capitalist class were forced to cede political power to Hitler. In the use of state power, and the establishment of a totalitarian state, the Nazis not only smashed the Labour Movement, but also acted against the interests of some sections of the capitalist class themselves – especially if they happened to be Jews. But neither the totalitarian nature of that regime, nor the fact that in some of its actions it acted against the immediate interests of some capitalists changed the nature of that state as being a capitalist state. Yet if we were to accept the subjectivist bureaucratic collectivist argument we would have to conclude that not just the USSR, but Nazi Germany too was a new form of class society.

2. These Cannot Be Workers States because only the working class through its own actions can create socialism.

But the two things are not the same. Socialism is only possible after a long period of transition during which the means of production are transformed, and upon which new social relations and political relations are established. It is absolutely true that this transformation can only be achieved by the working class itself acting consciously to bring about that transformation. It also requires that as part of this transformation of social relations a whole series of other changes in class consciousness occur too. There is no reason why for example a working class could not take hold of the means of production, establish democratic control of those means of production and of society, and then for example, take a democratic decision to expel all Muslims from the country. If you doubt it I can point to a number of Tenants Associations in thoroughly working class areas that have taken similar decisions in terms of who they want living on their estates. Such a society could be a perfectly democratic workers state. It would not be socialist.

A Workers State merely requires that the working class are the dominant class in the society. Even the Bureaucratic Collectivists accept that Stalinism wherever it took control abolished all other social classes, and did so by abolishing the property relations on which those classes were based. By definition if all other social classes have been abolished, then if only by default the working class becomes the dominant social class. In order for this not to be the case the Bureaucratic Collectivists have to prove that the bureaucracy represents not just an excrescence upon the working class, but constitutes a fully formed class in its own right. This they continually have failed to do.

3. These cannot be Workers States because the actions of the Stalinists have been repulsive and reactionary.

But this represents the subjectivist method most clearly. Before Capitalism could develop in Britain it was necessary to create a working class. That was done when the landlord class stole the peasants land through the Enclosure Acts. In Capital Marx depicts the depravity to which this new working class was reduced, Engels spells it out more clearly in “The Condition of the Working Class in Britain”. Capitalists trading in human flesh just as their counterparts in the slave states in the US were doing, human beings ground down in squalor, nine generations of textile workers consumed in the space of the normal lifetime of just three. A Capitalist class that not content with this level of savagery within its own boundaries used its armies to enslave most of the world.

Could there be anything more reactionary? Yet Marx set aside all these moral considerations, and decalred that capitalism was up to that moment the most progressive system the world had ever seen! And of course he was right. Viewed not in terms of the subjectivist and moralist, but in terms of the materialist capitalism despite all that depravity was bringing about the greatest transformation of human potential ever.

It is a clear example of the subjectivist “ought” triumphing over the Marxist “is”. A Workers State “ought” to be like this, as opposed to this particular Workers State or group of Workers States “is” like this, and it “is” like this because of these particular circumstances of history, because of these objective material conditions.

4. The Bureaucracy represent a New Class because they exploit the working Class and hold Political Power.

This is a failure to understand the basics of Marxism. Adam Smith, let alone Marx decried the existence of sections of society such as the clergy, and politicians that effectively leach off the productive sections of society. Every society including a Workers State requires some people that perform duties that are necessary for the efficient functioning of the society, but which are not in themselves productive. By definition such people can only be supported if a proportion of the product of other workers is assigned to them.

The CEO of a large capitalist company is paid in the US 1,000 times as much as the average wages of the workers in that Company. It is almost certainly more than the value of the labour-power that CEO provides. But the fact that this CEO is paid hundreds of times more than he should be does not represent exploitation of the workers. On the contrary if anyone is being ripped of it is the capitalist owners of the Company, whose profits are reduced as a result. The ability of such people to obtain such payments is partly a reflection of the fact that these companies even within capitalist terms are not run very democratically. But the fact that these bureaucrats working for these large companies can obtain these huge payments, and as was the case with a number of companies recently in the US, run them in their own interests rather than the interests of the capitalist owners does not mean that they form a new class of exploiters – though that was the argument put forward by some of those in the Trotskyist Movement, like James Burnham, that first raised the Bureuacratic Collectivist argument, an argument latched on to with gusto by the right-wing subjectivists such as Hayek.

Similarly, the fact that in every bourgeois democracy political power is exercised by professional politicians that run bureaucratic party machines, and rely on full-time Civil Service bureaucrats, sometimes passing laws that are inimical to the interests of the capitalists does not change the nature of these states as capitalist states.

5. The Bureaucrats don’t own the Means of production but they control them.

The bureaucrats that run large western companies don’t own them either in many cases, they often control them because shareholders are dissipated and lack democratic means of exercising control – especially when those shareholders are workers who own the shares through their pension funds etc. Marxists argue that the important determinant of class is relationship to the means of production. A class can only be a dominant social class if it owns the means of production. The definition of a class according to status on the other hand is a subjectivist notion.

The straw man put up by Trotsky in the quote by Sean referred to earlier required a series of other changes to occur in the USSR before the bureaucracy could be transformed into a class. None of those changes occurred. In fact even if the changes Trotsky postulated had occurred the bureaucracy would have become not a class, but a caste. The type of society he envisaged would not have been new, but merely a modern version of something old. A modern version of the Asiatic Mode of Production. Marx described how because of the specific conditions in which they emerged, and the requirement for irrigation on a massive scale, societies in Asia had developed down a completely different path to that of Western Europe. In order to undertake these constructions only a centralised state was adequate, and so societies emerged where the state was the central and driving force in economic activity. (A good discussion of the AMP is given in “Marx and the Third World” by Umberto Mellotti.) A bureaucracy developed that controlled the means of production through the state, and this bureaucracy consolidated into a caste. That is entry into the bureaucracy was limited by birth. In India the Brahmin caste form the highest reaches. In China the various dynasties held that position. But in order for such a social system to function all of this required a set of legal, and religious rules to be established that socialised the society into an acceptance of this as being the natural order of things. No such transformation occurred in the Soviet Union, or other Stalinist states.

Its true that Trotsky spoke of the potential for the bureaucracy to consolidate into such a caste, but potential is not actuality. Capitalism had the potential in the 1920’s to develop into “Ultra Imperialism” and 30 years later it pretty much did, but to base your politics in the 1920’s on that potential was to be completely disoriented.

The reality is that the USSR far from seeing the bureaucracy consolidate into such a caste saw a high degree of social mobility, a natural result of the huge investment in education that primarily benefited the workers and peasants that the workers state undertook as a priority task, alongside the similarly huge investment in healthcare that also mostly benefited the poorest workers and peasants. Even today and despite the huge disadvantages an embattled Cuba has faced it has a much better healthcare system than its rich neighbour. The consequence is that most of those that came into dominance in the state and party structures in the Brezhnev era were not the children and family members of the existing bureaucrats and apparatchiks, they were the children of ordinary, and often poor workers and peasants.

See Sheila Fitzpatrick’s “Education and Social Mobility in the Soviet Union 1921-34”.

and Mary Macaulay “Politics and the Soviet Union” pp 309-10,

or this comment by the US Library of Congress


Sean in his article in WL referred to Trotsky’s comments in “Again and Once More Again on the Nature of the USSR” concerning the theoretical possibility of “Bureaucratic Collectivism. But what exactly was it that Trostky said here? Did Trotsky raise this “theoretical possibility” in terms of it being a likely development. Not at all. Trotsky raised it as a straw man, a device by which to beat over the head once again those that were arguing that the USSR was not a workers sate, that it was some kind of state capitalist, bureaucratic collectivist or non-proletarian state. He sets out the conditions that would need to appertain for such a development. In short those conditions are the extension of fascism internationally, and the further isolation of the workers state forcing a further move to the Right. He spells it out such a perspective is that of thorough pessimism.

But what in fact did history reveal. Not the creation of a new revolutionary party as Trotsky had hoped it is true, but certainly not the extension of fascism, and certainly not the further isolation of the workers state in Russia. On the contrary the end of the war witnessed upsurges of workers militancy. Even in Britain the workers party was forced to the Left, and made large reforms to assuage the working class. And in large areas of the world capitalist property relations were overthrown, and the former exploiting classes liquidated, not by the textbook independent workers self-activity required by the “Kantian idealists” as Trotsky previously described them, but by means of a bureaucratic overturn engineered by the Russian Stalinists, and their counterparts. Indeed such actions, inspired as much by a need to reduce the isolation of the property relations in the USSR as by the bureaucrats desire to expand their own prestige and influence – and the two went together because as Trotsky points out the bureuacracy’s own position was inextricably tied to the property relations of the workers state – demonstrated once again the correctness of Trostsky’s analysis of that bureaucracy its dual nature progressive in relation to defending the property relations established in 1917 – I would argue more correctly 1927 or thereabouts – and reactionary in relation to the world revolution.

But even before those historical events unfolded Trotsky’s position was not that of the pessimists it was that of revolutionary optimism. There is nothing in this one of Trotsky’s last writings on the subject to suggest that had Trotsky witnessed the post-war events he would have had any more time for the subjectivist notions of Bureuacratic Collectivism, no reason to change his analysis of the class nature of the USSR.

    ““Revision of Marxism”?

Some comrades evidently were surprised that I spoke in my article ("The USSR in the War") of the system of “bureaucratic collectivism” as a theoretical possibility. They discovered in this even a complete revision of Marxism. This is an apparent misunderstanding. The Marxist comprehension of historical necessity has nothing in common with fatalism. Socialism is not realizable “by itself,” but as a result of the struggle of living forces, classes and their parties. The proletariat’s decisive advantage in this struggle resides in the fact that it represents historical progress, while the bourgeoisie incarnates reaction and decline. Precisely in this is the source of our conviction in victory. But we have full right to ask ourselves: What character will society take if the forces of reaction conquer?

Marxists have formulated an incalculable number of times the alternative: either socialism or return to barbarism. After the Italian “experience” we repeated thousands of times: either communism or fascism. The real passage to socialism cannot fail to appear incomparably more complicated, more heterogeneous, more contradictory than was foreseen in the general historical scheme. Marx spoke about the dictatorship of the proletariat and its future withering away but said nothing about bureaucratic degeneration of the dictatorship. We have observed and analyzed for the first time in experience such a degeneration. Is this revision of Marxism?

The march of events has succeeded in demonstrating that the delay of the socialist revolution engenders the indubitable phenomena of barbarism-chronic unemployment, pauperization of the petty bourgeoisie, fascism, finally wars of extermination which do not open up any new road. What social and political forms can the new “barbarism” take, if we admit theoretically that mankind should not be able to elevate itself to socialism? We have the possibility of expressing ourselves on this subject more concretely than Marx. Fascism on one hand, degeneration of the Soviet state on the other outline the social and political forms of a neo-barbarism. An alternative of this kind—socialism or totalitarian servitude—has not only theoretical interest, but also enormous importance in agitation, because in its light the necessity for socialist revolution appears most graphically.

If we are to speak of a revision of Marx, it is in reality the revision of those comrades who project a new type of state, “nonbourgeois” and “non-worker.” Because the alternative developed by me leads them to draw their own thoughts up to their logical conclusion, some of these critics, frightened by the conclusions of their own theory, accuse me . . of revising Marxism. I prefer to think that it is simply a friendly jest.

    The Right of Revolutionary Optimism

I endeavored to demonstrate in my article “The USSR in the War” that the perspective of a non-worker and non-bourgeois society of exploitation, or “bureaucratic collectivism,” is the perspective of complete defeat and the decline of the international proletariat, the perspective of the most profound historical pessimism.

Are there any genuine reasons for such a perspective? It is not superfluous to inquire about this among our class enemies.
In the weekly of the well-known newspaper Paris-Soir of August 31, 1939, an extremely instructive conversation is reported between the French ambassador Coulondre and Hitler on August 25, at the time of their last interview. (The source of the information is undoubtedly Coulondre himself.) Hitler sputters, boasts of the pact which he concluded with Stalin ("a realistic pact") and “regrets” that German and French blood will be spilled.

"But,” Coulondre objects, “Stalin displayed great double-dealing. The real victor (in case of war) will be Trotsky. Have you thought this over?”

"I know,"-der Fuehrer responds, “but why did France and Britain give Poland complete freedom of action ?” etc.

These gentlemen like to give a personal name to the specter of revolution. But this of course is not the essence of this dramatic conversation at the very moment when diplomatic relations were ruptured. “War will inevitably provoke revolution,” the representative of imperialist democracy, himself chilled to the marrow, frightens his adversary.

"I know,” Hitler responds, as if it were a question decided long ago. “I know.” Astonishing dialogue.

Both of them, Coulondre and Hitler, represent the barbarism which advances over Europe. At the same time neither of them doubts that their barbarism will be conquered by socialist revolution. Such is now the awareness of the ruling classes of all the capitalist countries of the world. Their complete demoralization is one of the most important elements in the relation of class forces. The proletariat has a young and still weak revolutionary leadership. But the leadership of the bourgeoisie rots on its feet. At the very outset of the war which they could not avert, these gentlemen are convinced in advance of the collapse of their regime. This fact alone must be for us the source of invincible revolutionary optimism!

October 18, 1939.”

Again and Once More Again on the Nature of the USSR

For further discussion of these issues see.

(Debate with USRed – Euston Manifesto)

(The Russian Question)

(The Cuban Revolution Revisited)

(Stalinism and State Capitalism)

(Bonapartism in Venezuela)


David A. Andelman said...

For a great, readable and really exciting book about the Treaty of Versailles and especially its CONSEQUENCES -- particularly the rise of Bolshevism in Europe -- DO have a look at my new book, "A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today" [], available now on Amazon and lots of bookstores !

vngelis said...

This debate has also occurred vis vis China and Russia

Boffy said...

Yes it has though it was more to do with an attempt by Chinese Stalinism to seaparate itself from Russian Stalinism. Having said that, elsewhere I have reviewed the State Capitalist Thesis of Charles Bettleheim, which has some merits in terms of an analysis of property forms within a Marxist framework.

But ultimately I reject his analysis too in that as with all Satte Capitalist theories no matter how much they try to present their analysis within the context of Marxist phraseology in the end in ordser to define property forms and social relations in the USSR as in any sense "Capitalist" state or otherwise, requires a complete mangling of Marxist terminology, and the removal of its historical and class specificity.

Davide Ferri said...

Interesting article, Boffy!
Marxist Greetings from India, Dave,
Delhi University