Cliff's State Capitalism in Perspective — Part 1

Submitted by dalcassian on 7 June, 2008 - 8:38 Author: Sean Matgamna

For the whole article online, click here. For part 1 of it published in three parts, read on.

"A negative slogan unconnected with a definite positive solution will not sharpen, but dull, consciousness, for such a slogan is a hollow phrase, mere shouting, meaningless declamation."


"Sects change their doctrines more readily than they change their names."


"In the terminology of the Marxist movement, unprincipled cliques or groups have been characterized as political bandits. A classic example of such a group is the group known as the ?Lovestoneites'. This group, poisoned and corrupted the American Communist movement for many years by its unprincipled and unscrupulous factional struggles. Able and talented people they had no definite principles. The ?political' programme was always adapted to their primary aim of ?solving the organisation question satisfactorily."

"Their politics were always determined for them by external pressure."

James P Cannon

"Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement."


Even those who had thought themselves beyond being surprised or outraged by the Socialist Workers' Party, experienced a frisson of shock and initial disbelief at the role it has played during the Serb-Kosova-NATO war - that of outright apologist for the murderous Serbian drive in Kosova. Alongside Stalinists who think Milosevic's Yugoslavia (Serbia) a socialist state, confused pacifists, half-demented little Englanders and Serb chauvinists, they were the main organisers of a one-sided pro-Serb 'Anti-War' movement under the slogans: 'Stop the Bombing; Stop the War'. Within that movement, they were, together with the Milosevicite neo-Stalinists, the most determined opponents of concern with the Kosovar Albanians who were then being massacred and uprooted. At meetings all over Britain they fought against committing those present to demanding 'Yugoslavian (Serbian) army out of Kosova', even as a subordinate slogan. Using the style and technique of a 1940s-vintage apologia for the USSR, their pamphlet Stop the War systematically misrepresented everything to do with the build-up to war and the fate of the Kosovar Albanians,

They did not dare say it, but their politics could most clearly have been expressed in the slogan 'Victory to Milosevic'. Meanwhile, in the 'small print', their 'thinkers' - Alex Callinicos in Socialist Worker, for instance - reproduced the bourgeois establishment's line, embodied in the Rambouillet agreement: Kosova Albanian independence would 'destabilise' the region! They had, it seemed, one-and-the-same underlying argument for backing Milosevic as NATO had for bombing him! They did not say that what Milosevic was doing in Kosova was 'all right', or that it 'didn't matter', but they minimised and denied it, sometimes shamefacedly, sometimes boldly. At the NUT conference their leading teacher argued against bothering about the Kosovars on the grounds that they were now only 'history' (see WL55). It was not Hitler's Holocaust, they rightly insisted, but with the obscene intention of making as little as possible of what it was, and of what Milosevic was doing to the Kosovar Albanians.

In a war in which many tens of thousands of Kosovars have been butchered by the Milosevicites, they turned Socialist Worker into a Serb war propaganda sheet, on the political, intellectual and moral level of gung-ho pro-NATO tabloids like the Sun.

The immediate origin of this behaviour is plain and easy to comprehend: they let all other political considerations be devoured by one, negative, idea - 'Against NATO's war'. Where the old pro-USSR Stalinists used to side positively with one bloc, that controlled by the USSR - and today's neo-Stalinists sided positively with the 'socialist' Milosevic - the SWP arrived at positive support for Milosevic by an all-defining negativism: against NATO, no matter what!

They backed themselves, spitting incoherent curses at NATO, into the company of the dark-age Serb imperialists, and turned themselves into vulgar propagandists for Milosevic!

It is, of course, likely that calculations of organisational advantage - winning the favour of the still-numerous Stalinoids in the trade unions - played a big part in what they did. But that has little political or theoretical interest for us. What interests us here is how, from being early advocates of the 'Third Camp' of the working class and the oppressed, the SWP has wound up in the nearest thing to the old Stalinist 'camp' in Europe - Milosevic's. How an organisation that in 50 years has not reconciled itself to the displacement of three-quarters of a million Palestinian Arabs in 1948 (coupled with the displacement of over half a million Jews from Arab countries), which, 50 years on, ludicrously bases its advocacy of the destruction of Israel on the tragic fate of those Palestinian Arabs - would up in this war doing vulgar public relations work for a regime engaged in premeditated mass murder and the uprooting of over 90% of the population of Kosova!

This article will argue that the arbitrary, subjective and wildly zig-zagging politics of the SWP are rooted in, or anyway can be traced back to, the incoherences and mystifications of its bedrock 'position', Tony Cliff's theory of state capitalism. Not to 'state capitalism' in general, but to the arbitrary, subjective, inconsistent and principle-free approach which dominates this group in every sphere and is to be found also in its bedrock theory. It has always, as a political formation, decided its politics arbitrarily, and with an opportunist eye to organisational advantage. An examination of Cliff's basic 'contribution to Marxism' is the best way into this subject.*

I will argue that, on the level of Marxist theory, Cliff's position is an inorganic hybrid of post-Trotsky 'degenerated workers' state' theory and 'bureaucratic collectivism', and that on the level of theory - not of politics, theory - its implications and perspectives have most of the faults of post-Trotsky degenerated workers' state theory.

For the SWP's performance in the Balkan war, the words of Trotsky which we quoted in the last Workers' Liberty, will bear repeating: 'An individual, a group, a party or a class that is capable of ?objectively' picking its nose while it watches men drunk with blood, and incited from above, massacring defenceless people, is condemned by history to rot and become worm-eaten while it is still alive.'
I. The great riddle of the twentieth century

Winston Churchill famously said of Stalin's USSR that it was a conundrum wrapped up in a paradox inside an enigma. The one-time Yugoslavian CP leader Anton Ciliga spent many years as a prisoner of Stalin. An English version of part of his book of memoirs was entitled The Russian Enigma (1940). Its French original was called Au Pays du Grande Mensonge (From the Country of the Great Lie). The great lie was that the USSR was a socialist society ruled by the working class. That lie was supported by a vast network of subordinate lies, misrepresentations, misunderstandings and wishful thinking. The essence of the situation was expressed like this by Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed (1936):

E'The means of production belongs to the state. But the state, so to speak, ?belongs' to the bureaucracy.'

Among anti-Stalinist Marxists there have been three broad groupings of description and analysis of the USSR, with different names: degenerated workers' state; state capitalism; bureaucratic collectivism. Each of the groupings contains many sub-divisions. Two of these names are extensions of bourgeois society. The third, bureaucratic collectivism, sees Stalinism as a distinct new socio-economic formation.

These names denote analyses which all claim to be Marxist. All deal with the same phenomenon. They share many elements of description and analysis. That means that discussion and argument between proponents of these categories too easily becomes an incomprehensible, arbitrary bandying of words and names. This inherent tendency to confusion is made worse by the fact that within each of the 'big three' names for the USSR, many often very different and at root incompatible theories have sought a home.

Worse still, there is much overlapping of substance between some variants of supposedly distinct theories, whose proponents choose to give them different names. In part this arises out of evolutions within different tendencies of analysis that retains a name it should have shed. Thus, for example, the Workers' Fight grouping (a forerunner of Workers' Liberty) had a variant of degenerated and deformed workers state theory, which it saw as rooted in Trotsky's analysis and political attitude to Stalinism, that had, on the level of theory, more in common in most respects - not all - with bureaucratic collectivist and state capitalist theories: its political conclusions - attitude to Stalinist expansion, for example, as for instance in Afghanistan in 1979 - often had more in common with those positions than with the position of most workers' statists. So, on the level of theory, had Ted Grant's theory of the degenerated Bonapartist workers' state. Tony Cliff's version of state capitalism had so little in common with other state capitalist theories, and in its underlying structures had so much in common with bureaucratic collectivism, that Hal Draper described its author's name for it as 'a matter of terminological taste' (See WL49). As we will see below, Cliff also shared, on the level of theory if not politics, most of the essential conceptions of post-Trotsky 'orthodox' Trotskyism.

Thus the argument between labels and name-tags - degenerated workers' state, state capitalism, bureaucratic collectivism - has become an almost incomprehensible babble. How can it be made sense of, translated into accessible terms? To make sense of it you must first break the subject of Stalinism down into the elements of the basic questions and issues to which all the theories in one way or another, give, or imply, answers. Each 'label' - and the many very different theories and sets of politics that are to be found within each label - is an, often arbitrary, composite of such elements and answers. The theories are permutations of the answers to the series of questions posed by Stalinism. Trotsky put it like this in 1939/40:

E'Let us begin by posing the question of the nature of the Soviet state not on the abstractsociological plane but on the plane of concrete political tasks. Let us concede for the moment that the bureaucracy is a new 'class' and that the present regime in the USSR is a special system of class exploitation. What new political conclusions follow for us from these definitions? The Fourth International long ago recognized the necessity of overthrowing the bureaucracy by means of a revolutionary uprising of the toilers. Nothing else is proposed or can be proposed by those who proclaim the bureaucracy to be an exploiting class The goal to be attained by the overthrow of the bureaucracy is the reestablishment of the rule of the soviets. Nothing different can be proposed or is proposed by the leftist critics. The distribution of productive forces among the various branches of economy and generally the entire content of the plan will be drastically changed when this plan is determined by the interests not of the bureaucracy but of the producers themselves. But inasmuch as the question of overthrowing the parasitic oligarchy still remains linked with that of preserving the nationalised (state) property, we called the future revolution political. Certain of our critics want, come what may, to call the future revolution social. Let us grant this definition. What does it alter in essence? To those tasks of the revolution which we have enumerated it adds nothing whatsoever.'

This approach can be broken down further.

* Who rules? The working class? The bureaucracy for the working class? A collective state capitalist class? A 'bureaucratic collectivist' class?
* Can the working class rule socially and economically without ruling politically, that is, without democracy?
* Is the bureaucracy merely 'parasitic' or is it a fully formed new exploiting ruling class? Is there meaning in such a distinction?
* What is the place of Stalinism in history? A historical blind alley?
* Is USSRsociety progressive? Regressive?
* Is the USSR post-capitalist?
* Is the USSRin transition to socialism?
* What are the laws of motion of the USSR economy?
* Is the working class in the Stalinist totalitarian states a proletariat like that of historical capitalism?
* If it is state capitalism, what is the working class socialist perspective?
* If it is bureaucratic collectivism, what is the working class socialist perspective?
* If it is progressive, what political conclusions follow?
* Are we for the defence of the USSR by the international working class?
* Are we for the expansion of the USSR?

These are only some of the questions that were embedded in the disputes about names and labels. The whole discussion within the post-Lenin Bolshevik current, since the '20s, has been an unstable series of permutations of the varying answers to these questions. Let us examine the elements, in Trotsky himself and in those who tried to build on Trotsky's analysis of Stalinism, as did all those in the post-Trotsky Trotskyist currents, whatever label they used, and whatever permutations of the elements they made. But first some essential preparatory points.
II. 1917 and Marxist socialism

Fundamental to Marxist socialism is the idea that socialism is not possible in backwardness. Advanced capitalism brings into existence the social and material prerequisites for socialism - the possibility of an economy which provides abundance for all and thus eliminates that scarcity for the many, to escape from which ruling classes have throughout history raised themselves above the mass of the people. This idea was common to Russian Mensheviks and Bolsheviks alike.

During the Russian Revolution of 1917 they differed on whether the working class should, when the possibility arose, take state power in a backward society. Those who answered yes - Trotsky since 1905, and then, in 1917, Lenin and the Bolshevik Party - did so, not in order to deny the ABC of Marxism: socialism, the Bolsheviks too agreed, was not possible in the backward Russian conditions. In a 1922 postscript to an edition of a work of his from 1915, Trotsky wrote:

E'The assertion, repeated several times in the Programme of Peace ,to the effect that the proletarian revolution cannot be victoriously consummated within a national framework may perhaps seem to some readers to have been refuted by the five years' experience of our Soviet Republic. But such a conclusion would be unfounded. The fact that the workers' state has maintained itself against the entire world in a single, and moreover backward, country testifies to the colossal power of the proletariat, a power which in other more advanced, more civilised countries will truly be able to achieve miracles. But having defended ourselves as a state in the political and military sense, we have not arrived at, nor even approached, socialist society. The struggle for revolutionarystate selfdefence resulted in this interval in an extreme decline of productive forces, whereas socialism is conceivable only on the basis of their growth and blossoming.'

The Russian workers could start; the finish would have to depend on the German, French, British and other workers in advanced countries. So would the fate of what the Russian workers had started. Abnormal circumstances - war, breakdown of the state, the preparedness of the working class and the Bolshevik Party - made it possible for the Russian proletarian to take power. But socialism could not be built: the Russian workers' revolution could not even survive unless it was the first of a chain of revolutions spreading to the advanced countries of Europe. The revolution would become international, or capitalism and the bourgeoisie would be restored in Russia.

On a certain level, the Bolsheviks after 1921, with their New Economic Policy, presided over a limited and controlled 'restoration' of capitalism - under a regime in which the working class, through its Bolshevik party continued to hold political power. Under this 'New Economic Policy' (NEP) in with there was a revival of the bourgeoisie and of rich, labour-exploiting farmers the Stalinist bureaucracy raised itself above society, above the working class and above the NEP small bourgeoisie.

Between 1927 and 1929 they crushed first the working class and then the renaissant bourgeoisie. They destroyed both the left wing and the right wing of the Bolshevik Party. As Trotsky in 1940 summarised what had happened, the bureaucracy 'made themselves masters of the surplus product' of society.

Not only did the Stalinist counter-revolution fail to restore private property, it ruptured the entire framework of the NEP, substituting for it a command economy. With great savagery and an enormous destruction of human life, they forcibly collectivised agriculture. They industrialised at breakneck speed. They subjected the workers to savage exploitation. The labour movement was utterly destroyed. The 'trade unions', no longer working class agencies for self-protection, were made into state agencies for controlling the working class. The bureaucracy extended its tentacles into every nook and cranny of the economy, brooking no competition at any level, however petty.

What, in class terms, was this system? Lenin in 1920 in the course of defending trade unions independent of the workers' state, had called it a 'workers' state with bureaucratic deformations'. Under Stalin, it still seemed to be rooted in the October revolution, as its rulers claimed it was. Indubitably, the working class revolution had cleared the way for it, overthrowing the old order, and establishing working class rule, which the bureaucratic Stalinist counter-revolution had, in turn, by 1930, completely destroyed and replaced by the rule of a bureaucratic 'caste' or class. The key question for those who struggled to understand the USSR was: did the bureaucracy, which maintained and massively extended the property of the state it collectively 'owned', 'represent' a monstrously distorted working class rule ('degenerated workers' state'); did the bureaucracy collectively play the role of the bourgeoisie in history and therefore personify 'capital' and, if it did, did that make the bourgeois-free USSR capitalist? Or did the bureaucracy rule over a distinctly new form of class society ('bureaucratic collectivism')?

Was there, in fact, continuity between the working-class revolution of 1917 and Stalinism? The Stalinised Communist International said there was : this was the Russian revolution triumphantly enduring and developing; its norms and practices were from now on the norms and practices of working class socialism. Old socialist terms and ideas were adapted to radically new meanings that were often the opposite of their old meanings. 'Democracy', for example, came to be used as a name for fascist-like state tyranny. Workers' power was the name given to savage bureaucratic rule over a brutally exploited working class that had less rights than the workers in Britain or France, in fact - no rights at all.

The totalitarian power of the state over society and especially over the working class came to be identified with the rule of the working class over society; prolonged totalitarian state arbitrariness against the workers and the peasants was equated with the dictatorial rule of the working class in 1919 fighting against the old 'entrenched' - in fact now long extirpated - ruling class and its agents. The goal of state collectivism replaced all other considerations. To all pre-Stalinist socialists the class character of economic state collectivism was understood as being determined by which class exercised political power. It was axiomatic collective working class power could not but be democratic. In Stalinised 'communism', these elementary programmatic ideas of working class socialism were replaced by the arbitrary ascription of a working class character to the dictatorship of a 'parasitic' or exploiting minority.

The idea that for real socialism the working class has to take over the achievements of advanced capitalism, that socialism is impossible except as the historical offspring and legatee of advanced capitalism, was replaced with the idea that it was the job of socialism to develop backward parts of the world until they could catch up with and compete with advanced capitalism. This became the dominant idea of what 'actually existing socialism' - as certain ex-Stalinist intellectuals, making their peace with capitalism, would put it in the '70s - was. The idea, rooted in the most basic notion of Marxism, that socialism could not happen from backwardness without 'all the old crap' reappearing, as Marx had written, was simultaneously denied by the Stalinists and proved true by the grotesque bureaucratic parodies of socialism produced by the Stalinists.

The Marxian idea of socialism itself was pulped and internally disrupted in this process. It was poisoned, it is plain at the end of the twentieth century, to such an extent that the old 'socialist' movement would have to die before authentic working class socialism could be reborn.
III. Trotsky

Where Trotsky stood is incontrovertibly clear: The revolution in Russia would - Trotsky had argued from 1905, and after 1917 - either spread to advanced countries, or be destroyed by bourgeois counter-revolution. Until close to the end of his life, believing that Stalinist collectivised property was a horrible mutation of the October revolution, he took it as certainty that outright destruction of 'the gains of the 1917 revolution' would take the form of bourgeois restoration.

The counter-revolution that destroyed the power of the workers was not a bourgeois counter-revolution, but the rise to power of a type of collectivist ruling class which maintained state - their state - property. Trotsky and his co-thinkers such as Rakovsky chronicled the bureaucratic counter-revolution and stage by stage elaborated a working class programme of action against it. From 1933 Trotsky advocated what he would call after 1936, a new working class revolution against the bureaucracy. He called that revolution a 'political revolution', because it would maintain state property; but the measures he advocated - the working class seizure of power, smashing the bureaucratic state and replacing it with a democratic Soviet (Council) working class state, the seizure of the economy out of the hands of the bureaucracy - amounted to a full social revolution. The term 'political revolution' has been the source of much mystification.

Political power - bureaucratic or working class - was seen as central in an economy that was statified and politically controlled and not market regulated. For Trotsky, it was an 'interregnum economy', degenerating from the worker's power of the revolution, but not yet overthrown by bourgeois forces. It retained the potential of being regenerated by way of a new working class 'political revolution'. It was not, in Trotsky's view - and this is central - a degenerated workers' state in stable equilibrium, still less what it became for post-Trotsky workers' statists, a 'degenerated workers' state' in irreversible 'transition to socialism' - but a continually degenerating workers' state. It could not survive or go on degenerating indefinitely. If it achieved stability, as for many decades it did, then a set of new conclusions would be indicated.

Part also of this complex of ideas was the refusal to designate the ruling bureaucracy a ruling class. Trotsky had chronicled and anatomised this bureaucratic ruling group as it developed. Far from his refusal to call it a ruling class expressing softness towards it, or the idea that it 'wasn't so bad', Trotsky compared it, in 1938, unfavourably with (pre-Holocaust) Nazism, from which its political rule differed, he said, only in its 'more unbridled savagery'.

In what, essentially, did the degenerated workers' state character of the USSR consist for Trotsky? His thinking evolved through many stages in the 1930s and in his writings one finds many qualifications, but, irreducably, the survival and extension of the fully nationalised economy was decisive. For Trotsky this could not have come into being without the 1917 revolution. His approach was historical, tracing the evolution and degeneration step by step. The qualitative break, he thought, would come either with the rupturing of the collectivist forms rooted in the revolution and the restoration of capitalism; or, alternatively, with the rupturing of the bureaucracy's political power by the working class, which would then go on to organise a radically different collectivist economy. Not theoretical extrapolation, but the test of war, he would come to say, had to pronounce this system more than an ephemeral freak of history.

That the bureaucracy had all the negative features of the worst ruling class in history was not disputed. For Trotsky, the bureaucracy was a parasitic growth on the continuously degenerating forms of collectivised economy rooted in the 1917 revolution.

Where, for Trotsky, did the USSR stand in the Marxist notion of the historic sequence of class societies? In the west that had been a dialectical progression from ancient slave society, to feudalism, to capitalism. After advanced capitalism, Marxists believed, would come socialism. The USSR was a backward, though developing, annex to world capitalism, under threat of engulfment by the more advanced capitalist world, either by way of military destruction or by the influx of cheaper goods produced by the vastly more productive system of advanced European capitalism, or a combination of both. The idea of the Stalinist state as 'socialism' encroaching from the 'periphery to the centre', in competition with advanced capitalism, Trotsky dismissed in its original Stalinist form - the idea of building 'socialism in one country' - as a foolish totalitarian variant of utopian socialism, fundamentally at odds with both the root ideas of Marxism and the guiding idea of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. He would have accused those of his comrades who, later, propounded the idea that the Stalinist state was 'in transition to socialism' of endorsing 'socialism in one country'.

For Trotsky the USSR's economic forms - collectivised economy and planning, albeit bureaucratic planning - remained post-capitalist, the bureaucratically distorted product of the 1917 revolution, a promissory note for the post-capitalist organisation of society which the Russian working class, in partnership with the workers of the advanced capitalist countries, could develop as a democratically planned economy. Because of backwardness, however, those forms were filled with an antagonistic content. In substance, despite the forms of property and his way of seeing them, the USSR for Trotsky was not post-capitalist in the context of and in relation to world capitalism, and could not be; the very basics of Marxist socialism, of socialism's necessary relationship to capitalism in history, ruled it out.

At the radical heart of this contradictory socio-economic formation, stood the ineradicable antagonism of the bureaucracy with the people, and, in the first place, the workers. Because of this contradiction, planning was vitiated. Democracy, without which rational planning was impossible, was incompatible with bureaucratic rule. Thus the terroristic bureaucrats ruled in the dark by way of a system of planning deprived of popular democratic social monitoring and workers' self-rule. In the early days of untrammelled bureaucratic rule, the Stalinist terror functioned as a crude substitute instrument of control and of monitoring.
IV. Trotsky's picture of the USSR

Trotsky was distinguished in the early 1930s by outright partisanship for the Stalinist regime in foreign policy, upholding one-party rule, and blazing 1920-vintage scorn at its Social Democratic critics. Trotsky's place in the very broad spectrum of non-Stalinist socialism changed steadily through the 1930s and the change is indicative of his evolution.

In 1936 in The Revolution Betrayed he came to Karl Kautsky's position in his formulation quoted above (the state owned the economy, but bureaucracy owns the state). Trotsky dotted the outlines of a plain picture, but refused 'yet' to draw clear lines through the outlined picture. By the mid-1930s, the implacable and unrepentant defender of the USSR regime against Social Democratic and vulgar-democratic critics was scornfully castigating the pro-Stalinist Bauerite social democrats and their ex-Communist International alter ego, the 'Brandlerite' Right Communists, for being apologists and defence lawyers for Stalin and Stalinism - and enemies of the suppressed workers of the USSR. Trotsky was essentially consistent.

Paradoxical though it seems, everything in Trotsky's evolution here was self-consistent.

Two excerpts from concrete descriptions of USSRsociety by Trotsky will show what Trotksy saw as the reality of the degenerated workers' state. The first is from April 1933 (The Theory of Degeneration and the Degeneration of Theory). In USSR history the period was an interregnum between the convulsions of forced collectivisation and the beginning of The Great Terror (December 1934). He links the state with a discussion of inflation and money: like the state, money has a necessary social function. It is a measure of value and means of exchange. Like the state, its role will diminish with social development. It too will finally wither away.

Trotsky examines the nature of Stalinist society from two sides: the state and the economy. His picture does not at all match with the historical and theoretical framework that he insists on. The society he describes is unmistakably a new form of class society, neither capitalism nor socialism, or in transition to socialism. It is what will, at the end of the '30s, be called bureaucratic collectivism.

E'The soviets have lost the last remnants of independent significance and have ceased being soviets. The party does not exist? the trade unions are completely crushed... under the cover of the struggle with the right deviation.

E'The state not only does not wither away... but... becomes ever more openly the instrument of bureaucratic coercion... The apparatus of the trade unions themselves has become the weapon of an ever-growing pressure on the workers'.

Referring to the 'regime of terror against the party and the proletariat', Trotsky asks: 'Where does such a terrible, monstrous, unbearable exercise of the political regime come from?'. He finally answers: 'The intensification of repression is necessary for the defence of the privileged positions of the bureaucracy'.

Trotsky describes the reality of bureaucratic arbitrariness and inflation. 'Money regulated by administrative prices fixed for goods loses its ability to regulate plans. In this field as in others, ?socialism' for the bureaucracy consists of freeing its will from any control: party, Soviet, trade union or money ... Economic planning frees itself from value control as bureaucratic fancy frees itself from political control. The rejection of ?objective causes'... represents the ?theoretical' ravings of bureaucratic subjectivism... The Soviet economy today is neither a monetary nor a planned one. It is an almost purely bureaucratic economy. To support unreliable and disproportionate tempos, a further intensification of pressure on the proletariat became imperative. Industry, freed from the material control of the producer, took on a supersocial, that is, bureaucratic, character. As a result it lost the ability to satisfy human wants even to the degree to which it had been accomplished by the less-developed capitalist industry...

E'From this and from this alone... flows the necessity for the introduction of coercion into all cells of economic life (strengthening of the power of [factory] managers, laws against absentees, death penalty for spoliation of collective-farm property by its members, war measures in sowing campaigns and harvest collections... the [internal] passport system, political departments in the villages, etc. etc.)... The dictatorship of the proletariat withers away in the form of bureaucratic inflation, that is, in the extreme swelling of coercion, persecutions, and violence.

The dictatorship of the proletariat is not dissolved in a classless society, but degenerates into the omnipotence of bureaucracy over society'.

Six years later (June 1939) he wrote in The Bonapartist Philosophy of the State.

Trotsky depicts Stalinism as a system more akin to Dark Age feudalism or to the rigidifying Roman Empire of about 300 AD than to either socialism or capitalism, or anything in between.

E'The realities of soviet life today can indeed be hardly reconciled even with the shreds of old theory. Workers are bound to the factories; peasants are bound to the collective farms. [Internal] Passports have been introduced? It is a capital crime to come late to work. Punishable as treason is not only any criticism of Stalin but even the mere failure to fulfil the natural duty to get down on all fours before the ?Leader'. The frontiers are guarded by an impenetrable wall of border patrols and police dogs on a scale heretofore unknown anywhere? Foreigners [in fact, communists, and especially communist refugees from capitalist police states] who had previously managed to get into the country are being systematically exterminated.

E'The... soviet constitution, ?the most democratic in the world', amounts to this, that every citizen is required at an appointed time to cast his ballot for the one and only candidate handpicked by Stalin or his agents. The press, the radio, all the organs of propaganda, agitation and national education are completely in the hands of the ruling clique... How many have been shot, thrown into jails and concentration camps, or exiled to Siberia, we do not definitely know. But undoubtedly hundreds of thousands of party members have shared the fate of millions of non-party people'. Though the 'official edict' is that 'socialism has been realised', Stalinism has 'brought the state to a pitch of wild intensity unprecedented in the history of mankind'.

Trotsky pictures the life of the 'ruling caste'. In addition to publicly acknowledged salaries, 'they receive secret salaries from the treasuries of the Central Committee or local committees; they have at their disposal automobiles? excellent apartments, summer homes, sanatoria, and hospitals. To suit their needs or their vanity all sorts of ?soviet palaces' are erected'. Trotsky shows that the bureaucrats can pass on to their children, if not property in the means of production, then status and future membership in the elite: the ruling caste 'almost monopolise the highest institutions of learning'.

Trotsky summarises: 'The Bonapartist apparatus of the state is thus an organ for defending the bureaucratic thieves and plunderers of national wealth'. And Stalin is 'the spokesman of privileged parasites. In the land that has gone through the proletarian revolution, it is impossible to foster inequality, create an aristocracy, and accumulate privileges save by bringing down on the masses floods of lies and ever more monstrous repressions'.

Is this strange social system, in which 170 millions of people live, which is neither capitalist nor socialist, a new form of society? But what sort of society?
V 1933: Trotsky discusses state capitalism

People and groups linked to Trotsky's Left Opposition in the late 1920s and early 1930s, denied that the USSR was a working class state and called it state capitalism or what would later be called bureaucatic collectivism. Inside the USSR, the Democratic Centralists, allies and factional comrades of the Trotskyists in the opposition to Stalinism, were state capitalist. Trotsky polemicised against them.

Let us examine Trotsky's polemics against an early '30s ex-Communist International proponent of a theory that Russia was state capitalist, Hugo Urbahns, and against Lucien Laurat, a proponent of a 'bureaucratic collectivist' view. Trotsky separated from Urbahns and the biggest Left Opposition group outside the USSR, the German Leninbund, in 1929 because the Leninbund opposed Russia in the Chinese-Russian conflict over the Chinese Eastern Railway. In 1933, in The Class Nature of the Soviet State, Trotsky dealt in detail with Urbahns' attempt, from within a broadly Left Opposition framework, to interpret the USSR as 'state capitalist'. State Capitalism as the proper classification of the USSR then meant something very different, for everybody concerned, from what it came to mean in Trotskyist circles in the 1940s, in the work of, seriatim, CLR James, Dunayevskaya, Chaileau and Cliff, those theorists of 'state-capitalism' whom readers will know best.

Trotsky, secure in his own concrete analyses and political responses to Stalinism, and in the working class programme of action against it which he and the Left Opposition had elaborated in the previous ten years, in 1933 rejects all 'theoretical and terminological experiments' (all that differ with his own theoretical and terminological experiments - which consist in stretching old terms and existing theory to incorporate new phenomena). He regards attempts other than his own to summarise and conceptualise the USSR's social relationships - which he himself has and will continue to describe honestly - as mere playing with 'terminology'. His concern is, by holding the Stalinist phenomenon in the old framework and the revolutionary perspectives that go with it, to limit the theoretical and intellectual disruption caused by the realities of Stalinism. Trotsky's insistence on doing this until the eve of his death will only complicate and make worse the intellectual and theoretical havoc amongst revolutionary socialists that he is trying to avoid.

Debating with the state capitalism Hugo Urbahns, Trotsky welcomes Urbahns' 'descent' 'from his [earlier] terminological exercise in the sphere of the political superstructure down to the economic foundation'. In 1939 he will 'welcome' Bruno Rizzi's 'clarity' too.

What Urbahns calls 'state capitalism', and Trotsky discusses in 1933, is remarkably like what Bruno Rizzi will call 'bureaucratic collectivism', the discussion of which in 1939 will be the occasion for Trotsky's tentative and incomplete shifting of the entire conceptual framework in which he has so far seen Stalinism. In 1933, by contrast, nothing shifts. 'State capitalism', as discussed by Trotsky, is Urbahns' term for the manifold forms of initiative by existing bourgeois states - Italy, Germany, the USA - to superintend, stimulate and 'organise' the sick capitalist economy, thereby playing a role in economic affairs not know in modern capitalism until World War 1. It was part of the inter-war drift to the neo-mercantilism that divided the world into more or less walled-off imperialist trading blocs. In this world trend Urbahns seeks an explanation for Stalin's USSR.

Trotsky agrees with Urbahns that the trend is real and very important. 'Monopoly capitalism has long since outgrown the private ownership of the means of production and the boundaries of the national state. Paralysed, however, by its own organisations, the working class was unable to free in time the productive forces of society from their capitalist fetters. Hence arises the protracted epoch of economic and political convulsions... The bourgeois governments are obliged to pacify the mutiny of their own productive forces with a police club. This is what constitutes the so-called planned economy. In so far as the state attempts to harness and discipline capitalist anarchy, it may be called conditionally ?state capitalism'.'

Trotsky recalls that the broad use of this term, in 1933, differs from the original Marxist meaning of it: 'only the independent economic enterprises of the state itself'. Now it signifies 'all the varieties of state intervention into the economy; the French use the word etatisme (statification) in this sense'. Urbahns, according to Trotsky, pronounces this 'state capitalism' to be 'a necessary and, moreover, a progressive stage of the development of society, in the same sense as trusts are progressive compared with the disparate enterprises'. But Trotsky thinks Urbahns' appraisal of such capitalist planning a 'fundamental error'. During the historical epoch of capitalist upswing, 'state capitalism' - state enterprises - might act 'to lead society forward and facilitate the future economic labour of the proletarian dictatorship'. The present capitalist 'planned economy' is 'reactionary through and through'.

Describing the drive for national self-sufficiency by, for example, in newly Hitlerised Germany, he writes that 'state capitalism drives to tear the economy away from the worldwide division of labour; to adapt the productive forces to the Procrustean bed of the national state; to constrict production artificially in some branches and to create just as artificially other branches by means of enormous, unprofitable expenditures. The economic policies of the present state - beginning with tariff walls upon the ancient Chinese pattern and ending with the episodes of forbidding the use of machinery under Hitler's ?planned economy' - attain an unstable regulation at the cost of causing the national economy to decline, bringing chaos into world relations, and completely disrupting the monetary system that will be very much needed for socialist planning. The present state capitalism neither prepares nor lightens the future work of the socialist state but, on the contrary, creates for it colossal additional difficulties.'

This description of the destructive work of state capitalism in economics is also an anticipatory full summary description of the 'statism' of Stalinism, and of its real relationship to socialism. Everything said here is 100% true of Stalinism. Trotsky regarded the Stalinist drive to cut international economic links, as distinct from controlling them through the state monopoly of free trade, as downright reactionary.

Trotsky concludes: 'It remains a deep secret what concrete economic content Urbahns himself puts into his understanding of the Soviet ?state capitalism'.'

At noted, this exchange is important in that it essentially covers the same ground as the 1939 dispute about 'bureaucratic collectivism', and in terms of world trends has exactly the same factual basis as the later covering of the same ground, at the start of World War Two. We will see the later Trotsky better in this light.

Trotsky will in 1939 submit the hypothetical idea of world bureaucratic collectivism to the same criticism, but with an important variant.

E'Even if we grant that Stalinism and fascism from opposite poles will some day arrive at one and the same type of exploititive society ('bureaucratic collectivism' according to Bruno R's terminology) this still will not lead humanity out of the blind alley... Even if the various fascist governments did succeed in establishing a system of planned economy at home then... the struggle between the totalitarian states for world domination would be continued and even intensified. Wars would devour the fruits of planned economy and destroy the bases of civilisation...'

But where the 1939 criticism assumes, or concedes, that the various planned economies produce net progress - 'fruits' - in their own countries, except that that progress is annulled by war and international conflict, the 1933 criticism focuses on denouncing the evil effects of the 'planning' in each country. In The Revolution Betrayed and frequently elsewhere, Trotsky contrasts the reactionary economic effects of capitalist partial-statism with the alleged progressive results of Stalinist total-statism. Yet elsewhere again he denounces, and rightly, the excessiveness of Stalinist-statism... 'The monstrous centralisation of the entire industry and commerce from top to bottom... was determined not by the needs of socialism but by the greed of the bureaucracy to have everything without exception in its hands. This repugnant and by no means necessary violence against the economy...' (p.146.) The unresolved contradiction here arises from Trotsky's decision in the early 1930s, once his predictions of speedy collapse of Stalin's forced collectivising and breakneck industrialising 'left course' have been confounded, to attribute the successes of industrialisation to the allegedly proletarian property forms.

The Trotsky of 1933 then discusses variations of what will later be called the theory of 'bureaucratic collectivism'.*
VI. 1933: Trotsky discusses 'bureaucratic collectivism'

This discussion too is very is important for 'tracing' Trotsky's evolution. In 1933, the experience of full-blown 'industrial' Stalinism has been so short that Trotsky's belief that it will, be one way or another, only an interregnum, is reasonable. Trotsky therefore treats 'bureaucratic collectivism' as a notion derived from anarchism and discusses and judges the new phenomenon of Stalinism essentially in terms of the old frame of bourgeois-proletarian class alternatives - the frame which Stalinism is in the process of breaking.

He discusses the view of the Social Democrat, ex-Communist Lucien Laurat that the USSR is 'neither proletarian nor bourgeois' but 'represents an absolutely new type of class organisation, because the bureaucracy not only rules over the proletariat politically but also exploits it economically, devouring that surplus value that hitherto fell to the lot of the bourgeoisie'. Laurat invokes Karl Marx's Capital, but his, says Trotsky, is a 'superficial and purely descriptive ?sociology'.'

Contemptuously, Trotsky equates the Social Democratic 'compilator' Laurat with 'the Russo-Polish revolutionist Makhaisky' who 'with much more fire and splendour' had, over 30 years previously, 'define[d] ?the dictatorship of the proletariat' as a scaffold for the commanding posts of an exploiting bureaucracy'. Makhaisky 'only ?deepened' sociologically and economically the anarchistic prejudices against state socialism'.

Trotsky does not here pause to distinguish between the subject under discussion, the USSR in its Stalinist degeneration, which Trotsky will soon recognise as having been totalitarian 'for several years', and the dictatorship of the proletariat in Lenin's time. But that is just what is at issue between himself and Laurat. Trotsky does not distinguish between the USSR under Stalin and the 'state socialism' - the regime of a profoundly democratic workers' state - in dispute between Marxists and anarchists. It is still an argument about old theories and perspectives.

Marxist politicians and historians had interpreted and tried to shape history. The tragic task of those of Trotsky's generation who survived to the '30s was to rework Marxism in the light of Stalinism and define both Stalinism and their own place in history and in Marxist theory. It was less unreasonable for Trotsky to hold back from doing this in 1933 than it would increasingly come to be - glaringly and increasingly at odds with the facts that Trotsky himself dealt with - as the years wore on.

Trotsky argues with Laurat not about facts, but about the interpretation of agreed facts. Laurat's argument about the bureaucracy's 'uncontrolled appropriation of an absolutely disproportionate part of the national income' is, says Trotsky, based on 'undubitable facts'; but it 'does not... change the social physiognomy of the bureaucracy'. There is a parasitic bureaucracy in every regime. The fascist bureaucracy, 'straddles the boss's neck, tears from his mouth at time the juiciest pieces', is still only a bourgeois hireling. Thus too with the Stalinist bureaucracy. 'It devours, wastes and embezzles a considerable proportion of the national income. Its management costs the proletariat very dearly. In the Soviet society, it occupies an extremely privileged position not only in the sense of having political and administrative prerogatives but also in the sense of possessing enormous material advantages. Still, the biggest apartments, the juiciest steaks and even Rolls Royces are not enough to transform the bureaucracy into an independent ruling class'.

The supposed ruling class, the USSR working class, is not here merely interfered with, as the German ruling class sometimes is by the fascist gangsters who preserve its social rule; it is in every detail of its life the dragooned and slave-driven source of the surplus product, in an economy organised by the bureaucracy and controlled by the bureaucracy. This is a bureaucracy that fills all the roles ever played by any ruling class, and therefore unlike any auxiliary bureaucracy of any previous ruling class. This bureaucracy is, at the very least, the bureaucratic analogue of all previous ruling.

Later Trotsky estimates that the bureaucracy takes half the national income, and that it thereby pauperises the workers. Is not the bureaucracy the ruling class where there is no other elite? In truth, when he answers 'no', Trotsky here is close to mere pettifogging.

There is no other ruling group, no other elite, no competitor for the bureaucracy's place in the social hierarchy. Against this fact, the political and juridical fiction of the working class as ruling class and the supposed roots of the nationalised economy in the revolution are, on the level of theory and 'perspectives', raised by Trotsky to overwhelming preponderance. Meanwhile in practice he draws the necessary revolutionary working-class political conclusions from the USSR working class's real position, and the real - not juridical and formal - relations in the society. With the turn to 'political revolution' he will, in outline at least, draw all the practical conclusions for the anti-bureaucratic struggle; these as Trotsky will say again and again, would not differ seriously were Trotsky to identify the bureaucracy as a new ruling class. For Trotsky, the rest is a matter of defending the theory and the perspective and of warding off conclusions he can still argue are premature and unnecessary.

The bureaucracy, he insists practices 'not... class exploitation, in the scientific sense of the word, but... social parasitism'.

Thus though Trotsky rejects the Stalinist programme of 'socialism in one country', he is nonetheless drawn into its logic, at one remove, by way of his recognition of the USSR as a working class state, degenerated: he accepts its development ('for now') as - not, as the Stalinists said, the development of socialism - but the construction of a society with a socialist tendency.

Trotsky does not dispute Laurant's facts. Instead he appeals to theoretical generalities. 'A class is defined not by its participation in the distribution of the national income alone, but by its independent role in the general structure of the economy and by its independent roots in the economic foundation of society. Each class (the feudal nobility, the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie, the capitalist bourgeoisie and the proletariat) works out its own special forms of property. The bureaucracy lacks all these social traits. It has no independent position in the process of production and distribution. It has no independent property roots. Its functions relate basically to the political technique of class rule. The existence of a bureaucracy, in all its variety of forms and differences in specific weight, characterises every class regime. Its power is of a reflected character. The bureaucracy is indissolubly bound up with a ruling economic class, feeding itself upon the social roots of the latter, maintaining itself and falling together with it'.

But the issue here is whether the Stalinist bureaucracy has become something qualitatively more than previous bureaucracies. Here Trotsky assumes - in effect, simply by using the common word, 'bureaucracy' - that it has not, though he acknowledges elsewhere (Revolution Betrayed) that it has.

The question at issue in the USSR of 1933 is of a bureaucracy that is sole ruler and monopolist in the organisation of this society, combining all the roles of all previous ruling classes. It is sole custodian of the surplus product and organiser of production. On the other side the nominal ruling class, the working class, is designated the ruling class because it is a priori identified with a form of property - yet is it a class which plays the role of all previous subordinate, exploited classes, combining characteristics of slaves, serfs and proletarians. By a series of class struggles which Trotsky fought in and chronicled, the bureaucracy has subjugated the proletariat and worked out the 'special property relations' which Trotsky denies it possesses, namely nationalised property in a totalitarian state which is the bureaucracy's own property.

On the issues as posed by the development of the USSR and by history, Trotsky still only brings to bear the general precepts of Marxism, that is, generalities derived from past history. The 'necessity' or otherwise of the bureaucracy's role in the economy has to be derived from an account of the society as it is; but Trotsky derives it from the general theory of previous societies, using that general theory against the facts he himself has recorded. Such arguments from Trotsky will become additional layers of scholastic dogmatic obfuscation, counterposed to the proper method of Marxism, long after it ceases to be reasonable to do as Trotsky does here in 1933 and regard the USSR as a freakish short-term variant of previous forms.

Between his concrete analyses and descriptions of USSR reality and his programme of working class action against Stalinism, worked out since 1923, on the one side, and his theorising about it, on the other, there is a great gap. After about 1933 Trotsky puts 'theory' on hold. Having declared in 1933 for what he will call 'political revolution' - this will be developed and hardened in the next 3 years - Trotsky entered a theoretical limbo: everything is fixed and frozen on the level of basic theory, while dramatic events unfold on the level of real history, Trotsky, expecting either bourgeois counter-revolution or a new working-class revolution, believes that nothing will change basically as long as nationalised economy remains.

Ven when in The Revolution Betrayed (1936) he articulates a summary description of the USSR remarkable for its clarity and stark truth ('The state owns the economy, but the bureaucracy, so to speak, owns the state.') he draws no conclusions and unconvincingly argues against those who begin to - Carter, Craipeau, Burnham. They are only parallel things: Trotsky's generalising theory is about the past, his analyses and programme of action in the USSR about now. So it will be with Trotsky, despite many shifts within that frame until September 1939. In 1939 in a great rush, Trotsky's long restrained need to theorise and reconceptualise the facts will jump over his head and appear before him as a nightmare possible future.
VII. Perspectives: before World War Two

What, according to Trotsky, were the possible perspectives for the Stalinised USSR? Despite the impressive early economic successes in crude industrialisation, it was a system characterised by convulsive social disintegration, bureaucratic arbitrariness and precipitate decline. Trotsky understood and said (Revolution Betrayed, 1936) that though the bureaucratic economy could assimilate western technology, it could not, in a society without freedom of speech, research or initiative, develop its own self-sustaining advanced technology. It was an inherently unstable and untenable system.

The contradiction between bureaucratic rule and the democratic imperatives of planning was, he thought, increasingly sharp and unmitigable. He thought the Moscow Trials (1936, '37, '38) and the great purges were the beginning of the 'death agony of Stalinism'. Elements of the bureaucracy were crystallising out into a nascent bourgeoisie - what Trotsky called the 'faction of Butenko', after a Stalinist functionary who defected to Mussolini. It was a system in stark and accelerating decline from October, that could end only in either bourgeois restoration or in a new working class 'political' revolution.

It was, it is clear from what he wrote, - in for example In Defence of Marxism - only because he rejected the idea that the Russian system at the end of the '30s was a stable form of collectivist society, that Trotsky rejected the idea that the bureaucracy, though it had all of the worst features of a fascist ruling class, was a fully formed stable ruling class with a necessary role in the economy. It lacked the historic legitimacy bestowed on past ruling classes because they were necessary to that stage of the development of the means of production in humankind's evolution from ape to social self-control in socialism. The Stalinist system could not last, said Trotsky.

Far from having realised socialism, as the idiotic lies of the Stalinist rulers contended; or, as post-Trotsky Trotskyism - and in his own way, as we will see, the 'state capitalist' Tony Cliff - contended, being in transition to socialism, the USSR under the bureaucratic dictatorship was evolving naturally towards catastrophic breakdown. Only a new working class revolution could prevent the restoration of capitalism. The time span Trotsky projected was very short ('in a few months or years').

His refusal to draw conclusions about the ruling bureaucracy as a ruling class was fundamentally and explicitly tied to and dependent on this timescale. In turn Trotsky linked this time scale to empirical tests: if the USSR survived the war.

It was not until the last 11 months of his life that Trotsky publicly developed the theoretical possibility - a tremendous break with the past - that the USSR might prove to be not a freak formation between capitalism and a degenerated workers state but a socio-economic formation 'in itself' - a relatively stable system, a socio-economic formation different from capitalism and socialism; either the barbarous alternative to socialism after the capitalist epoch, or a historical cul-de-sac. This was in The USSR and War (September 1939) and Again And Once More on the Class Nature of the USSR (October 1939).

E'Let me recall for the sake of illustration, the question of Thermidor. [Counter revolution: the reference is to an even in the French Revolution]. For a long time we asserted that Thermidor in the USSR was only being prepared but had not yet been consummated. Later, investing the analogy to Thermidor with a more precise and well deliberated character, we came to the conclusion that Thermidor had already taken place long ago. This open rectification of our own mistake did not introduce the slightest consternation in our ranks.

E'Why? Because the essence of the processes in the Soviet Union was appraised identically by all of us, as we jointly studied day by day the growth of reaction. For us it was only a question of rendering more precise a historical analogy, nothing more. I hope that still today despite the attempt of some comrades to uncover differences on the question of the ?defence of the USSR' - with which we shall deal presently - we shall succeed by means of simply rendering our own ideas more precise to preserve unanimity on the basis of the program of the Fourth International.?Here Trotsky plainly means: if we have to conclude that the USSR is after all a new form of class society, it will be an organic conclusion from what we have done and are doing. By way of concrete description and the elaboration of the concrete revolutionary tasks posed by the reality of Stalinism.

E'Our critics have more than once argued that the present Soviet bureaucracy bears very little resemblance to either the bourgeois or labor bureaucracy in capitalist society; that to a far greater degree than fascist bureaucracy it represents a new and much more powerful social formation. This is quite correct and we have never closed our eyes to it. But if we consider the Soviet bureaucracy a ?class' then we are compelled to state immediately that this class does not at all resemble any of those propertied classes known to us in past; our gain consequently is not great. We frequently call the bureaucracy a caste, underscoring thereby its shutin character, its arbitrary rule? But even this definition does not of course possess a strictly scientific character. Its relative superiority lies in this? the makeshift character of the term? The old sociological terminology did not and could not prepare a name for a new social event which is in process of evolution (degeneration) and which assumed stable forms. All of us however, continue to call the Soviet bureaucracy a bureaucracy, not being unmindful of its historical peculiarities. In our opinion this should suffice for the time being.

E'Scientifically and politically - and not purely terminologically - the bureaucracy represent a temporary growth on a social organism: or has this growth already been transformed into a historically indispensable organ? Social excrescences can be the product of an ?accidental' (i.e., temporary and extraordinary) enmeshing of historical circumstances. A social organ (and such is every class, including an exploiting class) can take shape only as a result of the deeply rooted inner needs of production itself. If we do not answer this question, then the entire controversy will degenerate into sterile toying with words.

E?bureaucratism, as a system, [has] become the worst brake on the technical and cultural development of the country. This was veiled for a certain time by the fact that the Soviet economy was occupied for two decades with transplanting and assimilating the technology and organization of production in advanced capitalist countries? But the higher the economy rose, the more complex its requirements became, all the more unbearable became the obstacle of the bureaucratic regime? Thus before the bureaucracy could succeed in excluding from itself a 'ruling class', it came into irreconcilable contradiction with the demands of development. The explanation for this is to be found precisely in the fact that the bureaucracy is not the bearer of a new system of economy peculiar to itself and impossible without itself, but is a parasitic growth on a worker' state?

The crisis of capitalism is central to Trotsky's way of assessing Stalinism. 'The disintegration of capitalism has reached extreme limits, likewise the disintegration of the old ruling class. The further existence of this system is impossible. The productive forces must be organized in accordance with a plan. But who will accomplish this task - the proletariat or a new ruling class of ?commissars' - politicians, administrators and technicians??

Workers Liberty 1/56

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