Nationalisation does make a workers’ state
A reply to Galia of Voix des Travailleurs (Workers’ Voice)
In Workers’ Liberty No 44 you write that: “The longevity of the social bases created by the October Revolution is in our view a proof of the immense progress that can be established by the revolutionary intervention of the working class.”
And that the, “…bureaucracy could only exercise its power and be parasitic on the whole of Soviet society by adapting itself to the property forms which had come out of the proletarian revolution and the radical expropriation of the bourgeoisie. It was not that it did not want to get rid of those forms earlier, just the opposite, but that it was prevented from doing so by the fear which it had of an intervention by the working class.”
Also, that now, after the restoration of capitalism in Russia: “Today we can say that the Russian working class will have to carry out a much more deep-going revolution, against what we can now call a bourgeoisie which is in the course of developing a thousand links with foreign capitalist groups, and which also finds a base inside the country in a petty bourgeoisie.” [Emphases all mine.]
In short, that the Stalinist bureaucracy was a less formidable enemy than a bourgeoisie; that it was constrained by fear of the workers to adapt itself to proletarian property forms; that, despite everything, its long rule showed progress resulting from the workers’ revolution. Its ultimate crime was its “aspirations [which] at all times have been bourgeois, aspirations to privilege, and, if it had been able to do it before, to establish those privileges by the re-establishment of private property.”
But the idea that the Stalinists somehow deserved the last vestige of our respect because they owed their Zils, their special shops, their schools, their freedom to travel when workers could not, etc., to the maintenance of state property and “opposition to capitalism” (which was often in large part just disguised Russian nationalism) is false.
In fact, in your guts, you hate the Stalinists as much as you hate the capitalist bosses, and not just because you think all along, what they really wanted to be doing is driving around in Rolls Royces, going to board meetings, and selling stocks and shares.
The disgust we should feel for the bureaucrats is not that they aspired to be real bourgeois. Disgust for fur coats, diamonds, etc., while people starve is natural but it’s not the essence. The essential crime of the bureaucrats is that they were riding on the backs of the workers all the time and wearing the cloak of socialism to do it.
They did not adapt themselves to the nationalised property — they adapted the nationalised property to themselves.
A nationalised economy does not equal a workers’ state. A workers’ state means democracy, economic and political. Nationalisation is not self-sufficient. Without workers’ rule, nationalised property does not lead to social equality. It doesn’t lead to workers’ control over the surplus product.
The Stalinist economy was not the product of 1917. It was the product of the 1930s.
Stalinism is just as abhorrent to workers as capitalism, or more so, albeit in different ways. It probably doesn’t make much difference in the long run if you are a worker in the Gorbals or Gdansk. You might always have a job under Stalinist systems, but it will always be a horrible, dirty one and the surroundings drear and drab — and you would not even have the minimal civil liberties and trade union rights you would have in the Gorbals.
Against Stalinism, workers needed a revolution as deep-going as against capitalism. Capitalism is the tougher enemy, with better tools of ideological and social control? But the police state, and the atomised Soviet society, though brittle, did not allow workers’ self-activity, degraded it, did not allow workers experience of organising. History says the Stalinist state was at least as formidable an enemy for the working class as a capitalist state.
In the history of the 20th century there has been a third way — and it was Stalinism. It was not a way forward, but a blind alley, a detour, now closing. But it was a fact. You assert, however, that humanity has only two choices: socialism or capitalism (barbarism). And since there has only ever been one socialist revolution, we are in some way obliged to defend the country where it took place, long after that revolution has been defeated.
“A proof of the revolutionary capacities of the working class to profoundly change society”? We usually say, “for the better”. Why wasn’t it for the better? The history is, on the contrary, a proof that the Bolsheviks were correct in 1917 that if there weren’t a revolution in the West, they were doomed, and soon.
Defend the October Revolution? Yes, but be clear what we’re defending. And given the misery of Stalinism — with the world to win — you say so much more if you defend the revolution in spite of the outcome. People have to dare to think big! You have to learn from the defeats, but you have to try. But do learn from the defeat! Don’t pretend it was a big success.
The highest level of the workers’ revolution was 1917-20… and how high it was! And since then?
If the impetus from the revolution fades as the workers demobilise after 1917-18 — and you agree it did, or you would be saying that there was no need for a political revolution — and if a collectivised economy, industry, etc., could be built without political or social freedom for the workers… well, who was doing the pushing? A new ruling class? If it was all downhill from the 1920s — and it was — how far downhill? At the end of the process, the USSR was the second world superpower. The top of the graph? No, the gutter!
Although it is the epoch of capitalism, the last epoch before socialism, other historic abortions are possible.
Barbarism? Both capitalism and Stalinism have given us barbarism.
There are different forms of barbarism. If you stress the good in Stalinism to distinguish it from capitalism, you are downgrading what is barbaric. There are good things in capitalism as well! You don’t do the working class any favours to talk up Stalinism or talk down the good aspects of democratic capitalism.
Yes, we do believe that the “social reality” was the same in the USSR and the other eastern bloc countries before the collapse of Stalinism. We call that reality “Stalinist states”.
Of course, they were very different countries, with different geographies, different histories, different social forces, but in those things which for us define the state to which they give rise — they were the same.
The systems of organising production and the social relations were essentially the same: nationalised economies “owned” and run by more-or-less totalitarian bureaucracies, with police regimes and the workers deprived of all political and trade-union rights.
You say, rightly, that the revolutions in Cuba and Yugoslavia were not workers’ revolutions, therefore you call them “business as usual” capitalist states. But then why did they have the same “property forms” that in your view defined the USSR as a workers’ state? And was there no social change going on when Poland joined NATO and when it and other ex-Stalinist countries applied to join the EU?
Countries like Poland are undergoing enormous changes — to become what you say they have been all through 1944-5? We say that they were… Stalinist states with Stalinist methods of production and Stalinist social relations.
Clearly it is absurd to do as the “orthodox” neo-Trotskyists did and hail the rise of workers’ states which were created not by but against the workers. But it is equally absurd to insist that the only Stalinist state on earth was the USSR. If we mean to convince workers to make a revolution, it is particularly perverse. As if we must insist that only workers’ revolution can give rise to something as abhorrent as Stalinism!
You believe with us that only working class revolution can bring socialism. It helps that we can point to countries like China, Vietnam, Poland, Cuba and say: here are countries where Stalinism (so-called socialism) held sway and it was not the product of working class revolution. Stalinism is the opposite of workers’ revolution not its distorted continuation.
Yes, Trotsky called the USSR a “degenerated workers’ state” in spite of the bureaucracy. It was a provisional description when he expected the working class to do away with it soon and to restore the October revolution — or bourgeois counter-revolution to come. Now, add 50 years to all the bureaucratic horrors — the gulf absolutely gapes and yawns, and millions of broken bodies are lying in the bottom of it.
It cannot be in deference to the views of Trotsky alone that you call the Stalinist USSR a workers’ state, because if you were to believe in all his assessments and perspectives for the ‘30s and ‘40s… that would leave you upholding, against all the contrary evidence, that, “The USSR will be able to emerge from a war without a defeat only under one condition, that is if it is assisted by the revolution in the West or in the East.” [The Fourth International and the Soviet Union, 8 July, 1936]
Trotsky could be wrong. And if he was wrong in this assessment couldn’t he also be wrong in his view that the Stalinist bureaucracy had not yet become a new ruling class?
In 1936 Trotsky wrote that the USSR had been totalitarian (fascistic) since about 1928 — correcting his early argument that the bureaucracy maintained roots in the working class. In 1935 he conceded that the decisive “Thermidor”, the extinction of the Bolshevik party as a party, had come in 1923-4 — though in the mid-1920s he had considered it still a live party.
If Trotsky had lived to see the explosion of Stalinist imperialism after the battle of Stalingrad, could he not have corrected himself again and concluded that the bureaucracy had become a ruling class in what you yourself call “a reverse civil war, against the workers and the revolutionaries, in the years 1927-36”?
Why was Trotsky “prudent” in the 1930s? Because he didn’t want to close off options and harden conclusions when he saw everything in flux, on the eve of war, of new revolutions. If he had been “prudent” after his perspectives had been proved wrong and events had unfolded as they did, that would have been not prudent but dogmatic. Or do you think Trotsky couldn’t change his mind?
He could be wrong. He argued, for example, that the USSR was like a trade union that had taken state power. So were the workers exploiting themselves? If an organisation called itself a “trade union”, but its leaders seized all the surplus value produced by the members, put them in labour camps, and were their slave-driving bosses every day in the factories, we would say: this is no trade union!
What was Stalinism? We didn’t spell it out in the documents you cite. Our common programmatic position is that the Stalinist states were exploitative class systems, broadly parallel to capitalism in the development of the productive forces, and historically a blind alley within the epoch of capitalism.
Some of us would call them “bureaucratic collectivism”; others, a form of “state capitalism”; yet others, a unique system without a consolidated mode of production. We debate these theoretical issues in our magazine.
Why did Stalinism collapse? Because it was a blind alley. Because the bureaucrats could not drag their economies to a higher technical level.
Capitalism works better to develop the productive forces at that level. But it didn’t always appear thus — and for crude, basic industrialisation Stalinist slave labour produced results, especially with socialist, anti-capitalist and nationalist rhetoric.
When you blame the bureaucracy for the restoration of capitalism you don’t answer the question: how did they manage to do it? The whole bureaucracy managed to do away with the “workers’ state” — at a time when, after 1989, the USSR workers had more chance to exercise their social weight than at any time since the early 1920s.
Why didn’t the working class try to resist them? Why did they embrace capitalism? Or, rather, the democratic “western” way of life? The workers identified the system as belonging to the bureaucrats. They saw bourgeois democracy as offering more industrial democracy in the workplaces — trade union freedoms — and the chance for anyone to become a petty-bourgeois! It offered more chances to the individual than Stalinism. We can tell them that socialism offers more than money-grubbing petty bourgeois individualism ever can. We cannot tell them that Stalinist slave-driving offered anything better.
What was worth defending in a “degenerated workers’ state” that so hamstrung the workers, and made capitalism so alluring a prospect? The label “collective property” is not enough. It’s not self-sufficient. Nor should it be. That “collective property” was a way of exploiting and oppressing the workers as effective as property relations under capitalism.
Calling Marxism into question
(the VDT replies)
I shall try to answer your text, although it is difficult to do so because you talk to yourself by ascribing to me words that I never said. I don’t really know what “the Stalinist bureaucracy would be a lesser enemy than the bourgeoisie” means. As for the idea that in a way the Stalinists deserve our respect, I’ll simply send you back to Trotsky whose ideas you distort with very little respect indeed. He fought against Stalinism without having recourse to that moral indignation which is your main argument, but from the workers’ point of view and that of its struggle for its emancipation. You think you fight against it — now that it has collapsed — but, to my mind, you do so from a simply democratic point of view. And quite naturally and logically you come to question his ideas.
Even then, you shouldn’t misrepresent them! You first mistake his militant approach on the eve of WWII for a forecast and then, his prediction having proved wrong, you say that it was Trotsky’s mistake! At this rate, Marx, in the Communist Manifesto, was also mistaken in placing his struggle in the perspective of a workers’ revolution which would not take 50 or even 10 years to break out. As for the analogy Trotsky makes between the USSR and a union to show the necessity of defending the USSR against imperialism despite the fact that workers can only loathe the Stalinist bureaucracy, as they can only defend the unions even if they have every reason to hate the union bureaucracy, you obviously misunderstand it.
Or then you seem to have no quarrel with the union bureaucracy despite the fact that it does everything it can to smother the workers’ democracy and find a place within the framework of bourgeois society in return for the services it does to the bourgeoisie against the working class. But I might be mistaken, it’s a deduction, but your reasoning leads to that.
Similarly, to stay on the moral ground you seem so fond of, I think that you endow capitalism with quite a number of virtues when you declare that “the positive aspects of capitalist democracy” should not be disdained. You seem to forget that democratic rights were imposed by the working class on the bourgeoisie who in France, for example, granted those rights to the workers only 80 years after its revolution, thanks to the Paris Commune it had just crushed. It is only thanks to its struggles that the working class managed to impose its organisations on the bourgeoisie, and it is only because the bourgeoisie knew it would never manage to destroy them, that it, or at least the section of it which made enough money out of the slavery of colonial peoples, found preferable a parliamentary democracy whose politicians and union bureaucrats it buys. As for democracy in Russia today, even the journalists of the bourgeois press are ironical about it. There are indeed a number of so-called free trade unions, alongside the official ones, but as far as we know, they openly claim their liking for the free western trade unions of Germany or America.
It didn’t take the workers of the former USSR much time to lose their illusions — if they had any — about what the re-establishment of capitalism might bring. There have been struggles, but fragmented and ineffective ones, for want of revolutionary perspectives. The fact that they have not been able to prevent capitalist restoration cannot be an argument to appreciate the nature of the Soviet State. For if it was, capitalism would be far more progressive since it hasn’t been overthrown yet! But the bureaucracy didn’t have to be overthrown, it transformed itself into a bourgeois class, as Trotsky had imagined it might in the Revolution Betrayed, in 1935, at a time when it had already largely carried out a bourgeois counter-revolution, without being able, for all that, to get rid of the state property upon which the planned economy had been built. Which proves it isn’t a class, merely a monstrous intermediate and parasitic body. The idea of a third road ending up in a blind alley is so absurd that you can hardly deny it!
You throw back into question Trotsky’s whole reasoning, not just a part of it he would have had at the end of his life, not just mistakes he would have made then out of caution, but his entire struggle against Stalinism, the irreplaceable struggle to save Marxism from destruction. And behind that lies the calling into question of Marxism, which isn’t based on abstract or even moral categories but on social facts, on real class relationships. You haven’t crossed the line, and I hope you won’t, but your reasoning leads to that.