Was Stalinism a "third road"?

Submitted by Anon on 13 January, 1998 - 1:18

Your analysis of “the political significance of the debate on the nature of Yeltsin’s Russia and of the USSR” leads us to pose a number of questions.

In the introductory paragraph, you say that “the basic question is not that of a theoretical label for the Stalinist state. It is the question of where we stand in history, the question of knowing where we are in the historical processes of development of the working class and of capitalism”. If we understand correctly, theoretical analysis is useful in your eyes only if it allows us to situate ourselves in the struggles we have to wage. If that is what you mean, it seems correct to us. But what you do mean by “Stalinist state”? All the states ruled by a Stalinist bureaucracy are certainly Stalinist states, but what social reality is there behind them? Is it the same in China, in Cambodia, in Eastern Europe, and in the USSR?

You then justly criticise the analysis made by the LCR of the events of the years 1989-91, in which it saw a “revolutionary upsurge”, which led in its ranks, according to you, to a demoralisation leading it today to envisage abandoning “communist, revolutionary and Bolshevik” references.

Then, if we understand correctly, you attribute the analysis of Voix Ouvrière, then Lutte Ouvrière, to a sort of conservatism of thought, a fear to depart from the reasoning of the Union Communiste, which has become in recent years a “bureaucratic refusal” of discussion. If you are in agreement with refusing to see socialist workers’ revolutions in China or in Yugoslavia, as the “Fourth Internationals” did, you, on the other hand, reject the idea that “the USSR remained a degenerated workers’ state” and that “the East European states and China remained bourgeois states”. You, for your part, never use these characterisations, speaking of the “Stalinist state” in the first paragraph, then “Stalinist regime” in the third, or “Stalinism and capitalism” in the fifth. The characterisation of “degenerated workers’” state for the USSR is false, according to you, apparently because “the bureaucracy has clearly shown itself to be a qualitatively more solid formation than the caste described by Trotsky, which was very unstable and trapped between the USSR working class and Western imperialism”; and that of “bourgeois state” for Eastern Europe and China, because “the Stalinist bureaucracies had thrown out the bourgeoisie and created statised structures following the model of the USSR”. We deduce from your analysis the idea that the USSR, China and Eastern Europe were neither workers’ states nor bourgeois states. But what were they exactly? You do not say clearly. Nor do you say what they are today.

For what you say about Russia today is that it is not a workers’ state, and we agree with you in saying that “it is hard to see what is workers’ about the state”, since “there is no longer a planned economy... no longer more or less completely nationalised industry... no longer any monopoly of foreign trade”. But you deduce from what has happened since 1989 in Russia the idea that long before then, and even in Trotsky’s time, the USSR was already not a workers’ state. And if we understand your analysis correctly, you believe that because we have not seen in recent years any “social counter-revolution”, any “generalised confrontation which might indicate a transformation of a workers’ state (even degenerated) into a capitalist state”. That is why you put that counter-revolution back in the 1930s, which obliges you to add that “Trotsky was cautious in the 1930s”. Why was he cautious? Although you pose the problem, you do not answer it, unless one should think that an answer to the question is provided by your own caution which made you wait “22 years before drawing theoretical conclusions”. You indicate, in conclusion, that it is the “political and theoretical approach of Trotsky” which leads you to think that “the social counter-revolution in the USSR took place in 1927-36”, without giving further explanations.

Perhaps we should find this explanation in the fact that “for a long time now, there has been no Bolshevik party, no Soviets, no communist working-class organisation of any power” as you say when you analyse Russia today. And “the ruling layer remains more or less the same”. You reject the idea — since it leads, according to you, to a “depressed defeatism” — that “a handful of venal bureaucrats could destroy the workers’ state without a struggle”.

Now at the time when Trotsky wrote The Revolution Betrayed, there was then too no Bolshevik party, no Soviets, no working-class and communist organisations, the working class having lost political power, in the course of what can effectively be called a reverse civil war, against the workers and the revolutionaries, in the years 1927-36. But Trotsky still said that “the question of the social character of the USSR is not yet decided by history”. That is the title of a chapter of The Revolution Betrayed in which Trotsky analyses the different possibilities of development of the USSR.

The first one he considers is that “the bureaucracy is overthrown by a revolutionary party... Such a party would begin with the restoration of democracy in the trade unions and the Soviets. It would be able to, and would have to, restore freedom of Soviet parties. Together with the masses, and at their head, it would carry out a ruthless purgation of the state apparatus...” And he adds, still within the framework of this hypothesis, “so far as concerns property relations, the new power would not have to resort to revolutionary measures. It would retain and further develop the experiment of planned economy. After the political revolution — that is, the deposing of the bureaucracy — the proletariat would have to introduce in the economy a series of very important reforms, but not another social revolution”.

Then he envisages a second hypothesis. “If — to adopt a second hypothesis — a bourgeois party were to overthrow the ruling Soviet caste, it would find no small number of ready servants among the present bureaucrats... A purgation of the state apparatus would, of course, be necessary in this case too. But a bourgeois restoration would probably have to clean out fewer people than a revolutionary party. The chief task of the new power would be to restore private property in the means of production. First of all, it would be necessary to create conditions for the development of strong farmers from the weak collective farms, and for converting the strong collectives into producers’ cooperatives of the bourgeois type into agricultural stock companies. In the sphere of industry, denationalization would begin with the light industries and those producing food. The planning principle would be converted for the transitional period into a series of compromises between state power and individual ‘corporations’ — potential proprietors, that is, among the Soviet captains of industry, the émigré former proprietors and foreign capitalists. Notwithstanding that the Soviet bureaucracy has gone far toward preparing a bourgeois restoration, the new regime would have to introduce in the matter of forms of property and methods of industry not a reform, but a social revolution”.

But, you say, if there has indeed been a crisis, there has for all that not been a revolution or a counter-revolution. Trotsky saw a third hypothesis in the development of the USSR, which he explains immediately after the first two. “Let us assume to take a third variant — that neither a revolutionary nor a counterrevolutionary party seizes power. The bureaucracy continues at the head of the state. Even under these conditions social relations will not jell. We cannot count upon the bureaucracy’s peacefully and voluntarily renouncing itself in behalf of socialist equality... it must inevitably in future stages seek supports for itself in property relations... It is not enough to be the director of a trust; it is necessary to be a stockholder. The victory of the bureaucracy in this decisive sphere would mean its conversion into a new possessing class. On the other hand, the victory of the proletariat over the bureaucracy would insure a revival of the socialist revolution. The third variant consequently brings us back to the two first, with which, in the interests of clarity and simplicity, we set out”.

That is what seems to us to take account of what has happened in the USSR. It is not in our view “a handful of venal bureaucrats”, as you say, who are at the origin of the transformations which have taken place in the USSR in recent years. The whole of the bureaucracy is venal, in the sense that its aspirations 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.

That is to say that Trotsky characterised the Soviet state as a degenerated workers’ state, not because of its political form, its leadership, the power of the bureaucracy, but despite that, because that 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.

And if the bureaucracy found a certain stability while continuing to rule a state whose bases had been determined by the expropriation carried after the revolution and the construction on that basis of a planned economy, it was in the framework of a balance of forces on the world scale, where imperialism after the war was confronted with a wave of colonial revolutions, and confronted also, even if the workers’ movement continued to retreat, with a more numerous and powerful working class, and capitalist economic expansion allowing the bourgeoisie a greater stability. It was in that framework that the bourgeois aspirations of the bureaucracy could express themselves more freely, that it was able to enjoy its privileges without feeling the permanent threat of a revolver at the back of the head as was the case up to Stalin’s death, but with such a fear of the working class that it knew it could not allow the workers the smallest freedom of expression, and it could not re-establish private property and thus had to conserve, for its own interests and its own survival, statisation and the planning of the economy.

That stability was moreover criss-crossed by several crises. The period from 1953 to 1964 in the USSR is significant from that point a view — a period when, by way of the crisis which broke out in the leading circles of the bureaucracy following the death of Stalin, reforms were discussed and sketched out in the direction of a restoration of capitalism which as yet dared not speak its name, and quickly withdrawn in face of the danger of a working-class intervention — which the Hungarian revolution, for example, might have sparked off in the USSR itself — as soon as the vice of the dictatorship was loosened. Another crisis was opened by the problem of succession to Brezhnev. In the meantime, the labour movement having retreated further, the bureaucracy had been able to strengthen its bourgeois tendencies, but still in the official framework of the statised economy. The crisis revealed the state of the forces in the field. The working class intervened, but without being able to block the development which led to the re-establishment in law and then in fact of private property.

But revolutionaries cannot take the struggle as determined in advance, as you do unconsciously when you develop the argument, which seems to us truly ridiculous, that “the events of 1989-91 confirmed these conclusions”, that is, that the counter-revolution had been completed since the 1930s, and that in the end Trotsky maintained his characterisation of the Soviet state “out of caution”.

In The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky analysed the situation and the complex nature of the Soviet state to trace and define the perspectives and the tasks proper to revolutionaries in the revolutionary crisis which could result from the upheavals of the coming war. He did not underestimate the depth of the revolution which the Soviet working class would have to make, but he simply indicated that, unlike the working class of the capitalist countries, it would not have to confront or expropriate a bourgeoisie which was solidly implanted because it was based on a petty bourgeoisie defending private property, and strengthened by its links with the world bourgeoisie. Those tasks had already been accomplished in the first months of the revolution, after October 1917, and now it was a matter for the working class of overthrowing the bureaucracy, re-establishing the democracy of the Soviets, and thus retaking control of the whole economy.

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 which never completely disappeared but has been considerably strengthened in the last ten years. It is in that sense that we think that the counter-revolution liquidating the material conquests of October 1917 has been completed in the ex-USSR, or, more exactly, the last phase of that counter-revolution, which had been in progress ever since the workers’ revolution found itself isolated, and the workers’ movement began to retreat from its high point of development in the years 1917-20. It is a process which took several decades, and the course of which could at several points have been reversed — perhaps you will say what you think about this — and that longevity is in our view a proof of the revolutionary capacity of the working class to transform social relations deeply. In the face of the propaganda of the enemies of the working class and of revolutionary politics, it seems to us essential to defend this idea firmly.

We are in agreement on the current situation in the ex-USSR, but your argument which leads you to conclude that the counter-revolution was complete by 1936 is entirely mistaken. That also leads to you to think that what happened in Vietnam or even in Cambodia was the same as in the USSR. For us, there was nothing in common. It remains to define what were the states in those countries, as in China or Eastern Europe, which you call “Stalinist” without specifying what social reality lies behind this term.
We still think that the analysis of those states made by Voix Ouvrière and then Lutte Ouvrière was correct, because there was no intervention by the working class at the origin of those states, and neither was there, as you seem to say, a revolution from above. Neither in China nor in Eastern Europe did the “Stalinist bureaucracies”, the Communist Parties, throw out the bourgeoisie. In China, the bourgeoisie left the country, for the island of Formosa, while in Eastern Europe, in the first period after the war, the bourgeoisies had pride of place in the governments of national unity. After that structures comparable to those of the USSR were put in place in those countries, but that is precisely because of or thanks to the existence of the USSR. China would not have been able to resist the imperialist offensive without the existence of the USSR, even though it had a policy of seeking peaceful coexistence. As for the countries of Eastern Europe, to keep them in its orbit, the USSR had to impose an iron frame to stop them having links with imperialism. Note that the disappearance of the USSR, or even just the possibility of integrating more completely into the imperialist world which the retreat of the workers’ movement gave to the Soviet bureaucracy, led very quickly to the disappearance of these structures everywhere in the world.

To our mind that is a proof that, contrary to what you seem to say, there is no third category of state — “Stalinist state” — beside bourgeois states and workers’ states. If there were, that would mean that there was a third social class — the Stalinist bureaucracy? — which was the bearer of a possible path of development for society. In our view there can be, as the Union Communiste said, only two possible paths for human society: socialism, or the barbarism created by the maintenance of capitalism and private property in the means of production. But is that what you mean? If you will allow us a joke, did you elucidate this problem in the course of your 22 years of reflection?
In conclusion, it seems to us that your argument, in our view false, poses the problem of what the state is without you explaining yourselves clearly on this question. For us, the nature of the state is not determined by its political leadership, however important that may be, but by the property relations, the foundations of the social relations on which it is based. The social relations established by that immense upheaval which was the Russian Revolution lasted, despite the bureaucracy, for decades.

It was the absence of private property in the means of production which was the basis of the development of a planned economy and a powerful and numerous working class without a bourgeoisie developing in parallel. This 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, moreover, we believe that from that point of view, the Russian working class has not said its last word, even if it has not been able to prevent the destruction of the material conquests of the revolution.

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