In 1988, the Socialist Organiser Alliance, a forerunner of Workers’ Liberty, at its annual conference, officially dropped the “degenerated and deformed workers’ states” description of the USSR and similar systems which we had inherited from “Orthodox Trotskyism”. It categorised these states as exploitative class systems not superior to capitalism.
There was a lengthy discussion before and after the conference about more detailed descriptions. The debate encompassed discussion on a number of different theories as to the class nature of these states. Probably a majority thought that the USSR and the Eastern Bloc could be described as “bureaucratic collectivist”. A minority adhered to varied of “state capitalist” analyses. Another minority sympathised with Hillel Ticktin’s thesis of the USSR as a “non-mode of production”. And some disagreed with dropping the “degenerated and deformed workers’ states” tag.
The organisation had long questioned what “defence of the USSR” and “nationalised property” actually meant. Sean Matgamna would say in a speech to Socialist Organiser’s National Editorial Board in 1987: “Essentially, I haven’t thought the deformed and degenerated workers’ state theory was feasible for six or seven years. The problem is, what do you replace it with?” Sean would go on to look at Trotsky’s writing on the subject and those of his critics, notably Max Shachtman. It would be some years before you could really describe Workers’ Liberty as encompassing other aspects of the “Shachtman tradition”.
The serious re-evaluation of post-Trotsky Trotskyism that this work involved is shown in The Fate of the Russian Revolution volumes 1 and 2. Alongside a more detailed explanation the conference declared: “The ruling state-monopoly bureaucracies are distinct ruling classes. They have many peculiarities and differences from other ruling classes, but nevertheless they are self-reproducing ruling classes with a distinct relation to the means of production and to the working class.
“Nationalised property alone cannot define a social formation as a workers’ state. The vast experience of different sorts of bourgeois states since Trotsky’s time makes this clear, even if the use of nationalised property against the working class in the Stalinist state-monopoly societies had not already done so. Nationalisation is a means to an end — working-class liberation. It cannot bring progress towards that end under the rule of a bureaucratic state-monopoly class system. “The working class and its allies in the bureaucratic state-monopoly societies must make a new revolution which will, in fact, be as thorough-going as the revolution that the workers in a country like Britain will have to make.
“The bureaucratic state-monopoly systems cannot be considered in any sense transitional form capitalism to socialism. In many fundamental respects they are further from socialism than advanced capitalist countries are — most importantly, in their uniform and systematic suppression of the working class, without whose activist socialism is impossible and will never be achieved anywhere. The state-monopoly societies emerge in various ways as parallels to capitalism, not as its successor. They have many of the unmistakeable features of historical blind allies. “Socialists in the west must support the working class in the state-monopoly systems in its attempts to organise a free labour movement — support it irrespective of the ideas of such a movement, which, as Solidarnosc shows, develop pro-market-capitalist views in response to the horrors of the state-monopoly system.
“Socialists in the west must support the movements for national independence in the state-monopoly systems.
“We are opening a discussion. Many questions about the nature of Eastern Bloc remain unanswered. We will continue the discussion in an open and undogmatic way.”
The very next year the East Europe regimes fell; by 1991 the USSR was no more. Our attitude to this question was not an esoteric hunt for programmatic dogmatism but, as a September 1988 editorial in Socialist Organiser said: “Our concern is first and foremost to develop an exact, concrete assessment of the workers’ struggles and the bureaucracy’s operations in the Eastern Bloc, and to fight for a programme for workers’ liberty East and West.”