Trotsky once compared his conception of Russia as a “degenerated workers’ state” to Lenin’s theory of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”.
The democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry had proved in its broad framework to be wrong. Lenin had postulated an equal alliance of workers and peasants to bring about bourgeois-democratic revolution. Until 1917 he considered a purely workers’ revolution for working class goals impossible in Russia’s economic and social backwardness. It turned out that the only revolution possible in 1917 was a working class revolution. Then Lenin in effect went over to Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution.
Trotsky had predicted that the conservative, negative side of Lenin’s formula would reveal itself in a revolutionary situation. In fact, before Lenin’s return to Russia (April 1917), the Bolshevik Party, led temporarily by Stalin and Kamenev, supported the bourgeois Provisional Government. It took Lenin a sharp fight to reorient the Bolshevik Party toward the working class revolution it would lead seven months later.
In Trotsky’s opinion, if Lenin had died in exile at the beginning of 1917, the Bolsheviks could never have been reoriented in time to stop the victory of a very bloody counter-revolution and the abolition of the possibilities that the October revolution and the Bolshevik Party went on to prove to have existed.
Trotsky, who organised the October insurrection, said that if he had been present in St Petersburg in 1917 and Lenin absent, the revolution would have been defeated. If Lenin had been present and Trotsky absent, the revolutionary workers would nonetheless have won: for despite being wrong in his general formula — democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry — Lenin had focused accurately, the party had grasped the realities of the Russian revolution.
The Bolshevik Party was rooted in the real tasks of educating the workers and separating off the revolutionary workers into a distinct and independent workers’ party.
Despite the confusion that followed the departure of the Tsar and the setting up of a Provisional Government pledged to call a Constituent Assembly, the previous record of the Bolshevik organisation and its habits of mind had allowed Lenin to win a quick and easy victory over those who wanted the party to settle into legality and a long term opposition to a new bourgeois regime.
So, too, with the Trotskyists and Stalinism. They had step by step from 1923 worked out concrete programmes for the workers of Russia, up to and including the advocacy of the armed overthrow of the autocracy. So, what — said Trotsky repeatedly to those who wanted to call Russia a stable anti-working class exploitative state — do you want to add to our concrete programme? They had nothing to add.
Yet, what Trotsky said about the dual nature of Lenin’s slogan of a Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasantry offers a pretty exact parallel for Trotsky’s degenerated workers’ state position. With the survival and expansion of Stalinism in 1941, the negative side of the “degenerated workers’ state” formula came out. Such a position as “unconditional defence of the USSR”, which in Trotsky had one meaning, took on a meaning it never had for Trotsky. It tied the “orthodox Trotskyists” into “critica support" for the foreign policy of the Stalinist imperialist bloc: into being “one-campers” — the Stalinist “degenerated workers’ state” camp. Trotsky himself in his responses to both Poland and Finland deepened the confusion.
There was great irony too in the fact that the "degenerated workers staters" were thereby led to implicit support for a variant of "socialism in one country": to the belief that the "post capitalist", "transitional" system in Russia was stable and could not now be overthrown; that it was successfully competing with capitalism. (We did, of course, continue to advocate working class revolution, and "political revolution against the bureaucracy in Russia...)
But where Lenin could by returning to Russia change things and pull the Bolshevik Party policy in 1917 into line with the new possibilities and the drives of its militant working class supporters, Trotsky died in the struggle with Stalin, leaving theoretical chaos to his comrades from which the movement never recovered. It was, indeed, as if Lenin “had died in Switzerland at the beginning of 1917”.
All that is easy to see looking back: the point is that it was anything but that then. Trotsky had good reasons for holding at he did to the basic perspectives of Marxism — there can be neither a socialism-in-one-country or a “bureaucratic collectivist” system that defeats capitalism from outside. That must be done across the world by the working class within advanced capitalism. In the long run, history has proved Trotsky right: Stalinism was not a viable historically stable system.