Trotsky’s criteria for a workers’ state

Submitted by Matthew on 31 August, 2016 - 12:47 Author: Martin Thomas

In a thorough study of Trotsky’s writings about bureaucratism and bureaucracy in Russia from 1917 to 1936, US socialist Thomas Twiss has shown that Trotsky’s conceptions changed as he grappled with the unexpected evolutions of the state.

At first Trotsky, focused on his task of leading the Red Army, saw as “bureaucratism” only buck-passing, routinist formalism, departmentalism, sluggishness, especially in economic affairs. In 1922-3, however, Trotsky was gradually won over to Lenin’s concern with “bureaucracy” in the sense of the state apparatus raising itself above the working class, outside the control of the working class, and beginning to serve other interests. As Lenin put it in March 1922: “If we take Moscow with its 4,700 Communists in responsible positions, and if we take that huge bureaucratic machine, that gigantic heap, we must ask: who is directing whom? I doubt very much whether it can truthfully be said that the Communists are directing that heap. To tell the truth they are not directing, they are being directed”.

In late 1923, Trotsky began an open struggle against the “bureaucratic machine”. At first his concern was less that the bureaucracy would serve its own immediate corporate interests than that it would act as a vehicle for the interests of the merchants and richer peasants who had begun to flourish under NEP. It could be a bridge to the restoration of capitalism. Bit by bit, and especially in what Twiss calls a “theoretical revolution” between 1933 and 1936, Trotsky moved towards seeing the bureaucracy as a weighty autonomous force, rising above the social classes — worker, peasant, and petty-bourgeois alike.

Unfortunately, Twiss’s study ends in 1936; even more unfortunately, Twiss rationalises this by claiming that the book The Revolution Betrayed, written between summer 1935 and August 1936, represented Trotsky’s “final theory”, “the one he would continue to uphold until his death in 1940”, “the essential completion in the development of his thinking on… Soviet bureaucracy”. However, Twiss’s careful documentation sheds light on the mystery, which has puzzled Trotskyists for over 75 years, of Trotsky’s changing “criteria” for considering the Stalinist USSR as still a sort of workers’ state.

By 1928, it was clear that in day-to-day terms a privileged bureaucracy, and not the working class, ruled the USSR. The question for debate, as Trotsky put it, was “whether the factual dictatorship of the bureaucracy may be called the dictatorship of the proletariat” in some broader, less-visible, historical sense. Twiss shows that Trotsky started, in 1928-9, with three criteria for answering yes, and between then and 1935 narrowed that down to one criterion. In 1928-9: (1) “The proletariat still possesses powers to exert pressure”; when the working class regained confidence, it could reform the party and state machine. (2) The USSR could cease to be a workers’ state only through a civil war; to think otherwise was “inverted reformism”. (3) Although the “shell” was damaged, the “socio-economic kernel of the Soviet republic” remained: the nationalisation of the economy (p.246-7).

In 1933 Trotsky dropped the “reformability” criterion, but “two of his previous criteria were still intact”. There had been no civil war. Industry remained nationalised (p.343). By 1935, Trotsky was conceding that a “number of minor civil wars [had been] waged by the bureaucracy against the proletarian vanguard”, so “Trotsky’s sole remaining argument was that the ‘social content of the dictatorship of the bureaucracy is determined by those productive relations that were created by the proletarian revolution’” (p.377).

The slippage from “nationalised economy” to “productive relations” was unsound, since Trotsky’s detailed analyses would show that “productive relations” such as relations between boss and worker in the workplace, or the flow of the surplus product, were more like those of a brutal and backward capitalism. But Trotsky’s “economic” criterion remained fairly constant to the end. In an article of 1943, included in The Fate of the Russian Revolution volume 1, and mentioned by Twiss, Max Shachtman argued that in the 1930s Trotsky “alter[ed] his criterion radically from what it had previously been”. Earlier his criterion was whether “the working class [was]... still capable of bringing a straying and dangerous bureaucracy under its control by means of reform measures”. Then Trotsky’s argument became “so long as nationalised property remained more or less intact, Russia still remained a workers’ state”.

Shachtman argued, rightly I think, for a plain criterion: empirically-observable working-class political power (even if muffled, distorted, skewed). He censured Trotsky’s shift. No wonder: to “win” an argument about the class nature of the state by changing criteria midway is no better than “winning” a football match by suddenly declaring that only balls in a particular part of the net count as goals for the other side. And Shachtman could have cited a dozen Marxist classics to deny that a nationalised economy was necessarily socialistic or worker-ruled.

Twiss’s picture of a narrowing-down from three criteria to one is gentler, but still seems to damn Trotsky. Had Trotsky really forgotten the pre-1914 Marxist classics? If the last criterion, of nationalised economy, was sufficient, why mention the other two in earlier arguments? When Trotsky cited three criteria, did he mean that a state must meet all three to be a “workers’ state”? If not, why mention the inessential criteria? The shift of criteria, I think, was subtler. In the 1935 text, Trotsky wrote that when an aberrant bureaucracy rules in a capitalist market economy, still “bourgeois relations develop automatically”, so to some degree the bureaucracy serves them willy-nilly. There is no such economic compulsion in a socialistic economy. “In contradistinction to capitalism, socialism is built not automatically but consciously. Progress towards socialism is inseparable from that state power which is desirous of socialism or that is constrained to desire it” (emphasis added).

For Trotsky, what defined the USSR as a workers’ state (of sorts) was not nationalised economy in abstraction, but the fact that “the state power” (so he argued) had been “constrained to desire socialism” at least to the extent of retaining, against the pressures of world capitalism and incipient bourgeois forces within Russia, the nationalised economy created from the workers’ revolution. “The social revolution, betrayed by the ruling party, still exists in property relations and in the consciousness of the toiling masses”.

He was making a judgement about “the state power” on the evidence of economic relations, not deducing the character of the state power automatically from economic relations. In 1928, Trotsky had argued for reformability. But what did he mean by it? And what evidence could he cite for it? The Bolshevik oppositionists had all been exiled by Stalin and denied vote or say. Trotsky cannot have meant “reform” in the commonplace sense of working established political channels for piecemeal changes which eventually add up to the desired transformation. For a while he interpreted Stalin’s “left turn” of 1928-9 as reflecting pressure from the working class and the Opposition, and thus showing fluidity; but he was always clear that ”turn” was far from the “reform” he wanted. Essentially, he foresaw a crisis in which the bureaucrats would be unable to cope, would lose their cohesion, and would be forced to bring the oppositionists back from exile and concede them influence. It would be a “revolutionary” sort of reform. “Reformability” of that sort was not a direct empirical observation.

The claim of “reformability” depended on a theory about future crises which, in turn, depended on a claim about limits to the consolidation of the bureaucracy. That there had been no civil war was an argument to support the claim about limits. And the immediate evidence of the limits (for Trotsky) was the continuation of nationalised economy. The oppositionists of the 1920s assumed that the first wish of the bulk of the bureaucracy, would be private capitalist restoration. The continuation of a basic economic framework from the revolutionary years was evidence for the continuation of a sort of “passive workers’ power”.

After 1933, thinking about the series of “political revolutions” and counter-revolutions in France which followed the great social revolution of 1789-94, Trotsky modified “reformable” to “capable of being redressed by only political revolution” not full social revolution. At first, but less and less as time went on, he also claimed that “the interrelations between the bureaucracy and the class are really much more complex than they appear to be to the frothy ‘democrats’… So long as [there is no revolution in Western Europe] the proletariat with clenched teeth… ‘tolerates’ the bureaucracy… When the proletariat springs into action, the Stalinist apparatus will remain suspended in mid-air… [required against it will be] not the measures of civil war but rather measures of a police character”. There was a common thread in all Trotsky’s shifting criteria: that the bureaucracy’s rule was not cohesive and consolidated, that its counter-revolutionary work was still limited, that the system had not “jelled”. In some sense the apparatus had been “constrained to desire” socialism.

As Trotsky’s analyses developed over the later 1930s, the distinction between “political” and “social” revolution became increasingly notional. The argument about nationalised economy became increasingly a circular one, in which the “workers’” character of the nationalised economy was supposed to be defined by the redressable (“workers’”) character of the state, and the “workers’” character of the state by the nationalised economy. The argument about the bureaucracy being not a coherent class, but a awkward coalition of bourgeois-restorationist tendencies and groups still residually connected to the working class, became more and more a tenuous supplement to a baseline picture of it as a cohesive and independent “oligarchy”.

In The Revolution Betrayed (1936), Trotsky described the bureaucracy as the “sole privileged and commanding stratum”, using “totalitarian” methods against the people with “a deadly similarity to fascism”. But then he declared again that the USSR remained a workers’ state not from an “automatism of the economy” but because the bureaucracy “continues to preserve state property... to the extent that it fears the proletariat”. As late as May 1940, Trotsky wrote of the Stalinist nationalisations (of only scanty industry, and with the aim only of securing the revenues to the Kremlin) after invading eastern Poland as “the strangled and desecrated October Revolution serv[ing] notice that it was still alive”.

Trotsky overstated both the economic impasse of capitalism and the economic successes of Stalin in the 1930s. He feared that recognising the bureaucracy as a fully-formed new ruling class would compel recognising Stalinism as a viable and more-or-less stable successor to capitalism and thus pushing aside socialist perspectives. Contorted but temporary hypotheses seemed preferable. The contortions became more contorted as the Stalinist terror escalated. By the time of Trotsky’s death, they had become unsustainable. Trotskyism broke into two distinct strands, each continuing a different thread of Trotsky’s thinking.

Twiss’s book is a clear and well-documented guide to the first stages of Trotsky’s reasoning about the nature of Stalinism. It is a pity that he stops in 1936.

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