Workers’ Fight — the initial group of what is now the AWL tendency — inherited the “orthodox Trotskyist” view that the USSR and the other Stalinist states were “deformed and degenerated workers’ states”. Why did we take so long to move away from that view towards the conclusion that the Stalinist states were in fact a new sort of exploitative class system?
My presentation in a debate we held in 1976 may help explain. We had recently merged with the Left Faction of IS (SWP). They held that the USSR was “state capitalist”, though they rejected Cliff’s specific theory. (In fact, they were unsure. A chunk of them soon split away from us and evolved into the present-day Workers’ Power group, deciding along the way — in response to the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979! — that the USSR was after all a “degenerated workers’ state”).
This is what I said in 1976:
"I take very seriously the section of our 1975 resolution which says that the “deformed and degenerated workers’ state” theory is a working hypothesis only. It is very much that for me.
However, in this debate we are focusing on the USSR. Even on the USSR I would dissociate from... Mandel’s idea of the chief contradiction being between the bureaucracy and the plan.
What is the argument about? It is clear that the bureaucracy is a distinct social stratum, parasitic on the working class, ruling through a police state, unable to plan the economy rationally, and needs to be smashed by a political revolution with wide-ranging social effects. That is agreed. But the argument relates to the possibility of socialism.
State capitalism is theoretically possible. It has happened episodically, e.g. in Egypt. now returning to a private capitalist economy, but only episodically, without a smashing of the old ruling class. The Stalinist states are products of revolutions of one sort or another. and are not episodic. If they are state capitalist. then all these revolutions leading to state capitalism imply substantial new possibilities for capitalism.
Dave Hughes [of the ex-Left Faction] argues against the IS/SWP analysis of the USSR as imperialist, though if the USSR is state capitalist then logically it must be imperialist.
But if state capitalism is a way for China, the USSR. etc. to break out of imperialism, then state capitalism is progressive, and Marxists, not being moralists. should recognise that, and be defencists. Also, that view would imply a revision of the Marxist idea of this being the epoch of proletarian revolution. It would imply a perspective of proletarian revolution only in isolated Paris Commune-type cases.
There is no theory of state capitalism, as Dave Hughes’ exposition made clear. Cliff`s theory is not state capitalist, nor Marxist. Neither Cliff nor Dave Hughes establishes capitalist economic laws of motion. For example Dave Hughes rests his argument that the USSR has been state capitalist since 1928 on its involvement in world trade now. Cliff rests his on competition of use values in arms production, and thus stands Marxist economics on its head.
Cliff tries to cram his model into Marxist categories, but unsuccessfully. In fact he describes a new ruling class, of a new type, controlling one third of the world, with a new form of society. It destroys the whole Marxist perspective. It wouldn`t necessarily follow today as it did for Trotsky in 1939 that bureaucratic collectivism will expand world-wide, because capitalism has expanded since World War 2.
The “deformed and degenerated workers’ state” theory is not very satisfying. But bureaucratic collectivism and state capitalism have added nothing to the “deformed and degenerated workers` state” programme of anti-bureaucratic revolution; thus we can afford to be cautious and conservative about the unclarities of “deforrned and degenerated workers’ state” theory. The process of developing a new theory of society, if we need that. will be long.
We do not need to make a break now to state capitalism or bureaucratic collectivism. We can use the “deformed and degenerated workers state” theory as an “algebraic formula” on the model of Lenin`s formula of “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasant1y”, provided that we keep our political cutting edge on a clear definition of political revolution. A revolutionary tendency cannot live on speculations. It can live with uncertainties if it keeps clear its definition of the political tasks."