Wasn’t it possible to admit that the Russian system was an exploitative class society, but with all the instability, ephemerality, and lack of scope for historical development imposed by the limitations of its competition with capitalism? Logically, yes. In Trotsky’s concrete assessments of Stalinist society, and in his programme for a new working-class socialist revolution in it, he did in effect define it that way.
He wrote of the Russian conquest of eastern Poland as making the people there the “semi-slaves” of Stalin; and declared that “historically, no class in society has ever concentrated in its hands in such a short time such wealth and power as the bureaucracy has concentrated during the two five year plans”.
He refused to express this conclusion in general summary terms. In effect, he refused to accept that it was useful — rather than confusing and disorientating — to categorise Russia as a new form of class society, neither socialist nor capitalist, neither working-class nor bourgeois, other than within a general grounding concept of world history.
In the same way, while plainly admitting that the Stalinist state displayed “the element of ‘imperialism’ in the widest sense of the word”, and elaborating a programme for freeing its victims, Trotsky refused, for fear of confusing issues, to call the USSR imperialist.
To those who insisted on dotting Trotsky’s i’s and crossing his t’s wurhun a neat, sumary, "finished" label, he had by 1939 for long used the argument: all right, if I grant your “terminological” thesis, what does it add to our tasks, to our programme?
“The Fourth International long ago recognized the necessity of overthrowing the bureaucracy by means of a revolutionary uprising of the toilers. Nothing else is proposed or can be proposed by those who proclaim the bureaucracy to be an exploiting ‘class’... Our critics refuse to call the degenerated workers’ state — a workers’ state. They demand that the totalitarian bureaucracy be called a ruling class. The revolution against this bureaucracy they propose to consider not political but social. Were we to make them these terminological concessions, we would place our critics in a very difficult position, inasmuch as they themselves would not know what to do with their purely verbal victory...”
The great tragedy is that Trotsky, removed from the scene by a Stalinist assassin, bequeathed very great confusion.
He continued to insist that in terms of concrete politics, he said everything that needed to be said, and advocated everything that needed to be advocated for a working-class (“political”) revolution against Stalinism. Here he begged the question: why were his own “terminological” innovations — “autocracy”, “Bonapartist bureaucracy”, “degenerated workers’ state” — superior to those he rejected?
It is hardly to be denied that Trotsky — like many post-Trotsky Trotskyists — used the “workers’ state” terminology to anchor a view of the USSR as somehow more advanced than capitalism and to be defended against it — though in fact he shifted and redefined that view until at the end there was almost nothing of substance left in it.
It was also a question of perspectives inside the USSR. Trotsky sees imminent collapse in which bureaucracy, because it is fragile and unstable, will collapse into rival factions. If the Trotskyists ally themselves with the faction defending nationalised property, they can prevail. If they don’t, they put themselves on the margins and may miss the historic political opening. This idea in various forms goes back more than a decade, to when Trotsky defined what he advocated as “reform” — but a reform that would be possible only because the regime would be falling apart in a crisis, that involved radical disruption brought on by the bureaucracy’s bungling shortsightedness.
Trotsky’s reasons for his position, can be schematised thus:
The Russian system was rooted in the working-class revolution. Trotsky did not mystify nationalised property as automatically bestowing a proletarian character on the system. Rather the opposite: the revolutionary working-class origin of the nationalised property bestowed its class character on it, its collectivist, anti-bourgeois-property class character.
“The property relations which issued from the socialist revolution are indivisibly bound up with the new state as their repository. The predominance of socialist over petty bourgeois tendencies is guaranteed, not by the automatism of the economy — we are still far from that — but by political measures taken by the dictatorship. The character of the economy as a whole thus depends upon the character of the state power”.
The working-class character of the nationalised property was defined by the fact that only the working class could have overcome and overthrown the old ruling classes, including the bourgeoisie. “The first concentration of the means of production in the hands of the state to occur in history was achieved by the proletariat with the method of social revolution, and not by capitalists with the method of state trustification”.
Without that proletarian clearing of the way, the bureaucracy that now ruled could not have come into existence, still less have achieved the nationalisation of the economy. That the Stalinists had made a “second” revolution after 1928 did not disprove that, but illustrated it.
To make that “second” revolution in the way they did, they had to overthrow the power of the working class; and what they did was on the basis of the new property system created by the now overthrown working class.
The result was a unique system. That was an aspect of its origins in the proletarian revolution. It could not have come into being other than by way of the workers’ revolution, and nothing like it had come into existence otherwise. That would change, of course, in the 1940s and 50s, but on the facts, to Trotsky’s thinking all through the 1930s, it was fundamental.
The Stalinist system was therefore historically unstable, tentative, provisional, and unable to continue for long. From around 1931 through to his death, Trotsky repeatedly expected the imminent collapse of the USSR regime, and the convulsions of the system gave him good reason for that view.
Counter-revolution would be in terms of the dominant property system in the world — bourgeois private property.
There was no possibility that the Stalinist system — with its roots anticipating the socialist world economy, but operating in a still undeveloped country, where the peasantry still formed a petty-bourgeois sea as the majority of society — could compete with and outstrip capitalism, carving out a new historic road for humanity.
For the same reason that there could be no “socialism in one country” on the edge of a capitalist world, building up in parallel to it, there could be no alternative social system that would compete successfully with advanced capitalism from a position on its margins. Stalinist Russia was not an stabilised exploitative class society, but a freak of history.
The decrepitude and collapsing state of world capitalism from the end of the 1920s had been a major part of the reason why the “natural” thing had not happened, and capitalist property been restored.
Trotsky went through the 30s refusing to see the USSR as a “finished”, “fully-formed” thing, something “achieved” and coherent. It was process, an ongoing process.
This framework did not stop him registering and analysing the “moments” or stages in the process, and elaborating step by step after 1923 a working-class programme for self-defence and self-liberation.
He was wrong only in the time-frame — but in terms of politics that was fundamental. The USSR was incoherent, unfinished, not a fully articulated society. It could not compete with capitalism. The basic laws reasserted themselves. But that would not be for fifty years after 1940.
Trotsky’s time scale was massively inaccurate. He drew straight lines and foreshortened perspectives. The same characteristic is found in the Communist Manifesto and other texts of Marx and Engels, too. It is an occupational hazard in drawing up “perspectives:, in which there must be an integration, a bi-focal coherence, between the long view, and the immediate or imminent situation.
Trotsky rejected the “new class”, “bureaucratic collectivist” conclusions in explicit summary, though he accepted much of their content in substance, because he did not want to confuse the historical perspective.
There is a parallel in method and approach here with his rejection of “conjunctural defeatism”, his description of the approach of Shachtman and his comrades on Poland and Finland.
Trotsky’s writings for the public press on Poland and Finland condemned Stalin fiercely and made no mention of the USSR being any sort of “workers’ state”. They were close to what Shachtman and his comrades argued. But in polemics among the Trotskyists, Trotsky still insisted strongly on keeping the general formula of unconditional “defence of the USSR”.
Trotsky even commented: “We have never promised to support all the actions of the Red Army which is an instrument in the hands of the Bonapartist bureaucracy. We have promised to defend only the USSR as a workers’ state and solely those things within it which belong to a workers’ state...
“In every case the Fourth International will know how to distinguish where and when the Red Army is acting solely as an instrument of the Bonapartist reaction and where it defends the social basis of the USSR...”
“Conjunctural defeatism”? In substance, yes. But Trotsky still insisted against Shachtman on the general formula of “unconditional” defence of the USSR.
It needs to be emphasized that the only conditions, as Trotsky saw it, in which the Stalinist system might become something more than a short-term freakish quasi-class society, was if capitalism itself went into terminal historical decline, if it had reached an impasse and begun to regress into more rudimentary form of society.
That is the alternative that Trotsky posed at the end: that unless the workers soon overthrew the bourgeoisie on a world scale, civilisation would decline, perhaps irreversibly. The Second World War would be one of a series of such wars that would be “the grave of civilisation”, something perhaps like the impasse and collapse of ancient Roman slave society, the decline of the old civilisation and a shift to a mode of production which would operate for a long time on the basis of a lower level of civilisation.