5. Did Trotsky break new ground on the class nature of Russia in 1939?

Submitted by Matthew on 1 August, 2010 - 10:50 Author: Sean Matgamna

A. At first there is, between Trotsky’s material for the bourgeois press and the Trotskyist public press, and his writings for the internal discussions of the Trotskyist movement, simply a division of functions and levels.

In The USSR In War (25 September 1939) he uses the occasion to review his whole position on Russia, the literary device of a polemical discussion of a book just published in Paris (and banned by the French government for its anti-semitism), ‘The Bureaucratisation of the World by Bruno Rizzi’.

He writes objectively — scientifically, as he would say — and not at all in anxious defence of the “degenerated workers’ state” thesis. In doing so, he now deals a far more fundamental blow to the theory of Russia as a degenerated workers’ state as he has had it than anyone else will in the 1939-40 dispute.

Until now, he had always identified counter-revolution with bourgeois restoration. Now, for the first time, he accepts that the USSR, without a bourgeois counter-revolution or capitalist conquest, and without further “degeneration”, but exactly as it is when he writes, may have to be reconceptualised as a new form of class society. It would be a mere detail what one called such a society, a matter of more or less apt labelling, but in fact Trotsky seems to accept the term “bureaucratic collectivism”.

“If... the present war will provoke not revolution but... the further decay of monopoly capitalism, its further fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy wherever it still remained by a totalitarian regime, it would be necessary in retrospect to establish that in its fundamental traits the present USSR was the precursor of a new exploiting régime on an international scale... [maybe] Stalinism and Fascism from opposite poles will some day arrive at one and the same type of exploitive society (‘Bureaucratic Collectivism’...)...”

“Bureaucratic collectivism” is an alternative way of seeing or interpreting what he sees and interprets. It is another way of summing up the result of the degeneration which Trotsky has traced since the early 1920s, step-by-step elaborating a working-class programme in response to it which grows in social weight to the point where he has advocated a working-class “political” revolution. (Trotsky advocated that in plain words since 1936, and in substance from 1933; but there was also a great deal of “revolution” in the pre-1933 policy which he called “reform”. See the Introduction to The Fate of the Russian Revolution).

b. When members of the SWP-USA criticise Trotsky for what he says about “bureaucratic collectivism” in The USSR In War, taking their stand on dogmatic rejection of the possibility of such a system in the Marxist scheme of history, Trotsky defends his position:

“Some comrades evidently were surprised that I spoke in my article (The USSR in the War) of the system of ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ as a theoretical possibility. They discovered in this even a complete revision of Marxism. This is an apparent misunderstanding. The Marxist comprehension of historical necessity has nothing in common with fatalism. Socialism is not realizable ‘by itself’, but as a result of the struggle of living forces, classes and their parties”.

Such a thing as bureaucratic collectivism is not only possible. To understand it as an undeniable reality may well be necessary, and very soon, in dealing with Stalinism.

“We have full right to ask ourselves: What character will society take if the forces of reaction conquer?... What social and political forms can the new ‘barbarism’ take, if we admit theoretically that mankind should not be able to elevate itself to socialism? We have the possibility of expressing ourselves on this subject more concretely than Marx. Fascism on one hand, degeneration of the Soviet state on the other outline the social and political forms of a neo-barbarism...”

The viewpoint that Trotsky rejects in Again And Once More — that the very idea of “bureaucratic collectivism” is “revisionism”, and conversely that the assessment of Russia as a degenerated workers’ state is basic to “the programme” of the Fourth International — will after Trotsky’s death become the great dogma of the “orthodox Trotskyists”.

c. In terms of “revision of Trotsky’s theory”, Trotsky’s discussion summarised above is the major development in the 1939-40 period during which Trotsky is usually presented as “defending the degenerated workers’ state theory”. In fact, he struck mortal blows at it.

His stated reason for rejecting the idea that the reconceptualisation of the existing USSR should be made now, and indeed should have been made earlier, is not some consideration about the nature of Stalinist Russian society as such, or about the relationship between the working class and the ruling “autocracy”. (He frequently uses the term “autocracy” in the last period, in place of the earlier term “bureaucracy”, as stronger and a nearer approximation to “ruling class” — just as in The Revolution Betrayed (1936), he wrote that “the regime had become “totalitarian” in character several years before this word arrived from Germany”, thus accepting a high degree of similarity between the Hitler regime and Stalinism).

No, his stated reason was to do with the Stalinist regime’s durability.

“Might we not place ourselves in a ludicrous position if we affixed to the Bonapartist oligarchy the nomenclature of a new ruling class just a few years or even a few months prior to its inglorious downfall?”

It was also about the regime’s place in the historical scheme of things, as we will discuss below.

If the USSR was taken as something fixed and stable, then according to Trotsky’s own reasoning it was no less reasonable to classify it as “bureaucratic collectivist” now than to project future developments which would mandate classifying it that way in retrospect.

Essentially Trotsky’s position on the idea that Russia should be classified as an exploiting class society was: “Yes, but not now. Not yet”.

d. In his later polemics Trotsky laid into Shachtman for placing a question mark over the existing analysis of Russia as a degenerated workers’ state without having an alternative theory to offer. Shachtman stayed with the “degenerated workers’ state” view throughout the discussion, and so did a big majority of the minority.

But Trotsky himself, in September-October 1939, had in effect rejected the theory, insisting only on a time-lapse — a further period of seeing what happened — before explicit rejection of the theory and acceptance that the USSR was a new form of class society.

Those in the 1939-40 discussion who were flatly against the theory of the “degenerated workers’ state” were only a small minority of the minority (Burnham, Carter, Draper), who made little impact in the discussion (and a big impact only in the re-telling of the story by such as Draper).

Burnham, the “senior” opponent within the party of the “degenerated workers’ state” theory, was silent on the question. Joseph Carter wrote a little-noticed text. The important “revisionist” in 1939-40 was Trotsky.

e. It took Trotsky more than a month to register the full extent of the partnership-in-plunder nature of the Hitler-Stalin alliance, and to become convinced that Russia and Germany were not about to clash in Poland. He had denied the possibility that the crisis-wracked Stalinist regime revealed by the purges could make expansionary war.

“The Red Army is decapitated. This is not phraseology but a tragic fact... In the ‘purged’ military staff not a single name remains in which the army could place confidence. The Kremlin fears the army and fears Hitler. Stalin requires peace — at any price...” (2 September 1939).

In general, Trotsky would go on to explain Stalin’s real expansionary policy as driven by fear of Hitler and essentially reactive rather than driven by internal motives. He made a pretty thorough assessment in articles such as ‘The Twin Star’ (4 December 1939) but without revising the idea that Stalin in essentials acted on fear of Germany and to pre-empt Germany. This denial of positive goals and initiatives to Stalinism would be widely applied later and become a sort of dogma of post-Trotsky Orthodox Trotskyism — in relation to the Maoists struggle for power in China after 1946, for instance — long after it had become absurd to explain the expansion of Stalinism in such terms.

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