Trotsky and the Materialist Analysis of Stalinism by Dave Bruce

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04/01/2016 by socialistfight

Marxism, Ideology and Literature (Critical social studies)
Dave Bruce’s piece was originally written to rebut Cliff Slaughter’s position
This essay comprises edited extracts from a polemic written in the late 1980s in the course of one of those spats with which any veteran of the left is drearily familiar. It is now nearly two decades since the Soviet Union and its east European satellites reverted to capitalism, Stalinism’s heyday has gone, the groups involved have long-since dissolved and most of their members have quit political activity. So why revive and revise the piece now?

For no other reason than that I was approached out of the blue for a copy, a request I was reluctant to fulfil because it meant revisiting territory I had happily abandoned and because I couldn’t find the thing. When I did eventually find it, it was clearly far too parochial to interest anyone now.

Trotsky nevertheless remains an important political thinker not least because China and North Korea remain in the grip of regimes that share characteristics with the Soviet Union’s. He is still required reading for emerging generations of political militants. If, therefore, serious mus-interpretations of his thinking persist, it seems reasonable to try to correct them.

What I found when researching the original version of the following text was that few, if any, of those who had sought since Trotsky’s death to develop an anti-Stalinist critique to inform political agitation seemed to grasp a key aspect of his analysis of the Soviet bureaucracy: the notion that a bureaucratic and administrative state apparatus could not be an agent for the emancipation of an oppressed class regardless of its political composition. Rooted as the analysis was in the historical materialist approach, it saw the social role of bureaucracy, its position within the mode of production, as primary and its political characteristics as secondary. His followers have typically reversed this.

The first part of the essay outlines Trotsky’s writings on the contradictory role of the bureaucracy from 1933 onwards. The second argues that his analysis extends the ideas of Marx on the aftermath of the overthrow of a capitalist regime. In the third, I suggest that, after his death, his ideas became blurred in a welter of in-fighting and confusion about dual ‘natures’ and the like. It became apparent on re-reading the record that a false conception of his position, going back at least as far as the SWP’s fight with the Cochran-Clark group in the early 1950s and probably earlier, has informed the understanding of both sides of almost every divide in the Trotskyist movement since.

In short, the essay is an attempt to set the record straight. Whether it succeeds or even matters is for others to decide.

Dave Bruce, May 2010


The original text has been edited for cumbersome syntax though not substantially altered except that the names of contemporaries and lengthy but long irrelevant polemical points have been deleted. Comments in [square brackets] are new.

Trotsky and the Materialist Analysis of Stalinism

                                                                                                                        1. Trotsky on the dual role of the bureaucracy and of the workers’ state                                                                 

… Instead of Marxist discussion of the concrete changes which have taken place in the Soviet state (in its economic, political and legal institutions and in the inter-relationships of classes in the country) during the period of its existence, the capitulationists have opened a metaphysical discussion about the ‘nature’ and ‘essence’ of the dictatorship of the proletariat in general. They have become like metaphysicians, scholastics and sophists, tilting at theoretical windmills, a practice against which every page and line of Marx, Engels and Lenin rise up in opposition… Rakovsky [1]


“Trotsky never referred to the ‘dual nature’ of the workers’ state, the bureaucracy or anything else… What he did write about was the dual role, the dual function of the workers’ state and the bureaucracy, more or less interchangeably.”

It cannot be over-stressed that, in spite of widespread claims to the contrary, Trotsky never referred to the ‘dual nature’ of the workers’ state, the bureaucracy or anything else. As a complex of institutions comprising millions of people, it would be absurd to talk of a ‘dual nature’ of a bureaucracy. On the contrary, in The Transitional Programme, he had written:

. . . from genuine Bolshevism (Ignace Reiss) to complete fascism (F. Butenko). The revolutionary elements within the bureaucracy, only a small minority, reflect, passively it is true, the socialist interests of the proletariat. The fascist, counter-revolutionary elements, growing uninterruptedly, express with even greater consistency the interests of world imperialism . . . Between these two poles, there are intermediate, diffused Menshevik-S.R.-liberal tendencies which gravitate toward bourgeois democracy. [2]

What he did write about was the dual role, the dual function of the workers’ state and the bureaucracy, more or less interchangeably. And that was no accident: the bureaucracy had usurped the state, leaving the working class no role or function within it. The Marxist conception of the workers’ state assigned the role of defence of the state and of control of its bureaucracy to the working class, organised in Soviets. The capacity of the class to perform this role had been portended by the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871 and, to a degree, proved by the early experience of post-revolutionary Russia. However, under the appallingly difficult conditions of the first, backward and isolated workers’ state, the working class surrendered the role. By the mid-1920s, if Trotsky is to be believed, the Thermidorian reaction had occurred and the bureaucracy had become the state.

In January 1921 Lenin had noted that:

… A workers’ state is an abstraction. What we actually have is a workers’ state with this peculiarity, first that it is not the working class but the peasant population that predominates and, secondly, that it is a workers’ state with bureaucratic distortions. [3]

Nevertheless, despite the overwhelmingly reactionary nature and counter-revolutionary methods of the bureaucracy, Trotsky argued that the workers’ state had not lost its progressive character in historical terms. In The Class Nature of the Soviet State (October 1933), he wrote:

… Nine-tenths of the strength of the Stalinist apparatus lies not in itself but in the social changes wrought by the victorious revolution. Still, this consideration alone does not decide the question, but it does bear a great methodological significance. It shows us how and why the Stalinist apparatus could completely squander its meaning as the international revolutionary factor and yet preserve a part of its progressive meaning as the gatekeeper of the social conquests of the proletarian revolution. This dual position – we may add – represents in itself one of the manifestations of the unevenness of historical development.’ [4]

… We call the Stalinist apparatus centrist precisely because it fulfils a dual role; today, when there is no longer a Marxist leadership and none forthcoming as yet, it defends the proletarian dictatorship with its own methods but these methods are such as facilitate the victory of the enemy tomorrow. Whoever fails to understand this dual role of Stalinism in the USSR has understood nothing. [5]

The role of the bureaucracy… is a dual one: on the one hand, it protects the workers state with its own peculiar methods; on the other it disorganises and checks the development of economic and cultural life by repressing the creative activity of the masses, it is otherwise in the sphere of the international working class movement where not a trace remains of this dualism; here Stalinist bureaucracy plays a disorganising, demoralising and fatal role from beginning to end.

A year later, in December 1934, he wrote in The Stalinist Bureaucracy and the Assassination of Kirov that:

… As regards the USSR, the role of the bureaucracy, as had already been said, is a dual one: on the one hand, it protects the workers state with its own peculiar methods; on the other it disorganises and checks the development of economic and cultural life by repressing the creative activity of the masses, it is otherwise in the sphere of the international working class movement where not a trace remains of this dualism; here Stalinist bureaucracy plays a disorganising, demoralising and fatal role from beginning to end. [6]

A chapter called The Dual Role of the Bureaucracy notes that:

The role of the Soviet bureaucracy remains a dual one. Its own interests constrain it to safeguard the new economic regime created by the October Revolution against the enemies at home and abroad. This task remains historically necessary and progressive. In this task the workers of the world support the Soviet bureaucracy without closing their eyes to its national conservatism, its appropriative instincts and its spirit of caste privilege. But it is precisely these traits that are increasingly paralysing its progressive work. [7]

Trotsky began writing The Revolution Betrayed in the summer of 1935, completing it in August of 1936. In the chapter called The Dual Character of the Workers’ State, he writes:

The state assumes directly and from the very beginning a dual character – socialistic insofar as it defends social property in the means of production, bourgeois insofar as the distribution of life’s goods is carried out with a capitalistic measure of value and all the consequences ensuing therefrom. [8]

Concluding the previous chapter, he had noted that:

. . . before taking up the dual role of the ‘socialist’ bureaucracy, we must answer the question – what is the net result of the preceding successes? [9]

adding later:

The progressive role of the Soviet bureaucracy coincides with the period devoted to introducing into the Soviet Union the most important elements of capitalistic technique. [10]

The following year was a difficult time for Trotsky: hounded out of Norway by its ‘socialist’ government, he arrived in Mexico at the height of the Moscow Trials. Nonetheless, when he testified to the Dewey Commission, he answered cross-examination on his attitude to the Soviet Union with customary care. Testifying in April 1937, he said:

… The Soviet state was created by the proletarian revolution which set up the proletarian dictatorship. The proletarian dictatorship has as its objective to defend new forms of property, the collective property. And the proletarian dictatorship signifies politically the proletarian democracy. But the factors of the backwardness of the country, the isolated position of the Soviet Union and the defeats of the proletariat in other countries changed the situation in this sense, that the state has become a bureaucratic one and this state has now . . . a dual function.

It defends the new form of property against the capitalist class and the capitalist enemies and it applies the new form of property in the interests of the bureaucracy. With the Left Opposition, we declared many times we will sustain Stalin and his bureaucracy in every effort it makes to defend the new form of property against imperialist attacks. At the same time we try to defend the new forms of property against Stalin and the bureaucracy, against inner attacks against the new form of property. That is our position. [11]

In 1937, he wrote an article perhaps less well known than The Class Nature of the Soviet State or Revolution Betrayed called Not a workers’ and not a bourgeois state? In some ways, the formulation is even more clear. It is worth quoting at length:

The function of Stalin . . . has a dual character. Stalin serves the bureaucracy and thus the world bourgeoisie – but he cannot serve the bureaucracy without defending the social foundation which the bureaucracy exploits in its own interests. To that extent does Stalin defend nationalised property from imperialist attacks and from the too avaricious layers of the bureaucracy itself. However, he carries through his defence with methods that prepare the general destruction of Soviet society. It is exactly because of this that the Stalinist clique must be overthrown. [12]

  and later:

…This means that even the most revolutionary bureaucracy is to a certain degree a bourgeois organ in the workers’ state. Of course, the degree of this bourgeoisification and the general tendency of development bears great significance. If the workers’ state loses its bureaucratisation and gradually falls away, this means that its development marches along the road of socialism. On the contrary, if the bureaucracy becomes ever more powerful, authoritative, privileged and conservative, this means that in the workers’ state the bourgeois tendencies grow at the expense of the socialist – in other words, that inner contradiction which to a certain degree is lodged in the workers state from the first day of its rise does not diminish, as the ‘norm’ demands, but increases. However, so long as that contradiction has not passed from the sphere of distribution into the sphere of production and has not blown up nationalised property and planned economy, the state remains a workers’ state.

The organ of the rule of the proletariat – the state – becomes an organ for pressure from imperialism (diplomacy, army, foreign trade, ideas and customs). The struggle for domination, considered on a historical scale, is not between the proletariat and the bureaucracy but between the proletariat and the world bourgeoisie. The bureaucracy is only the transmitting mechanism in this struggle.

In its capacity of a transmitting mechanism in this struggle, the bureaucracy leans now on the proletariat against imperialism, now on imperialism against the proletariat, in order to increase its own power. As the same time it mercilessly exploits its role as distributor of the meagre necessities of life in order to safeguard its own well-being and power. [13]

It used to be common when discussing this issue to refer to a quotation from Trotsky’s 1940 polemic From a Scratch to the Danger of Gangrene but, oddly, not always in full:

 … In its present foreign as well as domestic policy, the bureaucracy places first and foremost for defence its own parasitic interests. To that extent we wage mortal struggle against it but, in the final analysis, through the interests of the bureaucracy in a very distorted form the interests of the workers state are reflected. These interests we defend – with our own methods. Thus we do not wage a struggle against the fact that the bureaucracy safeguards (in its own way!) state property, the monopoly of foreign trade or refuses to pay Czarist debts. [14]

There are two possible objections to his line of argument here. The first is the qualitatively new stage in the degeneration of the Stalinist bureaucracy recognised by Trotsky in changing his categorisation from ‘bureaucratic centrism’ to ‘opportunism’. In fact, this is not relevant to the notion of the dual role of the apparatus within the workers’ state, applying as it does to the international arena.

 … Some comrades continue to characterise Stalinism as ‘bureaucratic centrism’. This characterisation is now totally out of date. On the international arena Stalinism is no longer centrism, but the crudest form of opportunism and social patriotism. See Spain! [15]

More important is the second possible objection. Although every quotation cited (and they are many, over a period of eight years) gives the defence of the workers state as one of the two roles of the bureaucracy, the other ‘role’ is sometimes described as the ‘distribution of life’s goods with a capitalistic measure of value’ and at others as ‘applying the new forms of property in the interests of the bureaucracy’. Does this mean that Trotsky was either confused or arguing about different things at different times?

I would reject such arguments. He is confronting the difference between the contradictions within any workers’ state that must arise in a period of transition from capitalism to socialism and the peculiar problems that arose in the first, isolated, workers’ state. The contradiction in his thinking reflects the contradiction he is struggling to grasp.[16] Again at the height of the Moscow Trials, he expressed this contradiction with particular sharpness.

During a certain period in which the Soviet bureaucracy was fulfilling a relatively progressive role – in great measure a role that the bureaucracy of capitalism had performed in Western Europe in its day – dizzying successes fell to Stalin’s lot. But this period proved to be very brief. Just at the moment when Stalin had become completely imbued with the conviction that his ‘method’ guaranteed victory over all obstacles, the Soviet bureaucracy exhausted its mission and began to corrode even in its very first generation. [17]

                                                                                                                       2. Trotsky’s point of departure

Having laid out what might be called ‘empirical data’ to show that Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism is clear and consistent, it is perhaps time to go a little deeper into his theory.

He shows that his starting point is the established canon of Marxist doctrine. The transition from capitalism to socialism was first confronted by Marx in The German Ideology – the necessity of socialism on a world scale, of a development of productive forces without which ‘all the old crap must revive’. After 1875, he developed his ideas in the light of the experience of the Paris Commune. In Criticism of the Gotha Programme, he argued that, in the ‘first phase’ of communist society, ‘Equal right here is still in principle – bourgeois right . . .

Thus, with an equal performance of labour, and hence an equal share in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right instead of being equal would have to be unequal.

But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.

In a higher phase of communist society . . . after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety . . . [18]

… Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. [19]

In Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky draws attention to Lenin’s commentary on Marx:

In explaining these remarkable lines, Lenin adds, ‘Bourgeois law in relation to the distribution of the objects of consumption assumes, of course, inevitably a bourgeois state, for law is nothing without an apparatus capable of observance of its norms. It follows (we are still quoting Lenin) that under Communism not only will bourgeois law survive for a certain time, but also even a bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie!’ This highly significant conclusion, completely ignored by the present official theoreticians, has a decisive significance for the understanding of the nature of the Soviet state – or more accurately, for a first approach to such understanding. [20] …

… It is because Lenin, in accord with his whole intellectual temper, gave an extremely sharpened expression to the conception of Marx, that he revealed the source of future difficulties, his own among them, although he did not succeed in carrying through his analysis to the end. A ‘bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie’ proved inconsistent with genuine Soviet democracy. The dual function of the state could not but affect its structure. Experience revealed what theory was unable clearly to foresee. If for the defence of socialised property against bourgeois counter-revolution a ‘state of armed workers’ was fully adequate, it was a very different matter to relate inequalities in the sphere of consumption. [emphasis added] [21]

…The bourgeois norms of distribution, by hastening the growth of material power, ought to serve socialistic aims -but only in the last analysis. The state assumes directly and from the very beginning a dual character [i.e. independently of its political degeneration], socialistic insofar as it defends social property in the means of production – bourgeois insofar as the distribution of life’s goods is carried out with a capitalistic measure of value and all the consequences ensuing therefrom. Such a contradictory characterisation may horrify the dogmatists and scholastics – we can only offer them our condolences. [22]

Neither Marx nor Engels anticipated that the proletariat would break through in a country as deprived as Russia. Lenin had not expected the prolonged isolation of the first workers’ state. With Trotsky, he held that, far from giving rise to a bureaucratic degeneration, such a lengthy isolation would lead to a counter-revolution. In State and Revolution, he had anticipated the general outlines of how a workers’ state would defend itself against counter-revolution and how the proletariat would control those entrusted with supervision of the transition from capitalism to socialism. But he had not foreseen the problems when such an administrative bureaucracy degenerated politically and the working class had lost political control. Since his strategy was the extension of the revolution into the metropolitan countries – where the working class was assumed to have the cultural traditions and material conditions to retain such control – how could he ‘foresee’ such developments?

Trotsky stressed that the workers’ state has two functions – hence its ‘duality’. It had nothing to do with the political nature of those who happen to carry out its administrative tasks.

From this materialist notion of the dual role of the workers’ state flowed Trotsky’s political analysis of Stalinism. He started with the role of bureaucracy within the mode of production, its place within the economy. He did not proceed from bureaucracy in general but from one bureaucratic degeneration in particular, traced its roots to the material conditions of life and showed how its ideology arose.

In the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet state it is not the general laws of modern society from capitalism which find expression but a special, exceptional and temporary refraction of these laws under the conditions of a backward revolutionary country in a capitalist environment. [23]

He did not ignore analogies with previous historical periods, especially with the French revolution and its degeneration, but he did so cautiously. It is correct to draw attention to the writings of Rakovsky and others on this topic but it is perhaps wise to do so in a critical spirit. As did many members of the Left Opposition, Rakovsky made acid characterisations of the growing bureaucracy. The Documents of the 1923 Opposition show assessments by those who were later to capitulate – like Pyatokov and Preobrazhensky – which were, if anything, sharper than those being made by Trotsky at that time. Rakovsky never lost his scorn for the corrupt but his analysis of bureaucracy, even though the comparisons with the French Revolution are penetrating, did not link the phenomenon of its degeneration to its material roots – with its functions in the state. Instead, he tended to look for elements in common between the degeneration of the two revolutions, for laws, as it were, of a post-revolutionary epoch. The strength of Trotsky’s analysis is not that it made analogies with previous revolutions but that it stressed the differences and the reasons for them.

3.  ‘Dual Natures’ – and a history of confusion

Was the Stalinist bureaucracy ‘counter-revolutionary through and through’? The formulation seems to have remarkable staying power but a closer examination suggests that it was meaningless bluster that served only to conceal perennial confusion about Trotsky’s analysis among those who claimed to uphold it.

Stalinism, so the argument runs, is the name given by our movement primarily to the ideology of a reactionary caste within the workers’ states which is generally assumed to have been charged with a progressive historical role. That it cannot fulfil this role is due to its reactionary character and its counter-revolutionary methods. What it does to defend the state today endangers it tomorrow: even its ‘progressive’ measures are carried out in a manner that confuses and demoralises the proletariat. It is, therefore, ‘counter-revolutionary through and through’. [24]

As we have seen, Trotsky’s argument was subtly different: the bureaucracy had two functions in the workers’ states – defence against counter-revolution and control of the norms of distribution.

What neither the state nor the bureaucracy could do was to emancipate the working class, to lead it to power however ‘progressive’ its nature. Even when led by the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky’s time, it proved unable to do that. Trotsky discussed the Polish debacle in My Life.

The Polish war confirmed from the opposite side what was demonstrated by the Brest-Litovsk war – that the events of war and those of the revolutionary mass movement are measured by different yardsticks. Where the action of armies is measured by days and weeks, the movements of the masses of people is usually reckoned in months and years. If the difference in tempo is not taken fully into account, the gears of war will only break the teeth of the revolutionary gears, instead of setting them into motion. At any rate, that is what happened in the short Brest-Litovsk war and in the great Polish war. We passed over and beyond our own victory to a heavy defeat. [25]

More realistically, the emancipation of the working class was seen as requiring a worldwide revolutionary party independent of bureaucracy. The Bolsheviks at first sought to build such a party – the Comintern. The bureaucracy in the Soviet Union consolidated its position and deepened its degeneration when first it annexed the Comintern politically and later destroyed it. Trotsky makes an important distinction between the bureaucracy and the Comintern that eludes many. In The Transitional Programme, he noted that:

The definitive passing over of the Comintern to the side of the bourgeois order, its cynically counter-revolutionary role throughout the world . . . created exceptional supplementary difficulties for the world proletariat. [26]

Although it abandoned its role as an embryonic world party and became instead the agent of a bureaucracy, it was not identical to that bureaucracy – it had no ‘dual role’ or ‘dual function’. The lessons of Germany, Spain etc do not need repeating here: the Comintern had become ‘cynically counter-revolutionary’ by 1933. (After it was dissolved during World War II, the bureaucracy developed different ways of protecting its interests against those of the working class and of imperialism.)

A complex and contradictory process gave Stalinism a continually crisis-ridden character which erupted periodically in catastrophic fashion. Krushchev’s 1956 so-called ‘liberalisation’ was accompanied by the suppression of the Hungarian uprising. The Gorbachev reforms were preceded by a martial law clamp-down in Poland. These were, without doubt, counter-revolutionary moves.

At the same time, the bureaucracy was often obliged to support in its way significant national liberation struggles through what later became known as proxy wars. Vietnam is a case in point. Was it counter-revolutionary ‘through and through’ to ship military supplies even as China’s Red Guards were sabotaging them ‘to prevent the Vietnamese acquiring illusions in Soviet imperialism’. Yes, the Soviets cynically manipulated political puppets in the Vietnamese Communist Party. Yes, they used the supplies as bargaining counters with Washington. Yes, the policy was reactionary, the method counter-revolutionary. But ‘through and through’?

In the same vein, was the nationalisation of the basic industries of the Cuban economy (followed by the Stalinisation of the regime) ‘counter-revolutionary through and through’? Was it more or less so than the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion?

The notion of Stalinism being ‘counter-revolutionary through and through’ has a curious history which many can be forgiven for not knowing. The ‘official’ history of one section of the Fourth International was enshrined in a six-volume set, Trotskyism versus Revisionism. Strangely omitting the first dozen years of the FI, it purported to show that the onus of the struggle against Pablo’s ‘liquidationism’ was borne by the British. Cannon and the SWP, it claimed, ‘were unable to fight Pablo politically’. [27]

The picture is a distortion: substantive political documents dealing with theoretical as well as practical issues were being written and distributed by the Socialist Workers Party even if most of them were omitted from the ‘six volumes’. The student must turn also to the publications of the SWP to get a fuller picture – except that their editor seems to have been almost as partial as the ICFI’s.

One early piece that did make it into the ‘six volumes’ was the classic Where is Pablo Going? by Bleibtreu-Favre (June 1951):

All the experiences since 1933 have shown the role of the Soviet bureaucracy with increasing clarity and simply express its dual character – working class and counter-revolutionary – its fundamentally contradictory nature, and its impasse. [28]

One of the more interesting documents published by the SWP is What the New York Discussion has Revealed by Joe Hansen, written in the heat of the Cochran-Clarke struggle. Summarising the position of the opposition, Hansen addresses their objection to the presentation of Stalinism as ‘counter-revolutionary through and through’. He gets

in a hopeless mess about the ‘dual nature’ of Stalinism, urging his opponents to ‘lay heavy stress on its counter-revolutionary side’, going on to say that the Third World Congress of the Fourth International had explained that the social overturns in Eastern Europe had ‘flowed from the dual character of the Soviet caste’, adding that:

In relation to property forms, the caste thus plays a dual role – it will fight for its power and privileges against both workers and imperialism.

and later that:

The caste has a dual character but the duality is not of two characteristics about the same size and weight which alternately come to the fore . . . the ‘counter-revolutionary pole is the active and predominant one . . . [29]

This was not just a passing aberration on Hansen’s part: SWP veteran Tom Kerry’s 1970 lecture The Anatomy of Stalinism also tried to tackle the problem of the ‘dual function’ of the Stalinist bureaucracy and set the controversy in historical context. (He is attacking Mandel’s notion that the Maoists represented some kind of anti-Stalinist tendency.)

The Stalinist bureaucracy serves a dual function. On the one hand, its function is to defend the nationalised property established by the October Revolution. In that sense it plays a progressive role. On the other hand, as a reactionary political tendency which usurped the power of the workers in Russia, it functions as an agency of world imperialism in the world working class movement, and thereby plays a counter-revolutionary role.

The problem that arose in the world Trotskyist movement at that time [1946-51] was how to reconcile our view of Stalinism as counter-revolutionary ‘through and through’ with this new phenomenon – the phenomenon of Stalinist parties leading, or ostensibly leading, successful revolutions that established workers’ states. [30]

One can at least feel an empathy for Hansen’s ‘gut reaction’ to what he saw as Pablo’s capitulation. Since Cannon first smuggled Trotsky’s Critique of the Draft Programme of the Comintern out of the Soviet Union in 1928, the movement had been through decades of bitter struggle. Even if the SWP’s position was theoretically incorrect, there was undeniably a political fight against what they saw Pablo (and later Mandel) as representing.

Incidentally, in case anyone is still not convinced that the ‘dual nature’ confusion was a property of both ‘wings’ of the Fourth International Committee, a letter from the Socialist Labour League to the SWP dated May 8 1961 stresses that:

We must be under no illusions, for example, about the reasons for Krushchev’s support of the Cuban revolution. Acting in accordance with the contradictory and dual nature of the bureaucracy, he regards that revolution as fundamentally a bargaining counter in his overall strategy of accommodation to imperialism. [31]

Mandel was continuing a process that had been started by Pablo in the 1950s. On the other side of the divide, by the early 1960s the SWP was arguing that Castro was playing a revolutionary role and that, despite Moscow’s endorsement, he was a symptom of a process of ‘de-Stalinisation’. Not only was there a workers’ state in Cuba but there had also been a socialist revolution to boot. [32] He could justify himself to a degree because the International Committee, which, not unreasonably, argued that the SWP was capitulating to Stalinism, could explain the events in Cuba only by pretending they hadn’t actually happened.

After the inevitable rapprochement between the SWP and the International Secretariat, discussion of the issue was all but ossified for the rest of the USSR’s existence. The IS seemed happy to act as Castro’s political attaché in the US while the International Committee was content to bask in the fading glory of Trotskyist ‘orthodoxy’.

It is certainly true that leading ICFI members said and wrote many things that claimed to defend this high ground; most members with year or two in the ranks could give a more-or-less correct summary of Trotsky’s position. However, beneath this formally correct exterior, lurked some very right-wing notions indeed: the fulsome praise dished out to the butchers of the Vietnamese Trotskyist movement in the May 1985 editorial of Labour Review provided an ugly reminder of the price paid for theoretical carelessness:

“… Not only had the 30-year revolutionary war of independence come to a victorious end but for the second time in three decades imperialism in Asia had been completely expropriated by a workers’ and peasants’ regime and its native pseudo-bourgeois puppets expropriated completely. The pace of historical change was moving with increasing rapidity. Between the first successful socialist revolution in Russia in 1917 and the second in China in 1948, there had been a lapse of 30 years of traumatic defeats and betrayals and a major imperialist war. Between China’s socialist revolution and the coming to power of the Vietnamese workers, there had been a period of 27 years which had been characterised by the continued retreat of world imperialism before the wrath of the colonial masses and the metropolitan workers ..”[34]     

                                                                                                                                                  By 1985, it had degenerated into crap like the above and, even after the trauma of the splits, nonsense about the proletariat being the proletarian pole of a duality and the bureaucracy being the bourgeois pole, the workers’ state being different from the bureaucracy was still doing the rounds. In short, there is a continuity from Bleibtreu-Favre in 1951, Hansen in 1953, the SLL in 1961 and on up at least to the WRP in the 1980s. [34] All of them ignore Trotsky’s materialist analysis of the bureaucracy in the workers’ states.

Does all this matter now? Why not just get together with everyone who agrees (at least some of the time) that Stalinist bureaucracy was ‘a bad thing’ and proceed?

It matters because history shows that those who assigned a potentially revolutionary role to a workers’ state, to a bureaucracy, sooner or later assigned such a role to the Stalinist bureaucracies which at that time controlled the ‘worker’ states’. The inevitable result is to lend support in some form or other to Stalinist regimes.

Trotsky’s work remains the best analysis we have of the Stalinist bureaucracy. To mystify it is to miseducate cadre: the pseudo-left bluster that first prompted this essay was as reactionary as the down-the-line capitulation of other tendencies – and flowed from the same methodology.

A postscript – reaction and counter-revolution

Late-1980s fusion manoeuvres between the WRP and a Latin-American group (in the course of which the ‘dual nature’ controversy re-emerged) saw some almost magnificent confusion in a platform document comprising ‘Ten Points’. The first of these asserted that the Stalinist bureaucracy was ‘reactionary through and through’, the second that it was ‘counter-revolutionary through and through’. [35] Presumably its authors took the two to be the same: they could have done worse than refer to Trotsky’s 1933 work, On Lenin’s Testament, which commented as follows:

A political reaction after the enormous effort of the years of the insurrection and the civil war was inevitable. The concept of reaction must here be strictly distinguished from the concept of counter-revolution. Reaction does not necessarily imply a social overturn – that is, a transfer of power from one side to another. Even Tsarism has its periods of progressive reform and its periods of reaction. [36]

Introducing the Spanish edition of Revolution Betrayed, he wrote that:

In fact, the Soviet bureaucracy is today one of the most malignant detachments of world reaction. [37]

In a 1939 Letter on India, he expressed his point well:

The general historic role of the Stalinist bureaucracy and their Comintern is counter-revolutionary. But through their military and other interests they can be forced to support progressive movements. Even Ludendorff felt himself forced to give Lenin a train – a very progressive action – and Lenin accepted. We must keep our eyes open to discern the progressive acts of the Stalinists, support them independently, foresee in time the danger, the betrayals, warn the masses and gain their confidence. [38]



[1]   Rakovsky, Selected Writings, p 155.

[2] Trotsky, Transitional Programme, p 48 (New Park edition).

[3] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol 32 p 48.

[4] Trotsky, Writings 1933/34, p 102.

[5] Ibid, p 116.

[6] New Park Publications included the article in its 1966 Moscow Trials Anthology.

[7] Trotsky, Writings 1934/5, p 124.

[8] Trotsky, Revolution Betrayed, p 54 (New Park edition, Ch III sec 3.

[9] Ibid, p 44.

[10] Ibid, p 275.

[11] The Dewey Commission, The Case of Leon Trotsky, p 282.

[12] Trotsky, Writings 1937/38, p 65.

[13] Ibid, p 67, p 70.

[14] Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, p 158 (New Park edition).

[15] Trotsky, Writings 1936/7, p 478.

[16][With hindsight, my argument here is unclear (not that critics spotted it at the time). I’d accept that Trotsky had not thought through every last nuance of his contention that the role of bureaucracy is inherently contradictory. Nevertheless, especially given his circumstances, his analysis of Stalinism remains a considerable intellectual achievement that retains its relevance. The odd imprecision is a million miles from the confused muddle that followed his death.]

[17] Ibid, pps 329-30.

[18] Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, p 17 (edited).

[19] Ibid, p 26.

[20] Trotsky, Revolution Betrayed, p 53.

[21] Ibid, p 54.

[22] Ibid, p 54.

[23] Trotsky, The USSR in War, quoted from Basic Writings ed I Howe.

[24][I never did discover where the formulation was first used though the phrases ‘counter-revolutionary through and through’ and ‘reactionary through and through’ can both be found in an SWP statement of 1944, The European Revolution and the Tasks of the Revolutionary Party. Though reasonable in context, they might even then have had homily status.]

[25] Trotsky, My Life, pps 457-8. He described the conduct of the Stalin/Voroshilov army command as contributing to the defeat but did not suggest it was decisive. [His assessment of the war in the book is, some might argue, a little sanguine.]

[26] Trotsky, Transitional Programme, p 13.

[27] Trotskyism versus Revisionism, vol 1 p XVI. Ironically, the British contribution to this discussion, covering two and a half years from June 1951 to the 1953 ‘Open Letter’, comprised half a dozen letters by Gerry Healy and a couple of minor organisational documents.

[28] Bleibtreu-Favre in Trotskyism versus Revisionism, vol 1 pps 61-2.

[29] Hansen, What the New York Discussion Has Revealed, from Towards a History of the Fourth International, Pt 3, vol 1.3 3, pps 30-43.

[30] Kerry, The Mao Myth, pps 151 & 153.

[31] Trotskyism versus Revisionism, Vol 3, p 62.

[32] Hansen, Dynamics of the Cuban Revolution, especially Cuba – The Acid Test.

[33] Trotsky, Writings 1939/40, p 108-109.

[34] Editorial, Labour Review, May 1985.

[35] And, presumably, beyond. Don’t take my word for all this – read the originals.

[36] See footnote 23.

[37] Trotsky, On Lenin’s Testament in Lenin’s Fight Against Stalinism, p 58.

[38] Trotsky, Writings 1936/37, p 378.


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WRP Explosion

WRP Explosion

WRP Explosion

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