LRP’s “Revisions of Basic Theory”
[The following is a slightly updated edit of a previously unpublished draft by Samuel Trachtenberg. Originally meant to be distributed as an IBT statement at the League for the Revolutionary Party’s public debate with the Spartacist League on May 10, 2003 in New York, it was written as a response to “Theories of Stalinism’s Collapse” printed in the Fall 2002 issue of Proletarian Revolution. Unless otherwise noted, quoted LRP citations are from that article].
In the course of the polemical exchanges leading up to their public debate with the LRP, the SL had responded to many of the LRP’s polemical challenges on a wide variety of questions. One LRP article they didn’t responded to though was a polemic on the Russian question, traditionally a central question for the SL and a key issue separating the two groups. In looking at the SL’s analysis of the victory of capitalist counterrevolution in the USSR, the article observes
“In the USSR, Yeltsin’s counter-coup was the key event in the Communist Party’s ouster from power. In that conflict between wings of the bureaucratic capitalist ruling class, the Stalinist “hard-liners” led by Vice-President Gennady Yanaev attempted to seize sole power and end Gorbachev’s delicate balance of power between them and the more rapid privatizers…”
“When the hard-liner’s revolt fizzled out, Gorbachev’s balancing act collapsed and Yeltsin emerged on top. His triumph ushered in a period of undisguised capitalist looting that enriched a handful and impoverished millions. Even though the Yanaev team was also dedicated to ‘free-market’ reforms, it’s expected course was slower. Thus any deformed workers-statists should have defended the Yanaev side, despite it’s immediate threat to crush the workers — as a matter of principle, not just tactics. Yet few did. Most backed Yeltsin on dubious democratic grounds, proving one more time that their workers’ state theory is empty phrase mongering. ….
“The Spartacists had a particularly hard time deciding when the Soviet ‘workers’ state’ had been lost. They announced retroactively in late 1992 that counterrevolution had won some time before, exactly when remained unclear. (See ‘Spartacists Terminate Russian Workers’ State Not with a Bang but a Whimper’ PR 43) A ‘theory’ that allows it’s proponents to overlook the downfall of a ‘workers’ state’ — the land of the Bolshevik Revolution, no less — when the decisive events occur in plain view of all the world, is useless for the working class…
“They should have had no trouble supporting the Yanaev coup against Gorbachev in 1991. But this time they took no sides. They went through theoretical contortions to avoid doing so for one reason, because that would have meant admitting that their arch-rivals, the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT), was ‘right’ when they were wrong. For all their trumpeting of their supposed Bolshevik allegiance to program, the Spartacists are often motivated by petty organizational needs.”
“Theories of Stalinism’s Collapse”
Proletarian Revolution #65, Fall 2002
Arguing from a very different perspective than the IBT (1), the LRP is echoing it’s correct assertion that the only consistent Soviet Defensist position was one of militarily siding with the Stalinists against Yeltsin, and in demonstrating the reformist logic of the SL’s theory of “piecemeal” counterrevolution in the USSR. These are all points the SL has consistently failed to address when raised by anyone.
The LRP’s position of strength reflects the fact that while the SL claims to uphold Soviet Defensism in theory, it in it’s most crucial moment it renounced it in practice. In contrast the LRP has been allowed more theoretical consistency (relative to the SL) by renouncing both.
Predictions on Stalinism’s Stability
Since the IBT’s initial polemic with the LRP over the Russian question (1917 #6), the world has witnessed the collapse of Stalinism in the USSR and the Eastern Bloc. The LRP claims that on the left, only their state capitalist theory allowed them to uniquely predict Stalinism’s downfall all along. This is false as the IBT (as well as other’s on the left) agreed with Trotsky’s prediction that
“either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers state, will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back to capitalism; or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism.”
In response to the unexpected expansion of Stalinism in Eastern Europe in the post-war period, and the victories of Stalinist lead peasant guerrilla struggles in Asia, both resulting in the liquidation of capitalist property relations, Michel Pablo, then leader of the Fourth International (as well as writers such as Issac Deutscher) impressionistically predicted that Stalinism was the wave of the future. The corollary was that the program of political revolution against the Stalinists as advocated by Trotsky was outdated, that the Stalinist parties would act as sufficient, if “blunted”, instruments for socialism, and that the role of Trotskyists should be to liquidate themselves into their organizations to “sharpen” the blunted instruments. Pablo’s rosy predictions for the Stalinists, described as “centuries of deformed workers states” by his opponents at the time, have indeed been discredited. As the LRP should know, the IBT as well as it’s political predecessors who opposed Pablo’s revisionist destruction of the Fourth International, have always upheld Trotsky’s view on the transient and unstable character of the Stalinist bureaucracy.
“Those who cannot defend past gains”
During Trotsky’s lifetime there existed tendencies in his organization that, like the LRP, believed that the USSR had already ceased being a workers state. While he recognized that the theoretical difference in the course of events could (and inevitably did) have programmatic consequences, Trotsky believed the key issues for political collaboration on the question was agreement on the need to overthrow the Stalinists combined with the need to defend the USSR against capitalist restoration, on whatever theoretical basis.
The LRP has sought a theoretical middle ground between traditional state capitalist theories and Trotsky’s theory, while in practice usually drawing the same conclusions as the former. According to the LRP’s rather unique view (2) the USSR was a capitalist state presiding over nationalized property forms. They recognized nationalized property as an important gain still left over from the October Revolution which must be defended. The Stalinists in the interrum were seen as acting as a “regent” bourgeoisie, turning the state property against the working class and exploiting them with it, while secretly waiting (for over 80 years) for the right opportunity to restore the more conventional market capitalism. Despite the rather tortured theory the LRP was still able to correctly predict the time of the Stalinists crisis that
“However, if the economic power of the bureaucracy and it’s new reformist and Western bourgeois allies is not broken, the workers of East Europe will see their revolutions turned against them, and they will become victims of even deeper exploitation than before..”
“Revolution Sweeps Europe”
In the most recent article they correctly criticize Tony Cliff
“In 1998 Cliff published an article titled ‘The Test of Time’ to assert that his theory of state capitalism had been vindicated. In it he repeated the ‘step sidewards’ analysis. It is remotely conceivable that in 1990 observers could have overlooked the threat to all workers’ rights and living standards that were entailed in the privatization and looting of state property. But not by the end of the decade. Cliff & Co. never accepted that any working class gains had survived under Stalinism and thus looked on complacently as they went down the drain.”
make the correct observation that
“the ‘revolutions’ in the name of freedom devastated the working classes and drove them into a period of comparative passivity.”
and in a previously quoted section
“his [Yeltsin’s] triumph ushered in a period of undisguised capitalist looting that enriched a handful and impoverished millions”
For a group that seemed to recognize the value and necessity of defending the nationalized property forms, one might assume that the logical political corollary may be Soviet Defencism, even if on the basis of a confusionist and inaccurate theory. Yet like most other organizations which claimed to be Trotskyist, those with “orthodox” as well as “Third Camp” theories, the LRP supported all the pro-capitalist “popular revolutions” from Solidarnosc in Poland 1981 and on, that, by chance, overthrew the nationalized property forms along with the Stalinists. This experience should force one to come to the conclusion, at least in hindsight, that one could not defend the valued nationalized property without at the same time defending those states that based themselves on that property against political forces seeking privatization. Yet in the LRP still argues
“In the USSR, Yeltsin’s counter-coup was the key event in the Communist Party’s ouster from power. In that conflict between wings of the bureaucratic capitalist ruling class, the Stalinist ‘hard-liners’ led by Vice-President Gennady Yanaev attempted to seize sole power and end Gorbachev’s delicate balancing of power between them and the more rapid privatizers. The coup posed an acute danger to the working class, since it’s leaders announced an immediate ban on strikes and a retraction of of the limited democratic gains yielded by Gorbachev in the ‘glasnost’ (openess) campaign of the previous half-decade. So revolutionary workers would have opposed the coup and would have tactically lined up in a military bloc with Yeltsin to defeat the immediate threat to workers interests.”
(In a previous section of the article the LRP chastised groups who “backed Yeltsin on dubious democratic grounds.”)
In contrast Trotsky correctly asserted
“We must not lose sight for a single moment of the fact that the question of overthrowing the Soviet bureaucracy is for us subordinate to the question of preserving state property in the means of production in the USSR; that the question of preserving state property in the means of production in the USSR is subordinate for us to the question of the world proletarian revolution.”
In Defense of Marxism
For the LRP the question of defending state property in the means of production is subordinate to overthrowing the Stalinists. Subordinating the class line to petty-bourgeois democratism appears to be the substrate to the LRP’s substitution of moralism for Marxist analysis in many of their erronous positions, from the Russian Question to the National Question.
The LRP seeks to create what, in this case, is a false and artificial distinction by arguing that their defense was limited to the nationalized property, but not the state. In a similar manner they claim they would defend social democratic and liberal welfare state reforms, or nationalizations carried out by third world bourgeois regimes for the purpose of economic development etc.. Of course, many sections of the ruling class recognize that public postal service, public mass transportation, public education and other state sectors are not only gains won by the working class but also the minimal requirements for the proper functioning of a capitalist economy. State interventions into the capitalist economy is particularly important in periods of economic crisis and war. But to claim that the nationalized property relations existing in the Soviet Union and other bureaucratized workers states were of a similar character requires willful blindness.
The LRP sometimes seems to recognize this, writing
“Trotsky didn’t think that the traditional bourgeoisie in practice could fully nationalize an economy. He was right: it required the proletarian revolution, later usurped by the Stalinist bureaucracy.” (3)
The difference between a capitalist society with various “social” features and the USSR is the same as the difference between Lenin’s NEP and capitalism.
State and Counterrevolution
The LRP rightly makes light of the SL’s (and others) inability to say when the counterrevolution triumphed in the USSR. Having been neutral in the struggle between Yeltsin and the Stalinist bureaucrats in August 1991, it is understandable why the SL would seek to deny the significance of Yeltsin’s victory.
The LRP is correct in asserting that this is a very serious theoretical question that Marxists need to address. In arguing that Yeltsin gradually in the course of some undetermined time successfully carried out a “piecemeal” counterrevolution, the SL, as it previously argued when still a revolutionary organization, carried out a
“departure from the Leninist theory of the state in favor of a linear, bourgeois conception as of a thermometer which simply and gradually passes from ‘bourgeois state’ to workers state’ by small increments without a qualitative change. Such a methodology is a cornerstone of Pabloism”
Such a reformist theoretical understanding, as Lenin pointed out in works such as State & Revolution and The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky played an important role in the Social Democracy’s subsequent crossing of the class line after 1914. This theoretical departure was also evident, as the LRP rightly notes, in the Fourth International’s understanding in the 1940’s of the creation of the deformed workers states in Eastern Europe and China.
The IBT had previously made this point in relation to the SL (see “Getting Russia Right”) as well as other groups such as the New Zealand Communist Left (now Communist Workers Group/NZ).
“It is notable that every major wave of revisionism of Marxism has struck at the Marxist conception of the state. From Bernstein, to Kautsky, to Stalin – all have sought to undermine the conception of the state as armed force in defence of a predominant form of class property. Thus revisionism replaces Marxism with ‘two-class’ states, ‘no-class’ states, ‘intermediary’ states, and ‘transitional’ states….
“A ‘two-class state is inevitably a bourgeois state, just as a ‘two-class’ popular front is inevitably a bourgeois front. Ultimately the communist programme in respect of a two-class state and a two-class popular front reduce themselves to the question of the class line. The Communist Left’s difficulties on the two questions drive from a single source; it’s inability to draw the class line.”
The point was also made with the League for a Revolutionary Communist International (today the League for the Fifth International)
“Harvey thinks the ‘class character of the state’ in the case of such oscillations can be determined by the activity of such a regime at any given instant—-when it acts for the capitalists, it is a capitalist state, but, if it takes some action that favors working people, it becomes a workers’ state. The kind of ‘Marxism’ that ‘understands’ such notions is called Kautskyism.
“Lenin attacked the idea that a bourgeois state can be transformed into an instrument to serve the interests of the oppressed:
“’That the state is an organ of the rule of a definite class which cannot be reconciled with its antipode (the class opposite to it), is something the petty-bourgeois democrats will never be able to understand.’’
—-State and Revolution
“Lenin categorically rejected the idea that an oscillating petty-bourgeois regime (or anything else) can turn a capitalist state into an instrument for social revolution:
“’Revolution consists not in the new class commanding, governing with the aid of the old state machine, but in this class smashing this machine and commanding, governing with the aid of a new machine. Kautsky slurs over this basic idea of Marxism, or he had utterly failed to understand it.’’
“Cuba, the LRCI & Marxist Theory”
1917 #13, 1994
The LRP has made what seems like a similar argument numerous times.
“The governmental changes today [in relation to post-war Eastern Europe] go in the reverse direction: the Stalinists are being replaced by would-be bourgeois types. (‘Bourgeois’ refers to the traditional capitalism of the West, as distinct from the statified version of the East.) Both transformations took place without forcible confrontations between the two ruling elements. To call them social revolutions amounts to reformism, the notion that power can be transferred from one class to another peacefully and gradually. This contradicts the central teaching of Marxist theory that a state is the instrument of a particular ruling class and defends the rule and economic forms of that class with it’s armed power.
and in the more recent article
“Marxists who believe that the USSR and allied states were non-capitalist before 1989 but are capitalist now have to ask the question for each country: when did the counterrevolution occur? We have already mentioned that the orthodox Trotskyists in the 1940’s had considerable trouble with with the ‘date question’ of that time: when did the countries od East Europe, China, etc. become workers states? The reverse problem after 1989 was equally troublesome” (4)
The LRP solution is to argue that the counterrevolution triumphed in the 1930’s, as a consequence of the Purge Trials. The LRP argues the purges represented a “preventive civil war” and therefore their analysis rescues the Marxist theory of the necessity of a violent counterrevolution.
“The degeneration accelerated in the 1930’s. During the Great Purges in the latter half of the decade, the Stalinists wiped out the surviving revolutionary elements in the party and destroyed the officers corps of the Red Army. The essential core of the state power — it’s military, police and judicial arms were purged and repurged until all vestiges of Bolshevism were erased. Thus the state apparatus was smashed and reconstituted into a tool of the top bureaucracy — a new capitalist class, a regent ruling in place of the destroyed bourgeoisie. That signified the completion of the counterrevolution: the workers state was destroyed.”
While there was a violent counterrevolution in the USSR in August 1991, it is true that in much of Eastern Europe such a confrontation did not occur, rather the Stalinists and a politically disoriented working class abdicated power. As Trotsky noted
“If an army capitulates to the enemy in a critical situation without a battle, then this capitulation completely takes the place of a ‘decisive battle,’ in politics as in war.”
Third International After Lenin
As a historical precedent from the other direction, the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919 came to power when the bourgeois government and state similarly abdicated power to it without a struggle. Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky all recognized the theoretical possibility, if not likelihood, of a peaceful (as opposed to a piecemeal) coming to state power(5). In writings such as The Civil War in France and State and Revolution the main issue involved for them in the question is not the degree of force and violence used for a successful revolution and, by implication, counterrevolution, but rather that the “working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready made state machinery and wield it for it’s own purposes”.
Yet, this is precisely what the LRP’s theory (like the SL’s) implies; that the Stalinists/capitalists in the 1930’s (or Yeltsin in 1991-92) laid hold of the “ready made state machinery” and then proceeded to use it to restore capitalist rule by killing off or purging element committed to socialist property forms. To use an analogy, using this methodology one can then theoretically argue that the road to socialism lies through secretly infiltrating the Democratic and Republican Parties and once attaining positions of power, use it to gradually purge those committed to capitalism from within the state apparatus.
Though used in a different context, James P.Cannon’s assertion (frequently cited by the LRP) is very much on the mark in this regard.
“I don’t think you can change the class character of the state by manipulations at the top. It can only be done by a revolution which is followed by a fundamental change in property relations… If you once begin to play with the idea that the class nature of the state can be changed from manipulations in top circles; you open the door to all kinds of revisions of basic theory.”
SWP Internal Bulletin, October 1949 (quoted in LRP article) (6)
Leninism vs. Economism
A main argument put forward by the LRP is that if the USSR was a workers state, then the working class would have risen up to defend it. Since there were no working class insurrections against the Stalinists in the 1930’s, the period when the LRP claims capitalist counterrevolution triumphed, the LRP should logically come to the conclusion that the USSR was never a workers state.
The root of this easily disproved theory is the LRP’s rejection of Lenin’s understanding that socialist consciousness is not an automatic reflection of working class material interests but must be fought for within the working class from without through the medium of a vanguard party. If workers were spontaneously socialist then the revolution would have occurred long ago, workers would never support popular fronts, imperialist wars, racist ideologies etc. Just as the working class was infused with bourgeois false consciousness by the trade union bureaucrats and reformist social democrats, they were also so by the decades of Stalinist misrule, lies and repression.
The LRP argues in it’s article that
“Trotsky often said of the Soviet Union that those who could not defend the past gains of the working class could not possibly achieve new ones. The same is true of those who cannot understand them.”
Using this correct criterion, both the LRP and it’s debate partners have shown an incapacity to defend or understand.
(1) In the 1940’s, Max Shachtman, in a similar manner, was also able to make astute observations about the FI’s theoretical somersault’s on the post-war Stalinist extensions, while holding on to an incorrect analysis himself.
(2) The LRP has developed a State Capitalist theory that is highly unique to them and do not seem to see the irony of one the one hand making an amalgam of all those claiming to be “orthodox” Trotskyists and gloating
“After the fall, despite their common theory, they could not agree on whether or when the ex-Stalinists states had become capitalist. The ‘theory’ turned out to be no basis for for analysis but simply a name for societies that once had seemed free of capitalism’s crisis.”
While noting of the state capitalist “fraternity” some would argue they belong to
“Other faults aside, none of these currents dealt adequately with the historical dimension of the ‘regime change’ in the USSR: how and when had the Soviet workers’ state been done away with?… They all said or implied that the Stalinists had ended the workers states the moment they consolidated power in the 1920’s or early 1930’s.”
(3) This view does not account for the creation of fully nationalized economies in Stalinist-run states outside the USSR.
(4) The FI’s confusion at that time was partly a reflection of looking at the prevailing property forms, which were changed gradually, rather than the armed power, the core of the state, which was the Soviet Army occupying these countries. The “Peoples” governments which included bourgeois figures had no real power, effective power being in the hands of the Soviet occupying armies which installed and disposed of these governments as they saw fit. In most countries the capitalists were expropriated, in others, such as Austria they were not, the result in the end being the product of Soviet decisions (decisions forced on them by imperialist military pressure.). In the interrum period what existed was a military force not yet committed to either capitalist or collectivized property, that is there was no state in the Marxist sense of the term.
(5) Marx and Engels on occasion argued for the possibility, under different past historical circumstances of a peaceful transition in the United States and England. In the immediate period preceding the Russian Revolution Lenin discussed the remote possibility of it also occurring in Russia
“Before 4 July… to transfer power to the then existing Soviets… could have been done peacefully, without Civil War, Because there had been no systematic acts of violence against the masses, against the people”
“Now, and only now, perhaps during only a few days or a week or two, such a government could be set up and consolidated in a perfectly peaceful way. In all probability it could secure the peaceful advance of the whole Russian Revolution….” (emphasis in original)
cited in “Lenin in 1917” by Victor Serge
Revolutionary History Vol 5. No.3
(6) Despite the LRP’s best intentions on avoiding the pitfalls of “revisions of basic theory” by postulating changing the class character of the state through “manipulations at the top”, it appears that the logic of trying to assert, against the actual historical reality, the restoration of capitalism in the 1930’s, has forced the LRP into precisely this trap when seeking to address the “date question”
“The formal culmination of the counterrevolution came at the 18th Party Congress in March 1939. Here the triumphant CP sanctified the new social relations and openly dedicated itself to the bureaucratic intelligentsia. Beyond this point it was impossible to say that the state was ruled in the interests of the working class, in however distorted a form…
“Whereas the 1936 Constitution had symbolically deposed the proletariat in favor of the ‘whole people,’ now the Party Congress handed power to the new bureaucracy…
“addressing the Congress, Stalin’s henchman Zhdanov declared that the preference hitherto given to working class party entrants was over: ‘The existing system, as prescribed in the Party Rules, of admitting new members into the Party in accordance with four different categories, depending on the social status [i.e.class] of the applicant, is obviously incompatible with the changes in the class structure of Soviet society resulting from the victory of socialism in the USSR.”
The Life and Death of Stalinism, by Walter Daum
Many will recognize this arbitrary schema as having much in common with Maoist claims that the USSR became capitalist in 1956, right after Khrushchev gave his “Secret Speech” acknowledging many of Stalin’s crimes.
LRP/ISL on the Revolution in Palestine/Israel