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Fourth International, November-December 1947


The Russian Question Today

(Stalinism and the Fourth International)

Draft Theses Adopted by the International Secretariat of the Fourth International [1*]

3. The Discussion of the Russian Question


From Fourth International, November-December 1947, Vol.8 No.9, pp.270-273.
Transcribed, edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


The Historical Significance of This Discussion

The exceptional importance which the Russian discussion has assumed, first in the Trotskyist movement, and now in the whole world both in working-class and bourgeois public opinion, is due to the absolutely unforeseen development of Russian society since the October Revolution, and to the first-rate position Russia occupies in world relations today. The importance of the “Russian Question” in ideological discussions is only a reflection of the historic importance of the October Revolution and of the political weight of the Stalinist dictatorship in world affairs.

However, inside the revolutionary workers’ movement, the historic significance of the Russian question goes far beyond an explanation of the Russian and Stalinist phenomena themselves. As was the case from the start of the Left Opposition’s fight against the theory of “socialism in one country,” what is at stake in this discussion is nothing less than the maintenance of Marxism against revisionist and disintegrating tendencies appearing in the labor movement, under the pressure of bourgeois petty-bourgeois ideology.

Nineteenth Century revisionism was deeply impregnated with petty-bourgeois optimism, a reflection of the relatively “peaceful” development of capitalism. As long as “the movement” seemed able to constantly win new positions for the proletariat – and above all, new benefits for the workers’ bureaucracy – the illusion that “the movement is everything, the final goal nothing” – could find a wide response among the most satisfied layers of the workers’ bureaucracy and the radical petty-bourgeoisie.

Present-day revisionism is deeply impregnated with petty bourgeois pessimism which reflects the catastrophic developments of the past three decades, the unceasing defeats of the workers, the monstrous degeneration of the Soviet Union and the development of barbaric tendencies in the contemporary world. As long as a decisive revolutionary victory has not taken place in an advanced country – and the petty-bourgeoisie is only attracted by the power of real ideas insofar as they are coupled with the idea of real power – the illusion that the degeneration of the USSR is not due to relative factors of the world situation and that the retardation of the labor movement is a “final historic phenomenon” will necessarily be largely echoed among the most discouraged and disappointed sectors of the radical petty-bourgeoisie and the older generations of workers.

It is not by accident that present-day revisionism has most frequently crystallized around the discussion of the “Russian question.” Revolutionary Marxism gathers enormous strength from the practical example of the victory of October, the first decisive demonstration of the possibility for the proletariat to conquer power under the leadership of a resolute revolutionary party. Similarly, those who question this possibility are able to counterpoise to the October experience the fact of the degeneration of the workers’ state and of the Communist International.

Present-day revisionism which has found parallel expression at the two extreme poles of the revolutionary Marxist movement is, on the whole, characterized by the following conceptions:

  1. The degeneration of the workers’ state is not the product of conditional factors (isolation of the revolution, backwardness of the country, interaction between the bureaucratization in Russia and the bureaucratization of the Communist International, etc.), but is inherent either in the nature of Bolshevism (the revolutionary party) or in the proletariat” itself, or in a combination of both.
  2. The bureaucratic dictatorship in Russia does not constitute an historic “accident” which will merely prove to be a passing stage on humanity’s road to socialism. On the contrary, it is a necessary phase in the historic development of mankind (or its fall into barbarism).
  3. The retreat of the working class movement in the interval from 1923 to 1939 is not due to the problem of revolutionary leadership, that is, the still inadequate development of the revolutionary vanguard at this stage, determined by a whole” number of historic factors; but reflects either the incapacity of the proletariat to fulfil its historic mission, or its incapacity to select a revolutionary leadership, or a combination of the two.

The most finished “anti-Stalinist” expression of this revisionism has been worked out – under the pressure of imperialism in the United States! – by Burnham in his Managerial Revolution, and by Dwight Macdonald. Applying the above-cited conceptions, they arrived at the following conclusions:

  1. The Soviet bureaucracy is a new class whose domination will mark a necessary stage in the historic development toward which the whole capitalist world is heading (similarity of state enterprises in the USSR, Germany, Japan, USA, etc.).
  2. Marxism, which proved incapable of foreseeing this new development and which is based entirely on the revolutionary potential of the proletariat, has turned out to be Utopian and bankrupt. A “new” maximal program of social perfection must be drawn up. Up till now these “new programs” (in Macdonald’s case quite openly) have amounted to a retreat to pre-Marxist socialist conceptions.

The most finished “pro-Stalinist” expression of this revisionism – under the pressure of Stalinism in France! – has been supplied by Bettelheim, Martinet and Co. in the Revue Internationale.

By likewise applying the above-listed ideas, they come to the following conclusions:

  1. Owing to its lack of homogeneity and technical education, the working class will be obliged to pass through a stage of social differentiation and inequality after its conquest of power. Historic progress is assured by the privileged strata of the proletariat (the bureaucracy). It is the task of the State to defend these privileges.
  2. During the epoch of decaying imperialism, the proletariat ceases to grow numerically and ideologically and instead retreats, witnessing the decline of its strength and the decay of its social structure. The failure of the “classic” proletarian revolutions of 1918-23 is final. The Leninist strategy of the proletarian revolution is a thing of the past. In view of this incapacity of the proletariat to fulfil its historic mission, humanity has no other road to progress except to try to “participate” in the stratification of the means of production by the Soviet bureaucracy on an ever larger scale, and to draw up a new minimum program in order to attenuate the violent character of this process.

The parallelism of these two revisionist tendencies strikes the eye. There is no room for them in the revolutionary movement. But some of their features appear at the bottom of mistaken conceptions on the Russian question which have found expression in our own ranks. What is important is first of all to lay bare the inner logic of this incipient revisionism and make its proponents aware of its dangerous consequences to the whole of, Marxism. Secondly, one must carefully distinguish between a revisionist position on the Russian question, which endeavors to remain within the framework of the Marxist conception of our epoch, and one which carries with it the risk of branching out more and more into a complete revision of Marxism.

“State Capitalism”

The adherents of the theory of the existence of “state capitalism” try on the whole to maintain their views within the framework of the general Marxist conception of our epoch. They maintain in its entirety the Leninist strategy of the proletarian revolution. They doubt neither the revolutionary capacity of the proletariat nor the possibility of building a revolutionary party by relying, first and foremost, on the class struggle and the experience of the workers’ struggles. Their revisionism appears when, by characterizing the USSR as a capitalist country, they must logically consider the present Soviet society as a sort of “future picture” of capitalist society in general, and must, as much as Burnham, point out the “stratification” tendencies inside and outside Russia. This is based on superficial and formal analogies, which completely distort the understanding of the profound tendencies of contemporary capitalism and of the radical overturn constituted by the October Revolution.

These analogies are, in the main, the following:

  1. The analogy between the nationalization of the means of production in the USSR and the tendency toward the stratification of the means of production in the capitalist world.

    This is the most obvious example of the formal character of all these analogies. As a matter of fact, in Russia it was a question of expropriating and destroying the bourgeoisie as a class through the revolutionary action of the proletariat and the workers’ state. In capitalist countries what we have is the nationalization – with compensation – of certain unprofitable sectors of bourgeois economy for the benefit of the big. monopolies. The “fusion between the State and economy” in Russia meant the destruction of the bourgeoisie as a class. The fusion between the State and economy in the capitalist countries – particularly Germany and the USA – meant the destruction of the independence of certain capitalist sectors and their complete subjection to monopoly capital. The fundamental difference between these two processes lies in this, that only the proletarian revolution shows the “striving to expropriate the monopolists,” whereas “the capitalist countries not only do not show this “striving” but on the contrary, show a tendency to strengthen and enrich the monopolists who subject the whole social life to their direct control.
  2. The analogy between the tendency toward the fragmentation of the world market, inherent in decaying capitalist economy, and the monopoly of foreign trade established by the October Revolution.

    In reality, the protectionist and “autarchic” tendencies, which are elements of war economy and palliative measures against crises resorted to by the decadent bourgeoisie, do not save these countries from exploitation by foreign capital, but rather increase the latter’s profits to the degree that these countries become “self-sufficient.” At their highest level of “autarchy,” capitalist Germany and Japan returned the highest profits to American capital. In the case of the USSR, there has been a drastic elimination of the country’s exploitation by foreign capital. The pressure of the world market continues, but only indirectly.
  3. The analogy between “planning” tendencies inherent in monopoly capital and the Soviet planning. The national “planning” of monopoly capita], Trotsky said, consists in “artificially restricting production in certain sectors and building up, just as artificially, other sectors at colossal expenditures.” It results in “an unstable regularization,bought at the price of a 1owering of national economy taken as a whole, an increase in the world chaos, and a complete shattering of the financial system, absolutely indispensable for socialist planning.” Soviet planning, on the contrary, while far from being harmonious, has nevertheless succeeded in realizing enormous and real economic progress, developing the productive forces in all sectors, raising – at least until the inception of the Third Five-Year Plan – the 1iving standards and wants of millions of ordinary men and women.

    There is a qualitative difference between these two tendencies. The one maintains plans the regulator of economy and subordinates “plans” together with the whole of economic life not to the interests of an abstract “capitalism” but to the interests, quite tangible, concrete and definite, of the monopolists. Soviet planning, on the contrary, derives its profound impetus from the fact that private appropriation of surplus value has been radically suppressed, and that consciousness is beginning to replace profit – although in a distorted form – as the decisive element in the regulation of economic development.
  4. The analogy between “production for production’s sake” in the capitalist system and the development of productive forces in the USSR (in the first place, the growth of the sector of the means of production); the analogy between the operation of the law of value in the capitalist countries and in the USSR, and so on.

Unproved Premises

What is really involved here is a question of starting from unproved premises. Proceeding from the assumption that Russia is a capitalist country, the proponents of this theory interpret the development of Soviet productive forces in terms of the capitalist form of the law of value. But a stupendous development of the productive forces, especially of the heavy industry sector, characterizes not only capitalism but also the transitional society after the conquest of power by the proletariat. The “law of value” applies not alone to capitalist society but to all pre- and post-capitalist societies where the production of commodities continues to exist. In Russia, the “law of value” is certainly valid, and hasn’t ceased operating since 1917, but it no longer applies in the same way as in capitalist society. Prices are not determined by the average rate of profit. Money does not possess the quality of transforming itself into capital.

This whole theory is based on a total absence of any attempt to analyze the specific forms of transitional economy such as will exist in every workers’ state until the complete disappearance of classes and the final advent of Communism.

The reproach levelled against us by the adherents of the “state capitalist” theory, that we are “economists” or that we base our analysis on a “fetishism of nationalized property” is absurd. In reality, our analysis starts from the fundamental difference between bourgeois nationalizations (England, France, the “buffer-zone” countries) and all of the upheavals that have taken place in Russia as a result of the proletarian revolution, culminating in the expropriation and destruction of the bourgeoisie as a class and the transfer of the means of production into collective ownership.

It is up to the adherents of the theory of state capitalism to explain how the bureaucracy constitutes a “state capitalist” class, while at the same time preserving property relations that resulted from the destruction of capitalism and while itself destroying the new rural bourgeoisie. It is up to them to explain how the annihilation of the conquests of October has been possible without a change in property relations and without a new social overturn. It is up to them to explain how they can reconcile the “capitalist” nature of the USSR with the total overturn in production and property relations which German imperialism was obliged to institute in the occupied areas of the USSR, as well as those changes which the Soviet bureaucracy found itself obliged to institute in the reoccupied areas and the provinces annexed to the USSR. On all these points, this theory clearly shows its incapacity to interpret the reality of Soviet life in a Marxist manner.

However, the most obvious internal contradiction of this theory appears in its conception of the Stalinist parties. Here it attempts to reconcile the needs of revolutionary strategy – which necessitate the conception of Stalinist parties as degenerated workers’ parties – with the conclusions of this theory, according to which the Stalinist parties must be considered as agents of a capitalist-fascist power. The absurd results achieved by this reconciliation – which involves a transformation of Stalinist parties from workers’ parties into bourgeois parties the moment they conquer power – together with the impossibility of explaining the self-evident phenomenon that the influx of the radicalized masses into the parties which are agents of a “capitalist” power is a sign of the revolutionary tide – this itself is the most striking refutation of the theory.

“Bureaucratic Collectivism”?

The adherents of the theory of “bureaucratic collectivism” have an advantage over those who consider the USSR as “state capitalist” to the extent that they clearly understand the non-capitalist nature of the USSR and are capable of understanding the changes in production and property relations brought about by the capitalist invasion of the USSR and those effected after their withdrawal. But, on the other hand, their revision of Marxism does not stop with the Russian question itself.

Not only are they obliged completely to revise the Marxist conception of the development of capitalist society – which is based entirely on the polarization of society into two basic classes: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie – but they also question a series of the fundamental bases of historical materialism in general. This is, of course, their full right. One must only ask them to be more logical. As Trotsky has already stated and as only the thorough-going revisionists (Macdonald, Burnham and Co.) have clearly expressed, the logical outcome of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism is the conception that the proletariat is incapable of fulfilling its historic mission and the rejection of Marxism as Utopian.

The term “class” is not an accidental notion in Marxist sociology. It is the basic concept in the application or negation of the whole Marxist conception of history. For this reason, it has well defined and distinct limits. The application of these delimitations to the bureaucracy leads to the absurd conclusion that the bureaucracy is a “class” which possesses none of the characteristic traits of the other classes in history.

  1. Every class in history is characterized by an independent and fundamental function in the process of production – at a definite stage in the historic process – and by its own roots in the economic structure of society.
  2. Every class in history represents a definite stage of historic progress, including the classes that arise in periods, of historic recession whose task is to safeguard the technical conquests, etc. Each represents a definite stage in the social division of labor, a definite stage in the evolution of the ownership of the means of production.
  3. Every class in history is a historically, necessary organ fulfilling a necessary function from the standpoint of the development of the productive forces.
  4. Every class in history, advancing its candidacy to power – and all the more so, every ruling class! – is conscious of its role, possesses its own specific ideology and features; and attains a minimum of stability in its composition, a stability which it endeavors to transmit to the succeeding generations.
  5. Explicitly according to Marx, no social formation can become a class solely on the basis of its higher income, its political privileges or its monopolies (of education and so on).

It is evident that the Soviet bureaucracy only possesses features which, from a Marxist standpoint, do not make of it a class. It is in no way “an historically necessary organ” but a malignant growth upon the proletariat. It has no roots whatsoever in the process of production, but owes its position exclusively to privileges in distribution. It does not represent any historic “progress” but corrodes and undermines the progress made possible by production relations inherited from the October Revolution. It does not represent any phase in the evolution of property “but maintains the property relations established by the proletarian revolution. In no way does it have its own ideology or composition, but remains as unstable and variable in the former as in the latter. The best indication that Russia is not a new class society but a society corrupted by the appearance of a parasitic organ is this fact: Contrary to what happens in every exploiting society, the solidity of Russian economy stands not in direct but inverse proportion to the privileges of the bureaucracy.

An honest and consistent application of class characteristics to the bureaucracy can result only in a justification of its historic role and in a historic condemnation of the proletariat. If the bureaucracy is really a class, then it follows that the bureaucratic stage of society’s development is a historic necessity and that the proletariat is not yet capable of ruling the world. This was Burnham’s conclusion which the adherents of the theory of “bureaucratic collectivism” in the revolutionary movement have not dared to draw.

They have tried to escape this fundamental contradiction of their position by emphasizing the “unique” character of the bureaucracy, born of specifically Russian conditions. For the same reason they have put forward the anti-Marxist theory that in an epoch of “collective” ownership-as if such an epoch exists outside the epoch of the proletarian revolution! – class domination no longer alters property relations, but only the domination of the State. However, the expansion of the bureaucracy beyond the Soviet frontiers has impelled these theoreticians toward a new revisionist extension of their theory. The Communist parties throughout the world are now considered as “nuclei” of a new class. With this definition the whole Marxist definition of class is invalidated.

For it is evident that the Communist parties and their members do not play any independent role in the process of production and would become a “class” solely on the strength of political privileges. And it is evident that they can obtain these privileges only to the extent that the proletariat proves incapable of overthrowing decaying capitalism. A new stage would open up in the history of mankind, that of bureaucratic collectivism on a continental (or even world) scale, more or less identified with “barbarism.”

The proponents of this theory have never tried to analyze the laws of the development of this new society and to show through what operation of social contradictions it would ever cease existing. By insisting on the “decay” of the proletariat and its reduction to the “slave” status, they can only underline the conclusion, flowing from this theory, that the proletariat is incapable of fulfilling its historic mission. Its proponents, if they were consistent with themselves, would have to abandon the program of the socialist revolution – at least in those countries where bureaucratic collectivism has, according to them, been victorious; and replace it with a “new minimum program” for the defense of the slaves’ interests. By its implications, this theory would liquidate the existence of the Fourth International in these countries; and its logical application would completely paralyze the activities in capitalist countries in the face of the problem of the Stalinist parties.

Our Analysis Reaffirms Marxism

Every exploited class which takes over power in a society, where the development of the productive forces does not yet guarantee the satisfaction of all social needs, must necessarily pave the way to a class exploitation. For the building of a classless society a high level of social wealth is required. The Russian experience only confirms the second aspect of this Marxist law. For, while Russia’s level of development of the productive forces does not allow a gradual progress toward a classless society, world economy as a whole is over-ripe for the building of socialism. Just as Stalin did not understand the interdependence between the development of the capitalist world and Russian development, so this interdependence is ignored by all those who believe they discern new social forces in Russia, by abstracting the latter from the decisive active forces on the world arena.

“Every sociological definition is a historic prognosis,” Trotsky said. Since we consider that the struggle on the world arena has far from spoken its last word since we start from the assertion that the proletariat has preserved intact its revolutionary potential, we do not think that the historic phase of the October Revolution is already dead and buried, or that Russia is a demonstration – either as an isolated or a world symptom – of the proletariat’s incapacity to hold power, as well as a demonstration of the instability of the production relations established by the proletarian revolution. This is why our analysis of the USSR maintains the whole Marxist heritage, with its interpretation of history as the history of class struggles, with its scientifically precise definition of the concept of class, with its analysis of the capitalist world as leading inevitably to the sharpening of class contradictions and to the revolutionary struggles of the proletariat, with its program of the socialist revolution, based on a historical process which renders it possible and necessary for the further progress of mankind.

The building of the Fourth International is today the essential condition for the extension and victorious realization of the workers’ revolutionary struggles on a world scale. A victorious solution of this task will in effect “solve” the Russian question through the triumph of the fourth Russian Revolution. History will show that a correct analysis of the phenomenon of Stalinism is one of the premises for the achievement of our historic mission.

The International Secretariat of the Fourth International

November 1947

Note by ETOL

1*. These theses were considered at the the Second World Congress of the Fourth International in Paris in April 1948. The resolution adopted, entitled The USSR and Stalinism, was published in Fourth International, Vol.9 No.4, June 1948, pp.110-128.

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