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Albert Goldman

Russia: What Is This Monstrosity?

A Discussion on the Nature of the Stalinist State

(September 1947)

From The New International, Vol. XIII No. 7, September 1947, pp. 211–215.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The consequences of the victory of the Stalinist army have been so devastating to the socialist revolution that one would expect the entire Fourth International to give up the slogan of defense without extended discussion. But so great is the power of a formula created by a master, even when the master himself paid little attention to formulae, that it becomes next to impossible to tear the blind followers away from it.

To defend Stalinist Russia means not only to offer an explanation of what we are defending but also, wherever possible, to help the Stalinist army gain victory. This course was perhaps justified when we did not know the actual results that would follow from such a victory. After these results stare us in the face, to help the Stalinist army gain victory means, regardless of our intentions, to share in the responsibility for the crimes of Stalinism, resulting from that victory. It is, to say the least, criminally reckless, to wish and work for the victory of ah army which is nothing but the instrument of a group desiring to increase the number of people under its oppressive rule.

It is unnecessary to elaborate on the consequences of the Stalinist victory. The most important single factor in preventing the socialist revolution in eastern Europe was the Russian army. Because of that victory the strength of the Stalinist parties in western Europe has been greatly enhanced and the failure of the socialist revolution to develop in France and other western European countries can be attributed to the fact that the. workers followed the Stalinist parties. The victory of the Stalinist army meant the plundering and looting of eastern Europe and Manchuria; it meant forced labor and death for millions of German, Polish, Balkan, Baltic and Japanese workers and peasants.

Expressing their regrets at the consequences of the victory of the Stalinist army, the official theoreticians of the Fourth International cling to the formula of Trotsky about nationalized property and base themselves entirely on that formula. Comrade Germain writes about the “brilliant” results achieved by the Stalinists in rebuilding the devastated portions of Russia and barely mentions the millions of slaves who make these”brilliant” results possible. These are people who have not advanced on: step since Trotsky wrote The Revolution Betrayed. They continue with the pattern created by him and differ only in their figures on production and consumption.

Perhaps these theoreticians would learn if they had the opportunity to present the theories and their figures to the miserable slaves in the. Stalinist concentration camps. Or will It require the occupation of Belgium and France by Stalin’s “liberating army” before they get some practical lessons on Russian economy and production relations? Let us hope they will not have to go through this bitter experience.

Nationalized Property and Defense

Basically we based our defense of Stalinist Russia primarily on the fact that nationalized property achieved by the proletarian revolution still existed. We accepted without argument the proposition that nationalized property is, in and of itself, progressive as against capitalist property. To a certain extent therefore our defense of nationalized property was implicitly based on the proposition that the consequences of that form of property are necessarily progressive.

Reality showed us that the results of the victory of the army which defended nationalized property in Russia and the interests of the bureaucracy were anything but progressive. viewing those results from the standpoint of the interests of the socialist revolution. The implicit assumption that the consequences of a “victory of nationalized property” would be progressive was proved false by events. They are not Marxists who fail to regard the actual course of events and cling to a theory that has been proved false.

When we consider the events that have occurred since 1939 we should be able to realize that Trotsky was mistaken when he formulated the proposition that we must defend Stalinist Russia so long as nationalized property exists. It is true that in his discussions and arguments he implied that the defense of nationalized property would be followed by progressive consequences. But the formula itself did not include that thought. It is within the spirit and method of Trotsky and all other great Marxists who insisted on analyzing events and not clinging to a theory that we must now proceed to correct the error made by Trotsky and accepted by us.

Our defense of the Soviet Union should not have been based solely on the fact that nationalized property was still in existence but also on all of the conditions under which nationalized property was functioning. When we defended the Soviet Union in the days when Lenin and Trotsky were guiding its destinies we did not do so because property was nationalized. (For a short period it was not nationalized.) It is far more correct to say that we defended the Soviet Union at that time because the program and policies of the Bolshevik party were leading the country in a socialist direction.

With the defeat of the Left Opposition representing the program of October it became necessary at every stage to indicate the factors, in addition to the existence of nationalized property, which made it obligatory for us to defend the Soviet Union. The existence of the traditions of October in the consciousness of the masses and the possibility, therefore, of their taking advantage of a war to overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy was an important factor in favor of defense. So also was the expectation that a victory of the Russian army would set the European Revolution into action.

It must be admitted that to regard the existence of nationalized property as the basic and sole criterion for defense simplifies the problem enormously. It is a criterion that is more objective than any other and is more easily measurable. Introducing other factors such as the existence of workers’ control and the traditions of October in the consciousness of the masses complicates the problem of defending or not defending Russia. But simplifying the problem does not make for a correct solution.

Had Trotsky emphasized that nationalized property functions under certain conditions and that some of these conditions must be taken into consideration in determining our attitude on defense he would have been far more correct.

Let justice be done though the heavens fall. This is the rule followed by those who cling to the formula: Because there is still nationalized property Russia must be defended, regardless of the consequences. The rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy has of course nothing to do with justice.

Possible Theories for Defense

What theory can possibly justify defense of a state when the victory of its army leads to such dire consequences to the masses of the defeated countries? If the victory of an army leads to robbery and pillage, to the execution of the best representatives of the socialist movement, to the forced labor of millions of people, what possible theory is there to justify wishing and working for such a victory?

One can claim that the consequences resulting from the victory of the Stalinist army are temporary in nature; that somehow or other nationalized property under Stalinism will ultimately increase the productivity of labor and due to that the masses will gain democracy and thus place Russia and the Russian satellite states in the path of socialism.

That Trotsky never had that theory goes without saying. He stated definitely that without the European Revolution Russia will return to capitalism. The correctness of that theory may be questioned but what cannot be questioned is that Trotsky never had a theory claiming that Russia would return to the path of socialism by virtue of the existence of nationalized property. (I am given to understand that lately some French comrades have accepted some such theory. If that is true they will in all probability capitulate to Stalinism completely.)

We based ourselves on the theory that only a socialist revolution in Europe would give the Russian masses a chance for victory against the Stalinist bureaucracy. Now it has been shown to those who have eyes to see that a victory of the Stalinist army prevents a socialist revolution in Europe. A successful revolution must be predicated upon the defeat of the Stalinist army.

That the bureaucracy constitutes a burden upon the development of the productive forces in Russia has been one of our chief tenets. Strictly speaking there may not be sufficient evidence to conclude that nationalized property under Stalinism cannot exceed the productivity of labor reached by capitalism. All indications, however, point to the truth of that conclusion. Certainly we are justified in making the a priori statement that slave and semi-slave labor cannot, in the long-run, be the basis of an increase in the productivity of labor.

Another theory justifying defense is that the victory of a capitalist army would lead to even worse consequences. It is indeed difficult to envision worse consequences than those resulting from the victory of the Stalinist army. Even the Jews had little to choose between a victory of the Stalinist or of the Nazi armies. It is true that the Jews do not generally suffer under the Stalinist regime because they are Jews, but it is very little consolation to be given the choice between death in the gas chamber and “life” in the Siberian concentration camps together with non-Jews.

Certainly as between a victory for the Russian armies and one for the democratic capitalist armies the choice, for the immediate future, is all in favor of the latter. To those who present us with the argument that a victory of the Nazis would have destroyed completely the possibilities of the socialist revolution for generations (and this is absolutely true) the answer is that it is not the victory of the Stalinists that gave the European workers a breathing spell but the victory of the British and American imperialists. (It is not, I hope, necessary to state that this does not mean that we should have supported the democratic imperialists.) One must indeed be blind not to recognize that whatever independent working class movement there exists at present in western Europe is due largely to the victory of the democratic imperialists over Hitler.

Great emphasis has been and is being laid by those who follow the old line of defense, on the argument that the victory of the Stalinist army prevents the expansion of capitalist imperialism into the territory now controlled by Stalinism. This argument was based on the proposition that somehow or other nationalized property under any conditions is to be preferred over capitalism under the most democratic conditions. This argument had validity on the supposition that the victory of the army defending nationalized property would lead to progressive consequences from the point of view of advancing the interests of the socialist revolution.

The consequences of the victory of Stalinism blasted that argument to pieces and one must now change the theory to conform to the facts. And the facts show that there are greater possibilities for the socialist revolution in a democratic capitalist state than under a Stalinist totalitarian regime. So long as democratic capitalism lasts, so long have the workers some chance to organize and struggle for the socialist revolution.

It is highly improbable that in case of a victory of democratic capitalism over the Stalinist armies, capitalist property rebtions would be re-established. But if they were and the Russian masses would once more get a breathing spell the net result would be a gain and not a loss for them. In the light of the probability of a war between Russia and the United States and of the possibility of a victory for the former the question must be posed: would the masses under Stalinism be better off than they are under democratic capitalism. Only those who see some mystical power in nationalized property, which must ultimately lead to socialism regardless of the totalitarian regime, can answer that question in the affirmative. For those who do not believe in religion the answer must be that there is as much chance for socialism emanating from the Stalinist regimes as from a fascist regime.

Lenin, quoting Goethe, remarked that theories are gray but green is the living reality. To cling to theories which are contrary to the facts of life is not in line with Marxist tradition.

The Nature of Russian Economy and State

What is this monstrosity which is the result of the degeneration of what was once a workers’ state?

The development of a social order, totally different from anything we expected has necessarily given rise to sharp differences of opinion as to its nature. People who base themselves on the same general principles of Marx disagree in defining the nature of a social order which has the characteristics. of everything bad that has ever afflicted mankind.

We are somewhat in the position of scientists confronted with the birth of a strange and unexpected specimen. Some conclude that it is a totally new species and proceed to give it a new name; some insist that it is very similar to something with which we are familiar and insist that we have at least the name of the familiar species as part of the name for the new arrival; the more cautious ones say that it is necessary to wait and see what developments will take place in the monster, before coming to a definite decision. Meanwhile let us call it a degeneration of the species from which it sprang.

For those who have given up the idea of defending Russia the question of what it is and what to call it is not of very great importance. No matter what one calls it, it is bad for the human race. An explanation of its origin is important and most of us, regardless of the differences we have on the nature of the Russian state, accept Trotsky’s explanation for its origin. We look at the monstrosity and in the main agree that it has certain aspects and functions in a certain way. Above all, we agree that the bureaucracy or class in power should be overthrown and the political and economic life of the country be placed under the control of the workers. Nevertheless the theory that we accept as to the nature of the Russian state has some importance, as I shall try to show.

It must first of all be recognized that only two theories of its nature settle the question of whether or not to defend Russia without any further examination. The Stalinists have no problem of defense because they consider Russia a workers’ state. Those who consider that capitalism as described by Marx prevails in Russia, except that the state has replaced the capitalists, also have no problem of defense.

But if one accepts the theory that Russia is a bureaucratic collectivist society or that it is a new social order that should be designated as “state capitalism,” or that it is a degenerated workers’ state the question of defense is not automatically solved. What should determine our decision as to whether or not to defend it is not the label or the theory but whether or not we consider the economy and the conditions under which it functions as progressive.

Bureaucratic Collectivism

The fundamental proposition of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism is that the Russian bureaucracy, constituting a new class, owns the industries of that country, exploits the masses of Russia and has launched upon an imperialist course to dominate and exploit the masses of other countries.

The minority of 1940 in the Socialist Workers Party (the main advocates at present of the bureaucratic collectivist theory) had what then appeared to be an absolutely incorrect position, but which, in the light of events, has proven to be the correct approach. The comrades of that minority held that regardless of the fact that one considered Russia a degenerated workers’ state it should not be defended. This position was not elaborated and made clear but essentially, as a method of approach, it was more correct than the method of the majority which held to the theory that so long as Russia was a degenerated workers’ state it must be defended.

It seems plausible to conclude that not the least important factor which led the comrades of the minority of 1940 to adopt the theory and label first suggested by the Italian Comrade Bruno R. was the sharp criticism of Trotsky to the effect that they failed to take into consideration the nature of the Soviet Union in arriving at their position against defense.

As stated above, to consider Russia as a bureaucratic collectivist state does not thereby solve the problem as to whether it should be defended. As a matter of fact the theory of bureaucratic collectivism, just as the theory of the degenerated workers’ state, speaks for defense rather than against it. For if Russian society is some form of collectivism it should be defended as against capitalism. It can be readily seen that the question of defense cannot be settled by calling Russia a bureaucratic collectivist state but by an analysis of its economy, the conditions under which the economy functions and the consequences that would probably follow from a victory of its army.

A minor objection to the term “bureaucratic collectivism” – an outlandish term at best – is that it distorts somewhat the picture of the actual situation in Russia. Actually the state property is not owned by all of the bureaucrats collectively; it is owned by the state and the state is “owned” not by all of the bureaucrats but by those on the very highest rung of the ladder of bureaucracy.

One must also remember that the term “collectivism” was used in the socialist movement as a synonym for socialism. If one were to propose to label that which exists in Russia “bureaucratic socialism” many would object on the following grounds: (1) there is no socialism whatever in Russia; (2) the phrase is a contradiction in terms, for if there is socialism it cannot be bureaucratic, and (3) why defile the term “socialism”? The very same objections are applicable to the term “bureaucratic collectivism.”

The most serious objection to the theory of bureaucratic collectivism is that it tends to raise theoretical difficulties in the path of the struggle for socialism. Thus far we have based ourselves on the theory of Marx that the class struggle under capitalism will result in the victory of the working class and the establishment of socialism. Bureaucratic collectivism revises that theory and indicates that a system other than socialism, that is, bureaucratic collectivism, is just as likely to follow capitalism. At first it seemed as if the proponents of the bureaucratic collectivist theory confined the new social order to Russia but with the spread of Russian domination in eastern Europe it appears as if bureaucratic collectivism is a serious rival to socialism as the system of society that will replace capitalism the world over.

This implication in the theory of bureaucratic collectivism is strengthened by the fact that those who hold that theory contend that the bureaucracy in Russia is a class. If it is, then, for those who accept the Marxist concept of a class, it should have a progressive task in the development of the productive forces and should be expected to retain its rule for a comparatively long period.

And what would follow the social order of bureaucratic collectivism? It is indeed difficult to imagine socialism emerging from the womb of bureaucratic collectivism. The very reason for the existence of this new social order the world over would be the inability of the working class to take and retain power. If it cannot do so under capitalism which permits a certain degree of freedom for the education and organization of the proletariat how can it reach a high level of education and organization under a system which practically enslaves the masses?

One can visualize great conflicts resulting from the national and social oppression of the masses in a totalitarian society but it is highly improbable that an educated socialist proletariat should develop in a police state. And such a proletariat is essential for the establishment of a socialist society. The perspective which the theory of bureaucratic collectivism gives us is a bleak one indeed.

To revise Marx when events demand it is not only justified but absolutely essential. Otherwise one is not a Marxist. The comrades who insist that the theory of bureaucratic collectivism best explains the conditions in Russia can surely claim that they are applying the method of Marx, although rejecting a basic conclusion of the founder of socialism. Comrade Shachtman has adequately answered the theoreticians of the Socialist Workers Party on that score. (See Max Shachtman’s article in The New International of April 1947.)

It is not because the theory of bureaucratic collectivism revises a basic conclusion of Marx that it should be rejected; it is because, by its revision, it raises possible theoretical difficulties in the struggle for socialism that it should be rejected.

It may be argued that the theoretical difficulties are not the fault of the theory but of reality. But if another theory explains the facts just as well and does not raise the theoretical difficulties that are implied in the theory of bureaucratic collectivism, then such a theory is to be preferred. We can look at the Stalinist bureaucracy and agree that what it does and how it acts make of it the greatest enemy ,to socialism. We can call it by any name we please and it will still act in the same manner. But if calling it a “class” raises theoretical difficulties in the struggle for socialism and calling it a bureaucracy avoids those difficulties that is a good reason for calling it a bureaucracy. The theory of socialism has for its purpose to achieve freedom for mankind and unless there are compelling facts to revise it we should reject every theory that revises it to the detriment of the struggle for socialism.

State Capitalism

Most of those who accept the theory that state capitalism prevails in Russia do so on the alleged ground that the economic system in that country is essentially the same as in the United States or England. According to them in Russia private capitalism has been displaced by state capitalism – but all the laws of capitalism as analyzed and explained by Marx continue to operate.

It is undoubtedly true that sections of the Marxist theory of the functioning of capitalism can be made to apply to the Russian system of exploitation. But we must view the theory of Marx as a whole and we must view the Russian economic system as a whole. If we do that it becomes clear that the Russian system of economy differs radically from the system of capitalism analyzed by Marx. The Russian system is in effect a new system of economy.

Many who claim that there is state capitalism in Russia and insist that it essentially follows the same laws that operate in the “classical” capitalist system use somewhat the following logic: In Russia the law of value functions; there is accumulation of wealth; misery prevails for the masses and a high standard of living for the few, etc. The same conditions exist under capitalism. Therefore Russia is capitalist.

In general it can be said that all of the aspects of Russian economy which the theoreticians of state capitalism point to as evidence existed in modified form in the early days of the Soviet Union. The fact is that the ultra-lefts have used the same arguments to prove that state capitalism existed under Lenin and Trotsky.

Stalin did not introduce the law of value into Russian economy; it certainly operated in Soviet economy during the days of the New Economic Policy. One of the reasons for the retreat of the leaders of Bolshevism from war communism to the New Economic Policy was precisely because they saw that they were wrong in their attempt to do away with the law of value. During the period of transition between capitalism and complete socialism the law of value will operate to a certain extent even under the best of circumstances.

The difference between a Stalinist regime determined to defend the interests of the bureaucracy and a Lenin-Trotsky regime striving to achieve socialism lies partly in this: whereas under Lenin and Trotsky there was an interference with the law of value for the benefit of the workers, the Stalinists interfere with it to the injury of the workers and in favor of the bureaucracy. It is most probable that if the bureaucracy permitted the law of value to operate freely the workers would benefit thereby.

To designate the economy of Russia as state capitalist on the basis that it is practically the same as the capitalist economies analyzed by Marx is to fly in the face of the facts and that is one thing Marxists must never do. The ownership by the state of the means of production and the abolition of competition on the free market means the abolition of capitalism.

State Capitalism – A New Order

It may be possible, however, to contend that the Russian economy represents a new social order for which the best name is “state capitalism.” Those who hold this theory do not attempt to prove that state capitalism exists in Russia by pointing to some laws of Marxian economics which prevail also in Russia. They face the fact that Russian economy is totally different from American or English economy and simply assert that state capitalism is the best label for the Russian economic system.

Between the proponents of this theory of state capitalism and the advocates of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism there is a difference only in label. They both agree that a new class rules in Russia and a new social order – neither socialism nor capitalism – exists in that country. There can be only a terminological conflict between these two theories with the advantages all in favor of the label “state capitalism.”

That the industries are owned by the state and that the state is “owned” by the top layer of the bureaucracy are facts which speak persuasively in favor of calling the Russian system state capitalism. Also at present there is some indication that in Russia there is developing a group living off the interest obtained by virtue of the ownership of bonds. The members of this group can now pass their wealth on to their heirs. A state which owns the industries and which has as its primary purpose the exploitation of the masses for the benefit of those who “own” the state and of bondholders can very well be designated as a capitalist state and the system which it defends as “state capitalism.”

Trotsky’s objection to the term “state capitalism” was that it was used in a different sense in the Marxist movement. It referred to the ownership of certain industries by the capitalist state under the prevailing regime of private property. That is not a serious objection; the reply can be made that what is necessary now is to find the best possible term to designate a new phenomenon. It is true that we must invest the term “state capitalism” with a new meaning in order to apply it to the Russian system of economy but that should not constitute an insurmountable obstacle.

While I am opposed to the concept that state capitalism prevails in Russia on the same general grounds that I oppose the theory of bureaucratic collectivism, I am all in favor of using the term “state capitalism” as against “bureaucratic collectivism.” Should we be compelled by the course of events to revise Marx and recognize that a social system which is not socialism is destined to follow capitalism, then we should call it state capitalism rather than bureaucratic collectivism. I strongly urge those who believe in the theory that there is a new class which rules a new social order in Russia to drop the term “bureaucratic collectivism” in favor of the term “state capitalism.” From the propaganda point of view it is the best tenn available because it is familiar to the advanced workers and to some extent it creates a connection between the struggle against the capitalist state as it exists in capitalist countries and the struggle against the Russian state.

Degenerated Workers’ State

I hold that for the present the theory which best describes the economic and social conditions prevailing in Russia is still “degenerated workers’ state.” There is one very serious objection to the term and that is that the word “workers” can be easily misunderstood and misinterpreted. It seems to be almost impossible to use the term without having the objection raised that the workers have no control whatever in Russia and that they are oppressed and enslaved – all of which is perfectly true – and that therefore it cannot possibly be even a degenerated workers’ state. From the propaganda point of view the term “state capitalist” is much better than the term “degenerated workers’ state.” But the theory that Russia is a degenerated workers’ state avoids the theoretical difficulties of the theories of bureaucratic collectivism and of state capitalism. These theoretical difficulties are far more serious than the propaganda difficulties connected with the use of the term “degenerated workers’ state.”

When used at present the term “degenerated workers’ state” should mean only that Russia was once a workers’ state and has by this time degenerated to a point where it has nothing whatever to do with socialism and should under no circumstances be defended. The term “degenerated,” because of its vagueness, always demanded an explanation. Stalinist Russia was degenerated when Trotsky advocated a peaceful elimination of the bureaucracy; it was degenerated when he changed his mind and said that a violent overthrow of the ruling clique was necessary.

In The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky contended that the nationalization of the land, the means of industrial production, together with the monopoly of foreign trade make of the Soviet Union a proletarian state. This general principle must be revised. We must say that what made the Soviet Union a workers’ state was not only the property relations but the program and policies which directed the state in the path of achieving socialism. With the victory of the Stalinist bureaucracy there was a turn away from the socialist path and now the road leads in the opposite direction from that of socialism.

Where will it lead to? Almost up to the last months of his life Trotsky held to his theory that it can lead either to a restoration of capitalism or to the overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracy and a march back to socialism. In his last articles in 1939–40, during the factional fight with the minority of the SWP, he presented the possibility of a third alternative, the alternative of a degenerated society such as exists in Russia under Stalinism, if the workers do not take power. Trotsky went to the extent of saying that the workers must take power during or immediately after the war in order to prevent this “declining society of the totalitarian epoch” from replacing capitalist society. I think we can say that in this instance Trotsky was too pessimistic.

More than two years after the war we can still say that history has not yet made a definitive decision. There are still great possibilities for the victory of socialism, especially in the most powerful country in the world, the United States. As fighters for the freedom of mankind through socialism we have no right to give up the struggle until the decision comes in this country. It is unnecessary of course to drown out one’s doubts by shouting about the “coming American Revolution,” as if it is around the corner (leaving a way out of course by saying that the “coming revolution” does not mean that it will come tomorrow). We can say truthfully that we do not know when the decision will come but that we must do our utmost to assure victory for socialism.

Victory for socialism in this country means the certain defeat of Stalinism and fascism the world over. Defeat for socialism in this country means the ushering in of the “declining society of the totalitarian epoch” which may last for decades or centuries. And, as Trotsky indicated, such a development will mean the necessity of a thorough revision of Marxism.

The superiority of the concept of “degenerated workers’ state” over all other theories lies in the fact that it recognizes that history has not yet said the last word and that whether or not a new order other than socialism will replace capitalism will be decided by the struggle that is still going on in Europe and especially by the struggle in the United States.

What class rules in Russia? This is the insurmountable obstacle for those who look upon Marxism as a series of quotations. Surely the workers do not rule; they are semi-slaves at best. Surely the capitalists as we know them in this country do not rule; they have been eliminated in Russia and are being eliminated everywhere that Russia gains control. The bureaucrats rule and the direction is toward their development as a new class. If doctrinaires reject such a concept because according to Marx either the capitalists or the workers must rule, then our only answer is that they do not understand the real method of Marx who insisted upon looking at phenomena in process of development.

Weighing the merits and demerits of the various theories advanced as to the nature of Stalinist Russia I conclude that, for the present at least, we should retain the theory of degenerated workers’ state because it explains the existing facts as well as any other theory and it does not raise any theoretical barrier to the continuation of the struggle for socialism.

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