MIA: History: ETOL: Document: Workers Party/Independent Socialist League: Neither Capitalism nor Socialism

Workers Party/Independent Socialist League

E. Haberkern & Arthur Lipow (eds.)

Neither Capitalism nor Socialism


James Burnham

From Formula to Reality


Neither Capitalism nor Socialism, pp. 3–25.
Internal Bulletin of the Socialist Workers’ Party, 1937


... Doctrinaire will doubtless not be satisfied with this hypothetical definition. They would like categorical formulae: yes-yes, and no-no. Sociological problems would certainly be simpler, if social phenomena had always a finished character. There is nothing more dangerous, however, than to throw out of reality, for the sake of logical completeness, elements which today violate your scheme and tomorrow may wholly overturn it. In our analysis, we have above all avoided doing violence to dynamic social formations which have had no precedent and have no analogies. The scientific task, as well as the political, is not to give a finished definition to an unfinished process, but to follow all its stages, separate its progressive from its reactionary tendencies, expose their mutual relations, foresee possible variants of development, and find in this foresight a basis for action. (Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed)

Some Puzzling Omissions ...

It is instructive to notice how much is omitted from the resolution of the Committee majority (Cannon-Abern) on the Russian Question. For example:

Nowhere does the resolution state flatly and unambiguously: “In the Soviet Union, the proletariat is the ruling class.” Nowhere does the resolution declare itself on the problem of the “dual” or “single” character of the bureaucracy. This problem cannot be dismissed as a trifle. All historical institutions, of course, have in a certain formal sense a “dual” role: even the bourgeois state, even employers, act occasionally, “by accident,” in the interests of the proletariat. But for the purposes of action, in order to establish our policies and perspectives, we sum up the character of each institution taken as a whole, defining it as on the whole “progressive” or “reactionary”, or in certain unusual cases as “dual”. Thus we say that the bourgeoisie is in the present epoch reactionary, and we do not support it. We say that the struggle of the loyalists against Franco, in spite of numerous reactionary features (if we were abstracting out separate elements), is on the whole or rather taken as a whole progressive, and we have supported it. In the first years of the Russian Revolution, we said that the regime was unambiguously progressive. Then, for many years, we have said that it had a dual character: and we advocated defense of the Soviet Union and the revolution, but political struggle against the bureaucracy. Does the bureaucratic regime, does Stalinism that is to say, today preserve that dual character, taken as a whole, or has it lost that dual character and become, taken as a whole, reactionary? The Resolution gives no answer.

Nowhere does the Resolution characterize unequivocally, or even mention seriously, the foreign policy of Stalinism, the social role of Stalinism and its institutions outside of the boundaries of the Soviet Union.

Nowhere does the Resolution declare itself with reference to the possibility of the completion of the counter-revolution within the Soviet Union without a wide-scale, mass Civil War.

We have observed before this that slogans and formulas, divorced from specific content, are meaningless. Merely repeating “Peace, Bread and Land” did not make the French Stalinists Bolsheviks a few years ago. The Committee majority is concerned for the formula, “Workers’ State”. But the omissions reveal strikingly the lack of specific content which this formula possesses for them. Why these omissions?

In the first place, behind the back of the formula there is concealed a complete lack of agreement among the supporters of the Resolution. This came rapidly to the surface in the membership discussion. Comrades Cannon and Abern declared that Stalinism has still a dual role; Comrades Weber and Shachtman that it has now a single, i.e., reactionary, counter-revolutionary role. Shachtman, Abern, Cannon declare that Stalinism outside of foreign boundaries has exactly the same social role as internally; Weber (and now comrade Trotsky), that externally (as in Spain) Stalinism has now a purely counter-revolutionary role, and acts solely in the interests of the bourgeoisie; comrade Trotsky making an explicit distinction between its role in Spain and its role internally. Abern ruled out the possibility of a completion of the internal counter-revolution without a mass civil war; Weber admits that possibility; Shachtman, and so far as I can gather Trotsky, do not declare themselves explicitly. Certain supporters of the majority – i.e., Morrow – say that the conception of a “ruling class” has nothing to do with the conception of a “state”; others say that a “workers’ state” means one in which the proletariat is the ruling class.

In the second place, these omissions serve to give the Resolution a false character in the eyes of the membership. The Resolution professes to declare that something “new” has occurred within the Soviet Union during the past two or three years, and that we must therefore make a new analysis, or rather extend our previous analysis to cover the new phenomena. This profession is even more urgently made in Shachtman’s article in the New International. [2] But, in reality, the retention of the formula, “workers’ state”, prevents any extension to cover the undoubtedly new phenomena, and results, if consistently carried through, in simply a restatement of our old analysis [the “three factions” analysis – EH] with no change whatever. This is recognized by comrade Victor Fox. His statement in bulletin #2 is a careful and exact formulation of what follows from the retention of the formula “workers’ state”. The Committee majority insists that it does not accept Fox’s statement. But in the discussion they have not pointed out a single reason for not accepting it; and they have made absolutely no criticism of it, save for one passing literary criticism of a single phrase made by Cannon. Thus the resolution is demagogic: it pretends to be what it is not, and recommends itself to the membership under false colors. Let Fox demand from the Committee majority an explanation of their rejection of his statement. So far they have given none. If they cannot give a political motivation, their rejection must be understood as merely bureaucratic, or at the best stylistic. And they cannot give a political motivation.

Thirdly, the omissions must be understood as hiding the contradictions within the position of the Committee majority, and the inadequacy of its formulas for handling the present reality. These contradictions I shall develop more at length in what follows.

And Disturbing Contradictions

I have already cited certain of the contradictions among supporters of the Resolution on key specific problems. There are, however, other contradictions not only among various interpretations, but inherent to the position itself. For example, it is contended by Abern and Sterling that we give unconditional support to the Soviet Union and to the Red Army under any and all circumstances; and Cannon has also expressed agreement with this view. So long as we believe that the Soviet Union is a workers’ state, this view is altogether plausible. If it is a workers’ state, the possibility of its engaging in a reactionary war is not realistic and does not have to be taken into account. But the past year and a half have made clear that there is a very real possibility that the Soviet Union and the Red Army may engage in a reactionary war: for example, as part of a “League Army” to liquidate the Spanish Civil War, or in China – indeed, this possibility was nearly realized and may yet be. In such a war, do we defend and support the Red Army? Cannon, Abern, and Sterling have said yes. But I do not believe they have thought the problem out. Of course we do not support them under such circumstances: to do so would be to support the counter-revolution. Shachtman understands this and recognizes such a possibility, though rightly pointing out that it is less probable than an imperialist attack on the Soviet Union. However, his understanding and recognition are incompatible with his alleged view that the Soviet Union remains a workers’ state. Shachtman’s inconsistency in this instance enables him to draw a correct political conclusion; Cannon, Abern and Sterling are consistent, and wrong.

If the Soviet Union is still a workers’ state, the possibility of the restoration of private property without a mass civil war is excluded, at least if we still retain our traditional view on the nature of revolutions. During the last several years, however, our movement has widely recognized that the restoration might be accomplished without mass civil war (though not without a certain amount of violence -indeed, there has been plenty of violence during this period); and it is clear on the surface of events that it might be. But this recognition is in reality a recognition that the Soviet Union is no longer a workers’ state. The state – that is, the organs and institutions of coercion in society, the army, police, GPU, courts, prisons, bureaucracy; and even the juridical basis of the state as provided in the New Constitution (the de jure locus of sovereignty in the new Parliaments) – does not have to be overthrown in order to accomplish the full social and economic counter-revolution. (It does not have to be, though in point of fact it might be, dependent upon the specific developments.) On the other hand, it is by now clear that getting rid of Stalinism, what we call “the political revolution,” (what is in truth the re-establishment of the class rule of the proletariat) does in all probability require not the mere “reform” of the bureaucracy, not simply a “change of government”, but the overthrow of the present state and its organs and institutions, the abolition of the bureaucracy, the creation of a new “army of the people,” the destruction of the GPU, the abolition of the New Constitution and its juridical provisions. The “political revolution” will create a dual power counter to the present state power, perhaps under the slogan of “All Power back to the Soviets,” and will achieve victory through the transfer of power. What does all this mean, what can it mean, of the political revolution which we advocate, except that this political revolution involves a change in class rule, not merely a change in the form of rule by the same class (which is what we advocated up to a few years ago)? If the Soviet Union is still a workers’ state, if, that is to say, the working class is still the ruling class within the Soviet Union, then our policies, the program we advocate for the Soviet Union, is entirely unjustifiable; and we must return to our policies and programs of four or five years ago. Here again, comrade Fox’s statement is enlightening, for Fox is consistent. It is altogether clear from a careful reading of his statement that he cannot really accept our present policy of “political revolution.”

The contradictions are even more glaring in connection with the question of the social role of Stalinism outside of the Soviet Union. It is, I have always understood, an elementary tenet of Marxism that the social role of a class or a state is basically the same nationally and internationally, There may be, of course, accidental or temporary deviations from this rule; but in crises and over any considerable period of time it emerges clearly. For many years we have criticized the Lovestonites [3] on exactly this point: we have said that their distinction between the internal role of the Stalinist bureaucracy (beneficial and praiseworthy) and its external role (reactionary and disruptive) is not only a direct violation of Marxism, but makes it altogether impossible to explain either Stalinism or the Soviet Union, or to hold a correct policy with reference to them.

I found rather startling the casual and as if incidental manner in which comrade Trotsky brushed aside this doctrine and this method of analysis. After explaining the internal role of the bureaucracy as dual and as in one aspect genuinely defending the interests of the proletariat; and after insisting that within the Soviet Union the proletariat is still the ruling class and the state a workers’ state; he suddenly writes: “The same Stalin in Spain, i.e., on the soil of a bourgeois regime, executes the function of Hitler” (which function he has just defined as defending the bourgeois forms of property). If the thesis itself is startling (involving the conception that Stalinism in Spain has a completely different social role, expresses completely different class interests, form Stalinism within the Soviet union), the suggested explanation – nowhere any further developed – is even more so: “i.e., on the soil of a bourgeois regime ...” But Stalinism, even Stalinism in Spain, is surely not a “Spanish phenomenon.” Stalinism in Spain as in the Soviet Union and in every other country, springs, we have always taught, from the soil of the Soviet Union, where among other features, nationalized property relations and the monopoly of foreign trade still obtain. It is because these property relations do not any longer constitute the Soviet Union a workers’ state, because they accompany a state which is not a workers’ state, because the proletariat is not any longer the ruling class within the Soviet Union, that Stalinism is able to and does play its current role in Spain. No other consistent explanation can be given for Stalinism in Spain. To say that the bureaucracy within the Soviet Union expresses – even if in distorted manner – the interests of the proletariat, but in Spain only and unequivocally the interests of the bourgeoisie, is if carried to a conclusion, to deny the class analysis of social phenomena. You cannot have it both ways. The fundamental class role of Stalinism must be understood as identical in Spain and in the Soviet Union, whatever modifications we may have to make in the form it takes as conditioned by the particular and local conditions.

Again: Shachtman, in his New International article, states and repeats, always in italics: “the victory of the Stalinist bureaucracy marks the victory of a political counter-revolution.” The majority spokesmen, including comrade Trotsky, grant us that the state is a “political category.” What then can the definitive victory of a political counter-revolution (and we entirely agree that this has taken place) signify? Is Shachtman just playing with words? It can only mean – is it not sufficiently obvious – that the class which once held the state power, the political power (it is not a question here of the “forms of government” which is quite a different matter: political power need not shift with a change in the form of government) no longer holds it; as applied to the Soviet Union, that the working class, which once ruled, even if in a distorted manner, no longer rules. Shachtman directly refutes himself.

Light is thrown upon Shachtman’s contention (not at all shared by all supporters of the resolution) by recalling a discussion in the National Committee during the time of the formulation of the Resolution. In a long and in fact impassioned speech, Shachtman defended the thesis that what was new in the present situation in the Soviet Union was that “the dictatorship of the proletariat has been overthrown, liquidated, one hundred percent destroyed; but that the workers’ state, in the sense of the nationalized production, remained.” He explained that by “workers’ state” he meant merely nationalized production. However awkward this formulation, it was a commendable attempt to expand and dissociate old formulas in such a manner as to make them more suitable for handling present realities. But chastening remarks from Cannon, Abern and others – who in point of fact do not really agree, not simply with Shachtman’s formulations, but with Shachtman’s views – persuaded Shachtman to withdraw into his present self-contradictory position.

The Argument of the Majority and the Copernican Circles

What is the argument of the Committee majority, reduced to its simplest and essential form? We ask them, what kind of state is the Soviet Union? They answer, it is a workers’ state. We ask, why is it a workers’ state?They answer because there is nationalized property. We ask, why does nationalized property make it a workers’ state? And they answer, because a workers’ state is one where there is nationalized property.

This is, in form, exactly the same argument used by those who tell us that the Bible is the Word of God. We ask them, how do you know it is the Word of God? They answer, because the Bible itself says that it is the Word of God. We ask, but how does that prove it to be true? And they answer, because nothing that God said could be a lie.

In both instances, the conclusion has been taken for granted in the premisses; the argument is entirely circular, and can prove nothing whatever. At best, it is a definition that the Majority offers us; but it gives no proof that this definition is of the slightest use as a tool in solving our theoretical or practical problems.

The point in dispute is just that point which the Majority takes for granted without proof or argument or evidence. The point is: is it a fact that nationalized production of and by itself makes a state a workers’ state, guarantees the class rule of the workers, assures the transition to socialism. (The point in dispute is not at all whether nationalized production is a necessary aspect of a workers’ state, which, except for temporary exceptions, no one in the least argues; merely whether it is also a sufficient aspect).

Now what the last twenty years, in particular the last two or three years, have taught us, if we wish to be taught, is exactly that nationalized production of and by itself does not make a workers’ state, does not guarantee the class rule of the workers, does not assure the transition to socialism. For these things there is a political as well as a socio-economic precondition. If this conclusion disturbs us, if it seems to disagree with our earlier expectations and predictions, then we must revise, re-adapt or extend these expectations and predictions, and not try to escape facts by explaining them away. Naturalists once proved that all swans are white; but black swans were nevertheless discovered in New Zealand.

When Copernicus revolutionized Ptolemaic astronomy by postulating the sun instead of the earth as the fixed reference point for astronomical calculation, he still retained the older theory that the planets had circular orbits. This was thought to follow from the perfection of God, who would never have been the cause of any motion but perfect motion which was held to be motion in a circle. On this theory, Copernicus was able to explain all of the observed phenomena, but he did so only at the cost of a most cumbersome and awkward mathematical process. Kepler showed that postulated elliptical motions for the planetary orbits made the mathematics enormously simpler, and besides suggested new and fruitful hypotheses for explaining additional phenomena and making additional predictions. (Of course, Kepler also explained that God’s perfection could quite consistently express itself in an ellipse.)

The Majority clings to its circle, its definition. And any definition can, if stretched willfully enough, serve. But when it goes beyond a certain point, it becomes so cumbersome, so out of accord with what men ordinarily understand by language, that, instead of being an instrument for the communication of truths and the illumination of events, it acts to obscure and confuse us and others. And this is just what has happened in the definition of the Soviet Union as a “workers’ state” (for by now it is little more any longer than a question of definition); this definition is now an instrument for hiding reality, for confusing meanings, for obscuring events; and it is time to drop it.

“Proletarian Economy” the Majority Discovers a Theoretical Topsy

In attempting to defend their view by argument (an altogether fruitless attempt, since it, the only argument, is the purely circular one just discussed), the spokesmen of the Majority have discovered that there is a “proletarian economy,”comparable to feudal, bourgeois, and socialist economy. Like Topsy, this concept must have “just grown,” for there is no slightest indication of its parentage in events, Marxism, or in science generally.

In the Soviet Union, they tell us, there is a “proletarian economy”; and since the state “expresses” the economy, it is therefore a proletarian or workers’ state.

If this doctrine becomes publicly known, it will certainly be an unusual surprise for the Stalinist theoreticians. For many years we told them that they couldn’t build socialism in a single country, or even maintain a workers’ regime indefinitely in a single country, for the precise reason that there is no proletarian economy or society or culture. There is simply an intermediary transitional economy, society and culture, but administered in the direction of socialism by the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is the political rule of the working class (as Marx himself explained it.)

It would be no less surprising to Marx, who devoted his entire life, and almost all of his major theoretical work (Capital itself) to proving that there could not be a proletarian economy; but that bourgeois economy would be and would have to be replaced by a socialist economy.

It is true that all workers’ states will take certain similar economic measures – e.g., the expropriation of the bourgeoisie in one after another of the realms of the economy (or of all realms at once), and the nationalization of these realms – in order to assure the continuance of proletarian domination and the transition to socialism. But it is absolutely false that this constitutes a distinctive economy, which involves distinctive property rights held by the members of a distinctive class. This is just what distinguishes the rule of the proletariat from the rule of all other classes in history. The proletariat takes power not to establish a new economic regime, a new system of property rights, for itself as a class, but, by progressive steps, starting with the expropriation and nationalization of the key productive industries, to do away with property rights altogether. There is no distinctive “proletarian” property right. If there is, Marxism in its entirety, in its theory and its politics, is completely wrong.

This has an enormous importance in our understanding of the nature of the state. The state is not identical with the economy; to think so, as do some of the spokesmen of the Majority, is the most vulgar sort of monism. If it were there would be no need for a theory of the state, since the theory of the economy would in advance have covered the theory of the state. But the theory of the state is probably the key theory of Marxism; and reformism has almost always developed by keeping hold of Marxian economics (sometimes in very orthodox form) but denying the related but not identical theory of the state.

Within any social system the “state” refers to organs and institutions of social and political coercion, the army, police, courts, prisons, bureaucracy. The theory of the state asserts that these organs and institutions will on the whole and in general be used as instruments to aid the interests of those who occupy the dominating social position in terms of the economy, of property rights. The proof of this theory is not a matter of definition, but of evidence; namely, to show how this actually happens in various social systems (Guerin’s brilliant book on Fascism [4], for example, abounds with concrete evidence showing how Fascist states in Germany and Italy do in point of fact uphold the interests of those who occupy the dominating social position in terms of the economy – namely, the bourgeoisie; showing, among other things, the superficiality of the view that fascism involves the “political expropriation” of the bourgeoisie).

In a feudal society, the property relations serve the interests of those who have the chief property rights, namely the feudal lords. The organs of the state (in considerable part manned by the feudal lords themselves), so long as they defend those property relations, whatever form the state organs take, thus do actually serve as the instrument of the feudal lords as a class, do defend their interests and their domination.

The interests and domination of the bourgeoisie in society is assured whenever the members of the bourgeoisie hold in their persons, directly or indirectly, the decisive property rights in the instruments of production. The state can take many forms (monarchy parliamentary democracy, personal dictatorship, fascism) and be peopled governmentally by various strata of society; but while it defends and protects bourgeois property rights it is by that act defending and protecting those who hold the rights, since those rights are what serve the interests of the ones who hold them, are what assure their general social rule and domination as a class. This follows not because of any mystical identification of the state with the economy. Nor is the state defending a mere abstraction, a “system of property relations.” It defends the interests of a given group of persons, a given class rule and domination; and the concrete property rights are merely the method by which those interests and that class rule are assured. We prove this not by definition, but by examining the facts. And up to the present the facts, even in the case of fascism, bear out our predictions and analyses. There is no direct analogy in the proletarian dictatorship. Under capitalism the proletariat has no property rights (in the instruments of production). Neither does it have such rights under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Under the dictatorship of the proletariat, it is the state, not the workers, which has the property rights. Therefore, the supreme question becomes, whose state is it? Whose interests does it express? For whom and against whom does it function?

The bourgeoisie, so long as its property rights are intact, is guaranteed class domination. Not so the proletariat; for it has no property rights. It can assert its class domination only through the state; and therefore if it loses the state, if the state no longer expresses its interests, if the state functions primarily against it and not against the class enemy, this means that its class domination has been destroyed.

And this is just what has happened in the Soviet Union. Under Stalin, for many years, the state was undermining the class domination of the workers; it was, as we said, a degenerate workers’ state. Within the last two or three years, it has completed that divorce from the proletariat; and, consequently, the state is no longer a workers’ state. Twenty years ago, perhaps, we would have thought this impossible without the prior destruction of the nationalized economy. History teaches us. It shows us that the class rule of the proletariat can indeed take a number of forms – free soviets, many parties, one party, bureaucratic distortion, bureaucratic dictatorship, and perhaps others we do not yet know. But it shows us also that the nationalized economy can remain and the rule of the workers be destroyed. How else, possibly, can we describe and explain what has happened?

The doctrine of a “proletarian economy” leads, if carried out to its conclusion, to many most ludicrous conclusions. Comrade Trotsky nowhere states this doctrine. But Trotsky also in the present article (though not at all in previous years, when he defined the significance of the term “workers’ state “ in quite a different manner) treats the nationalized economy as the sole and sufficient criterion of a workers’ state. He makes nationalized economy equal to and identical in meaning with “workers’ state”; and this is in substance the doctrine of a “proletarian economy.”

But Trotsky must at once modify his own doctrine. The workers’ state existed from November 1917 on, though the economy was not nationalized until later. How, then, did you know at the time (not looking backward after the economy had been nationalized) that it was a workers’ state? (obviously, you knew not by an economic criterion, which you here advance as the only and sufficient criterion, but by a social and more particularly a political criterion – the workers had the power.) But let us grant the brief “exceptional” period, and charge it to the lags of history.

But we suddenly find: “Should a bourgeois counter-revolution succeed in Russia, the new government for a lengthy period would have to base itself upon nationalized economy.” (My emphasis.) What has become of our sole and sufficient criterion for judging the nature of a state? Why would not this new government be a workers’ state? It conforms absolutely to the definition of a workers’ state given by Trotsky himself. How is this to be reconciled with the statement a few pages later: “However, so long as that contradiction has not passed from the sphere of distribution into the sphere of production and has not blasted nationalized property and planned economy, the state remains a workers’ state.” In truth they cannot be reconciled.

Trotsky, however, violating his logic, attempts a reconciliation, to explain how a bourgeois counter-revolution could rule on the basis of nationalized economy. “But what does such a type of temporary conflict between economy and state mean? It means a revolution or a counter-revolution...” But, how, during the time, during the “lengthy period” when the nationalized economy still endures, do you know that a revolution or a counter-revolution has taken place? Only by a change in the economy, (which has not taken place), according to your own criterion. But here we are once again in a circle. Do you know not by what has already happened, but by what the new state prepares to do, intends to do, what its direction and perspective is? But the present bureaucracy prepares the economic change, very clearly “intends” to consolidate a new class position, to destroy the nationalized economy; that is its direction and perspective; how then does it differ from the bourgeois counter-revolution in its early stages?

The logic of the Committee majority’s position leads to a still more unacceptable conclusion. If it is true that nationalized economy is the sole and sufficient criterion of a workers’ state, it then follows that the strength, extension and progress of nationalized economy is the sole and sufficient criterion of the strength, extension and progress of the workers’ state. This was the view of many Marxists, even members of the Left Opposition, at the time of the announcement of the First Five Year Plan. Reasoning from this premise they considered it “inevitable” that the success, even the partial success, of the Plan would automatically strengthen, extend and make for the progress of the workers’ state (that is, the form of society transitional between capitalism and socialism) was in point of fact greatly weakened and further degenerated during the period of the Plan, in spite of the great extension and expansion of the nationalized economy. This result cannot be explained on the basis of an acceptance of nationalized as a sole and sufficient criterion or condition of a workers’ state. Such a basis can support only the Stalinist conclusion not ours.

These consequences of the position of the Committee Majority constitute a reductio ad absurdum of that position. The only way to avoid them (as well as to rid our position on the Soviet State from its internal contradictions and its utter inadequacy in explaining events) is to abandon that position. This means, first of all, to recognize that nationalized economy is not a sole and sufficient criterion or condition of a workers’ state; to understand that other factors must be taken into account. It means that we do not settle the question of the nature of the Soviet State by appeal to “definition,” but examine concretely not merely the economic foundation, but the actual relation of the state apparatus to that economy, its relation, its actual relation to the working class, the position, the actual position, of the working class in the Soviet regime. Such an examination of evidence, not of definition, can lead only to the conclusion that within the Soviet Union the working class is not the ruling or dominant class, and that therefore the Soviet Union is not a workers’ state.

Why Defend the Soviet Union

The most frequently used argument of the Committee Majority against the Minority has been that our position if logically carried out, leads to the advocacy of defeatist policies, and undermines the theoretical basis for the defensist policy which we jointly claim to uphold.

It should be observed that this argument is not of the slightest weight with reference to the question at issue. The great English philosopher, David Hume, once remarked: “There is no method of reasoning more common, and yet none more blameable, than, in philosophical disputes, to endeavor the refutation of any hypothesis, by a pretense of its dangerous consequences to religion and morality. When any opinion leads to absurdities, it is certainly false; but it is not certain that an opinion is false, because it is of dangerous consequence.” If a correct analysis of the nature of the Soviet State leads us to defeatism, then we must change our policies, not our analysis.

Nevertheless, the analysis of the Minority does not lead to defeatism.

Why Should We Be for the Defense of the Soviet Union?

If we are defeatist, our position has nothing to do with whether or not we call the Soviet Union a “workers’ state.” Only a medicine man would base a policy on what things are called. We are defensists because we estimate that, in the light of the actual situation in the Soviet Union, the actual development there, such a policy is in the interests of the proletariat and of the world revolution.

We are for defense, primarily, because we – both of the Committee Majority and of the Committee Minority – consider that the socio-economic relations still obtaining in the Soviet Union are progressive, and are worth defending.

They are progressive for four major reasons:

However, there is an ambiguity in the notion of “unconditional” defense of the Soviet Union. Events now make it necessary to point out certain distinctions which were formerly irrelevant, In reality, we stand for “unconditional defense of the revolution,” and this imposes certain conditions on our defense of the Soviet Union. The first condition is the struggle against Stalinism, without which, in our opinion, revolutionary defense of the Soviet Union is impossible. Secondly, we must now recognize the possibility that the Soviet Union may engage in a reactionary war. (I have already mentioned how this might come about in connection with such events as those in Spain or China.) In such cases, far from being for support or defense we are for unconditional opposition to such a war. It is only when the war is itself progressive – e.g., is against imperialism – that we are for defense; and in those conditions we are for unconditional defense.

Not all of the supporters of the Committee Majority will agree with these views on the problem of defense. Abern and Cannon, for example, have declared that any struggle in which the Red Army might be engaged would be, since it is the army of the workers’ state, a progressive struggle, and therefore must be supported. They are, in my opinion, entirely consistent in their reasoning. And this is only another example of why the entire position is false.

Well Then, What Kind of State?

In the first place, we cannot decide this question, as I have already shown, by identifying the state with the economy. In that case, the whole theory of the state becomes meaningless. Even comrade Trotsky is guilty here. After agreeing that the “state” is a “political category,” he slips into the identification by repeating an aphorism: “However, this very politics is only concentrated economics.” This aphorism, however illuminating when considered as a metaphor, is a most questionable step in an argument. We must decide what kind of state it is by analyzing the relationship of the political institutions (army, bureaucracy, GPU, courts, prisons) – that is, the state itself – to the economy and to the classes and social groups within the Soviet Union, and internationally.

By such an analysis we are trying to describe a very complicated set of events which are in a process of rapid change. Our description will, on that account, be at least partially inadequate and distorting (since it will suggest more finality than is to be found in the changing process itself), but it can be reasonably accurate. In such a description the Committee Minority can, it believes, come to virtual agreement with some of the supporters of the position of the Committee Majority.

From many points of view it would be well to stop with such a description, and to forbear at this time the attempt to sum the description up in a single formula, which, in the light of the rapidity of change now going on, is doomed to be misleading to one or another degree. This description is altogether adequate as a guide to action and for further understanding, and nothing further is really needed. To stop with the generalized description and to refuse to be tied down to scholastic formulas: that is how I understood the quotation from The Revolution Betrayed with which I began this article.

Our description will show us, in my opinion, beyond any doubt, that the Soviet Union is at the present time neither a bourgeois state nor a workers’ state: that is, neither the working class nor a consolidated bourgeois class is the ruling or dominant class within the Soviet Union in any intelligible sense that can be given to the conception of a ruling or dominant class. Not a single piece of evidence to the contrary has been advanced in the current discussion.

This may surprise us, and may upset previously formed ideas; but history has a way of surprising us, and we must avoid acting like political ostriches. However, there is in general nothing unprecedented in such a conclusion. The cry of “revisionism” raised against us has no foundation in Marxist theory. Nothing whatever in the theory of the state limits types of states to “bourgeois” or “proletarian.” For many years Lenin anticipated a state in Russia which would be a “dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”; he may have been wrong, but no one attacked him as a revisionist for this conception of the state which was neither bourgeois nor proletarian. If he was wrong, he was so because things didn’t turn out in that way, not because such a state is theoretically inconceivable. Not merely the possibility but the historical existence which were neither bourgeois nor feudal nor proletarian were frequently discussed by Marx and Engels. Engels definitely provided a place for a state which was in direct conflict with the economy – that is, for a state in which the ruling class was not the economically dominant class (how much more obviously he would have recognized this possibility in the case of nationalized economy which is not a form of economy giving property rights specifically to one class!) – cf., for example, his letter to Conrad Schmidt, October 27, 1890. Of course such a state would be extremely unstable, and would not endure for long – “in [this] case nowadays the state power in every great nation will go to pieces in the long run ...” But no one pretends that the present type of state in the Soviet Union will endure for epochs: it is above all characterized as unstable, transitory, in permanent crisis.

The specific analysis of various states, an analysis exact enough to enable us to work out correct policies, absolutely requires us to recognize “intermediary” forms of the state; it would be fatal to limit our “states” to feudal, bourgeois and proletarian. How could we possibly handle the analysis, for example, of the English state from 1500 to 1832 with only these simple categories? Of course, looking back, we can see that during all that time the bourgeoisie by and large advanced along with the advance and expansion of bourgeois economy. But such a general and after all abstract view would have been of little use to the bourgeoisie in solving the complex problems of state power. And what was the U.S. Civil War fought over if not to destroy a coalition state (not a coalition government – the form of government was not changed), established under the constitution of 1787, and replace it by an unambiguous bourgeois state?

If I were forced to choose between the single alternative, bourgeois or proletarian, I should unhesitatingly call the Soviet State bourgeois. At the present time the interests it primarily defends are bourgeois: the bourgeois interests within the mixed Soviet economy, and international bourgeois interests. Its defense of proletarian interests (unlike its function up until a few years ago) is now clearly secondary – though it may on occasion be nonetheless real for all that. But there is no reason whatever to make such a choice.

Is a single formula required? Very well: let all of us who agree on the description unite to agree on the clearest and most acceptable formula. In future history I think Comrade Carter is probably right in saying that it will be known as a “Stalinist state,” distinguished as a specific state form; and there may be other examples of such a state in the future. If we look at the facts, and not at words, the most accurate formula is probably a “semi-bourgeois state” or an “embryonic bourgeois state.” The Soviet State at present is primarily the instrument of the privileged strata of Soviet society – the bureaucracy, Army (particularly the upper ranks), the GPU, the richer collective peasants, the technicians, intellectuals, better-paid Stakhanovites, etc.; and the instrument also of the sections of the international bourgeoisie toward which the State gravitates. Is this not the fact?

Is this a “no-class” state? Of course not. It is simply not, primarily, the instrument of either of the two major classes in contemporary society. But it is the instrument of the “new middle class” striving to become a consolidated bourgeois class within the Soviet Union itself; and it plays its own extremely important role in the international class struggle taken as a whole. Such a state, clearly, is to be expected to be most unstable, transitory, torn by crisis; and this is just what we find. It is theoretically to be expected to be in irreconcilable conflict with its own “economic foundations” (the conflict would not be irreconcilable if it were in truth a workers’ state – any kind of workers’ state); and this is certainly the case. It must go, or the economic foundation must go. And this must happen precisely because it is not a workers’ state, but nevertheless has the economic foundation for a workers’ state.

Only such an explanation – whether or not put in just these terms – can provide us with a means for answering, without confusion or contradiction, all of the major problems, both theoretical and practical, which the Soviet Union in the present stage of its development poses to the revolutionary movement. And, in addition, only such an approach can provide a proper basis for all of our specific policies -which, in my opinion, cannot be justified any longer on the basis of the Committee Majority position.

“A Question of Terminology”

It is doubtful whether any dispute which enters into the life of a political organization can ever retain a “purely scientific”character. At the Council of Nicea, the debate resolved apparently around a single letter in the word used to describe the Son of God; but the historically significant issue veiled by the words of the debate was the split between the Eastern and the Western Church. We are also, in part at least, disputing over what kind of party we wish to form, and how we think it can best be built in the period ahead. The debate over the “Russian Question” in part opposes, or tends to oppose, conflicting tendencies within our own organization.

From a scientific point of view, the question of whether or not the Soviet Union is a workers’ state is to a considerable degree a “terminological question”; the question, namely, of what words are most suitable and useful in describing and communicating what we mean. This does not mean that, even from a purely scientific point of view, the question is trivial. Words are social in their functioning. It is necessary not merely that our ideas be correct in our own heads, but that we succeed in communicating them to others; the words we use make possible or impossible such communication; but the words are not our property but rather the property of the society in which we live. Words are one of the chief – perhaps the chief – instruments of revolutionary struggle. Therefore it is well to take them seriously.

The verbal habit which leads the Committee Majority to continue calling the Soviet Union a workers’ state – and it is nothing more than a verbal habit – has become an obstacle to the progress of our movement. It stands in the way of the successful communication of our ideas to the masses. It begins to enshrine a bureaucratic conception of the road towards socialism, which, if solidified, will be fatal to the revolution. It deifies economy in such a manner as to obscure the dialectical inter-relationship between economy and politics, and between both and psychology, intelligence and moral enthusiasm. It serves to justify in the minds of Stalinists and semi-Stalinists their slavishness to the bureaucracy – since do not even we tell them that after all the economy is “all”? It drives independent-thinking workers and intellectuals, who have broken with Stalinism, away from us and towards disillusion and defeatism; for we offer them an explanation in words which, when interpreted as men normally interpret words is false. It obscures in the minds of the masses the real goal which we propose to them. That goal, we must remember, is not a “nationalized economy.” Cannon, and others among the Committee Majority, have been telling us, rather scornfully: Democracy! democracy is merely an instrument ... How much more fully must we realize, and make others realize, that nationalized economy is merely – an instrument. If not – then, Stalin is the better choice.



2. Max Shachtman, The New International, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Russia (January 1938).

3. Jay Lovestone was an American socialist and trade unionist who joined the Communist movement in the early twenties. He was expelled in 1929 shortly after he had helped expel Trotsky’s supporters. During the Popular Front period he and his group (which included the writer Bertram Wolfe among its better known members) argued that Stalin was right to attempt an accommodation with the Western Powers. This “moderation” in external affairs was in contrast to the growing terror inside Russia.

4. Daniel Guerin, Fascism and Big Business, Pioneer Publishers (New York 1939).

Last updated on 8 November 2020