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


Max Shachtman

The Russian Question


Neither Capitalism nor Socialism, pp. 155–169.
New International, Vol. VII No. 9, October 1941.


(What follows is the conclusion of a resolution written in response to Carter’s characterization of Russia as a reactionary social and economic order and especially his denial that nationalization and state planning by a bureaucratic ruling class was progressive and a step towards socialism. The preceding sections which are not included here sum up the previous discussions on the historical origin of the system as a product of the decay of the Russian revolution.)

What is the Class Character of the USSR?

The class character of a state is determined fundamentally by the property relations prevailing in it, that is, those relations which are at the bottom of the existing production and social relations. In any social order based upon private property, the prevailing form of property, be it in slaves, in feudal land holdings, or in capital determines the property relations, is inseparably linked with them, may be used interchangeably with them. The social domination of the ruling class in states based upon one or another form of private property – although not necessarily or at every stage the political domination of such a class – is represented primarily by its ownership of property. The state, i.e., the machinery of coercion, is then the instrument for preserving the existing property relations, for preserving the domination of the economically most powerful class from assaults by classes it oppresses and exploits.

When, however, the epoch of private ownership of social property comes to an end and the epoch of collectivist property is inaugurated, as was done by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917; when private property is abolished and the means of production and exchange become the property of the state – it is impossible to apply the same criterion as is legitimately applied to states based on any form of private property. It is then no longer possible to determine the class character of the state by establishing which class owns the property, for the simple reason that no class owns property under such a social system. The state is the repository, the owner of all social property. The state, however, is not a class but a political instrument of classes. Property relations in a collectivist system are therefore expressed, so to speak, in state relations. The social rule of the proletariat – which, unlike all preceding classes, is and must remain a propertyless class -lies in its political rule and can lie only in its political rule, which it employs to destroy all private property and private-propertied classes as a precondition for safeguarding its own rule, and, eventually, for its own dissolution into a classless socialist society.

When the Russian proletariat, through its various organizations and institutions controlled the Soviet state, in the period of Lenin-Trotsky and for some time thereafter, the Soviet republics were a workers’ state with bureaucratic and even capitalistic deformities. The Stalinist counter-revolution consists precisely in the destruction of all semblance of working-class control over, or influence in, the state, and the usurpation of all political and therefore economic power by the bureaucracy. The final triumph of the Stalinist counter-revolution coincided with is represented by – the complete destruction of the last representative proletarian organization in the country, the Bolshevik Party, and its replacement by the party of the bureaucracy bearing the same name. Like the proletariat, the social rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy, which is also a private-propertyless class, lies in its political rule and can lie only in its political rule which it employs to destroy all private-propertied classes in order to preserve its own class domination – to preserve it also from the proletariat it exploits and oppresses.

Inequality and Bureaucracy

Irrespective of his refusal to accord the rulers of the Soviet Union the status of a class, it is Leon Trotsky in whose [writings the most complete analysis is] made of the origins and rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy to its position of domination. The bureaucracy rose to power as the universal Soviet gendarme in the midst of “generalized want” – traceable in turn to the isolation of the original workers’ state. “The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all.” Yet, the growth of the productive forces under Stalinism did not result in a relaxation of the totalitarianism of the “gendarme” (the bureaucracy) but rather in its accentuation. “The present state of production is still far from guaranteeing all necessities to everybody. But it is already adequate to give significant privileges to a minority, and convert inequality into a whip for the spurring on of the majority. That is the first reason why the growth of production has so far strengthened not the socialist, but the bourgeois features of the state.” But not the only reason. The bureaucracy is “the planter and protector of inequality.” In distributing the wealth of Soviet society, its guide is its own interest and no other. “Thus out of a social necessity there has developed an organ which has far outgrown its socially necessary function, and become an independent factor and therewith the source of great danger for the whole social organism.”

However, it is precisely in this process of becoming “an independent factor” that its development into a class may be established. “With differences in distribution,” says Engels, “class differences emerge.” Society divides into classes: the privileged and the dispossessed, the exploiters and the exploited, the rulers and the ruled ... Distribution, however, is not a merely passive result of production and exchange; it has an equally important reaction on both of these. The development of each new mode of production or form of exchange is at first retarded not only by the old forms and the political institutions which correspond to these, but also by the old mode of distribution; it can only secure the distribution which is essential to it in the course of a long struggle. But the more mobile a given mode of production and exchange, the more capable it is of expansion and development, the more rapidly does distribution also reach the stage in which it gets beyond its mother’s control a comes into conflict with the prevailing mode of production and exchange.” The “old mode of distribution” prevalent in the workers’ state was based, essentially, on the equality of poverty. A truly socialist mode of production could be based only on equality in the midst of abundance. Abundance was possible only with a tremendous socialist development of the productive forces and of labor productivity.

But it is precisely such a development that was impossible on the basis of one country alone, and a backward country like Russia at that. “... A real upward swing of socialist economy will only be possible after the victory of the proletariat in the most important countries of Europe” (Trotsky, 1923 [another translation]). It is therefore inadmissible, from the Marxian standpoint, to apply decisively the principal criterion of social progress, i.e., the development of the productive forces, to a workers’ state (concretely, to the workers’ state of Lenin-Trotsky) in one country alone. The national limitedness of the workers’ state prevented the “real upward swing of socialist economy”; so also did the “old mode of distribution,” i.e., the equality of poverty. The demands of Soviet economy for development could not be satisfied by a capitalist restoration – quite the contrary. they were satisfied by an unforseen social development.

The System of Bureaucratic Collectivism

The bureaucracy arose and it organized and developed the productive forces, including the principal productive force of society, the proletariat, to an enormous degree. It accomplished “a real upward swing” of Russian economy, but not of socialist economy. With barbarous, anti-socialist, bureaucratic methods, by introducing and constantly accentuating inequality, it lifted backward Russia to the position of one of the economically most advanced countries of the world, expanding the productive forces at a rate unknown in any contemporary capitalist or semi-capitalist country, right in the midst of a raging world capitalist crisis, in a period of a violently contracting world market and without the benefits of the world market enjoyed in the past by every capitalist country. But it is precisely at that point that one of the fundamental differences between bourgeois Bonapartism and Stalinist“Bonapartism” must be established. Whereas the Stalinist bureaucracy undermined and finally destroyed the social rule of the proletariat in Russia and established in its place a reactionary system of social relations, the class rule of bureaucratic collectivism, traditional Bonapartist and Bismarckian regimes were political regimes established to preserve the rule of the bourgeoisie. The Stalinist regime rose as a new social system which destroyed the rule of the proletariat. For a socialist development of the productive forces, i.e., for a development based upon the planned collaboration of a number of workers’ states in which are included technologically advanced countries, a democratic political regime and a steady growth of equalitarianism are sufficient. For the bureaucratic-collectivist development of the productive forces in the Soviet Union, a new ruling class was necessary, that is, a particularly brutal gendarme converting “inequality into a whip for the spurring on of the majority,” and steadily accentuating the inequality in favor of the ruling class.

Under the social system of bureaucratic collectivism, this inequality can manifest itself economically only, or at least primarily, in distribution, since in the field of property-ownership, all classes are equal – none of them owns social property. With the new mode of distribution, the bureaucracy developed a new mode of production, production for the swelling needs of the bureaucracy, based upon state property and the enslavement of the working class. It was this new mode of production which was, in Engels, words, “at first retarded not only by the old forms and the political institutions which corresponded to these, but also by the old mode of distribution.” Classes are the product of struggle against “the old forms and the political institutions which corresponded to these (and also) the old mode of distribution” – that is, against production for the needs of the masses, against the democratic working class political institutions (the soviets, the revolutionary party), and the more or less equalitarian system of distribution – it was in the course of he struggle against these that the bureaucracy developed as a class and consolidated itself as the ruling class.

Limitations of the New Order

The perspectives of the new social order in Russia and the new ruling class are narrowly limited by the specific and unique historical circumstances which gave birth to it. It is not, of course, possible to set down dogmatic and categorical laws of historical development for this new phenomenon; unlike capitalism, for example, it has no long history behind it which permits of a conclusive historical analysis. Political economy, observed Engels, “as the science of the conditions and forms under which the various human societies have produced and exchanged and on this basis have distributed their products – political economy in this wider sense has still to be brought into being. Such economic science as we have up to the present is almost exclusively limited to the genesis and development of the capitalist mode of production.” So far as it has been possible to observe and analyze the phenomenon of Stalinist bureaucratic collectivism, however, its essential characteristics may be established even now.

Bureaucratic collectivism is a nationally-limited phenomenon, appearing in history in the course of a singular conjunction of circumstances, namely, the isolation and decay of a proletarian revolution in a backward country and a world-capitalist encirclement. Its ideology is not merely nationalist in general, but Russian-nationalist; its theory and banner is not so much “socialism in one country alone” as “socialism” in this particular country, Russia. Its expansion beyond the frontiers established by the revolution has been, thus far, episodic, conjunctural. But a far more fundamental consideration is this: Russian capitalism was ripe in 1917 for a socialist revolution but not for socialism; world capitalism was ripe in 1917, and is over-ripe today, not only for the socialist revolution but for the complete socialist reorganization of society. On a world scale, there is already a class, fully matured socially, capable of putting an end to the anarchy of capitalist production and capable of developing the productive forces socialistically, that is capable, once it is in power, to do on a world scale what the proletariat in Russia proved incapable of doing by itself, in one country alone.

The bureaucracy in Russia became the ruling class because capitalism in the rest of the world remained in power; in turn, the Stalinist bureaucracy has prolonged the term of power of capitalism. The bureaucracy in Russia is a by-product of the delay of the world proletarian revolution; it will not continue in power with the advent of the revolution. As a new ruling class, in a new, exploitative society, it has come on the historical scene belatedly, as an anti-capitalist anachronism; its belatedness and transitoriness are underscored by the existence on a world scale of a matured, socially-qualified proletariat. From the day of its birth, it is torn by mounting contradictions, which make impossible the firm and durable consolidation of bureaucratic collectivism “in one country.” Genuine planned economy on the basis of state property is impossible in one country, in a hostile capitalist world environment. Planned economy conflicts at every turn with bureaucratic management and appropriation of surplus products. The rate of development of the productive forces, made possible by the existence of state property, is decelerated after a period of time precisely by the increase of inequality which was the initial spur to this development, that is, by a swollen bureaucratic stratum. The totalitarian Great-Russian oppression of the peoples of the national republics engenders disintegrative centrifugal tendencies at the periphery of the bureaucratic empire. The anti-revolutionary nationalism of the bureaucracy conflicts with the “internationalist needs” of the economy, that is, its need of fructification by a rational world economy; this in turn facilitates the destruction of the whole economy by world capitalism, its reduction by the latter to the status of a colony or colonies.

The Second World War will therefore be the supreme test of Stalinist collectivism. Should world capitalism gain a new lease on life and be spared defeat at the hand of world revolution, Russia cannot, in all likelihood, escape integration into the capitalist system as a colony or series of colonies of imperialism. Should world capitalism collapse under the blows of proletarian revolution, the weight of the latter would crush Stalinism to the ground and precipitate the third, final proletarian revolution in Russia.

The Future of This Order

However, just what stages of development will be passed before bureaucratic collectivism in Russia is destroyed either by the proletarian revolution or capitalist counter-revolution, cannot be established categorically in advance. Bureaucratic collectivism is still in power and it is necessary to have as clearly as possible in mind the revolutionary proletarian attitude toward it and the political problems it raises.

Classes and social orders are historically conditioned; so also are the bureaucracy and bureaucratic collectivism in Russia. Product of reaction, both the ruling class and the social order it dominates are reactionary. The proletariat and its revolutionary vanguard therefore are uncompromisingly opposed to the politics of the regime and strive to overthrow it with all means consistent with the struggle for socialism. But the Marxist proletariat recognizes that while this new social order represents a reaction from the workers’ state established by the Bolshevik Revolution the forces producing this reaction were not strong enough or not of such a nature as to hurl Russia still further back to capitalism.

Russia remains a collectivist society, differing fundamentally from the workers’ state of Lenin-Trotsky in that it is a reactionary collectivist society. But it has not been integrated into the system of world capitalism. Bureaucratic collectivism is closer to capitalism, so far as its social relations are concerned, than it is to a state of the socialist type. Yet, just as capitalism is part of the long historical epoch of private property, bureaucratic collectivism is part – an unforseen, mongrelized, reactionary part, but a part nevertheless – of the collectivist epoch of human history. The social order of bureaucratic collectivism is distinguished from the social order of capitalism primarily in that the former is based on a new and more advanced form of property, namely, state property. That this new form of property – a conquest of the Bolshevik revolution – is progressive, i.e., historically superior, to private property is demonstrated theoretically by Marxism and the test of practice.

The proletarian revolution in a capitalist country would abolish the reactionary social relations by abolishing private property; the proletarian revolution in Russia would abolish the reactionary social relations of bureaucratic collectivism primarily by destroying the political (and therefore the social) power of the bureaucracy but not the property form on which the bureaucracy and the social relations it established are based, namely, state property. This fundamental difference is not calculated to distinguish the two social orders from the standpoint of where it is “easier” to carry through the proletarian revolution. It is calculated, however, to indicate the essential difference between the two social orders – bureaucratic collectivism and capitalism – and the historical superiority of the one over the other. In both cases, the prevailing social relations are based on the prevailing property forms. In the one case, the property form would have to be abolished by the proletariat in order to advance toward socialism; in the other, the property form would have to be preserved. In the case of capitalism, the establishment of state property would be an historical step forward, it would be progressive, in comparison with private property. In the case of bureaucratic collectivism the restoration of private property would be an historical step backward, it would be reactionary, in comparison with state property. “An enormous mistake is made in counterposing state capitalism only to socialism, when, contrariwise, it is absolutely necessary in the given economic-political situation to make a comparison between state capitalism and petty-bourgeois production.” (Lenin 1921 [another translation]) In the same Marxian sense, it may be said that it is a mistake to compare bureaucratic collectivism only with a workers’ state or socialism; it must be compared also with what is the main enemy of the world (not merely the Russian) proletariat, namely, world capitalism. From the standpoint of socialism, the bureaucratic collectivist state is a reactionary social order; in relation to the capitalist world, it is on a historically more progressive plane.

The progressivism of bureaucratic collectivism is, however, relative and not absolute, even in relation to the capitalist world. Thus, for example, in conflicts between the Stalinist regime, on the one side, and a colonial or semi-colonial country, which is part of the capitalist world, on the other, the revolutionary proletariat takes its position by the side of the colonial or semi-colonial country; the revolutionary struggle for colonial independence is a decisive part of the struggle against the main enemy of the proletariat, world imperialism. Thus, for example, in a struggle between Stalinist Russia and capitalist imperialism, on the one side, and another section of capitalist imperialism on the other, the revolutionary proletariat takes its position against both camps, refusing to subordinate or mitigate in any way its struggle against the main enemy, imperialism, and imperialist war, to the defense of the Stalinist sector of one capitalist imperialist camp, any more than it would in a similar case with regard to a small nation or a colonial country, big or small, that became an integral part of an imperialist camp. The relative progressivism of bureaucratic collectivism is not of greater significance to the world proletariat than, with all its social differences, is the struggle for colonial independence. Under all circumstances, it is subordinated to the interests and strategy of the world proletarian revolution.

Under What Conditions is Defense Possible?

The revolutionary proletariat can consider a revolutionary (that is, a critical, entirely independent, class) defensist position with regard to the Stalinist regime only under conditions where the decisive issue in the war is the attempt by a hostile force to restore capitalism in Russia, where this issue is not subordinate to other, more dominant, issues. Thus, in case of a civil war in which one section of the bureaucracy seeks to restore capitalist private property, it is possible for the revolutionary vanguard to fight with the army of the Stalinist regime against the army of capitalist restoration. Thus, in case of a war by which world imperialism seeks to subdue the Soviet Union and acquire a new lease on life by reducing Russia to an imperialist colony, it is possible for the proletariat to take a revolutionary defensist position in Russia. Thus, in case of a civil war organized against the existing regime by an army basing itself on “popular discontent” but actually on the capitalist and semi-capitalist elements still existing in the country, and aspiring to the restoration of capitalism, it is again possible that the proletariat would fight in the army of Stalin against the army of capitalist reaction. In all these or similar cases, the critical support of the proletariat is possible only if the proletariat is not yet prepared itself to overthrow the Stalinist regime.

On the other hand, it must be borne in mind that at their inception the inevitable, progressive mass movements of the workers and peasants against the reactionary regime, particularly those movements which arise in the oppressed national republics, will be politically immature and confused, and influenced by nationalist, federalist [12], democratic and even reactionary prejudices. The Fourth Internationalists count heavily, however, on the decisive revolutionary influence that can and will be exerted on such movements by the hundreds of thousands of revolutionary militants who are imbued with the still living traditions of October and who would be the guarantee that the popular mass movements would take a proletarian direction. That is particularly true of such movements in republics like the Ukraine, White Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaidjan, etc., where the people’s hatred of Stalinism has been cunningly and systematically exploited by reactionary imperialist forces from abroad. However, in the event of a civil war, especially in a totalitarian country like Russia, when the contending movements take the clearly defined form of armies, with clearly discernible social and political aspirations, the Fourth International must be free to choose, depending on the concrete conditions, between support of one armed camp or the other, or, if neither is possible for the revolutionary proletariat, to work for the completely independent victory of the Third Camp.

What We Reject

We reject the theory that the Soviet Union is a degenerated workers’ state which must be unconditionally defended against any capitalist country regardless of conditions or circumstances, This theory covers up the class nature of the Stalinist bureaucracy and the reactionary character of the regime. By the same token , it tends to underestimate the full, reactionary significance of the bureaucracy. It disseminates the notion, discreditable to socialism, that a regime which is a prison for the working class and in which the latter does not have one iota of control, nevertheless has something “proletarian” about it – indeed, decisively proletarian – about it, simply because of the existence of state property. It conflicts with the revolutionary Marxian criteria for establishing a collectivist state as a workers’ state. By the policy of “unconditional defense,” it has already, in the Second World War, been compelled to give objective support first to one imperialist camp (the Axis, in the invasions of the Baltic, the Balkans and Finland) and, in the second stage of the war, to another imperialist camp (the Allies, in Iran, in the Pacific and in the Arctic). The theory denies, further, the existence of Stalinist imperialism, as the policy of bureaucratic aggression and expansion, and thus objectively covered the invasions of 1939–1941 while declaring contradictorily at the same time its opposition to “the seizure of new territories by the Kremlin.” The Party therefore rejects also the policy of unconditional defensism with regard to the reactionary Stalinist state.

We reject the theory that the Soviet Union is a fascist capitalist state and the political line flowing from it. The bourgeois elements in Russia are an unsubstantial social grouping. The principal basic characteristics of capitalism are absent in the Soviet Union – private property, wage labor and commodity production. The ruling class in Russia is not composed of capitalists, that is, of owners of capital; the income of the members of the ruling class in Russia is not derived from profit accruing from the ownership of capital. Free labor in the Marxian sense of the term long ago ceased to exist in the Soviet Union. Neither is there the prevalence of commodity production, that is, production for the market. We also reject the policy, flowing from this theory, of support of democratic capitalism against the “fascist capitalism” of Russia [13] as a disguised form of support for capitalist restoration; and on the same grounds, reject the petty bourgeois utopia of a struggle for a “Constituent Assembly.” [14] Finally, we reject the policy, flowing from this theory, of no united fronts under any conditions in this country with the “fascist” Communist Party, as only a new version of the old Stalinist theory of “social fascism” [15]; we reaffirm the admissibility of united fronts, under certain conditions, with the Communist Party as a party.

We reject the theory that capitalism and bureaucratic collectivism are “equally reactionary” and the political line flowing from it. This theory implies the superiority of “democratic capitalism” to totalitarian collectivism [16], which can only open the road in practice to supporting reactionary movements of capitalist restoration. the Russian proletariat could take power in 1917 only when backed by the revolutionary-democratic peasant masses. Capitalist democracy can struggle for power again in Russia only if backed by reactionary world imperialism; that is, Russia can be reintegrated into the capitalist world only in one of two forms – either under a savage, fascist or semi-fascist dictatorship, or as a group of colonies of imperialism, with the latter as the more likely form. The theory of a “bourgeois-democratic” or a “democratic” revolution against the Stalinist dictatorship which “will not restore capitalism” but “only” establish “democracy” under the rule of a “Constituent Assembly” is a reactionary dream propagated for years by Kautsky. [17] The reactionary liquidation of Stalinism can be accomplished only by means of the most brutal military dictatorship of the bourgeoisie; the revolutionary liquidation of Stalinism can be accomplished only under the leadership of the proletariat fighting under the banner of international socialism. Any intermediate choice is an illusion, a trap, a dream, a petty-bourgeois Utopia. The theory of the “equally reactionary” character of the two mutually hostile and irreconcilable classes and regime can only have the objective effect of disarming the Russian proletariat in the face of capitalist restorationism, by preaching the lie that it is a matter of indifference to the workers if the present regime is liquidated by capitalist reaction and the bourgeoisie restored to power ...



12. See Moshe Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle, Pluto Press (London 1975), for a discussion of Lenin’s emphasis on the progressive significance of nationalist struggles against Great Russian chauvinism.

13. The advocates of the views of C.L.R. James referred to here nowhere called for support to “democratic capitalism”.

14. C.L.R. James partisans didn’t advocate this either.

15. In 1944, Shachtman himself was to argue against such fronts. See New International.

16. Again Shachtman imputes to his opponents a position they did not hold.

17. There is no indication where the statements in quotes came from. Kautsky did not use these phrases.

Last updated on 8 November 2020