For a Clear and Consistent Policy on the Question of the USSR and on Stalinism

(May 1945)

From Fourth International, Vol. 6 No. 5, May 1945, pp. 134–138.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The following article is another contribution by a European comrade to the Fourth International discussion of the question of the Soviet Union and the Stalinist bureaucracy. – Ed.


The nature of the USSR, the question of its defense as well as the attitude toward the Stalinist bureaucracy have time and again aroused sharp discussion among us. Even before the war these questions began to seriously disturb the ideological homogeneity of our ranks. The war, by dragging the USSR into its vortex and by accelerating the bureaucratic and chauvinist degeneration of Stalinism, could not fail to aggravate this situation.

Today on the eve of the termination of the imperialist conflict in Europe and at the beginning of a new revolutionary period, it is imperative for the proletarian vanguard to adopt a perfectly clear and consistent position on the question of the USSR and on Stalinism. Failing this we incur the risk of having all our political activity compromised and our organizational unity threatened at every moment by inevitable splits.

1. The Nature of the USSR

The discussions among us have often been complicated on the one hand by the use of different terminology to designate the same political tasks and on the other hand by the lack of concrete data concerning the real economic and political life in the USSR. The most diverse criteria have been employed by some in determining the nature of the USSR and they have therefore arrived at the most diverse conclusions. For those who continue to remain true to the spirit, if not the letter, of Trotsky’s thought, the question of the class nature of the Soviet Union can be resolved only as follows:

The definition of existing social relations in the USSR remains as the point of departure for a sociological definition of that country. What are the property forms, and what are the relationships between the different social categories (class relations) in the USSR – these are the only valid criteria for Marxists desirous of defining the nature of the USSR scientifically. There is virtually unanimous agreement in our ranks on defining the property forms in the USSR as statified property. Differences exist on the meaning and the flux of this statification.

For us such a property regime:

  1. can emerge only from a proletarian revolution which alone is capable of expropriating private property on such an extensive scale;
  2. can maintain itself only by evolving in the direction of socialism through the world proletarian revolution;
  3. cannot be incorporated again as it is in the capitalist system. In the event that a prolonged retardation of the world revolution results in the reintegration of the USSR in the capitalist system, the statified property in that country will be replaced by private property (e.g., the destruction by the Germans of Russian statification in the Ukraine). This integration would at the same time mean the wholesale destruction of the Soviet productive forces, including the working class population which grew as a result of statification, planned production and the monopoly of foreign trade.

To believe that capitalism is capable of statifying property on as large a scale as in the USSR, and thus assuring – in the present imperialist phase to boot – the development of the productive forces is to believe that capitalism is capable of changing its very nature. Thus every attempt to identify the property regime in the USSR as state capitalism, or to maintain that this regime as it exists can be incorporated by a “cold method” in a capitalist regime, flows from a total misconception of the nature of capitalism. However, the bare fact of statification of property does not automatically resolve the problem of the existing class relations in the USSR.

We grant in general that on the basis of the backwardness of the Soviet Union and its imperialist encirclement, the bureaucratic caste of state functionaries and economic technicians – who at the beginning of the revolution represented a necessary evil and who were destined to disappear to the degree that the economic and cultural progress of the Soviet masses (thanks to the assistance rendered by the world revolution) would render them fitted for the tasks of administration – this bureaucratic caste, we repeat, has assumed quantitatively an unforeseen political and social importance and has “in some ways” (Trotsky) appropriated the state and therefore the statified property.

What does this social category represent today? Does it represent a “temporary growth on a social organism” (Trotsky) or rather a new exploiting class, a growth which “has already become transformed into a historically indispensable organ” (Trotsky) ? An exploiting class, Trotsky correctly pointed out is a social organ which can arise only as consequence of the profound internal needs of production itself. The present property regime in the USSR is different from and more progressive than the capitalist regime, if one applies the Marxist criterion of the development of the productive forces.

What does the Stalinist bureaucracy represent? Does it represent the ruling social stratum which historically corresponds to such a regime, that is, does it represent the necessary social organ for the historical development of this regime (of statified property and planned production) which would be impossible without it? Or on the contrary does it represent a parasitic growth upon this regime which has developed owing to the confinement of this regime within the national framework of a single backward country? In the first case we would actually be dealing with a new class; in the second, with a transitory caste.

The entire evolution of the USSR goes to prove, in our opinion, that the important role usurped by the bureaucracy in Russian economic and political life by far transcends the existing need in a backward country of transplanting and appropriating the technique and the organization of production of advanced capitalist countries, in part through the bureaucratic automatism which stifles the control, the initiative and the creative spirit of the masses.

The development of the productive forces in the USSR derives from the statification of the means of production and the planning principle but not at all from the direction of economy by the bureaucracy, which allegedly is still indispensable at the present stage. On the contrary “bureaucratism, as a system, became the worst brake on the technical and cultural development of the country” (Trotsky). We therefore reject the definition of the bureaucracy as a new exploiting class because no historical justification for it can be demonstrated and we retain the definition of a transitory exploiting caste.

The essence of the socialist system which the proletarian revolution will substitute in place of capitalism lies in its internationalist character.

The proletariat cannot constitute itself as the ruling class without insuring, within a minimum period, the satisfaction of the fundamental needs of the new society and the rapid development of its culture, and in this way obviating the necessity for the bureaucracy as the organizer of the national income. But this task is insoluble within the framework of a single country and above all a backward country. This is the fundamental lesson of the Russian experience. Only the extension of the proletarian revolution to a number of advanced countries can furnish the cultural and economic base required to reduce the scope and duration of a bureaucracy to the minimum that is compatible with the preservation of the character of the workers state emerging from the revolution.

The Stalinist regime in the USSR therefore represents a bureaucratic distortion of the workers state in a backward country, encircled by imperialism.

This regime is situated, although only temporarily, between capitalism and socialism. It represents neither an autonomous and lasting social system, nor a new and lasting autonomous exploiting regime. This regime has prolonged its life owing to a combination of variable factors and the weakening of the imperialist encirclement, owing to the inter-imperialist antagonisms, the broadening of the social base of the bureaucracy, the prolonged retreat of the international revolutionary movement and the still inadequate economic and cultural development of the Soviet masses.

The power of resistance of the Stalinist regime is the product of the simultaneous interaction of these factors and the retreat of the world revolution owing to which the masses remain confined in an inferior condition in relation to the bureaucracy. Will the Stalinist regime be able to maintain its stability in the near future? Up to now this stability has been threatened by: a) imperialism; b) internal capitalist elements; c) the Soviet masses; d) the world revolution.

With the imperialist war drawing to its conclusion in Europe and presently in the world, it can be assumed that the USSR will emerge victorious from this test, and that imperialism has missed a first-rate opportunity to annihilate it. A new open attack against the USSR, given the relationship of forces that will exist at the conclusion of this war, can take place only after a lapse of several years. The principal antagonism that will emerge from this war – the antagonism between the US and the USSR – will not lead to an open military clash, for a number of reasons which we shall adduce further on, until there is an indispensable regrouping of world imperialist forces. Similarly, the odds are against imperialism’s being able to accomplish by an economic offensive in the near future the overthrow of the statified and planned economy of the USSR.

The latter, having withstood the test during the war, will resume its progressive climb more easily and rapidly than in the past, despite the momentary setback to its productive forces caused by the destruction of the most developed areas in the country.

Internally the pressure of the capitalist elements, the enriched peasants and elements among the upper circles of the bureaucracy (functionaries, army officers, technicians) who aspire to a freer, more secure and more lasting possession of their material privileges (through inheritance) is less weighty than the broadening of the base of the middle bureaucracy which owes everything to the regime and which feels itself threatened by the restoration of capitalism that cannot incorporate statified economy in its structure.

Thus the only serious threat to the Stalinist regime in the immediate future remains the threat issuing from the revolutionary international proletariat and the Soviet masses.

It is a mistake to persist in the expectation of Stalin’s imminent collapse as a result of the external pressure of capitalism today. The war has strengthened Stalin. Externally it has weakened the imperialist encirclement of the USSR and has postponed for at least several years the threat of a new military intervention. Internally it has lowered the living standard of the masses, eliminated the most militant and experienced elements of the population, and thanks to the military victories has raised the prestige of the bureaucracy.

Only the rise of the world revolution, through its repercussions in the USSR itself, can now bring about the overthrow of the Stalinist regime. The Stalinist bureaucracy is the first to take this fact consciously into account. Hence flows the essentially open, counter-revolutionary character of its present policy.

2. The Defense of the USSR

We have always meant by the slogan of “Defense of the USSR,” the defense of the statified and planned economy, and nothing more. We have called this “unconditional” defense. We defend the statified and planned economy of the USSR independently of the policy of the Soviet bureaucracy, independently of whether it happens to be more or less revolutionary, or more or less reactionary. At the same time we favor the most intransigent policy of revolutionary opposition to the Stalinist regime, calling for the formation of an underground Bolshevik-Leninist party in the USSR and for the revolutionary overthrow of Stalin. We have characterized the latter action of the masses, when it takes place, as a political revolution, which while making deep inroads in the economic sphere would leave intact the Soviet economic foundations, i.e. its statified, planned economy.

In practice, the difference with those who have defended the thesis of the “social revolution” thus reduced itself to a purely terminological dispute. In times of “peace” the task of the revolutionary overthrow of Stalin knows of no intermission. It is permanently on the order of the day. In time of “war,” or rather in time of direct military action against the USSR by one or more capitalist states, while carrying on our revolutionary propaganda against Stalin, while demonstrating to the masses the necessity of his overthrow, we postpone this task to the “next and perhaps very near stage” (Trotsky).

And here is the only valid justification today for this attitude: Why and how do Marxists defend the colonies? They defend them on the one hand because “the surplus value obtained by the exploitation of the colonies is one of the pillars of modern capitalism,” and on the other hand because imperialist domination in all the colonies “prevents the free development of the productive forces. That is why its destruction constitutes the first step of the revolution in the colonies and that is why the aid accorded to the destruction of foreign domination in the colonies is in reality not aid extended to the nationalist movement of the native bourgeoisie, but rather the clearing of the road for the oppressed proletariat itself” (Supplementary Theses on the Colonial Question, Second World Congress of the CI).

Every territory that is wrested, regardless of the manner, from the exploitation of imperialism, aggravates the latter’s internal crisis and expedites its downfall. On the contrary, every territory opened up to its exploitation prolongs the life of imperialism.

By its economic system the USSR constitutes an area closed to imperialist exploitation. On the other hand, it represents a system superior to that of imperialism. The interests of world revolutionary strategy dictate to the Marxists the task of preventing imperialism from finding a way out by insinuating itself into the USSR, by exploiting its material and human resources, by curbing its economic development.

The incorporation of the USSR in the capitalist system would represent an alleviation of the difficulties of imperialism and above all an economic victory for it.

What is false at the present stage of the evolution of the USSR is to maintain that its defense is dictated chiefly by its sociological and political characteristics: “workers state,” “outpost of the revolution,” and the like. None of this terminology corresponds to the actual situation, and it can serve only to arouse the worst illusions among the masses and in our own ranks. We defend the USSR as an economic system closed to imperialist exploitation and economically superior to capitalism, and for no other reason.

During the war, when direct military action of the imperialists threatened the USSR, we called for a kind of united front with Stalin, temporarily withdrawing from the agenda the question of his revolutionary overthrow.

Our slogan will be: “For the Regeneration of the USSR as a Workers State! Down With Stalin!”

3. The Advance of the Red Army and the Question of the Occupied Countries

The occupation of the Baltic countries, Poland and Bessarabia by the Red Army in 1940 and their incorporation in the USSR created some confusion in our ranks. The Stalinist bureaucracy, not wishing to share with the former ruling classes the power and privileges which devolved upon them in these countries, proceeded to expropriate and statify private property. This was a progressive measure. But its progressiveness was “relative,” as Leon Trotsky correctly noted.

For “its specific weight depends on the sum-total of all the other factors. Thus, we must first and foremost establish that the extension of the territory dominated by bureaucratic autocracy and parasitism, cloaked by ‘socialist’ measures, can augment the prestige of the Kremlin, engender illusions concerning the possibility of replacing the proletarian revolution by bureaucratic maneuvers, and so on. This evil by far outweighs the progressive content of Stalinist reforms in Poland” (Trotsky).

It ought to be added that, in order for the nationalization of property in the occupied countries, and even in the USSR, to become the basis for a genuinely progressive development, it must be supplemented by the administration of economy by the masses themselves and by an equitable distribution of the national income. Herein lies the real character of the workers state and of socialism. But this task is unrealizable without first overthrowing the bureaucracy.

Today, thanks to a new conjuncture arising from the imperialist war, the USSR is again in process of annexing these territories. For the same reasons as in 1940 the Stalinist bureaucracy is obliged to statify their economy. The task of the revolutionary workers in these territories is to take an active part in the expropriation of private economy, to establish the most friendly relations with the proletarian masses of the Red Army, while maintaining their implacable opposition to the bureaucratic regime of Stalin, and while propagating the necessity of his revolutionary overthrow.

We oppose all territorial annexations to the USSR which have not received the free consent of the population. We are for the independence of all these territories, along with the Soviet Ukraine, and even Soviet White Russia, if the White Russians desire it.

In the countries entered in the course of the war by the Red Army we maintain absolute distrust towards it so long as it remains under the orders of the Kremlin bureaucracy. Having made formal commitments to the American and British imperialists and fearing above all the extension of the revolution, the Stalinist bureaucracy utilizes the Red Army in countries, apart from the territories annexed to the USSR – Rumania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Finland – not to statify their economy and not to help their revolution but to assist a capitalist clique in seizing power and in establishing a pro-Soviet foreign policy while safeguarding the continuity of the capitalist regime. It would be therefore false in these cases to represent the entry of the Red Army as beneficial to the masses. To do so is to literally disarm them politically and to weaken their vigilance and opposition.

It is through the presence of the Red Army in these countries (Finland, Poland, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria) today that the Soviet bureaucracy curbs the development of civil war and revolution and plays the decisive role in saving the capitalist regime.

Certainly, the entry of the Red Army, which is regarded by the masses as the army of the revolution, acts to accelerate both the revolutionary processes in these countries as well the solution of certain democratic problems, particularly that of agrarian reform. But while, in order to guarantee its exclusive domination, the bureaucracy is obliged to proceed to statification and planning in the territories which for strategic reasons are to be annexed to the USSR; in other countries the bureaucracy not only remains indifferent to the deep-going social changes to which the masses aspire, but – fearful of the extension of the revolution – itself undertakes, through the presence of the Red Army, the consolidation of the tottering bourgeois regimes.

4. The Present Policy of Stalinism

With the abandonment of the ultra-left policy of the “Third Period” (1929-1933) and the inauguration of the “People’s Front” policy, the Stalinist parties began to depend not exclusively on the Soviet bureaucracy but also on their respective bourgeoisies. Since that time the bureaucracy of the Stalinist parties has entered into ever closer and more intimate relations with its own bourgeoisie by systematically practicing the policy of class collaboration and national unity, by sinking their roots more and more deeply into petty bourgeois strata, by immersing themselves, in the spirit of reformism, in the state apparatus of the bourgeoisie (parliament, municipalities, etc.). Hence they became no longer disposed, at least in their entirety, to blindly follow the directives of the Soviet bureaucracy, except to the degree that these directives were not in flagrant contradiction with the interests of their own bourgeoisie.

On the other hand this dependence of the Stalinist parties on their own bourgeoisie was strongest where the national bourgeoisie was powerful and prosperous. Thus even prior to the war, Browder, secretary of the American Communist Party, declared in all sincerity that in case of a conflict between America and the USSR he would support his country without hesitation. Similarly, on the announcement of the signing of the Russo-German pact in August 1939, an important section of the bureaucracy in the Stalinist parties broke with the rest of their colleagues, refusing to defend the policy of the Soviet bureaucracy against their own bourgeoisie, and creating a state of uneasiness in the parties which was finally dissipated only with the entry of the USSR into the war against Germany. The war has enormously accelerated this process.

The unconditional and all-out support given to the “resisting” bourgeoisie by the Stalinist parties, their active participation in its organisms, crowned by their entry into the “resisting” Allied governments have precipitated the chauvinist degeneration of the bureaucracy of the Stalinist parties and have strengthened the bonds which unite a growing section of its cadres with its national bourgeoisie. Thus in order to understand the present policy of Stalinism in the various countries, its possibilities and its limits, it is necessary to take into account the growing influence of the bourgeoisie, alongside of the traditional dependence on the Soviet bureaucracy in matters of foreign policy.

5. The Present Foreign Policy of the Soviet Bureaucracy

Throughout the prewar period the Soviet bureaucracy, conscious of the strength of imperialism and its own internal weaknesses, lived in perpetual fear of being drawn into the whirlpool of a world conflict. In order to avoid this danger it deliberately sacrificed the interests of the revolution by pursuing a policy which consisted of allaying the misgivings of imperialism and dissipating its mistrust.

However, the war, as was inevitable, did not spare the USSR. The Soviet bureaucracy was forced into the war and was forced to wage war with the maximum energy in order to survive as an exploiting caste.

The war caused unprecedented havoc in the USSR, devastating entire regions, including the richest and the most industrialized sectors, consuming vast quantities of material wealth, decimating the living forces of the country, causing a considerable setback to the productive forces. Several years will be required to regain and surpass the 1940 levels.

During the war the main preoccupation of the Soviet bureaucracy was to avert the annihilation of the regime of statified and planned economy in the USSR on which its existence depends, and to mobilize the maximum forces against German imperialism which attacked it directly. Having succeeded in escaping, thanks to the inter-imperialist antagonisms, a general coalition against the USSR, it was able to victoriously assume the offensive (aided by the superiorities of the Soviet economic system and the devotion of the Soviet masses) and to definitely avert in this war the threat of military defeat.

In the present stage, which is the final phase of the world war, the main preoccupation of the Soviet bureaucracy is to terminate the conflict advantageously and to assure a durable peace in order to reconstruct the USSR.

The bureaucracy will attain these two aims on the one hand by the strategic strengthening of the USSR through the incorporation of a part of Finland, the Baltic countries, a part of Poland, Bessarabia and through the acquisition of points of support in Bulgaria and in Thrace (control of the Dardanelles); on the other hand by strengthening itself on the diplomatic arena through the creation of a number of buffer states pro-Soviet in their foreign policy, such as Finland, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, through the reduction of Germany to a second-rate power and through the establishment of friendliest and most intimate relations with France and Italy.

What the Soviet bureaucracy seeks in the final analysis is the creation of a system of relationships between the various states on the continent that will neutralize all of Europe for a period of time (as in the case of China in Asia) in face of the Soviet-American antagonism, the primary antagonism emerging from this war.

6. The Soviet-American Antagonism

In fact, if we leave aside the antagonism existing between America and England which will not lead to any open conflict between them, so long as England is able to find compensations for her concessions to Yankee imperialism, by despoiling the other vanquished, allied or hostile imperialisms (France, Italy, Japan, Germany), the principal antagonism which will emerge from this war and which will sow the seeds of the next world conflict, unless the socialist revolution intervenes in time, is the antagonism between the United States and the USSR. However, it would be absolutely erroneous today to seek the fundamental reasons of this antagonism in the different class character of the two countries and to dangerously muddle the question by using outlived and false phraseology.

America and England oppose the USSR not because the Stalinist USSR represents today the “outpost of the revolution” but solely for the following reasons:

  1. Because independently of its class character the USSR has become a power which excludes the establishment of an equilibrium on a European or world scale.
  2. Because the USSR remains an economic area closed to imperialist penetration and control.

Neither America nor England can rest peacefully so long as the USSR, which has grown inordinately, exists and remains inaccessible (or at least its accessibility is rendered very difficult) to the economic and political control of imperialism.

They are obliged to face this situation with constant vigilance and henceforth seek to create, as against the attempts of the Soviet bureaucracy, a system of relations among European and Asiatic states adequate for maintaining their pressure on the USSR and suitable for use as bridgeheads and strongholds in the eventuality of open conflict against the USSR.

Hence flows the difference in policy between the USSR and America in relation to the settlement of the German, Polish and Balkan questions in which their antagonism in Europe finds its crystallization today. The Soviet bureaucracy would like to reduce Germany to complete impotence, fearing that a capitalist Germany would inevitably become in the near future an outpost of imperialism against the USSR. For opposite reasons, America, while domesticating German imperialism, will take into consideration its usefulness in the struggle against the USSR.

Similarly with the Polish question: Fearing a strong Poland the USSR has annexed part of it and wishes to convert the other part into a friendly buffer state. America and England maneuver to avoid this dismemberment of Poland.

In the Balkans, Russian pressure, with bases in Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, has sought to reach the Aegean Sea and to flank the Dardanelles; it was thwarted only because of the counteraction of England and the United States who are basing themselves on Turkey and Greece.

However the perspective of an immediate conflict between America and the USSR must be excluded for the following reasons:

  1. No objective in the foreign policy of the Soviet bureaucracy impinges on the nerve centers of Yankee interests.
  2. The Soviet bureaucracy will cede all those points on which America is adamant.
  3. America is conscious of the revolutionary crisis issuing from the war in Europe and of the counter-revolutionary usefulness of the Soviet bureaucracy.
  4. American imperialism in its expansion can satisfy itself for the time being with the immense gains accruing to it from this war without having recourse to the exploitation of the USSR.

On the contrary, the Soviet-American conflict will mature if thanks to the development of its productive forces the USSR breaking out of its national framework threatens imperialism on a world scale; if, after having regrouped and rebuilt its forces decimated by the war, imperialism is caught up in a crisis and once again acutely feels the narrowness of the world market; and if after having first of all crushed the revolution it is able to mobilize the masses against the USSR. None of these factors will come into play for several years at least and in any case not unless the revolutionary crisis arising from this war is terminated by the defeat of the proletariat.

Thus instead of counting on the possibility of an imminent conflict between America and the USSR in the next period which coincides with the revolutionary crisis arising from the imperialist war, and instead of envisaging Stalinist policy through the false prism of American-USSR relations and their consequences, it is necessary to take as our point of departure the fact that the Soviet bureaucracy will see its principal adversary in the rising revolution in Europe and in the world.

The leaderships of the Stalinist parties today submit on the one hand to the pressure of the counter-revolutionary orientation of the Soviet bureaucracy and on the other hand to the pressure of their own bourgeoisie.

In these conditions to advance as a likelihood the hypothesis of an approaching turn of Stalinism to the left, that is, a break with its present policy of class collaboration is literally tantamount to disarming the revolutionary vanguard ideologically.

Stalinism plays the same role today that the Second International played at the conclusion of the first world war. Hopelessly enmeshed in the net of class collaboration, it is the principal force which maintains the tottering bourgeoisie in power and which breaks the revolutionary elan of the masses. Its crisis and decline as the principal force in the workers movement will be the result of contradictions maturing in its own ranks.

In their first phase of radicalization, the masses, still attracted by the radiance of the October Revolution over the USSR and the past revolutionary action of the Communist parties tend to regroup themselves principally in the Stalinist parties.

Nevertheless the latter’s arena for perfidious maneuvers is limited. While the ruined European bourgeoisie is incapable of granting any substantial reforms, the masses, exasperated by the five years of unprecedented misery and oppression cannot be appeased with promises and half-measures. The question of power is opened up throughout Europe. In the gigantic class struggles now beginning the Stalinist bureaucracy will inevitably reveal its true counter-revolutionary face. It will inevitably come to know the mistrust, the contempt and even the hatred of the revolutionary masses.

But the regroupment of the revolutionary masses around another revolutionary pole will not be an automatic process. If the Fourth International, in its policy and action, shows itself incapable of crystallizing and assimilating the proletarian current which will part company with the Stalinist parties, then the rupture of the masses with the latter can take the form of a disorderly retreat, disorienting individuals politically and proving fatal to the general resistance of the proletariat to the new attacks of fascism.

The Fourth International enters as the principal factor into the process of the transformation of the present revolutionary crisis into the triumph of the revolution.

Should it fail in this role many decades will pass before it will be possible again to speak of the emergence of humanity from capitalist barbarism. But in order to fulfil this mission the Fourth International – already firm on many planks of its program – must bring up to date its position on the question of the USSR and Stalinism.

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Michel Pablo
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Updated on: 10 April 2015