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Albert Gates

Why Workers Should Not Defend
Stalin’s Russia

(9 December 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 49, 9 December 1946, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Of all the organizations that adhere to the general program and ideas of the Fourth Internationalist movement, there is none so sterile, so impervious to events, so alien to the free-and scientific spirit of inquiry as the Socialist Workers Party in the United States. It clings conservatively to outlived theories and false slogans with a tenacity characteristic of theoretical ignorance. And nowhere does this manifest itself so clearly as on the famous “Russian question.”

As many of our readers will know, the SWP still adheres to the theory that Russia is a “degenerated workers’ state,” and therefore, whatever the differences with and opposition to Stalinism, the “defense of the Soviet Union” remains the key slogan of world socialist policy. Those who disagree with their theory of the Russian state and the slogan which flows logical from the theory, are described as being on the other side of the “class barricades.”

Fetish and Ritual

The founder of the theory of the “degenerated workers’ state,” and the “defense of the Soviet Union,” was Leon Trotsky, the greatest socialist leader of this era. But he never went to the absurd lengths of his epigone followers in the SWP. Where Trotsky was deeply concerned with Russian developments in the latter period of his life and concerned with the real possibility that he may have to revise his position on Stalin’s state, the SWP proceeds in this question with the blindness of cave animals who perambulate without sight. Their theory of Russia has become a fetish, the slogan of defense, a ritual. The war years came and went without having the slightest effect on the thinking of the Cannonite leaders of the SWP.

One of the best examples of an absolutely hard-headed approach to this great question is contained in the Militant of November 9, in an article by Joseph Hansen, called What Trotskyists Defend Today in the Soviet Union. The opening sentence of this article declares:

“Today in the Soviet Union nationalized property, the great conquest of the November 1917 revolution, still remains.”

Therefore? Therefore, despite the crimes of Stalin, the workers must not be blinded “to the necessity of defending this great historical conquest of the world working class.” How? By the “defense of the Soviet Union.”

Such a slogan had justification, if it did not have validity, years ago, before experience and greater knowledge of Stalin’s Russia was at hand. But today, this position is absurd, as Hansen himself proceeds to prove unthinkingly. Years of Stalinist rule have shown that mere nationalization of property does not advance the interests of the working class nor improve their historical position in society. What made the Russian Revolution the most progressive event in modern history is that it destroyed the power of the bourgeoisie and elevated the working class to political power. It established the first workers’ state in history which proceeded to govern the country in the interests of the masses, proletarians and peasants. This was true during the period when property was not nationalized as well as when it was. It was not nationalized property which made Russia a workers’ state, but the political power of the working class, the fact that it ruled the country through its state. The moment the workers lost political power, i.e., from the day that the Stalinist bureaucracy usurped power and proceeded to destroy the independence, initiative and power of intervention and control by the working class, the workers’ state no longer existed. The fact that the nationalization of property remains under the regime of Stalin only proves that such property forms can exist under the most reactionary, anti-working class, counter-revolutionary regime imaginable. Thus there’ is nothing to defend in a nation ruled by a reactionary brutal dictatorial regime, which rests precisely on this form of property. To call for the defense of this property form, as though it were something distinct and separate from the regime which rules the country, is an absurd abstraction totally unrelated to life itself.

Joseph Hansen Describes Russia

If you want to see to what absurdity Hansen is compelled, listen to what follows in his article immediately after the monumental statement quoted above:

“Virtually all the other conquests of the November 1917 revolution, however, have been liquidated ... Counter-revolutionary forces seized power ... Stalin crushed the Bolshevik Party that had been built by Lenin. Stalin exiled tens of thousands of Bolsheviks. ... He executed all Lenin’s general staff of revolution. He murdered Leon Trotsky ... Stalin stamped out all democracy in the soviet organs of government ... Stalin instituted dictatorial personal rule. His political party prohibits the organization of any opposition ... In elections the people are permitted to vote for only one slate of hand-picked candidates. The rule of the Stalin bureaucracy rests on the terror of a secret police ... The secret police has in its power between ten and twenty million workers ... doomed to slave labor ... Periodic purges terrorize the population ... The Stalinist regime has restored privileges in the Soviet Union ... So thick and powerful has this growth (the parasitic bureaucracy) become, that the tree of the workers’ state can scarcely be seen.”

The “tree of the workers’ state can scarcely be seen,” or better, cannot be seen at all, because no such tree exists in Russia. Hansen might well have added that there are no “soviets” in his “Soviet Union”; that there are no trade unions, except in name, for what are called trade unions are government bodies for the purpose of binding totalitarian chains around the masses and enslaving them to the regime. There is no party of the working class in Stalin’s Russia. In a word, the working class is a down-trodden, persecuted, enslaved proletariat in Russia, ruled over by a new class of bureaucratic collectivists which arose on the basis of nationalized property. And if ever a theory was proven false in life, it is the theory that Russia is a “degenerated workers’ state.” That would be bad enough if the adherence to such a theory had only an abstract significance. But it doesn’t. It has a real living significance. It is one of the most dangerous myths that has ever entered the working class movement, for the political consequences of the theory has already destroyed in large part the effectiveness of many organizations which, in all other respects, embrace revolutionary socialist principles.

What It Meant Politically

As a result of this rotten theory, the SWP hailed the victories of Stalin’s army in Europe as the harbinger of the socialist revolution on the Continent. The SWP counseled the European workers to welcome Stalin’s gang of marauders, secret police detachments, and oppressors as “liberators.” The usually silent leader of this party once declared that the Polish underground, which fought so valiantly in the battle of the Warsaw Ghetto, should subordinate itself to the Red army on the other side of the Vistula. [1]

As a further example of the disorienting effect of this false theory of Russia and the slogan which accompanies it, we have the response of the SWP to the termination of the most destructive war in the history of mankind. The end of the military conflict saw the SWP declaring that: The war is not over! If by that it meant that peace is only an armed interlude between wars under capitalism and that so long as imperialism prevails war is inevitable, that would be one thing. Even then, its declaration is confusing and disorienting. But in the minds of the SWP leadership this declaration had another meaning. The sharp conflict between U.S. and Russian imperialism, the new struggle for world power between these two imperialist camps, described as the preparation for an immediate attack on Russia. Stalin’s expansion into Europe, the spread of his murderous, totalitarian, anti-working class rule into other countries are minimized by an attack on only one of the imperialist camps. This one-sided, unrealistic analysis causes the SWP to raise again the slogan of defense as the most important immediate slogan for revolutionary socialists.

To say that the powers are preparing for a third world war is one thing; to speak in the terms of a daily threat of war is to live in another world. Thus, on the basis of a false analysis of the world situation, the Cannonite SWP have resurrected a slogan that can only doom the progress of the revolutionary socialist movement. The “degenerated workers’ state,” even by their own description, is in reality a modern slave state. Nationalized property in Russia under Stalin has been the means to enslave the Russian workers. It is now clear from life itself, the nationalized property can be subverted for reactionary social purposes or used for socialist purposes. To separate the nationalized property in Russia from the bureaucratic class of exploiters and usurpers is impermissible.

Given the real conditions that exist in Russia, there is nothing for the workers of Russia, or the rest of the world, to defend. On the basis of the Cannonite theory, they would be defending an abstraction. The reality is that the “degenerated workers’ state” theory and the slogan of defense, disorients the movement of socialism. The worker is asked to defend what Joe Hansen has described is virtually a prison for the Russian masses. If one did not know that they are serious one could easily believe that the SWP leaders write about Russia with tongue in cheek. For, what possible conclusion, can one reach upon reading Hansen’s description of Russian society than that it is not a workers’ state, degenerated or otherwise, but is rather another exploitive society, a “prison of the working class.”

The refusal to think, to re-examine policies in the light of reality, which is a distinctive feature of Marxism, results in a sterile adherence to outlived theory produces such self-defeating and illusory concepts as are contained in Hansen’s article.


Footnote by ETOL

1. The author is here confusing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (19 April–1 May 1943) and the Warsaw Uprising (1 August–2 October 1944). By mid-September 1945 the Red Army had occupied the Eastern suburbs of Warsaw on the other side of the Vistula from the city centre but no attempt was made to help the insurgents. The Red Army finally took Warsaw on 17 January 1945, 3½ months after the defeat of the Uprising and the subsequent destruction of most of what was left of the city.

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