Ernest Rice McKinney Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

David Coolidge

Discussion Article:

What Is a Workers’ State?

(June 1941)

From The New International, Vol. VII No. 5 (Whole No. 54), June 1941, pp. 116–9.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

MY POSITION on the “Russian Question” is substantially and fundamentally the one outlined by Comrade Shachtman in The New International of December 1940. That is, I hold (a) that Russia is not a workers’ state, (b) the bureaucracy is a class, and (c) defense of the U.S.S.R. under certain conditions cannot be excluded. It is my belief that the position of Comrade Johnson – that Russia is a fascist state – must be rejected completely. Johnson’s position, in my opinion, must be rejected not only for the reason that it cannot be sustained by any of the known and accepted canons of Marxist criticism and analysis, but also for the reason that Johnson has not succeeded in giving logical or theoretical validity to his position and his arguments. In my opinion, his proof (elucidation) is inadequate. At times his presentation is inexcusably flippant and irresponsible. This is particularly the case when he is polemizing against Comrade Trotsky. I will take up some of these points in detail later.

This question of the nature of the Russian state, now being discussed by the Workers Party, is one of profound importance, not only for the party itself but also for the world working class. Involved are the validity of the struggle for socialism, the theoretical bases of that struggle, its tactics and the possibilities for victory of the proletariat on a world scale. The question therefore is not an abstract one. This is especially true today, hi the period of the Second World Imperialist War, when the world working class, disunited, shattered by doubt, and fearful of a Hitler victory, is being mobilized in the interest of the international bourgeoisie. It is our duty in the circumstances, therefore, to approach this question seriously and attentively.

The Nature of the Workers’ State

My first contribution to this discussion is given the title, What Is a Workers’ State? This is the principal question we have to answer. In summary, the Trotskyist movement reduced the answer to that question to the effect that a workers state is one in which the property is nationalized. According to this definition and according to numerous theses and articles on the question, the political regime was eliminated as a factor to be taken into consideration in arriving at this answer. Nationalized property was believed a sufficient condition for characterizing such a state as a workers state.

The most determined advocates of this position ignored the element of control and often hurled imprecations at all who dared insist that control of the state apparatus and the instruments of production should be considered fundamental factors in determining whether or not Russia is a workers’ state. Inquiring individuals were met in the sternest manner with such rebuffs as: “If it isn’t a workers’ state, then what kind of state is it? Marx only mentioned two kinds of states: workers’ state and bourgeois state.” This was expected to silence the inquirer, scare him away from any outlying deviations and keep him safe within the fold. If this did not succeed, the next approach was to call up all the renegades from Marxism and Bolshevism, dangle them over the head of the doubter, and then inform him that he was about to take the same road into the ranks of the bourgeoisie.

Those of us who now comprise the Workers Party rejected this approach and this attitude as bureaucratic and doctrinaire. We said that we wanted to examine and re-examine our position on the Russian question. We wanted to go over the steps and the reasoning by which we had reached our position on the Russian question. We wanted to re-appraise some of our premises and relate them to concrete historical events in the Soviet Union. This, to us, meant the application of the basic principle of Marxism, its methodology, in the analysis of the nature of the Soviet state today. This I take it is what Marx intended his theory to be and what he tried to impress on the future Marxists.

There was not then, and is not today, a doubt in our minds as to the validity of Marxism, the correctness of Bolshevik theory and practice, or the permanent eminence of Comrade Trotsky in the field of Marxian theory and practice.

Can Quotations Decide?

In my opinion it is not productive to approach this question by a servile appeal to quotations. A battle of quotations will not clarify and educate anybody. To proceed in this manner is to turn Marx into a Hebrew prophet and Das Kapital into sacred and authoritarian scripture. Quotations are useful when used for illumination. They fall short of their best value when injected merely to prove a debater’s point or to refute another quotation. In The New International for April 1941, Comrade Trotsky in the piece on Tradition and Revolutionary Policy, makes a significant reference to this manner of using quotations. He says:

“Leninism consists in not looking backward, in avoiding being bound by precedent by purely formal reference to quotations ... Lenin cannot be chopped up into quotations suitable for all cases in life, because for Lenin the formula is never higher than the reality, it is always the instrument that makes possible grasping the reality and dominating it. One can find in Lenin, without difficulty, dozens and hundreds of passages, which, formally, seem to contradict one another. But it is necessary to see not the formal relationship between one passage and another, but the real relationship of each to the concrete reality in which the formula was introduced as a lever. The Leninist truth is always concrete.”

The name of Marx can be substituted for Lenin in the passage quoted.

What Bolshevism Believed

For some, Russia will remain a workers’ state as long as the property is nationalized. No matter how much the workers are oppressed and straight-jacketed, no matter to what extent the bureaucracy seizes power and control, no matter that the Soviets are destroyed and the party transformed into an instrument of the bureaucracy, no matter that the political rule of the proletariat has been completely liquidated, Russia could be and would be a workers’ state so long as nationalized property remained. I do not believe that Lenin ever held such a view as this. As far as I have been able to learn, Lenin never based his political analyses on formal definitions divorced from concrete conditions and experience. It is difficult to believe that Comrade Trotsky held any such view as this in the post-Revolution days or at the beginning of the Stalinist régime. The leaders of the October Revolution did believe that political control of the state by the proletariat must accompany the nationalization of the property. This consideration is especially important when we – as we must – relate nationalized property to the manner of its nationalization: namely by virtue of the power of the proletariat acquired through the successful October Revolution. In my opinion, these two events go together and must not be separated.

The aim of the masses, of the proletariat was political and economic freedom: to gain political liberty and the material necessities of life. The Bolsheviks knew, however, that such a consummation was not a simple attainment. Tremendous expansion of the forces of production would be necessary. The necessary prerequisite was the revolution which would place in the hands of the proletariat the power to nationalize the bourgeois property, thus transforming it into state property. The revolution was the first step in a process leading to a classless society. The goal was socialism and all that socialism connotes: political freedom, economic security and high cultural opportunity for the masses.

For a time after the revolution the Soviets were a reality. The party was a living and potent force. The Russian proletariat had entered the “preparatory regime” that would lay the basis for the withering away of the state. If this had not been the case then nationalization would have been a fraud and a mere seizure of control by a clique. After October, Russia entered a transition period under the guidance and leadership of the Bolshevik Party. The party was dominant but it was a living and active party of the masses.

The Stalinist Era

With the ascendancy of the Stalinist bureaucracy the party and the Soviets were destroyed (Johnson and Macdonald would perhaps say that the party existed “in form only”). The transition to socialism was halted. In the midst of the transition period, with collectivised property as a foundation, a bureaucratic regime triumphed.

In my opinion it was at this point that Russia ceased to be a workers’ state in any sense whatever. This is not a question of dates, or of “interpreters,” but of the whole meaning and content of socialism. The victory of October was achieved under the leadership and on the program of the Bolshevik Party, and with the slogan of “all power to the Soviets.” But with the destruction of the Soviets, the liquidation of the party and the distortion of the program, Russia ceased to be a workers state, even in the sense in which Lenin had called it a “workers and peasants’ state with bureaucratic deformations.” Nationalized property is necessary but not sufficient. In the transition period nationalized property must exist jointly with political control by the proletariat through the democratically operated party and other working class institutions.

Russia is not a workers’ state but neither is it a capitalist state. Perhaps we cannot say now what kind of state it is. This would not be fatal except to those who disagree with Trotsky that “neither October, Brest-Litovsk, the creation of a regular peasant army, the system of requisitioning food products, the N.E.P. nor the State Plan were or could have been foreseen or predetermined by pre-October Marxism or Bolshevism.” It will only prove fatal for those who believe, with Johnson, that “... Stalinist Russia is the greatest affirmation of his (Marx’s) analysis of capital hitherto seen.”

Russia in Transition

Russia is still in the transitional period. In that sense it might be called a transitional state. I do not mean by this that the Stalinist bureaucracy is a transitional regime, that is, transitional to socialism. We can say that it is temporary but not transitional. On the foundation of the collectivized property and the removal of the bureaucracy along with the reconstituting of the party and the other organs of workers’ power, the development toward socialism can be renewed. This is what is important and meaningful, not labels and definitions.

In The New International for April 1941, Comrade Johnson, after saying that after 1936, when all power was lost by the proletariat and the social relations were such as to keep Russian economy and society “in a state of permanent crisis,” adds that “Stalinist Russia, like American capitalism, is transitional to crisis and collapse and to nothing else.” It is very difficult to understand what Johnson means here. If he is saying that the Stalinist regime is not transitional to socialism, then we can agree with him. But to say that it is “transitional to crisis and collapse and to nothing else” doesn’t tell us anything, or at least, very much. Johnson also passes over the crises and the constant imminence of collapse of Soviet economy under Lenin and Trotsky. Has Johnson ever heard of the serious crisis that motivated the trade union discussion, or that which motivated the N.E.P.? And does Comrade Johnson think that Stalinist Russia as well as capitalist America are near “collapse”? It appears that collectivized property is a far more powerful factor than Johnson thinks. Furthermore, there are yet several alternative developments possible for American capitalism which might save it from “collapse.” It seems to be Johnson’s position that the Stalinist bureaucracy adopted fascism to save Russian capitalism.

Twists on Wage-Labor

Comrade Johnson is out to prove that Russia is a capitalist state and is no longer in a transition period. It was a “transitional state” under Lenin. But Johnson finds that today “in Russia the proletariat is a class of wage-laborers.” And further, “this predominance of wage-labor makes the means of production capital.” But Comrade Johnson isn’t so certain about wage-labor in Leninist Russia. “Was there wage-labor in Leninist Russia? In form only; or yes and no, as is inevitable in a transitional state, but much more no than yes.” Now which was it? Was there wage-labor under Lenin. Of course there was. And it isn’t “much more no than yes.” How could it have been otherwise in the circumstances, with the struggle for existence still a stern reality: in a “bourgeois state,” albeit one “without a bourgeoisie.”

How did the transition from the Leninist to the Stalinist period take place? What was the quality of this transformation by which Russia today is a capitalist state? Johnson says:

“The rule of the proletariat created a new economy ... whereas in a capitalist society the basic relationship is on the one hand wage-labor and on the other hand means of production in the hands of the capitalist class; in Leninist Russia the relationship was: the form of wage-labor only on the one hand because on the other were the means of production in the hands of the laborer who owned the property through the state.”

What does Comrade Johnson mean when he says that the means of production are “in the hands of the capitalist class.” Means of production in the hands of the bourgeoisie has heretofore meant that they own it. This ownership by one class and the absence of ownership by the other class made it necessary for that class to work for wages. It is true that this was not the dominant form of wage-labor under Lenin. But is it the dominant form of wage-labor under Stalin? Does this form of wage-labor exist at all today in Russia? That is, does the Stalinist bureaucracy own the instruments of production in the sense of capitalist ownership?

Johnson says that under Lenin the means of production were in the hands of the “laborer” who “owned the property through the state.” Does the Stalinist bureaucracy today own the property through the state? Johnson might argue this because it is his contention that Russian collectivized property under Lenin was progressive only because it was a workers’ state. (Johnson ignores the manner of collectivization after a proletarian revolution, and confuses this with the “statification” of capitalist property by a bourgeois government.) In his reasoning he totally ignores the structural economic changes wrought by the revolution. For that reason he is unable to describe the economic mechanics of the return or degeneration to capitalism.

Germany and Russia

Later Comrade Johnson remarks: “In Germany and Russia the ruling class possesses, uses as its own, and for its own interests the means of production.” What does “possesses” mean here? Does he mean that the bureaucracy in Russia owns the property and in the same way that the German bourgeoisie owns German property? In the United States, do Knudsen and Sloan possess General Motors or do du Pont and Raskob? In Germany, who possesses the iron works at Essen, the Krupps or the fascist government? Unless we are ready to accept the Burnham “managerial” thesis we are forced to say that in the United States and Germany the capitalists and not the managers possess (own) the property.

In some places Johnson seems to say that there is no private property in Russia; therefore no capitalist. He writes: “Stalin, contrary, contrary to Trotsky’s persistent premonitions, strengthens state property, but if private property were restored in Russia tomorrow ,it would inevitably be statified again.” Again: “Of capitalist barbarism, Stalinist Russia is a forerunner.” What do these statements mean? Is Russia capitalist, or isn’t it?

Juridical Details

But Comrade Johnson hasn’t finished yet. He does a little injudicious twisting. In The New International for December 1940, Comrade Shachtman asked why Hitler, who is bold in other spheres, should halt when he faces the “juridical detail” (the quotations are Schachtman’s) represented by private ownership of the means of production. Next he wrote: “Private ownership of capital, that ‘juridical detail’ before which Hitler comes to a halt, is a social reality of the pro-foundest importance.” It is obvious that “juridical detail” is a quotation. (I think it emanates from Macdonald’s article on German fascism.) It is also textually dear that that “juridical detail” is what is known in elementary grammar as a parenthetical clause. The sentence is: “Private ownership of capital ... is a social reality of the profoundest importance.”

Now what does Comrade Johnson do in his haste? He asks of Shachtman: “... why may we not call the bureaucracy a capitalist class of the same economic type as the German bourgeoisie?” Says Shachtman: the “juridical detail” of ownership is of the “profoundest importance.” Then Johnson continues: “This is indeed the magnification of a juridical relationship into the basis of society.” And: “So capitalist society depends on Hitler’s not changing that juridical detail, in fact for Shachtman, capitalist society is that juridical detail, ownership.”

Here we have an excellent illustration of Comrade Johnson’s “method,” his hopeless confusion and the muddle which can be created when one chops Marx up into quotations and fails to understand the relationship of the quotations to the concrete reality.

Ownership and Private Property

Comrade Johnson ran into a rather stiff barrier in his attempt to get proof that Russia is a capitalist state. There stood the question of ownership and private property and the collectivized property in the Soviet Union. He stubbornly attempts to dodge the question per se, progressive and the necessary foundation for socialist achievement.

One can sympathize with Comrade Johnson’s horror at Stalinist barbarity, the condition of the Russian workers, the liquidation of their institutions and all the counter-revolutionary aspects of the Stalinist regime. We agree fully that the trend under Lenin was entirely different from the trend under Stalin. But none of these things can prove (explain) that Russia is a capitalist state. In my opinion all that Johnson proves is that Russia is not a workers’ state. But to say as he does that it is a capitalist state is to do violence to all the fundamental Marxian criteria by which we judge such questions. One is privileged to revise Marxism; it has been done before and will be done again, but we would like to have it straight in front of us so that we know what it is we are discussing.

Is Russia a Fascist State?

Comrade Johnson claims that Russia is not only a capitalist state but also a fascist state. Germany and Russia are identical types of states: both fascist. Comrade Johnson did not always believe this. In The New International for July 1940, he wrote an article, Capitalist Society and the War. In that article Comrade Johnson makes what he himself calls “the Marxian analysis” of fascism. He wrote:

“The iron law of such a method of production (capitalist) is the accumulation of profits in the form of capital leading to an ever greater concentration.” The fascists “compelled (he bourgeoisie to invest a portion of its profits in armaments. The system, however, remains a capitalist system, in the method of production, the use of labor-power as a commodity, the inevitable accumulation of capital, the need for imperialist expansion. The bourgeois investment in armaments is in reality a form of investment in colonies and new industrial opportunities which the armaments will win for them.” (Italics in original.)

Continuing, Johnson says:

“The nature of bureaucratic power and the extent of its revenues are subordinate to the essential features of capitalist production in Germany ... it (fascism) is capitalism in its last stages ... such is the Marxian analysis of the question ... it places the working class at the mercy of the capitalists in regard to wages and working conditions ... Germany needed an expansion of agriculture, but the Nazis carefully guarded the property of the Junkers ... after all, fascism is the government of finance-capital in decay.”

Johnson adds, still speaking of fascist Germany, that:

“There has been a redistribution of income and a shift in political power, which afford scope for close study, and periodic revaluation. But through all the changes, the fascist bureaucracy, even when Bonapartist-fashion it makes gestures, concrete and symbolic, to other classes, preserved the fundamentals of capitalist society in our day, the profits of finance-capital ...”

Johnson on Germany

This is the way Comrade Johnson described capitalism and fascism last July. He called it “The Marxian Analysis” of fascism. In Germany capitalism is one thing; in Russia it is something else. In Germany fascism is the government “of finance-capital in decay.” In Russia, however, all that is necessary to have fascism is misery, barbarism and terror. In Germany “redistribution of income and a shift in political power” produce no basic change, but in Russia they produce capitalism and fascism.

We cannot be certain, however, that Comrade Johnson really holds to his “Marxian Analysis” of last July. For in the April 1941 New International he writes: “The German capitalist with every social relation of production, wages, trade, profit, all controlled by the state, is little more than a state functionary.” How does Johnson make this statement square with his affirmations of July; with those already quoted and the following:

“It is true that the Nazis compelled the capitalists to reinvest profits over a certain amount (my italics. – D.C.) in such industries as were indicated by the state ... but the direction of these enterprises they left to the capitalists themselves and they forbade any increase in the state administration of industry.”

It seems that it has never occurred to Comrade Johnson that a state can he capitalist and not be fascist. It is not difficult, however, to detect the source of Johnson’s difficulty. Although he is profuse in the distribution of quotations from Marx, and makes constant assertions about stern Marxian analysis, he demonstrates again and again that his thinking has been warped by the brutality and terror of the Stalinist

Comrade Johnson warns us to beware of “Trotsky’s methodology on Russia applied to capitalism.” Also Shachtman’s “metaphysical and juristic” fictions, because, “this method of thinking ... is bourgeois, and will lead us straight into the camp of the bourgeoisie.”

This is strong language and I humbly urge that Comrade Johnson meditate on that last sentence about the “camp of the bourgeoisie” in connection with his claim that Russia is a fascist state. Also I believe that the following calls for some meditation also: “After nearly twenty-five years of work and thought on the Russian question, the successor of Marx, Engels and Lenin, pursuing a consistent line, invited us to enter one of the war camps and we refused. But for the accident of circumstances we would have been on one side of the barricades and the leader of the October revolution on the other.” This is pure nonsense, but what I want to emphasize is that it is highly inappropriate and inacceptable nonsense. There are many other aspects of this question that I should like to discuss but limitations of space dictate that they be left to others or to a later contribution of my own in a future number of The New International.

Ernest Rice McKinney Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 25 October 2014