Origin and Nature of the Stalinist States:  Appendix: Marxism, Stalinism and the theory of the state




An internal debate in the League during the 1990s focussed on the question of the process of capitalist restoration in Eastern Europe. It concluded that some of the formulations in the Degenerated Revolution had been incorrect. This Appendix was printed in Trotskyist International Number 23 as a correction



In 1956 the Hungarian Uprising demonstrated to the world both the possibility of a political revolution against Stalinist bureaucracy and the character it would take.


It showed that the ruling Communist Party, the army, the secret police and the state administration would act as agents of repression against any working class attempt to establish its own control over a state which claimed to be proletarian. Newly created fighting organisations (workers' councils, a militia) would be necessary to forcibly overthrow Stalinist tyranny.


Even though the power of the Hungarian workers’ councils was crushed by Soviet tanks, these events put flesh and blood on the positive scenario contained in Leon Trotsky’s prognosis in the Transitional Programme that:


“either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the worker’s state, will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back to capitalism or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism.”


Three and a half decades later, after further revolutionary crises and Soviet interventions or threats of them, a general and terminal crisis hit the states of Eastern Europe and spread to the USSR itself. Whilst events in 1989-91 vindicated Leon Trotsky’s analysis of these countries as degenerate workers’ states, they also confirmed the negative alternative prognosis he had made in 1938, that the Stalinist bureaucracy would be the main agent of social counter-revolution.


Events of such great historic moment should force revolutionaries to reflect upon the key aspects of their inherited doctrine and theory. Has it stood the test of great events? One aspect of this challenge has been to the Marxist theory of the state in general and more particularly Trotsky’s concept of the bureaucratic state machine in the post-capitalist societies of the USSR, China, S.E. Asia, Eastern Europe and Cuba. The last seven years have given us ample evidence of the impact the capitalist restoration process has had on the ruling parties and the different components of the state machine.


In 1982 Workers Power and the Irish Workers Group published The Degenerated Revolution, the Origin and Nature of the Stalinist States in which we set out the implications for Marxist theory and programme of the creation of a series of Stalinist states after World War Two. This book was a landmark in the theoretical rearming of Trotskyism and a break with previous centrist analyses of these events. It provided a revolutionary account of the way in which Stalinist parties and armies crushed or derailed the working class challenge to capitalism in the aftermath of World War Two, before bureaucratically overthrowing capitalism as a defensive measure in the face of imperialist aggression.


While the bulk of the book served to orient Trotskyists to the coming death agony of Stalinism, one aspect was—we have since decided—flawed: the book contains a false attempt at a re-elaborated Marxist theory of the state.1


What do Marxists mean by the state?


At its most general (and imprecise) level the term state is used by Marxists and non-Marxists alike to signify the whole “social formation”—to indicate the political superstructure, as well as the means of production and social classes that live within a definite territory. So, for example, when we speak of a “degenerated workers’ state” we have this totality in mind. This is a dialectical, a contradictory conception, one which reflects and expresses real socio-economic and political contradictions.


When we use the term state in this way and seek to define its fundamental class character we do so according to the property relations that are predominant and are actually protected by the political superstructure, no matter what class character this superstructure might have if analysed in isolation from this economic base. Hence, the USSR under Stalin remained a workers’ state despite the monstrous totalitarian character of its apparatus of repression.


When the occasion arises we are forced to be more precise, often to isolate our political tasks, or to differentiate our political from our economic tasks. Then we have to distinguish between the “state” and “civil society”. By the latter we mean the nexus of economic relations and the various social classes, and other cultural forms that arise out of them. In a market economy these economic and social relations operate “blindly” and do not need direction from any political, external force, though the political public force acts as a guarantor of their reproduction.


In this duality we use the term “state” in a narrower sense to mean the political superstructure. Within this category we include not only the essential core of the state—police, standing army, bureaucracy—but in addition, the governmental regimes: parliamentary assemblies, monarchies, republican presidencies, theocracies. For Marxists the latter, however important they may be, are not “the essence” of the state. Thus even the most representative of these institutions, subject to periodic elections under a system of universal suffrage, come and go, rise and fall, without anything fundamental changing about the essence of the “state”.


Finally, when we want to focus the discussion even more narrowly we can isolate the core institutions of police, standing army and bureaucracy, and designate these alone as the “state-machine”.


As early as the German Ideology (1845), but fully codified in the 1870s (Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State), Marx and Engels give us a consistent class and materialist account of the nature and origin of the state, in the second sense explained above, that is, a public force or political superstructure rising out of and above civil society.


Quite simply, it arises on two conditions: first, that there should be a condition of generalised scarcity of goods; secondly, that classes have appeared and that the level of material wealth has developed sufficiently so as to give rise to a large enough surplus for society to sustain an armed public force separate and distinct from the rest of the population. Such a public force is necessary when society is divided into antagonistic classes (i.e. exploiters and exploited) since otherwise the latter will use their weapons to overturn their exploiters. This ostensibly public force is an instrument of the ruling economic class and serves to perpetuate its domination.2 Through a historic process of revolutions and counter-revolutions in different class societies, the bureaucratic-military state machine core becomes more hypertrophied and powerful vis-a-vis other components of the state.


The more generalised and sharp the class conflict generated by this exploitation and oppression all the more does the state machine isolate itself from any democratic and accountable pressure. 3


In his early writings Marx had no clear idea of what the tasks of the working class were in relation to this public force. Could it be seized as it was and used to emancipate the working class? By the time of the Communist Manifesto (1848) Marx had concluded that economic emancipation would not be possible for the working class without winning “the battle for democracy”, i.e. to replace the state machine with the “proletariat organised as the ruling class”. That is, it had to win political power in order to liberate itself from its exploitation. But, as Lenin remarked, in the Communist Manifesto, “the state is still treated in an extremely abstract manner, in the most general terms and expressions.”4


Having lived through the bourgeois revolutions and counter-revolutions in Europe between 1848 and 1851 Marx was able, in Lenin’s words, to “take a tremendous step forward” in respect of his theory of the state. In 1851, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx analysed what had occurred during the ebbs and flows of the French revolution of 1848-51. Behind the frequently changing scenery of parliamentary and presidential republics, conventions and assemblies, and ultimately the restoration of a monarchy, Marx perceived the essence of the state, the “executive power with its enormous bureaucratic and military organisation”.


This executive or state machine was the prize over which revolutions were fought, around which parliamentary, bonapartist or monarchical institutions were assembled. Marx finally concluded what the proletariat’s tasks were in relation to this machine:


“All revolutions perfected this machine instead of smashing it. The parties that contended in turn for domination regarded the possession of this huge edifice as the principal spoils of the victor”.5


By 1871—with France once more in revolution—Marx re-affirmed this conclusion and elaborated upon it. For the first time the proletriat had seized power , in a great modern city. Marx believed that the actions of the Paris Commune had proved:


“The proletariat cannot, as the ruling classes and their various competing factions have done after their victory, simply take possession of the existing machinery of state and employ this ready-made machinery for its own purposes. The prime condition for retaining its political power is to reconstruct this inherited political machine and to destroy it as an instrument of class domination.”6


Lenin says of this: “This conclusion is the chief and fundamental point in the Marxist theory of the state”.


Marx was now, after the Paris Commune, able to flesh out exactly what “smashing” the state machine, as opposed to “taking it over”, means. For Marx the idea of smashing the state signified above all the replacement of the bourgeois state institutions—standing army, unaccountable executive, unrecallable legislature—by institutions of proletarian democracy: a territorial workers’ militia, defending a body that fused a legislature and executive and which was in turn fully and immediately recallable by its electorate.


In The Eighteenth Brumaire Marx explicitly drew a fundamental dividing line between the classical bourgeois French Revolution and the nature of the impending proletarian revolution.


He argued that whereas the former had ultimately only taken over the old military bureaucratic apparatus of feudal absolutism and developed it anew, the task of the proletarian revolution was to smash that very apparatus of social and political oppression. Marx counterposed the most thoroughgoing bourgeois revolution from below to the programme of the proletarian revolution in that the latter will entail the “smashing” of the old state machine, whereas the former did not.


And yet the French Revolution involved the total destruction of the old absolutist army replacing it with a new revolutionary arming of the people. It involved the establishment of organs of popular bourgeois democratic dictatorship which routed the old aristocratic rule. Marx knew all this but still refused to grant that the old absolutist state machine had been smashed in the sense of his new conception.


Merely violently destroying and then recomposing the former institutions to serve a new master was, in his view, not smashing but rather, “taking hold of” the state machine. In an all out war for example one state machine can be totally destroyed by the actions of another state; one set of rulers thereby completely obliterated by another, without this conforming to the smashing of the state in the sense outlined by Marx. Human history is replete with such examples, involving the most diverse stages of development and the most diverse classes and nations in conflict.


Following the experience of the Paris Commune Marx began to elaborate the tasks of the proletariat in smashing the state. He saw the Commune as a specific form of republic that could end class rule, through implementing its programme:


“The first decree of the Commune (...) was the suppression of the standing army, and its replacement by the armed people.”


All officials were to be elected and subject to recall and to be paid the same wages as workers. Lenin argues that these changes may appear to be merely “fuller democracy”, but in fact they represent a replacement of state institutions by others of a “fundamentally different type.” He goes on:


“This is exactly a case of “quantity being transformed into quality”: democracy, introduced as fully and consistently as is at all conceivable, is transformed from bourgeois into proletarian democracy; from the state (= a special force for the suppression of a particular class) into something which is no longer the state proper.”7.


Through the experience of the Commune, and later of the Russian Revolutions, Marx and then Lenin were able to make concrete the difference between the tasks of the proletarian revolution and those of earlier revolutions, that previously Marx had only been able to point to in abstract. These concrete acts–the replacement of the standing army with the armed people, and the subordination of all officials to the rule of the people–led to the qualitative transformation that is the essential difference between all previous revolutions and the proletarian revolution.


The proletariat does not “abolish” the state. Indeed it requires a force to suppress the inevitable resistance of the bourgeoisie and its allies. Why then does Lenin say that this is “no longer the state proper”? He argues that as the organ of suppression is the majority of the population, there is no need for a special force, and therefore the state, in its essence as a special force, necessarily begins to wither away. The proletarian state retains key tasks, but it is transformed into something qualitatively different from all previous forms of the state.


“(Marx) stated that the “smashing” of the state machine was required by the interests of both the workers and the peasants, that it united them, that it placed before them the common task of removing the “parasite” and of replacing it by something new”.


Lenin argued that the creation of this something new, the semi-state, must begin immediately upon the workers seizing power. He saw it as inseparable from the general tasks of the proletarian revolution, with the workers organising large-scale production based on their own experience and backed by the state power of the armed workers, alongside the reduction of the role of state officials to “modestly paid foremen and accountants”. This will inevitably lead to the gradual withering away of bureaucracy, and end a state with a separate and special function.


The Russian Revolution and the bourgeois state machine


In essence, Lenin adds nothing new to Marx’s theory except to show how the Russian Soviets of 1917 corresponded to the proletarian type of state that must smash the bourgeois state machine. As Lenin says: “The Soviet power is a new type of state, without bureaucracy, without a police force, without a standing army.”8


Trotsky echoed Lenin in this regard:


“Lenin, following Marx and Engels, saw the distinguishing feature of the proletarian revolution in the fact that, having expropriated the exploiters, it would abolish the necessity of a bureaucratic apparatus raised above society—and above all, a police and standing army.”9


In other words, the working class needs a state that is constructed in such a way that it immediately begins to die away—a semi-state. Moreover, this applied to all aspects of the state machine;


“This same bold view of the state in a proletarian dictatorship found finished expression a year and a half after the conquest of power in the programme of the Bolshevik Party, including its section on the army. A strong state, but without mandarins; armed power, but without the Samurai! It is not the tasks of defence which create a military and state bureaucracy, but the class structure of society carried over into the organisation of defence. The army is only a copy of the social relations. The struggle against foreign danger necessitates, of course, in the workers’ state as in others, a specialised military-technical organisation, but in no case a privileged officer caste. The party programme demands a replacement of the standing army by an armed people.”10


The army is the core of the state machine. In Engels’ words “in the last analysis the state is reducible to bodies of armed men.”11 Therefore, the smashing of this part of the state machine goes to the heart of the programme of socialist transition in a workers’ state. Trotsky, as head of the Red Army, naturally recognised that a workers’ state needs a “specialised military-technical organisation” to defend itself from threats. Yet Trotsky was in no doubt that the Red Army during 1918-23 was qualitatively different from the bourgeois standing army:


“The great French Revolution created its army by amalgamating the new formations with the royal battalions of the line. The October Revolution dissolved the Tsar’s army wholly and without leaving a trace. The Red Army was built anew from the first brick.”12


Trotsky located the special and unique character of a revolutionary army in a workers semi-state in the amalgamation of the regular forces with the militia system and the abolition of military ranks.


In March 1919 the 8th CPSU Congress argued for the creation of an army “as far as possible by extra-barrack room methods—that is, in a set-up close to the labour conditions of the working class.” Divisions in the army were to coincide territorially with the factories, mines, villages etc and through the closest connection with the working class a “co-operative spirit instilled by the barracks, and inculcate conscious discipline without the elevation above the army of a professional officer’s corps.”13


But Trotsky was aware that the programmatic norm—territorial militia—required for its fullest flowering a certain minimum material foundation in economic life; that is, the relative homogeneity between town and country, a minimum level of infrastructure. A considerable depth of economic foundations were required for the introduction and universalisation of the cheaper and more efficient and effective territorial militia system. But they barely existed. So:


“the Red Army was created from the very beginning as a necessary compromise between the two systems, with the emphasis on regular troops.”


This can also be seen in the Red Army’s experience with the officer corps. The standing army of the bourgeoisie needs one. It sets the officers aloof from the ranks and has a political and social function reflecting the class society it is based upon. With rank comes privilege and the chain of command that allows for the army to be set up against the people. Trotsky argued that in the Red Army, by contrast:


“The growth of internal solidarity of the detachments, the development in the soldier of a critical attitude to himself and his commanders will create favourable conditions in which the principle of the electivity of the commanding personnel can receive wider and wider application.”14


The fact that a professional armed force needs to be assembled and trained to fight to secure the borders of the workers’ state does not in itself make it a “standing army” in the Marxist sense of this term. A healthy workers’ state needs an army and an intelligence service to protect itself against imperialist aggression.


But such an army would be drawn from an armed people, would live for the most part among the people when not fighting, would not enjoy privileges over the rest of the population and while observing military discipline in the face of the enemy would not be hierarchically stratified with the usual privileges that goes with this in a standing army. A people armed always undergoing military training at some level and capable of being sent to the front in turn is the antithesis of the bourgeois “standing army”.


There is no doubt that the programmatic norm of the Bolsheviks and Trotsky after October was for such an army. But almost immediately they were thrown into a civil war and the norm was compromised with the reality as they inherited it—the Tsar’s army, with its ranks and general staff. Trotsky had to make use of this army. They did subject it to workers’ control—party commissars supervising generals etc—as the next best bet in the circumstances. But it was not what they aspired to.


This can be seen in the fact that at the earliest opportunity—in 1920—Trotsky proposed (and it was adopted) at the Ninth Conference of the CPSU that the Red Army be turned into a Popular Militia. Trotsky wrote years later on this attempt:


“In the Red Army the problem of shifting to a militia system played an enormous role in our work as well as in our military conceptions. We considered the question one of principle.


We believed that only a socialist state could allow itself to shift over to a militia system. ‘If we are carrying out this shift gradually,’ I wrote in May 1923, ‘it is not out of political apprehensions but for reasons of an organisational and technical nature: it is a new undertaking—one of immeasurable importance—and we do not want to advance to the second stage without securing the first’. All this great work came to nothing. The militia was abolished in favour of a standing army. The reasoning was purely political: the bureaucracy ceased to have any confidence in an army scattered among the people, merged with the people. It needed a purely barracks army, isolated from the people.”15


The Degenerated Revolution revises the Marxist theory of the state


The Degenerated Revolution analysed in detail the process of Stalinist expansion after World War Two. Faced with a revolutionary tide sweeping across central Europe after 1944, Stalin’s Soviet Armed Forces and national Communist Parties sought to contain its anti-capitalist thrust. The Stalinists came to the rescue of imperialism and constructed a series of class collaborationist governments across the region.


Where it was unavoidable these governments nationalised industries to take them out of the hands of the workers. They disarmed the popular militias or guerrilla bands that had been forged to fight occupying fascist or collaborationist armies. In short, they rebuilt the shattered foundations of the capitalist state machine and underpinned the much weakened capitalist economies.


Of course, this was no normal bourgeois state machine; military power was in the hands not of the national bourgeoisie but of Stalinist bureaucracies under the ultimate control of Moscow. The armed power of the bourgeoisie had been broken in East Europe as it was to be later in China, Cuba and Vietnam. The Degenerated Revolution is clear that the state machine reconstructed in 1945-46 throughout Eastern and Central Europe was bourgeois in form, and as such that it was an obstacle to the transition to socialism.


For a couple of years, until the political offensive launched by US imperialism in 1947-48, the form of this state machine and the content of the economy it defended – capitalism – were in an uneasy harmony. But under threat of being ousted by a resurgent national bourgeoisie with stronger ties with imperialism, Stalin’s national agents moved to bureaucratically overthrow capitalist social relations, dump their political representatives from the Popular Front governments and through the medium of bureaucratic workers’ governments, create degenerate workers’ states.


The result of this process embodied an enormous contradiction, between the bourgeois form of the state machine and the proletarian content of the social relations of production defended by this machine. One clear dynamic flowed from this contradiction, one already evident in the USSR. There could be no possibility of a transition towards socialism so long as an unaccountable and savagely repressive political machine towered over the working class. On the contrary, this machine would serve to destabilise the nationalised planned economic foundations of each country and would claim more and more of the surplus product to satisfy the life styles of those who ran it.


As a description of the course of events and a class characterisation of the structures that emerged The Degenerated Revolution is spot on. The problem lay elsewhere – in its theorisation of this process. Speaking of these 1947 social overturns in East Europe the book says:


“ . . . when the actual stages of these revolutions are examined it becomes clear that the abolition of capitalism by Stalinist parties did not contradict the Marxist theory of the state.


The capitalist state was smashed in each bureaucratic revolution, but in a manner not envisaged by Marx, Engels or Lenin, nor in a manner that is at all desirable from the standpoint of revolutionary communism.”16


This point is emphasised later when it said that The Degenerated Revolution rejects the idea:


“. . . that workers’ states can be created without the smashing of the capitalist state. The bureaucratic revolutions were only possible because in each case the coercive apparatus of the bourgeoisie had been smashed.”17


A further passage describes what this smashing consisted of:


“If the essential characteristic of the state is the existence of bodies of armed men in defence of property, then the essential element in the smashing of the state is the destruction of the armed power of the bourgeoisie. This is a fundamental law of proletarian revolution. By smashing the state we mean first and foremost smashing its armed apparatus.”


But since the state is also “a huge and powerful bureaucratic apparatus (civil service, judges etc) . . .”, then, “the smashing of the state must also involve the destruction of this bureaucracy.”18


Other parts of the bureaucracy (lower rank administrators, for example) would not have to be smashed but heavily purged and taken over and put to use under the control of the workers.


Thus, while the smashing of the capitalist state is a process that begins with destructive tasks and ends with the building of a state of an entirely new kind (soviet based), the essential moment of this proces, is that “the armed power of the bourgeoisie was physically smashed prior to each of the bureaucratic revolutions that marked the expansion of Stalinism in the post-war period.“19


Since the essential part of the smashing had been completed, the future creation of a healthy proletarian semi-state, while necessary, would not have to smash the state.


Without being conscious of it, in these formulations The Degenerated Revolution revised the Marxist theory of the state by reducing the process of the smashing of the capitalist state to what it has in common with earlier forms of political revolutions in class society rather than what is historically unique and specific about the process.


The position in The Degenerated Revolution laudably tried to avoid “formalism” with respect to the Marxist theory of the state by developing a more abstract concept of “smashing” that could be applied equally to the quite distinct historical experiences of 1917 and the period between 1945-49. We did not realise that in the attempt to deepen the concept we merely ended up regressing to a concept that had been rejected by Marx and Lenin.


We decided that “smashing” the state was an elongated process with several “moments”. But the essence of the smashing, the key moment as it were, was to be found in the violent destruction of the armed power, the destruction of the ability of the bourgeoisie to apply coercive power to defend its property relations.


But the book muddled the following distinguishable “moments” in the unfolding of a revolution: first, the defeat and disintegration of one standing army by another; second, the emergence of a dual power situation; third, the seizure of power by the proletariat by methods of armed insurrection; fourth, the smashing by the victorious proletariat of the old bourgeois state machine and its replacement by the armed people and popular self-administration of the soviets.


This last task, no matter how much it depends upon, or has been prepared for by the preceding moments, is what Marx and Lenin insisted was the qualitative difference with previous transformations. This is therefore the specific meaning of the “smashing of the state” required by the proletarian revolution in contrast to all previous revolutions.


The Degenerated Revolution confused the question of violent revolution with the task of state smashing, and then to fit it in with the actual events of the bureaucratic social overturns in 1947-48 (no soviets, militia etc.) it reduced the essential tasks of smashing to the violent seizure of power.


Obviously, for the proletariat to be able to set about the task of smashing the state presupposes a “violent revolution”, that is, forcibly depriving the bourgeoisie of its control over its “special bodies of armed men“. This can occur as a result of defeat in war, the mutiny and internal disintegration of the armed forces or by an insurrectionary rising by the armed workers—or all three in varying combinations.


Equally obviously, this can and usually does occur “in parts”, via a period of dual power. But none of these are what Marx and Engels referred to as the “smashing of the bureaucratic-military machine”. They constitute a violent revolution, no more and no less. All revolutions, bourgeois as well as proletarian, which are worthy of the name involve this forcible seizure of power.


But worse was to follow. In order to prop up this false idea the book looked again at the process of the Russian Revolution in order to see if the same sequence of events happened there too. And this is what we found:


“. . . the coercive machinery of the Russian bourgeoisie—its army and police—disintegrated prior to the direct seizure of power by the proletariat and to this extent was smashed before the October Revolution”.20


Thus to bolster one false idea Workers Power and the IWG were forced to revise an important part of the established understanding of the course of the Russian Revolution during 1917.


It is true that the February Revolution instigated a situation of dual power, or rather a twin set of dual power situations. First, between the Tsarist forces, the high command and much of the officer corps of the army on the one hand, and those opposed to Tsarism among the Russian bourgeoisie, the peasants and the workers on the other. More importantly, there was dual power between the soviets and the Provisional Government. Clearly the February Revolution took the army out of the undivided control of the high command and forced it to accept the abdication of the Tsar (and then the dynasty), putting the army at the service of the imperialist bourgeoisie.


This process obviously weakened the army, undermined the authority of the officer caste and strengthened the rank and file soldiers’ committees. Especially after the July-August offensive widespread disintegration of morale set in among the army. This made the job of the October Revolution easier, deepening and completing this disintegrative process. But October produced the qualitative watershed when the smashing of the state became the conscious act of a revolutionary party at the head of the masses; it did not “to this extent” occur before October.


The whole thrust of Lenin and Trotsky’s writings on this subject push in this direction. First Trotsky:


“. . . the destruction of the Tsarist bureaucratic and military apparatus, the introduction of national equality and national self-determination—all this was the elementary democratic work that the February revolution barely even addressed itself to before leaving it, almost untouched, for the October Revolution to inherit.”21


In this Trotsky was merely following Lenin who recognised that far from smashing anything in February the state machine was “taken over” by the Russian bourgeoisie and taken (half-heartedly) out of the hands of the Tsarist followers


Here is Lenin’s judgment on February:


“The development, perfection and strengthening of the bureaucratic and military apparatus proceeded during all the numerous bourgeois revolutions which Europe has witnessed since the fall of feudalism . . . Consider what happened in Russia during the six months following February 27, 1917. The official posts which formerly were given by preference to the Black Hundreds have now become the spoils of the Cadets, Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries. Nobody has seriously thought of introducing any serious reforms.


Every effort has been made to put them off ‘until the Constituent Assembly meets’, and to steadily put off its convocation until after the war! But there has been no delay, no waiting for the Constituent Assembly, in the matter of dividing the spoils, of getting the lucrative jobs of ministers, deputy ministers, governor-generals etc etc! (...) But the more the bureaucratic apparatus is ‘redistributed’ among the various bourgeois and petty bourgeois parties . . . the more keenly aware the oppressed classes, and the proletariat at their head, become of their irreconcilable hostility to the whole of bourgeois society. Hence the need for the bourgeois parties . . . to intensify repressive measures against the revolutionary proletariat, to strengthen the apparatus of coercion, i.e. the state machine.


This course of events compels the revolution ‘to concentrate all its forces of destruction’ against the state power, and to set itself the aim, not of improving the state machine, but of smashing and destroying it.”22


The conclusion could not be clearer. The February Revolution did not smash the state; rather the Russian bourgeoisie got its hands on it and began to purge it of Tsarist placemen and start to perfect the executive power which is nothing other than centralising the repressive apparatus against the popular classes even more. While they did not achieve much in terms of “perfecting” the state machine, this was the clear intent of the Provisional Government in its service of the bourgeoisie.


The Marxist programmatic conception of the smashing of the old state is historically and class specific. It is impossible to abstract it from its working class nature, from the nature of the class force and class state which carries out the smashing and replaces the old machine, without thereby transforming it into a bare ahistorical abstraction.


The Degenerated Revolution did this unconsciously, without even being aware of it and its implications. Its “false abstraction” was to hit upon a description of what the 1917 process and 1947-51 process had in common. Thus:


“These coercive bodies were smashed to the extent that the bourgeoisies were no longer able to deploy armed force in defence of their remaining property rights . . ”23


And there we have it.


The process of smashing is redefined so that it can embrace quite different historical processes and outcomes. Theoretical consistency was sacrificed for superficial historical description.


Against this we can now say that the capitalist state was not “smashed” in February 1917 nor in the post-war period in Eastern Europe. Between February and October 1917 the Russian bourgeoisie did have an armed force, albeit one that was in disarray due to the enormous pressure it was under from the contending forces of dual power.


After the Second World War the Stalinist bureaucracy, far from smashing the capitalist state, simply took hold of the old apparatus of political domination and, utilising bureaucratic, military, police measures transformed/purged its structures and functions in its own image and in its own interests. In the first period this state, controlled by the Stalinists, was used to defend and rebuild capitalism, and then later the same state machine was used as a lever for the economic expropriation of the bourgeoisie.


In some parts of Eastern Europe, for example in Austria, the Stalinists took hold of the state in the post-war period in exactly the same way as in Poland or Eastern Germany. However, in Austria that state, having been used to help rebuild capitalism, was never used to expropriate the bourgeoisie but rather handed back to the bourgeoisie. In this case the Austrian bourgeoisie did not have to carry out a revolution, or “re-smash” the state to make it work in their interests, as it had remained, throughout, a bourgeois state.


In those Eastern European countires where capitalism was abolished, the working class was excluded, through counter-revolutionary measures, from seizing state power in its own right. As a result the Stalinist bureaucracy was able to construct an apparatus which was a bourgeois organ in a workers’ state. 24


It can be argued that in “taking over” the apparatus of the bourgeois state machine the Stalinists continued to “perfect” it, as for example, in respect to the standing army.


The Stalinists everywhere introduced modifications such as the existence of controlled “popular” militias (e.g. Committees for the Defence of the Cuban Revolution) or party militias attached to party cells in factories, as supplements to or extensions of the standing army.


These modifications can be seen as further perfecting the bourgeois state machine in the workers’ state since they represent nothing other than a further method by which the state enforces repression, atomises and renders completely unaccountable the political administration.


In the Soviet Union the smashing of the Stalinist state machine had been a programmatic necessity ever since the counter-revolutionary political expropriation of the working class by the Stalinist caste. In Eastern Europe such a task was necessary from the moment of their creation as workers’ states.


Trotsky on the “bourgeois-bureaucratic”state machine


That The Degenerated Revolution could fall into these errors was in part conditioned by the fact that the legacy of Trotsky on the issue of the class character of the state machine in the USSR is at best ambiguous. Nowhere did he clearly point to the fact that, conceived in abstraction from the property relations defended by the bureaucracy, this state machine was bourgeois. To understand his thinking we have to establish the progression of his thought on this question.


In the Critique of the Gotha Programme Marx argued that in the lowest stage of communism “bourgeois right” (i.e. bourgeois law) would still be in force in the sphere of the distribution of that part of society’s total product destined for individual consumption. He argued that immediately after the socialist revolution, in the lowest stage of communism, the state can enforce “only” equal rights in the sphere of consumption (from each according to their ability to each according to their work); that is to say, there is not as yet such material abundance that naturally unequal individuals can receive “according to their needs”.


In State and Revolution Lenin took Marx’s idea and developed it into a clear theoretical conclusion. He insisted that not only bourgeois right survives “but also even a bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie” even in the healthiest, most prosperous case, even in America. In a backward country like Russia a workers’ state will not for some time be able even to introduce full equality. It will have to accord privileges to some (skilled workers, bureaucrats, army officers) in order to retain services which are essential to the survival of the workers’ state.


Trotsky found in this conclusion the key to a scientific understanding of the nature and dynamics of the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union:


“In so far as the State which assumes the task of Socialist transformation is compelled to defend inequality—that is material privileges of a minority—by methods of compulsion, in so far does it remain a bourgeois state even though without a bourgeoisie.”25


Both Marx and Lenin held that the state would wither away under the highest stage of communism when the productive forces of social labour had reached the stage of development where the objects of social and individual consumption could be distributed on the basis of human need alone. Lenin grasped that what this meant was not the withering away of voting etc. but the final withering away of this “bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie”, the final withering away of even the most democratic instrument of political and social repression.


This withering away would be achieved through a process of conscious political, cultural and social reform beginning in the transitional period of the dictatorship of the proletariat and culminating in the lowest stage of communism or socialism. However, soviet reality in imperialist-encircled and backward revolutionary Russia immediately started to come into contradiction with this perspective and the associated programme.


The bureaucracy of the new workers’ state, the very embodiment of the “bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie” did not begin to wither away at all; it began to grow apace, assert its power and appropriate a large share of the social product. Lenin himself became increasingly alarmed about this growth of “bureaucratic deformations” within the workers’ state. His response was a programme of political reform designed to enable the proletariat to control this burgeoning bureaucracy through its soviets and its party.


Trotsky’s theory of the intensified degeneration of the Soviet Union was a further development of Lenin’s idea through to and beyond that point at which quantity passed into quality. The Stalinist apparatus of state power—the ruling bureaucracy within a workers’ state—strangled the soviets and the vanguard party which it once had to serve and with which it had shared power. The counter-revolutionary Thermidor was completed in 1927 with the expulsion of Trotsky from the party and the outlawing of the Left Opposition.


Trotsky had to chart the consolidation in power of a bonapartist bureaucracy which enjoyed more and more privileges whilst still defending the revolutionary social foundations established by the October Revolution. This led inexorably to a qualitative political degeneration of the Soviet state. These were no longer deformations which could be reformed if the Stalinists were displaced from power.


In the Revolution Betrayed Trotsky refers to “the crushing of Soviet democracy by an all-powerful bureaucracy”.26 But in his 1935 article, The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism, Trotsky developed this brief formula in a way characteristic of his position both before and after 1936:


“the present-day domination of Stalin in no way resembles the Soviet rule during the initial years of the revolution. The substitution of one regime for the other occurred not at a single stroke but through a series of measures, by means of a number of minor civil wars waged by the bureaucracy against the proletarian vanguard. In the last historical analysis, soviet democracy was blown up by the pressure of social contradictions.


Exploiting the latter, the bureaucracy wrested the power from the hands of mass organisations.”27


Or again:


“The toiling masses lived on hopes or fell into apathy . . . Such power (of the Stalinist bureaucracy) could be obtained only by strangling the party, the soviets, the working class as a whole.”28


And, “The old cadres of Bolshevism have been smashed. Revolutionists have been smashed.”29


Organs of democratic workers’ power can also be said to have been “smashed” by the Stalinist bureaucracy in the other degenerate workers’ states after the second world war. In these cases this occured before the Stalinist bureaucracy could consolidate its own power, later used to expropriate the bourgeoisie. The Stalinist caste first crushed the workers, and then blocked their path to power.


The “smashing” of the political rule of the working class by the bureaucracy of the workers’ state cannot be seen as a simple mirror image of the smashing of the old bourgeois state through workers’ revolution. The smashing of a bureaucratic-military state machine cannot but differ in its very essentials from the destruction of democratic soviet power by a bureaucratic-military state machine.


Trotsky clearly enumerates these concrete differences in the course of his analysis of the evolution of the political expropriation of the working class in the Soviet Union. The basis of the whole process was the chronic backwardness of Russia exacerbated by the destruction and depredations of the civil war, the lack of culture, particularly political culture of the mass of Soviet workers increasingly drawn directly from the ranks of the peasantry. Capping this was a series of important defeats of the international revolution.


We should place the passages from Trotsky, written in 1935, against this background. These conditions explain the growing apathy and quiescence of broad layers of the Soviet workers and the stultification of the soviets from the early 1920s onwards as well as the growing isolation of the revolutionary vanguard in the party as represented by the Left Opposition. All this was both cause and, increasingly, effect of the continuously growing power of the bureaucracy. In these circumstances the momentum, or mobile inertia, of the centralised bureaucratic juggernaut led to a process of grinding down of activity, organisation and initiative on the part of the mass of the population.


The drawn out character of the process is one reason why it was so difficult for the Left Opposition, or indeed anyone, to determine the exact moment of transition from counter-revolutionary political quantity to quality in the life of the country. Nonetheless, the outcome of this process was clear enough to Trotsky long before 1935 – Soviet power had been comprehensively smashed or “blown up” and replaced by the absolutist rule of a totalitarian bourgeois bureaucratic-military state machine, but one which drew the source of its power and material privileges from nationalised property and planned economy.


The contradictions of the first degenerate workers’ state can be summed up thus: the dictatorship of the proletariat had taken the paradoxical form of a political dictatorship of “a bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie” over the proletariat. It had taken the form of the rule of a politically counter-revolutionary bonapartist state machine which still rested upon the post-capitalist social foundations established by the October Revolution. That state machine was still the organ of a workers’ state because it defended those revolutionary property relations. But it defended them in its own way and in its own material interests, in order to maintain its caste privileges against the working class.


It is clear that after 1935 Trotsky completely understood the character of the state machine that arose on the debris of Soviet power—it was “bourgeois-bureaucratic”30 (even fascistic). But here then arises a further problem. Why then did Trotsky never argue that the Stalinist state machine should be “smashed” in the course of the political revolution?


Trotsky was aware that a bald counterposition between the state superstructure and civil society in the USSR was of limited value both theoretically and an insufficient guide to practical action. Why? Quite simply, because although there is a unity of form in regard to the state machine of a bourgeois state superstructure and a degenerated workers’ state there was no identity. It is clear if we ponder the significance of the following passages:


“In a number of previous writings we established the fact that despite its economic successes, which were determined by the nationalisation of the means of production, Soviet society completely preserves a contradictory transitional character, and measured by the inequality of living conditions and the privileges of the bureaucracy, it still stands much closer to the regime of capitalism than to future communism.


At the same time, we established the fact that despite monstrous bureaucratic degeneration, the Soviet state still remains the historical instrument of the working class insofar as it assures the development of economy and culture on the basis of nationalised means of production and, by virtue of this, prepares the conditions for a genuine emancipation of the toilers through the liquidation of the bureaucracy and of social inequality (...) Raising itself above the toiling masses, the bureaucracy regulates these contradictions... By its uncontrolled and self-willed rule, subject to no appeal, the bureaucracy accumulates new contradictions. Exploiting the latter, it creates the regime of bureaucratic absolutism.”31


Here Trotsky conceptually distinguishes between “state” and “society” in the USSR. The “state” includes within it both the progressive aspects of nationalised property relations and the wholly reactionary aspect of bureaucratic absolutism. In turn, this distinction flows from some important differences of the USSR as compared to capitalism. This he defines in the following way:


“Once liberated from the fetters of feudalism, bourgeois relations develop automatically (...) It is altogether otherwise with the development of social relations. The proletarian revolution not only frees the productive forces from the fetters of private ownership but also transfers them to the direct disposal of the state that it itself creates. While the bourgeois state, after the revolution, confines itself to a police role, leaving the market to its own laws, the workers’ state assumes the direct role of economist and organiser.”32


So political revolution in the degenerate workers’ state involves a dual task; on the one hand, the smashing of the “bourgeois- bureaucratic” state machine (police, standing army, bureaucracy). This Trotsky calls sometimes the “bonapartist apparatus”, sometimes “bureaucratic absolutism”; on the other hand, having smashed this apparatus the victorious proletariat in its soviets will rescue and take over the apparatuses associated with the monopoly of foreign trade, the administrative organs of planning, purge them, and wield them for its own purposes. Naturally, this clearing out process will be very far reaching since the apparatus of economic administration has also been distorted to reproduce bureaucratic privilege.


But did Trotsky still not at least formulate the task of smashing the state machine more narrowly defined? Yes and no. It is a fact that Trotsky’s theoretical and programmatic development lagged behind the evolution of the Soviet Union in some important respects, a fact he openly recognised himself.


In the first place Trotsky had to openly correct his initial analogy with Thermidor in the French revolution in an article written in 1935. He argued that Thermidor in the Russian revolution should no longer be regarded as the counter-revolutionary restoration of capitalism but as the politically counter-revolutionary consolidation of the bonapartist power of the Stalinist bureaucracy still remaining on the foundations established by October.


In other words Trotsky openly admitted that the Soviet Thermidor stood not in the future as he had previously thought but some eight years in the past. Without doubt this self-critical theoretical appraisal followed from the fact that Trotsky had been compelled to develop a dramatic new programmatic stance: the abandonment of a programme of political reform and the development of the programme of political revolution. But Trotsky’s new theory of the Soviet Thermidor which placed its completion in 1927 raised an obvious problem; namely, that the development of the programme of political revolution had been delayed for eight years.


Trotsky’s belated development of this programme retained a certain algebraic character up to his death. One reason for this was that nobody then had had the chance to go through the experience of an actual political revolutionary rising of the working class in a degenerate workers’ state. Trotsky knew that nobody could be exactly sure of the dynamics and overall character of the political revolution without the benefit of the experience of the class struggle itself. Hence, it is not surprising that he did not leap into print with the idea that the bonapartist state machine would be smashed in the classical Marxist sense in the political revolution.


Indeed, in the Transitional Programme of 1938 Trotsky still poses the tasks of the political revolution in a form that lies somewhere between the old reform perspective and the new revolutionary one. On the one hand, Trotsky recognises that the political “apparatus of the workers’ state . . . was transformed from a weapon of the working class into a weapon of bureaucratic violence against the working class”.


On the other hand, he calls for the “regeneration of Soviet democracy” and “democratisation of the soviets” as though the soviets existed but only needed to be purged:


“It is necessary to return to the soviets not only their free democratic form but also their class content. As once the bourgeoisie and kulaks were not permitted to enter the soviets, so now it is necessary to drive the bureaucracy and new aristocracy out of the soviets.”33


Yet it was clear that although they may have been called soviets they had nothing in common with the organs set up in 1905 and 1917. They were powerless “parliamentary” bodies made up of pre-selected members of the bureaucracy and labour aristocracy, subordinated entirely to the bonapartist clique around Stalin. As structures they needed to be smashed.


Indeed, later in May 1939 Trotsky drew the necessary inference in a passage for the first and only time:


“To believe that this [Stalinist] state is capable of peacefully “withering away” is to live in a world of theoretical delirium. The bonapartist caste must be smashed, the soviet state must be regenerated. Only then will the prospects of the withering away of the state open up.“34


This plays the same role in Trotsky’s theoretical development as did Marx’s observations in Eighteenth BrumaireBut Trotsky did not live to see the political revolution’s equivalent of 1871. If he had seen the Hungarian revolution of 1956, which generated Soviets outside of and counterposed to the existing state apparatus of Hungarian and Russian Stalinism, Trotsky would undoubtedly have recognised that the lack of sharpness in the Transitional Programme would have had to have been changed.


The Degenerated Revolution and the programme of political revolution


Faced with the challenge posed by Trotsky’s ambiguities The Degenerated Revolution opted for theoretical conservatism. Basing itself on the revision regarding the “smashing” of the state, it chose to interpret Trotsky’s 1939 formulation—“the bonapartist caste must be smashed, the soviet state must be regenerated”—in a very specific way when it came to its implications for the programme of the political revolution.


Since Trotsky did not say that the “state” must be smashed in the political revolution and given that The Degenerated Revolution had insisted that this had already been done in the process of overthrowing capitalism then, with Trotsky, we restricted ourselves to saying that while the castehad to be smashed the state could be “regenerated” (i.e. “taken over” and purged).


The counterposition of the “caste” to the “state” can as we have shown be given a meaning that does not impair the tasks of the political revolution; that is, providing we understand Trotsky to be arguing for the smashing of the military-bureaucratic core of the state machine and “regenerating” or purging the organs of economic administration.


But The Degenerated Revolution took us in an altogether different direction. Since the section on the nature of the state had argued that the state was essentially “bodies of armed men” then it must mean that Trotsky’s words could be interpreted to mean that the state as bodies of armed men must not be smashed in the political revolution but “regenerated”.


Even at first glance this idea was incoherent since it suggested that the bureaucratic caste could be smashed without smashing its armed power. But The Degenerated Revolution consciously rejected the simple idea that the whole standing army of the Stalinist bureaucracy must be abolished and replaced by a workers’ militia. Instead it argued:


“The bureaucracy maintains a massive standing army and specialised armed squads to defend its privileges in times of political revolutionary crisis. The working class will need to build its own workers’ militia to defend its organisations against police and military attack. It will in the course of the political revolution have to create armed forces capable of dissolving and defeating all armed forces loyal to the bureaucracy. It will seek its weapons in the arsenals, and from the hands of, the conscript army. To win the troops to the side of the political revolution the proletariat must advance the slogans:


• Full political rights for soldiers, culminating in the calls for soldiers’ councils to send delegates to the workers and peasants’ soviets.


• Dissolution of the officer corps, abolition of the titles and privileges of the generals and marshals – commanders, officers and NCOs to be democratically elected or selected.


• For the immediate dissolution of the paramilitary repression apparatus, the secret police and militia.


The victorious political revolution will arm and train all those workers capable of bearing arms. The workers’ state will rest upon the armed proletariat. For the military defence of the workers’ states against imperialism the maintenance of a standing army is necessary. The political revolution will, however, transform the existing armies – instruments of bureaucratic tyranny as well as defence – into Red Armies of the type founded by L D Trotsky.”35


This is quite clear and in line with the false view of the “necessary” character of a standing army in any workers’ state already outlined. The programme adds a further twist however, saying that it is necessary because one is needed to defend a workers’ state from attack.36 It is a conception that potentially bolsters illusions in the standing army of a Stalinist caste by suggesting that it is necessary to defend the workers’ state from restorationist attack, when in truth it is an agency perfectly suited to overseeing the capitalist restoration process – as we have seen since 1989.


The Degenerated Revolution subordinated a crystal clear formulation of the strategy of political revolution to formulations on the possible need for united fronts with the Stalinist standing army against imperialist attack. But the formulation that the standing armies of the Stalinist caste have a dual character – “instruments of bureaucratic tyranny as well as defence” surrenders too much to the Stalinists, above all in the light of events since 1989.37


The mistake was to believe that Lenin’s position, as expressed in Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power? concerning taking over parts of the lower bureaucratic administration of the Tsarist regime and using them in the transition to socialism, could be applied to the standing army in a Stalinist state once those “loyal to the bureaucracy” had been defeated.


In truth what was needed was a clear statement that the armed struggle of the workers’ councils and militia against the bonapartist standing army is the process of smashing the state machine in the political revolution, essentially identical to the arming of the whole population in contradistinction to the maintenance of a standing army above the masses.


Trotsky on the state machine and capitalist restoration


The Degenerated Revolution could not find anywhere in Trotsky’s analysis the idea that the bourgeois state machine would not and could not be smashed in a bureaucratic social overturn. It did not draw a theoretical inference which flowed directly from the whole of the rest of his conception and which should have followed from an analysis of the actual events of the bureaucratic social overturns after Trotsky’s death.


Similarly, the book stuck rigidly to the letter of Trotsky’s programme on political revolution when a certain re-elaboration was needed. What then of an interconnected question; namely, what would happen to the Stalinist “bourgeois-bureaucratic” state machine in the context of capitalist restoration?


A moment’s reflection reveals that if it is legitimate to apply the Marxist category of the smashing of the state to the counter-revolutionary overthrow of Soviet power then the same line of thought surely indicates that in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China and Cuba, the “smashing of the state” on the road to capitalist restoration stands not in front of us but far behind, in the counter-revolutionary consolidation of the bonapartist state power of the Stalinist bureaucracy.


In The Revolution Betrayed, written in 1936, we find three hypotheses concerning the possible future course of development of the Soviet Union:


“Let us assume first that the Soviet bureaucracy is overthrown by a revolutionary party having all the attributes of the old Bolshevism, enriched moreover by the world experience of the recent period. Such a party would begin with the restoration of democracy in the trade unions and the Soviets. It would be able to, and would have to, restore freedom of Soviet parties. Together with the masses, and at their head, it would carry out a ruthless purgation of the state apparatus . . . But so far as concerns property relations the new power would not have to resort to revolutionary measures. It would retain and further develop the experiment of planned economy. After the political revolution—that is the deposing of the bureaucracy—the proletariat would have to introduce in the economy a series of very important reforms, but not another social revolution.


If—to adopt another hypothesis—a bourgeois party were to overthrow the ruling Soviet caste, it would find no small number of ready servants among the present bureaucrats, administrators, technicians, directors, party secretaries and privileged upper circles in general. A purgation of the state would of course, be necessary in this case too. But a bourgeois restoration . . . would probably have to clean out fewer people than a revolutionary party. The chief task of the new power would be to restore private property in the means of production. . . Notwithstanding that the Soviet bureaucracy has gone far toward preparing a bourgeois restoration, the new regime would have to introduce in the matter of forms of property and methods of industry not a reform, but a social revolution.


Let us assume—to take a third variant—that neither a revolutionary nor a counter-revolutionary party seizes power. The bureaucracy continues at the head of the state. Even under these conditions social relations will not gel . . . it (the bureaucracy) must inevitably in future stages seek support for . . . itself in property relations . . . It is not enough to be the director of a trust; it is necessary to be a stockholder. The victory of the bureaucracy in this decisive sphere would mean its conversion into a new possessing class . . . The third variant consequently brings us back to the two first.”38


Trotsky asserts that both a political revolution and a social counter-revolution would involve a “purgation” of one and the same Soviet state apparatus. This is a curious argument because it strongly implies that the same state—while transformed in opposite directions—could preside over either a restored capitalist economy or—in the democratised form of a revived workers’ power—over the transition to socialism.


It was necessary to break with this suggestion and consciously revise the idea that the political revolution will involve the purgation of the Stalinist bureaucratic-military state machine. Rather, The Degenerated Revolution should have asserted that that the bonapartist state apparatus must be smashed by the armed working, class organised in its own democratic workers’ councils.


Only after the smashing of all the armed executive in the political revolution would the question of the “purgation” of its bureaucracy arise, i.e. the utilisation, where necessary, of some of the old officials in the apparatus of the new power.


On closer inspection Trotsky introduced a deliberate asymmetry into his hypothetical cases involving the “purgation of the state apparatus”. The political revolution, he asserts, will involve a “ruthless purgation” while capitalist restoration “would probably have to clean out fewer people”.


What is more, in his third hypothesis he goes much further. He assumes the possibility that the Stalinist bureaucracy “continues at the head of the state” and, through the destruction of nationalised property, converts itself into a “new possessing class”, that is, a bourgeoisie.


In the light of the experience since 1989 we can now assert that even in this, Trotsky’s third, case the Stalinist bureaucracy would undergo an internal purgation due to the inevitable splits and conflicts within its own ranks.


In any case, Trotsky argued that the overthrow of the degenerated workers’ state along the line of the restoration of capitalism would, in all events, involve a lesser transformation of the state superstructure than would a political revolution.


Since 1989 it is Trotsky’s third variant that has predominated, or at least a combination of the first and third.39 The successful counter-revolutionary bureaucracy/bourgeoisie coalition in Eastern Europe has taken hold of the bureaucratic state machine, purged it, and then used this to smash those elements of the state which were responsible for the system of economic administration.


The parliamentary forums that may or may not exist, may or may not have been the means by which the restorationists managed to take hold of the state machine is irrelevant in the last analysis. Also, that the “smashing” of the system of economic administration—planning organs, economic Ministries—is taking place with little violence has nothing to do with the essence of the matter. What is interesting is that this process involves a dialectical inversion of the process that would be necessary in the proletarian political revolution. In the latter case the soviets would have to smash the executive power and purge the organs of economic administration.


A healthy debate


It is a mark of the health of a revolutionary tendency that it can study its own past critically. If doctrine is not to be turned into dogma then revolutionaries are obliged to subject all theory to scrutiny in the light of major new events.


Serious debate with in the ranks of the LRCI over an extended period has allowed it to correct a mistake and thereby rearm itself politically. In the process all sides in the debate realised that despite their differences they were bound together in complete agreement on the programmatic tasks facing the working class after 1989.


We did not have any differences over the programme of political revolution from 1989 onwards which was based solidly on continued defence of these states against imperialism, the absolute necessity of soviets as instruments of the revolution, the smashing of the Stalinist states’ apparatus of repression and the erection of a Paris Commune or Russia 1917-style semi state.


Thus the Degenerated Revolution proved a strong enough pillar of the LRCI to bear the weight of an important but narrowly circumscribed theoretical difference.




1. When Workers Power and the IWG first wrote the book we had differences within our ranks over the question of what exactly happened to the bourgeois state machine during the overthrow of capitalism by the Stalinists. Was it “smashed” in the sense that Marxists use the term? The majority insisted that it must have been, believing that to say anything less was to suggest that a social overturn was possible by the road of reform, A minority argued the positions developed in this article. After a joint conference of the IWG and Workers Power which agreed the contents of The Degenerated Revolution the debate ceased for ten years.


Under the impact of the events in Eastern Europe, which raised the question “would the state machine, as distinct from the planned economy and the Stalinist parties, have to be smashed or would it be sufficient to drastically purge the “special bodies of armed men etc” the debate broke out anew in 1993. This time some members of the former majority joined the old minority. After four years of internal discussion within the LRCI including two congresses (1994 and 1997) and with many documents written on either side, this error was corrected. No side in the debate called into question for a moment Trotsky’s designation of the USSR (or the later Stalinist states) as degenerate workers’ states.


2. Moreover, the state public force also has its own interests and possesses certain caste-like features that set it off from classes in civil society. Hegel first spoke of these as being security of employment and guaranteed income.


3. The first species of standing army, dating from the end of the 15th century, although standing apart and opposed to the common people, still reflected its origins in feudalism. The standing army was not made up, as later was to be the case, by national conscripts. This was because the nobility rightly feared arming its peasantry which might exert revolutionary democratic pressure upon the ruling class. Instead they were primarily mercenary armies, made up of foreigners whose loyalty could be bought.


4. Lenin, State and Revolution, p30


5. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte – quoted in Lenin State and Revolution p411 CW vol. 25. It is worth noting in passing that when they talk of “perfecting” the bourgeois state machine, Marx and Lenin do not mean developing more representative forms of government (e.g. parliamentary democracy). Quite the opposite, for “perfecting” means purging it of the revolutionary-democratic aspects of the revolution and centralising the executive power against them. This is the whole point of Marx and Engels’ analysis of the rise and fall of the Great French revolution from Jacobin clubs to the centralising measures of Napoleon.


6. Draft of the Civil War in France


7. Quoted in Lenin State and Revolution, op cit:p.242.


8. E Mandel, From Class Sciety to Communism, London, p46


9. L Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, London 1973, p49


10. ibid, p50-51


11. F Engels, The Origin of the Family Private Property and the State, New York, 1978, p24


12. L Trotsky op cit, p209


13. ibid, p216


14. ibid p222. As Trotsky argued: “The right to a commanding position is guaranteed by study, endowment, character, experience, which need continual and moreover individual appraisal. The rank of major adds nothing to the commander of a battalion.”, p223


15. L Trotsky Writings Supplement 1934-40 p883


16. Workers Power and the Irish Workers Group, The Degenerated Revolution, Londn 1982, p48


17. ibid, p51


18. ibid, p49


19. ibid, pp50-51


20. ibid, p50


21. ibid, p54 This idea is nothing other than a restatement of permanent revolution; that is, far from carrying out a task which was the object of the proletarian revolution it failed miserably to carry out any serious task of the bourgeois revolution.


22. Lenin, State and Revolution op cit, pp31-32


23. The Degenerated Revolution, op cit, p50


24. Only under fascist bourgeois states (e.g. Hitler’s Germany) have we seen similar “perfections”. A standing army—just because this army defends post-capitalist property—does not thereby become a proletarian form of military technical organisation. It still needs to be replaced by “an armed people”.


25 Revolution Betrayed, op cit, p 58


26 ibid, pp268


27 ibid, pp172-73


28 ibid, p175


29 ibid, p178


30. L Trotsky Preface to Ukrainian edition of My Life, Writings 1938 p?


31. L Trotsky, Writings 1934-35 pl70-171; original emphasis


32. ibid pl79


33. L Trotsky, Transitional Programme, New York 1977, p145


34. L Trotsky, “The Bonapartist Philosophy of the State”, Writings, 1938-39, New York 1974, p325


35. The Degenerated Revolution op cit p79.


36. The Trotskyist Manifesto (1989) compounded this error with an even worse formulation: “For the standing army to be reduced to a size commensurate with the legitimate defence needs of the workers’ states against imperialism.” London 1989, p97 This was corrected in 1994.


37 The programme in The Degenerated Revolution singles out the secret police as needing to be dissolved but not the standing army, as though the former agency did not also have a role to play in defence of the workers’ state from imperialism. Eventually, in the Trotskyist Manifesto revised chapter on political revolution adopted in 1994, the LRCI removed all ambiguity in respect of the tasks of the proletarian revolution where it states that the workers councils will “smash the whole repressive machine of the Stalinist state apparatus”. See Trotskyist International 15 October 1994 p42.


38. The Revolution Betrayed, London 1973, p253-54


39. For example, Yeltsin’s split with the nomenklatura in 1990 helped realign the restorationist forces from outside the bureaucracy (e.g. Chubais) around his clique which after 1991 then isolated a hardline Stalinist faction, before co-opting decisive elements of the Stalinist bureaucracy (e.g. Chernomyrdin) into the restoration process. A similar combination occurred in Hungary. In Serbia, Croatia and Slovakia the whole bureaucracy is playing the decisive role in line with Trotsky’s third variant.