Fifty years ago Stalinism was in crisis following the death of its world leader. Yet, the system he brutally forged lived on in the USSR and East Europe until 1989-91. Then, a combination of deep systemic crisis and democratic mass protests shattered the degenerate workers’ states one after another and, finally, the USSR itself.
The Degenerated Revolution was published 22 years ago, shortly after the brutal attempt by Polish Stalinists to maintain themselves by crushing Solidarnosc, and shortly before Mikhail Gorbachev tried to revive bureaucratic rule in the Soviet Union by introducing glasnost.
This book was written in the conviction that Stalinism’s days as a ruling force were numbered. This was rooted in Trotsky’s revolutionary analysis of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the Left Opposition’s alternative programme which are presented in the opening chapters.
But its novel contribution lay in its explanation of the creation of Stalinist states, in Eastern Europe and China, later in Cuba and South-east Asia. The contradiction that capitalism had been overt h rown but by co u n ter- revo luti on a ry methods which excluded the working class from power and, therefore, prevented any progress towards socialism, had disoriented the Trotskyist movement since the 1940’s. Within it, currents accommodated to one wing or another of Stalinism, seeing them as relatively progressive opponents of capitalism, rather than collective opponents of socialism.
The left’s reaction to the events of 1989-91 only served to confirm the validity of the book’s critique of centrism. The USFI’s programme of reform led it to back Gorbachev and deny any danger of capitalist restoration. More grotesquely, the iSt believed the bureaucratic regimes themselves were a defence against capitalism and so sided with them against mass working class mobilisations.
In contrast, the LRCI was able to develop the programme of political revolution amid the fast changing situation, defending the socialist programme against bureaucrat and capitalist alike.
Despite these strengths, however, there were flaws in this work, in particular in the chapter dealing with the “post war overturns” and the Marxist theory of the state. The book argued that the capitalist states were “smashed” prior to the bureaucratic overthrows of capitalism after 1945. In fact, the Stalinists were able to “take over”, or reconstruct, the bourgeois apparatus, and use it to destroy capitalism whilst maintaining the repression of the working class. In an appendix to this re-publication we set out the corrections needed to the Degenerated Revolution on this issue published in 1998.
In addition, 1989-91 revealed weaknesses in our programme of political revolution itself. Although anti-bureaucratic demands, including calls for democratic economic planning were raised, as expected, they were rapidly replaced by support for restoration of capitalism as the best guarantee of freedom and economic advance. We underestimated the degree to which Stalinist dictatorship had alienated the mass of workers from the idea of collective ownership and socially planned production. Worse, it had denied the working class any opportunity to develop its own organisations or leaders, and leadership was quickly provided by pro-Western forces. The tra n s i ti on to capitalism, h owever, has massively increased poverty and social inequality in the former degenerate workers’ states. Already, a new generation of young adults – with no living experience of Stalinist rule – resists. This edition is dedicated to them, that they may learn from their parents’ and grandparents’ history so that they do not have to relive it.