Trotskyism and the Myth of a “Workers’ State”

By Bruce Allen

Last year the journal New Left Review resurrected a Trotskyist relic by Isaac Deutscher in response to the recent events in Poland. By reprinting his “22 June 1941″ the editors of New Left Review did a considerable disservice to contemporary Trotskyism by exposing one of its most unsavory theories.

Deutscher’s article was written just months after the German invasion of the USSR. As a Polish Trotskyist his difficult objective was to salvage Trotsky’s position on the nature of the Stalinist state in the USSR just after its credibility had hit rock bot-tom. Apparently Deutscher’s arguments must still be reassuring to both convinced and not-so-convinced Trotskyists. However, in the ease of this ex-Trotskyist, they left me more convinced than ever of the absurdity of Trotsky’s position.

So what does Deutscher have to say about the Soviet/German conflict? He characterizes it as “a battle for the very existence of the workers‘ movement,” pitting revolution against counter-revolution. This is ironic in-deed given Trotskyist denunciations of the “Stalinist Counter-revolution” which they argue took place in the USSR well before this time.

Nonetheless, the heart of the matter is this. It is a cornerstone of Trotskyism that the survival of a predominantly nationalized and supposedly planned economy -— in particular in the USSR — represents an“historic gain” for the working class. Thereby the state is still proletarian in nature though with bureaucratic deformations.

Deutscher put it this way:

“Soviet workers and peasants are defending all that, in spite of various deformations, has remained of the revolution: an economy without capitalists and landlords. They defend what they see as their socialist fatherland . . .”

Does therefore, the existence of a state-owned such as this constitute an historic gain worth defending? In large part the answer can be found in the circumstances of the Soviet state in the period he discusses and laments at length.

Just consider Soviet policy towards Nazi Germany from the late 1930s until the actual German invasion which so surprised Stalin. The USSR had gone to great lengths to maintain warm, friendly relations with Germany even as it systematically pursued policies of mass genocide and ruthless conquest.

This was most evident with respect to Poland. The infamous Hitler/ Stalin pact, with its secret protocal (sic) outlining the partition of Poland, was realized in practice in September I939. At that time the German invasion of Poland occurred with the Nazis occupying much of the country but stopping at a pre-determined point up to which the Soviet Red Army came from the East, annexing everything it crossed.

Upon annexing “their” portion of Poland Soviet administrators carried out a “revolution” by decree. In con-formity with Deutscher’s model ex-tensive nattionalization of industry and the banks took place in addition to the expropriation of large landed estates. There was now an economy without capitalists and landlords, ac-cording to his conception of these things.

However, with this “revolution” came the liquidation of all workers’ organizations, the suppression of what few democratic rights there had been in Poland and the mass deportation of 100,000s of Poles deep into the USSR and to forced labor camps. Many never returned.

Only Trotskyism it seems is capable of characterizing a state as “proletarian” because of its nationalized economy and as an historic gain which must be defended at all times for the sake of “the very existence of the workers‘ movement.” This even as it is an accomplice in the liquidation of workers’ movements and mass genocide throughout much of Europe.

In the beginning

Nonetheless, a complete explanation is necessarily one which must go deeper still. The earliest years of Bolshevik rule provides some indispensable insights which make Deutscher’s position more clearly understandable. 1t is sufficient to briefly consider the relationship of the one-party state to the class in whose interests it claimed to act.

Right from its inception this relationship was one of adversity and conflict because the Bolshevik‘s willingness to repress the working class became immediately evident. First the worker-initiated factory committees were surpressed (sic) by compelling their integration into the officially sanctioned trade unions. The unions were then subjected to the progressive erosion of their limited autonomy.

In the process capitalist methods of organizing production were similarly implemented. As early as May, 1918 Lenin succeeded in gaining the party’s support for the use of Taylorism, which meant the use of piece rates. Later at the Soviet Communist Party’s Ninth Congress held in March, 1920 Trotsky — with Lenin’s support — successfully promoted a policy of one-man management in industry. The resulting resolution, entitled “Current Tasks of the Trade Unions,” went so far as to state: “One-man management, even in cases where a specialist is in charge, is in the final analysis a manifestation of the proletarian dictatorship.”

By this time too, Trotsky had clearly distinguished himself in terms of where he stood on such matters. Specifically, he openly favored the total subordination of the unions to the state and the application of military discipline in the workplace.

In response to this accumulation of anti-worker policies there arose the short-lived “Workers’ Opposition” current within the party. With some success it hotly criticized the growing use of capitalist techniques in production, the erosion of trade union autonomy and the stifling effects of the mushrooming Soviet bureaucracy. Having the nerve to openly cite self-evident truths, the Workers’ Opposition was all but stating that Bolshevik rule constituted not the dictatorship of the proletariat but dictatorship over the proletariat. Consequently, Lenin, Trotsky and the rest of the Bolshevik leadership found it expedient to effectively silence these voices with the banning of factions at the Tenth Soviet Communist Party Congress in March, 1921.

These things reveal the hypocritical absurdity of Trotsky’s rantings just a few years later about the same phenomena the Workers‘ Opposition decried. They also offer insight into why he had to continue to uphold the myth of the “workers’ state.” Had he not, and had he instead come to recognize openly how the Soviet state was from its inception an entity which oppressed the workers, Trotsky would have shattered all justification for his actions while in power. His credibility would vanish.

His subsequent arguments from Marx, attempting to demonstrate how a state-owned economy makes the Soviet state proletarian, consisted of sufficiently opportune “proof” of the correctness of his position. That very difficult problems with his position on the nature of the Soviet state could easily arise was evident in Deutscher’s need to write an article like “22 June 1941.” For he was confronted by a situation where the barbarism of the Soviet regime continued to reach new heights.

The same dilemma was only somewhat less evident with respect to those Trotskyists who became sufficiently uncomfortable in the face of this barbarism to abandon Trotsky’s position entirely. One can see this in those Trotskyists who characterize the USSR as “state capitalist.” Tony Cliff was prominent among them, given his book State Capitalism in Russia. By arguing that capitalist relations of production can exist within different property relations, Cliff saw the absurdity in calling a state proletarian where the workers were entirely powerless towards it.

But in breaking with a fundamental of Trotskyist theory, he meticulously ignored almost everything which pointed up the absurdity of characterizing the Soviet state as a “workers’ state” while Lenin and Trotsky were in power. As with Trotsky, the price to be paid for facing up to such realities just too high.

Therein lies the central problem. Both the continued attempts to prove the validity of Trotsky’s views on the Soviet state and those which try to separate them from what remains of Trotskyist theory are means to show the on-going need for a Bolshevik strategy which is distinct from the legacy of Stalinism. The trouble is they are devoid of credibility because there is no recognition of the objectively counter-revolutionary essence of Bolshevism.

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