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Questioning of an Historical Period
May 1991
Tarih Bilinci Publisher
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Theory and History series: 4

1st edition: October 2001

2nd edition: June 2005

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In the Light of Marxism

Questioning of an Historical Period

Elif Çağlı

May 1991





IX. Different Views on the USSR



As distinguished from Trotsky’s analyses, many writers dwelled on and searched into the thesis that the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union was not a privileged caste but a new dominant class. Although at first glance there appears to be a semblance among them, in reality there are significant differences as to the conclusions drawn and the political attitudes of the writers. However, the reason why we add this chapter is not to provide a detailed list of the various studies on the class nature of the Soviet state. Our aim is to dwell on some eminent views that had a significant impact on these debates and thus to stress our differences.

We will first deal with Rakovsky’s and Shachtman’s assessments as they occupied an important place in the debates that took place around Trotsky in his days. Then we will briefly dwell on another host of people, including Hilferding, who claim that the world in general heads towards a “totalitarian state economy” or a “bureaucratic collectivism”.

On Rakovsky’s Assessments

It is known that Rakovsky in a way described the bureaucracy as a new dominant class before Hilferding and Shachtman put forward the same argument. His article entitled “Bureaucracy and Soviet State” exposes his appraisals on the issue, which was written as a letter (dated 1928) to Valentinov who was an oppositionist exiled by Stalin. In another article later, Rakovsky wanted to draw attention to a different phenomenon apart from the factors presented as the objective reasons of the bureaucratic degeneration of the regime (such as the economic and cultural backwardness of Russia, the destruction caused by the civil war and the small size the proletariat compared with the whole Russian population). He investigated the degenerating effects of power on a class that had never possessed it before, even under most favourable conditions. Rakovsky argued that a bureaucratic state and a great class of rulers had been taking shape before the eyes of the then Bolsheviks:

From the workers’ state with bureaucratic perversions –as Lenin defined our form of government we have developed into a bureaucratic state with proletarian-communist survivals.

Before our eyes, a great class of rulers has been taking shape and is continuing to develop.… The unifying factor of this unique class is that unique form of private property, governmental power. “The bureaucracy has the state in its possession” wrote Marx, “as rights of private property.”[1]

Building upon Marx’s idea, Rakovsky’s emphasis on the bureaucratic state power when he speaks of the “unique form of private property” is very important. As it is known, in class societies based on private property of the means of production, the state is, in the last analysis, the state of that class owning the property. In those societies, the bureaucracy, regardless of its weight in political life, cannot elevate to the level of a new dominant class seizing the private property of the means of production.

The problem occurs where the dominant property form on the means of production is the state property. Whether in the Asian despotic states or in the despotic-bureaucratic states of modern times such as the USSR, the phenomenon of state property which excludes the private property on the means of production by and large, equips the bureaucracy with a very different privilege: the state becomes its own private property.

Driven by the intention of examining the reality of the bureaucracy in the USSR, Rakovsky’s emphasis on the issue is to the point. However, the main point of his analysis is to examine the degenerating and seductive effects of power on the class that had never used it before, i.e. the proletariat. Rakovsky emphasised on the “professional risks of power”:

You understand that these difficulties would continue to exist up to a certain point even if we were to suppose for a moment that the country was populated only by proletarian masses and if, on the outside, only proletarian states existed. These difficulties might be called the professional risks of power. Indeed, the position of a class fighting for the conquest of power and that of a class which holds it in its hands, are different. I repeat that in speaking of dangers I do not have in mind the relationships which exist with the other classes, but rather those which are created in the ranks of the triumphant class.[2]

To support his theses Rakovsky gives examples from the process of the French Revolution. His point of departure is that when a class seizes power only one section of the class becomes the agent of power and thus the tide of the affairs changes. According to Rakovsky, a functional differentiation occurred also within the proletariat, which came to power through the October Revolution and founded the Soviet state, on the basis of the fact that the power was used by only certain representatives of the class. Later on, the differentiation transformed into an insurmountable abyss and elevated to the level of a social differentiation:

When a class seizes power, one of its sections becomes the agent of this power. Thus the bureaucracy comes forward. In a socialist state, where capitalist accumulation is forbidden by the members of the ruling party, this differentiation commences by being functional; then it becomes social.[3]

It is evident that a social differentiation came into being in the workers’ state as the bureaucracy seized the political power in the Soviet state. However, though the differentiation originally occurred within the proletariat, it moved out of the bounds of the proletariat as it matured and thus caused a qualitative transformation annihilating the workers’ state. Once this transformation took place, it is not correct to explain the privileged position of the bureaucracy with a split within the proletariat or with the “professional risks of power”. Though it is meaningful to point to such an objective danger, is not the solution of the problem already linked to the spread of the revolution to other countries and the building of a semi-state by the proletariat such that it immediately begins to wither away (i.e. a different sort of state organisation)?

Though the October Revolution in Russia temporarily created such a state, the workers’ state later on disappeared. Nevertheless, Rakovsky was still investigating the “professional risks” threatening the proletariat in power. Furthermore, with the generalisation of his opinion that a similar bureaucratisation could realise even under most favourable conditions, he nearly comes to the conclusion that a workers’ power and its semi-state has almost no chance to survive.

The principal mistake in this analysis of Rakovsky is that he did not give a central place to the sweeping aside of the proletariat from power by the bureaucracy, which transformed into a dominant class on the basis of owning the state. Thus it was meaningless to speak of the “professional risks of power”. However, Rakovsky proved that he tried to analyse the qualitative change under the rule of the bureaucracy by saying that “the bureaucracy of soviets and the party is the phenomenon of a new order”. The following lines of Rakovsky pointed out to a fundamental problem of the time that the Marxists should have considered:

It is not a question here of isolated cases, of hitches in the conduct of some comrade, but rather of a new social category to which a whole treatise ought to be devoted.…[4]

On Max Shachtman's Assessments

The appraisals of Shachtman that we will dwell on here are only limited to his article “Stalinism: A New Social Order” [This is the title supplied by Irwing Howe in his compilation Essential Works of Socialism. The original title is “Is Russia a Workers’ State?”], written after his split from Trotsky in 1940. Shachtman, criticising Trotsky’s theory that the USSR is a degenerated workers’ state, wrote in his article:

In our analysis, we must necessarily take issue with Leon Trotsky, yet, at the same time, base ourselves largely upon his studies. Nobody has even approached him in the scope and depth of his contribution to understanding the problem of the Soviet Union.…[5]

Leaving aside the subsequent political evolution of Shachtman who was also effected by the general process of disintegration and degeneration of the Trotskyist movement after Trotsky’s death, we must admit that there are many important points in this article on the nature of the Soviet state, which belonged to his earlier period of the split.

One of the remarkable points in Shachtman’s analysis is the stress on the distinction between property forms and property relations.

It is just as obvious that no matter what has been changed and how much it has been changed in the Soviet Union by Stalinism, state ownership of the means of production and exchange continues to exist. It is further obvious that when the proletariat takes the helm again in Russia it will maintain state property.

However, what is crucial are not the property forms, i.e., nationalized property, whose existence cannot be denied, but precisely the relations of the various social groups in the Soviet Union to this property, i.e., property relations! If we can speak of nationalized property in the Soviet Union, this does not yet establish what the property relations are.[6]

This issue was key to examine the phenomenon of “state property” that constituted the basis for Trotsky’s characterisation of Russia as a degenerated workers’ state notwithstanding the founding of the Stalinist regime. Because the main element in Trotsky’s characterisation of the bureaucratic regime as workers’ state was the survival of the state property despite his correct analyses on the bureaucratic repression on the proletariat, the privileged position of the bureaucracy, its anti-revolutionary role on a world scale, etc. Thus Trotsky characterised the historical action of the proletariat against the Stalinist bureaucracy as a political revolution instead of a social revolution. Because he thought that a revolution to re-establish and spread the workers’ democracy would not create a fundamental change in property relations and that property would still remain state property. On the other hand, he stated that the existence of nationalised property was necessary and sufficient to characterise the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers’ state. For Trotsky the Stalinist bureaucracy was a caste. In order to be a dominant class it must have created new property forms.

Thus Trotsky accepted the state property in Russia as the fundamental point of support of the degenerated workers’ state without making a distinction between property forms and property relations. However, far from being a simple conceptual variation, the distinction between property relations and property forms illuminates a very important distinction that lies beneath the problem.

In capitalist society, as we know, there is state property as well as private property on the means of production. However, property relations are still capitalist and they rise above both private and state property. Whereas, under conditions such as those in the Stalinist USSR, wherein capitalist private property was abolished and the proletariat was ousted from power, the ruling bureaucracy, the owner of the monopoly of state government, would be in a despotic relationship with society, dominating the state property. Under these conditions, survival of state property as a form would never make the proletariat a dominant class. On the contrary, the class of direct producers, workers and peasants, would live under the rule of the dominant bureaucracy as the subjects of the state.

Thus Shachtman put forward a very important matter of discussion when he wrote “Trotsky speaks interchangeably of the ‘property forms’ and the ‘property relations’ in the country as if he were referring to one and the same thing.”[7] Nevertheless, instead of investigating such questions, many Trotskyist circles, later on, maintained the attitude of sacrificing the truths to narrow political interests.

On the question of whether the Stalinist regime be accepted as a kind of Bonapartism, similar to the Bonapartist regimes in capitalist society, Shachtman, again, exhibited a correct approach in his article. He stated that the social power of the capitalist class lies fundamentally in its ownership of the means of production and thanks to this economic supremacy it maintained to be the dominant class despite the different forms of state such as Bonapartist, fascist etc. However, when we analysed the USSR and approached the issue from the standpoint of the proletariat, we would face a qualitative difference incompatible with the analogy of Bonapartism:

How do matters stand with the proletariat, with its state, and the property forms and property relations unique to it? … By its very position in the old society, the proletariat has no property under capitalism. The working class acquires economic supremacy only after it has seized political power.[8]

Indeed there is a historical difference between the source of supremacy of the capitalist class and of the proletariat. Only if the proletariat founds and maintains a workers’ democracy, a semi-state such that begins to wither away from the very start, it can become dominant in economic sense. Just as Shachtman rightly put it:

Thus by its very position in the new society, the proletariat still has no property, that is, it does not own property in the sense that the feudal lord or the capitalist did. It was and remains a property-less class! It seizes state power. The new state is simply the proletariat organized as the ruling class. The state expropriates the private owners of land and capital, and ownership of land and the means of production and exchange becomes vested in the state. By its action, the state established new property forms – nationalized, or state-ified, or collectivized property. It has also established new property relations. So far as the proletariat is concerned, it has a fundamentally new relationship to property. The essence of the change lies in the fact that the working class is in command of that state-owned property because the state is the proletariat organized as the ruling class (through its soviets, its army, its courts, and institutions like the party, the unions, the factory committees, etc.). There is the nub of the question.[9]

Shachtman concluded that what is described as political expropriation of the proletariat in Trotsky’s analysis was nothing else than the overthrow of the class rule of workers and the end of the Soviet Union as a workers’ state. And at this point, he reminded an appraisal of Trotsky:

A change in class rule, a revolution or counterrevolution, without violence, without civil war, gradually? Trotsky has reproached defenders of such a conception with “reformism-in-reverse.” The reproach might hold in our case, too, but for the fact that the Stalinist counterrevolution was violent and bloody enough.[10]

Following the traces of important hints given by Trotsky, Shachtman had developed his inquiry and put a crucial question that must be asked in order to bring a solution to the problem.

If the workers are no longer the ruling class and the Soviet Union no longer a workers’ state, and if there is no private-property-owning capitalist class ruling Russia, what is the class nature of the state and what exactly is the bureaucracy that dominates it?[11]

Trotsky, too, in his article “USSR and The War”, admitted that the characterisation of the bureaucracy as a caste was not wholly scientific. Moreover, the years that have passed had so clearly enlightened many features (features that previously could not have been comprehended sufficiently) of the bureaucratic regime that it was meaningless to still characterise the bureaucracy as a caste. Rather, the bureaucracy had lifted itself to the position of a dominant class under peculiar historical conditions such as those in Stalinist Russia. And at this important moment of the debate, Shachtman, in disagreement with Trotsky, concluded that the bureaucracy was a dominant class. He wrote:

Rather, it [bureaucracy] is the product of a conjunction of circumstances, primarily that the proletarian revolution broke out in backward Russia and was not supplemented and thereby saved by the victory of the revolution in the advanced countries. Hence, while its concrete characteristics do not permit us to qualify it as a viable or indispensable ruling class in the same sense as this historical capitalist class, we may and do speak of it as a ruling class whose complete control of the state now guarantees its political and economic supremacy in the country.[12]

There remains one important subject of discussion to dwell on in relation to Shachtman’s article: Is this dominant bureaucracy a “new class” in the sense of a dominant class distinct from the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, which is limited to certain peculiar historical conditions that emerged in the Soviet Union (or later in the likes of it), having no future? He responded:

The workers of the Soviet Union were unable to hold power. That they lost it in a peculiar, unforeseen, and even unforeseeable way –not because of a bourgeois restoration, but in the form of the seizure of power by a counterrevolutionary bureaucracy which retained and based itself on the new, collectivist form of property– is true. But they did lose power. The old crap was revived, in a new, unprecedented, hitherto unknown form, the rule of a new bureaucratic class. A class that always was, that always will be? Not at all.…

Can this new class look forward to a social life span as long as that enjoyed, for example, by the capitalist class? We see no reason to believe that it can. Throughout modern capitalist society, ripped apart so violently by its contradictions, there is clearly discernible the irrepressible tendency towards collectivism, the only means whereby the productive forces of mankind can be expanded and thereby provide that ample satisfaction of human needs, which is the precondition to the blooming of a new civilization and culture. But there is no adequate ground for believing that this tendency will materialize in the form of a universal “bureaucratic collectivism.”[13]

We are not interested here in whether Shachtman changed his views in one way or another. Because the question is neither to seek and find the rights or wrongs of Shachtman nor to get stuck in such sort of arguments that took place among the Trotskyist circles in the past. As a matter of fact, in the present epoch of history, it is not proper to overshadow the search of truths in the light of revolutionary Marxism with the political quarrels of the past.

Those who Consider “Bureaucratic Collectivism” as a Worldwide Tendency

Because of the factors such as the deep crisis in the capitalist system, the rise of fascism, the increase in state intervention in economy before the World War II, theories comparing the trend of the capitalist states to the centralist system in the Soviet Union erupted. Too many writers interpreted the then increasing state intervention and the spread of state monopolies in capitalist countries as the herald of a new historical epoch. According to these writers, the capitalism of private enterprise was becoming history and giving way to a totalitarian social order based essentially on state control.

In this context, various writers offered analyses such as “bureaucratic collectivism”, “totalitarian state economy”. The theory of bureaucratic collectivism saw the social system in the USSR as a new and general social system following capitalism in the schema of social evolution and characterised the USSR as the already materialised extreme expression of this worldwide general tendency. According to the theory, humanity was progressing towards a new social phase that emanates from internal tendencies of capitalism and replaces it. However, the theory that dissimilar social formations were converging to a single system on the basis of certain common facts such as state repression and increasing role of the state in economy was fundamentally wrong.

Burnham with The Managerial Revolution, Hilferding with State Capitalism or Totalitarian State Economy, Bruno Rizzi with The Bureaucratization of the World were among the outstanding writers of this trend. Meanwhile, it must be noted, the origin of this sort of theories, in a sense, was based on the theses of Max Weber, who is said to be the founder of modern sociology. Because in 1918 Weber handled the problem of an extreme bureaucratic order that would lead to the dictatorship of state officials.

American writer James Burnham interpreted the increasing state intervention in capitalist countries as the waning of the existence and the importance of capitalist property. Briefly, he wrote: “The position held by capitalists as a dominant class is being undermined and soon they will collapse”. On the basis of this idea Burnham criticised the theory of “state capitalism”. His theory bore, by and large, the same common error with the other similar ones; however, his criticism of the theory of state capitalism in particular was significant against those who construct theories by using this concept to understand a situation where no capitalism exists. He wrote: “When the latter [capitalist-controlled part of the economy] disappears, or becomes negligible, then the capitalism has disappeared.”[14] According to him the existing situation in countries like the USSR, Germany, Italy was not state capitalism but a totalitarian formation under the dictatorship of a new-emerging managerial class. In his theory Burnham underscored this “new class”.

As for Hilferding, he also characterised both the social order in the Stalinist Russia and the fascist order in Germany and Italy as “totalitarian state economy”. He asserted that as the existence of a totalitarian state, which made the economy subject to its own aims, was the decisive factor in all these countries, the economic differences between them were not so much important. For him, a new order was taking shape that would include both Western and Eastern countries. Thus, Hilferding invented similarities between the economic system in Stalinist Russia and the economic systems in Germany and Italy of 1940 and laid the basis for a conception of “totalitarian state economy” which is supposed to embrace all these countries.

In point of fact, it was feasible to find parallels between the oppressive, totalitarian nature of the Stalinist regime and the political practices of the Nazi Germany and Italian fascism. But that should be the end of it. Because, it was groundless and non-Marxist to attempt to liken entirely different socio-economic phenomena to each other on the basis of some similarities between various oppressive regimes. For while the dominant property form in one of them is state property, it is the capitalist private property in the other. In fact, Hilferding revealed that he did not bother to stick to Marxist premises by asserting that it is the policy of the dominant class in these regimes that determines the nature of the economy. He did not hesitate to lump all the oppressive regimes into a single category no matter what differences are involved in terms of material economic base. Instead of investigating the specific conditions underlying the fact that the state has acquired such an importance, as in the case of the USSR, he had chosen to present it as if it was a result of the policy implemented. He said:

Therefore neither the Russian nor the totalitarian system in general is determined by the character of the economy. On the contrary, it is the economy that is determined by the policy of the ruling power and subjected to the aims and purposes of this power.[15]

Hilferding would have touched upon an important issue when he stated that “the emergence of the state as an independent power greatly complicates the economic characterisation of a society in which politics (i.e., the state) plays a determining and decisive role,”[16] if he had specifically meant the Stalinist Russia where the capitalist private property was abolished. That is, Hilferding’s statement could have been meaningful only within the framework of specific conditions where the dominant bureaucracy owned the state and thus had the right to possess everything and where a despotic sovereignty existed similar to the Asiatic states in history. Nevertheless, Hilferding and the like elevated their analyses to the level of a generalisation that would also embrace the capitalist world. What is wrong was that.

On the other hand, those people like Hilferding essentially intended to distort the meaning of the October Revolution by extending the scope of their characterisations such as “totalitarian dictatorship” so as to include the period of the leaders such as Lenin and Trotsky. This was the already-known attitude of the Austrian Marxist School and it was based on the intention to picture the dictatorship needed by the proletariat in the transition period from capitalism to communism as a totalitarian dictatorship. Thus Hilferding’s aim was not to expose the reality that a true workers’ state, i.e. a workers’ democracy, was founded following the October Revolution and then overthrown by a counter-revolution. He sought the source of the evils in the Leninist-Bolshevik way of struggle and organisation.

Italian writer Bruno Rizzi popularised this theory presenting it along with the concept of “bureaucratic collectivism”. In his work, The Bureaucratization of the World, he claimed that the capitalist private property was in the process of giving way to the collective ownership of property and on this basis a new economic system was emerging across the world. Rizzi wrote that it was bureaucracy who controlled the collective property in this new society which he called “bureaucratic collectivism” and that a transition was taking place from individual exploitation, which is based on capitalist private property, to a collective exploitation by the bureaucracy. And, according to this odd analysis, a new oppressed class, a new type of “slave class”, was stepping into the stage of history. Bruno Rizzi was clear on it and stated that the exploitation was henceforth realised as if there was a slave society. His ideas later on influenced some other writers as well.

Under the concrete conditions and amid the debates of the late 1930’s, Trotsky, too, analysed the questions such as whether the bureaucracy could be accepted as a class, not only on the basis of the particular case in the USSR, but also of the general trend across the world. On the other hand, he also dealt with the question as to what would happen in the next period in the world if the proletariat could not seize the power. His answer was that in such a case the immanent collectivist tendencies of capitalist society could lead to a new exploiting society ruled by a new bureaucratic class. He wrote:

If, however, it is conceded that the present war will provoke not revolution but a decline of the proletariat, then there remains another alternative: the further decay of monopoly capitalism, its further fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy wherever it still remained by a totalitarian regime. The inability of the proletariat to take into its hands the leadership of society could actually lead under these conditions to the growth of a new exploiting class from the Bonapartist fascist bureaucracy. This would be, according to all indications, a regime of decline, signalizing the eclipse of civilization.[17]

The prospects such as the becoming of the bureaucracy a new dominant class in capitalist societies, and thus the replacement of the capitalist system by a new worldwide social system, a bureaucratic collectivist system as it was contended by some, were shown to be disproven hypotheses by the postwar developments. However, while the bureaucracy lifted itself as a result of certain peculiar conditions to the level of a new dominant class in the USSR under the Stalinist regime, the existence of the world capitalist system on the other hand determined the fate of this new class and rendered it a temporary phenomenon with no historical future.

In consequence, the Stalinist type bureaucratic regimes never meant the emergence of a new social system surpassing the capitalist system in the course of historical development of human society. These regimes were the products of peculiar conditions created by the strangling of the workers’ power in the USSR by a bureaucratic counter-revolution. The only alternative that would surpass the world capitalist system is a workers’ power.



[1] Quoted by Irving Howe, Essential Works of Socialism, p.178

[2] Rakovsky, “Bureaucracy and Soviet State”, Essential Works of Socialism, p.179

[3] Rakovsky, ibid, p.179

[4] Rakovski, ibid, p.182

[5] Shachtman, “Stalinism: A New Social Order”, Essential Works of Socialism, p.254

[6] Shachtman, ibid, p.256

[7] Shachtman, ibid, p.256

[8] Shachtman, ibid, p.257

[9] Shachtman, ibid, p.257

[10] Shachtman, ibid, p.258

[11] Shachtman, ibid, p.259

[12] Shachtman, ibid, pp.259-260

[13] Shachtman, ibid, p.261

[14] Burnham, The Managerial Revolution, Penguin Books, 1962, p.114

[15] Hilferding, “State Capitalism or Totalitarian State Economy”, Essential Works of Socialism, p.249

[16] Hilferding, ibid, p.250

[17] Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, p.9