This is the text of a report delivered by David North to the Twelfth Plenum of the International Committee of the Fourth International on March 11, 1992.
The states that have been established in what used to be the Soviet Union cannot be defined as workers states. These states do not defend, even in a distorted form, the property relations established by the October Revolution. All these states are based explicitly upon the liquidation of the nationalized property. To define them as workers states would deprive this terminology of any Marxist content. In the 1930s Trotsky entered into controversy with those who rejected the definition of the USSR as a workers state, not to take verbal revenge against the Stalinists for the crimes they had committed, but to safeguard those conquests of the October Revolution that still remained—the most important being, of course, the nationalized property and the foundations of state planning. Trotsky insisted that to the extent that the Soviet state still defended, though in the interests of the bureaucracy itself, the property forms established by the October Revolution, the definition of the state as a workers state, albeit one that had undergone a profound degeneration, remained valid.
In the 1939 controversy, Trotsky explained that the military defeat of the Soviet Union by fascist or, for that matter, “democratic” imperialism would result not only in the liquidation of the totalitarian Stalinist regime.  It would also lead to a counterrevolution in the spheres of social relations and property forms. Thus, the controversy was not simply over words. As Trotsky said to Burnham in 1939 (and I paraphrase): “Very well, you wish to say that the Soviet Union is not a workers state. If I were to accept that, what political conclusion from the standpoint of our work would you then ask that we draw? Long ago we agreed that it was necessary to overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy. What changes would you have us make? What does your proposed change in definition imply?”
It became clear—and this was confirmed by the evolution of both Burnham and Shachtman—that discarding the definition of the Soviet Union as a workers state led to the position that the working class should not defend the USSR in a war with imperialism. Rather, it should favor the victory of imperialism over the USSR. This became Burnham’s position within a relatively short time, and by the time of the Korean War it became that of Shachtman.
The definition of the USSR as a workers state was always bound up with the defense of the property forms established in the aftermath of the October Revolution. It is impossible to still maintain that the new states that have emerged in Russia, the Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Georgia and the rest of the Confederation of Independent States are in some way defending state property. The documents signed by Yeltsin, Kravchuk and Shushkevich in December 1991 explicitly stated that the CIS is committed to the establishment of private property. This fundamental change is not only the outcome of the policies pursued by the Gorbachev regime since 1985, it is the culmination of the counterrevolutionary character of Stalinism.
The states that comprise the CIS were formed with the aim of establishing new property forms, and this requires that the party revise its definition of these states. This may trouble some—we’ll review the position of our critics somewhat later—but these necessary revisions are rooted in the history and program of our movement. We are obligated to review traditional formulations in the light of the concrete developments of the class struggle so that our formulations correspond to objective reality.
The task at hand is not only to provide an appropriate definition of the new states, but to understand the implications of this transformation in the broadest historical context. It’s not just a matter of changing words and terminology. It is not enough to say that the Soviet Union is no longer a workers state. We must understand what this transformation represents within the context of the objective historical experience of the working class. We should avoid using phrases that become hackneyed from overuse; but in this case it can truly be said that we have come to the end of an entire historical period that was opened up in 1917. The October Revolution was the decisive event in modem history and the history of the working class. The conquest of power by the working class marked a new stage of historical development, and transformed the historical perspective of world socialism, initially formulated by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, into a reality. The socialist revolution became a practical question.
The October Revolution didn’t fall from the sky. It was the positive culmination of the class struggle as an objective historical process and the political development of the international workers movement. Despite the vicissitudes of the class struggle, the previous 70 years before 1917 had seen an astonishing and historically unprecedented development in the political consciousness of the masses. A study of the history of the nineteenth century cannot be understood except within that framework. One might say that the development of Marxism and the development of the masses as a conscious political force are what gave the late nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century its unique characteristics.
Consider this: a Parisian worker who had been born in the year of the February Revolution and the bloody June days of 1848, who later participated as a young man in the struggle of the Paris Commune in 1871, and was only 41 by the time the Second International had been founded, could still have lived to see the conquest of power by the Russian working class in 1917 without having yet reached his seventieth birthday. The lifetime of a worker born as the Communist Manifesto was written spanned a period of political development that included the October Revolution. The consciousness of the vanguard of the working class was shaped by the objective emergence of the working class as a revolutionary force engaged in bloody battles against capitalism and the creation of mass organizations founded upon a socialist program.
It’s important to keep this historical context in mind when one considers the relationship of that period to the one through which we ourselves have passed. In 1914 the collapse of the Second International was seen by millions of class-conscious workers as a betrayal of the principles that had guided their entire lives and the politics of their organizations. Though stunned by the events of August 1914, these workers understood them not as the failure of socialism but as the betrayal of socialism. Three years later, the conquest of power by the Bolshevik Party was seen by the finest representatives of the class-conscious proletariat as a counteroffensive by Marxism against those who had betrayed it.
The Russian Revolution inspired a wave of revolutionary struggles throughout Europe that were, however, defeated through the treachery of social democracy. These defeats prolonged the isolation of the Soviet state and led to its degeneration. The bureaucracy usurped power and utilized the immense prestige of the October Revolution to systematically betray every principle upon which it was based. It’s unnecessary at this meeting to review all the consequences of the program of “socialism in one country” for the working class. Our movement has always insisted that without the advance of the revolution into at least some of the major capitalist countries, the USSR ultimately would be destroyed.
From the mid-1920s on, the clash on the essential issue of socialist internationalism led inexorably to conflicts on all other issues, including those related to the process of socialist economic development. The Left Opposition insisted that the development of the Soviet economy in the direction of socialism confronted its greatest obstacle in the nationalist program of the bureaucracy and its totalitarian suppression of all traces of workers democracy. The recent events confirm the astounding prescience of Trotsky’s warnings. Allow me to cite a passage from an article written by Trotsky in 1931:
In the last analysis, all the contradictions of the development of the USSR lead in this manner to the contradiction between the isolated workers state and its capitalist encirclement. The impossibility of constructing a self-sufficient socialist economy in a single country revives the basic contradictions of socialist construction at every new stage on an extended scale and in greater depth. In this sense, the dictatorship of the proletariat in the USSR would inevitably have to suffer destruction if the capitalist regime in the rest of the world should prove to be capable of maintaining itself for another long historical period.
At the conclusion of this article, he wrote: “A complete and final way out of the internal and external contradictions will be found by the USSR on the arena of a victorious revolution of the world proletariat and only there.”
Those well versed in the history of the Soviet Union and the Trotskyist movement know that the betrayals of the Soviet bureaucracy prevented the victory of the working class in Europe and crippled the international Marxist movement. Stalinism perpetuated the political and economic isolation of the USSR that led finally to the present debacle. What existed in the Soviet Union was not a socialist economy. Within the framework of national autarchy—which was bolstered rather than ended by the postwar arrangements in Eastern Europe—the Soviet Union could never equal, let alone overtake, the economic performance of the advanced capitalist states. Cut off from international resources, the program of national autarchy artificially insulated the Soviet and Eastern European economies from any objective measurement of productivity, and enabled the bureaucracy to perpetuate and conceal its criminal abuse of the planning process. The bureaucracy was, as in everything else, the greatest obstacle to the scientific planning and the rational use of productive forces. There is even a political reason why the Soviet Union failed to devote the necessary resources to the development of computer and information technology that has become such a critical component of the economy of every capitalist country. Computer technology, with its wide ranging implications for communications and the transmission of information, was seen as a threat to the totalitarian domination of society by the bureaucracy. Economic advances in the USSR were largely restricted to old industries that were already approaching the end of their historical cycle. By the 1970s the Soviet economy fell further and further behind the advanced capitalist countries even though they were themselves entering into protracted economic crisis.
We might add that the general stagnation and the many shocks suffered by the capitalist system since 1973 intensified the crisis of the Soviet economy. There were many different ways this was expressed, such as the collapse of oil prices and, politically, in the enormous pressure placed by imperialism upon the Soviet Union through military spending. But, ultimately, the economic and military pressure exerted by imperialism upon the Soviet Union only underscored the basic truth that there exists no path to socialism along nationalist lines. Far from escaping the pressures of world economy, the Soviet Union came more and more under its influence; and the failure of the national autarchy of the pseudo-soviet system became ever more apparent.
The events that have taken place within the USSR and Eastern Europe are a historical condemnation of the entire Stalinist system. But it is not just Stalinism that has suffered a blow. To the extent that the working class both within the USSR and internationally was trapped by the politics of this bureaucracy, it suffers the consequences of the criminal policies of the bureaucracy. The shock of capitalist restoration is being felt by millions of workers. There is a real danger that social and cultural life in the Soviet Union will very rapidly be reduced to levels that have not been seen for a half century. The impressive gains in culture can be rapidly lost. Millions of Soviet youth are confronted with an educational system that is crumbling. They will not even have at their disposal the educational resources that were available to their parents and even their grandparents. All the horrors with which workers are familiar in the backward countries are emerging within the USSR. A reporter writing in this weekend’s Financial Times said that he had observed in major Soviet cities scenes of squalor and despair unequaled anywhere in the world, including in Asia and Latin America. This is being reported at a time when the full consequences of restoration have not yet been realized. They’re only gradually working their way through the different spheres of the productive process. One must ask: what happens, for example, when the transportation systems stop working? What happens when the water purification plants no longer are functional? What happens when the electric grids start to break down and there’s no one there to repair them? The implications are really horrifying; and it certainly vindicates the warnings we have made that the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union must produce a horrifying decline in the economic and social level of the masses.
We insisted that the political revolution was necessary to defend the social conquests of the revolution from the restorationist strivings of the bureaucracy. But we must acknowledge that the collapse of the Stalinist regime has been realized not through the independent political mobilization of the working class on the basis of socialist revolution, but through the machinations of the bureaucracy itself. We are obliged to say that the working class has suffered a defeat; and it is necessary to analyze this defeat. What happened in Minsk on December 8, 1991—indeed what has been happening to the international working class movement—is the culmination of the protracted decay and degeneration of all the organizations of the working class.
This defeat is the outcome of the betrayal and derailment of the revolutionary workers movement over many decades. In the Soviet Union and throughout the world, the working class is compelled to confront the consequences of the protracted decay and degeneration of its own organizations. The postwar period was characterized by the bureaucratic manipulation and suppression of the class struggle. What imparted to this entire period its generally reactionary political character was the substitution of all-powerful bureaucratic apparatuses, whether Stalinist or social democratic, for the independent revolutionary initiative of the working class.
This is where I come back to the point I was making earlier about the lives of workers who had lived from 1847 through 1917. We should not glorify that period or cover up its many contradictions. But, in essence, it was characterized by an immense growth of the revolutionary self-consciousness of the masses that finally found its highest expression in the Russian Revolution. On the other hand, the politics of the postwar period was based upon the domination of the working class by bureaucracies.
It may have appeared for much of the postwar period that these bureaucracies played a legitimate and, to some extent, even progressive role in the working class movement. Certainly, Pabloism attempted to make that point. The trade unions grew more powerful, the organizations and political parties that claimed to represent the working class—whether Stalinist or social democratic—became established parts of the political superstructure. Living standards rose, reforms were granted. But when considered from the standpoint of the development of the independent political activity of the working class and its revolutionary consciousness, it was a period of stagnation, degeneration and decay.
Neither the extent nor historical implications of this decay were entirely clear during the years of economic expansion, when great struggles were not required to raise living standards. But the development of the world crisis has brought the crisis to the surface. All over the world the reactionary character of the bureaucratized organizations, not to mention their utter impotence, has been exposed.
It is not surprising that those who attack the analysis of the International Committee make no attempt to place the recent events in a broader historical and world context. Ernest Mandel now writes an article called, “The Irresistible Fall of Mikhail Gorbachev.” This is from a man who only recently told us that Mikhail Gorbachev was the most brilliant politician of the twentieth century. Essentially, this article is devoted to concealing the implications of the defeat that has been suffered by the Soviet and Russian working class. Mandel denies to this day that the politics of Gorbachev were the politics of counterrevolution. He now says that “it was illusory to expect Gorbachev to succeed.” But Mr. Mandel’s politics were based on this illusion.
He then writes, “It would also be an error to close one’s eyes to the profound and positive change that took place in the USSR under Gorbachev. These changes are essentially summed up by glasnost or, if you prefer, the substantial extension of democratic liberties in practice enjoyed by the Soviet masses.” When Mandel speaks of the “positive changes that took place in the USSR under Gorbachev,” one is truly reminded of the old phrase: “The operation was a brilliant success; but unfortunately the patient died under the knife.” Yes, from the standpoint of the reactionary politics of Pabloism, glasnost was a magnificent success. The democratic processes that Mandel hails were nothing more than the airing of disputes within the ruling factions as they proceeded to condition society for the culmination of the Stalinist counterrevolution. Mandel was complicit in this process; and he played no small role in assisting it—in some countries more than in others. But to the extent that he utilized his influence to provide the right wing, whether in Czechoslovakia or in Germany or in Poland, with a political cover, he certainly contributed to the political conditions that ultimately led to the collapse of the USSR. Mandel supported Gorbachev and only three years ago, Mandel’s political protege, Tariq Ali, wrote a book dedicated to none other than Boris Yeltsin.
Now, let me turn to the article by Martin Booth that appeared in Sheila Torrance’s Newsline. It is of special significance. He is appalled that we claim that the Soviet Union has ceased to exist, as if the events of the last four months were simply fabricated by the International Committee. The position put forward by the Newsline is so ludicrous that one wonders how rational people could take it seriously. For Torrance and Booth, not very much has happened. To the extent that they take any notice of the events surrounding the juridical liquidation of the USSR, they are glorified as the latest manifestations of die uninterrupted revolutionary offensive of the working class, which, according to Torrance, is now entering its 47th year. Healy originally created the fantastic abstraction of the “undefeated working class” to avoid the necessity of making any analysis of the political experiences of the working class. No matter what happened—a blood bath in Indonesia, the suppression of the masses in Chile, a pogrom in Sri Lanka, the restoration of capitalism in the USSR—all of these events were, or are, to be taken as manifestations of the same universal and supra-historical essence—the revolutionary offensive of the undefeated working class.
Booth and Torrance compare the positions that we put forward to those of Bruno Rizzi. At no time do they grasp the context within which Trotsky made his arguments against those who claimed that capitalism had been restored to the USSR and that the Soviet Union was no longer a workers state. If you read their article, they ignore the basic question which Trotsky raised: what property forms are defended by the Soviet state? They tell us that we’re basing ourselves on the “intentions” and “motives” of the Stalinist bureaucracy. But our terminology was based entirely on the writings of Trotsky. When we stated that the bureaucracy, in an earlier period, was “compelled” to defend the state property, we are speaking of the objective relation between the material privileges of the bureaucracy and the property forms created on the basis of October.
In a cynical and ignorant way, the Newsline fastens on the percentage of property that remains in the hands of the state and attempts to divert attention from the fundamental issue of the political attitude of the state to nationalized and private property. On the basis of Torrance’s reasoning, one could argue that for much of the postwar period England was a workers state because the major industries were in the hands of the state.
But for us it was never a question of comparing what percentages of property were state-owned or non-state-owned. For us, rather, it was a question of the historical origins of the state and its relation to the forms of property created on the basis of the October Revolution. The Confederation of Independent States was formed to destroy the property forms created on the basis of October. In an earlier historical period, the Stalinist regime defended the state property, not because it was personally devoted to socialism, but because the privileges of the ruling stratum remained bound up with the property forms created on the basis of a proletarian revolution. But the CIS is a state created by social strata whose interests are bound up with the restoration of capitalism.
As we said in the January report, the position of these individuals would be that unless 51 percent of the property is privatized, one must still consider the CIS to be a workers state. One might have thought that this remark was an exaggerated presentation of their views. But in the meantime they have replied: “That’s exactly the point. But the whole point is what is necessary to get the level of privatization of the economy up to 51 percent.” Thus, the issue of the class character of the CIS is reduced to a purely formal and quantitative problem of determining what percentage of property is privately owned and what percentage of property is state-owned.
The most important argument they make is in the following passage. After quoting the perspectives resolution of the Workers League in which we said that “the disintegration of the Stalinist regimes has proceeded much more rapidly than the development of revolutionary consciousness in the proletariat,” Torrance and Booth declare: “What idealist twaddle! How is revolutionary consciousness supposed to develop outside of the actual struggle of the working class to overthrow its oppressor—in this case, the Stalinist agencies of imperialism—and the conscious intervention of the revolutionary party?”
The reference to the revolutionary party is just thrown in as an afterthought. The heart of their position is that revolutionary consciousness is nothing more than the emanation of the spontaneous movement of the working class. There can be no development of revolutionary political consciousness in the working class except in its “actual struggle.”
But this is the very point that we insist is crucial. The level of political consciousness that made the October Revolution possible was not produced simply between February and October 1917. It was the outcome of the protracted historical struggle for Marxism in the European and Russian working class that had spanned the previous 70 years. If one wishes to understand why the Soviet workers did not rise up to defend whatever remained of the conquests of 1917, one must compare the development of political consciousness over the last 70 years to that of the 70 years that preceded 1917. The orientation of the working class in the period of the Russian Revolution had been determined largely by the struggle for Marxism against opportunism and other bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideological trends. The protracted struggle, spanning many decades, for the political independence of the working class created a profound revolutionary and socialist culture within the Russian and European proletariat.
But the past 70 years—coinciding with the first signs of political crisis within the Bolshevik Party and the rapid growth of the bureaucracy—have been characterized by relentless assaults upon the political consciousness of the masses. Stalinism set out to destroy the greatest conquest of Marxism: the development of the revolutionary political consciousness of the working class, the transformation of an oppressed and exploited mass into a conscious historical force.
But Torrance and Booth do not even recognize, let alone understand the significance of, this achievement; and that is the real basis of their thoroughly petty-bourgeois and opportunist approach to politics.
One can only appreciate the profoundly anti-Marxist character of the theory of the “undefeated nature of the working class” when one reflects upon the impact of Stalinism upon the international workers movement. The fact is that the greatest defeat was the wholesale destruction of the revolutionary cadre of the working class and the terrible lowering of its level of political consciousness.
Only by recognizing the consequences of the crimes of Stalinism and social democracy can they be overcome. To acknowledge that the working class has suffered a serious defeat does not mean that there exist no prospects for the socialist revolution. There is, as we stressed in January, a great difference between the juridical liquidation of the Soviet Union and the crushing of the capacity of the Soviet workers to rally its forces and fight back. The setback that the Soviet workers have undoubtedly suffered does not mean that the successful restoration of capitalism is inevitable. Not only within the USSR but, above all, internationally, the situation is far too unsettled to draw such an unwarranted and pessimistic conclusion. The breakup of the Soviet Union poses great dangers to the working class. But this does not mean that capitalism has somehow overcome its own contradictions or that it has established a new internal equilibrium. It is true that the successful consolidation of bourgeois rule in the former USSR would certainly strengthen world capitalism and might provide it with significant new reserves. But that is not likely to be accomplished within the foreseeable future. Rather, it is much more likely that the breakup of the USSR and the ensuing crises and social upheavals will contribute to the general disequilibrium of world capitalism, and this, in turn, will profoundly influence the course of developments throughout Eastern Europe. The struggle for a dominant position in the ex-USSR and Eastern Europe will exacerbate the tensions among the imperialist powers. We continue to base ourselves on the analysis that we developed in the perspectives resolution of the International Committee and in the manifesto prepared for the Berlin conference, in which we stressed the political instability of world capitalism and the general implications of the conflict between the global development of the productive forces and the nation-state system. Nothing has led us to believe that this perspective was either wrong or that it has been superseded by events in the USSR. Rather, we see within these events a confirmation of our perspective.
The developments on a world scale certainly indicate that, if anything, the crisis of imperialism has developed qualitatively even since the manifesto of the Berlin conference was written in April 1991. World politics today resembles more and more the inside of an insane asylum. We have often written and spoken of the breakup of the nation-state system and, along with it, the framework of bourgeois politics as it had existed since 1945. Two years ago we noted the fragility of even such well-established bourgeois concerns as Canada. In last year’s manifesto we spoke of the impending disintegration of the Balkans. Now, at this meeting, we have to consider as a subject for political analysis the possibility of the eventual breakup of the United Kingdom. The question of an independent Scotland and even an independent Wales is being thrown up by the breakup of all the old economic relationships.
It would be ludicrous to believe that at this stage of economic development, with the global integration of production, that these proliferating ministates have any viability. Rather, they represent the breakup of the old nation-state system under the pressure of the global economic forces.
It is precisely the global integration of the productive forces that has provoked the eruption of nationalist frenzy. All over the world petty-bourgeois politicians are making their careers by insisting that they will defend their decrepit nations against all international competition. What is this but the most perplexed reaction of the bourgeoisie itself to the problems created by the worldwide development of the productive forces. Unlike the period of the nineteenth century, when the national movements were progressive political manifestations of the worldwide expansion of the productive forces based upon capitalism, the present proliferation of national movements and national states represent a reaction of political perplexity to the inability of capitalism to harmoniously organize the forces of the world economy.
This crisis is finding its manifestation in the relationship among capitalist powers and within the bourgeois states themselves. The political instability of the United States has great implications for the general health of the world capitalist system. The most explosive factor in world politics today is the destructive attempt of the United States to preserve its position of global predominance despite its obviously declining economic resources. At our last plenum in March 1991 we explained that despite the euphoria in the United States in the immediate aftermath of the gulf war, the Bush administration was in desperate crisis. Indeed, the war was itself an attempt to forestall the crisis and to prop up American imperialism through the force of arms. Now, one year after the war, the Bush administration is reeling beneath the impact of the economic crisis in the United States. The relations with its allies of yesterday are becoming increasingly hostile. The day before yesterday the Herald-Tribune reported that the Pentagon strategists are working out a plan to block anyone who seeks to challenge the global position of the United States. These strategists are brazenly declaring that the “new world order” has room for only one “superpower.” In this way, the battle lines are already being drawn.
The political instability in the United States is mirrored in all the capitalist countries. An election has just been called in Britain and, certainly, its outcome will do nothing to stabilize social relations in Britain, let alone to extricate Britain from its pressing economic and world problems. The regime of Mitterrand in France is discredited. Recession has now begun in Japan and in Germany. It is looking increasingly likely that most of the bourgeois leaders who were in power when the CIS was established will not be in office much longer.
The breakdown of the USSR does not in any automatic way provide world capitalism with a new lease on life. However, the ability of the Fourth International to exploit the possibilities raised by the world crisis depends to a great extent upon our ability to understand and assimilate the lessons of the entire historical period through which we’ve passed and, on that basis, to precisely define the tasks which we confront in the present situation. It falls upon the Fourth International, led by the International Committee, to reestablish within the working class the great political culture of Marxism. That is the only foundation upon which a genuine revolutionary workers movement can be built.
No one can exactly predict the tempo of developments. But it is necessary for our movement to prepare for a protracted political struggle. Healy cultivated a worshipful attitude toward the spontaneous struggles of the working class. He did not understand the real relationship between the spontaneous development of the class struggle and the development of the revolutionary party. It is true that without the spontaneous development of the class struggle a mass revolutionary party cannot emerge. However, it is very wrong to see the development of the revolutionary party as merely the outcome of the spontaneous economic struggles of the working class or even as the direct and immediate product of the necessary interventions of the party in these economic struggles. The party must intervene in the economic struggles of the working class, but that alone will not create a mass revolutionary movement.
The intensification of the class struggle provides the general foundation of the revolutionary movement. But it does not by itself directly and automatically create the political, intellectual and, one might add, cultural environment that its development requires, and which prepares the historical setting for a truly revolutionary situation. Only when we grasp this distinction between the general objective basis of the revolutionary movement and the complex political, social and cultural process through which it becomes a dominant historical force is it possible to understand the significance of our historical struggle against Stalinism and to see the tasks that are posed to us today. Far from believing that we have entered a period of capitalist renaissance, I think it could be said that the objective economic prerequisites for socialism are today far more developed than they were in 1917. Moreover, the objective being of the working class is far more mature for socialism than it was 75 years ago. On a world scale, the influence and the weight of the working class in economic life is far greater than it was 75 years ago. Many parts of the world which 75 years ago were largely rural now have economies that are based on the extraction of surplus value from an industrial proletariat and from a proletariat in related spheres of the economy.
But while the objective development of the economies and of the working class itself is far greater than it was in 1917, the subjective political consciousness of the working class is far less developed today. This fact is of great importance in understanding our own movement and the problems that it confronts. This historical paradox must not be seen as an insuperable barrier to socialist revolution, but as a problem that must be overcome. We do not start, so to speak, from scratch. This is 1992, not 1917. The end of the Soviet Union is not the end of history. The entire historical process is objectively lodged in the present situation. Modem society, the present political situation, is the product of this past, whether society recognizes it or not. We must extract this past from the confused form in which it is presently concealed. The retrogressionists of 1942 repudiated the past and, in that way, arrived at entirely superficial appraisals of the situation they confronted. They saw only the victory of fascism and disconnected the events of that period from the historical process from which they had emerged. Thus, they arrived at the repudiation of socialism as a viable perspective and became vulgar democrats. It was, they decided, pointless to talk of socialism. They decided that it was necessary to return to 1845, and relive the past without making the mistake Marx had made—of setting out to build an independent working class party. They saw their mission as recreating a new heroic age of bourgeois democracy. But that was a reactionary perspective in 1942 and it is no better today. In fact, the situation today is far less congenial for the development of bourgeois democracy than it was 70 years ago.
We strive to develop the political consciousness of the proletariat on the basis of an assimilation of the entire history of the Russian Revolution. Right now, there is tremendous confusion in the working class. Its views are not based on a correct historical consciousness. This false consciousness is rooted in previous historical experiences through which masses have passed—experiences that it is not able to assimilate without the intervention of the party.
The great lies employed to disorient millions are that Stalinism is Marxism and that the collapse of the USSR proves the failure of socialism and Marxism. It is necessary to refute these lies and prove that Stalinism was the antithesis of Marxism, the product of the most terrible counterrevolution in history. I’m not advancing this as an alternative to or a substitute for the necessary day-to-day struggles that our movement must undertake within the working class on every fundamental question related to the defense of its living standards and so on. We agree that such interventions are a necessary and vital element of our work. But we have to conceive of such struggles within a broader historical framework, as a part of the overall defense that our movement must make of the revolutionary perspective.
If one considers the impact of the crimes of Stalinism on the political development of the working class, one must say that no political force ever had such a devastating effect on the progressive development of humanity. Hitler was what he was. He was a fascist, imperialist politician. But Stalin and the Soviet bureaucracy, as well as the mass Stalinist parties all over the world, claimed to speak in the name of the October Revolution.
The files of the KGB are now opening up in the Soviet Union. The information that will emerge from this will demonstrate that the crimes committed by the Stalinist bureaucracy were on a scale that is barely comprehensible. I don’t think it detracts anything from Trotsky’s work to say that he simply could not have known, even when he was writing his denunciations of the Moscow Trials, the scale of the bloodbath that was taking place in the USSR. By 1937 1,000 Communists a day were being shot in Moscow. They were given 10-or 15-minute trials, men and women whose revolutionary history spanned 30 or even 40 years, who had collaborated with Lenin, who were great Marxist scholars and theoreticians. They were given 10-or 15-minute trials, pronounced guilty, shuffled out into a back room or into a courtyard and shot in the back of the neck. Their bodies were then dumped in unmarked graves. Manuscripts written by these men and women, who were all highly literate, were burned. The intellectual heritage of revolutionaries who had played so great a role in creating the massive Marxist culture out of which the Russian Revolution emerged—and without which the Russian Revolution could not have taken place—was destroyed. We know the names of Trotsky and the other great figures who were in the Moscow Trials. But what was destroyed between 1936 and 1940 was not only the flower of Marxism, but its roots.
What was Stalin seeking to do? One cannot explain the mass killings except as an attempt to exterminate all traces of Marxist culture within the working class and within society. There is an author, I understand, who has written a book called The Genocide of the Trotskyists. It’s a very appropriate title. Stalin’s genocide was politically directed. He didn’t kill people primarily because of their religious or ethnic background—though that too played a role in his selection of victims. But Stalin’s principal concern was with the political and intellectual outlook of his victims. All those who had an independent thought in their head and who had a political history in the Marxist and Communist movements were in danger of being exterminated. Hundreds of thousands of people who had advanced apolitical thesis, written a thoughtful political document, created a significant work of art, composed important music, wrote a provocative poem, or produced an innovative movie were arrested and murdered. The purpose of this mass murder was the extirpation of the individuals who embodied the revolutionary political, social and cultural environment that had produced October 1917.
I don’t think it’s possible to understand what has happened in the last year if one doesn’t grasp the enormity of this crime. That’s why when Torrance says that we cannot speak of the restoration of capitalism because there was not a violent counterrevolution—this they tell us from the comfort of their London flats—we somewhat impatiently point out that there has been no shortage of counterrevolutionary violence in the Soviet Union. Political reaction sought to destroy the head of the October Revolution; and in the Soviet Union it was not just one or two heads. It was millions of heads. Among the dead are thousands of names with which comrades are not familiar. But they include figures who made profound contributions to the education of the Russian and international proletariat. Trotsky occupied the summit of the intellectual life that was bound up with the international socialist movement, but its influence extended far and wide into Russian and European cultural life. That is what Stalinism sought to wipe out.
It is important to understand the historical foundations of the relationship between Marxism and the Russian working class. Plekhanov was the father of Russian Marxism.11 But his work was based on the earlier achievements of Chernychevsky. And that great thinker was part of a generation whose political views took shape in the 1840s and which included such men as Alexander Herzen and Belinsky. Plekhanov labored from 1883 in relative isolation in Geneva. Then in the mid-1890s a wave of strikes swept across Russia, and this profoundly affected class relations. The Russian proletariat announced its arrival on the stage of history. The Russian Marxists, who had anticipated the revolutionary movement of the working class, undertook the education of the proletariat. And it was the proletariat educated by these great Marxists that made the Russian Revolution.
How did Lenin and Trotsky acquire mass influence in 1917? When they returned to Russia after the February Revolution, Petrograd had been engulfed by a wave of petty-bourgeois radicalism. The party leadership had adapted to the prevailing opportunist moods and had endorsed the Provisional Government and the continuation of the war. In opposition to this line Lenin advanced the “April Theses.” Despite the opposition he encountered within the Central Committee, Lenin rallied the best elements among the cadre. These included thousands of party and party-influenced workers who had been scratching their heads as they read Stalin’s articles in Pravda. They wondered, “What’s all this about? That’s not what I learned from Lenin at the party school in Capri. I’ve always thought differently.”
In his struggle inside the Bolshevik Party, Lenin knew he was resting upon an intelligent layer of the Russian working class. Those who opposed Lenin on the question of the Provisional Government and the plan for an insurrection knew that there were tens of thousands of politically educated workers who were studying the disputes, that the polemics published in Pravda were being followed by thousands of Bolshevik workers, who were, in turn, explaining the issues to the masses. Thus, when Lenin said to the Central Committee, “If you don’t adopt my program, I will resign and agitate among the party masses,” this wasn’t a threat that his opponents could take lightly. Lenin knew he could call meetings to which thousands of Bolshevik workers would come, that these workers would then demand an emergency congress at which they would kick out the whole existing leadership of the Bolshevik Party and elect a new Central Committee. Lenin’s adversaries knew that and that contributed to his political victory.
But after October 1917 came the civil war, with its catastrophic impact upon the working class. A substantial portion of the class-conscious proletariat was wiped out by 1921. Many of those who had survived were absorbed with work inside the state and party apparatus. Trotsky wrote often of the exhaustion that overtook the Russian working class. The politically educated workers were no longer to be found in many of the factories that had been bastions of Bolshevik influence. They were dead or they had been absorbed into the apparatus. This is what underlay the change that became so noticeable in 1923-24. The deterioration of the party regime provoked widespread opposition within the Bolshevik Party. This was expressed in such documents as the “Letter of the 46.” But in the aftermath of the publication of Trotsky’s New Course, the Marxists inside the party began to realize that they no longer could depend upon the support of a broad base of educated workers. It had been more or less wiped out. And, indeed, the infamous “Lenin levy,” organized by the bureaucracy after Lenin’s death, destroyed the Bolshevik Party. Hundreds of thousands of peasants and completely uneducated workers were brought into the party. This influx of politically untrained workers and peasants overwhelmed what remained of the Marxist cadre in the party who found themselves isolated by a mass that was easily manipulated by the Stalinist faction.
Of course, there were still Marxist workers inside the factories, but they were in the minority. Nevertheless, they were feared by Stalin and one of the principal aims of the purges was to wipe them out physically so that Marxism would not again take root inside the factories. There are documents that show how the Stalinists dealt with manifestations of Trotskyism inside the factories. When a Trotskyist worker was found inside a factory, the KGB shot not only this individual, but every other worker in his department.
This process was as bloody as any counterrevolution in history. No, it didn’t change the character of the state as such. The Soviet Union remained a degenerated workers state. The property remained in the hands of the state. There still remained among the broad masses a definite revolutionary consciousness, but little remained of the old Marxist political culture. The purges wiped it out. The effect was felt far beyond the borders of the Soviet Union.
To answer the he that Stalinism is Marxism requires that we expose the deeds of Stalinism. To know what Stalinism is one has to show whom Stalinism murdered. We have to answer the question: against what enemy did Stalinism strike its most terrible blows? The greatest political task of our movement must be to restore historical truth by exposing the far-reaching political significance of the crimes which Stalinism carried out. At the center of this exposure must be the opening of the record on the Moscow Trials, the purges and the assassination of Trotsky.
The archives are supposedly being opened in Russia, but the situation is not very clear. No one really knows who is in control of the archives and who’s getting the archives. There have been reports that the archives are being sold off for cash, and even that the archives are being destroyed. There exists the danger that the Stalinists and their henchmen—most of whom are in control of the state apparatus and who are in the forefront of capitalist restoration—will utilize the prevailing confusion to destroy the records that are necessary to establish the historical truth. The International Committee must organize a campaign for the opening of the archives of the Stalinists, and the GPU-NKVD-KGB, to expose all the criminal activity associated with the destruction of the Marxist opponents of the Stalinist regimes. All the victims must be identified. Their political records must be made clear and all those who organized and executed the crimes must be named. The opening of these archives is necessary to establish the real historical, social and political significance of the Stalinist regime. Certainly, the documentation of the political genocide organized by the Soviet regime to destroy its socialist opponents would completely discredit the false and cynical identification of Stalinism with Marxism.
We must campaign for support among the broadest layers of intellectuals, artists and scholars, while all the time we explain this within the working class. It is not possible to rebuild the international Marxist movement without mounting this offensive.
When we speak of a campaign to uncover the historical truth, we see this as a task that benefits not only the working class in the narrow sense, but all of progressive humanity. What happened in the Lubianka is the concern of all of struggling mankind. Exposing the crimes of Stalinism is an essential part of overcoming the damage they caused to the development of social and political thought.
We should not approach only those who agree with the positions of the International Committee on all matters of politics, or, for that matter, only those who consider themselves proponents of socialist revolution. I think we should take the same attitude as Trotsky took in his struggle to expose the Moscow Trials. We should go to writers, artists and intellectuals; and ask them to support this demand for the opening of the archives and the establishment of a commission consisting of people of unimpeachable integrity to organize serious scholarly work to uncover the records of the Moscow Trials and all the events surrounding the assassination of Leon Trotsky. That’s the place to begin. Only by exposing the political character of these monstrous crimes can we expose what Stalinism really was.
Only the Fourth International can lead this fight. It alone possesses the necessary political vision and moral authority. Having defended the principles and traditions of Marxism during the many decades when Stalinism appeared to be an invincible force, the Trotskyist movement must leave no stone unturned to establish the historical truth, and on this basis lay down the necessary foundations for the renaissance of Marxism in the international working class.
In 1939 a minority tendency led by James Burnham and Max Shachtman developed inside the American Socialist Workers Party. It rejected the definition of the USSR as a degenerated workers state. The struggle against this tendency culminated in a split in April 1940.
The revolution in France in February 1848 forced the abdication of King Louis Philippe and a republic was declared. A proletarian uprising which took place in June 1848 was crushed and a dictatorship established under the reactionary general Louis Eugene Cavaignac. The Paris Commune was the working-class revolutionary government set up by the proletarian revolution in Paris on March 18, 1871. The Commune existed for 73 days until May 28, 1871, when it was cruelly suppressed by the bourgeoisie, led by Thiers.
At the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the leaders of most of the national parties of the Second International betrayed the interests of the working class by voting war credits, thus giving their support to the imperialist bourgeoisie in their respective countries.
Leon Trotsky, Toward Socialism or Capitalism? [London: New Park Publications, 1977], p. 67.
Ibid., p. 91.
Pabloism is an opportunist and pro-Stalinist tendency which developed inside the Fourth International during the late 1940s and early 1950s under the leadership of Michel Pablo.
Ernest Mandel (1923-), a Belgian professor and petty-bourgeois opportunist, is the best-known spokesman for Pabloism.
Sheila Torrance (1943 -) is the leader of a faction of the anti-Trotskyist Workers Revolutionary Party in Britain. The Newsline is the newspaper of the WRP.
Gerry Healy (1913-1989) was the leader of the Trotskyist movement in Britain for 35 years. His organization exploded in 1985 when he was expelled from the ICFI and its British section, then the Workers Revolutionary Party. In his final years he became a supporter of Mikhail Gorbachev.
Bruno Rizzi, the author of the theory of bureaucratic collectivization, wrote The Bureaucratization of the World, published in 1939.
Vissarion Belinsky, (1811-1848), Nikolai Chernyshevsky (1828-1889) and Alexander Herzen (1812-1870) were Russian revolutionary democrats and writers.