An outline of Trotskyism's

anti-Marxist theories (part two)

by Joseph Green
(CV #33, March 25, 2004)

The issue of "socialism in one country"

-- The timing of the revolution
-- The social character of the revolution
-- The material basis for socialism
-- The internal basis for socialism
-- The relationship between a revolutionary regime and the world movement
"Non-capitalism" in one country
-- Only full socialism
-- What's the difference?
On the nature of socialism
Apologists of Stalinist state-capitalism
-- Trotsky denied the possibility of a new bourgeoisie
-- Trotsky denied the possibility of state-capitalism
-- Trotsky's "political, but not social" revolution
-- About those Trotskyists who recognize the existence of state-capitalism
From capitalism to socialism: the transitional economy
-- Trotsky's blindness towards the class nature of NEP
-- The "commodity-socialist society"
-- Trotskyist doubts about the transitional economy

TOC for all four parts
Links to Part 1, 2, 3, & 4.

. The collapse of the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe left the Trotskyists as one of the main forces claiming to be Marxist-Leninist. In the December 2002 issue of Communist Voice we began a survey of Trotskyist theory. We dealt especially with the theory of "permanent revolution", the "transitional program", the right to national self-determination, and the anti-fascist struggle. This time we continue onto the issue of "socialism in one country" and the nature of the transitional economy established after a socialist revolution. Trotsky agreed with Stalin that, provided the old bourgeoisie was overthrown, state ownership was inherently socialist, whether or not the working class was in control. Here too, Trotskyism, far from being Leninist as it claims, is largely the flip side of Stalinism. In the next issue we will conclude by dealing with Trotsky's non-partyism, his cult of pure administration, and some other issues.


. This was Trotsky's main charge against Stalin -- that he stood for "socialism in one country". At times Trotsky boiled down just about all of his objections to Stalin to this one issue, writing that "Either permanent revolution or socialism in one country--this alternative embraces at the same time the internal problems of the Soviet Union, the prospects of revolution in the East, and finally, the fate of the Communist International as a whole."(1) Here was the magic answer as to why Stalin went wrong, and as to what separated Trotskyism from Stalinism.

. From then to the present, whatever the Stalinists did, the Trotskyists would criticize it on the grounds that its motive was to consolidate socialism in one country. Whatever the Trotskyists did, it was OK because its motive was the world revolution. This is repeated on issue after issue, not just or even mainly with respect to Soviet diplomacy, but on how to how to deal with united fronts, how to solve the economic problems of a revolutionary socialist regime and how to organize the international proletariat. But one knows very little if one knows only that the Stalinists made errors because they believed they could establish "socialism in one country"; one has to know something about the particular issue at stake, and about what policy should really be followed. Engels long ago commented wryly about revolutionaries who answered every question about setbacks and defeats "with the ready reply that it was Mr. This or Citizen That, who 'betrayed' the people. Which reply may be very true, or not, according to circumstances, but under no circumstances does it explain anything". He added "what a poor chance stands a political party whose entire stock-in trade consists in a knowledge of the solitary fact, that Citizen So-and-so is not to be trusted."(2) And does one know much more if one knows only that Comrades So-and-so should not be trusted, because they believe in "socialism in one country"?

. But if the Trotskyist discussion of "socialism in one country" consists largely of simply attributing bad motives to their opponents, it is still true that this controversy brings a number of serious issues to the minds of other activists. These include the question of the material prerequisites for socialism, the issue of the timing of a revolutionary rising, the effect of the size of a revolutionary country or group of countries on the prospects of it standing up against imperialist encirclement, or the character of the revolution and the nature of the economy that it will establish. Serious consideration of these issues requires close attention to the level of a country's economic development, to the specific class alignments of a particular time and place, and to the experience of the attempts of the last century at building revolutionary economies. But, as we shall see, Trotsky's theorizing brushed aside concrete consideration of these questions as opportunism. It answered them instead with mechanical formulas, supposedly good for almost all times and places.

The timing of the revolution

. In some circumstances, it might be a major question whether a particular country, if it rose in revolution, would have the necessary resources to hold out against foreign intervention and to build a new economy. This would depend on many factors, including the size of the country concerned, the level of the revolutionary struggle in its neighbors, and the general world situation. For example, the revolutionaries of a small country might feel that they would immediately be crushed by a nearby large predatory power, unless they could ensure coordination with at least some of their neighbors. The revolutionary party of such a country might then decide, if it had the choice, to delay any uprising until favorable international circumstances. True, the revolutionaries often don't have a choice. Revolutions generally spring from profound crises, not from the arbitrary will of a party or even of a single class. But there are times when a party can choose whether or not to utilize a revolutionary crisis for the sake of carrying out an uprising. And insofar as there is a choice of timing, a revolutionary party would be well advised to consider the circumstances.

. The Trotskyist condemnation of "socialism in one country" might sound as if they held that revolutionaries should time their action in accordance with such circumstances. But this was not what Trotsky had in mind. He wrote:

"That no country in its struggle must 'wait' for others, is an elementary thought which it is useful and necessary to reiterate in order that the idea of concurrent international action may not be replaced by the idea of temporizing international inaction. Without waiting for the others, we begin and continue the struggle nationally, in full confidence that our initiative will give an impetus to the struggle in other countries .  .  .  "(3)

He goes to say that "if this does not occur", then the cause of the original revolution is hopeless. Yet, according to Trotsky, revolutionaries were not supposed to take account of the likelihood of international support beforehand, but simply count on such support as their birthright.

The social character of the revolution

. There is also a serious question of the character of any particular revolution. Is the country facing a socialist revolution, or will there first be a bourgeois-democratic revolution? One would think that any theory about the prerequisites for socialism would be concerned with assessing the type of revolution that could take place given the existing conditions. But the Trotskyist version of "permanent revolution" regards the very posing of this question to be a betrayal, a dread manifestation of the theory of "two-stage revolution". Mind you, Trotsky didn't say that there can never be a non-socialist revolution, just that it won't be of any real use or interest to the working class. (4)

. The theory of permanent revolution ignores that the nature of a revolution is determined, not simply by what the revolutionary party wants, but by the economic conditions of the country involved. Instead it holds that, ever since the rise of monopoly capital, all revolutions will either be defeated, or they will become socialist revolutions. The Trotskyists think that this ensures the revolutionary character of their tactics and strategy. But actually, it results in their either deprecating various struggles or, if they are to participate, pretending that they are socialist. In any case, it means that they don't see the need for any concrete assessment of the stage of revolution, for that assessment is the same all over.

The material basis for socialism

. No doubt millions of discussions have taken place over how developed a country's economy has to be to provide the material basis for socialism. It might be thought that Trotsky's denunciation of "socialism in one country" would be based on a careful assessment of what is required. But just the opposite is the case.

. Trotsky's Results and Prospects is one of his main theoretical works putting forward the idea of "permanent revolution". Chapter VII is "The pre-requisites of socialism". Here Trotsky said that, since socialism "is not merely a question of equal distribution but also a question of planned production", it requires "co-operative production on a large scale". But, he says, "this first objective pre-requisite of socialism has been in existence a long time". He cites a proposal in 1696 (that's not a typo--he really was talking about the late seventeenth century--almost one hundred years prior to the Industrial Revolution) by Bellars, a English Member of Parliament, to reorganize the economy into co-operative societies of a couple of hundred people each. Trotsky conceded that it was impossible for us to know now whether this plan would have worked, but nevertheless holds that "what is important is that collective economy, even if it was conceived only in terms of groups of 100, 200, 300 or 500 persons, was regarded as advantageous from the standpoint of production already at the end of the 17th century." While Marx and Engels saw the material prerequisites for socialism arising from the development of large-scale industry in the nineteenth century, Trotsky went on to say that "sufficient technical pre-requisites for collective production have already existed for a hundred or two hundred years". Bearing in mind that Trotsky was writing in 1905, this indeed referred to the level of industrial technique of two or three hundred years ago, that is, back perhaps almost to the time of Bellars. (5) This makes a mockery of any careful consideration of the prerequisites for socialism.

. Trotsky did go on to say that the material prerequisites for socialism included more than the "productive-technical relations", but also "social-economic ones". He referred to especially the percentage of proletarians in the economy. He discussed several different countries and noted that the predominance, by the 1890s and early 1900s, of the town "in the chief European countries". He didn't thereby distinguish one country from another, but concludes that the "social-economic relations" needed for socialism existed in some generality. The implication is that once such factors exist overall, there is no need to look that closely as to whether they exist in any particular country. (6)

. Moreover, in the same work he also suggested that such factors weren't that important anyway. He referred to the fact that Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848 (that is, long before the "social-economic conditions" Trotsky pointed to were ripe) and expected the revolutionary wave of 1848 to lead to socialist revolutions, but that such revolutions hadn't happened. Trotsky ridiculed the idea that this failure had something to do with the level of economic development of the time, such as the small number of "large-scale undertakings". He implied that to think such a thing would mean to say that "Marx in 1848 was a Utopian youth". He implied that, since Marx and Engels had looked for socialist revolution as early as the mid-19th century, there was no longer an issue of bothering about the prerequisites for socialism. (7)

. By way of contrast, in 1895 Engels, in reviewing his and Marx's views about how the revolutions of 1848 would proceed, wrote that they had been wrong due to the low level of economic development and the lack of big industry. He said that "the state of economic development on the Continent at that time was not, by a long way, ripe for the elimination of capitalist production; it [history] has proved this by the economic revolution which, since 1848, has seized the whole of the Continent, and has caused big industry to take real root in France, Austria, Hungary, Poland and, recently, in Russia, while it has made Germany positively an industrial country of the first rank .  .  ."(8) Engels didn't see anything horrible or shameful in having believed in socialist possibilities in 1848, but he believed that the socialist movement should base itself on materialism and pay attention to the economic basis of revolutionary activity.

The internal basis for socialism

. Since Trotsky theorized that it was impossible for there to be "socialism in one country", he didn't have to examine whether the material basis for socialism existed in this or that country. Any country --unless totally bereft of proletarians -- could simply make up its economic deficiencies, and transform its class situation, with aid from other countries.

. So Trotsky wrote that

. "Does it follow from what has been said that all the countries of the world, in one way or another, are already today ripe for the socialist revolution? No, this is a false, dead, scholastic, Stalinist-Bukharinist way of putting the question. World economy in its entirety is indubitably ripe for socialism. Then what is to happen with the dictatorship of the proletariat in the various backward countries, in China, India, etc. ? To this we answer: History is not made to order. A country can become 'ripe' for the dictatorship of the proletariat not only before it is ripe for the independent construction of socialism, but even before it is ripe for far-reaching socialization measures. One must not proceed from a preconceived harmony of social development. .  .  . A reconciliation of the uneven processes of economic and politics can be attained only on a world scale. In particular this means that the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be considered exclusively within the limits of Chinese economics and Chinese politics.
".  .  . Not only backward China, but in general no country in the world can build socialism within its own national limits: the highly-developed productive forces which have grown beyond national boundaries resist this, just as do those forces which are insufficiently developed for nationalization. The dictatorship of the proletariat in Britain, for example, will encounter difficulties and contradictions, different in character, it is true, but perhaps not slighter than those that will confront the dictatorship of the proletariat in China. Surmounting these contradictions is possible in both cases only by way of the international revolution. This standpoint leaves no room for the question of the 'maturity' or 'immaturity' of China for the socialist transformation." (emphasis added)(9)

. Thus the particular economic conditions of any locality weren't regarded as that significant. Nor was there that much significance to the existence of "highly-developed productive forces" -- this could pose just as much of a problem as a backward economy. It didn't even matter to Trotsky if the conditions weren't ripe for "far-reaching socialization measures". Nothing mattered but that the world in general had reached a certain level. His standpoint denigrated the need for a serious consideration of the internal factor in determining what could be achieved by a local revolution. And despite his constant appeal to world revolution as the solution to all problems, his standpoint didn't even allow a serious consideration of the concrete possibilities of mutual aid and support between the revolutionary struggle of different countries.

. The implication is not simply that there can't be socialism in one country, but that there can't be socialism anywhere unless the whole world is socialist. But this implication is not generally spelled out, so that different viewpoints and assessments can all be reconciled as supposedly compatible because, at least, they all agree there can't be socialism in merely one country. In various declarations over the years from Trotskyists and non-Trotskyists that are supposed to bear on the issue of "socialism in one country", sometimes it was argued that a revolutionary regime couldn't hold out in one country. But later it was argued that it was only full socialism that couldn't exist in one country. Sometimes it was argued that it was precisely the Russian revolution that couldn't hold out without aid from a socialist Germany. But it was also argued that a socialist Germany couldn't hold out "against the world". And Trotsky finally argued that, in any country, "reconciliation of the uneven processes of economic and politics" would require the triumph of the revolution "on a world scale".

The relationship between a revolutionary regime and the world movement

. The relation between a revolutionary regime and the revolutionary movement in other countries is an important question. In general, they are part of the same movement. A proletarian regime in one or more countries should serve as a major encouragement for workers everywhere, both by example and by finding ways to support the revolutionary movement of other lands. In turn, not only will the successes of the revolutionary movement elsewhere generally weaken the efforts of hostile capitalist countries to strangle proletarian regimes, but these regimes also deserve the direct support of the world proletariat. In practice, however, many difficult decisions have to be made concerning their relations.

. Trotsky held that belief in "socialism in one country" would lead to subordinating the interests of the world revolution to the needs of a proletarian regime. In his view, the belief in "socialism in one country" was the root cause of all the errors of the Stalinists in foreign policy. But Trotsky himself, who claimed to uphold world revolution against the Stalinists, also subordinated the interests of the world revolution to that of the Soviet Union. Indeed, he would even subordinate the interests of the world revolution to the needs of factional fighting within the CPSU leadership.

. Trotsky, for example, would eventually bitterly denounce Stalin for supporting the entry of the CP of China into the Kuomintang. Leaving aside the issue of whether he was correct about this, it is clear that he regarded it as a central issue for the Chinese revolution. But he kept his views on it under wrap for some time, rarely mentioning it until the very end of March 1927. But then, in May 1927, he wrote the "Declaration of the Eighty-four" which vehemently raised differences over China, but denied that he and others demanded a "break with the Kuomintang" (KMT). He thus lied to the communist movement in order to cement a factional alliance with Radek and Zinoviev, who did not, at this time, want the CP to leave the KMT. He thus subordinated the interests of Chinese revolution to his fight for leadership in the Soviet CP. He wouldn't bring his views on the CP-KMT alliance out into the open until May 1927, after Chiang Kai-shek had carried out his anti-communist massacres. (10)

. Subsequently, Trotsky denounced all major developments in the Chinese revolution. In another of his confident but wildly inaccurate descriptions, he even wrote in 1938 that "not only the peasant 'Red Army' but also the so-called 'Communist' Party" had been completely subordinated to the Kuomintang and the Chinese bourgeoisie, presumably because the CP sought to build a united front against Japanese aggression. He didn't see anything positive in anything the Chinese communists had done since 1927, and he didn't note that a gigantic revolutionary force was being built up in China. Whatever the pluses and minuses of the Maoist policies that now led the Chinese CP, the Chinese communists were clearly not a force subordinate to the bourgeoisie, and by 1949 they would overthrow Chiang Kai-shek's regime in a revolution of world significance. But for Trotsky, the Chinese revolution wasn't of much interest after 1927 except as a cudgel to use against Stalin. (11)

. Moreover, Trotskyist groups have made a profession of calling on the revolutionary movement to subordinate itself to the interests of this or that supposed workers' regime. In the 1970s and 80s, during the period of the long stagnation that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Trotskyist groups gave repeated calls to subordinate the interests of various movements to the Soviet Union. Many world events would be analyzed, not mainly from the point of view of their effect on the people directly involved, but on the basis of whether they would help or hurt the Soviet regime. The Spartacist League went so far as to suggest that the defense of the Soviet Union began in Central America, while various Trotskyist groups competed over how ardent they were to "defend the Red Army" in occupying Afghanistan. Most Trotskyist groups subordinated the world movement on various issues to the interests of Stalinist regimes they took as supposed workers' state, albeit deformed or degenerated ones.

. Nor did they rest content with slogans that subordinated the revolutionary movement to supposed workers' regimes. They gave calls to support various tyrannies under the guise of giving "military but not political support" in the anti-imperialist struggles. Some Trotskyist groups realized that the Soviet Union and other Stalinist regimes were not workers regimes, but state-capitalist ones. But they zealously joined in the general Trotskyist practice of giving slogans that subordinated the movement to various supposed anti-imperialist tyrannies.

. All these groups were opposed to the theory of "socialism in one country". Yet, in one movement after another, they repeatedly gave slogans that called on the movement to orient itself to defense of various backward regimes. They not only wrongly defined the nature of these regimes, but they tended to degrade the movement to the role of being an adjunct to various regimes.

. Thus the Trotskyist denunciation of "socialism in one country" has provided no help at all to those who wish to find the proper way to combine the interests of the world revolution with those of the local revolutionary movement. The idea that an individual revolutionary regime or movement, independent of its circumstances, can never survive on its own was supposed to ensure a policy oriented to world revolution. But a proper internationalist policy requires deep respect for the interests of the various local sections of the world proletariat, painstaking attention to their local conditions, and careful study of the objective laws governing revolution. Without that, the desire for support from abroad might simply lead to attempts to artificially speed up or foment revolutions elsewhere in the hope that it will help one's local movement -- and this would amount to playing with the interests of the world revolution. In practice, however, the Trotskyist movement has more been known for simply subordinating the movement to the interests of various regimes, and finding ways to claim that this is all for the interests of world revolution.


. Thus Trotskyist theorizing on the issue of "socialism in one country" has not provided answers to the serious questions of revolutionary tactics and orientation with regard to the relationship between individual revolutionary regimes or movements, and the world movement. But moreover, the Trotskyist denial of "socialism in one country" is, in large part, a mere quibble. While Trotsky held that there couldn't be "socialism in one country", he simultaneously held that there could be socialist revolution in one country. Indeed, his theory of "permanent revolution" is based on the idea that no revolution should be anything but a socialist revolution, and it should immediately establish a workers' state, a proletarian dictatorship.

. Thus Trotsky didn't call for the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) to drop "socialist" from its name. He held it was a workers' state, and moreover he held that the state sector of the Soviet economy was socialist. For that matter, he believed, even after a new bourgeoisie (he saw it only as Stalinist bureaucracy) took political power from the working class, that the Soviet Union was still a demonstration of socialism to the entire world; he wrote in 1936 that

"socialism has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of Das Kapital, but in an industrial arena comprising a sixth part of the earth's surface--not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity."(12)

. So, according to Trotsky, something that he held was essentially socialist could, and did, exist in a single country (albeit a giant one, the USSR). It was simply that it was only part-way to full socialism, and should sometimes be called socialist (as when demonstrating the victory of socialism), and sometimes (as when denouncing the Stalinists) should not. But in any case, whether this regime should be called "socialist" or a "workers state" or even "a contradictory society halfway between capitalism and socialism", Trotsky held that it had already departed from capitalism, and it could only be drawn back on the "road to capitalism" by a counterrevolution and a "capitalist restoration". (13)

Only full socialism

. Thus Trotsky held only that full socialism -- including the abolition of classes, money, commodity production, and the state -- couldn't be achieved in one country. But he held that a proletarian dictatorship, or workers' state, could be achieved in a single country. Indeed, he held that the Soviet economy had already become a new economic system. In his view, it remained such even under the Stalinist system that consolidated in the 1930s. But aside from the issue that he mistook state-capitalism for workers' rule, the point is that he believed that workers' rule could exist in a single country, and that a single country could depart from capitalism.

. And this is the time-worn, orthodox Trotskyist position. It is also argued, for example, by the late Ernst Mandel in his book Marxist Economic Theory. When he wanted to refute the view that the Soviet Union was socialist, he compared it to full Marxist socialism. But at the same time, he stated that it wasn't capitalist either, and did "not display any of the fundamental aspects of capitalist economy." It only shared mere "forms" and "superficial phenomena" with capitalism. (14)

. The present-day Trotskyist movement is divided over whether the Stalinist regime was a workers' rule. But they are not divided over the issue of whether it is possible that a single country might depart from capitalism. Even those Trotskyists who recognize the Stalinist regime was state-capitalist nevertheless hold that a single country (although not a Stalinist regime) could depart from capitalism. It is a fundamental point of Trotskyist doctrine that a socialist revolution can establish a proletarian dictatorship in a single country, and that this workers' rule would be non-capitalist and socialistic.

What's the difference?

. But Trotsky's recognition of the possibility of socialistic regimes in one country empties most of the content from his denial of "socialism in one country". The main question is what regimes represent the interest of the working class, and deserve support from their own working class and from the world working class. Can there be such a regime "in one country"? Whether such a country had full socialism, or was simply a workers' state making progress on the way to socialism, it would deserve support from the world proletarian movement.

. The question of when a country should be said to have reached full socialism is a secondary issue, provided the country really is a revolutionary regime of the working class. There probably will be different shades of working-class opinion on this question, and even different shades of socialist opinion. But it is unlikely to be a dividing line between revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries.

. This question does bear strongly on the analysis of the economy of the transitional period between capitalism and full socialism. But as we shall see later on, Trotskyism does quite poorly here, and is similar to Stalinism on this question.

. Yet Trotskyism claims that belief in the possibility of "socialism in one country" is the root cause for betrayal of the revolution, and that it leads to subordinating the world movement to safeguarding the supposed socialist state. But if so, why wouldn't Trotskyist belief in the possibility of "non-capitalism in one country" have similar consequences with respect to the supposed non-capitalist state?


. The Bolshevik revolution gave rise to the first sustained attempt to dispossess the bourgeoisie and build a socialist society. The experience of millions of workers and activists in trying to build a new economic system gave an immense impetus to communist thought about the problem of the practical economic steps that have to be taken after a proletarian revolution in order to actually replace capitalism with socialism. It especially raised the question of the period after the old bourgeoisie has been displaced but commodity production, classes and a sort of mixed economy still exist. With the death of the revolution and the consolidation of a Stalinist state-capitalist order in the Soviet Union, an additional issue arose of distinguishing between state-capitalism and a revolutionary economy moving towards socialism. Both these issues have only become more important with the experience of the other revolutions of the last century.

. Trotskyism claimed to represent the alternative to Stalinism. But it is notable is how little Trotskyism differs from Stalinism as far as it's analysis of the basic structure of the Stalinist economy or of the nature of the transitional period.


. It may seem strange to say that the Trotskyists, who accuse Stalin of every crime they can think of, are apologists of Stalinist state-capitalism. Who doesn't know that Trotskyists denounce Stalin, and that Stalin murdered many Trotskyists? But the vehemence of their denunciations of Stalin as an individual covers over their support for the basic structure of the Stalinist economy. Trotsky regarded the Stalinist Soviet Union as being a workers' state, but with bad leaders. Since then, orthodox Trotskyists have regarded the Soviet Union, and other Stalinist regimes, as workers regimes, albeit degenerated or deformed workers regimes. They have continually called on workers and activists to defend these regimes.

. Trotsky's main idea is that, in a country where the old bourgeoisie has been displaced, the state sector is inherently socialist. If the state sector is dominant, then the country is, in his view, a workers' regime. And it is such, whether or not the workers actually control the state sector. In the 1930s, Trotsky saw the consolidation of the Stalinist system in Russia, but he also saw that the state sector became stronger and more dominant than ever. So, while bitterly denouncing Stalin, Trotsky nevertheless put forward a series of arguments to defend Stalinist society from the charge of being state-capitalism.

Trotsky denied the possibility of
a new bourgeoisie

. For example, Trotsky denied that the Stalinist state and party bureaucracy could coalesce into a ruling class, whose power was based on its domination of the state and the state sector of the economy. Had the Soviet bureaucracy taken all power into its own hands and rendered the workers passive? This, according to Trotsky, wasn't relevant to whether the bureaucracy had actually become a ruling class. The simple existence of the nationalized economy was supposed to prove that it was the working class which was the ruling class, no matter whether it seemed to have a voice on any decision at all. Trotsky thought that the power of the Soviet bureaucracy merely meant that this bureaucracy was somewhat more independent of the supposed real rulers than is typical in other countries:

".  .  . In no other regime has a bureaucracy ever achieved such a degree of independence from the dominating class.  .  . . The Soviet bureaucracy has risen above a class which is hardly emerging from destitution and darkness, and has no tradition of dominion or command."(15)

. For Trotsky, the dividing line was always the existence of the state sector. There could be no capitalist restoration, there could be no new ruling class, unless the state sector was supplanted by some other form of property. He wrote that

"The bureaucracy has not yet created social supports for its dominion in the form of special types of property. It is compelled to defend state property as the source of its power and its income. In this aspect of its activity it still remains a weapon of proletarian dictatorship."(16)

Trotsky denied the possibility of state-capitalism

. Indeed, when he was arguing about the nature of the Stalinist system, Trotsky went so far as to declare not only that the Stalinist system wasn't state-capitalism, but that there couldn't possibly be a system of "integral state-capitalism", not anywhere, not anytime. (By "integral" he meant a complete or comprehensive system, rather than the state-sector being only one of many sectors of the economy. ) He wrote that

. "Theoretically, to be sure, it is possible to conceive a situation in which the bourgeoisie as a whole constitutes itself a stock company which, by mean of the state, administers the whole national economy. .  .  . Such a regime never existed, however, and, because of profound contradictions among the proprietors themselves, never will exist. .  .  " And, he wrote, "State capitalism means the substitution of state property for private property, and for that very reason remains partial in character."(17)

. As we have seen, Trotsky didn't even consider the possibility that a new bourgeoisie might arise based on its control of the state sector. He didn't imagine that either capitalism or the bourgeoisie could take on new forms, different from that of traditional capitalism. His argument is that the rule of a new bourgeoisie couldn't be state-capitalism because, according to his definition, state-capitalism must refer to the previous proprietors joining together to administer the economy through the state and through such old forms as "a stock company".

. Now, whether the old proprietors would ever feel threatened enough to nationalize the economy is irrelevant to the analysis of the Soviet economy. Here the question is whether a new bourgeois class can come into being, a class which exploits the working class based on its control of the state. Trotsky himself admitted that the Soviet bureaucracy defended nationalized property "as the source of its power and its income". So if this group ruled the working class based on its control of nationalized property, and if it did so in an economic system which was based on commodity production, why wasn't this state-capitalism?

. Trotsky's reply was that there's nothing new under the sun. There wasn't such a class in the past, so by definition state-capitalism must refer to the old proprietors. Yet, when a factory is seized by one owner from another owner, whether by means fair or foul, it doesn't mean that capitalism has been abolished, only that the ownership has changed. It is only when the working masses take over the factories that capitalism is threatened.

Trotsky's "political, but not social" revolution

. Thus Trotsky didn't see a problem with the basic economic structure of Stalinist state-capitalist society. This is summed up in his view that there had to be a "political revolution" in the USSR, but not a "social revolution". This meant, in effect, that he only wanted to replace the Stalinist leaders, and replace them with Trotskyists. He wrote that

"it is not a question .  .  . of changing the economic foundations of society, of replacing certain forms of property with other forms", and compared what he wanted to historical "political revolutions which, without destroying the economic foundations of society, swept out an old ruling upper crust".

When he said that there would be no change in property relations, he meant that there would continue to be a dominant state sector, and he didn't recognize that the social nature of the state sector would change if the workers actually came to control it and the economy as a whole. (18)

. Of course Trotsky promised that such a political revolution would not be "a question of substituting one ruling clique for another" and there would be "deep social consequences". (19) But he did not recognize the fundamental thing -- that the social nature of the Soviet Union depended on whether the workers actually controlled the economics and politics. He didn't recognize any economic distinction between the transitional economy of a society moving towards socialism and the Stalinist system, and he declared that the Stalinist Soviet Union was a "a transitional, or intermediate" one, between capitalism and socialism. (20)

About those Trotskyists who recognize the existence
of state-capitalism

. As mentioned above, there are some Trotskyist groups who do recognize that the Stalinist countries are state-capitalist regimes, and not workers' states. But they still try to follow Trotsky's general standpoint on the nature of socialism.

. For example, the trend around the SWP of Britain (the International Socialist trend) follows the theories of Tony Cliff, who held that Stalinist Russia was state-capitalist. But Cliff also held that, as the state sector was dominant in Russia, capitalism intruded upon the Soviet Union only due to its relationship to the world market. Otherwise, he believed, the Soviet state sector would have functioned harmoniously as a single large factory, and produced simply for use-value. This brings his conception of the state sector close to Trotsky. True, Cliff believed that Stalinism would still have been a system of exploitation, albeit a non-capitalist one. But Cliff didn't see the internal forces of competition and anarchy in the Soviet state sector.

. The League for the Revolutionary Party is one of the few Trotskyist groups that recognize the competition and anarchy that sprang up from inside the Soviet state sector. This is developed in Walter Daum's book The Life and Death of Stalinism. But due to his holding fast to various Trotskyist dogmas, Daum can't analyze the Soviet economy consistently. Thus Daum will at one point stress the competition and anarchy that arises internally in state-capitalism, and at another point denigrate this competition and say the Soviet economy should be looked at from the point of view that it formed a "single national capital". Sometimes he says that the law of value is good, sometimes bad. And so on. (21)


. The transitional economy is one of the most important issues in dealing with the nature of workers' rule. The issue was posed especially sharply when the Soviet Union switched over to the New Economic Policy in 1921. This marked the end of the period when it was thought that the emergency measures of "War Communism", implemented to deal with the crisis of the Civil War, might provide a direct transition to a socialist society in one jump. In some respects, it marked a return to the original plan, attempted at first after the Bolshevik Revolution, of a gradual transformation of the economy. But the original plan didn't go far before it was cut off by the Civil War, whereas NEP was extensively developed during most of the 1920s.

. A transitional period with various NEP-like features -- the dispossession of the traditional big bourgeoisie, a multi-sector economy (a dominant state sector but also other sectors), commodity production, the use by state enterprises of certain capitalist methods of cost-accounting and profit-making ("khozraschet"), and so on -- is likely to be a general feature of any socialist revolution, even in a developed country. But communist theory has to go beyond the original formulations of the time of NEP, and draw a clearer picture of the transitional period. This is necessary in order to distinguish between a transitional economy and the Stalinist economies, and it is needed in order to help strengthen actual working class control during the transitional period, so as to avoid the tragedy of the Russian NEP.

. In dealing with NEP, two separate issues get intertwined: the specific experience of the Russian NEP in the 1920s and the general idea of a transitional economy. In Russia, NEP had mixed results. It rescued the Soviet Union from the disaster that was threatened by the continuation of War Communism. It provided for the recovery and growth of the economy. The ability of the government to plan the economy grew, and the methods of planning and the debates over policy had a tremendous influence over subsequent economic theory around the world.

. But NEP was also supposed to resuscitate, after the devastation of the ranks of the working class by World War I, the Civil War and economic ruin, the ability of the working class to control the economy. Instead, the working class grew more passive as years went by, the class basis of the Bolshevik Party eroded, and a privileged bureaucratic elite consolidated. NEP in Russia was followed by the development of Stalinist state-capitalism. This tragedy was due to particular features of the Russian situation, and without NEP the revolution would have died out much sooner. Yet this history shows that it is not the repetition of the historical NEP, but the general idea of the transitional economy, that must be part of the general program of the socialist revolution.

. It has been a common idea, both among the Bolsheviks and still today, to discuss the transitional period as combination of both capitalist and socialist elements. But the transitional period is more than this. It needs to be regarded as an economic and political formation in its own right -- not simply a mixture of two other systems. The transitional society has some features of its own that are not typical of either capitalism or socialism. It is not socialism, because it still has the capitalist shell of commodity production, including capitalist cost-accounting and other bourgeois features. Nor is it ordinary capitalism, because no stable system of commodity production is compatible with the controlling role of the working class. It is a temporary, revolutionary economic formation, and the extent of its progress towards socialism is measured mainly by the extent that the workers actually run the economy and the society.

. Such workers control is not ensured simply by expanding the state sector or by the formal control of the proletarian party. It requires changing the way the state sector works, developing the organization and consciousness among the workers that allow them to run both enterprises and the economy as a whole, and transforming the situation of the petty-bourgeois working masses so that they gradually become integrated into the working class. This isn't a matter simply of economic growth, but also of class changes.

. Trotskyism has had difficulty with the question of the transitional period. It's not that Trotsky or the Trotskyists don't ever use terms like "transitional economy". But despite their occasional use of terms like "transitional" or "intermediate", they either dream of a direct jump to socialism or imagine that the transitional period (the workers' state) as basically like Soviet state-capitalism. This is why Trotsky didn't want a "social revolution" against Stalinism, as he understood the transitional economy to have same "social" content as the Stalinist system.

Trotsky's blindness towards the class nature of NEP

. Trotsky himself accepted the need for NEP, but he had a limited view of its class nature. He saw that it was needed to prevent economic crisis, and he had some idea of why financial measures were needed. But he didn't see that NEP had any affect on the internal character or class nature of the state sector. Instead he saw the state-sector as not just a component of a transitional economy, but as a fully socialist feature that was already present.

. Lenin had commented that NEP, in introducing the use of certain capitalist measures to state enterprises, affected the class character of the state sector, resulting in a certain conflict of interests between the managers of state enterprises and the workers. (22) Trotsky, however, never accepted this. This doesn't mean that he agreed with everything the managers of the state sector did, but he believed that their errors were simply the errors of some leaders and of their belief in "socialism in one country"; in his view, the problems with the state sector had nothing to do with its class nature, and could be solved simply by replacing Stalinist managers with Trotskyist ones.

. Thus, Trotsky repeatedly identified the progress of socialism with the growth of the state sector in and of itself. So he regarded anything the state sector did, even if it used the traditional financial methods of capitalism, as essentially socialist. Thus he even described some of the financial methods used under NEP as "socialist economic methods". (23)

The "commodity-socialist society"

. Preobrazhensky was the main Trotskyist economic theorist during NEP. His view was that the transitional economy was a "commodity-socialist society", that is, a mixture of two parts, an already socialist part, which was the state sector, and the commodity part, which was the rest of the economy. He thus didn't see the transitional economy as a unique economic formation in itself, but simply as a amalgam of two parts. In this conception, the state sector didn't itself need to be transformed during the transitional period, but only needed to grow to take over the entire economy. So Preobrazhensky measured the progress towards socialism simply by the increase in the size of the state sector.

. But, it was asked, how could the state sector be socialist when, under NEP, the state sector used categories like profit, interest and rent? Preobrazhensky replied by arguing that these categories were only a surface appearance. They didn't reflect the essence of the state sector. Similarly, he brushed aside any consideration of the contradictions that arose between the workers and the state sector. He claimed that the managers and directors of the state-sector were just workers like any other worker, and ­ he asked ­ how could the workers exploit themselves?(24) These views were in line with similar views that would be developed by the Stalinists in the 1930s and later.

Trotskyist doubts
about the transitional economy

. Certain other Trotskyists, while paying lip-service to the need for a transition period, are even more doubtful about it. This is based on the overall implications of Trotsky's reasoning. As we have seen, under the banner of "permanent revolution" Trotsky argued that socialist revolution should be carried out even if there wasn't the possibility of doing much in the way of progress towards socialism, and even if one couldn't carry out "far-reaching socialization measures". He distinguished between the conditions needed to seize power, and those necessary to carry out social change. His idea was that the victory of the world revolution would eventually compensate for the lack, in individual countries, of the material conditions for socialism. This implies that one might seize power and simply try to hold on as best one could, and eventually the world revolution would allow progress towards socialism. Or at least, it denigrates careful consideration of the class and social changes needed in the transitional period, because it is not these changes, but eventual aid from the rest of the world, that will lead to socialism. This way of thinking might encourage some people to believe that world revolution could replace the need for a transitional economy. If only there were world revolution, there would supposedly be no need for any substantial transition period.

. Thus, in his Marxist Economic Theory, Mandel devoted a chapter to the "economy of the transition period". It has a section entitled "Need for a transition period". But he began this section by claiming that the transition period would be unnecessary if only there were a world revolution. He wrote that

"if the capitalist mode of production were to be abolished on the world scale it would be possible to go over at once without any transition other than that required by political events, to the organisation of an economy in which commodity production is abolished and which adapts men's productive efforts to the satisfaction of current needs."

In fact, the necessity for the transition period follows from the internal class relations of society, not on the lack of geographical spread of the revolution. Indeed, it is possible that the larger the area of the revolution, the more insistently class contradictions will make themselves felt. (25)

. So, in the section of his book devoted to the transitional economy, Mandel proceeded to skip over the entire issue of the transitional economy prior to world revolution. He paid no attention to it at all. But, Mandel added, even with the world revolution, it is not possible to do away with the transitional economy, because this would mean that living standards would be restricted to an elementary level:

"men would have to be content with eating just enough to appease their hunger, dressing quietly, living in a rudimentary type of dwelling, sending their children to schools of a quite elementary kind, and enjoying only a restricted health service."

Whereupon Mandel devoted most of his attention to the technical aspects of economic planning in a world economy where capitalism has been overthrown.

. So the transition period, in his view, is a matter of "advancing from expanded reproduction with a moderate growth-rate to expanded reproduction with a higher growth-rate". Thus he talked of "the key problem of the transition period: determining the optimum growth-rate." Class issues came in only secondarily to this discussion, and he implicitly assumed that the power stays firmly in the hands of the socialists no matter what happens. (26)

. Tony Cliff seemed even more skeptical of the transition period. In his work State Capitalism in Russia he suggested that it should be identified with the lower phase of communist society described by Marx in his famous Critique of the Gotha Program. But Marx describes the abolition of commodity production as already taking place in the lower phase of communism. Thus Cliff appears to imagine that the revolution will directly jump to the abolition of commodity production. (27) <>


(1) From the "Introduction to the first (Russian) edition", November 30, 1929, of The Permanent Revolution. See p. 135 of the pamphlet The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects. (Return to text)

(2) See the end of the second paragraph of "Revolution and Counter-revolution in Germany". For example, Selected Works of Marx and Engels in Three Volumes, vol. I, p. 301. (Text)

(3) "The Peace Program", 1915. Cited in Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin, Part I, Section 3. (Text)

(4) See the section "Permanent revolution" in Part One of the Outline of Trotskyism in Communist Voice, Dec. 15, 2002. (Text)

(5) See the pamphlet The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, pp. 89-91. (Text)

(6) Ibid. , p. 96. (Text)

(7) Ibid. , pp. 85-6. Trotsky was arguing against Rozhkov's assessment of the situation in Russia on the eve of the 1905 revolution. Rozhkov appealed to the level of economic development in Russia and to the extent of class-consciousness in the Russian proletariat. Trotsky didn't simply disagree with Rozhkov's assessments, but ridiculed the idea that the strategy for the revolution need bother with such assessments. (Text)

(8) Engels' introduction to the 1895 edition of Marx's The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850, Selected Works of Marx and Engels in Three Volumes, Vol. I, pp. 191-2. Engels also argued strongly in this introduction about the need for the conscious organization of the proletariat for socialism, and particularly of the need for proletarian parties. He said that the masses "were still absolutely in the dark as to the path to be taken" in the revolutions of 1848, explained why he and Marx thought that the revolution might be able to proceed to socialism anyway, and showed that this plan was wrong. Meanwhile Trotsky, in his exposition in Results and Prospects of the lessons of the revolutionary wave of 1848, was just as cavalier about the need for socialist consciousness and organization as he was about the material prerequisites for socialism. (Text)

(9) "Section 7: What does the slogan of the democratic dictatorship mean today for the East?", The Permanent Revolution, in the book The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, Pathfinder Press, pp. 254-5. (Text)

(10) "The Declaration of the Eight-four", The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27), Pathfinder Press, p. 226. Trotsky's views on the Chinese revolution are discussed somewhat more in part one of the Outline of Trotskyism in Communist Voice, Dec. 15, 2002, p. 35, col. 2 - p. 36., col. 1. While Trotsky criticized some absurdities of Stalin's policy toward the KMT, he basically opposed the policy put forward at the Second Congress of the Comintern concerning temporary alliances with the bourgeois-democratic liberation movement. Instead of clarifying the temporary character of these alliances and the need for communist vigilance, he held that there was no way to take part in them without carrying out an opportunist policy. (Text)

(11) For Trotsky's denunciation of the Chinese CP, see the section "Backward countries and the program of transitional demands" of "The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International" in the pamphlet The Transitional Program for socialist Revolution, Pathfinder Press, p. 98. Typically Trotsky, who was fond of blaming his followers for what were essentially the faults of his own position, accused a number of Trotskyists of being sectarians who "consider it necessary to preserve 'neutrality' in the war between Japan and China" (Ibid. , in the section "Against Sectarianism", p. 108). Now where could the Trotskyists of those times have gotten the idea that the war was irrelevant? Could it have something to do with Trotsky's contemptuous attitude to the Chinese revolution and to the communists who really were fighting Japanese fascist and imperialist aggression? (Text)

(12) The Revolution Betrayed: What Is the Soviet Union and Where Is It Going?, Ch. 1, "What Has Been Achieved", Section 1, p. 8 (Merit Publishers edition). The "sixth part of the earth's surface" is, of course, a reference to the USSR. (Text)

(13) The Revolution Betrayed, Chapter IX, "Social Relations in the Soviet Union, Sec. 2 "The Question of the Character of the Soviet Union Not Yet Decided by History", pp. 254-5, 285. (Text)

(14) Marxist Economic Theory, 1968, vol. II. See Chapter 15, "The Soviet Economy", section "The 'economic categories' in the U.S.S.R.", p. 560 for the assertion that it is not capitalist. See pp. 564-5 for the assertion that it is not socialist. Also see Ch. 18 "Origin, Rise and Withering Away of Political Economy", section "An apologetic variant of Marxism", p. 724 for criticism of the view that "the construction of socialism had been completed" in the Soviet Union. (Text)

(15) Chapter 9 "Social Relations in the Soviet Union", Section 2 "Is the Bureaucracy a Ruling Class?", The Revolution Betrayed, p. 248. (Text)

(16) Ibid. , p. 249. (Text)

(17) Chapter IX "Social Relations in the Soviet Union", Section 1 "State Capitalism?", The Revolution Betrayed, pp. 245-6. (Text)

(18) Ch. XI. "Whither the Revolution", section 3 "The Inevitability of a New Revolution", in The Revolution Betrayed: What Is the Soviet Union And Where Is It Going?, p. 288. (Text)

(19) Ibid. , pp. 288, 298. (Text)

(20) The Revolution Betrayed, p. 254. (Text)

(21) See "On Walter Daum's 'The Life and Death of Stalinism': Competition among Soviet enterprises and ministries, and the collapse of the Soviet Union" in Communist Voice #19, December 8, 1998. It is also available on the internet at <www. communistvoice. org/19cDaum. html>. (Text)

(22) "The role and functions of the trade unions under the New Economic Policy", Collected Works, vol. 33. See Section 3, "The state enterprises that are being put on a profit basis and the trade unions", pp. 185-6. (Text)

(23) "Towards Capitalism or Socialism" (August 28, 1925), The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-25), p. 340. It is one thing that financial measures, such as the shifting around of financial reserves praised by Trotsky, were absolutely necessary at that time. It is another to describe them as socialist measures. See a brief discussion of this article of Trotsky's in "Preobrazhensky-- ideologist of state capitalism (part two)" in Communist Voice, August 1, 1998. See section III: "The Trotskyist Opposition and the Soviet state sector". (Text)

(24) Preobrazhensky -- Ideologist of State Capitalism (part one), Communist Voice, April 20, 1998. See section II "Economic categories and the state sector". (Text)

(25) Ernest Mandel, Marxist Economic Theory, vol. Two, Chapter 16 "The Economy of the Transition Period", p. 608. (Text)

(26) Ibid. , footnote on p. 608, p. 621. (Text)

(27) See Cliff, Ch. 3: "The Economy of a workers' state", especially subsection "The relations of distribution in the transition period", pp. 131-3. For an analysis of Critique of the Gotha Program that shows that commodity production has already been eliminated in what Marx describes as the "first phase" of communism, see the Appendix "From each according to his ability, to each according to his work" to the article "State ownership is not sufficient to define the transitional economy" in Communist Voice, October 9, 1999. (Text)

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