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If it wasn’t socialist, what was the USSR?

The Russian revolution of 1917 represents the high point of human civilisation. It is the only time workers have destroyed the bourgeoisie as a class and laid the basis for human liberation.

Yet in the decade 1925-35 it was clear that something had gone – or was going – terribly wrong. Joseph Stalin rose to the head of the ruling Communist Party with the backing of an increasingly powerful bureaucracy and was gutting the revolution.

By 1938 Leon Trotsky – formerly a key leader of the revolution, now a purged and exiled critic of the regime – could write: “Twenty years after the revolution the Soviet state has become the most centralised, despotic and bloodthirsty apparatus of coercion and compulsion.

Stalinist Russia was clearly not socialist. What was it? There have been three main competing explanations in the revolutionary movement.

The first, put forward by Leon Trotsky, was that Russia was neither capitalist nor socialist, but in a transitional stage between capitalism and socialism.

The second, put forward by (among others) Max Shachtman, agreed that Russia was neither capitalist nor socialist, but neither was it a transition between the two. Rather, it was a new form of class society, which he termed “bureaucratic collectivism”.

The third explanation, argued by Tony Cliff, was that capitalism had been restored in Russia. 


Trotsky was the key critic of the degeneration of the Russian revolution and the Bolshevik party. He bitterly fought the reaction that was occurring within Russia and ultimately paid with his life for his fight against the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Yet, for all the pitfalls of Soviet society, for all the crimes of the bureaucracy, Russia remained a step forward for humanity, according to Trotsky. Until his death at the hands of Stalin’s assassins, he never altered his general characterisation that the Soviet Union was a workers’ state.

The question of the precise nature of the state is important in the debate. Basically, a state is a special set of institutions that sit above society to preserve the rule of one class over another. It is an instrument of violence and coercion.

After a socialist revolution – where workers take power, but immediately begin dissolving class relationships – the state should immediately begin to die away. After the Russian revolution, however, there were huge obstacles to the dying away of the state. Trotsky noted that from the beginning the new workers’ state had a dual character.

On one hand it had a socialist character: The state consisted of a complex of institutions based on workers’ power – workplace committees, trade unions, workers’ councils (soviets), soldiers’ committees of the Red Army, and the Bolshevik party. The state had expropriated the bourgeoisie (individual property-owning capitalists) and placed industry in its own hands.

On the other hand, the state still had a bourgeois character. Because Russia had a very low level of industrial development, society was plagued by material scarcity. As a result, the state had to play a role in administering the distribution of products according to bourgeois norms. This inevitably gave rise to a bureaucratic stratum in society:

The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all. When there are enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there are little goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy. It ‘knows’ who is to get something and who has to wait.”

The key problem of the revolution is clear. So long as material scarcity continues to exist, the bureaucracy-as-police force will remain – the state will be distorted.

But this reality was to be overcome through world revolution. With world revolution, the social basis of a bureaucratically distorted state – scarcity – would be overcome. The economically advanced countries would be able to provide material support.

The problem was, however, that as the prospect of world revolution faded with the defeat of the German revolution in 1923 and then the Chinese revolution in 1927, the bureaucratic distortions were getting worse. The state was growing, not dying. And its strength grew in proportion to the growth in subjection of the mass of the working class.

Trotsky maintained that the bureaucracy did not constitute a new ruling class. For it to be so, it would have to establish new forms of property. This became the key criterion for Trotsky:

“The character of the social regime is determined first of all by the property relations. The nationalisation of land, of the means of industrial production and exchange, with the monopoly of foreign trade in the hands of the state, constitutes the bases of the social order in the USSR… By these property relations, lying at the basis of the class relations, is determined for us the nature of the Soviet Union as a proletarian state.”

Paradoxically, the working class in Russia, he maintained, was – despite the strangulation of democracy and criticism and the total loss of political power – the “dominating class” simply because industry was in the hands of the state.

For Trotsky, the bureaucracy was not a class but a caste. What is the basis of Trotsky’s judgement?

Classes are defined by their relationship to the means of production, not distribution (i.e. your class position is not decided by your wages or your consumption, but by your ownership of the productive apparatus of society). Trotsky was adamant that the bureaucracy was not a class because it did not have formal ownership of industry:

“From the point of view of property in the means of production, the differences between a marshal and a servant girl, the head of a trust and a day labourer, the son of a people’s commissar and a homeless child, seem not to exist at all.”

Yet the bureaucracy still sat above society and was caught in a balancing act:

“Two opposite tendencies are growing up out of the depth of the Soviet regime. To the extent that…it develops the productive forces, it is preparing the economic basis of socialism. To the extent that, for the benefit of an upper stratum, it carries to more and more extreme expression bourgeois norms of distribution, it is preparing a capitalist restoration.”

What had happened in Russia was that the revolution had not been defeated, but it had been betrayed by a section of the Communist party (which was fusing with the bureaucracy) who made decisions not on the basis of how to further the cause of the world revolutionary movement but on what was in their own narrow interests.

So for Trotsky the problem in Russia was primarily a political rather than an economic one.

The argument seems plausible: under capitalism, the bourgeoisie doesn’t rule directly – there is a separation of economic and political power. The bourgeoisie maintain social rule because of their control of the means of production. They are economically ascendant. In fact, as a class they are, as American Marxist Hal Draper put it, “unfit to rule” in the political sense. They are constantly at war with each other through their economic competition. They are, as capitalists, necessarily short-sighted and bound to their own sectional private concerns – they don’t trust each other to run the state.

They usually (there are of course exceptions) hand over the keys of government to alien class forces – former union leaders, lawyers of the middle classes, the military officers – and to parties that, while committed to the running of capitalism, are not generally composed of individual capitalists, but those with a vision that can extend beyond the horizon of the next business deal.

With this in mind, in the Russian context Trotsky makes an argument that seems quite convincing. The bourgeoisie was politically and economically expropriated by a genuine workers’ revolution. The revolution centralised all industry in the hands of the workers’ state. Workers lost control of the state to the bureaucracy as democracy was undermined and finally eradicated. Thus the workers have been politically expropriated, but the fundamental gain of the revolution remains: collectivised property.

Trotsky asks the question: If the working class had a new revolution what would be their tasks? Industry is already state controlled, so the only real question is the question of who controls the state. There is no fundamental economic question.

So workers need a political revolution: They need to overthrow the bureaucracy and restore democratic control of the state and its institutions. However, they will not need to have a complete social revolution.

Contrast this to the situation previously – there was the economic question: expropriation of the bourgeoisie and the landowners, and the political question: transfer of power to the soviets.


Another critic of the Soviet Union, who was formerly in agreement with Trotsky, was Max Shachtman. He broke with Trotsky however, arguing that while he was right to say that Russia was neither socialist nor capitalist, he was wrong to say that it was a step forward from capitalism and wrong to say that the bureaucracy was not a ruling class.

Shachtman pointed out that the Russian revolution was to place economic and political power in the hands of the working class. Decisions of factory and foreign policy – and the work of administering each – were to be brought together in the leap forward to the realm of genuine democracy.

Because economic and political power became fused in the hands of the state, Shachtman argues that Trotsky has things upside down; political power is the determinant of the character of Russia:

“The social rule of the working class cannot express itself in private ownership of capital, but only in its ‘ownership’ of the state in whose hands is concentrated all the decisive economic power. Hence, its social power lies in its political power. In bourgeois society, the two can be and are divorced; in the proletarian state, they are inseparable.”In this sense politics determines economics!

Lenin had said that politics is concentrated economics. In this new situation, Shachtman pointed out that:

“[W]here the state becomes the repository of all the means of production and is in complete control of them, economy is for the first time subject to… conscious control by those who have the state in their hands.

The working class “acquires economic supremacy only after it has seized political power.” Working class political power is a function of the development of working class consciousness. The degeneration of the revolution – its ultimate defeat – goes hand in glove not with the changing of the form of property, but with the decline of the working class’ control over property.

This is Shachtman’s most important contribution to the debate – to raise the question of working class agency.

A workers’ state – the institutions of workers’ power such as soviets, workplace committees, trade unions, militias, the vanguard party etc – is not defined by the forms of organisation alone, but by the practical expression of working-class consciousness.

Saying, as Trotsky did, that the working class can be the “dominating class” but still have been politically expropriated, was a nonsense through which “the workers are reduced from a living… class to a … decorative adjective.”gradually from proletarian to bourgeois is only, so to speak, running backwards the film of reformism.” guardian of the ruling class and [the] organiser of social production.”accumulation of capital under the coercion of external competition. In understanding that the collapse of the Soviet Union was neither a step forward, nor backward, but sideways – from state capitalism to market capitalism – Marxism remains indispensable for understanding the world and as a guide to action.

The mistake Trotsky made, argued Shachtman, was confusing and interchanging “property form” with “property relation”. Yes, property in the hands of the state is collective property. But it is not the collective property of all of society – it is the collective property of those who control the state.

So “[o]nce the means of production and exchange have been made state property, the question, ‘Who is the ruling class?’ is resolved simply by answering the question… ‘Who rules politically?’”

Yet for Shachtman, this new class was not a capitalist class. He agreed with Trotsky on this point: capitalist restoration could only come about through the counter-revolution of the bourgeoisie, not the bureaucracy. Capitalism, for both of them, meant private property. You can’t have capitalism with collectivised property:

“[T]he Stalinist social system…does not show any of the classic, traditional, distinctive characteristics of capitalism… [T]here are as many embarrassments in conceiving of a capitalist state where all capitalists are in cemeteries or in emigration as in grasping the idea of a workers’ state where all the workers are in slave-camps or factory-prisons.”


Tony Cliff joined the argument after the Second World War. His starting point was the theoretical contradiction that arose once the practical fact of Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe was accomplished.

With the Russian army occupying half of Europe, and the transformation of those states into mirror images of Soviet society, how were those states to be characterised?

In no country had there been a workers’ revolution, so surely they must still be capitalist? But if they are identical to Russia, and if Russia is a workers’ state, then so are the Eastern European states. It follows that workers’ states can be created without workers’ revolutions. The fundamental principle of Marxism – that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself – is disproved.

Trotsky contradicted Marxism by holding that you could have a workers’ state without workers’ power. Shachtman dealt with this, but left his critique of Trotsky in the negative. He gave nothing other than a name to what sort of society it actually was. He didn’t outline the dynamic of the system, how exploitation operated, or the shape of the class struggle. It was, Cliff argued, “completely arbitrary” to declare the society bureaucratic collectivist without putting forward a positive construction of how the society actually operated.

Cliff launched an argument that a capitalist counter-revolution had occurred in Russia in the late 1920s.

He argued that both Trotsky and Shachtman confused property forms with property relations. Trotsky had said that the state owns the property therefore it is a workers’ state; Shachtman had said that the property is collective, therefore it is not capitalist. Cliff responded using the example of the Catholic Church in the Middle-Ages:

“The Church had tremendous tracts of land on which hundreds of thousands of peasants laboured. The relations between the Church and the peasants were the same feudal relations as existed between the feudal manor owner and his peasants. The Church as such was feudal. At the same time none of the bishops, cardinals, etc. had individual rights over feudal property. It is the relations of production which define the class character of the Church property, which was feudal, notwithstanding the fact that it was not private… [O]ne and the same relations of production can be expressed in different forms of property, the one private, the other institutional.”

This is Cliff’s key breakthrough. What you had in Russia was a definite series of social (class) relations: A minority who controlled the productive apparatus of society; a majority who laboured and had control over neither the apparatus nor the products of labour; and a wages system.

Shachtman had said: “[T]he Stalinist social system…does not show any of the classic, traditional, distinctive characteristics of capitalism”. Yes and no said Cliff. If you only look at the internal dynamic of Russia, it might appear that this is correct. While you definitely have a class society, it appears that competition has been eradicated and that commodities are not produced because all industry has one owner – the state.

Cliff argued that to understand Russia, you had to take world economy as a starting point. Russia could be seen to act in the world economy the way a corporation would behave in a national economy.

The bureaucracy was like company management – management often don’t own a company directly, but they control it. They oversee the exploitation of the workers and they make decisions as to how to reinvest the profits. They judge how best to compete with other companies.

In fact, Cliff argued, Russia was not completely unique in this respect. In most of the advanced economies, the workings of “classical, traditional” capitalism – like free competition, distribution via price mechanisms, and freedom of labour – had become partially or fully negated by the advent of monopoly and the fusing of state and industry in the war economies. That didn’t make those societies any less capitalist; it just meant that economic competition was subordinated to military competition.

This argument was actually not particularly new. Nicolai Bukharin had argued during the First World War that the entire tendency of the system, as the concentration and centralisation of capital proceeded to new dimensions, was for the fusion of the state and industry – state capitalism as a stage above monopoly capitalism.

The fundamental feature of capitalism, argued Cliff, is not private property, but the accumulation of capital – the subordination of consumption to the expansion of industry – under the coercion of external competition. So, when looked at from the standpoint of world economy, there are more similarities than differences between Russia and the West.

How exactly did capitalism become restored in Russia? This is perhaps the most confusing thing about the situation. Trotsky had argued that:

“He who asserts that the Soviet Government has been changed gradually from proletarian to bourgeois is only, so to speak, running backwards the film of reformism.”

Cliff argued that understanding the nature of the state under Soviet society was key. The state was not just the instrument of one class oppressing another. Precisely because of the fusion of economics and politics the state had a double function: “[A]

Cliff pointed out that:

“… where the bureaucracy of a workers’ state is transformed into a ruling class economic and political restoration are indissolubly interwoven. The state becomes gradually further divorced from the workers, the relations between it and the workers become more and more like the relations between a capitalist employer and his workers. In such a case the bureaucratic clique that first appears as a distortion gradually transforms itself into a class which fulfils the tasks of the bourgeoisie in capitalist relations of production. The gradual evolutionary divorcement of the bureaucracy from the control of the masses, which continued until 1928, reached the stage of a revolutionary qualitative change with the First Five-Year Plan.”

It was because of the dual function of the state that the bureaucracy could become capitalist, under the pressure of world competition. But, contrary to Trotsky, this didn’t require the smashing of the state – it required that workers lost political power. In fact, once this happened, and once the bureaucracy smashed the rural bourgeoisie and the rich peasants from 1928, it was inevitable that this direction would be taken.

The state was required to direct the development of industry. At the same time, the development of industry was prerequisite for the continued existence of the state, therefore of the bureaucracy also.

The development of industry in Russia would be impossible if it were subject to direct economic competition with the advanced economies – it would be economically destroyed. So while competition was forced onto the bureaucracy, it necessarily took the form of military competition. Only with a powerful military would the bureaucracy be able to maintain the state monopoly of trade and, through brute force, protect Russian industry.

Ironically, then, the process of defending Russia from the world bourgeoisie, was – once the working class lost power – the process of re-establishing capitalism.

The Cold War, which is portrayed as the simmering battle between two fundamentally different social systems, was simply an extension to the world stage of the struggle between what Marx had described as “a band of hostile brothers” – the capitalist class.

A new beginning

With the Soviet Union long gone, the debate might seem archaic today. But understanding the nature of Russia is crucial for understanding the nature of capitalism and socialism. If Trotsky were right, then the basis of socialism is state control over industry, not workers’ power. North Korea would have to be defended as a progressive step forward for humanity, and on one level a model to emulate (some utter morons actually do say this). And if Trotsky were right, there would be little reason to build revolutionary organisations. Japanese socialists in particular should just hope like hell that North Korea invades and settles the matter for them.

Shachtman’s position leads the other way. With economic and political power fused in a new ruling class that gained power by destroying the working class, bureaucratic collectivism seems logically to be a step backwards for humanity. Stalinists in the workers’ movement would have to be seen as worse than the reformists. And there is a slippery slope to supporting the Western ruling class against Stalinism. This is exactly where Shachtman ended up – as a supporter of US imperialism in Vietnam and an opponent of the left in the US union movement.

Cliff’s position allows us to clarify exactly what capitalism is – a system of class rule driven by the accumulation of capital under the coercion of external competition. In understanding that the collapse of the Soviet Union was neither a step forward, nor backward, but sideways – from state capitalism to market capitalism – Marxism remains indispensable for understanding the world and as a guide to action.

Cliff’s theory allows us to see that the end of history was simply a new beginning.

This article, by Ben Hillier, first appeared in Socialist Alternative.



Pingback from Tweets that mention En Passant » If it wasn’t socialist, what was the USSR? —
Time April 26, 2010 at 9:49 am

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by John Passant. John Passant said: En Passant » If it wasn’t socialist, what was the USSR? […]

Comment from Shane H
Time April 26, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Nice outline. I try to avoid these discussions for most of the time they are really only rationalisations of existing positions. It always struck me that after the collapse of the USSR that the Marxist left did a big “rethink” and ended up confirming all its old ideas. I think its only now that the re-thinking is really starting.

The other reason I have never worried too much about it was that long before I got politically active at uni I wasn’t too interested in the Russian question. It was clear to me that, whatever its called, for your average worker it didn’t make much difference (on the factory floor as it were) whether your boss was an owner of the firm or a bureaucrat.

I have also enjoyed reading some of Loren Goldners work which I think draws attention to some neglected details. Firstly the forgotten group of people in all his drama of international revolution was the ocean of peasants in the USSR – and that maybe with a longer run view and the benefit of hindsight we can see that the 1917 revolution was a bourgeois revolution carried out by the ‘party’ instead of the bourgeoisie. It revolutionised relations on the land and promoted industrialisation (same as it has done in China) but had nothing really to do with socialism or communism as an emancipatory project. If you have time and inclination check out

Comment from CommieBlaster
Time April 26, 2010 at 11:37 pm

Lot of good data here on the Communists in US Gov’t:

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Time April 27, 2010 at 2:24 am

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Comment from Marco
Time April 27, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Excelent article: very thought-provoking, John.

I will be honest: my theoretical knowledge beyond Marx and Engels is really low. I don’t even know much about Lenin.

So, from my personal perspective, any articles of this nature (and your own comments, too!) are greatly appreciated: keep them coming!

Thus, before I make any other comments, I’ll have to re-read and digest it all.


Comment from Shane H
Time April 27, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Commieblaster! Man you have made my day. LOL

Comment from cna training
Time May 3, 2010 at 3:13 pm

Great site. A lot of useful information here. I’m sending it to some friends!