Of all the topics in Marxism (and Trotskyism), probably the most unintuitive and controversial subject of them all is that of deformed workers’ states. After all, an ABC of Marxism is that only workers can make a workers’ state and that it must take place under the leadership of the most advanced layer of class conscious workers–hence, the importance of what Trotsky called the “subjective factor” in his transitional program, and of Lenin’s insistence from 1903 onward of the need to forge a vanguard party on the basis of a higher-order understanding of tasks that stepped beyond simple trade-unionism.
Deformed workers’ states, in Trotskyist parlance, are those states presiding over a society in which the working class is said to be the ruling class, despite the fact that the working class, as a class, has never held direct political control over the government. The concept rests on the distinction, vital to the Trotskyist understanding of the history of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, between political power, conceived of as exercising power directly in state office, and social power, the class on whose behalf the property relations of the state acts. Trotskyist groups have differed on which states have been workers’ states of a deformed nature. Some — such as the Militant Tendency under Ted Grant, the predecessors to the present-day IMT and CWI — have labeled states as diverse as Mozambique to Angola to Syria to Burma as having been deformed workers’ states (a topic which will be taken up in a later installment of this series). Others, such as the Spartacist League, restrict the list of deformed workers’ states to the more frequently cited Eastern bloc countries, Cuba, North Korea, China, Vietnam and, less frequently, Laos.
Disagreement about deformed workers’ states is not restricted to which states to include. Some self-proclaimed Trotskyists reject the notion of a deformed workers’ state on the basis of the principle mentioned above. As Marx and Engels wrote, “The emancipation of the working class is conquered by the working classes themselves.” Critics of the theory point to such quotes as evidence that only the working class led by a vanguard party can create a workers’ state. In his 1989 book on the Trotskyist tradition Alex Callinicos, the leader of the International Socialist Tendency (of which the largest and most widely known group is the now-fledgling Socialist Workers Party in the UK) presented a paradigmatic case against the possibility of deformed workers’ states, linking it to what he calls “substitutionism,” or the notion that workers do not necessarily have to play a role in the overthrow of capitalism: “But if the Russian bureaucracy could ‘expropriate the expropriators,’ not just in parts of Poland, but throughout Eastern Europe,” he asked rhetorically, “surely this was of more weight practically to those wishing to get rid of capitalism than the aspiration, perhaps Utopian, towards socialism from below?” (Trotskyism, 33).
Coming from a related but more sophisticated angle the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP), an ostensibly Trotskyist group of left-Shachtmanite provenance, has argued that the historical circumstances surrounding the transformation of the Eastern Bloc economies in 1947-1948 are incompatible with the Marxist theory of the state. In their book The Life & Death of Stalinism, they devote an entire section to what they call “the date question.” To claim that a social overturn, the creation of new proletarian states, had occurred throughout Eastern Europe in 1947-1948, is in their view to suggest that the overthrow of capitalism can leave “the state apparatus unchanged, since the Stalinists controlled the armed forces and the state bureaucracy both before and after” (Life & Death of Stalinism, 312). The only other alternative — to suggest that the Soviet army created workers’ states as they smashed the existing state apparatus throughout Eastern Europe as they ousted the Axis powers and their client regimes in 1944-1945 — was tantamount to saying that “the Stalinist forces [could] become the agent of proletarian revolution at the very moment when they were crushing the movement of workers’ revolt” (Life & Death of Stalinism, 312). Moreover, the LRP points to the relatively peaceful dismantling of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc deformed workers’ states as proof that such transformations were not counter-revolutions in which the working class was expropriated of ruling-class power. With the exception of Romania, the regimes underwent non-violent transitions to liberalized market economies that contrast sharply with the Great Terror of the 1930s, when the LRP claims the Soviet Union underwent counter-revolution. The title of one of the LRP’s articles on the subject, “And a Peaceful Counterrevolution Was Had by All,” demonstrates the importance the group places on outwardly violent clashes as the necessary markers of revolutionary activity. Since the deformed workers’ states of the Eastern Bloc were created and destroyed (with one exception) without any such clashes, they argue that the theory of deformed workers’ states is entirely inconsistent with the Marxist theory of the state.
How can those upholding the theory of deformed workers’ states respond to these challenges? The essence of the problem with these critiques lies in their empiricism. For Callinicos and those who work alongside him in the Cliffite tradition of the International Socialists, socialist revolution and the creation of workers’ states must take the form of mass workers’ uprisings, democratic in nature, that smash the existing capitalist apparatus and supplant them with the rule of workers’ councils organized by revolutionists of pristine class consciousness. For Walter Daum and others in the LRP, there exists not just the problem of workers’ being suppressed at the moment a workers’ state is supposedly created (as the Cliffites have pointed out), but there is also the issue of what states are and how their “smashing” must appear. According to Daum and co., the state represents bodies of armed men simpliciter, such that it makes no sense to view a transformation in a state apparatus without the violent overthrow of one body of armed men by another. If no violent cataclysmic shift of a seismic amplitude occurs, then it makes no sense to speak of a revolution.
The smashing of the state apparatus, for any Marxist worthy of the title, must always be forcible. To suggest otherwise is to broach the utterly erroneous idea that antagonistic classes share economic interests in regards to modes of exploitation, or that different exploiting classes preside over forms of exploitation that bestow interests similar enough that it makes little sense to distinguish them as separate classes, presiding over different modes of production. The underlying essence of the Marxist theory of the state, then, is that classes are antagonistic — even the interests of different exploiting classes — and that they will use the political power that emanates from their economic preponderance to defend their interests up to the point, in the absence of any sufficiently prohibitive factors, of deploying armed force. In other words, “force” can assume many forms and does not always required the eruption of large-scale violence among bodies of armed men.
This understanding of forcible transformation is not a novel one in the Marxist tradition. Marx and Engels themselves, in arguments well rehearsed and misconstrued by many a reformist, laid out the possibility of parliamentary paths to socialism in England and the Netherlands, but only on the basis of using parliamentary participation as a gauge to determine the balance of class forces and intent in a way that, through a preponderance of independent (anti-parliamentarist) working-class organizing, might render unnecessary the naked use of force during working-class conquest (on this issue, see August Nimtz’s excellent discussion in Lenin’s Electoral Strategy: From Marx and Engels to the Revolution of 1905, pp. 24-29 ff.). Similarly, Neil Davidson, a scholar in the Cliffite tradition, has made the case that bourgeois revolutions need not take the “classical” form of the French Revolution of 1789, and that the bourgeois qualitative transformations of state apparatuses across the world have generally taken what Gramsci would call a passive form, whereby incremental transformations in the mode of production and the corollary power of subaltern classes accumulate to a point where a state apparatus is seized without the armed resistance of the prior ruling class (here see his How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?). While Davidson would deny that such a thing is possible for a socialist revolution (a correct assessment we’ll come to below), requiring as they do the consciousness of the proletariat to bring society and its economy under democratically planned management for the producers, the point nevertheless stands: the transformation of the class nature of state apparatuses does not necessarily accompany open warfare or other empirical markers upon which the Cliffites and the LRP otherwise categorically insist when criticizing the possibility of deformed workers’ states.
Another issue to keep in mind is what precisely is meant by the term “state.” Marx, Engels, and Lenin were all clear in defining the state as special bodies of armed men who emanated from and in turn were committed to defending definite class relations, rooted in definite configurations of how productive property was used. For them, a state was not reducible to armed men in general, but rather were specific institutions that were enjoined with a particular mandate by those who owed their economic power to a particular system of exploitation that they wanted to defend, and whose interests had consolidated to a point where it could be defended in institutionalized ways by a specialized apparatus of coercion. So the question arises: are all governments “states”? And do all governments — that is, those institutions that have a monopoly on the use of socially legitimized force — necessarily commit themselves to defending one mode of exploitation or set of property relations underpinning exploitation? Generally speaking, the two coincide, but in periods of extreme tumult, in which middling layers (like the petty bourgeoisie) have been compelled by historical circumstances to smash bourgeois state power, and have appropriated political power without a clear or explicit class program, a divergence between the two can exist for a brief period of time before such power requires the decisive sinking of roots into the camp of a particular class, into a definite mode of exploitation (or opposition to exploitation), lest it succumb to more powerful forces. The sine qua non of a state is not a static empirical marker, but a dynamic that can only be observed through time: the commitment of bodies of armed men to defending or cultivating a particular mode of production and a particular configuration of class relations.
With the above provisos in mind, it is useful to consider how and why the creation of the deformed workers’ states actually occurred. They were the result of one of two processes: petty-bourgeois layers leading indigenous guerrilla armies being compelled to lean on the Soviet Union and its model of collective economic planning as a way of industrializing their economy, independent of the interference of imperialism and political-economic domination of its monopolies (so usually in anti-colonial revolutions, e.g. Cuba or China); or, as in the case of the so-called “buffer states” after World War II, through the Soviet Union moving against imperialism, a result of being compelled to through imperialist inroads like the Marshall Plan (it was only after the US signaled its intention of asserting economic hegemony over the European continent that the Soviet Union moved to replace what were essentially petty-bourgeois governments with Stalinized apparatuses that collectivized the means of production and embarked down the road of being deformed workers’ states).
In all these cases, petty-bourgeois formations ascended to power on a program that did not commit decisively to either the interests of the capitalist or the working class. Based as they were on pressure from mobilized and discontented layers of workers and peasants, they were compelled to break connections with the imperialist order by virtue of the fight for national independence or resistance to fascism. In the process of their struggle they uprooted from top to bottom the bureaucratic machinery that the imperialist order had constructed–in other words, they (or those with whom they were working, the Soviet military during WWII) had successfully smashed the existing bourgeois states. Yet they lacked a proletarian-revolutionary program, and the societies they had just begun to govern lacked revolutionary proletarian parties that could have splintered the newly minted petty-bourgeois governments along class lines. The result was a highly fluid and unstable equilibrium in the class struggle in which, for a period of time, the petty bourgeois elements that sat atop society enjoyed a relative programmatic independence from both the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Their class independence is most evident in their attempts at coalition building and the establishment of popular-front type governments (hence, the ubiquitous use of the popular-front description “people’s democratic” by these governments in Eastern Europe, the “Bloc of Four Classes” and “new democracy” of Mao’s government in 1949, etc.).
Once in power these petty bourgeois governments could have gravitated in one of two directions, depending on the balance of class forces both domestically and internationally. On the one hand, they could have continued to protect private property, throwing their weight behind the development of private industry by a nascent indigenous bourgeoisie, on the basis of claiming that their societies had not developed to a point where proletarian revolution was even on the agenda. In countries where significant portions of the government were beholden to Stalinist ideology, this could have continued to take the form of the self-abnegating building of coalitions roughly similar to those that later became associated with the Eurocommunist movement. Or on the other, the petty-bourgeois formations could have moved decisively to an alliance with the Soviet Union, expropriating private capital and anchoring their governing authority into their role in commanding a planned economy. Until that decision resulted in the consolidation of an economic basis for indigenous political power, creating definite rules of political reproduction for the governing apparatus, these societies were not identifiably “states” in the Marxist sense of the term. Their political power had yet to coincide with committing bodies of armed men to the defense or development of any specific set of property relations.
In the case of the deformed workers’ states, the petty bourgeois formations chose the second option. The social overturns in Eastern Europe did not require any forcible uprooting of state power, because that had already been accomplished by the Soviet military several years prior–or in Albania and Yugoslavia, by indigenous resistance forces, after which time a new state power had yet to coalesce. It does little good, then, for the LRP to point to a continuity in governing bodies or personalities as proof of a continuity of state power. The threat of imperialist encroachment compelled these petty-bourgeois formations to move decisively toward a planned economy entailing alliance with the Soviet Union, out of fear that the cultivation of any significant private holdings might serve as a base for imperialist penetration into their societies. With the so-called Buffer zone that encompassed what later became known as the Eastern Bloc, this decision was the result of the United States breaking its wartime alliance with the Soviet Union and announcing a clear effort, in the form of the Marshall Plan, to exert hegemony over the European continent. This move justifiably alarmed the Soviet bureaucracy and its ideological allies, who exercised control throughout Eastern Europe. With China and North Korea, the move came amidst imperialist aggression on the Korean Peninsula during the Korean War. With North Vietnam (later extended to encompass all of Vietnam), the issue was the imperialist attempt to partition the country in 1954 as a wedge to prevent the spread of socialized economies. And with Cuba, the precipitating factor was the nationalization of large U.S. holdings on the island, followed by the Bay of Pigs invasion. In none of these situations did the petty-bourgeois bureaucracy in power have a revolutionary program.
In each of these contexts, the turn toward collective planning as the source of political power was the response to the threat of imperialism squeezing petty-bourgeois governments into adopting the Soviet model of planning. The social overturns over which they presided are best thought of as a mediated expression, a sort of after-shock, of the profound earthquake that the workers’ conquest of Russian state power in 1917 represented. Petty-bourgeois bureaucrats in those societies were employing the only path open to them of independent national development in an epoch of imperialism — that of workers’ state power, albeit with workers politically expropriated from direct rule of the resulting state apparatuses. Desperate bureaucrats were catching a proletarian wave as it ebbed back into the capitalist ocean. When viewed in this way, the creation of deformed workers’ states did not point to the obsolescence of the Marxist precept that only the working class could liberate itself, for these were not instances of revolution from above. Instead, they were opportunistic bureaucratic expansions of the one successful workers’ revolution in world history, the October Revolution. And even those expansions had a temporary character, eaten away as they were by the mismanagement and anti-worker political suppression meted out by those bureaucracies.
Because deformed workers’ states were not the direct product of any revolutionary working-class agency, they were sliding back to capitalism from birth. And in light of this fact, the duty of the working class in all those countries was the same as in the Soviet Union: to organize the working class into a class conscious and independent fighting party of socialism to expropriate the hardened caste of parasitic bureaucrats who were (and in the remaining states, still are) unwittingly moving their respective countries closer and closer to counter-revolution. On that score history has rendered its verdict in regards to all these countries, with China, Cuba, and North Korea basically at the brink, having been brought there by their bureaucracies. In contrast to the Pabloist conjecture that the Stalinist parties were the objective or unconscious agents of historical processes that thrust them into a revolutionary role that would lead to centuries of deformed workers’ states, Trotskyism espouses that the role of revolutionaries is not to liquidate into these apparatuses or pretend that they are leading the way to socialism.
The creation of the deformed workers’ states were the last byproducts of a single global process kicked off by the Russian working class in October of 1917. The opportunistic bureaucratic expansions of the one successful workers’ revolution in world history, the October Revolution, had a necessarily temporary character without the resurgence of a revolutionary and independent working class, as these social overturns were undermined by the mismanagement and anti-worker political suppression meted out by their respective bureaucracies. Had the October Revolution never occurred, neither would have the creation of deformed workers’ states. And with the disintegration of the initial patron state to these bureaucratized and deformed clients, the era of the creation of new states of a similar quality has likely come to a close. That such states were ever created in the first place, however, signals the profound correctness of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, that revolution is an international process with international ramifications, that the basic level of analysis for Marxists is the international rather than the national. Their existence also signals how workers’ revolution in the USSR could create conditions (namely independence from imperialism) that could be exploited by petty-bourgeois elements who wanted to turn that independence from imperialism against the workers, in oppressive schemes of crash industrial development.
But Stalinist clients of the Eastern Bloc were not the only ones seeking to develop their economies in the 20th century. There were also those who chose to pursue what theorists in the USSR frequently dubbed the “non-capitalist path of development” (mistakenly identified by Ted Grant’s followers to be synonymous with workers’ states). It is to this topic of mass nationalizations in the developing world that we will next turn.
To Be Continued With Part II