Deformed Workers’ States: Socialism from Above? (DWS Series Part I)

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).

The Life & Death of Stalinism was published by the LRP in 1990.

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).

Castro’s 26th of July movement, triumphant

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.

Yeltsin, leader of the counter-revolution in the USSR, standing atop a Soviet tank during the failed August coup in 1991, the capstone of the disintegration of an international bloc of workers’ states

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


  1. Pingback: “Proletarian Bonapartism” and Prebendal Politics (DWS Series Part II) – In Struggle

  2. Damon Maxwell

    Workers’ States without Workers’ Revolutions or Workers’ Power?

    The concept of deformed workers states is admittedly a tough pill to swallow for many people new to this concept developed by the Trotskyist movement in the post-WWII era. Many decades later, the analysis of the Eastern Bloc countries and others as deformed workers states is still clung to by the majority of Trotskyist tendencies, however, the debate around the class nature of these states is somewhat less tepid given the passage of time and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc states and the USSR in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Nonetheless, there are important theoretical lessons, especially about the nature of the state, to be learned from engaging in a critical analysis of deformed workers states.

    One recent attempt at a critical analysis of the deformed states has been made on the blog. Given that many Trotskyist groups in the country have not dealt with the question of the deformed workers states in detail over the last few years, those who still see merit in the discussion over the class nature of states welcome the analysis on

    Revisions of Basic Theory

    The series titled “Deformed Workers’ States: Socialism from Above?” is available thus far in two parts with a promised third. The title is of course a jab at the International Socialist tradition’s emphasis on “Socialism from Below” as described by Hal Draper in his works on Karl Marx. More importantly, the title suggests that the author will deal with the most seemingly rife contradiction of deformed workers states, that is, that the working class played little to no role in their creation or administration. The author who acknowledges the concept to be “probably the most unintuitive and controversial subject of them all” within Marxism understands this very well,

    “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.”

    Acknowledging how the concept of deformed workers states (DWS) seemingly flies in the face of these tenets of Marxism, the author attempts to nonetheless make a case for DWS. Interestingly, the author does not return to these tenets in detail to explain how the DWS analysis fits with them. This is one of the weaknesses of the piece but it is not accidental because it is something that Trotskyists who hold the DWS have been doing from the start. James Cannon, the leader of the American Trotskyists for example, who would come to hold the DWS analysis once said,

    “I don’t think you can change the class character of the state by manipulations at the top. It can only be done by a revolution which is followed by a revolution in fundamental property relations. … If you once begin to play with the idea that the class nature of the state can be changed by manipulations in top circles, you open the door to all kinds of revisions of basic theory.”

    So when Cannon went along with the rest of the Fourth International in characterizing various states as DWS, did he “open the door to all kinds of revisions of basic theory”? Judging from Cannon’s many later polemics against those in the Fourth International, such as Michael Pablo, who espoused the theory of “centuries of deformed workers’ states” one might answer with a yes. This article is concerned mostly with part 1 of this series on DWS, but at this juncture it is important to note that Part 2 deals with the theories of Ted Grant who has labeled states such as Burma and Mozambique as DWS as well. Yet another indicator that with an analysis which states the class nature of a bourgeois state can be made proletarian by “manipulations at the top” that “you open the door to all kinds of revisions of basic theory.”

    Sadly, the revision of basic theory, or rather the acceptance of it, was not confined to Cannon and the American Trotskyists. The declaration of the DWS by the Fourth International (FI) went hand in hand with an abandonment of the basic tenets of Marxism. The FI’s 1951 resolution on “The Class Nature of Eastern Europe” explains that the FI was unable to come to the DWS analysis,

    “…because of a series of restrictive considerations like those set forth in the Second World Congress Theses on the USSR and Stalinism which asserted that “the genuine destruction of capitalism (in the buffer zone) is possible only through the revolutionary mobilization of the masses and the elimination of the special forms of exploitation introduced by the bureaucracy into these countries.”

    When the basic tenets of Marxism become “restrictive considerations” we begin to understand the theoretical contradictions of the DWS analysis. Thus the proletariat and its revolutionary upheaval are no longer seen as necessary for the overthrow of capitalism. To be clear, what the Fourth International did in 1951 by declaring the buffer zone states to be deformed workers states was a reversal not just on principles but their actual positions on the buffer zones. The FI document continues,

    “It has turned out that the revolutionary action of the masses is not an indispensable condition needed by the bureaucracy to be able to destroy capitalism under exceptional and analogous conditions and in an international atmosphere like that of the ‘cold war.’” (emphasis in the original)

    The author of this series on DWS also makes mention of the exceptional circumstances of the USSR’s post war relationship with the Western imperialists as the context in which the workers were not needed to make a revolution and the Stalinist bureaucracy was able to overthrow capitalism in its stead. This exception gets cited in explaining the creation of DWS outside of Europe as well which makes one think it could become a rule. The cold war exception, however, far from answering the main problem plaguing the DWS analysis, opens the door to more questions. It was Leon Trotsky himself who observed that the Stalinist bureaucracy and their political parties in the Third International had become counterrevolutionary on the world stage while declaring the need for a Fourth International. So how did it come to pass that the Stalinists were nonetheless able to overthrow the capitalist ruling classes of Eastern Europe without working class revolutionary activity despite Stalinism’s counterrevolutionary nature?

    For answers, we turn to We start with a definition of DWS,

    “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.”

    How is the working class the ruling class despite the fact that it is not in power or has never held power? The answer is that the working class has “social power” in these states which is defined as “the class on whose behalf the property relations of the state acts.” Here we run into what is the essence of many DWS arguments, that a certain set of economic arrangements constitute a workers state. Given that the workers’ state is also thought of as the dictatorship of the proletariat, and in the DWS the working class does not dictate state politics, it is “property relations” “on whose behalf the state acts” which determines the states working class (albeit deformed) character.

    This thinking of course is not original to the author at or to the post-war Trotskyist who use similar justifications in classifying the Eastern Bloc as DWS. It is borrowed from Trotsky’s analysis of the USSR as a degenerated workers state. Trotsky was very insightful in understanding the evolving nature of the Soviet state, however, in his later years, he began to emphasize more and more the economic gains of the USSR as the determinant factor in defining the USSR as a degenerated workers state. For example.

    “The class character of the state is determined by its relation to the forms of property in the means of production.”

    We can understand from this statement how DWS analysts stuck to their view of these states until the economies passed from state to private hands. Trotsky of course in the same document makes mention that the Stalinists, if they carried out a capitalist counterrevolution, would need to base themselves on nationalized property for some years, yet the concept of Stalinists ruling over state property as state-capitalism is rejected by DWS analysts. More importantly, the question of political agency is not addressed.

    In an earlier writing from 1933, Trotsky argues for the importance of the conscious element,

    “Under the conditions of the transitional epoch, the political superstructure plays a decisive role. A developed and stable dictatorship of the proletariat presupposes that the party functions in the leading role as a self-acting vanguard, that the proletariat is welded together by means of trade unions, that the toilers are indissolubly bound up with the state through the system of soviets and, finally, that the workers’ state is aligned through the International into a fighting unit with the world proletariat. In the meantime, the bureaucracy has strangled the party and the trade unions and the soviets and the Communist International.”

    For Trotsky, the USSR was a degenerated workers state because it arose from the conscious attempt of the working class to overthrow capitalism and build socialism. The transitional period of the dictatorship of the proletariat became degenerated when the Stalinists took control of the leadership of the state. The Stalinists, nonetheless, represented a distorted dictatorship of the working class and were not a new class, but a bureaucracy. In borrowing this analysis, the DWS analysts dismiss the view that “the political superstructure plays a decisive role.” Thus they claim that the counterrevolutionary Stalinists were able to create societies which progressed beyond capitalism based on the economic structure alone of the states in question.

    Peaceful Counterrevolution?

    The author proceeds from his definition of DWS to challenge the state-capitalist analysis of the USSR as authored by the International Socialists and the League for a Revolutionary Party with a particular focus on the peaceful overturns of the DWS states back to capitalist rule. It is important to take up these criticisms, however, it is more important at this juncture to point out that the author has followed in the footsteps of his political predecessors in the orthodox-Trotskyist movement by providing very little detail about these DWS where the societies were run in the interests of the workers. He gives no details as to which exact nation states became DWS. He does not tell us at what date or through what specific event each DWS was created. What was the role and response of the working masses of these countries to the establishment of the supposed DWS?

    With no answers to those questions established, the author nonetheless launches into a critique of the LRP/Cliff for their polemic against the ortho-Trots regarding the seemingly peaceful dissolution of the USSR and Eastern Bloc. Much of this section reads in a “Doth protest too much” manner and one can imagine that it is the arguments about the peaceful overturn which the author finds most convincing against the DWS theories. Incredibly, one of the authors cited regarding the possibility of the peaceful overturn, Davidson, is from the Cliffite tradition the author criticizes throughout the document. Even more tellingly, the author establishes what he sees as the possibility of peaceful revolutions, but again abstains from any detailed discussions of the particular states in question to explain what historical circumstances led to revolutions there that could be overturned by peaceful means.

    Instead we are treated to broad-brush strokes about the creation of several DWS. This is very interesting given that the author prefaces this section with a discussion of the nature of the state which informs us that, “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.” So the critical reader is forced to ask, where is the analysis of the each DWS that observes them through time to understand the commitment of the armed bodies of men? This level of analysis is sadly nowhere to be found in this document.

    For the Eastern Bloc states we are told their transformations into DWS happened
    “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).”

    For Cuba and China the process happened when “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.” The author doesn’t bother to tell us what other nations he considers to be DWS. Whether Vietnam, North Korea, Laos or Cambodia ever became DWS is not definitively answered.

    In regards to all DWS, the transformation happened when “the petty-bourgeois formations … 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.” It is claimed these overturns did not need to be violent because the Soviet army and local resistance forces had already done this work years prior (sounds awfully violent, no?). In addition to telling us that the working class came to rule these states through the petty-bourgeoisie and Soviet military we are told that there was a lull were the Eastern Bloc states were transitional in their class nature. This all of course comes back to the LRP and the issue of peaceful revolution,

    “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.”

    The fact that the imperialists were able to penetrate the economies of many a Stalinist country, including the USSR, due to the global nature of the capitalist mode of production is left unsaid. More importantly, the point about peaceful revolution points against to this concept of basic revisions. With a “theory” of DWS which doesn’t fit the Marxist mold, the author is forced to adjust the mold to fit the DWS. How do we explain the strangely peaceful capitalist social revolutions which overturned the DWS of the Eastern Bloc? Their establishment was peaceful to begin with, unless of course you count the role of the Soviet military and other forces in crushing resistance after WWII.

    While the LRP does point to the lack of forceful revolutions as indicative of the weakness of the DWS theory, the author seems to feel that this criticism really hits home to the extent that he structured the explanation of the DWS analysis around this criticism. In doing so, however, he misses fruitful ground to elaborate on other important critiques of the DWS view such as the issue of Soviet imperialism. If the Eastern Bloc states were compelled to ally with the Soviet Union by threats of Western Imperialism, then what was the relationship between the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc? Was it any less imperialist than the United States relationship with Central America? What of the forced migration of laborers from the Eastern Bloc into Russia, for example? By fetishizing the point of the peaceful counterrevolution, the author sidesteps this and other important critiques of the DWS analysis.

    If the author is truly enamored with the LRP’s critique of the DWS, he would do well to address all 6 of the elements of Marxism the LRP claims DWS analysis contradicts:

    “1. That only the working class can make the socialist revolution, i.e., establish a proletarian dictatorship, a workers’ state.
    2. That socialist revolution can only occur when the proletariat is led by its most conscious advanced sector, organized into a Bolshevik-Leninist vanguard party. Proletarian class consciousness is the key element.
    3. That Stalinism constituted an alien and counterrevolutionary invasion force within the working-class movement. By 1940, the Stalinist bureaucracy had become, in Trotsky’s words, an “absolute obstacle in the path of the country’s development” and an imperialist tool. Its murderous struggle against Trotskyism was designed to prevent socialist revolutions, not to lead them.
    4. That Popular Fronts are class-collaborationist blocs created to prevent socialist revolution, not aid and abet it.
    5. That the bourgeois state apparatus must be destroyed by an actual revolution (a civil war by the working class against the capitalist class) rather than reformed or manipulated at the top — if a workers’ state is to be created.
    6. That the purpose of Marxist theory and analysis is to broadly predict developments in the class struggle and thereby guide “the line of march” for our class, the proletariat. Its aim is not to serve as a retrospective rationalization for tailism; especially with an analysis which lacks any predictive capability.”

    The Planned Economy

    Throughout the document the author makes mention of planning and collectivized planning as a key determinant in the transformation of imperialized capitalist states into DWS. Unfortunately, no detail is given for any of the DWS about the role planning played in the economy. This harkens back to the origins of the DWS analysis where we see the Fourth International declaring that the concept of the DWS without providing any explanation of the economic laws of these hitherto unseen societies in human history. It is this reliance on planning as an indicator of the existence of DWS which has led some of their theorists to classify almost any post-colonial nation with significant levels of intervention in their economies as DWS.

    A prevalent view amongst the DWS analysts is that capitalism’s law of value was not the determinant factor in the Soviet economy and of the economy of the DWS. The author doesn’t delve in this level of analysis, however, it is directly related to the issue of planning. It is well known that very few, if any, of the goals of the various Soviet 5-year plans were achieved. Which begs the question, if it was planning and not the blind laws of capitalism that determined the course of the Soviet economy, why didn’t the economy respond as planned?

    This question gains even more importance when we take our view off of the USSR and focus on the DWS economies. If the USSR, a formerly backwards imperialist country, cut off from support of neighboring working classes through the defeat of their revolutions, was unable to plan their economy and get it to respond accordingly, how exactly would the imperialized DWS be able to do so? It seems the mere assertion, by Stalinist rulers, that these economies were planned is sufficient for most DWS. Yet we are provided no explanation of how these economically backward countries overcame the blind laws of capitalism through planning.

    One can think of the Spartacist League, for example, and their confusion over the question of whether Cambodia and Laos were workers states and understand why it is hard to pin down if we consider the authors explanation of “the turn toward collective planning as the source of political power” being “the response to the threat of imperialism squeezing petty-bourgeois governments into adopting the Soviet model of planning.” What nation emerging from under the grip of fascism or colonialism didn’t face these choices? In what meaningful way does the DWS analysis help us to distinguish one from the other? Given the plethora of DWS declared by FI tendencies the answer seems to be none. Even in Cuba, where no one denies that Castro’s guerillas were part of a mass movement that ousted the Batista dictatorship and the Soviet model was later adopted, there is disagreement amongst the DWS analysts about the nature of the state.

    Are DWS Transitional?

    The author understands fully well the weakness of the DWS analysis. Unlike Trotsky’s works on the degenerated workers states, when the concept of the DWS was announced by the FI it was not followed up with any detailed theoretical explanation of where the DWS fit amongst the Marxist theory and program. As quoted above, prior conceptions that only the workers could make the revolution were dismissed as “restrictions.” The author for his part tries to make DWS compatible with the ABCs of Marxism by claiming that the DWS were an extension of the USSR as a degenerated workers state.

    This claim makes on wonder why the author would approach this issue without delving into an analysis of the class nature of the USSR. One might ask for example, how the USSR as a workers state bereft of revolutionary leadership, said to be unstable (a sphere balancing on the top of a pyramid according to Trotsky) and weak could not only survive WWII but EXPAND the revolution into neighboring countries and different corners of the world.

    If a workers state is by definition transitioning to socialism and the USSR suffered a major setback along this road with the triumph of the Stalinist bureaucracy, then one must assume that this transition as well, especially in light of the failed revolutions in surrounding countries, has suffered a set back. But no, the DWS analysts would have us believe that this unstable and weak state was not only able to survive WWII intact against the predictions of Trotsky but also able to create other workers states.

    The author informs us that deformed workers states, by definition, are not transitional to socialism, but in fact, transitional to capitalism. This is where the DWS analysts reveal themselves as that which they hate most, Shactmanites. It is Max Shactman who came to represent best the opposition to Trotsky’s theory of the degenerated workers state and the program of unconditional defense of the USSR. Shactman’s theory of bureaucratic collectivism was dismissed by Trotsky was a third system theory because it made the Stalinist bureaucracy a new exploiting class that was neither proletarian nor bourgeois.

    By claiming “Because deformed workers’ states were not the direct product of any revolutionary working-class agency, they were sliding back to capitalism from birth,” the author has created a wholly new historical situation. The DWS are not transitional to socialism, they are not static, they are, from birth (!), transitioning back to capitalism. This begs the question, in what meaningful way did these states transition from capitalism to begin with? Given the lack of details on any DWS we are left wondering. We can also return to the question of planning. If these DWS instituted the Soviet model of planning and this was the motor of the economy, not the laws of capitalism, why were they, by definition, transitioning back to capitalism from birth? Certainly the analogy loses meaning if as soon birth is given a baby not only refuses to grow, but climbs back into the womb and reverses the process by which it was brought into the world.

    It is interesting to note here that the author differs from the original FI analysis of DWS regarding transition. Whereas the author claims that DWS are not transitional to socialism but immediately begin regressing to capitalism, the FI claimed that DWS were transitional from capitalism to degenerated workers states. According to the previously cited document on the Eastern States, the DWS in the buffer zone were “ regimes of transition between capitalism and the USSR.” It would be interesting to see this point of difference taken up in one of the later parts of the series of articles.

    Political Program for the DWS

    The political program set forth by Trotsky to restore the USSR as a healthy workers state, a political revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy is what the author tells us is on the agenda in the DWS for revolutionaries. He in no way addresses the key distinction between Trotsky’s theory of the degenerated workers state as a society transitional to socialism and his theory of DWS as states transitional to capitalism by birth, yet the same method, political, not social revolution is prescribed.

    The author may reject 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” but fails to see that he ascribes a similar progressive role to the Stalinists by claiming they were able to expand a revolution, which they degenerated, around the world to create new workers states. Despite the fact that the Stalinists in places like Cuba and China are openly making deals with the imperialists to maintain the world order and to open up their working classes to imperialist super-exploitation (e.g. migrant laborers in China) the author claims they do so “unwittingly.”

    Apparently the elimination of the decisive element of political superstructure is committed by DWS analysts not just in regard to the creation of workers states but also in regard to the counterrevolutionary return to traditional capitalism. As the ruling Communist Parties in the remaining Stalinist states continue to make larger shares of their economy market based and major industries are denationalized, one may think that what is being prepared is a return to traditional forms of capitalism property ownership.

    Every aspect of the DWS analysis is bound up with throwing out old concepts of Marxism. Given that the orthodox Trotskyists have advanced the DWS analysis in the name of Trotsky himself, it bears repeating that Trotsky found the Stalinists to be counterrevolutionary on the world scene, yet we are told by his followers that these counterrevolutionaries created workers states around the world. Any social agent that is not only able to smash the capitalist state but also create workers states is one that is progressive if the word has any meaning. Yet the DWS theorists deny that Stalinism is progressive while telling us of all of its progressive deeds around the world.

    Out of this confusion one may ask, what is the insight provided to us by the DWS theory? The label has never been applied to any imperialist country, only to oppressed countries. How do we apply the Marxist program in a DWS as opposed to a non-DWS neo-colonial state? How does the program of the working class struggle for socialism change as a result of the DWS analysis? The answer may come “political not social revolution” but how does this analysis stand up in light of the “unwitting” reversal of state-ownership on which states like Cuba and China have embarked?

    The only answer comes in defense of Stalinism. That is, in the places where the “bureaucratic and opportunist” Stalinists have created workers states, it is the duty of revolutionaries to apply extra-scrutiny to mass movements against the Stalinists, for should that movement also threaten the “collectivized economy” the DWS analysts will side with the Stalinists on cracking down on the masses for their crime of having reformist and not revolutionary leadership as was the case with Solidarnosc in Poland.

    Deciding which Stalinist crackdown to support is as hard as deciding which Stalinist society is actually a DWS and as a result there are varying opinions amongst the DWS analysts. Hungary in 1956, Solidarnosc in Poland, Czechoslovakia in the 1960s? If the import of Marxist theory is that it ultimately serves as a guide to the class struggle, we can say that the DWS analysis fails on this front since it provides no clear path on how to relate to the struggles of the masses in Stalinist society.

    We can think about the misnamed DWS of Cambodia as described by the Spartacist League and later retracted. What the DWS analysis tells us is that during the time that Cambodia was considered a DWS, should a mass movement against the Stalinists there had arisen, instead of applying the traditional Marxist method of forming a united front against the common enemy in the Stalinist state, revolutionaries would need to vet the mass movement to ensure none of the elements were really after the privatization of the planned economy. However, after the declaration that Cambodia was not really ever a DWS, this was no longer a concern even though significant parts of the economy remained in state hands.

    This theoretical and programmatic confusion is not new. It was sown the minute the Fourth International adopted the DWS analysis. By taking Trotsky’s analysis of the degenerated workers state and applying it to the DWS, his followers came up with the same program as Trotsky did for the USSR, unconditional defense and applied it to the DWS as well. The FI understood the dangers inherent in this position but plunged ahead,

    “Just as in regard to the USSR, the Fourth International is for the unconditional defense of these countries against imperialism. It considers their structure of statified and planned economy as a conquest which must be safeguarded against imperialism, regardless of the policy followed by the governments vassalized to Stalinism in these countries.”

    One may ask, how can avowed revolutionaries cheer the repression of workers’ movements around the world and the Fourth International itself gives the answer: “unconditional defense” and this is “regardless of the policy followed” by Stalinism. What happens when those policies are austerity and other anti-working class measures? These are the questions that split the orthodox Trotskyists regarding the DWS analysis.

    Lastly, and this is not something addressed by the author, but it bears repeating that the analysis of the FI in 1951 that the Eastern Bloc states were in fact DWS was based on a wholly mistaken view of the coming period in the world. We know now that in the wake of World War II capitalism entered a period of brief prosperity known as the post-war boom. The FI was of the opinion that rather than capitalist ascendance, what was on the agenda was workers revolution, and this played into their DWS analysis,

    “The appearance of transitional regimes of the buffer zone thus merely gives expression to the interlude character of the historic period from 1943 to the present; an interlude between the low point of the world-wide decline of the proletarian revolution and the new world revolutionary upsurge, which has thus far only appeared in its rough outlines; an interlude between the Second World War and the final clash between imperialism and the USSR. Only within the framework of this limited interlude, do the buffer zone and all the phenomena associated with it appear in their true light as provisional and temporary.”

    No proletarian revolutions were forthcoming to sweep away Stalinist rule, however, and insurrections against Stalinist rule were brutally repressed by the Stalinists themselves. The FI may have cited the exceptional circumstances of the Cold War as the criteria for the creation of DWS with no role for the revolutionary working class and their parties, however, in offering unconditional defense of these states they also restricted the ability for the formation of revolutionary vanguards within them. It should come as no surprise that in the aftermath of the FI’s adoption of the DWS analysis, it began giving political support to non-working class forces as was the case in Bolivia.

  3. bolshevik (Post author)

    The commenter above, Damon Maxwell, has issued a lengthy and rather unoriginal laundry list of criticisms of the concept of “deformed workers’ states.” The main thrust of them can be summarized as follows. The concept of workers assuming power through agencies other than a vanguard working class party flies in the face of the notion that the liberation of the working class can only be the act of the working class itself – a basic tenet of “socialism from below.” Instruggle acknowledges the seeming contradiction here, but never resolves it. Moreover, a number of Trotskyists who were alive in the immediate aftermath of WWII failed to recognize that any changeover in the class nature of the Eastern European states had occurred and initially failed to predict how they could occur. This demonstrates that DWS was a revision of the fundamentals of Marxism. This is evident, according to the commenter, in how the Fourth International, subsequent to its acceptance of the possibility of deformed workers’ states, accepted Pablo’s theory of centuries of deformed workers’ states, with the role of Trotskyists being reduced to ginger groups pressuring them internally to the left.

    The premise of the criticism – that, regardless of context, only workers within a specific country can smash that state and replace it with a workers’ state – is nowhere to be found in any of Marx’s or Engels’ or Lenin’s or Trotsky’s writings. It is a third-camp invention repeated by the commenter, and used as a foundation for issuing other criticisms that are either unrelated or false. The reality is that, first, workers under the deformed workers’ states were not “emancipated.” They did not live under socialism. They lived in transitional societies that had yet to fully escape the law of value and other remnants of capitalism. These societies, far from being “free” or “liberated,” were governed by highly oppressive bureaucratic castes. Workers’ emancipation, socialism, did indeed require the direct vanguard-led agency of the working class internationally. That such agency was missing is precisely why the deformed and degenerated workers’ states have all slid back toward capitalism, or in a number of cases (e.g., the Eastern Bloc) have undergone full capitalist restoration. Which is all beside the point in any event, for if the commenter had read the post carefully, he would understand that it argues that the deformed workers’ states were not created by petty-bourgeois bureaucracies, full stop. Rather, they were international creations — the products of petty-bourgeois bureaucracies acting as transmission belts for gains that the Soviet workers had created through the October Revolution. It therefore makes perfect sense to describe the deformed workers’ states as the politically mediated (and bureaucratically deformed) product of what the Soviet workers created. The reason the post sets up the argument of “only workers can create workers’ states” is, far from opposing it, to demonstrate that the reality of deformed workers’ states does not in any way violate that general principle, if that principle is understood in an international context.

    The second point that should be kept in mind is that Marxists from the time of Marx up to the end of WWII had never seen a successful workers’ revolution overturning capitalist class rule beyond (and only for those who lived after 1917) the initial one that transpired in Russia. It is for this reason that Marx and Engels’ general but non-exclusionary schema for how the overturn of capitalist class rule would appear empirically, shared initially by the Fourth International, was overly narrow – it was based on a narrow sample size of one, and did not account for the variety of outcomes that might ensue in a context where a degenerating workers’ state existed in an epoch of imperialism. Even still, as the commenter is aware, there were a number of leading members in the Fourth International (not Pablo, not Cannon, or any others that are selectively quoted by the commenter) who had their thumb on precisely what was happening in the buffer zone as the overturn of capitalism was transpiring. The rest caught up within a year or two. That most initially did not have the correct analysis does not signify that they were departing from Marxism in their later reconsiderations any more than Trotsky’s reconsideration of when Thermidor occurred in the USSR, or his initial understanding of the CPSU as “bureaucratic centrist” in 1933-1934 (when he later noted that Stalinism in the USSR was a non-centrist hardened caste by 1933), indicate that his later positions were revisions of the basic principles of Marxism. What they do indicate is that when Marxists are confronted with phenomena for which there has been no historical precedent, properly understanding the nature of those phenomena usually takes time and aren’t instantaneous. Thus the central premises of the commenter’s criticism – the idea that deformed workers’ states is a “revision of basic theory,” which is why the FI only arrived at the position a couple of years after their creation – are built on assumptions that do not hold up under scrutiny. The FI did do some revising, but not regarding “basic theory,” but rather how basic theory might translate into empirical reality.

    As thought the commenter were aware of the gaping holes in his main argument, he then proceeds to try to throw a large amount of talking-point mud up against the wall in hopes that some of it will stick. We can dispose of the ones worth responding to in short order. The claim is correctly made that Trotsky viewed Stalinism as a counter-revolutionary force on the world stage, but the commenter (as has been pointed out to him before, but apparently hasn’t been understood or assimilated) doesn’t distinguish between the anti-revolutionary program of Stalinism (which translated into counter-revolutionary practice outside of workers’ states), and the ways Stalinists could be pushed to behave in certain contexts in spite of their program, by virtue of the dual role that the Soviet bureaucracy continued to play in the USSR in brutishly and parasitically presiding over the qualitative class gains of the workers.

    A Trotsky quote is adduced where he stresses the need of a vanguard party (and many other things besides) to ensure a “developed and stable dictatorship of the proletariat.” But who claimed that deformed workers’ states were developing toward socialism or stable? The Trotskyist analysis of deformed workers’ states is that they were and are qualitatively different than the USSR in terms of, among other aspects, their instability. Unlike the degenerated workers state in the USSR, their continued existence depended upon patron workers’ states in a larger system of workers’ states. Without that system, the rush back to capitalism accelerates exponentially – as has happened in North Korea, China, and Cuba after the destruction of the Soviet Union. Trotsky’s quote just makes the uncontroversial point, which no Trotskyist would deny, that direct and independent proletarian political agency is necessary to lead the transition to socialism, which necessarily requires that the proletariat be led by the most class conscious workers.

    The claim is made that the working class cannot be the ruling class if it has never held direct political power. The evidence to substantiate this claim is the pointing out that the opening can be exploited to advance off-the-mark claims about which states are and aren’t workers states, as Ted Grant did. But there’s no reason to believe that Ted Grant’s position is the organic extension of acknowledging the existence of deformed workers’ states. In fact, as the commenter pointed out, Part II of the DWS series goes to great lengths to demonstrate just the opposite. The working class dictated politics in the Soviet Union and in other workers’ states to the extent that political decisions were not and could not be dictated by the bourgeoisie or capital accumulation. Workers commanded guarantees through their states, which were destroyed with the restoration of capitalism – leading to the largest modern world-historical drop in living standards ever recorded. The only counter-argument is the naïve empiricist one, endorsed by the commenter, that dictating simply must assume a very specific concrete form, just as the creation of workers’ states supposedly has to hew to a highly formulaic abstract model and sequence of events, with no wriggle room in the great expanse of historical contingency. Such naïve empiricism is anti-Marxist, and its egregious political consequences are dealt with at length in the remainder of the DWS series.

    The commenter then launches into an extended series of fallacious God-of-the-gaps arguments about a number of issues that either are not refutations of the theory (merely asking for more evidence or elaboration) or that he completely gets wrong. He claims, for instance, that I don’t clarify whether I think that North Korea or Vietnam are deformed workers states, or when they became deformed workers states – though these cases are discussed, though not at length, and given specific dates in the post. He also implies, incorrectly, that I share Davidson’s highly problematic view about how bourgeois “revolutions” largely consisted of incremental adaptations with no qualitative breaking point in most countries after the French Revolution. In fact, as readers will note, that argument was referenced to demonstrate that the LRP supporters who agreed with it were not being consistent with their own theoretical premises. At no point did I say I agreed with it, though I share his general conclusion that revolutions need not accompany open warfare or violence. Forcible appropriation can assume a number of forms, and the problem of the LRP and their sympathizers is that they are inconsistent in acknowledging this historical reality. Oddly, they seem not to have grappled with the reality that the toppling of the provisional government and its replacement by Soviet power was, in the areas where it occurred in October, essentially bloodless. Had the LRP been around at that time, perhaps they would have fired off a few polemics about how the Bolsheviks were just coupists, since a social revolution required a body count.

    Much of the rest of the critique centers on issues that are discussed at length in part III, which in fairness was published after the commenter published his critique. But he does make a criticism which is not touched upon in that later post. He says: “It is interesting to note here that the author differs from the original FI analysis of DWS regarding transition. Whereas the author claims that DWS are not transitional to socialism but immediately begin regressing to capitalism, the FI claimed that DWS were transitional from capitalism to degenerated workers states.” Here the commenter, in keeping with his slippery modus operandi, is mashing together two separate concepts: a transitional economy and a progressive transitioning proceeding in the context of that transitional economy. The FI position of 1951 in no way deviates from mine. It states that the deformed workers’ states presided over societies that were transitional between capitalism and communism, which is absolutely correct. It does not in any way state that the Stalinists were a force capable of leading, or in fact were leading, the transition to communism. Once pressed against their own programmatic principles into adopting these state forms, the Stalinists represented an acid eating away at them, which required the workers in those societies to overthrow the bureaucracy in a proletarian political revolution. This is the Trotskyist position, which the author feels emboldened to critique despite not seeming to understand it. The hazards of only having mastered one side of a complex debate are evident in the way the commenter conflates the 1951 FI position with the Pabloite revision that occurred later.


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