On Trotsky’s “The Class Nature of the Soviet State”

This analysis, like all such things, is a product of its time. It does seem somewhat dated compared to the complexity of some of the issues we are faced with today, which stand on the shoulders of these insights.

Nonetheless Trotsky’s criticisms of those who denied the working-class character of the Soviet Union under the Stalinist regime, were completely correct in Marxist terms.

These represented the only theoretical basis by which a genuinely, conscious communist movement could go forward in the circumstances of the degeneration of the Soviet state in the 1920s and 1930s.

I would argue that the terrible situation that the supposedly Trotskyist left is in today is rooted in this problem. Trotsky made a pungent observation towards the end of this article which I will come onto presently, about those who denied the continuing proletarian nature of the USSR under Stalinism, either in theory, or practice, or both.

I would argue that this persists today, and echoes through the decades, for material, not metaphysical, reasons. Failure to understand this question, and to act on that understanding, has wrecked the Trotskyist movement in the 80 years and more since Trotsky’s murder.

 Apart from a relatively small number of serious, Soviet-defencist tendencies (including ourselves), the earlier generation of (pseudo)-Trotskyists are either on the side of Ukraine (like the so-called United Secretariat) or neutralist, equating Russia and China with US imperialism.

But the contention that Russia and China are imperialist is completely at odds with Marxism. This is not the subject of this educational, though the material in it does have significance for today’s new Cold War. This is not some dry, academic-historical question purely for the history books.

The new Cold War against Russia and China, right now, is happening after capitalist restoration has taken place in both these countries. In different ways, this happened to both in the early 1990s. 

But the paradox is that the reason imperialism is on the warpath against both of them is because the form of capitalism that now exists there is not ‘normal’. In both Russia and China, while capitalism no longer existed there, massive growth of the productive forces took place over several decades under post-capitalist economic regimes.

This has produced a very strange form of capitalism that the imperialist bourgeoisie does not trust. It suspects, entirely reasonably, that it could revert back to where it came from.

The productive forces in both, in terms of industrial and military power, grew to the point that both Russia and China are more powerful than all the imperialist powers today except the United States itself.  Those productive forces are non-capitalist in their origin.

Russia and China are also different from any of the imperialist powers. While they were workers states, they had absolutely no economic drive to appropriate wealth from the colonial and semi-colonial peoples of the world. In Russia, that infant tendency was torn out by the roots in 1917. In China it never existed, China was a victim of imperialism from the 19th Century onwards.

This fundamental practice of imperialism, which is the main means they have of dominating economically and historically, was systematised around 140 years ago, and is alien to Russia and China even today. The productive forces of this anomalous capitalism were generated internally, by an underdeveloped transitional form to a higher mode of production.

And because proletarian rule contained the beginning of a higher mode of production than imperialist capitalism, capitalism in Russia and China cannot do away with that influence.

The capitalism in those states is as deformed, in a symmetrically opposite way, by that post- capitalist legacy, as the workers states of the USSR and China were by imperialist encirclement and their original economic backwardness.

I won’t go into this in detail, as it is a different discussion and a future educational, but without that understanding no would-be Marxist tendency can possibly understand this. So, Trotsky has been proved right, in his observation which I alluded to above, that:

“Every political tendency that waves its hand hopelessly at the Soviet Union, under the pretext of its ‘non-proletarian’ character, runs the risk of becoming the passive instrument of imperialism.”

This has proved true not only about the Trotskyoids, but also about many who came from the official Communist movement, who distanced themselves to a greater or lesser extent from the defence of the USSR, during the 1970s, or even retrospectively. We are talking about Eurocommunism, and also later softening trends of those who were once partisan of the bureaucracy, and have now gone over to imperialism.

So, we have a strange situation today when a principled minority of both ‘Trotskyists’ and ‘Stalinists’ are following through with, what at its core and properly understood, is the logic of Trotskyist orthodoxy. But that’s enough of that for now.


The basic point Trotsky was making is that the emerging bureaucracy could all too easily, by purging the Communist International and imposing upon its parties opportunist and/or sectarian leaderships and political programmes, undermine the chances for the world revolution.

But it could not destroy so easily the state that was created by the victorious revolution of 1917. On the contrary, they depended upon it, for the privileges they had gained as a result of their usurping power from the bulk of the proletariat. The workers’ state is an existing conquest of the working class, whereas the world revolution is a necessity, but also a future aspiration. Existing conquests are not so easy to destroy as future aspirations are to undermine.

Trotsky attacked the idea that the bureaucracy represented capitalist restoration in itself, for methodological reasons that are still valid to this day:

“The Marxist thesis relating to the catastrophic character of the transfer of power from the hands of one class into the hands of another applies not only to revolutionary periods, when history sweeps madly ahead, but also to the periods of counterrevolution, when society rolls backwards. He who asserts that the Soviet government has been gradually changed from proletarian to bourgeois is only, so to speak, running backwards the film of reformism.”

Trotsky pointed out (by analogy) that the course of the class struggle in the bourgeois world produced situations where the bourgeoisie was excluded from power in its own state by various layers of voracious political upstarts, bonapartists and fascists, who were powerless to change the mode of production or the basic class character of the society, but were capable of seizing the political reigns and excluding from power the traditional representatives of the bourgeois class:

“Where and in what books can one find a faultless prescription for a proletarian dictatorship? The dictatorship of a class does not mean by a long shot that its entire mass always participates in the management of the state. This we have seen, first of all, in the case of the propertied classes. The nobility ruled through the monarchy before which the noble stood on his knees. The dictatorship of the bourgeoisie took on comparatively developed democratic forms only under the conditions of capitalist upswing when the ruling class had nothing to fear. Before our own eyes, democracy has been supplanted in Germany by Hitler’s autocracy, with all the traditional bourgeois parties smashed to smithereens. Today, the German bourgeoisie does not rule directly; politically it is placed under complete subjection to Hitler and his bands. Nevertheless, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie remains inviolate in Germany, because all the conditions of its social hegemony have been preserved and strengthened. By expropriating the bourgeoisie politically, Hitler saved it, even if temporarily, from economic expropriation. The fact that the bourgeoisie was compelled to resort to the fascist regime testifies to the fact that its hegemony was endangered but not at all that it had fallen.”

In this article there is an ongoing polemic against various left-wing personages, for instance Hugo Urbahns, of the Leninbund, a splinter group from the Left Opposition (in Germany, and mainly in exile) that had decided the USSR under Stalin represented ‘state capitalism’.

They came to regard ‘state capitalism’ as a progressive phase in the development of the capitalist world and indeed the USSR as part of that.

Urbahns claimed the authority of Lenin for this, but Lenin’s use of the term ‘state capitalism’ in the early years of the revolution was limited to economic concessions and blocs by the state to either private capital itself, or at least the principle of profit-making via joint state-private investments.

Lenin did not consider purely state enterprises in the USSR to be examples of state capitalism.

Of course, this redefinition could be used by others. Although, if anything, Urbahns conclusions were soft on the Stalinist regime, the same method could be applied differently, as it was later (briefly) by Shachtman, and later Cliff and others.

The concept that purely state enterprises constituted something called ‘state capitalism’ (or some other similar designation), logically implied that the bureaucracy itself was a ruling class.

Trotsky refuted this, and pointed out that while the bureaucracy gobbled up much of the social surplus, it stole it from the working class, just as the fascist bureaucracy in the West did to the bourgeoisie:

“Always and in every regime, the bureaucracy devours no small portion of surplus value. It might not be uninteresting, for example, to compute what portion of the national income is devoured by the fascist locusts in Italy or Germany! But this fact, of no small importance by itself, is entirely insufficient to transform the fascist bureaucracy into an independent ruling class. It is the hireling of the bourgeoisie. True, this hireling straddles the boss’s neck, tears from his mouth at times the juiciest pieces, and spits on his bald spot besides. Say what you will, a most inconvenient hireling! But, nevertheless, only a hireling. The bourgeoisie abides him because without him, it and its regime would absolutely go to the dogs.

Mutatis mutandis [changing what should be changed], what has been said above can be applied to the Stalinist bureaucracy as well. It devours, wastes and embezzles a considerable portion of the national income. Its management costs the proletariat very dearly. In the Soviet society, it occupies an extremely privileged position not only in the sense of having political and administrative prerogatives but also in the sense of possessing enormous material advantages. Still, the biggest apartments, the juiciest steaks and even Rolls Royces are not enough to transform the bureaucracy into an independent ruling class.”

And he drew this conclusion:

“To put it plainly, insofar as the bureaucracy robs the people (and this is done in various ways by every bureaucracy), we have to deal not with class exploitation, in the scientific sense of the word, but with social parasitism, although on a very large scale. During the Middle Ages, the clergy constituted a class or an estate, insofar as its rule depended upon a specific system of land property and forced labor. The present-day church constitutes not an exploiting class but a parasitic corporation. It would be silly to actually speak of the American clergy as a special ruling class; yet, it is indubitable that the priests of the different colors and denominations devour in the United States a big portion of the surplus value. In its traits of parasitism, the bureaucracy, as well as the clergy, is similar to the lumpenproletariat, which likewise does not represent, as is well known, an independent “class.”


This is by way of a preliminary to a study of The Revolution Betrayed, which we also need to study and discuss in the future. This contains Trotsky’s understanding of the need for, and the nature of, proletarian political revolution against the bureaucracy.

Yet though this is at an earlier stage in the development of Trotsky’s understanding of the possible outcomes of the struggle to regenerate the USSR, it does point to how the proletariat could have regained full political power in the USSR:

“We must set down, first of all, as an immutable axiom that this task can be solved only by a revolutionary party. The fundamental historic task is to create the revolutionary party in the USSR from among the healthy elements of the old party and from among the youth. […]

“..The question of seizing power will arise as a practical question for the new party only when it will have consolidated around itself the majority of the working class. In the course of such a radical change in the relation of forces, the bureaucracy would become more and more isolated, more and more split. As we know, the social roots of the bureaucracy lie in the proletariat, if not in its active support, then, at any rate, in its ‘toleration.’ When the proletariat springs into action, the Stalinist apparatus will remain suspended in midair. Should it still attempt to resist, it will then be necessary to apply against it not the measures of civil war but rather the measures of a police character. In any case, what will be involved is not an armed insurrection against the dictatorship of the proletariat but the removal of a malignant growth upon it.“

Or the converse scenario:

“A real civil war could develop not between the Stalinist bureaucracy and the resurgent proletariat but between the proletariat and the active forces of the counterrevolution. In the event of an open clash between the two mass camps, there cannot even be talk of the bureaucracy playing an independent role. Its polar flanks would be flung to the different sides of the barricade. The fate of the subsequent development would be determined, of course, by the outcome of the struggle. The victory of the revolutionary camp, in any case, is conceivable only under the leadership of a proletarian party, which would naturally be raised to power by victory over the counterrevolution.”

This is the core of the issue. There are numerous tendencies on the pseudo-left within the imperialist countries in particular who sneer at the very idea that there is anything defensible in these societies where capitalism was overthrown in conditions of economic and social backwardness.

I would argue that this is a subliminal endorsement of the moral and political superiority of imperialism over its victims.

That is why the dominant trend on what claims to be the far left in Britain, the United States, and Europe is largely paralysed and incapable of leading struggles against the imperialist ruling classes.

On the “Russian Question”, which as James Cannon said is “the question of revolution”, they have at least one foot in the imperialist camp. Some now have both.

When the neoliberals took control of Russia for a decade, and attempted to wipe out all the remaining gains of the revolution for the masses by Yeltsin’s terrible ‘shock treatment’, this phoney left, in general, preferred Yeltsin to the Stalinists.

Yeltsin’s economic shock killed millions. It led to a 5-year decline in life expectancy, in the early 1990s, which can only be explained by several million deaths of working class Russians, from malnutrition, homelessness, freezing to death, suicide etc. A bigger decline than happened in Germany after the 1929 Wall St crash.

In the decisive confrontation of August 1991, they sided with Yeltsin against the Stalinist coup plotters. The victory of Yeltsin led directly to the terrible economic shock. Yet to this day, the SWP, SP, Workers Power, AWL, you name it, will defend their support to Yeltsin in the name of defending democracy.

Some will call it workers democracy.

Yet they do so from a safe distance. They were never subjected to such a shock. Margaret Thatcher was a girl guide compared to what Yeltsin did. This refusal to see, the incomprehension of what the gains of October actually mean, fundamentally means these pseudo lefts are no good. And Ukraine today continues to say they are no good. That is the core of this issue.