The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 38 (Winter 1991).

Death Agony of a Deformed Theory

The deformed workers’ state theory is on its deathbed. The stampede of the “socialist” East European countries toward explicit capitalism dealt the final blow to this relic of pseudo-Trotskyism. Although various organizations stick to the deformed workers’ state formula, they prove it useless by their floundering rationalizations of world-historical events that it gave no warning of and cannot explain.

One long-time advocate, George Lormin, writing in the British Workers Revolutionary Party’s Workers Press (Dec. 6), at least recognized a problem:

Trotskyists need to go back to the origins of the so-called `deformed workers’ states.’ What exactly was the class nature of these states and why did the bureaucratic rule collapse suddenly in a number of them?

Little has been done to probe the roots of these questions. One reason is that a deeper investigation is required than even Lormin acknowledges: whether Trotsky’s theory of the USSR as a degenerated workers’ state retained its validity after the 1930’s. Since Trotsky is treated by his avowed followers as an icon, not a mentor, they are unlikely to dig too deeply. On paper at least, they remain “defensists,” partisans of the progressiveness of the Stalinist system over traditional capitalism.

Meanwhile, the Soviet economy and empire are self-destructing. Class and national rebellions are breaking out; East European societies are rapidly polarizing. At this time of crisis, the press of the would-be Trotskyists reveals that their abysmal theoretical confusion has disastrous political consequences. Amid revolutionary events, all have trouble deciding what side they are on, and why.

The Pseudo-Trotskyist Dilemma

Devised in the late 1940’s to account for the unexpected spread of Stalinism, the deformed workers’ state theory was a mockery of Marxism from the start (see below). The East European countries purportedly became proletarian when the Stalinists took over – but were “deformed,” not “degenerated” like Soviet Russia, a label that evasively admits that the workers never held state power.

The theory credits revolutionary social change to the petty-bourgeois Stalinists, who not only didn’t lead the working class to power but in fact smashed workers’ anti-capitalist struggles in order to set up coalition governments with the bourgeoisie. Only when the workers had been crushed did the Stalinists dare oust their bourgeois partners to create their fraudulent “people’s democracies.” The theory also denies that the bureaucrats running the state and the economy were exploiters of the working class.

The governmental changes today go in the reverse direction: the Stalinists are being replaced by would-be bourgeois types. (“Bourgeois” refers to the traditional capitalism of the West, as distinct from the statified version of the East.) Both transformations took place without forcible confrontations between the two ruling elements. To call them social revolutions amounts to reformism, the notion that power can be transferred from one class to another peacefully and gradually. This contradicts the central teaching of Marxist theory that a state is the instrument of a particular ruling class and defends the rule and economic forms of that class with its armed power.

Moreover, if the current changes really mean capitalist restoration, then they are counterrevolutions – and should necessarily have been opposed, not supported, by Marxists. That would have meant siding with the most reactionary sections of the Stalinist bureaucracy: the Honeckers, Husaks and Ceausescus (along with fascist allies like Pamyat) who, however brutally, opposed the “counterrevolutions.” Few defensists followed the logic of their theory consistently.

The reason is that they are caught on the horns of an unresolvable dilemma. On the one hand, the old-line Stalinists try to defend their state property, the key to the so-called “workers’ states.” On the other, the bourgeois types proclaim “democracy”; as well, the working classes backed the 1989 upsurges against Stalinism and made up the main fighting forces. Torn between two loyalties, some Soviet defensists openly endorse the marketeering phony democrats and their Walesas; others lean toward the Stalinists; many waver in between.

The roots of this dilemma go back to the aftermath of World War II. In brief: because of the severe defeat of the working classes, the Trotskyist organizations gradually adapted to middle-class reformism in the West, which they saw as insufficiently progressive rather than counterrevolutionary. They interpreted the Stalinist overturns in East Europe similarly, as progressive but incomplete social revolutions. (For details, see our two-part article, How Not to Defend Trotskyism, in Proletarian Revolution Nos. 32 and 33.) But today in the East, Stalinism and reformism are at odds. The pseudo-Trotskyists’ middle-class outlook attracts them to the post-Stalinist reformers, not the Stalinist side their “theory” says they should favor.

The Myth of Nationalized Property

The deformed workers’ state creed faces insoluble contradictions. First, Stalinism has been universally rejected by the workers living under it – even at the cost of risking unemployment and lower living standards. That is because the Stalinist economies failed to advance the productive forces and have become shamefully retarded and unproductive – which alone says that they were not more progressive than capitalism. Second, the Stalinists and their states proved not to be defenders of nationalized property, nor of any other gains of the working class.

Decisively, the fact that the East European economies have proved capable of devolving gradually into open capitalism suggests that they could only have been capitalist all along. Unfortunately, it is assumed by most Trotskyists that a country with a nationalized economy cannot be capitalist. Obvious though it may seem, however, it wasn’t accepted by Marx, Engels – or even Trotsky:

Theoretically, to be sure, it is possible to conceive a situation in which the bourgeoisie as a whole constitutes itself a stock company which, by means of its state, administers the whole national economy. The economic laws of such a regime would present no mysteries. (The Revolution Betrayed, p. 245.)

In other words, even a totally state-owned economy can be capitalist. And its economic laws can be fully grasped, despite the absence of a free market. Trotsky didn’t think that the traditional bourgeoisie in practice could fully nationalize an economy. He was right: it required the proletarian revolution, later usurped by the Stalinist bureaucracy. Nevertheless, he made it clear that a state with a nationalized economy was not automatically a workers’ state.

This idea, taken directly from Marx and Engels, should not surprise Marxists. But it inevitably shocks those who swallow the bourgeois notion that capitalism is founded on competition, not the exploitation of wage labor. Nationalized property is a proletarian property form. The market too is a surface form, crucial to a healthy capitalist economy if exploitation is to be carried out most efficiently. But just as a workers’ state can coexist with markets, so can capitalists tolerate full statification for a time, if the state belongs to them. The crucial questions are bypassed by the “deformed” theory. Which class rules the state? Whose interests does it protect, the exploited or the exploiters?

The dialectical method reminds us that form does not determine content; the relation between the two can be contradictory, even qualitatively so. Nevertheless, property forms are equated with property relations by nearly everyone today, just as “socialism” is identified with nationalization. But popular myth merely testifies to the degradation visited upon Marxist theory by social democratic and Stalinist reformism.

Stalinism as Deformed Capitalism

The only analysis consistent with Marxism and reality is the one presented over the years in this magazine and in detail in our new book: Stalinism is a deformed variant of capitalism. It came into being as a result of the backwardness and isolation of the Soviet workers’ state; it seized power through an internal counterrevolution culminating in the late 1930’s. The particular forms of its contradictions derive from its usurped proletarian heritage.

In power, Stalinist capitalism served to perpetuate the decadent system by crushing the proletariat and abusing its property forms. It used the state to both concentrate capital and police the working class. But its attempts to reorganize capitalism’s laws of motion to stave off crises were doomed to fail. After brief periods of development the inevitable crises reappeared, and now the crippled statified economies have been forced to turn to undisguised bourgeois forms. (We refer readers to our book, The Life and Death of Stalinism: A Resurrection of Marxist Theory.)

In the explosions of late 1989, the Stalinist bureaucracies lost political power or were forced to share it with the growing bourgeoisies. Exploitation will intensify as the concessions won by the working class through its past upsurges are eroded. But the mode of exploitation – the extraction of surplus value from the working class – is the same. In essence, East Europe is undergoing political, not social, revolutions because they remain within the realm of capitalism. The USSR is lurching in the same direction.

The flight from state ownership reflects the fact that state property embodies remnants of working-class gains; it hinders the all-out exploitation the bosses need. The privatization schemes of East Europe, China and the USSR aim to centralize capital internationally as well as nationally, and to fully subordinate the workers. Both wings of capital, state and private, have to become compradores of the West.

In fact, few enterprises have been successfully privatized so far. But that does not prove, as some argue, that the states of East Europe are proletarian. Rather it shows graphically that mass unemployment and accelerating poverty can co-exist with state property. Again, nationalization alone does not make a workers’ state.

The devolution of statified capitalism towards traditional bourgeois forms, as well as its limits, were foreseen by our tendency from the start (see The Struggle for the Revolutionary Party in Socialist Voice No. 1 and Capitalism in the Soviet Union in Socialist Voice No. 2). A decade ago we pointed to the downfall of Stalinism when others were still touting its progressiveness and flexibility. We warned as well that if proletarian communist leaderships did not emerge in time, the capitalist political revolutions would result not in an ephemeral democracy but in Bonapartism and fascism.

In contrast, all the deformed workers’ state tendencies expected that socialism would develop from a democratic political revolution. Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution – that democratic gains can be achieved only through proletarian revolution – applies to all capitalism in our epoch, to Stalinist as well as bourgeois states. To the pseudo-Trotskyists it is a sealed book.

The Importance of Theory

The revolutions against Stalinism, based on the social power of the working classes, are being hijacked. So far workers appear to accept the path of privatization as the only alternative to Stalinist tyranny and privation. The new rulers are also taking advantage of nationalist sentiments to convince workers to sacrifice.

But sooner rather than later, capital’s need for intensified exploitation, factory shutdowns and mass austerity will force the workers to resist. Then the choices will come down to two: either the workers build independent, fighting class organizations (unions, councils, above all, revolutionary parties) – or the rulers will keep them in place with organized repression by fascist and nationalist thugs.

Decades of Stalinist oppression have discredited socialism and Marxism in the East. Yet only authentic Marxism, the science of proletarian revolution, can show the way forward. The workers will have to relearn the lessons of more than a century of proletarian history in order to orient themselves for the coming class battles. The central requirement is to re-create the proletarian Fourth International, combining the most advanced theoretical clarity with revolutionary practice.

But the left on the scene has failed even to begin this task. On the contrary, the various Left Alternatives and similar groups lined up in support of the provisional post-Stalinist governments – and most of the would-be Trotskyists supported them. (See The Left and East Europe in Proletarian Revolution No. 35.) Unless a determined struggle is waged against the pseudo-left leaders on the levels of theory and practice, Trotskyism will appear to the workers of the East as another ideology of oppression.

Mandel’s Flexible Reformism

Ernest Mandel of the United Secretariat (USec) is the foremost exponent of the deformed theory, as well as of the notion of democratic reform of Stalinism. For years he justified the “workers’ state” label by pointing to the Stalinists’ supposedly progressive, expanding and crisis-free economies. Now he pats the Stalinists on the head for at last recognizing the crisis whose existence he previously denied. Until yesterday he insisted that his workers’ states do not face the “restoration” of capitalism:

The main question in the political struggles underway is not the restoration of capitalism. The main question is whether these struggles head in the direction of an anti-bureaucratic political revolution or of a partial or total elimination of the democratic freedoms acquired under glasnost. (International Viewpoint, Oct. 30, 1989.)

That is, the only real possibilities were either forward to socialism or back to Stalinism. Capitalism was out of the picture because the bureaucracy was too tied to its privileges, and the petty bourgeoisie was too weak, for either to do the job. Some such logic was necessary to rationalize the deformed workers’ state theory; otherwise capitalism could be established peacefully. Mandel continued:

Today, whatever impressionable journalists or people who confuse their desires with reality may say, in Poland and Hungary it is the bureaucratic nomenklatura and not the `pro-bourgeois forces’ that control the state apparatus.

Few assertions made with such assurance have been refuted so quickly. And few observers, impressionable or not, were able to miss the fact that the nomenklatura in Poland and Hungary was as pro-bourgeois as anybody else.

Now the far-seeing champion of Marxist science has turned completely around:

A process of restoration of capitalism is under way in several East European countries.... Literally no one in these countries, or in the world, denies the evidence. (International Socialism, Winter 1990.)

Right. No one at all. [More on Trotsky vs. Mandel]

From `Theory’ to Capitulation

The USec took Mandel’s long-held non-restoration thesis to its inevitable conclusion: rely on the reformers. One theorist, Steve Bloom of the Fourth Internationalist Tendency in the U.S., argued that the pro-capitalist program of the Mazowiecki government of Poland was only a dream because imperialist investors would not offer much to a government so devoted to the working class.

If capital is going to be attracted by the Walesa/Mazowiecki team it will be necessary to allow capitalists to make superprofits. Superprofits, however, require superexploitation of the Polish workers and of Polish natural resources. But such a process is completely incompatible with the development of the economy in the interests of the Polish people, which Solidarity is committed to. And besides, the government remains too close to its social base amongst the workers to allow such a thing. (Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, March 1990.)

Really? The Solidarity regime (then a coalition with the Stalinists) was so committed to the workers’ well-being that it imposed a ferocious austerity policy demanded by Western bankers – leading to a 30 percent fall in industrial production, over a million unemployed and a 40 percent drop in real wages.

Walesa & Co. will indeed have a hard time finding investors, given the crises of world capitalism and the historical militancy of Polish workers, but that shows no devotion to their working-class base. The government is hell-bent on privatization and deregulation, and if Western imperialists won’t invest heavily, then Poland is doomed to a third-world standard of living. But that, as a Trotskyist ought to know, is the true capitalism of today.

With such confidence in the solidity of the “workers’ states” and their defense of workers’ interests, USec leaders are certain that an infusion of democracy into existing institutions is enough to achieve the “anti-bureaucratic political revolution.” Thus Mandel writes of the bureaucratic soviets (governing councils) in the USSR:

Real Socialist democracy, real exercise of political power by the working masses, genuine soviet power are incompatible with the single-party regime. The soviets will become sovereign and real organs of `popular power’ only when they are freely elected, only when they are free to decide on political strategy and political alternatives. (Beyond Perestroika, p. 82.)

The current soviets, of course, have nothing in common with revolutionary councils that represent “real exercise of political power by the working masses” – like the soviets the workers built in 1905 and 1917 and which won power in the Bolshevik revolution. They will be rebuilt only through class struggle against the bureaucracy, not by reforming the bureaucrats’ parliamentary forms.

Dispensing with Trotskyism

The deformed workers’ state label excuses the USec’s path of bureaucratic reformism, of tailing not too critically behind petty-bourgeois pseudo-democrats and Bonapartes like Mazowiecki, Havel and Walesa. The disputes within the USec will lead to different conclusions on the practical level: who to tail and how closely. Many will draw the truly practical conclusion, like the SWPs of Australia and the U.S., which dispensed with the Trotskyoid charade for good, the better to accommodate to Stalinist and reformist forces. Mandel’s “theory” has served not as a guide to practice, not even to practical capitulation, but as a smokescreen for those who really think theory is a waste of time.

The Spartacists’ Inconsistent Pro-Stalinism

The true logic of the deformed workers’ state theory is represented by the Workers World Party in the U.S., which consistently credits Stalinist butchery with defending “socialism.” The WWP began life by supporting the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, then Czechoslovakia in 1968; it naturally admired Jaruzelski’s smothering of the Polish workers in 1981. Along the line, thankfully, it abandoned its pretense to Trotskyism – and landed in the Rainbow room of the Democratic Party. Recently it sided with the Chinese rulers’ murderous crackdown against workers and students in Beijing, and then with those beloved working-class heroes, the Ceausescus of Romania.

Less consistent pro-Stalinists are found in the Spartacist tendency. Like all pseudo-Trotskyists, the Spartacists are caught in the dilemma between the Stalinist thrust of the workers’ state theory and middle-class adaptation to reformism. Their special contribution to confusion is the notion that the pre-Stalinist states of postwar East Europe had “indeterminate” class content because it was not clear which form of property they would defend. Of course, these states defended both private and state property from the workers. The only indeterminacy is in the theory, not in reality.

The Spartacists defended Hungary and Czechoslovakia against the Soviet attacks but backed the mugging of Poland. Today they endorse Gorbachev’s assault on the Baltics but not his capture by the Stalinist right wing (even though they have the same line as the reactionaries on property forms and national independence).

On the level of theory, their theorist-in-chief once mocked “impressionistic leftists” who envisaged “a gradual, organic and peaceful return to capitalism”:

Capitalist restoration cannot occur either through gradual evolution or a mere reshuffling of personnel at the top; it requires a violent counterrevolution. (Joseph Seymour, Why the USSR is Not Capitalist.)

Now, however, such a straightforward application of Marxism to the contradictory deformed workers’ state theory runs afoul of reality. So Seymour asserts that Trotsky “projected that such an overturn need not provoke a full-scale civil war”; he only objected to the notion that it could be done gradually. (Spartacist, Winter 1990-91.)

In fact, Trotsky analyzed at length the gradual degeneration of the Soviet state. But he knew that the process, if not halted by the working class, would culminate in a decisive moment of counterrevolution, when quantitative change became qualitative. That meant a civil war: there is an irreconcilable class difference between capitalism and a workers’ state. It is the Spartacists who think class rule can be indeterminate, not Trotsky.

What Are the States of East Europe?

To reconcile the deformed workers’ state notion with the Marxist theory of the state, Seymour has to distort reality as well.

Who today would argue that the governments of East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary have been gradually changed from (deformed) proletarian to bourgeois? East Europe is manifestly in the throes of a capitalist counterrevolution of a catastrophic character with massive social convulsions and radical changes in the political sphere.

Well, the changes in these countries have been gradual. One regime has handed over power to another, with large carryovers of leading personnel. Property has been denationalized only partly. Factories have the same bosses, but now they’re subject to less central control. The post-Stalinist states, like their predecessors and the postwar regimes, defend both private and state property from the working class. There were massive convulsions by the workers, but these were aimed at getting rid of their “socialist” masters, not (unfortunately) at keeping the bourgeoisie at bay.

Trying to avoid the fact that one capitalist regime has replaced another, the Spartacists have invented a convulsive change of ruling classes. And to escape the burden of defending the Stalinist reaction, they have to be coy about when (or whether) this counterrevolution was completed.

Two examples show the superiority of our method and its accurate grasp of events. Last year, after the fall of the Berlin Wall threatened the East German regime so hated by East German workers, the Spartacists placed high hopes in the “reforming” Stalinist party, reasoning that the Stalinists and their state were bastions of nationalized property. We warned in contrast that “the `means for selling out the DDR’ is not just social democracy, as the Spartacists say, but above all the CP.” (Proletarian Revolution No. 36.)

History clearly proved us right. Now the Spartacists admit that “the Stalinist regime collapsed... and its remnants, rather than see the proletariat in power, delivered up the East German deformed workers state to German imperialism.” (Spartacist, Winter 1990-91.) But their illusions in Stalinism had helped mislead the working class in a revolutionary situation.

When Poland’s Stalinist rulers agreed to share power with Solidarity politicians in 1989, the Spartacists breathed a sigh of relief that counterrevolution had been prevented: “The Stalinists still head the police and army, those `armed bodies of men’ which constitute the core of state power.” (Workers Vanguard, Sept. 1, 1989.) This, despite the public promises by the Stalinist ministers that the army would support the bourgeois turn.

We warned that the armed forces, whether led by Stalinists or bourgeois “democrats,” would be inevitably used against workers defending their past gains against the new regime. (It has already happened at least once: military drivers were used in Krakow last fall to replace striking bus and tram workers.) We asked at the time:

What form of property will the army then be defending? What state will it be the army of? And which side will the Spartacists be on? Certainly their theory gives no clue. (Proletarian Revolution No. 35.)

The questions are still appropriate. Seymour writes that East Europe is “in the throes” of capitalist counterrevolution, implying that workers’ states exist still. Should Spartacists support the army against the workers, as they did in 1981? Is Poland’s strikebreaking army still the core of “proletarian” power? Or has it somehow (gradually?) become the bosses’ instrument, as if it never was before? Seymour dangerously misleads the workers: “In the face of a workers uprising, it is likely that the army and police will be passive or will split/splinter.” Bourgeois-restorationist regimes ruling through pro-worker police is a fantastic scheme reflecting what in reality remains an indeterminate state theory. At least the Spartacists are consistent in their inconsistency.

LRCI: No Way Out

Between the USec’s virtually naked reformism and the Spartacists vacillating pro-Stalinism lies the British Workers Power group and its affiliated international, the LRCI (League for a Revolutionary Communist International). They too wobble between the pro-Stalinist implications of the workers’ state theory and democratic reformism.

LRCI supports national independence for the Soviet Baltic republics, whose leaders promise to “restore” capitalism while Moscow wants to preserve the Union and nationalized property. It is correct for revolutionaries to defend bourgeois nationalists from imperialism, but how do “Trotskyists” support bourgeois nationalists against what they term a workers’ state?

On the other hand, LRCI backed Gorbachev’s crackdown on Azerbaijan in January 1990, following the Stalinist “workers’ state” logic:

As troops of a degenerated workers’ state, [the Soviets] have the right and duty to defend the borders of the USSR.... (Workers Power, February 1990).

Of course, the same reasoning applies to the Baltics.

The sharpest formulation of the workers’ state theory’s impasse was expressed in LRCI’s statement on the Soviet assault on Lithuania in January, 1991. After calling the economic radicals’ market reforms “decisive restorationist measures,” the statement reads:

This legal coup d’état is not a defense of the planned economy and the dictatorship of the proletariat against restoration.... Bureaucratic conservative counterrevolution, whilst it may temporarily slow or modify the moves to the market, can wreak an even greater damage to the proletariat, the only living force capable of defending the workers’ state.

That is, counterrevolution is of course bad for the working class – but it also prevents the changes that are “decisive” for restoring capitalism! No wonder these bewildered defensists can find no way out!

Peaceful Social Counterrevolution

The collapse of the East German “workers’ state” forced the LRCI to try to rationalize the theory’s incongruities. A few years ago, before events so sharply challenged their world view, they could say clearly what a change of class rule would mean:

In these post-capitalist societies, the transition in the Marxist sense (from capitalism to communism) has been thrown into reverse by the bureaucracy. These states are degenerating back towards capitalism, a process that can, of course, only be completed by an actual social counterrevolution. (The Degenerated Revolution, p. 93.)

Of course. But now that it is occurring without an “actual social counterrevolution,” LRCI approaches the problem as academics and lawyers, not Marxists.

Does the GDR prove that a peaceful overthrow of a workers’ state is possible? If the answer is yes, and we believed it must be at least for Eastern Europe, this appears to bring us into head-on collision with Trotsky. (Workers Power, July 1990.)

Only “appears”? Trotsky’s insistence on the necessity of violence for the overthrow of the Soviet workers’ state is well known. But lawyers are paid to find loopholes, so they tell us that Trotsky’s most categorical statement on the question of violence dates back to 1929, when the Soviet workers still could have ended Stalinism by reformist methods. In 1936, they argue, he changed his mind because of the Stalinist constitution.

The new constitution seals the dictatorship of the privileged strata of Soviet society over the producing masses, thereby making the peaceful dying away of the state an impossibility, and opens up for the bureaucracy `legal’ roads for the economic counterrevolution, that is, the restoration of capitalism by means of a `cold stroke’.... (Trotsky, Writings 1935-36, p. 358.)

This “cold stroke” is Workers Power‘s loophole; they say it means a peaceful counterrevolution. But it doesn’t. Trotsky is saying, first, that the bureaucracy’s political counterrevolution had been completed, thus closing off the peaceful transition to socialism. Second, that the capitalist, or social, counterrevolution had been placed on the bureaucratic agenda and that the new constitution would provide it with a legal facade. But this in no way meant that he thought social counterrevolution could be peaceful!

Proof: in the same article Trotsky observes that one alternative facing the Soviet Union was “to be flung back into conditions of decomposition and, by means of a civil war, to fascist capitalism” (p. 356). Later, more explicitly: “Without a victorious civil war the bureaucracy cannot give birth to a new ruling class.” (Writings 1937-38, p. 37.)

Trotsky’s 1936 article foretold history. When the great purges of 1936-38 arrived, he labeled them a “preventive civil war,” and rightly so. Millions of workers and party members were killed; the state apparatus (army, party, bureaucracy) was decapitated and replaced. But it was done “legally,” by abuse of the secret police and the courts, not from outside the state structure. This was the “cold stroke.”

The civil war culminated on the eve of World War II with the smashing of the workers’ state and the consolidation of statified capitalism. Unfortunately Trotsky did not recognize that this was precisely the completion of the bureaucratic social counterrevolution he had foreseen. But he was fully aware of the direction of the process – and that it was violent in the extreme. Workers Power’s loophole proves exactly the opposite of what it was supposed to.

What’s Left in East Europe?

Workers Power not only misrepresents Trotsky’s position; it cannot make up its mind about its own. The cited article asserts that peaceful counterrevolution is possible “at least for Eastern Europe.” But the editorial in the same issue argues that East Germany is a special case (because of “the exceptional circumstance of a pre-existing German bourgeoisie”). Thus the possibility of peaceful counterrevolution elsewhere is left unclear.

LRCI faces an impossible dilemma. The East European social counterrevolutions began with the overturns of 1989-90, which it had hailed as working-class political revolutions. For us there is no difficulty understanding that a worker-based revolution can be derailed by its petty-bourgeois leadership and stop halfway, thereby reconstituting capitalism in a different form. Similar halfway revolutions have occurred before: for example, Portugal 1974, Nicaragua 1979. But the deformed workers’ statists have to explain how a progressive movement can suddenly (and peacefully!) turn about and produce a whole new class society more reactionary than where it began.

The problem is avoided by postponement. Whereas the Spartacists saw the survival of the Stalinist army as proof that the “workers’ state” was not yet dead, Workers Power holds that the governments and the state apparatuses are farthest down the capitalist road. It relies on the slowness of privatization as the savior:

Although there is considerable disintegration, economic relations between the state ministries and factories, and between the enterprises themselves, are regulated through the half-crippled bureaucratic plan. Despite the progress of the counterrevolution in the last half year, all the countries drawn into the events of 1990 – except East Germany of course – remain degenerate workers’ states. (Workers Power, January 1991.)

This is a desperate argument. The state apparatus (including many ex-Stalinists) is at the head of the privatizing capitalist forces. Sooner or later, Workers Power will recognize that capitalism dominates East Europe – and then it will have to claim that the same state apparatuses can rule both workers’ and capitalist states. And they’ll invent a “Marxist” loophole for that, too.

Nothing Worth Defending?

One reason why would-be Trotskyists cling to the discredited workers’ state theory is the failure of the prominent alternatives. The state capitalist theory of Tony Cliff and the International Socialism (IS) tendency, like Mandel’s, has to be cosmetically revised because reality is disproving one of its central contentions.

Cliff originally argued that, because of its extreme centralization of capital, state capitalist bureaucracy is the “truest personification of the historical mission” of the capitalist class. (State Capitalism in Russia, p. 182.) He never understood that full centralization was impossible for capitalism and could only occur in a genuine workers’ state; his decentralist view of the workers’ state is parallel to the “small is beautiful” dreams of new-left radicals.

Since state capitalism is the highest form of capitalism, it was easy for Cliff to conclude, like Mandel, that there can be no internal restoration of traditional forms: Before the experience of World War II, it was an understandable if incorrect assumption that private capitalism could be restored in Russia without its occupation by an imperialist power. But the victory of the concentrated, statified Russian economy over the German war machine silenced all talk of such a possibility. (p. 326.)

Cliff, like the deformed workers’ theorists, overlooked the fact that statified forms are contradictory. While they made major industrial projects possible, under class rule they masked the anarchy and decentralization of capitalism. To overcome the heritage of the revolutionary workers’ state and more successfully exploit the workers, Stalinism was compelled increasingly to adopt forms and methods of the traditional bourgeoisie. The devolution inherent in the system is now in full force, and although state property remains predominant, private capitalism is advancing.

The ISers’ view that Stalinism is only an extreme form of capitalism, not a variant deformed by the workers’ conquests it once took over, leads them to insist that the workers have nothing to defend. The “transition from state capitalism to multinational capitalism,” despite the burgeoning inflation and unemployment it brings, “is neither a step forward nor a step backward but a step sidewards.” (International Socialism, Spring 1990.)

An IS journalist mockingly asked, “So why aren’t Russian workers striking or demonstrating against the threatened `restoration’ of capitalism?” (Socialist Worker Review, February 1990.) In fact, the massive Soviet miners’ strike in mid-1989 was largely directed against the false promises and worsening conditions caused by Gorbachev’s perestroika. That’s not the restoration of capitalism, but it is the intensification of capitalist exploitation, and some workers clearly understand that it means a step backward for them. There have also been major strikes against capitalist assaults in Poland and East Germany.

The French Lutte Ouvrière (LO) group, which contradictorily considers East Europe capitalist but the Soviet Union proletarian, is more explicit:

The working class, for its part, has no reason to defend these regimes – not even the aspects which the rulers have presented over the past few decades as being `socialist.’ Neither these regimes nor their `achievements’ result from a proletarian victory over the country’s bourgeoisie. (Class Struggle, December 1989.)

True, the East European states are in no way socialist or proletarian, and the regimes merit no defense. But social gains for the workers did result from proletarian struggles. The power of the working class even in defeat compelled the new rulers to offer sops to get social stability. There is ample “reason to defend” them, just as workers in the West defend gains like social security, civil rights and abortion rights when reactionaries try to remove or restrict them.

The notion that workers have nothing to defend under Stalinism is an error as disastrous as the “workers’ state” illusion. Ironically, these seemingly opposite theories lead so often to the same solution: workers must fight for democracy first; socialist revolution comes later. Both notions leave workers open to the broad anti-Stalinist groups dominated by the bourgeois-democratic free-marketeers.

Even those who call for a “democratic revolution“ make the same class-collaborationist error. Only the socialist revolution can fulfill the masses’ democratic demands, as permanent revolution should teach all who claim to be Trotskyist. Anything less uses “democracy” as a cover for exploitation and is a Trojan horse for chauvinism and fascism.

If the corruption of theory prevents the creation of an authentic Fourth International, the consequences will be devastating. There are elements in what passes for world Trotskyism for whom it is not too late. Many feel that they have rejected Mandelism and Cliffism, especially their concessions to the middle class and reformism. But without an understanding of Stalinism that demonstrates how and why these “authorities” are wrong, they will not be able to chart a revolutionary path.

A Theory Deformed from the Start

When the deformed workers’ state theory was first invented, its implication that East Europe had turned from capitalism to pre-socialism without a proletarian revolution was pilloried by Jim Cannon, the American Trotskyist leader:

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.

Cannon was right. For what does “deformed workers’ state” mean? “Workers’ state” is just shorthand for Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat.” It describes a state run by the working class, transitional to the classless society of communism. Moreover, it is socially progressive as compared with capitalism, since it is capable of overcoming the barriers to development created by bourgeois social relations. The modification “deformed” says that the state is not ruled by the working class as a whole but undemocratically by the Communist Party – and also that Stalinist power retards society’s development toward socialism.

In fact, only the “deformed” part of the definition makes sense. Look what its proponents had to swallow. First, that “workers’ states” had been created not only independently of working-class struggles but against them. Workers’ upsurges after the war to seize factories and form revolutionary councils were smashed by the Soviet Army and local Stalinist forces. All opposition in the working class, notably the Trotskyists, was eliminated. These steps permitted the Stalinists later to oust the old bourgeoisies and statify the means of production. As Trotsky had foreseen, nationalized property was “too tempting” an object for a mobilized fighting proletariat.

Secondly, the theory claimed that the Stalinist coalitions with the old bourgeois parties, which had enforced capitalist property relations up to a point (1947-49), could then switch their class allegiance and choose to create “post-capitalist” relations of production. This was a gross violation of the Marxist understanding of the state as the executive body of a specific ruling class.

Despite these contradictions, the deformed workers’ state theory was accepted by the majority of the Trotskyist movement. The reason was not just the “logical” deduction that since Trotsky had called the Soviet Union a degenerated workers’ state, the states modeled after it also had to be some kind of workers’ states. Logic alone permitted the reverse conclusion: that the remnants of the Soviet workers’ state had already been destroyed.

The real reason was the defeat of the working class carried out by Nazism, “democratic” imperialism and Stalinism. That led to the demoralization of the revolutionary forces, their turn to the social-democratic and Stalinist parties in the West, and therefore to the implicit belief that these forces were capable of historically progressive deeds. Hence the petty-bourgeois-led Communist Parties could be seen as making, in effect, socialist revolutions – ending capitalist rule and creating workers’ states – in place of the working class.

The deformed workers’ state formula was not only contradictory in theory. It soon proved to be a poor guide in action, too. When China became Stalinist in 1949, the Trotskyists could not agree whether it was yet a workers’ state – or if it was, whether it was deformed or not. When workers’ upsurges broke out in East Europe, Trotskyists disagreed about supporing them: were the workers against the deformations or against the states? When the Castroites took power in Cuba, rationalizations that had patched over previous problems failed to stretch across the oceanic holes in the theory.

Worst of all, the same class adaptations convinced Trotskyists that even a non-Stalinist petty-bourgeois force, the nationalist MNR of Bolivia, could pave the way to socialism. The Trotskyist POR tied itself to the MNR and helped strangle a real proletarian revolution. All factions of the Fourth International endorsed its course of action. (The one exception is described in our pamphlet, Bolivia: the Revolution the Fourth International Betrayed.)

Over the years, deformed workers’ statists have squabbled over which countries actually fit the category. Most accept East Europe, China, Vietnam and Cuba. Some add Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Burma – even Pol Pot’s Cambodia. No wonder: the theory gives no guide to telling the difference between a workers’ and an anti-workers state.

Although there have been many political disputes about the workers’ states,” in recent decades there have been no theoretical debates. Defensists bicker over the origin and identification of these states – without ever challenging each others’ theoretical premises. To do so would force them to confront the fact that authentic Marxism is at odds with their theory in any form.