The following article first appeared, in Spanish, in the July 2001 edition of the on-line journal Solidaridad. The translation is our own. Click here to read the original in Spanish, with our notations.

The author of this piece is a well-known Argentinian Marxist, the editor of Solidaridad and a former militant of the Partido Obrero Revolucionario (POR-Masas). While Comrade Bengoechea is not organizationally linked to the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP-U.S.) or the Communist Organization for the Fourth International (COFI), we have substantial agreement with many of the conclusions that he has now reached as to the nature of Stalinism. Further, we are republishing this article because we believe that it is a serious contribution to the struggle to revivify Marxist theory around the world. For far too long the pseudo-Bolshevik left has substituted incantation for examination of past views in the light of real events.

The LRP and COFI have no political agreement with the views of the Grupo de Propaganda Marxista (GPM), a Spanish organization that Comrade Bengoechea refers to in his text.

The Downfall of the USSR and its Consequences in Marxist Thought

by Daniel Bengoechea

More than ten years have passed since the collapse of the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe. 1989 is remembered for the wave of protests and strikes that expanded across Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and China. In China the government headed by Deng Xiaoping drowned the protests in a bloodbath, associated internationally with the events of Tienanmen Square. In contrast, in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union the Stalinist governments fell one after another. Even Gorbachev, who made a number of concessions to the masses, could not prolong his government two years past 1989.

The movements that overthrew the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe were motivated by the hatred of the masses for the governing bureaucracy, its privileges and its authoritarian methods of rule. Those who participated in the strikes and mobilizations did so seeking an improvement in their life conditions and democratization of the political regime. In actuality, none of these aspirations have been satisfied. The social situation is disastrous. Unemployment has risen to record numbers. None of the systems of health, education, pensions and other social welfare benefits remain in place. It is clear that, with the exception of an infinitesimal minority of nouveaux riches, the majority of the population has been pushed downwards into poverty. The culminating point of this process is Yugoslavia, which ended up torn to shreds in a series of civil wars which have cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Nor has there been any great progress towards democracy. In Russia as in the rest of the ex-Stalinist states, power remains in the hands of the old bureaucrats, who have implemented privatization programs destroying the old state property and social welfare benefits.

In the face of such results, it must be asked, “Why did those anti-Stalinist movements end up in such an apparent disaster?” The answer is simple. While the masses who took to the streets in 1989 knew very well what it was they hated, they did not have the least idea of what the new social order was that they wanted to construct. In sum, they did not have any political leadership that represented their class interests. In this sense the events of 1989 were a decisive riposte to those who hold that spontaneous mass movements, regardless of their program and their social composition, automatically take on a progressive direction, and that therefore the principal task of revolutionary socialists is to push forward the existing struggles, leaving the struggle for the political leadership of the masses on a second rank.

Others – including, at the time, myself – maintained that, since the masses were lacking a revolutionary leadership, it was therefore necessary to defend the Stalinist regimes from the pro-capitalist offensive, or otherwise they would be replaced by savage capitalist regimes who would transform the ex-Stalinist states into new dependent capitalist countries. The development of events has shown those who held this position to be wrong as well. While the majority of those states are now effectively dependencies, it was the Stalinists themselves who carried out this transformation.

It is important to try to understand why the working class of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was and is lacking a political perspective. It is also important to comprehend why the left was incapable of preventing what has happened in the former Stalinist states. This leads us to a series of questions that have been in debate among Marxists for decades, and have continued without being definitively answered. What were the states established by the Stalinist bureaucracy in Eastern Europe? Were they workers’ states? Until when did the Soviet Union maintain this character? The intention of this article is not to give a finished answer to these questions. In any case, it is only intended to serve to spread debate, that will permit us to advance revolutionary consciousness as a product of a deep scientific knowledge of reality.

Since Trotsky introduced the definition of “degenerated workers’ state” to describe the USSR under Stalinism in the 1930’s, more than 60 years have passed. However, the majority of his “disciples” continue to mechanically state the positions that Trotsky enunciated in The Revolution Betrayed. They also continue mechanically repeating the characterization of “deformed workers’ states” (1) that Mandel and Pablo applied in the name of the Fourth International to the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam, Cuba, Korea, etc.

The argument of those who hold this position is that the expropriation of the bourgeoisie by the state inevitably lays the material basis for a planned, colletivized and statified economy that results in great advances for the working masses. But this conception, in addition to being negated by reality, implies an understanding of socialism completely at variance with Marxism. According to this idea, socialism need not be the result of the struggle of a working class conscious of its political aims and desirous of constructing a society superior in economic, cultural and social terms. On the contrary, socialism would be the result of a series of economic measures implemented from above.

The lack of theoretical understanding of the significance of the Stalinist regimes that emerged from the Second World War led the majority of the Trotskyist movement to empirically adapt itself to each new development, in a defiance of reality that derived from a continually increasing neglect of the Marxist theory of the state. Thus we can find those who came to propose that Nicaragua could be a “workers’ state,” like the United Secretariat, or to postulate, like Nahuel Moreno, that in the underdeveloped countries the working class could come to power led by reformist leaders who, under pressure from the masses, would find themselves forced to go further than they had planned. In reality, what happened was that Marxist thought remained petrified and the majority of the tendencies of the left limited themselves to interpreting one or another writing from the classics without concerning themselves with their living meaning, much less understanding and applying the essence of Marxism.

This was reflected in their incapacity to explain the events of the end of the 80s, which led the majority of the organizations of the left into a profound crisis. In fact, theoretical sclerosis, dogmatism and bureaucratism revealed themselves as formidable barriers to the majority of revolutionaries being able to examine the reasons for the crisis that devastated their organizations. Far from revising their positions, most deepened their errors and made “theory” out of miserable self-justifications. Clearly, the majority of the Trotskyist movement ignored the fact that Marxism, as a tool for understanding and transforming the world, is without a doubt a science that must enrich itself continually in order to keep itself alive.

Only a minority of groups have attempted to keep Marxism alive and establish a scientific characterization of the Stalinist regimes. The LRP has expressed its ideas in a book, The Life and Death of Stalinism, the GPM in its latest pamphlet. Others have also done this, but there does not yet exist a common understanding. At this level we can say that there is a certain consensus in that Stalinism in the 1930s definitively crystallized into a counterrevolutionary agency.

This fact is not yet sufficient to determine a change in the class character of the USSR. This is always determined by the property relations and by the class that controls the state. Basing themselves on Stalinist repression, different tendencies point to the change to capitalism in the USSR as being between the middle of the 20s and the end of the 30s. The LRP, in addition to establishing that the Great Purges and the Moscow Trials signified a change in the class that controlled the state apparatus, has also presented a study of how the law of value functioned in the USSR, which gives greater solidity to their arguments. Beyond the differences between the various analyses, it would seem to be clear that at the height of the Second World War, the USSR was already a capitalist state.

On the other hand, there are two questions which we have to consider in order to better characterize the Stalinist regimes. A workers’ state can only be created by a workers’ revolution. During the post-war period, such revolutions did not exist in Eastern Europe, or were suffocated by Stalinism. The concept of “degenerated workers’ state” was conceived by Trotsky for a particular situation in the USSR, at the end of the 1930s. It referred to a transitory situation, which would be resolved explosively – toward revolution or counterrevolution. To pretend that it could remain congealed over a period of decades is typical of idealist, anti-dialectical thought. These two arguments negate the idea that the Stalinist regimes conform to the Marxist definition of a workers’ state, which leaves only the possibility of considering them capitalist states.

Clearly, a profound debate among Marxists is necessary in order to clarify all these questions. Of course, there are many who consider it inopportune or wasteful to concern themselves with these questions. However, it is never inopportune to try to clearly understand reality. In fact, it is the only way to arm ourselves for political action, since revolutionary militancy is truly a synthesis of theory and practice. Therefore it recovering the first of these elements is indispensable. Without it, political practice is completely sterile and is reduced to a simple empiricism whose various efforts cancel each other out.

In that sense, the events in the USSR and Eastern Europe have helped by eliminating myths and posing the necessity of re-creating revolutionary thought. Rather than establishing the end of socialism and of Marxism as a political theory, they have tragically demonstrated the truth of the principles enunciated by the great teachers of socialism. Socialism will be on a world scale or it will not be at all, and the working class must be the subject of its own history. The October Revolution was a grandiose example of that. It was defeated, but it established a higher level of proletarian consciousness. Its defeat was related to the proclamation by Stalin and Bukharin that socialism could be built in one country. The struggle against this abandonment of proletarian internationalism was the major contribution of Trotsky (2) to keeping Marxist thought alive.

A new world capitalist crisis will occur sooner or later, and those who have extracted the lessons from the events in the USSR will be the best prepared to intervene in it, contributing to the proletarian struggle for power. Otherwise, the proletariat will once again become cannon-fodder, fighting to defend interests alien to their class.


(1) In contrast to the USSR, the characterization “degenerated workers’ states” was inapplicable to the rest of the Stalinist regimes, which did not emerge from the bureaucratic degeneration of a workers’ republic born of triumphant insurrection, as the Soviet Republic had been. On the contrary, they were all born bureaucratized. Return to text

(2) Also of Rakovsky and of many other revolutionaries who opposed the Stalinist bureaucracy at that time, as part of the Left Opposition. Return to text