State, power and bureaucracy

Issue: 151

Tom Gordon

A review of Thomas M Twiss, Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy (Brill/Haymarket, 2015), £25.99

The theory of bureaucratic state capitalism in Russia and elsewhere characterises the International Socialist Tendency and distinguishes us from most other Marxist parties worldwide. So a study of the development of Leon Trotsky’s ideas on the Russian bureaucracy is of particular interest. This book reveals one of the greatest Marxists struggling to come to terms with a wholly new ­phenomenon, the Stalinist bureaucracy.

In the late 1920s and 1930s the Soviet Union was an enigma because it didn’t accord with any previous state—worker or capitalist. Marxists expected a workers’ state to have genuine democracy, advanced productive forces and an absence of bureaucracy. A capitalist state should have a bourgeoisie, private ownership of the means of production and profit-driven market relations. The Soviet Union fitted neither. However, scientific Marxism should be able to characterise it.

Trotsky’s analysis of the bureaucracy changed and developed over time as the bureaucracy itself developed and his understanding of it deepened. In Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy Thomas Twiss organises and discusses the development of Trotsky’s theory of bureaucracy in three stages: from 1917, from 1923 and from 1933. This formalism is slightly problematic. For the first five years after 1917 Trotsky actually wrote no theory of the bureaucracy although he encountered it in the military and in industry and was annoyed by its inefficiency, its red tape, its ignorance and so on. But Twiss proclaims that at the time, “Most Bolsheviks derived their conception of bureaucracy from…the traditional Marxist analysis”, whereas “Trotsky perceived the problem quite differently…almost exclusively as one of inefficiency”.

From 1923, with Lenin absent and the bureaucracy ever stronger and ever more vengeful against him, Trotsky observed both a separation of the bureaucracy from the masses, and also alien class interests pushing the state and party leadership to the right. These observations were still not a theory but, as Twiss rightly depicts, a collection of scattered insights. However, for Twiss this second stage was “an important development” and “a major transformation” because Trotsky had now adopted the Marxist approach!

In 1926, with the bureaucracy huge, powerful and menacing, oppressing the workers and attacking the opposition, Trotsky gathered those “scattered insights” into a theory. Drawing an analogy with the trade union bureaucracy, he suggested the Soviet bureaucracy formed a caste hovering between the two main classes: having no class base itself, it could be coerced by either. With a weak and oppressed left, the government was under constant pressure from the right. And the more it acceded to the Kulaks and NEPmen and separated itself from the masses, the greater the danger of counter-revolution.

Twiss describes Trotsky’s theory after 1926 as “impressive, a comprehensive and coherent theory yet remarkably simple and elegant”. Certainly, it was all of this, but did it accurately represent the real situation? Twiss himself admits that it’s a “persuasive account if one doesn’t look beyond 1927”. In 1928 the bureaucracy attacked the right, eventually destroying them, and while continuing to oppress the left, steered an ultra-left course both at home and abroad. So a supposedly “powerless” centre held one major class in subjection and destroyed the other. No longer the passive victim of alien class pressures it was actively and vigorously pursuing its own ends. Trotsky’s theory could not account for this.

Twiss describes well how for the next three years Trotsky struggled to come to terms with the new situation of a very powerful and independent bureaucracy rising above social classes and dominating them. To account for this “unprecedented self-sufficiency”, Trotsky in 1930 introduced Karl Marx’s idea of Bonapartism into his theory. After the 1848 revolution in France, the bourgeoisie and the workers were of such similar social weight that the state of Louis Bonaparte could for a moment balance between the two, assuming great power over, and independence from, both.

Twiss’s stage three begins in 1933 with both repression in Russia and a disastrous Comintern policy in Germany that had allowed Hitler to take power. Trotsky now realised the bureaucracy could not be removed other than by a second workers’ revolution. In 1937 he drew together all his various insights into a coherent whole in The Revolution Betrayed. As Twiss argues, this was “his most comprehensive statement on the problem of Soviet bureaucracy”. Here Trotsky (wrongly) regards the Soviet Union as a transitional stage between capitalism and socialism, a fluid and unstable state that will either progress to socialism or regress to capitalism. To achieve socialism the bureaucracy must be smashed; to achieve capitalism the counter-revolution must break the resistance of the workers. Either way the bureaucracy was doomed. Trotsky was certain of its transitory nature, unstable like a “sphere balanced on the point of a pyramid”. In the coming world war, win or lose, the regime’s demise was certain, “just a few years or even a few months” away.

Twiss rightly gives fulsome praise to The Revolution Betrayed. As a counter to Stalin’s claim of socialism in one country it is magnificent. As a comprehensive historical analysis of the Stalinist degeneration of the revolution and an object lesson in the application of the Marxist method to a multitude of issues, it is exemplary. But is it really the final word on the nature of Soviet bureaucracy? Twiss believes it is. Despite the horrors of the totalitarian dictatorship, the oppression of workers who controlled neither the state nor the means of production, and the need for a new workers’ revolution, Trotsky still concluded that the Soviet Union was a workers’ state (albeit degenerated) because the state controlled the means of production. Twiss concurs with this. But if that is the criterion, then as Tony Cliff says, “neither the Paris Commune nor the Bolshevik dictatorship were workers’ states as the former did not statify the means of production at all, and the latter did not do so for some time” (see Cliff, 1948, “The Nature of Stalinist Russia”).

Trotsky was a magnificent Marxist—astute, rigorous, honest and insightful. He alone produced a sustained analysis and critique of the Russian bureaucracy. Had he not been murdered in 1940, significant post-war events would have compelled him to develop his theory of the bureaucracy beyond that in The Revolution Betrayed. Firstly the bureaucracy proved to be much more stable than his theory allowed, surviving the war and lasting another 50 years. Secondly, immediately after the war, other “Communist” states appeared in Eastern Europe without any working class revolution. If these were also workers’ states, perhaps the central tenet of Marxism, that the working class is the agency of social change, must simply be wrong. And finally, in 1989 all these “workers’ states” became capitalist states. If scientific terms are to retain their meaning, there is something profoundly different between a workers’ state and a capitalist one, not just in form but content. In passing from one to the other there should have been huge social convulsions as one ruling class took power from another; this is, after all, social counter-revolution. But nothing of the sort occurred. In comparatively peaceful transitions, the same class, and often the same individuals, took up all the new positions of power and retained control.

All of this has been explained (and where possible, predicted) in terms of the state capitalist theory. Twiss mentions the theory but then cursorily dismisses it. Instead he refers to the appearance in 1945 of “workers’ states” in Eastern Europe as the victory of “Stalin’s onslaught on capitalism” and the collapse of economic central planning (though not necessarily the bureaucracy) more than half a century later as validating Trotsky’s view that the bureaucracy was unstable. For Twiss, the “jubilation of capitalists” and “decline in support for far-left organisations” meant that 1989 was “a serious defeat for the world’s working class such as might be generated by the death of a workers’ state”.

Twiss’s book is a solid piece of scholarship, well researched and well written. There is a wealth of facts, quotes and detail. But for many readers of this journal, his interpretation of events after Trotsky’s death will mar the work.

Tom Gordon is a teacher in London, a union branch secretary but primarily a local Socialist Workers Party branch activist.