The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The Soviet Union

Jan 21, 1976

The founding program of the Fourth International characterizes the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers’ state. This characterization expresses the fact that the Soviet Union was established by a victorious proletarian revolution. Because of its isolation in a backward country, this proletarian state underwent a complete degeneration. It was “transformed from a tool of the working class into a tool of bureaucratic violence against the working class,” and gave rise within itself to a parasitic layer, the bureaucracy. Stalinism is the political expression of this bureaucracy.

Unlike the two fundamental social classes of our epoch, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the bureaucracy is not the fruit of a long historical development going from the inferior to the superior. The bureaucracy has no roots in the past. Nothing in the world’s evolution either before or after the Russian revolution gives any evidence of the embryo of bureaucracy in the economic foundations of society.

On the contrary, since the arrival and the development of the capitalist mode of production, the motley variety of national economies has been unified to form a superior reality, the world economy. The whole dynamic of history has led to the “simplification of class antagonisms,” that is, to the division of society “into two vast enemy camps, into two diametrically opposed classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat,” [see The Communist Manifesto]. With respect to this century-old and powerful tendency of the evolution of history, the domination of the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, as well as its very existence, appears not as a new necessary and superior phase of evolution, but as an accident. Bureaucracy is the remnant of the gigantic conflict between the two fundamental social classes, one of which had to retreat, while the other was still unable to achieve victory.

As for future history on a world scale, the bureaucracy is not a social class. It has no new prospect for the development of human society. It cannot bring forth a new social order able to replace the bourgeois order on a world scale and to develop the productive forces on the basis of a new system of exploitation.

The future and the duration of the Soviet bureaucracy are subordinated to the international struggle between the two fundamental social classes. In this sense, the domination of the bureaucracy is unstable and transitory. History explains why the bureaucracy has enjoyed a longer existence than was expected and hoped for by the founders of the Fourth International. The main reasons include the division of the international bourgeoisie into contending camps during World War II; the stifling of any revolutionary upsurge by a disorganized and subsequently discouraged working class; and a certain stabilization of the relationship of forces between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat since then.

But this delay in departing from the historical scene does not change the nature of the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy has not tried, up until now, to transform its privileges into law, through the re-establishment of private property, the inheritance of riches, etc. Neither did it transform itself into an agent of the re-integration of the USSR into the capitalist world. It remains a privileged social layer differing profoundly from the bourgeoisie, a parasitic layer whose existence depends entirely on its possession of the state machinery. It will disappear when this state machinery is replaced by proletarian democracy.

State property and planning under the democratic control of the working class are necessary conditions for socialist development of the economy, though not the only conditions. The replacement of democratic control by uncontrolled centralism enables the bureaucracy to hide part of the social surplus, which it embezzles for its own use. Bureaucratic state property perpetuates the social parasitism of bureaucracy. At the same time it is the source of waste, of the aberrant use of the productive forces and supplies. The effect of such usage is probably more disastrous for economic development than the parasitic appropriations. Faced with economic problems caused by its own stranglehold over the economy, the bureaucracy tries a new philosopher’s stone, generally by casting sidelong glances at the capitalist system in the West. However, reforms like those proposed by Lieberman are permanently on hold in the USSR itself.

Despite the consequences of bureaucratic degeneration on the economy, the Soviet Union remains one of the fastest growing economies in the world. This implies quantitative changes within Soviet society.

One important aspect of this is the rapid growth of the proletariat. Its numbers have considerably increased in forty years; it has become the largest class in Soviet society.

For its part, the bureaucracy has undergone changes difficult to measure. On the one hand, economic growth has enlarged the base of the ruling oligarchy, by bringing about the proliferation of all those who “though they do not perform directly productive work, give orders, administer, run things, and hand out punishments and rewards.”

But on the other hand, given the betterment of the general standard of living, even if it is only relative, the advantages of low ranking bureaucrats which were viewed as exorbitant privileges when compared to yesterday’s misery, are viewed today in their correct perspective. The fear of not belonging to the privileged minority has consequently lost its former compulsive character. The need to close ranks around the leading coterie and to accept the bloody terror exerted by it over all layers of Soviet society, will appear less and less justified in the eyes of the lower layers of the bureaucracy itself.

Under these conditions the widening social base of the leading caste does not imply a consolidation of the bureaucratic regime. In the case of a social war against the proletariat, it is unlikely that the modest advantages of low-ranking bureaucrats will be enough to induce them to play the role of cannon-fodder for the Kremlin bigwigs.

The domination of the bureaucracy can only take the form of a brutal dictatorship. This is no accident. This is due to the social nature of the bureaucracy, to its basic instability, and to the depth of the social antagonisms on which it rests. Contrary to the illusions entertained in left circles, including most Trotskyists, de-Stalinization fundamentally changed nothing. Khrushchev’s so-called break with Stalin did not mean a new era, more liberal and democratic than the domination of the bureaucracy. It did not spell the beginning of any “regenerating process.” The oligarchy felt no necessity to look for and train a new Stalin, with the same unlimited power. It replaced the personal dictatorship of one by the collective leadership of half-a-dozen. This is the most striking aspect and the limit of “liberalization” from Stalin’s successors. No elementary democratic rights were or could have been reinstated, not even for use by the leading layer itself, although certain members of the oligarchy regret the absence of such rights.

Dictatorship and oppression weigh on every layer of Soviet society. The struggle against dictatorship and oppression and for democratic freedoms will be important in the revolution to come. This is why socialist revolutionaries support all those who fight for these freedoms, even when they are not revolutionaries. Whatever criticisms we have about the ideas of various groups of intellectuals who have started to fight against dictatorship, the struggle they are waging in favor of freedom of speech, meeting, or travel has the total solidarity of revolutionaries.

During the last thirty years, the bureaucracy has given many proofs of its tendency to behave as “an organ of the world bourgeoisie inside the workers’ state.” After World War II, it intervened not only politically but also militarily in order to help re-establish the imperialist order on a world scale. In particular, it played an essential role in the re-building of the bourgeois states in the Eastern European countries where it remains the main police force against the workers.

However, despite the political maneuvers of the bureaucrats toward imperialism, the Soviet state has not become the instrument for the return of the old Czarist empire to the bourgeois order. This fact is a permanent provocation in the eyes of the bourgeoisie.

The next world war, whatever the regroupings either before military clashes or during a possible first phase, will oppose the imperialists’ camp to the USSR. The USSR will not be able to escape the war, or be able to profit from a division of the imperialist powers into two camps.

In such a context, the victory of the imperialist powers would be a heavy defeat for the proletariat. Preventing this defeat will be a fundamental task. Revolutionary defense of the USSR does not mean “reconciliation” between the bureaucracy and the revolutionary proletariat under the pretext of a common front against the common enemy. Moreover, revolutionary defense of the USSR does not imply that the interests of the proletarian revolution can be subordinated to such a “reconciliation.”

The defense of the USSR does not call for the defense of the policies and the acts of the bureaucracy. Revolutionaries reject any implicit or explicit assertion such as the following: to weaken the regime is to weaken the USSR in the face of imperialism’s threat to the USSR.

On the contrary, it is the domination of the bureaucracy and its policies that weaken the USSR with respect to imperialism. The past, including the most recent past, is filled with examples of the destructive policies of the bureaucracy in defending the USSR’s interests against imperialism.

The bureaucracy’s political balance-sheet concerning the countries it wanted to transform into buffer states is especially disastrous. The bureaucracy has succeeded in ensuring that not only the petty bourgeoisie, the various privileged layers of these countries, but also an important part of the workers believe their liberation is dependent upon imperialism.

The intervention in Czechoslovakia was a striking example of how the bureaucracy might cause a whole people to oppose the USSR.

In the fundamental conflict between imperialism and the Soviet Union, revolutionaries support the latter, unconditionally.

The evaluation of each particular and limited conflict between the USSR and a given bourgeois state is dependent upon this fundamental stance. In particular, revolutionaries do not forget that such conflicts, limited though they may appear, can represent the first episode of a new world war. In such a war any bourgeois state would necessarily find itself in the imperialist camp. Revolutionaries will thus take a position of defense of the USSR.

This does not mean that revolutionaries support the military ventures of the bureaucracy, any more than they support the interventions of the Russian army in any country when it acts as a law-and-order police force. Such interventions do not strengthen, but on the contrary weaken, the USSR with respect to imperialism.

Neither China, despite the verbal radicalism of its leadership toward imperialism, nor the People’s Democracies, are exceptions in the event of a war opposing them to the Soviet Union. In the case of a war between China and the USSR, imperialism’s interest would be to support China. Will imperialism send arms and economic aid so that China has the material forces to contain the USSR? Will imperialism intervene on a military level? All this will depend on the length of the war, on the world situation, etc. Anyway, their decision will be made with the general aim of destroying the USSR.

But revolutionaries do not support, justify, or approve the domineering goals of the Russian bureaucrats over China or the provocations they may use. The great-power policies of the bureaucracy and its economic and military bullying contribute to the formation of anti-Russian hatred. This hatred will facilitate an eventual reversal in the Sino-Soviet alliance. The idea of a war against the USSR will become acceptable in the eyes of the Chinese people, even if they find themselves side by side with imperialism.

The problem is basically raised in quite similar terms in the case of the People’s Democracies. Revolutionaries must oppose any attempt, military or otherwise, by the bureaucracy to increase the subjugation of these countries to the Kremlin. The policy of the bureaucracy cements the unity between the working masses in these countries and the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois forces in them who want to join hands with the West.

However, imperialism could use a conflict between one of the People’s Democracies and the USSR as a pretext for intervening against the USSR. Revolutionaries will not let themselves be blinded by the legitimacy of the demand of all People’s Democracies about getting rid of the domination of the Kremlin in order to officially support the People’s Democracies. Imperialism will not intervene in order to “free” the countries of Eastern Europe but in order to subjugate the Soviet Union and the former buffer states.

Organizations taking anti-imperialist stands in these countries will be understood only if they have never previously shown any conciliatory attitudes toward the Russian bureaucracy. Here more than anywhere else, the defense of the USSR cannot be separated from the struggle to overthrow the bureaucracy.

It is impossible for the bureaucracy to be absorbed peacefully into Soviet society or to reform itself. It must be overthrown. The formation of a revolutionary party is a vital necessity to the future struggle of the Soviet proletariat and also, given the importance of the Soviet working class, for the world proletariat. There will be no revolutionary International worthy of the name as long as this work is not undertaken.

The task of the revolutionary proletariat is to lead the fight against the odious privileges of the bureaucracy, against social differences, against political oppression. Re-establishing Soviet democracy remains the central task of the next political revolution.