Why are Russia and China imperialist powers and not capitalist semi-colonies?
Developing Lenin and Trotsky on post-soviet Russia and China
There are big debates going on about whether Russia and China are imperialist powers today. This arises when it becomes obvious that the major local and regional wars around the globe, such as in Ukraine, are in reality proxy wars between the established imperialist powers led by the US, and the upstarts, Russia and China. With the rapid rise of inter-imperialist rivalry between the US and China led blocs this question has become urgent since it involves a policy of defeat for both sides if they are imperialist or the defence of Russia and/or China if they are not. Unlike much of the left that thinks that the old debates of the workers states are no longer important today, we argue here that the fundamental differences that arose over the workers states nearly a century ago carry over into the 21st century revisionist politics of new batches of Mensheviks who substitute the petty bourgeois for the revolutionary agency of the proletariat.
The usual approach of Leninist-Trotskyists is to apply Lenin’s criteria from Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, which essentially reduces to the overproduction of capital in the great powers which requires capital export to colonies and semi-colonies to raise the rate of profit at home. The argument goes back to Marx’s Capital to establish the foundations of the theory, and forward to see if the theory applies to Russia and China today. The problem is therefore framed in terms of whether Russia and China today are imperialist on Lenin’s criteria. A second important question that flows from this approach, however, is not just “if” this is the case, but “how”. This is because to be consistent with Lenin’s theory, more needs explaining than the theory underpinning capital export and whether Russia and China qualify in these terms. Lenin as well as explaining the rise of imperialism also argued that the world had been divided among the imperialist powers. Some have taken this mean that there is no room for new imperialist powers to emerge, not least former workers’ states!
In summary, Lenin’s theory draws on Marx Capital to posit imperialism as a necessary stage of finance capital that arises out of its inherent crisis tendencies. Driven by crises of over-production of capital at home to export capital to get access to cheap raw materials and labor, the competing imperialist powers carve up the world market among them. From that point on the world market can be re-divided among these powers only by means of trade, political and military wars until such time as wars produce revolutions capable of defeating imperialism and making the transition from capitalism to socialism.
Therefore it follows that there is no provision in the theory for the emergence of new imperialist powers escaping colonial or semi-colonial servitude. They lack the pre-condition for such a transition – that is, they lack genuine political and economic independence from imperialism. They are oppressed states and as such will remain oppressed by one or other imperialist power. So not only must Lenin’s theory be developed to explain the emergence of Russia and China as imperialist, we must prove “how” this is possible. In the process we can demolish all the rival theories that arrive at false conclusions based on a non-Marxist, non-dialectical method, that is, a bourgeois eclectic, empiricist method.
We must first show that Lenin’s theory, because it is grounded in Marxist method, is powerful enough to explain why Russia and China can emerge as imperialist nations late in the imperialist epoch. That is, far from being ‘exceptions’ to the rule, they prove the rule; that, in the epoch of imperialism, only nation states that have made successful national revolutions and become independent of imperialism, are capable of making the transition to imperialism. The measure of ‘independence’ is not the ‘political independence’ of neo-colonialism, but economic independence won by the expropriation of imperialist property, and the property of comprador national bourgeoisie that act as agents of imperialism.
The Imperialist Epoch
We can illustrate this briefly by reviewing the history of those imperialist states that existed at the time Lenin wrote Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism. Imperialist states by his definition are oppressor states that extract super-profits from oppressed states. Here we will show that those that became imperialist, like Spain, Italy, Britain, Japan, Russia and the USA, inherited pre-capitalist territories and expanded through wars of independence or conquest. All these countries were imperialist by 1914. They divided the world market among them and since then no colony or semi-colony that won their ‘political independence’ has succeeded in breaking free from imperialism, unless that revolution went further than the bourgeois democratic revolution and expropriated the bourgeoisie. Russia is the classic case of a workers revolution where the bourgeoisie were expropriated. Less clear are the post-ww2 national revolutions in China, Vietnam and Cuba, that ended up expropriating the bourgeoisie only because the bourgeoisie refused to make peace with a predominantly peasant-based government.
Those colonies and semi-colonies that underwent national revolutions that fell short of expropriating capitalist and imperialist property have remained oppressed countries failing to break free from imperialism. Since some of these are considered by many to be imperialist (or sub-imperialist), it is important to demonstrate why that cannot be the case. This question has arisen mainly in relation to the BRICS –that is, the grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. These states are grouped together because they appear to be similar on the surface. They are large developing or emerging countries that exercise some regional economic influence and export some capital. For this reason not only do Russia and China appear to have both semi-colonial and imperialist features, so too do India, Brazil and even South Africa. Yet by Lenin’s criteria only Russia and China make the grade because they alone have a history of national liberation struggles that expropriated the bourgeoisie. India, Brazil and South Africa never completed their national revolutions and so never achieved the level of independence from the existing imperialist powers to make possible their own transition to imperialism. That is, the accumulation of capital in those countries was largely expropriated by the imperialist countries leaving them incapable of developing their productive forces to the point of causing crises of overproduction leading to capital export.
Russia and China are different
In stark contrast, Russia and China did complete their national revolutions to break from imperialism to a point sufficient to develop the forces of production beyond that possible in a capitalist semi-colony. The only possible explanation for the economic growth of Russia and China outside the global capitalist economy is that they were post-capitalist planned economies that accumulated a social surplus produce. What makes Russia and China different from the rest of the BRICS is their independence as post-capitalist economies, outside the sphere of interest of any existing capitalist power, allowing these degenerated workers states to develop independently of the law of value. Yet at the same time their almost complete isolation from the global capitalist market forced them to backslide into economic stagnation as the parasitic bureaucracy consumed the surplus as its privileged income at the expense of the further development of the forces of production. While this isolation and stagnation ultimately led the restoration of capitalism, their independence from imperialism allowed them to escape semi-colonial oppression when they re-entered the global capitalist system and to make the transition to imperialism.
This analysis allows us to develop Lenin’s theory to the new situation of restored former workers states. We do this by integrating Lenin’s theory with Trotsky’s theory of the degenerated workers states. These are not the same as the classic ‘limits to growth’ faced by capitalist semi-colonies promoted by development theorists like Walt Rostow. As Trotsky had predicted, if the working class was unable to mount a political revolution to resist the growing distributional inequalities resulting from the stagnation of the plan, the bureaucracy could to overturn workers property and restore the law of value to stimulate economic growth and convert itself into a new capitalist class. The gradual step by step bureaucratic reintroduction of the Law of Value (LOV) became a total transformation in the class character of the state between ‘89-‘92 in Russia and China, when the bureaucracy decided to restore capital and, given the laws of motion of capital, created the pre-conditions for the necessary emergence of imperialism.
We will see how a range of empiricist non-Marxist theories fail to explain this concrete reality in Russia and China today. We exclude from this analysis the Stalinist Communist Parties and their associated currents. They defended the Soviet Union (SU) uncritically and many still see the SU and China as ‘socialist’ (in Stalin’s language) despite the inroads of global capitalism. We limit the analysis here to those self-described Trotskyists in the tradition of the 4th International. We target these groups to demonstrate that Lenin’s theory of imperialism and Trotsky’s theory of the workers state are both necessary in the case of Russia and China today to prove that alternate empiricist theories based on impressions, or appearances, of the concrete reality, fail to provide a guide to revolutionary practice. The programmatic consequence of such a bourgeois anti-Marxist method is a bourgeois program directed against the revolutionary program of the proletariat.
As we argue here, this empiricist method leads to the theory/practice of a refusal to defend workers states or to fight for the political revolution. In both cases this liquidation of the Trotskyist program contributed to the defeat of the workers states. Some recognise this as an historical defeat, others as a victory over Stalinism, but neither owns up to their rotten role in liquidating the Trotskyist program of world revolution in defence of the workers states. In the recent debates over the role of imperialism in a number of conflicts across the globe, the big majority of reformist and ‘centrist’ currents reject Marxist dialectics for an empiricist and eclectic method of Menshevism. This rejects the Bolshevik party as the proletarian vanguard and turns the socialist revolution into an evolutionary process a la Kautsky or Stalin in which the petty bourgeois substitutes itself for the revolutionary agency of the proletariat. As Trotsky argued in In Defence of Marxism (IDOM), empiricism is the hallmark method of the petty bourgeois intellectuals who select facts in isolation to promote their interests as a class or caste that acts as the labour agents of capital.
Empiricism versus Dialectics
Empiricism is the method of the bourgeoisie because it corresponds to capitalism at the level of exchange where the exploitative relations of production appear in a fetishised form as relations of exchange. When the petty bourgeois empiricists ‘select facts’ they are those facts that accord with this fetishised view of capitalism, in which they play a mediating role in the market between employers and workers. Petty bourgeois intellectuals along with the labor bureaucracy therefore act as the agents of the bourgeoisie subordinating the working class to its rule. The class struggle is a constant battle between revolutionary Marxists who represent the general and historical interests of the proletariat, and the petty bourgeois reformists, who attempt at every turn to subordinate the proletariat to the bourgeoisie. The Russian Revolution succeeded because the revolutionary Bolshevik party prevailed over the reformists and Mensheviks and led the workers and poor peasants to victory. The degeneration of the Russian revolution and the failure of the German revolution resulted from the failure of workers to form Bolshevik parties and break from the petty bourgeois currents in the labour movement outside the SU and the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy inside the SU.
The Russian revolution is the pivotal event in the history of the proletariat. It was the single event that proved the Bolsheviks superior to the Mensheviks. Acting as the agents of the bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie in general rejected the revolution as premature. For example, the Mensheviks and Kautskyites did not think the pre-conditions for socialist revolution were present in Tsarist Russia. First there had to be a bourgeois revolution. Hence the Bolshevik revolution was regarded as a coup rather than a genuine revolution because it skipped over the bourgeois revolution. The Bolsheviks broke from the Mensheviks to overthrow the bourgeoisie and make a socialist revolution and the Mensheviks wanted their revenge. They regarded themselves as vindicated by history and rewound events in their heads to start again. Either the bureaucracy became the agents of the bourgeoisie in preparing the ground for socialism, or they became a new bourgeoisie to create a new or more advanced version of capitalism.
These Mensheviks fell into two camps, pro-Stalinist and anti-Stalinist depending on their attitude towards the historic role of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Both camps objectify the proletariat in order to eliminate its subjective role in the revolutionary process substituting the petty bourgeoisie as the subjective agency of history. Thus one identifies with the Stalinist bureaucracy as progressive in this process and so credits the bureaucracy with the subjective revolutionary agency of the proletariat. The other reverses the signs and attributes to the Stalinist bureaucracy the subjective agency of a bourgeoisie or a new ruling class. The both mask their conservative role in collaborating with the bourgeoisie by blaming the working class as unprepared for the historic tasks. Both represent a degeneration of Trotsky’s dialectics that puts the revolutionary agency of the proletariat, and in particular the proletarian revolutionary party, at the heart of its program and characterises the Stalinist bureaucracy as a counter-revolutionary ‘caste’ inside the working class which is dependent on workers property for its privileges.
(1) The Pro-Stalinists
By crediting the Stalinist bureaucracy with an independent progressive role in the transition to socialism, the pro-Stalinists liquidate the revolutionary party and program. Usually they are identified as Pabloites after the leader of the FI in the immediate post-war period. The Pabloites paid lip-service to the defence of the SU but in reality betrayed the revolution by liquidating the revolutionary party capable of leading the revolution. They responded to the restoration of capitalism in the SU and EU, as well as China in the 1990s, by recognising it as a counter-revolution but without taking any responsibility for it in their liquidating of Trotskyism into neo-Stalinism!
A recent example of this is Barry Sheppard’s apologetics for Pabloism. Sheppard admits that the official United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI) went soft on Stalinism and began to see the political revolution as an objective process. But he doesn’t think that it had any responsibility for the counter-revolution in the SU. He claims that the USFI always defended the SU despite Stalinism and did not capitulate like the ‘third camp’. Of course this is formally true; the SU was not capitalist, nor imperialist. But this does not absolve the Pabloites from any blame for the collapse of the SU. If you liquidate the party by underestimating the counter-revolutionary role of the bureaucratic caste, you are relying on objective forces outside the revolutionary party to defend workers property. In some ways this submission to evolutionary socialism is worse than the ‘third camp” since it defaults the task of political revolution to the Stalinist bureaucracy. Sheppard exposes his unreconstructed Pabloism by justifying the Socialist Workers Party (SWP-US) liquidation into the Cuban bureaucracy on the basis of its mass support and break from ‘Stalinism’. Since Cuba was a healthy workers state (however limited by its size and isolation) it did not need a political revolution. Not surprisingly, by such criteria Cuba remains a workers’ state today.
Most Pabloists see restoration as a transformation of Degenerate Workers States (DWS) into new capitalist semi-colonies. So facing the current global crisis and intensification of inter-imperialist rivalry they defend Russia and China from imperialism. We wrote a detailed critique of this when we were in the FLTI. The latest attempt to dredge up theoretical excuses against Russia as imperialist is that of Sam Williams at the Critique of Crisis Theory Blog. The author seems to be in the Pabloite tradition. He is orthodox on Tendency for the Rate of Profit to Fall (TRPF) etc but shows he has no grasp of Marx’s method. His concept of capitalist crisis is flawed by his failure to understand that Lenin developed Marx’s concept of finance capital by graspingits fusion of banking and productive capital at the concrete level of state monopoly capital. No surprise then to find that Williams substitutes for Lenin’s concept of imperialism an eclectic empiricist fact book. For him finance capital is banking capital. So Russia cannot be imperialist because it has no major private banks. Already 100 years ago Lenin had defined Russia as a special hybrid case of imperialism in fusing its capitalist state banks with the Tsarist Empire as an example of state monopoly capital. Never mind, William’s empiricist litmus test is banking capital above per capita $100,000. So NZ is imperialist! Yet Russia and China is below the cut-off point so they cannot be imperialist. William’s second main criterion of imperialism is a military machine. Russia lacks a military machine? Such a method is a caricature of Marxism and Leninism.
Other pro-Stalinists, refusing to recognise the reality of capitalist restoration, deny that a counter-revolution has taken place, still looking for some progressive faction in the bureaucracy that will rescue the workers states from capitalist restoration. For some, Russia has undergone restoration while China has not. What accounts for the restoration of one and not the other is the empiricist ‘selection of facts’ according to some historic schema. In Russia the Yeltsin counter-revolutionary coup led to the outlawing of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), whereas in China the Communist Party (CPC) remains in power. This ‘fact’ is sufficient, backed by selected Trotsky quotes, to account for restoration in the SU but not in China. But by equating restoration with the defeat of the Communist Party, these pro-Stalinists confess to their bankruptcy in crediting the Communist Party with the ability to stop restoration and develop the forces of production as a historically progressive petty bourgeois caste.
(2) The Anti-Stalinists
Anti-Stalinists are of two sorts. First there are those Trotskyists who see the Stalinist bureaucracy as totally counter-revolutionary. The bureaucracy is a caste dependent for its privileges on workers property and it does this by usurping workers power and administering the plan on bourgeois norms. In this respect the Stalinist bureaucracy is seen as the class equivalent of the bourgeoisie. For anti-Stalinists there can be no political bloc with the Stalinists even to defend workers’ property.
The second group of anti-Stalinists are those who saw the Stalinists not merely substitute for the bourgeoisie but actually convert into a bourgeoisie in the 1920s or 1930s restoring capitalism and imperialism.
Both comprise the ‘third camp’ which Trotsky subjected to a cutting class analysis:
“…this new anti-Marxist grouping which appears under the label of the ‘Third Camp’. What is this animal? There is the camp of capitalism; there is the camp of the proletariat. But is there perhaps a ‘third camp’ –a petty bourgeois sanctuary? In the nature of things, it is nothing else.”
We will give most space to our critique of the ‘third camp’ since it was the major break from Lenin and Trotsky on the Workers State, and the concept of a new class state in the SU led to the first major revision in Lenin’s theory of imperialism. Moreover, Trotsky was quick to see the implications of the method underlying this concept of the USSR as ‘imperialist’.
‘Third camp’ vs Trotsky
For the ‘third camp’ in general, the object was to re-define the SU as not-a-workers-state since the Stalinists and not the proletariat ruled the state. Whatever ‘new society’ they arrived at it involved a major revision of Marx’s Capital so we have to retrace our steps somewhat to uncover the origins of the ‘third camp’ and why it survives today. In short the ‘third camp’ arose out of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP-US) in the late 1930’s under pressure of liberal public opinion opposed to Stalinist ‘totalitarianism’. Against Trotsky who argued that workers must defend the Soviet Union unconditionally, despite the counter-revolutionary bureaucracy, the ‘third camp’ equated the Soviet Union with its Stalinist regime. When that regime joined forces with fascism and invaded Finland, such was the liberal outrage that the ‘third camp’ had to look for a new theory of the workers state to justify refusal to defend it. What followed was an attempt to rewrite Marx theory of capitalism, so that capitalism could exist without a market, nor any of the laws of motion that capitalism is notorious for, like booms and slumps, crises and wars.
The ‘third camp’ in the SWP-US began their retreat from unconditional defence of the USSR by identifying the workers’ state with its bureaucratic regime. First they falsified the unconditional defence slogan they recently shared. Instead of defence of workers property relations despite the bureaucracy, it became defence of the bureaucracy. Then as the bourgeoisie saw the bureaucracy’s foreign policy as no different to that of Hitler, the petty bourgeois opposition agreed and Stalin’s foreign policy became ‘imperialist’. “Disagreeing among themselves on the class nature of the Soviet state, the leaders of the opposition agree on this, that the foreign policy of the Kremlin must be labelled ‘imperialist’ and that the USSR cannot be supported ‘unconditionally’. (IDOM, 99). “Our innovators cover the holes in their position with violent phrases. They label the policy of the USSR ‘imperialist’. Vast enrichment of the sciences! Beginning from now on both the foreign policy of finance-capital and the policy of exterminating finance-capital will be called imperialism. This will help significantly in the class education of the workers! (p. 75) It is necessary to add that the stretching of the concept of ‘imperialism’ lacks even the attraction of novelty. At present not only the ‘democrats’ but also the bourgeoisie of the democratic countries describe Soviet policy as imperialist. The aim of the bourgeoisie is transparent –to erase the social contradictions between capitalist and Soviet expansion, to hide the problem of property, and in this way to help genuine imperialism.” (p. 76.)
Here is Trotsky destroying the credibility of petty bourgeois intellectuals and their empiricist apologetics for refusing to unconditionally defend the workers’ states:
“Throughout the vacillations and convulsions of the opposition, contradictory though they may be, two general features run like a guiding thread from the pinnacles of theory down to the most trifling political episodes. The first general feature is the absence of a unified conception. The opposition split sociology from dialectic materialism. They split politics from sociology. In the sphere of politics they split our tasks in Poland from our experience in Spain –0ur tasks in Finland from our position on Poland. History becomes transformed into a series of exceptional incidents; politics becomes transformed into a series of improvisations. We have here, in the full sense of the term, the disintegration of Marxism, the disintegration of theoretical thought, the disintegration of politics into its constituent elements. Empiricism and its foster-brother, impressionism, dominate from top to bottom…Throughout the vacillations and convulsions of the opposition, there is a second general feature intimately bound with the first, namely, a tendency to refrain from active participation, a tendency to self-elimination, to abstentionism, naturally under cover of ultra-radical phrases. You are in favour of overthrowing Hitler and Stalin in Poland; Stalin and Mannerheim in Finland. And until then you reject both sides equally, in other words, you withdraw from the struggle, including the civil war.” (IDOM, 114-115)
Trotsky labels the opposition’s position on the USSR “conjunctural defeatism:
“Let us now check up on how Shachtman, aided by a theoretical vacuum, operates with the ‘realities of living events’ in an especially vital question. He writes: “We have never supported the Kremlin’s international policy…but what is war? War is a continuation of politics by other means. Then why should we support a war which is the continuation of the international which we did not and do not support? The completeness of this argument cannot be denied; in the shape of a naked syllogism we are presented here with a rounded-out theory of defeatism…Since we never supported the Kremlin’s international policy, therefore we ought never to support the USSR…Since we are against Stalin we must therefore be against the USSR too. Stalin has long held this opinion. Shachtman has arrived at it only recently. From this rejection of the Kremlin’s politics flows a complete and indivisible defeatism. Then why no say so?”
The reason Shachtman and the opposition do not recognise this as defeatism is their empiricist method of splitting the function of war from the organ of class rule, the state:
“Shachtman hold it possible that a function, namely, war, can be studied ‘concretely’ independently of the organ to which it pertains, i.e., the state. Isn’t this monstrous? This fundamental error is supplemented by another equally glaring. After splitting function away from organ, Shachtman in studying the function itself, contrary to all his promises, proceeds not from the abstract to the concrete but on the contrary dissolves the concrete in the abstract. Imperialist war is one of the functions of finance capital, i.e., the bourgeoisie at a certain stage of development resting upon capitalism of a specific structure, namely monopoly capital. This definition is sufficiently concrete for our basic political conclusions. But by extending the term imperialist war to cover the Soviet state too, Shachtman cuts the ground away from under his own feet. In order to reach even a superficial justification for applying one and the same designation to the expansion of finance capital and the expansion of the workers’ state, Shachtman is compelled to detach himself from the social structure of both states altogether by proclaiming it to be –an abstraction. Thus playing hide and seek with Marxism, Shachtman labels the concrete as abstract and palms off the abstract as concrete! This outrageous toying with theory is not accidental. Every petty-bourgeois in the US without exception is ready to call every seizure of territory ‘imperialist’, especially today with the US does not happen to be occupied with acquiring territories.” IDOM, 162-3)
Trotsky sums up the petty bourgeois opposition as a whole just after the split in the SWP (US) in April 1940 in his article, ‘Petty-Bourgeois Moralists and the Proletarian Party’:
“The petty-bourgeois minority of the SWP split from the proletarian majority on the basis of a struggle against revolutionary Marxism. Burnham proclaimed dialectical materialism to be incompatible with his moth-eaten ‘science’. Shachtman proclaimed revolutionary Marxism to be of no moment from the standpoint of ‘practical tasks’. Abern hastened to hook up his little booth with the anti-Marxism bloc…Only the other day Shachtman referred to himself in the press as a ‘Trotskyist’. If this be Trotskyism then I at least am no Trotskyist. With the present ideas of Shachtman, not to mention Burnham, I have nothing in common…As for their ‘organisational methods’ and political ‘morality’ I have nothing but contempt. Had the conscious agents of the class enemy operated through Shachtman, they could not have advised him to do anything different from what he himself has perpetrated. He united with anti-Marxists to wage a struggle against Marxism. He helped fuse together a petty-bourgeois faction against the workers. He refrained from utilising internal party democracy and from making an honest effort to convince the proletarian majority. He engineered a split under the conditions of a world war. To crown it all, he threw over the split the veil of a petty and dirty scandal, which seems especially designed to provide our enemies with ammunition. Such are these ‘democrats’, such are their ‘morals’’!
Trotsky’s damning verdict on the petty-bourgeois “third camp” exposed the theoretical fraud of determining the character of the workers state from the ‘concrete’ foreign policy of its Stalinist regime. This means defining social relations or production in terms of its political relations, or economics by power relations. This reduces Marxism to common liberalism. Agreement on the Soviet Union as ‘imperialist’ left the problem of what form of class society is engaged in such ‘imperialist’ expansion. Under the heat of Trotsky’s ridicule, a new theory of the class character of the Soviet Union was needed to account for Stalin’s ‘imperialism’. Max Shachtman, ever the eclectic according to Trotsky, abandoned his abstract ‘workers state’ (i.e. isolated from class relations) for a version of the theory of ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ and rise of the bureaucracy as a ‘new class’.
Trotsky critiqued the theory of ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ in ‘The USSR and War’. For Bruno R: “…the new bureaucracy is a class, its relation to the toilers is collective exploitation, the proletarians are transformed into the slaves of totalitarian exploiters…Bruno has caught on to the fact that tendency of collectivisation assumes as a result of the political prostration of the working class, the form of bureaucratic collectivism. The phenomenon itself is incontestable. But what are its limits, and what is its historical weight? What we accept as a deformity of a transitional period, the result of the unequal development of multiple factors in the social process, is taken by Bruno R for an independent social formation in which the bureaucracy is the ruling class.” [Our emphasis]
Bruno R equates the regimes of Stalinism with fascism and the ‘New Deal’. He abstracts this form of collectivist regime from two specific social formations, capitalism and a new social formation. But he produces no analysis in support of a new bureaucratic collectivist social formation in which a new class of bureaucrats exploits workers as slaves. Shachtman attempts to adapt Bruno R’s concept. He says that in 1939 Stalin became “Hitler’s agent” in an “aggressive military alliance.” This means that Stalinism is an “imperialism” peculiar to the Stalinist bureaucracy in its present stage of degeneration”. The basis of this imperialism is ‘bureaucratic collectivism’:
“Now to summarize our position: What then exists in Russia? We call it a bureaucratic collectivist state – anti-proletarian and anti-socialist, but also anti-capitalist. The ruling class is a bureaucracy. The possibility of such a bureaucracy was foreseen by Marx. I’ve already published without challenge that the leader next to Trotsky of the Russian opposition said in 1931 that in Russia there is a unique ruling class. Bukharin said that in degeneration a peculiar ruling class could emerge. Trotsky allowed for its possibility and concluded therefore that if it occurred Marxism would have proved to be a utopia. I don’t agree with his conclusions but nevertheless he allowed for the theoretical possibility. Our theory arose from our analysis of the developments in Russia. It is impossible for the working class to maintain power indefinitely in one country and it is impossible to create socialism in one country. We thought that the capitalists would be restored but the Russian bourgeoisie proved to be too weak to retake power. Capitalism can come to Russia primarily from the outside. But world capitalism didn’t and couldn’t do it because it was too weak and too torn by its own internal contradictions. In the midst of this mutual impotence, to maintain the revolution or to re-establish bourgeoisie rule, the unique ruling class brilliantly foreseen by Bukharin came to pass by smashing both the working class and the remnants of the bourgeoisie in Russia. The bureaucracy came to power and expanded production – not socialist production or capitalist production, as the international capitalists know it. The working class does not exist in its capitalist form or in its workers’ state form. Even less does the old bourgeoisie exist.”
Shachtman develops Bruno R to characterise Stalinism as imperialism to justify rejection of unconditional defence of the SU. This is the eclectic/empiricist method in full view. On the one hand he quotes Lenin to say that imperialism always existed. “Every war in which two belligerent camps are fighting to oppress foreign countries or peoples and for the division of booty must be called imperialist”. On the other hand, Stalinism is a ‘peculiar’ form specific to a degenerated ‘bureaucratic collectivism’. The SU does not live up to Shachtman’s definition of capitalism or socialism as neither a property owning bourgeoisie exists, nor does the proletariat control state power, so he must invent a new society. He never developed this theory beyond an outline sketch of a new society to fill in the blank page in his blueprint. Meanwhile, the ‘third camp’ had already largely abandoned ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ for the theory/practice of ‘state capitalism’. Note that we are using ‘third camp’ here in Trotsky’s class sense as the ‘sanctuary’ of the petty bourgeoisie.
State Capitalism vs Trotsky
(1) Dunayevskaya vs Trotsky
Dunayevskaya was Trotsky’s secretary in Mexico but resigned in 1939 when Stalin signed a pact with Hitler. She was a prominent member of the opposition in the SWP (US) that rejected unconditional support of the SU. After the split in SWP the opposition formed the Workers Party. Dunayevskaya was the first to develop the state capitalist theory within the 4th International against Shachtman’s ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ theory. Despite his blueprint approach to reality, Shachtman was correct to reject the state capitalist position as misrepresenting the LOV under capitalism. The LOV cannot operate under capitalism unless commodities are produced for sale in the market. Value is thus only realised or valorised by means of exchange. Dunayevskaya abstracts from the market and quotes Marx to say that the LOV does not require a market to be produced and valorised. She argues Marx theoretically anticipated the concentration and centralisation of capital to the point of a single state capitalist. This is a general tendency within capitalism globally so the SU is not an isolated case. But while the tendency has not yet under fascism or the New Deal reached the point of a fully developed state capitalism, in the case of the SU there are no theoretical grounds against such a development where a single ‘collective’ capitalist in the form of the state can both produce and exchange value in terms of the LOV.
Unfortunately for Dunayevskaya, Marx used the term state as ‘collective capitalist’ as an abstraction. The state is derived from production relations where capitalists compete at the level of the firm, at the level of monopoly, and at the level of the nation state to destroy their rivals! In the workers state the LOV as managed by state planning and exchanging of value according to administrative prices is no longer the form of the LOV that defines capitalism, any more than it is the LOV under feudalism or an imagined ‘bureaucratic collectivism’. It is the ‘collective labourer’ in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Marx’s theoretical projections are at a level of abstraction that only bear fruit when the capitalist laws of motion are concretised by experience and observation as the ‘many determinations’ that manifest at the level of everyday society.
Lenin and Trotsky applied Marx’s method through the theory and practice of an organised revolutionary international party to both ‘interpret’ and ‘change’ the course of events of the ‘uneven and combined development’ of global capitalism in all of its everyday reality. They took the TRPF that Marx theorised in the mid 19th century to show how this produced periodic crises of overproduction that gave rise to the epoch of imperialism and monopoly state capitalism which determined the historically specific struggle between classes and nations. A long time before Marx’s theoretical ‘collective capitalist’ could become a reality then, capitalist crises, wars and revolutions would bring about the revolution and the transition to socialism.
Far from the SU becoming the first case of the realisation of the ‘collective capitalist’, it was the result of capitalist crisis exploding imperialism at its ‘weakest link’ where workers rose up to expropriate the bourgeoisie and build a workers’ state. Compared with Dunayevskaya’s attempt to cut and paste Marx’s abstraction of ‘collective capital’ to the concrete, complex, reality of a specific, isolated and backward workers’ state, Lenin and Trotsky applied Marx’s dialectics to the practical problem of making and defending the revolution from the ongoing counter-revolution. The qualitative point at which the revolution would turn into a counter-revolution would be reached when the LOV was re-established in its capitalist form. That is, whatever the level of centralisation or ‘statification’ of the economy, when the LOV is no longer expressed by administered prices, but determined by the market.
(2) Cliff vs Trotsky
The next move was made by Tony Cliff. After the war Trotskyists tried to explain the expansion of Stalinism into Eastern Europe, and Cliff succumbed to anti-Stalinist liberal public opinion that saw this expansion as that of a ‘communist empire’. To overcome the logical fantasy of a ‘new class society’ that mysteriously appears between capitalism and socialism Cliff takes the easy way out and invents a new theory of state capitalism dating back to 1929. Cliff said that capitalism was restored at precisely the time that Stalin smashed the limited market of the New Economic Policy (NEP) and collectivised agriculture. Capitalism arose with Stalin’s ruthless suppression of the law of value. In this respect Cliff was closer to Marx than Dunayevskaya. It is obvious that the LOV under capitalism requires exchange value and therefore a market. Since it was not operating inside the SU, Cliff tried to rescue his version of state capitalism by claiming that the LOV was introduced into the SU through its foreign trade. It was enough for the SU to compete on the world market to be dominated by the LOV! This is Cliff’s claim to fame. Yet obviously, state monopoly of foreign trade negated the LOV and its effects inside the SU. So there is no way that the sale of military goods on the international market was a transmission belt to mean that the capitalist LOV operated in the SU. Cliff’s ‘innovation’ was to junk Marx.
As Paul Morris points out, far from the SU foreign trade (largely in military goods) transmitting exchange value into the SU internal economy, its trade and foreign relations were designed to reproduce ‘use-values’ inside the SU. That is, even though the SU had to ‘compete’ on the global market it did this on the basis of bureaucratic price setting at the expense of the workers’ wages:
“… Cliff concedes that Russia’s [SU] military competition with the West forced it to produce useful weapons and not accumulate large sums of value. In the end, therefore, the whole argument hinges on the following assertion: ‘Because international competition takes mainly a military form the law of value expresses itself in its opposite, viz. a striving for use values’. Cliff gives the example of a capitalist society in war subordinating the production of butter to the production of guns, introducing technical innovations which in peacetime are prevented by the profit making needs of cartels. Is this an example o the law of value expressing itself through its opposite? Only if we consider why the capitalist state goes to war, namely to expand its sphere of extraction of surplus value, to expand its sphere of capital accumulation.”ibid
In other words, only if the SU is competing globally to expand its sphere of capital accumulation, rather than expand its production of use-values domestically, could it be seen as capitalist and imperialist. Capitalist imperialism negates the LOV in the production of military use-values for destruction as a means of defending, reproducing and expanding the accumulation of exchange values. But the SU does not suppress the LOV in its military competition since it is defending a system of producing use-values. “It is producing use-values to defend the production of use-values”. ibid
This is important because it completely knocks out any attempt to claim that the SU was ‘imperialist’ in reproducing the LOV and super-exploiting its ‘colonies’ like capitalist imperialism. If the LOV had actually operated in the SU it would have led to the super-exploitation of its labor power to, and its colonial servitude by, imperialism. But the SU was neither a capitalist imperialism nor were its ‘satellites’ capitalist semi-colonies. The form of ‘exploitation’ that took place inside the SU and within its satellites was based on administrative price fixing.
Thus all the other questions that arise about the nature of the SU as state capitalist: are its workers exploited capitalistically? Is the bureaucracy a new ruling class? Is state capitalism the highest stage of capitalism? Does the SU exhibit the capitalist laws of motion, in particular crises of overproduction, etc., and how to explain the collapse of Stalinism etc., become nonsensical in the absence of the LOV. Labour power is not a commodity; the bureaucracy does not collectively own the means of production; state capitalism does not replace state monopoly capitalism as the highest stage; crisis in the SU is not the overproduction of commodities but stagnation in the production of use-values; and the collapse of Stalinism exposes the myth that the LOV existed in the SU and that it reproduced it as a ‘soviet imperialism’. ibid
Today the Cliffites continue to claim continuity with Marx and Lenin to explain the existence of Russian imperialism and the its role in conflicts such as the breakup of the Ukraine. They say the cold war was an inter-imperialist struggle between two imperialist super-powers. ‘Soviet imperialism’ was defeated in 1990s by US imperialism only to see imperialism return as a revived Great Russian imperialism mounting a challenge to US hegemony? This is a dizzy switchback ride for the Cliffites and any workers who unfortunately fall for them.
(3) Daum vs Trotsky
Neither the wartime ‘third camp’ nor the post-war Cliffites could provide a convincing alternative to Trotsky’s theory/practice of the Degenerated Workers State (DWS). Not until the collapse of the SU in 1991 did another ‘innovation’ appear on the stage. This was Walter Daum’s ‘Life and Death of Stalinism’.Much of what follows is drawn from the critical review of Daum’s book by the LRCI in 1994. Daum recognised that earlier attempts to ‘improve’ on Trotsky while he was alive ran into the problem of Trotsky’s powerful Marxist method. Trotsky had ridiculed both ‘bureaucratic collectivist’ and ‘state capitalism’ theories. Neither Shachtman nor Dunayevskaya had been able to prevail against Trotsky’s theory of the ‘workers state’ and his polemics against the ‘petty bourgeois opposition’. Cliff revived ‘state capitalism’ after the war but in doing so was seen to be breaking from Trotsky in the process. Daum revived the theory of state capitalism at a time when Trotskyism was facing the historic defeat of the SU. He claimed that state capitalism had existed since the ‘counter-revolution’ in 1939, and what is more, the theory of state capitalism, corrected elaborated, was in true continuity of Marx’s method and the tradition of Lenin and Trotsky.
His theory was not new. It was a development of that of Dunayevskaya. First, Daum had to argue that the LOV existed under the workers state. He did this by re-defining the workers state in transition to socialism as a stage of capitalism. This rests on the fact that the workers state is the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Since the proletariat still exists (but as the ruling class) then so did wage-labor and wage exploitation. What constitutes an advance over earlier stages of capitalism, however, is that the workers who are now in power decide how their surplus-value is distributed on the basis from each according to the work, and to each according to the labor; i.e. bourgeois norms of distribution. However, when that power is gradually hijacked by the Stalinist bureaucracy after 1924 it leads to bourgeois norms of distribution being transformed into capitalist property relations in the form of state capitalism. In Daum’s view the qualitative turning point in restoration of capitalism was Stalin’s elimination of all proletarian opposition to the bureaucratic dictatorship in 1939.
However Daum’s claim to improve on Trotsky falls at the first hurdle by misrepresenting Marx’s concept of the capital-labor relation at the level of production. The proletariat certainly survived in the SU as the ruling class. After all the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ is another name for a workers’ state. But this is not a proletariat defined by the labor-capital relation. The labor- capital relation was obliterated except for exceptional forms where capitalist firms were allowed to survive or the NEP which encouraged peasants to produce food to sell on the market. But such exceptions proved the rule that the labor-capital relation was subordinated to administrative prices under the proletarian dictatorship. Second, Daum rewrites Marx at the level of exchange. The LOV can only operate by means of market exchange. Value is not realised as value unless it is exchanged on the market. Hence even where exceptional forms of capitalist production survived, subordinated to the plan in the SU, the LOV did not set the prices in the whole economy. When Lenin talked of a ‘bourgeois state’ without the bourgeoisie, he was faithfully developing Marxism. The workers were in power but under the conditions of an isolated, backward economy, the workers state was forced to use of bourgeois methods of production and distribution norms, subordinated to and directed at creating the pre-conditions for socialist production.
We can conclude that post-war Trotskyism contributed to the defeat of the legacy of the Bolshevik revolution by abandoning the proletariat as the revolutionary class, and liquidating the Bolshevik-Leninist-Trotskyist party. In its place the main currents of post-war Trotskyism degenerated into a petty-bourgeois Menshevism, worshipping the objective development of the revolution under the subjective leadership of Stalinism and the labor bureaucracy; the conservative, indeed reactionary, layers of the working class that acted as the agents of the bourgeoisie in the labor movement. One camp of pro-Stalinists, the Pabloists, worshipped Stalinism as a progressive force in the labor movement. Another camp of anti-Stalinists, the ‘third camp’, turned the SU into a capitalist imperialism between 1929 and 1939; their intent was to paint the SU as imperialist so that it did not need to be defended. Fortunately, the vast majority of the world’s workers did not equate the SU under Stalinism with fascism and willingly defended the SU against fascism. As we have seen such was the role of Stalinism in defeating fascism that it was widely seen as ‘progressive’ even by a large section of the Fourth International.
The original ‘third camp’ inside the Workers Party (US) had no great influence during the war as it merely mirrored one current of petty bourgeois opinion, and its adherents soon abandoned Trotskyism. Dunayevskaya and Cliff revived the ‘third camp’ however, as forms of state capitalism and ‘soviet imperialism’, abandoning the defence of the SU and appealing to workers to take no side during the Cold War. Daum arrived only at the funeral of the SU, perhaps to assuage the guilt of those who did not defend the SU over the previous 50 years, and today justifying this betrayal as a qualification for leading the class struggle against Russian (but not yet Chinese) imperialism! The Daumites are unique in the ‘third camp’ since they can claim a spurious unbroken continuity with Marx since for them Russian imperialism today is a continuation of Tsarist and Soviet imperialism! Hypocritically, they refuse to take any responsibility for the betrayal of the DWSs and their world historic defeat at the hands of capitalist imperialism, and yet claim credit for the world historic defeat of Stalinism.
Other anti-Stalinists, who ‘defended’ the SU despite the Stalinists, like the International Committee under Gerry Healy, substituted for the hated Stalinists, ‘progressive’ nationalist petty bourgeois leaders like Paz Estenssoro in Bolivia and Gaddafi in Libya who betrayed the colonial revolutions with their popular fronts with imperialism. In other words they were fake Trotskyists who substituted for Stalinists to bloc with the national bourgeois and imperialism in popular fronts for ‘national roads to socialism’. While they did not abandon the SU, they propped up the Western imperialists against the SU, rather than defend it by Leninist-Trotskyist means – making the world revolution! They were not alone. The pro-Stalinist Pabloists also abandoned the proletariat and the Leninist Party for petty bourgeois social movements, propping up imperialism while handing over by default the leadership of the political revolution to the Stalinists for centuries.
We stick with Trotsky. We defended the SU, China, Vietnam and Cuba until their defeat at the hands of the counter-revolutions of the imperialist powers, aided and abetted by the petty bourgeois renegades of Trotskyism. These renegades have no credibility as Marxists, Leninists or Trotskyists, having abandoned the unconditional defence of the SU they attempt to take credit for explaining imperialism in Russia and China today, junking Marxism, Leninism and Trotskyism. The theory of state capitalism cannot sustain the notion of ‘Stalinist imperialism’ or ‘Maoist imperialism’. There is no continuity between ‘soviet imperialism’ and Russian and Chinese imperialism today. It is their history as degenerated Workers States that explains why both Russia and China have re-emerged as imperialist powers today.
That is why we insist that the question of Russian and Chinese imperialism is at the heart of the transitional program today. We arrive at our analysis using Trotsky’s dialectics to demonstrate that the qualitative transformation of Russia and China from DWSs into new imperialist states accounts for the fundamental reality today. It is a betrayal of one’s revolutionary duty to turn ones back on the current terminal crisis of capitalism in which two imperialist blocs led by the US and China battle each other to re-divide the world in the struggle for survival. All concrete political and social questions posed today are in the last analysis determined by this inter-imperialist rivalry. To fail to understand this is to fail to build a new world party of socialism on Trotsky’s transitional method, and to doom the international proletariat, and with it humanity, to destruction, and almost inevitably, extinction.
Dunayevskaya and Shachtman on the Russian Questionhttp://thecommune.co.uk/ideas/state-capitalism-or-bureaucratic-collectivism-the-debate-on-the-russian-question-in-the-workers-party/
Paul Morris, The Crisis of Stalinism and state capitalist theory http://www.fifthinternational.org/content/review-walter-daum-%E2%80%93-life-and-death-stalinism
Imperialism & the anti-capitalist Left: Ukraine in Context http://left-flank.org/2014/05/21/imperialism-anti-capitalist-left/#sthash.Qjp8HWOv.mIcMMXxi.dpbs
Walter Daum ‘Life and Death of Stalinism’ http://www.scribd.com/doc/185446840/The-Life-and-Death-of-Stalinism-A-Resurrection-of-Marxist-Theory-Walter-Daum
Review of Life and Death of Stalinism by Walter Daum, http://www.permanentrevolution.net/entry/1475
Barry Sheppard Three Theories of the USSR http://links.org.au/node/3901
Sam Williams ‘Is Russia Imperialist’http://critiqueofcrisistheory.wordpress.com/is-russia-imperialist/
Roger Annis, ‘Discussion: The ‘Russia is Imperialist’ thesis is wrong.’ http://links.org.au/node/3916
Trotsky, Petty Bourgeois Moralists and the Proletarian Party. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/idom/dm/30-pbmoral.htm
Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism. http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/idom/dm/