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The Collapse of the East-European Workers’ States

Jack Bernard

Distinguishing the state from amongst confusion
"Knowledge in general begins with distinguishing between things and appearances, and not with chaotic confusion ...."1

The changes that have taken place in "Eastern Europe" (central-east Europe, the Balkans and the former USSR) over the last ten years have both created and exposed much confusion among Marxists. On one particular question this perhaps appears most glaringly: the nature of the state.

The state is not equivalent to society but is merely a part, a "special repressive force"2 peculiar to a particular stage of human society: class society. The state proper was neither a feature of pre-class society nor will it be a feature of future classless society, and since we can conceive of human society without states it is clear that society and state cannot be the same thing. In relation to the USSR, Leon Trotsky described the state as socialist but refused to similarly designate soviet society3.

When he used the term USSR it generally referred to the state but sometimes to the broader and corresponding national society (the "country"). The term country not only implies a state, a territory and a national identity but often has a fourth connotation: an economy. According to Marx, the basic anatomy of any class society is its division into a "legal and political superstructure" that rests on an "economic structure"4. Society in transition from capitalism to socialism – the dictatorship of the proletariat – remains class society and also consists of an economic base and a superstructure. That the USSR was a national society exhibiting two quite distinct features: a national economy and a "special repressive force" nevertheless eluded some observers. For example, Marilyn Vogt-Downey, writing in the US journal Bulletin in Defence of Marxism, explained workers’ state as:

"a term developed by Leon Trotsky, leader of the Marxist opposition to Stalinism, to define the Soviet Union. (It means a system in which capitalism has been abolished and the means of production are ‘owned’ collectively by the entire working class ...)"5

But the state is not society even though a totalitarian state may appear as such. Neither is the state reducible to the economy. A workers’ state is only a component part of "a system in which capitalism has been abolished and the means of production are ‘owned’ collectively by the entire working class". The need to distinguish between economy and state is not removed because a workers’ state is also the mechanism by which "the means of production are ‘owned’ collectively by the entire working class" – state property. Future classless society will have a planned economy but economic planning will not be a function of a "special repressive apparatus". There will be no state – it will have withered away – but there will still remain a society with an economy.

The class nature of the state
The state is a special repressive force for the defence of the economic interests of a particular social class. In a 1937 debate Trotsky encapsulated this understanding in the following scientific formula:

"The class nature of the state is ... determined ... by the character of the forms of property and productive relations which the given state guards and defends."6

Here Trotsky linked the fundamental character of the state to the overall character of property relations and production relations, i.e., to the character of the economy. This is consistent with Marx’s view that the "legal and political superstructure" of society rests on the "economic structure", i.e., that the latter ultimately determines the former. But there is a limit to the validity of this relationship.

Under relatively stable conditions it is possible to determine the class nature of a given state by induction. Under these conditions of relative social stability, the character of the actually-existing "forms of property and productive relations" directly implies the class nature of the state. Since a combination of economic planning and state property are the chief characteristics of a transitional economy, the stable existence of these relations – and these relations alone – implies that the respective state is a workers’ state.

This method of determining the class nature of a state by induction was, for example, used by Joseph Hansen in relation to the Cuban revolution. He claimed that when "the virtual expropriation of the American and Cuban capitalist holdings" took place in August-December 1960 "Cuba entered the transitional phase of a workers’ state".7 But this essentially correct assessment of the class character of the Cuban state was accompanied by a particular problem. Whilst suggesting that the Cuban state was bourgeois immediately prior to the August-December 1960 expropriations, he claimed, however, that the government had been non-bourgeois since "the fall of 1959".8 Therefore, according to Hansen, for a period of one year, the government possessed a fundamentally different class character to that of the state. Government is the actual executive committee of the state. It cannot have a different class character to that of the state that it heads-up. Hansen had located class conflict in the wrong place.

The period between the seizure of state power in Cuba in January 1959 and the nationalisations of August-December 1960, in fact exhibited a characteristic that is inherent to all periods of social revolution and social counter-revolution, i.e., of periods during which the social dictatorship of one class is being replaced by that of another. Trotsky had addressed this general question in a 1937 polemic. He wrote:

"But does not history really know of cases of class conflict between the economy and the state? It does! After the ‘third estate’ seized power, society for a period of several years still remained feudal. In the first months of Soviet rule the proletariat reigned on the basis of a bourgeois economy. In the field of agriculture the dictatorship of the proletariat operated for a number of years on the basis of a petty-bourgeois economy (to a considerable degree it does so even now). Should a bourgeois counter-revolution succeed in the USSR, the new government for a lengthy period would have to base itself upon the nationalised economy. But what does such a type of temporary conflict between the economy and the state mean? It means a revolution or a counter-revolution. The victory of one class over another signifies that it will reconstruct the economy in the interests of the victors ... such a dichotomous condition ... is a necessary stage in every social overturn."9

Far from insisting on a correspondence between the class nature of the state and the character of the economy under all conditions, Trotsky considered that "class conflict between the economy and the state. . . is a necessary stage in every social overturn". This also means that in every social overturn the political overturn precedes the economic overturn: state power must effectively pass from one class to another before the fundamental character of the economy can be changed.

This has important implications for today. It means that the class nature of the present states of Eastern Europe and elsewhere cannot necessarily be determined by the method of induction, i.e., by first establishing the class nature of the respective economies. If the upheavals of the last ten years reflect an overall process of social counter-revolution – and they do – we should expect to find a situation where a new bourgeois government "for a lengthy period would have to base itself upon the nationalised economy". This is, for example, the actual situation in both the Russian Federation, the Ukraine, Poland and probably other countries. Despite the desire of the respective governments to have brought about a more extensive privatisation, these bourgeois governments are obliged to exist alongside a still-extensive nationalised sector of the economy.

Instead of trying to determine the class nature of the present Eastern Europe states by first determining the class nature of the respective economies, the states themselves must be looked at. States that put no legal limits on private ownership and that have reintroduced the right of inheritance are bourgeois states irrespective of the degree to which they have managed to privatise the economy.

In Eastern Europe there no longer appears to be any states that guard and defend a combination of planned economy, state property and a monopoly of foreign trade, i.e., the characteristic relations of transitional economies in economically backward countries. An exception to this is, perhaps, the new Yugoslavia ("Greater Serbia"). The seceded Slovenian and Croatian states have certainly renounced the former-Yugoslavian system of economic planning involving workers’ self-management, and the Bosnian state headed by the Izetbegovic government does not appear to be too attached to such a system. The new Yugoslavia still appeared to defend workers’ self-management two years ago but the author of this essay is simply ignorant as to whether this remains the case today. Barring this reservation, today all of the Eastern-European states appear to be bourgeois states.

The transition of the USSR from a workers’ state to a bourgeois state
There is a certain attraction in trying to date the transition of the USSR from a workers’ state to a bourgeois state to the time of the August 1991 coup that toppled Mikhail Gorbachev and which finally brought Boris Yeltsin to power. But to claim that the USSR remained a workers’ state up until immediately prior to the August coup, it would be necessary to demonstrate that Gorbachev, his government and the state, had essentially defended planned economy, state property and the state monopoly of foreign trade up until that time. Instead, as we will attempt to show, the backbone of centralised economic planning had already been dismantled. The USSR had been transformed into a bourgeois state under Gorbachev’s leadership in the period 1985 to 1990.

The actions of the Gorbachev government were not a fully conscious process and they also had a partial precedent. In response to the severe economic crisis of 1922, Stalin and others adopted, at the November plenum of the Central Committee, a resolution which essentially abolished the state monopoly of foreign trade. As Trotsky explained: "Subjectively, it is certain that Stalin did not desire to betray the socialist future. But abolition of the monopoly, in its inevitable and moreover immediate consequences, is in no way different from abolition of the nationalization of the means of production."10 Fortunately this action by Stalin and others was corrected in time. The measures that began in 1985 were not.

At the centre of the planning system of the USSR was the Gosplan, the top economic planning agency. Below Gosplan were smaller planning agencies for the various Soviet republics. Gosplan was staffed by economists and statisticians whose task was to draw-up a virtual blueprint for national economic activity, typically for a five-year period. This blueprint translated the major objectives decided by the government (electrification targets, agricultural goals, transportation networks, etc.) into industry-specific requirements (outputs of generators, fertilizers, steel rails). These general requirements were then referred to ministries that managed the industries in question. Here the targets were further broken down into specific outputs (quantities, qualities, shapes, and sizes of steel plates, girders, rods, wires, etc.) and lower-level goals were fixed, such as budgets for firms, wage rates for different skill levels, or managerial bonuses.

A far-reaching reorganization of the system was set into motion in 1985 by Gorbachev, under the banner of perestroika ("restructuring"). The extent of the restructuring that had been envisaged can be judged by the proposed changes in the planning system: (1) the scope and depth of planning were to be greatly curtailed and directed mainly at general economic goals, such as rates of growth, consumption or investment targets, or regional development; (2) planning done for factory enterprises was to give way to planning by factories themselves, guided by considerations of profit and loss; (3) factory managers were no longer to be bound by instructions with respect to the sources of their inputs and the destination of their outputs but were to be free to buy from and to sell to whomever they pleased; (4) managers were also to be free to hire and – more important – to fire workers, who formerly could not be easily discharged; and (5) many kinds of small private enterprises were to be encouraged, especially in farming and the retail trades. This programme obviously represented a dramatic retreat from central planning.

But the importance of perestroika lies not in what was proposed but in what actually took place. The task of abandoning the centralized planning system proved to be far more difficult than anticipated. However, the operation of this system, freed from some of the coercive pressures of the past, rapidly deteriorated. Despite bumper crops, for example, it was impossible to move potatoes from the fields to retail outlets. Rations decreased and rumours of acute food shortages raced through Moscow. By the end of the decade, the system was facing an economic breakdown more severe and far-reaching than the worst capitalist crisis of the 1930s. The unrest aroused nationalist discontent and threatened to dismember the economic and political system. As the central government gradually lost control over the economy at the republic and local levels, the system of central planning eroded. By 1990 the Soviet economy had slid into near-paralysis.

Like Stalin in 1922, Gorbachev had not embarked on a conscious plan of capitalist restoration but had merely pragmatically tinkered with things that he did not understand. Almost inadvertently he and his government had destroyed a crucial function of a workers’ state. The state now no longer essentially guarded and defended centralized planning nor had it replaced it with so-called market-socialism or bureaucrats’ self-management – as the proposals of perestroika essentially dreamt of. The state was no longer a workers’ state.

"Running backwards the film of reformism"
It may be suggested that to claim that the USSR underwent a relatively peaceful transition from being a workers’ state to being a bourgeois state is, as Trotsky put it, "running backwards the film of reformism". But it is worth looking more closely at what Trotsky actually said on this matter.

In October 1933 he wrote: "He who asserts that the Soviet government has been gradually changed from proletarian to bourgeois is only, so to speak, running backwards the film of reformism."11 But four years later, in November 1937, he used a different formulation: "their error is in believing that the foundations of society can be changed without revolution or counter-revolution; they unwind the film of reformism in reverse."12 In the 1933 formulation the government is highlighted as being crucial, but in 1937, "the foundations of society".

Events between 1933 and 1937 proved the inadequacy of the 1933 formulation. In a conversation of February 1936 Trotsky revealed new thoughts, summarising the significance of changes that had taken place within Soviet society:

"The question now is whether the social basis which remains from the October Revolution will overthrow the superstructure or whether the superstructure will alter the social basis. The basis can overthrow the bureaucracy only by a political revolution. It will require more than police measures. Two years ago [i.e., in early 1934], the latter would have been enough. But these two years witnessed the stabilisation of privileges in the ruling strata, especially in the army and police. It is stupid not to recognize that this is a social fact of the greatest social and political importance. The contradictions can become so acute that the bureaucracy, in order to protect itself, may have to revert to [private] property relations. It may have to strike at the roots of the present social system."13

Incidently, this quote contains one of the earliest references to Trotsky’s concept of political revolution.14 During 1934 and 1935 the bureaucracy had entrenched its position. The state had become totalitarian in character and considerable violence – a revolution – was now necessary in order for the workers and peasants to overthrow it. The "social fact" of "the stabilisation of privileges in the ruling strata" was accompanied by a political change: the imposition of a new constitution. Commenting on the latter in a thesis written a few months later, Trotsky made the following statement which, because it contains a rather enigmatic point in its penultimate sentence, is worth quoting in full:

"In passing, the constitution liquidates de jure the ruling position of the proletariat in the state, a position which, de facto, has been liquidated. Henceforth, it is declared, the dictatorship is ‘classless’ and ‘popular’, which, from the Marxian standpoint, is pure nonsense. The dictatorship of the ‘people’ over itself should have signified the dissolution of the state into society, that is, the death of the state. In reality, 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 counter-revolution, that is, the restoration of capitalism by means of a ‘cold stroke’, a possibility for which the bureaucracy directly prepares by its deception about the ‘victory’ of socialism. It is our task to call upon the working class to oppose its own strength to the pressure of the bureaucracy – for the defence of the great conquests of October."15

The actual de-structuring that took place under the rubric of perestroika was indeed an exploitation of the "‘legal’ roads for the economic counter-revolution, that is, the restoration of capitalism" that the bureaucracy had opened up after having completed, way back in the period 1934-35, the establishment of "the dictatorship of the privileged strata of soviet society over the producing masses". As we have already noted, what in 1933 was deemed to be "running backwards the film of reformism" has today actually been completed: "the Soviet government has been gradually changed from proletarian to bourgeois" without the film of reformism actually having been run backwards. Whereas after 1935 a political revolution had been required for the workers and peasants to overthrow the bureaucracy, in the period 1985-90 a reform sufficed for the "privileged strata" to retain its dictatorship whilst changing the government and state from proletarian to bourgeois. However, this reform was a reform of the state – a political reform, merely the prelude to a period of social counter-revolution, of changes in the foundations of society.

The term foundations of society often refers to its "economic structure" and Trotsky, in his 1937 formula and elsewhere, appears to imply no other meaning to this term or to the term social foundations. These terms also seem to convey an identical conception to that of the term economic foundations of society that, for example, he uses in The Revolution Betrayed16. But appearances can be deceptive.

Though the October Revolution was bourgeois in its immediate social content ("was restricted to a petty-bourgeois agrarian overturn and workers’ control over production"17), it "grew over" into a socialist revolution. In Autumn 1918 the wholesale expropriations gave birth to the economic foundations of Soviet society. But unlike the later revolutions in, for instance, Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany and Hungary, these expropriations were not a product of bureaucratic edict. During the months between October 1917 and autumn 1918 the urban proletariat, i.e., the working class in large-scale industry, went through the experience of workers’ control over production.18 During this period the capitalists, though still the owners of their factories, resorted to sabotage of production and lock-outs. Through their own experience the proletariat learnt that it was necessary to go beyond workers’ control, to get rid of the capitalists, and to administer the factories themselves on a national scale. The October insurrection was therefore merely the first act of a truly proletarian social revolution. By carrying-out the expropriations of autumn 1918 the proletariat had consummated its social dictatorship at least in the heartland of the revolution, i.e., the old Moscow principality.19 The proletariat truly ruled the new society.

It may be objected that in reality there was a dictatorship of the Bolshevik Party. Though true, this merely points to the political form of the proletariat’s rule. At this time the Bolshevik Party was comprised of virtually the entire class-conscious urban proletariat. It was their party. The proletariat had ultimate control over this party and even after the final defeat of the Left Opposition ten years later, continued to exert enormous influence on the Stalinized Bolshevik Party.

To reduce the social dictatorship of a class to merely two components: its political dictatorship and its economic dictatorship, would mean forgetting a law of the dialectic: that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It would mean, for instance, equating the situation in the East-European buffer states from the early 1950s onwards with the character of social régime that was established in the Moscow principality by the end of autumn 1918. There are of course important similarities. In each situation there existed a political dictatorship of the proletariat in the form of a workers’ state alongside its economic dictatorship in the form of certain economic foundations of society constituting a transitional economy. But whereas in the heartland of October the urban proletariat was the vanguard of both the insurrection and the expropriations, in the buffer states it was the Red Army of the Kremlin. The latter overthrew the bourgeoisie both politically and economically but these buffer-state revolutions were bureaucratic revolutions. Whilst establishing workers’ states, they did not establish the social dictatorship of the proletariat but merely a bureaucratic and hollow parody of it.

Though general in appearance, Trotsky’s formula of 1937 about "running backwards the film of reformism" most significantly addresses the question of counter-revolution in the USSR. His formula implies that in the USSR violence must be used against the urban proletariat in order to perpetrate such a change – that past gains acquired through struggle and sacrifice will not be readily given up. At this present moment (February 1996) the coal miners in the Ukraine and Russia are on strike because in each case their employer: the state, has not paid their wages for weeks. In these two countries, though the respective states are bourgeois, the social counter-revolution has not been completed, i.e., certain gains of the October revolution today still remain intact. These remaining gains, these "foundations of society", are, however, not economic but socio-political, cultural in character. They exist in the form of the consciousness of at least certain sections of the proletariat. Trotsky’s thoughts of February 1936 remain valid today: "The question now is whether the social basis which remains from the October Revolution will overthrow the superstructure or whether the superstructure will alter the social basis." The film of reformism cannot be run backwards. The restoration of capitalism in Russia is not and could never have been, a peaceful process.

The social régime in the post-war East European buffer states was quite different to that which, today, still exists in the heartland of October. When, for instance, the East-German proletariat took to the streets in 1953 it was not simply to thank the Kremlin for its gifts. The East-German proletariat never went through the same experience as the Russian proletariat: it was not allowed to establish its social dictatorship, it was merely presented with a workers’ state and a transitional economy ready-made. We can therefore at least partially explain the relative absence of violence in one of the completed social-counter-revolutions that has taken place in Eastern Europe: that of East Germany. Whereas in the heartland of October the proletariat went out into the countryside to fight a three-year civil war to consolidate and defend the gains that it had won, the proletariat in East Germany never established a great attachment to the material gains of "its" revolution.

Trotsky’s 1937 formula should not be interpreted as saying that it is impossible per se for the economic foundations of society to be changed without counter-revolution. Instead we should recognize what is clearly implied in his formula but not spelt out: if in a workers’ state the proletariat has not established its social dictatorship, then the economic foundations of society in the form of state property and planned economy can well be changed merely by reform rather than revolution, i.e., merely by a bureaucratic counter-reform that is quite different in character to a full-blooded counter-revolutionary insurrection. In essence this simply restates a basic tenet of Marxism: that in the capitalist era the proletariat is the only truly revolutionary social force.

Why there is social counter-revolution
For the USSR to have been a socialist society and not merely a transitional society with a socialist state, it would have had to have achieved a higher productivity of labour than that attained anywhere under capitalist production. If the revolutions of 1848 had resulted in the establishment of socialism, the productivity of labour would, by definition, have been higher than that previously achieved anywhere and at any time by human endeavour. Following the failure of these revolutions, capitalism proceeded to rapidly increase the productivity of labour (especially in England) though at a rate slower than would have been the case under socialist production. There is therefore no absolute level of labour productivity that corresponds to socialism. If the latter had been realised following 1848, socialist production of the 1870s would have been at a lower level of labour productivity than that actually achieved by capitalism in the early twentieth century.

The essential problem with Nikolai Bukharin’s idea of establishing "socialism at a snail’s pace" in an isolated, economically backward country is that capitalism keeps moving the goal-posts by increasing the productivity of labour. But it has not been only the ideologues of Stalinism that have maintained the possibility that the USSR could have outstripped the West by developing a higher labour productivity. The Fourth International (USec), for example, repeatedly implied that bureaucratic mismanagement was the essential obstacle to such development. Whilst formally rejecting the theory of ‘socialism in one country’20, this organization avoided acknowledging that even the establishment of the most extensive and genuine soviet democracy in the USSR and in other workers’ states, coupled with a complete political and economic unification of all of the post-war workers’ states – that even all of this would not have constituted an adequate basis for the realisation of a higher labour productivity than that of the West. In other words, in reality the USec accepted the theory of socialism in one country whilst formally disavowing it.

Trotsky on the other hand was absolutely categorical that the prospects of the USSR were determined by an external factor. He said: "If the revolution does not expand on the international arena along the proletarian spiral, it must immutably begin to contract along the bureaucratic spiral within the national framework. If the dictatorship of the proletariat does not become European and world-wide, it must head towards its own collapse. All this is entirely incontestable on a wide historical perspective."21

Though he incorrectly predicted that the bureaucracy as a political régime could not survive the second imperialist war,22 the above assertion nevertheless remains "entirely incontestable" and has now been vindicated by the collapse of the Eastern-European workers’ states. This collapse was inevitable because the absence of revolution in any advanced capitalist country left the Eastern European countries isolated in a technical-cultural sense and failed to provide the necessary stimulus for an overthrow of the bureaucracy.

The protracted existence of these workers’ states was due to the character of the political relationship that the Soviet government entered into with the imperialist states: the Cold War. Victory in this war would inevitably be determined by the comparative productivity of labour East and West.

"Mankind is impelled in its historic ascent by the urge to attain the greatest possible quantity of goods with the least expenditure of labour. This material foundation of cultural growth provides also the most profound criterion by which we may appraise social régimes and political programmes. The law of the productivity of labour is of the same significance in the sphere of human society as the law of gravitation in the sphere of mechanics. The disappearance of outgrown social formations is but the manifestation of this cruel law that determined the victory of slavery over cannibalism, of serfdom over slavery, of hired labour over serfdom."23

The social régime of the workers’ states was not an "outgrown social formation" doomed to disappearance – but neither was it socialism. To understand more clearly what so-called "actually-existing socialism" really was, it is worth briefly considering the birth of capitalism.

"Although we come across the first beginnings of capitalist production as early as the 14th or 15th century, sporadically, in certain towns of the Mediterranean", wrote Marx24, "the capitalist era dates from the 16th century." Many of his "followers" often blur this distinction by making too general a reference to the emergence of capitalism or the capitalist mode of production. But the distinction is important because a similar distinction must be made between socialist production and socialism. Though we have witnessed socialist production, we have yet to see socialism.

But the analogy with the birth of capitalism has another dimension to it. From the 14th to the 19th century, i.e., until the advent of industrial capitalism, capitalist production was tied to the apron strings of merchant capital – a primitive form of capital which itself is not directly involved in the production of commodities. The advent of "the capitalist era" corresponded to a change of the essential sphere of operation of merchant capital from the Mediterranean to that of the world. At first it was Dutch merchant capital and manufactories that predominated but by the beginning of the 18th century their English equivalents had far outstripped them. Though these appear as national developments, the capitalist mode of production has never been a national mode of production, not even in its 14th-century sporadic manifestation. The capitalist mode of production involves two exchange relations that cannot practicably be restricted to the national sphere: the exchange of money capital for raw materials (and other means of production) and the exchange of finished products for money capital. The circuit of productive capital therefore almost invariably involves international relations of production. Contrary to popular myth, there never was "capitalism in one country" and similarly there will never be "socialism in one country".

The "victory of ... hired labour over serfdom" constituted the victory of an international mode of production over a national mode of production. The latter historic landmark in human social development cannot be reversed – no national mode of production can outstrip the capitalist mode of production. The transitional economy of Comecon – which included all the countries of Eastern Europe (except Albania) as well as Cuba, Vietnam and the Mongolian Peoples’ Republic – though international in scope, did not possess the technical-cultural level of the most advanced capitalist economies. The advantages of economic planning could not make up for the shortfall in this major factor determining labour productivity. Comecon represented early beginnings of socialist production but not the victory of a new mode of production over "hired labour", that is, over the capitalist mode of production; not the historic victory of socialist production, not socialism.

Socialism remains our programme
For socialism to be established today it would have to be at least on the scale of the North American or the European economy. This does not stop some "Trotskyists" from dreaming about building socialism in "their" country. In Socialist Outlook No. 79, Neil Murray, informing us that "Socialism has to be clarified", proceeded to outline his version of a socialism with "’the commanding heights’ of the [British] economy being taken out of private hands and run by a system of councils of workers’ and consumers’ delegates, accountable and recallable, co-ordinated into a national system".

But a system of British soviets running a British economy could hardly realise socialism. Among Europe’s state-of the-art industries, i.e., those that are key to high labour productivity, British workers, for instance, produce only the wings of the European Airbus Industry’s A300-series aircraft. Similarly, although workers at Rolls Royce in Bristol have designed and developed a version of the latest and largest type of jet engine, it was the German concern BMW that paid the £5M per day development costs and which will most likely organize production of the engine in large numbers. It is absolutely inconceivable that socialism could be built in isolation in Britain by means of "’the commanding heights’ of the economy being taken out of private hands". We are not living in the nineteenth century. These "commanding heights" are not industrial capital but the finance capital of the City. Much of the latter is in the form of, for example, New York real-estate. If the workers seize state power in Britain and the revolution remains isolated, the so-called national economy will rapidly and terminally collapse. Unlike Russia of 1917, Britain is not a vast defendable territory and neither is it capable of a survival-type of self-sufficiency.

Neil Murray’s version of the "British Road to Socialism" is avoided by the more "orthodox Trotskyist" Workers News. Here every issue of this journal states that it is "for the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement with a world-wide federation of workers’ states". But where does this formula come from? Whenever Trotsky referred to federation it was to the federation of nations within one state – within "a single economic and political entity, on the basis of national autonomy of the constituent parts",25 – as he posed it in 1910 in relation to the Balkans – "Only within the framework of a single Balkan state can the Serbs of Macedonia, the Sanjak, Serbia, and Montenegro be united in a single national-cultural community, enjoying at the same time the advantages of a Balkan common market." In September 1939 he repeated this concept of federation as a single-state federation of nations by stating: "the world socialist federation of nations ... This is the programme of the Fourth International."26

A "federation" of sovereign national states is a confederation. Consistent with this understanding, Trotsky’s formula of a United States of Europe27 reflected the actual political form of the United States of America, i.e., of a single federal state presiding over autonomous but non-sovereign "states" – that is, presiding over "republics" and not states in the European sense of the latter term, not separate "special repressive forces".

It appears that the comrades of Workers News only avoid the more obvious formula: "for the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement with socialism" because they equate socialism with "a world-wide federation of workers’ states". Such an equation is wrong on two counts. As we have said, it is possible that socialism could be established on merely a continental scale or, more precisely, through the combination of a number of economically advanced countries. Therefore socialism need not be "world-wide" from its inception. Secondly, and most importantly, it is unlikely that socialism can be established with a political superstructure involving a confederation of sovereign workers’ states. A sovereign state implies a separate army, a separate currency, border posts, customs, trade tariffs, etc. – in other words a separate "special repressive force" in all its aspects. In both Europe and North America the more far-sighted sections of the bourgeoisie understand what obstacles to their own survival the encumbrances of the national state are – hence their respective moves towards economic and political union. Is it not attributing too much to the powers of economic planning to effectively maintain that it could both achieve a higher productivity of labour than that of capitalism and suffer the continued existence of the national state?

The Marxist conception of programme is that it constitutes what we are fighting for. Our programme reduced to a single word is socialism. But today, although we can mostly agree that socialism was not established in Eastern Europe, there is little agreement among revolutionary Marxists on a basic question of principle: What is socialism? There is also little agreement on the nature of the revolution that will establish socialism. In fact a correct understanding of the nature of socialism immediately implies the character of revolution that is necessary to attain it.

"The completion of the socialist revolution within national limits is unthinkable. One of the basic reasons for the crisis in bourgeois society is the fact that the productive forces created by it can no longer be reconciled with the framework of the national state. From this follow, on the one hand, imperialist wars, on the other, the utopia of a bourgeois United States of Europe. The socialist revolution begins on the national arena, it unfolds on the international arena, and is completed on the world arena. Thus, the socialist revolution becomes a permanent revolution in a newer and broader sense of the word; it attains completion only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet."28


1. Leon Trotsky, Class and Art, 9 May 1924, New Park, p.4.

2. See Frederik Engels, Anti-Dühring, Progress Publishers, 1978, pp.340-1; and V.I. Lenin, State and Revolution, Chapter 1.

3. "The Degeneration of Theory and the Theory of Degeneration", 29 April 1933, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1932-33, p.216.

4. See "Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy", January 1859, Marx and Engels, Selected Works (in three volumes) Vol.1, p.503.

5. "Marxism and the National Question in the Former Soviet Union", Bulletin in Defence of Marxism No. 109, September 1993, p.7.

6. "Not a Workers’ and Not a Bourgeois State?", 25 November 1937, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1937-38, p.61.

7. See "Draft Theses on the Cuban Revolution", 23 December 1960, Dynamics of the Cuban Revolution, Pathfinder Press, pp.74-5, theses 9 and 10.

8. Ibid, p.74, thesis 6.

9. "Not a Workers’ and not a Bourgeois State?", 25 November 1937, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1937-38, pp.63-4.

10. "On Those Who Have Forgotten the ABC", 28 December, 1932, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1932-33, pp.44-5.

11. "The Class Nature of the Soviet State", 1 October 1933, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1933-34, p.103.

12. "Once Again: the USSR and its Defence", 4 November 1937, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1937-38, p.37.

13. "A Conversation with Maurice Spector", February 1936, Writings of Leon Trotsky: Supplement 1934-40, pp.647-8.

14. See also "The Class Nature of the Soviet State", 1 January 1936, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1935-36, pp.224-5.

15. "The Fourth International and the Soviet Union", 8 July 1936, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1935-36, p.358.

16. The Revolution Betrayed, Pathfinder Press, p.288.

17. See, for instance, "The Class Nature of the Soviet State", 1 October 1933, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1933-34, p.106.

18. See, for instance, Lenin’s "Speech on the Anniversary of the Revolution (at the Extraordinary Sixth All-Russia Congress of Soviets of Workers’, Peasants’, Cossacks’ and Red Army Deputies)", 6 November 1918, Collected Works, Vol.28, p.139.

19. See "The Class Nature of the Soviet State", 1 October 1933, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1933-34, p.106.

20. For a critique of this theory see Appendix II, "Socialism in a Separate Country?", of the final volume of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution.

21. "The Class Nature of the Soviet State", 1 October 1933, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1933-34, p.102.

22. "On the Eve of World War II", 23 July 1939, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939-40, p.18.

23. "Nationalism and Economic Life", 30 November 1933, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1933-34, p.158.

24. Capital, Vol.1, Lawrence and Wishart London 1974, p.669.

25. "The Balkan Question and Social-Democracy", 1 August 1910, The Balkan Wars, Monad press, p.39.

26. ;"Who is Guilty of Starting the Second World War?", 5 September 1939, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939-40, p.85.

27. See, for instance, "Is the Time Ripe for the Slogan ’The United States of Europe’?", 23 September 1923, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Monad Press, Vol.2, pp.341-6.

28. Trotsky, "The Permanent Revolution", October 1928, The Permanent Revolution: Results and Prospects, New Park, 1971, p.155.