Problems of theory and history


Reading the pamphlet, 'De la bureaucratie', by E. Germain (alias Ernest Mandel), we note that, in the chapter deceptively called 'La théorie trotskyste de la dégénerescence de l'Etat ouvrier soviétique' (Trotsky's theory of the degeneration of the Soviet Workers' State), the concepts of 'Thermidor' and 'Bonapartism' which are nonetheless the foundation of this theory are spirited away. In their place, we find a definition of the bureaucracy which can be summarised as follows: an organisation necessitates leaders, an apparatus and permanent officials and suddenly we have 'budding bureaucrats'. Such is the genus. The specific difference is this: of all the leaders, those are thorough-going bureaucrats whom E. Germain dislikes. Other criteria are vaguely mentioned but this one is the most certain. Compared with the unstable equilibrium of Trotsky's theoretical constructions this idea of bureaucracy has three advantages and one disadvantage: it is simple, pliable and irrefutable but it serves no purpose - or rather it serves all purposes, which comes to the same thing.

    It is true, nevertheless, that Germain resurrects an old idea of Trotsky's which the latter had gone beyond in his own way. This is the characterisation of the Leninist idea of a party governed by democratic centralism as 'substitutionist': '(Lenin's) methods . . . lead the Party organisation to substitute itself for the Party (in the vague and Menshevik sense of the term); then the Central Committee for the organisation, and finally, a single dictator to substitute himself for the Central Committee.'(62)

    Trotsky accused Lenin of distrusting the working class. He reckoned that it was able to intervene as such in the political arena and could not tolerate the leadership of a united and centralised party acting as its agent or 'locum tenens'.(

    This denunciation of 'substitutionism' (libellous in regard to Lenin) has had threefold descendents: those who thought that the proletariat was incapable of becoming the dominant class adopted theories of the 'new class' of the Burnham or Djilas type; those who thought the opposite formed certain anarcho-Trotskyist 'workers'-council' currents; the intermediate position, that of the Trotskyists, was that bureaucracy is certainly inherent in the division between leaders and led but that there is a means by which its effects can be attenuated, namely worker's democracy; that is, as we have seen, the legitimation of factions which reproduce the same division! However, Trotsky was not satisfied with such an elementary analysis of the bureaucratic phenomenon but had attempted to discover its social basis, to explain it in an outwardly Marxist manner in terms of the class struggle. Until Germain came along and turned the 'science' upside-down, Trotskyists described the dictatorship of the proletariat under Stalin as a workers' state led by a Bonapartist bureaucracy. This amounted to a rejection of the Marxist-Leninist point of view according to which bureaucracy always serves and is monitored by the dominant class. Here is how Henri Weber, following Trotsky, justified this position in a pamphlet entitled 'Mouvement ouvrier, Stalinisme et bureaucracie': 'Nevertheless, it can happen that the State bureaucracy rises above classes, erects itself into an autonomous power and temporarily installs its own unmonitored power exercised through the providential intermediary of some all-powerful man.'(64)

    At first sight, this thesis is in conformity with Marx's analysis in the
18th Brumaire, in which he says, 'Only under the second Bonaparte does the state seem to have made itself completely independent'.(65) In fact, if the state seems to be independent, that means that it is not so. With regard to 'the bureaucratic caste' which ruled Germany in 1872, Engels tells us in 'The Housing Question' that the state seems to float above classes and to represent the interests of the whole society but that 'In reality, however, the State as it exists in Germany is likewise the necessary product of the social basis out of which it has developed'.(66)
    Coming back to the question of Bonapartism in '
The Civil War in France', Marx tells us:(67)

The State power, apparently soaring high above society, was at the same time itself the greatest scandal of that society . . . Imperialism is, at the same time, the most prostitute and ultimate form of the State power . . . which fully grown bourgeois society had finally transformed into a means for the enslavement of labour by capital.

It is clear that, for Marx, the function of the Bonapartist state was to exercise the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and to serve the interests of this class. Whereas, according to Trotsky, although the Stalinist Bonapartist regime is 'the historic weapon of the working class', it oppresses the latter, robs it on behalf of a privileged minority, organises production in the interests of this minority and follows a counter-revolutionary policy on the international plane.
    The analogy which Trotsky set up between the 'Stalinist workers' state' and the Empire is artificial and even absurd, moreover, for the nature of the state apparatus varies radically according to the historically determined social formations in which it functions as an instrument for the perpetuation of the social relations, for the domination and repression of one class by another. Marx had already ridiculed this way of masking contemporary realities behind 'superficial historical analogies' which 'forget principles':(68) With so complete a difference between the material, economic conditions of the ancient and modern class struggles, the political figures produced by them can likewise have not more in common with one another than the Archbishop of Canterbury and the High Priest Samuel.
    Apparently Trotsky was unable to think through current problems except by means of 'superficial historical analogies'.

    Even when he applied it to bourgeois regimes, Trotsky used the term Bonapartism wrongly. In this category he included not only fascism but also the governments which he called 'proto-fascist', like those of 'Doumergue and Flandin in France'.(69)
    When the Mensheviks called NEP a 'Soviet Thermidor' in 1921, he acquiesced and even claimed the credit. The comparison is absurd. Once in power, it is normal for the bourgeoisie to wish to bring the revolution to a halt in order to enjoy its victories in peace. The Thermidorians represented the 'nouveaux riches', the speculators and the acquirers of national wealth who did not want any new upheavals. The October Revolution, on the contrary, was the revolution of the proletariat not of the Nepmen and the kulaks. By making temporary concessions to them the proletariat 'reculait pour mieux sauter'. NEP was not the consolidation of the gains of a class of exploiters. It was, quite the contrary, a withdrawal permitting the consolidation of the power of the proletariat, the most exploited class, whose emancipation liberates the whole of humanity. Later and up to 1935, Trotsky ceaselessly warned of the danger of a Thermidor while denying (against certain of his supporters) that it had already taken place. Trotsky and his friends analysed the political struggles throughout this period by drawing on this analogy. Until 1928 Trotsky saw Bukharin and Rykov as Thermidorians. In his 'Letter to Friends' in October 1928, he considered the possibility that the Thermidorian stage could be skipped. The USSR could pass directly to an 18th Brumaire with Voroshilov and Budenny in Napoleon's boots! He also considered the possibility of a restoration of capitalism for which Stalin was preparing the way: 'The film of the revolution is running backwards and Stalin's part in it is that of Kerensky in reverse.'

    He wrote this just as Stalin was preparing to launch the collectivisation campaign and the Five-Year Plans. A poor show for a prophet (armed or not)!

    In 1929, in a polemic with some groupuscules claiming his authority, he defined Thermidor as a counter-revolution necessitating a civil war. He came to the conclusion that, real as this danger was,
it had not yet materialised.(70) In fact, at this time, he thought that 'Thermidor . . . indicated a transfer of power to another class'.(71)

    A few years later, he had to make a 'painful revision' of all his past ideas. He then decided that Thermidor had taken place as early as 1923 when Stalin defeated the left Opposition; Stalin's government having taken on a Bonapartist character, the Soviet Union lived under a consulate. Such is the analysis presented in the pamphlet, 'The Workers' State and the Question of Thermidor and Bonapartism' in 1935.

    Trotsky thus recognised that the USSR had been living under a Thermidorian regime for twelve years without his noticing it.
    These speculations on an inept historical comparison could only obscure the problems instead of posing them correctly, since they arose, as we have seen, from a fundamental theoretical mistake.(

    Later, in his book 'In Defence of Marxism', Trotsky acknowledged that the notion of caste which he applied to the Soviet 'bureaucracy' did not have a scientific character and was only a historical analogy (another one!) helping him provisionally to supply 'the sociology of the present'. The term caste, he said, had a 'makeshift' character.(73)

    Thirty years later, the Trotskyists are still using this unscientific and provisional 'concept' which designates neither a class nor an instrument of a class: 'Far from being its servant, bureaucracy has become mistress of the (entire) society'. They also describe the apparatuses of the social-democratic and revisionist parties as bureaucracies, here again without giving this word a class content; that is, without distinguishing between on the one hand the bureaucratic nature of these parties which lies in the fact that they represent bourgeois ideology and interests among the working class, and on the other hand, the bureaucratic deviations in a Marxist-Leninist party which reflect the class struggle in the party in which proletarian ideology must be ceaselessly consolidated.(74) H. Weber sees in working-class bureaucracy 'a (privileged) sub-group of the proletariat assuming the leadership of trade-union and political struggles' (p. 8). In order to speak of bureaucracy, Weber adopts a functionalist point of view, not the point of view of Marxist class analysis.

    Ultimately bureaucracy would be the product of the division between leaders and led. Its existence would not therefore be linked to a determinate class: the bourgeoisie. Taken to its logical conclusion this line of argument would end up in either the Rizzi-Burnham school or that of Chaulieu and the anarcho-Trotskyists of 'Socialisme ou barbarie'.

    The degeneration of Burnham and Chaulieu-Cardan illustrates that it is impossible for the Trotskyists to be rigorous about their concept of bureaucracy and to continue to invoke Marx and Lenin.
    For Lenin, on the contrary, bureaucracy and the tendencies towards bureaucratism are rooted in capitalism and in the bourgeois and petty bourgeois mentality. 'There is a petty bourgeois tendency to transform the members of the Soviets into "parliamentarians" or else into bureaucrats.'(75)

    How can this tendency be fought? 'Those of us who are doomed to remain at work in the centre will continue the task of improving the apparatus and purging it of bureaucracy . . . the greatest assistance in this task is coming, and will come, from the localities'.(76)

    We see that Lenin talked about purging bureaucracy without suppressing the apparatus and this by virtue of the link with the masses: 'The fight against the bureaucratic distortion of the Soviet form of organisation is assured by the firmness of the connection between the Soviets and "the people", meaning by that the workers and the exploited people.'(77) Bureaucratism has a class nature which had a threefold origin in Lenin's day:

    1.  the maintenance of Tsarist bureaucrats in the state administration as specialists necessary for their 'administrative knowledge';
    2.  the ideological survivals of capitalism (bureaucratic by nature) among the masses and even the leaders, even the revolutionaries;
    3.  the fact that economic and administrative functions in the first stages of the construction of socialism remain tied to the heritage of the previous society and induce a corresponding ideology, leads to a bureaucratic style of work among cadres.

    The struggle against bureaucratism is thus a struggle between proletarian ideology and bourgeois or petty bourgeois ideology. It is a class struggle. To lead it to a successful conclusion, the initiative of the masses must be freed so that they can educate themselves on the political and technical level, so that they can do without bourgeois specialists and so that 'the working class exercises leadership in everything'. 'It is important for us to draw literally all working people into the government of the state. It is a task of tremendous difficulty. But socialism cannot be implemented by a minority, by the party. It can be implemented only by tens of millions when they have learned to do it themselves.'(78)

    The process of revisionist degeneration and of the restoration of capitalism, the principal agents of which are the bureaucratic cadres 'who take the capitalist road' has its structural roots in the discrepancy between the possession of power by the working class and its actual ability to exercise it, particularly in the economic and cultural domains. To reduce this discrepancy it is necessary to conduct the class struggle under socialism, the most explosive form of which was the cultural revolution. Like Stalin, Trotsky failed to understand what this class struggle after the expropriation of the propertied classes might have been.

    For Trotsky, the danger of the restoration of capitalism came from the contradiction between the forms of property and bourgeois norms of distribution granting extreme privileges to an upper stratum.(
79) These norms themselves were caused by poverty and the necessity to resort to material incentives in order to develop industrial production ('primitive accumulation'). Now every inegalitarian distribution necessitates a policeman. 'Such is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy. It "knows" who is to get something and who has to wait'. In the eventuality that it would hold on to power, it would not fail to restore private ownership of the means of production for its own benefit.

    'It is not enough to be the director of a trust; it is necessary to be a stockholder.'(
    The preceding is summarised in Figure 1, in which the arrows symbolise relations of cause and effect.
    It is true that material privileges contribute to the degeneration of the leaders (it is not the only cause) and to the perpetuation of a bourgeois mentality infected with egoism and careerism, even among the broad masses to whom the cadres give a bad example. Trotsky's mistake was to see in this alone the sole source of the tendencies to the restoration of capitalism, which he defined moreover as a violent revolution conferring on directors the status of stockholders.

    In other words, he attributed an exclusive importance to the superstructural legal form of the relations of production, unaware of the problem of their content; he wrote for example, 'The October Revolution has been betrayed by the ruling stratum but not yet overthrown. It has a great power of resistance, coinciding with the established property relations.'(81)

    We know today that the development of capitalism (in the USSR for example) is not reducible to a return to individual private ownership of the means of production. This may, perhaps, be its final



result - but it is only an inessential aspect at the moment. On the contrary, the Trotskyists today who adhere to the words of 'the master' describe the USSR as a Workers' State. They also use Trotsky's problematic with regard to China. Everything that Trotsky said concerning the USSR appears to them to apply 'a fortiori' to China. As the latter is even poorer than Russia, the tendency to primitive accumulation and therefore to 'robbing' the masses must be all the more strongly in evidence there. The same schema thus unfolds. Not only is this schema not in accordance with the facts but the concept of 'primitive socialist accumulation' on which it is based is not Marxist. We showed in Chapter 3 that the analogy thus established with capitalist primitive accumulation is meaningless since capital is a relation of production and not a thing, a certain quantity of money, machines or goods. This analogy helps, moreover, to falsify the problems and even, paradoxically, to justify certain of Stalin's mistakes, since he applied, in its essentials, Preobrazhensky's schema in the construction of the material basis of 'socialism' in the USSR. What the Trotskyists do not understand is that, to the extent that there is such a thing as 'primitive accumulation' it is not socialist.
We have seen what were the economic roots of bureaucracy according to Trotsky. Underdevelopment and scarcity made social inequalities necessary, all the more so since they engendered a strong tendency to primitive accumulation. The bureaucrats were those who knew who was to receive and who was to wait. They enforced the labour discipline necessary for an accelerated growth of production and they justified their privileges by exploiting the country's cultural backwardness.

The bureaucracy's political roots were the revolutionary ebb-tide in Europe after 1923; the weariness of a Russian working class decimated and dispersed after the civil war; finally, the specific corrupting effects of power.(82)
For all these reasons, Trotsky considered that the bureaucratic phenomenon was unavoidable to a certain extent. It derived, in fact, from 'the iron necessity to give birth to and support a privileged minority so long as it is impossible to guarantee genuine equality';(83) that is why:(84)
the tendencies of bureaucratism, which strangle the worker's movement in capitalist countries, would everywhere show themselves even after a proletarian revolution. But . . . the poorer the society which issues from a revolution, the sterner and more naked would be the expression of this 'law' and the more crude would be the forms assumed by bureaucratism.

What would a Marxist Party do if it succeeded in asserting itself? It 'would shuffle and cleanse the bureaucracy and place it under the control of the masses'.(85) Hence a few palliatives apart, the bureaucracy would continue to exist.

    Trotsky defined the dictatorship of the proletariat at the economic, not at the political level: it would reside entirely in state control of the means of production. For him the construction of socialism is unrelated to the class struggle; it is solely a question of economic development. This emerges clearly from this passage in 'The Revolution Betrayed' among others: 'Soviet forms of property on a basis of the most modern achievement of American technique transplanted into all branches of economic life - that indeed would be the first stage of socialism'.(86)

    This idea is based on a confusion between property relations and the relations of production.(
87) The USSR is a 'Workers' State' in so far as the bureaucracy maintains the collective ownership of the means of production, 'the dictatorship of the proletariat has found its distorted but indubitable expression in the dictatorship of the bureaucracy'.(88) Trotsky accounted for this paradox by means of the comparison with Bonapartism. In 1929, he still thought (but not for much longer) that the peasantry would be the social basis of this Bonapartism as it had been for Napoleon III: 'The enriched muzhik or the muzhik who only seeks to get rich . . . is the natural agent of Bonapartist tendencies';(89) and also: 'The problem of Thermidor and of Bonapartism is in essence the problem of the kulak'.(90)

    But the facts obstinately refuse to comply with his schemas. Trotsky characterised his own destiny very well when he wrote that 'a petit-bourgeois intellectual - alas' - uses as his "tools" fleeting observations and superficial generalisations - until major events club him on the head'.(91)

    The expropriation of the kulaks and collectivisation clubbed him on the head and forced him to modify his analysis of 'Stalinist Bonapartism', which now became a reaction to the pressure of the surrounding peasants and the capitalist encirclement:(

The Soviet bureaucracy . . . was summoned to regulate the antagonism between the proletariat and the peasantry, between the workers' state and world imperialism . . . Stalin's 'personal regime' . . . is the product of the living struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie in the last instance . . . The objective function of 'the Saviour' is to safeguard new forms of ownership by usurping the political function of the dominant class.

Trotsky thus argued that the bureaucracy raised itself above the people by performing a balancing act between antagonistic classes 'in equilibrium'. Here again, we cannot ask Trotsky to be consistent. In some of his writings, he said that, faced with the bourgeois offensive, the proletariat was forced to relinquish power into the hands of the bureaucracy; in others, he argued that it was the bureaucracy itself which fostered the rise of the bourgeoisie. Similarly, Trotsky does not seem to have been sure whether the bureaucracy manoeuvred in the last instance to serve the proletariat or the bourgeoisie (there can be no doubt in the case of real Bonapartism). He acknowledged two 'variants':(93)

Upon the social foundations of the Soviet state, the economic and cultural uplift of the labouring masses must tend to undermine the very bases of bureaucratic domination. Clearly, in the light of this fortunate historical variant, the bureaucracy turns out to be only the instrument - a bad and expensive instrument - of the socialist state.

This thesis explains the naïve hopes placed by the Trotskyists of the Fourth International and by Isaac Deutscher in 'democratisation' after the 20th Congress. Higher living standards and a higher cultural level on the basis of 'the socialist relations of ownership', should surely guarantee the advance towards proletarian democracy and true socialism? The idea that Soviet culture was not perhaps completely proletarian, any more than the real relations of production, did not cross their minds.

    In 'The Revolution Betrayed', Trotsky specified the other variant towards which he leaned more and more at the end of his life: if the revolutionary interest did not overthrow the bureaucracy then the counter-revolutionary interest would do it. If neither of them monopolised power, the bureaucracy itself would restore capitalism for its own benefit:(94)

It must inevitably in future stages seek support for itself in property relations . . . Privileges have only half their worth, if they cannot be transmitted to one's children. But the right of testament is inseparable from the right of property. It is not enough to be the director of a trust; it is necessary to be a stockholder.

However, in the same work, Trotsky maintained that the bureaucracy was 'the instrument of the dictatorship of the proletariat' because 'it is compelled to defend state property as the source of its power and its income'.(95) Was it or was it not 'compelled'? Complete mystery remains. Whatever the case, it seems that a new slide in Trotsky's ideas took place a few years later, since he then declares that 'the overthrow of the bureaucracy is indispensable for the preservation of state property in the USSR'.(96) On the other hand, Trotsky insisted on talking about a 'Bonapartist oligarchy' and simultaneously a 'Stalinist counter-revolution'.(97) Bonapartism, whether in its classical form analysed by Marx or in its fascist form, eliminates the parties and the traditional political personnel of the bourgeoisie but governs by serving the interests of this class. In 'Stalinist Bonapartism', on the other hand, although it is 'the historic weapon of the working class', 'the dominant class' (sic), serves the interests of imperialism of which it is 'the most valuable agency'(98) and 'transforms the Soviet social order in the interests of a privileged minority'.(99) Understand who can!

     Trotsky's frequent 'volte-faces' on the nature of the Soviet regime and his permanent conceptual wavering are explained by the fact that while he touched on (but did not see) real problems, he proved to be incapable of correctly formulating them in terms of specific contradictions in the transition to socialism. He confused the relations of production with their superstructural legal expression, property relations. Conflating the three instances of social formation (the economic, legal-political and ideological-theoretical levels), he defined the dictatorship of the proletariat by the state ownership of the means of production. In that case, the Asiatic mode of production of the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Peru etc, would have been socialist prototypes; modern Egypt would be a dictatorship of the proletariat.(100) Trotsky did not understand that in a country in which the state disposes of the means of production, the decisive question is to know who holds power. Confronted with the paradox of a 'dictatorship of the proletariat' in which the latter suffers the dictatorship, he extricated himself by resorting either to a medical metaphor which underlined the contingent character of the phenomenon (this dictatorship is 'very sick!')(101) or to the illegitimate historical analogy with Bonapartism which, on the contrary, linked it to a 'sociological law'.

    Now under this latter regime, the state serves the bourgeoisie because it is dominant on the economic level. The proletariat, on the contrary, can only hold economic power on condition that it exercises political power. If it loses the latter, it loses everything.

    The perfectly clear meaning of Lenin's texts on this subject has been obscured for half a century by Trotskyist, Stalinist and Khrushchevite ideologies. The Bolshevik leader had emphasised that the only differences between state capitalism in Germany and that set up in Russia in 1918 was that in the latter country, 'the workers hold state power'. According to him, if you combine state capitalism along German lines with 'the proletarian, Soviet state . . . you will get all the conditions necessary for socialism'.(102)

    The tendencies to bureaucratism which appear within the proletarian state apparatus - that is, the tendencies of certain leaders to cut themselves off from the masses, to behave like despotic overlords, to award themselves privileges - reflects the persistent influence of bourgeois ideology which also tends to deflect the economic, educational and international policy of the socialist state. A struggle develops between the leaders who thus take the capitalist road and the consistent revolutionaries who wish to advance towards socialism, a struggle which is sometimes latent, sometimes overt and sometimes explosive. This struggle between the two lines, between the two roads, is pursued unceasingly throughout the period of the transition to socialism. The elements who, disguised as Marxist-Leninists, are taking the capitalist road may seize power at any moment, that is, deflect the party and the state in a non-proletarian direction. This deviation can become irreversible and lead to the restoration of capitalism. That is why the principal contradiction after the abolition of private ownership of the means of production is the contradiction between the revolutionary masses and the leaders taking the capitalist road.

 If, from the principal aspect, the revolutionary masses become the secondary aspect of this contradiction, the class nature of the state changes, which entails the usurpation of power by a new bourgeoisie. The 20th Congress of the CPSU marked such a turning point, the causes of which obviously go back much further.
The great proletarian cultural revolution made it possible to resolve in practice and in theory the problem posed by the pursuit of the class struggle under the dictatorship of the proletariat by liberating the initiative of the masses through a broad democracy, so that they could follow affairs of state and overthrow the reactionary leaders. We know that the slogan of the last stage was 'The working class must exercise leadership in everything', in other words, not only in the factories (even this is impossible without struggles) but also in the educational institutions and party and government bodies.
It is now clear that the analysis of the Soviet regime developed by Trotsky and based on the concepts of 'bureaucratic centralism', 'Thermidor', and 'Bonapartism', cast no light at all on the struggle between the two lines and consequently failed to bring out the laws of development of a social formation in transition to socialism. Thus all his predictions have been contradicted by events, one after another. His successors have not been any luckier. They concentrated the full blast of their criticism on Stalin and put their hopes in Tito and Khrushchev, from whom bitter disappointments awaited them. They did not understand the cultural revolution in which the masses have been seen struggling against the bureaucrats, because it shattered their theoretical moulds into a thousand pieces.