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Did Trotsky retreat from viewing USSR as a workers’ state?

November 15, 2017
Trotsky Stalin Dzer burial 1926-4

Trotsky and Stalin at the funeral of Felix Dzerzhinski, 1926. From left: Mikhail Kalinin, Leon Trotsky, Lev Kamenev, Joseph Stalin.

Reassessing Trotsky’s biography of Stalin – Part 2

See also Part 1: Did Bolshevism lead to Stalinism

The new edition of Trotsky’s biography of Stalin, edited by Alan Woods, enables us to test a second hypothesis suggested by the 1946 Malamuth edition of this book: that Trotsky, in his final months, was retreating from his long-held contention that the Soviet Union, even under Stalin’s totalitarian dictatorship, remained a workers’ state.[1]

My own conclusion, having read Trotsky’s text as a whole, is that his comments on the Soviet Union and its ruling layer are consistent with his previous position, particularly regarding its character as a “bureaucratic caste” rather than a new “ruling class.” I see no shift in approach. But my opinion is hardly conclusive, and we must try other lines of inquiry.

My friend and colleague Paul Kellogg has made the helpful suggestion that we examine Trotsky’s use in this manuscript of the concept that the Soviet ruling layer had control over disposition of the social surplus in the Soviet Union. Some have suggested that this control is a defining characteristic of a ruling class. Moreover, identifying the ruling layer under Stalin as a “class” is usually taken to signify, as Trotsky was well aware, of the theory that the Soviet Union under Stalin no longer represented a workers’ state – a theory to which Trotsky always objected.

I found three passages in the book that take up control of the social surplus. In each case the context is the early and mid-1920s, the time of the early New Economic Policy. In each case Trotsky explicitly counterposes control of the surplus by the bureaucracy to that by the newly resurgent capitalist forces. Here are the passages:

  1. The kulak [rich peasant] joined forces with the small industrialist to work for the complete restoration of capitalism. In this way an irreconcilable struggle opened up over the division of the surplus product of labour. Who would dispose of it in the near future: the new bourgeoisie or the Soviet bureaucracy? (p. 563)
  2. The economy revived. A small surplus appeared. Naturally it was concentrated in the cities and at the disposal of the ruling strata. (p. 589)
  3. In regard to the [struggle over the] national surplus product, the bureaucracy and the petty-bourgeoisie quickly changed from an alliance to direct enemies. The control of the surplus product opened the bureaucracy’s road to power. (p. 595)

None of this suggests a recognition that capitalist rule had been restored. That is no surprise; Trotsky then spoke as one of the central leaders of the Soviet state. He then considered that the Soviet government (the “bureaucracy”) acted as an agent of the working class and served its interests. Nowhere in his writings of the time does Trotsky suggest that the Soviet republic was anything other than a workers’ state.

Trotsky expressed this view forcefully. For example, at the Communist International’s Fourth World Congress in 1922, Trotsky defended Soviet economic measures (the “New Economic Policy” or NEP) at length against criticisms expressed by some Communist currents both in Soviet Russia and internationally. He viewed the NEP as a system of measures to strengthen the workers’ state and workers’ power. In the same discussion, Lenin applies the label “state capitalist,” but in a positive sense, with reference to the Soviet economy rather than to its state. Trotsky declined to use that term.[2]

Surely, if Trotsky had concluded, in his final years, that a new ruling class had overturned the workers’ state in the early 1920s, he would have expressed this view openly in his Stalin manuscript and elsewhere.

Date of composition

A second line of inquiry concerns the date of composition. Does this manuscript in fact contain Trotsky’s final comments on the Soviet state under Stalin?

The editors’ introductory material provides clues as to this date. Trotsky continued to write and edit until he was killed on August 21, 1940. But at the time of his death, he is said to have been looking forward to resuming work on “my poor book” after a long and frustrating pause. The latest time that he might have worked on it, we learn, was May 1940. But a review of political events at that time indicates that he must have ceased work at least eight months earlier.[3]

During the last year of Trotsky’s life, a series of events related to the outbreak of World War 2 challenged all Marxists, including Trotsky, to review their analysis of the Soviet Union. These events included:

  • The Stalin-Hitler treaty, which gave the Nazis the green light for war.
  • The Soviet seizure of the country’s eastern marches of Poland during Hitler’s conquest of that country.
  • The structural assimilation of these regions to the Soviet Union, which included not only transformation of the economy but extensive arrests and killings of those judged to be potentially disloyal – an extension of Stalin’s massacres in the Soviet Union during the previous decade.[4]
  • Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and their incorporation into the Soviet Union.
  • A Soviet war with Finland.

Some Marxists, including prominent leaders of the Trotskyist movement, took these events as proof that the Soviet Union was no longer in any sense a workers’ state and should not be defended in the onrushing war. In Trotsky’s opinion, although some of these actions could be justified in terms of defending the USSR against German attack, their cost in terms of world workers’ sympathy with the Soviet Union outweighed any military advantage. However, he denied that these developments justified a change in Marxists’ assessments of the Soviet Union.

Trotsky posed Soviet occupation of these borderlands as a test of the Soviet state’s character. Would it be able to tolerate and utilize the capitalist social system in these territories, as – to use a contemporary example – China has done in Hong Kong? On the contrary, capitalist relations were overturned in these regions and the nationalized and planned economy extended to the occupied borderlands, demonstrating the two social systems’ incompatibility.

A debate on these issues flared up among Trotsky’s supporters in the Socialist Workers Party (U.S.), in which Trotsky took an  active part. His contributions, running from 12 September 1939 to 17 August 1940, are collected in the book, In Defense of Marxism.[5]

There is no reference to events of this period or to the discussion around them in Trotsky’s Stalin manuscript.

Could it be that he had just not got to that point in his story? No, quite the contrary, because Trotsky did not write the manuscript sequentially from beginning to end. He assembled materials for all projected chapters simultaneously, and his fragmentary texts and source material were sorted, as they became available, into folders relating to each chapter. If Trotsky had been working on his Stalin biography between September 1939 and May 1940, while he was immersed in writing on the war and the USSR, this would be reflected in his Stalin biography manuscript. The fragments he wrote on the Soviet state’s degeneration, which deal with events as late as 1938, cover 40 pages of the biography. Yet there is no mention in any part of his Stalin manuscript of events after 1938, such as those surrounding the outbreak of World War 2 or of the resulting debate.

This absence makes clear that the manuscript was compiled before the outbreak of war and does not represent Trotsky’s final views on the character of the Soviet Union. These are found in his writings of 1939-40 on the Soviet Union and the war, collected in In Defense of Marxism.

The Soviet Union at war

The Stalin-Hitler pact of 23 August 1939 resulted in immediate calls within the Trotskyist movement for a change of stance regarding the USSR. Trotsky responded to this challenge on 12 September: “Who says that the USSR is no more a degenerate workers’ state, but a new social formation, should clearly say what he adds to our political conclusions.”[6]

The central political issue, as he saw it, was not what to call the Soviet Union but where to stand on its conflicts with imperialist states. “Suppose that Hitler turns his weapons against the east,” Trotsky wrote later that month. The Fourth International, made up of Trotsky’s supporters worldwide, will adopt “as the most urgent task of the hour, the military resistance against Hitler…. While arms in hand they deal blows to Hitler, [they] will at the same time conduct revolutionary propaganda against Stalin preparing his overthrow at the next and perhaps very near stage.”[7]

On 25 April 1940, after more than six months of debate, Trotsky wrote a summary comment in which he called on socialists to “explain to the world working class that no matter what crimes Stalin may be guilty of we cannot permit world imperialism to crush the Soviet Union, reestablish capitalism and convert the land of the October Revolution into a colony.”[8]

A month later, on May 28, he completed a manifesto on the war. It includes a section “Defense of the USSR” that states, in part:

[T]he crimes of the Kremlin oligarchy do not strike off the agenda the question of the existence of the USSR. Its defeat in the world war would signify not merely the overthrow of the totalitarian bureaucracy but the liquidation of the new forms of property, the collapse of the first experiment in planned economy, and the transformation of the entire country into a colony; that is, the handing over to imperialism of colossal natural resources which would give it a respite until the third world war. Neither the peoples of the USSR nor the world working class as a whole care for such an outcome.[9]

Most of the participants in the 1939-40 debate who held that the workers’ state had been entirely extirpated under Stalin embraced a “third camp” position of neutrality regarding conflicts between the USSR and Hitler’s Germany. This position was maintained after Hitler’s forces invaded the USSR the following year. “Third camp” proponents expected the fall of the Stalin regime and the rise of an independent working-class anti-fascist movement.[10]

But events took a different course. When the Nazis invaded, despite some initial uncertainty, working people in the USSR rallied to the Red Army as the only available shield against Nazi genocide. In several years of savage conflict, the Soviet Red Army and the resistance movement across Europe dealt the decisive blows that destroyed Hitlerism.

Was this battle worth fighting? The question has been reposed in Europe today by the rise of far-right movements in many countries – Ukraine, Hungary, France, etc. – whose historical lineage goes back to Hitler’s allies in the Nazi-dominated countries of Europe.

For many neo-Nazis in Europe today, Hitler’s war against the U.S. may seem misguided, but his crusade in Eastern Europe was a just war against communist barbarism. Socialists must do better than merely take a stance of neutrality.

Reference to the horrendous human cost of Stalinist repression do not help us here. Trotsky affirmed that the Stalinist system of rule was similar to that of Hitler, applying the epithet “totalitarian.” But the question posed by the Nazi invasion was whether working people could make use of the Soviet state and army to resist and defeat fascism and, thereby, open the road to revolutionary gains.

A war of colonial conquest

In this regard, it is significant that both the quoted statements by Trotsky in the last months of his life on defense of the USSR note that the goal of Hitlerite Germany in its impending war against the Soviet Union would be not merely to conquer it and lay claim to its resources but to subject it to a vast project of settler colonialism. This was no secret at the time. Germany’s rulers had floated this project many decades previously, terming it the quest for “Lebensraum” – living space. In 1914, they had integrated it into their war aims. The Nazis picked up on this project, included it in their foundational statements, and imbued it with their characteristically aggressive racist extremism.

The German attack on the USSR had the explicit goal of killing thirty million Soviet citizens through starvation in order to free up food for the needs of the Nazi empire. This and other dimensions of Nazi genocidal plan were implemented from the start of their invasion.[11]

During the opening weeks of the invasion, working people of the Soviet Union, realizing the Nazi’s true intentions, rallied to the Red Army as the only available instrument with which they could resist and defeat Fascism.

As Marxist theorist Ernest Mandel later pointed out, the Nazis’ genocidal methods were not new: they had been used before against peoples of Asia, Africa, and America. What was particularly horrifying about Nazi genocide was its employment against industrialized and culturally “advanced” white peoples of Europe.[12]

It is here, in the resistance to Hitler’s anti-Soviet war, and not in references to control of the social surplus, that we find the core of Trotsky’s final judgment of the Soviet Union.

This neglected anticolonial thread in Trotsky’s final statements on defense of the Soviet Union provides a framework within which Marxists who differ on sociological definition of the Soviet Union can find common ground in their assessment of the historic clash of German fascism with the Soviet Union.

The last word

Trotsky’s text as presented in Alan Woods’ edition ends with a prophetic reiteration of the author’s verdict on the Soviet Union under Stalin:

“[I]n spite of monstrous bureaucratic distortions, the class basis of the USSR remains proletarian. Although it undermines these achievements, the bureaucracy has not yet ventured to resort to the restoration of the private ownership of the means of production. But let us bear in mind that the unwinding process has not yet been completed and the future of Europe and the world during the next few decades has not yet been decided.”[13]

This paper was prepared for presentation to the Geopolitical Economy Research Group’s “Revolutions” conference in Winnipeg, September 29-October 1, 2017.


[1]. See Leon Trotsky, Stalin: An Appraisal of the Man and His Influence [Stalin], translated and edited by Alan Woods, London: Wellred Books, 2016 and Leon Trotsky, Stalin – an Appraisal of the Man and his Influence, translated and edited by Charles Malamuth, New York: Harper & Bros., 1946.

[2]. See the speeches by Lenin (pp. 292-305), Trotsky (pp. 347-371), and Clara Zetkin (pp. 305-337) on the New Economic Policy which appear in Riddell, ed., Toward the United Front, 2011. The speeches are analyzed, with references, ibid. pp. 36–41.

[3]. Stalin, xxiv-xxix.

[4]. Long after the war, Russian authorities admitted Soviet responsibility for the notorious “Katyn” massacres, in which some 20,000 suspects were killed.

[5]. Trotsky, In Defense of Marxism: The Social and Political Contradictions of the Soviet Union [IDOM], New York: Pathfinder, 1990.

[6]. Trotsky, IDOM, p. 1: “A Letter to James P. Cannon,” September 12, 1939.

[7].  Trotsky, IDOM, p. 20.

[8]. Trotsky, IDOM, “Balance Sheet of the Finnish Events,” p. 176.

[9]. “Manifesto of the Fourth International on Imperialist War and the Proletarian Revolution,” in Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1939-40, New York: Pathfinder, 1973, pp. 183-222. See also Trotsky’s letter on completing the Manifesto, ibid., 228-9.

[10]. See “The War in Russia,” a manifesto of the American Committee for the Fourth International, in New International, September 1941, pp. 241–7.

[11]. Alex J. Kay, “The Radicalization of German Food Policy in Early 1941,” in Kay, Jeff Rutherford, and David Stahel, ed., Nazi Policy on the Eastern Front, 1941, Rochester: University of Rochester, 2012,

[12]. Ernest Mandel, The Meaning of the Second World War, London: Verso, 1986, pp. 90-3. See also Ava Lipatti, “Russophobia and the Logic of Imperialism,” posted by the Hampton Institute on 8 June 2017. Lipatti builds on Domenico Losurdo’s War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century, London: Verso, 2015.

[13]. Stalin, p. 690.

  1. My view, for many years has been that the USSR as a degenerated workers state meant nothing other than the USSR had once been a workers state but no longer was and that some gains from the revolution still remained. There is no question it was ruled by a bureaucratic caste. But my view is that the USSR resembled a modern version of feudalism with Stalin acting as a feudal king, the bureaucracy as the nobility and the working class as serfs. I think my analogy should be further investigated. From this I conclude that the Eastern European states were not deformed workers states at all by simply an extension of the new feudalism. Of course the Soviet Union still needed to be defended from attacks by capitalist states, just not on the basis of it being some sort of workers state. Today it is obvious that nationalization does not make a state socialist as many countries have nationalized large sections of the economy without giving up their capitalist character but I suspect in Trotsky’s day it was not as apparent that nationalization does not necessarily mean asocial advance.

  2. geoff1954 permalink

    I agree completely that “In Defense of Marxism” is the most useful of Trotsky’s writings that we have available to discuss this question. Moreover as John’s article reminds us, “In Defense of Marxism” was not “just a book.” It is the collection of Trotsky’s writings on what he considered the most pressing question facing those who were seeking to maintain a Leninist course at that time.

    Had Trotsky come to any firm conclusion that differed from the views he expressed in the debate in the SWP, it is virtually inconceivable that he would not have made that crystal clear. It was not strictly a matter of his personal opinion. It was a question of the stance of an entire movement associated with his fight to maintain a Leninist course.

    Of course what future conclusions Trotsky might have come to, based on events he did not live to see, is impossible to answer. But I doubt the issue for Trotsky was the depth of the crimes of Stalinism (as someone has suggested in the discussion of John’s post on Facebook). Throughout “In Defense of Marxism” Trotsky makes clear his grasp of the depth of those crimes.

    In “The USSR and War” Trotsky writes, “The Soviet oligarchy possesses all of the vices of the old ruling classes but lacks their historic mission.”

    Later in that same article in response to “Bruno R.” Trotsky paraphrases Bruno’s view this way: “On the one side the Soviet bureaucracy has adopted the political methods of fascism.” Leaving no doubt where Trotsky himself stood on that assertion, Trotsky continues, “The first assertion is absolutely correct.”

    However like John I do find something anticipatory about this comment by Trotsky in the Stalin biography:

    “But let us bear in mind that the unwinding process has not yet been completed and the future of Europe and the world during the next few decades has not yet been decided.”

    This fits like a glove, in my view, with three points Trotsky made in “In Defense of Marxism”:

    “…we expected the wrecking of the Soviet state, rather than its degeneration; to put it more correctly, we did not sharply differentiate between these two possibilities. But they do not at all contradict each other. *Degeneration must inescapably end at a certain stage in downfall*.” (My emphasis. GM)
    — from “The USSR in War.”

    “To determine at the right moment the critical point where quantity changes into quality is one of the most important and difficult tasks in all the spheres of knowledge including sociology.”
    — from “A Petty-Bourgois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party”

    “The dialectic is not a magic master key for all questions. It does not replace concrete scientific analysis.”
    — from the same article

  3. Kevin Murph permalink

    Very interesting discussion. Tom Twiss, in surely the most systematic work on Trotsky’s changing position on the Soviet Union, correctly emphasize Bonapartism as central to Trotsky’s analysis. This has largely been ignored by both critics and supporters of Trotsky. Please see my HM review here:

  4. Thank you for the various comments on this article. I welcome Les Evanchuk’s statement that in the context of 1941 it was appropriate to defend the Soviet Union, only not as a workers’ state. This strikes me as creating common ground for those who do and do not have the “workers’ state” definition.

    There has also been an extensive discussion on my Facebook home page. I raised this issue on a post on Facebook, as follows:

    In my review, I quote Trotsky that the issue posed as he was writing was not the sociological definition of the Soviet Union but that of Marxists’ attitude to it. The final section of my review dealt with that at some length, perhaps breaking some new ground.

    I specifically posed this in terms of an attempt to find common ground with those who maintain a state-capitalist position. I said that the historical question of whether to support the Red Army against Hitlerism is posed again now — for example with respect to Canada’s foreign affairs minister, who finds in impossible to disavow her Nazi collaborationist grandfather.

    I look forward to a response on this question.

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