The November 2000 issue of Workers Power announces a dramatic about-face on the meaning and significance of the shift back to capitalism in Eastern Europe and the former USSR following the collapse of Stalinism in the period 1989-1991. After a lengthy international discussion, the Fifth Congress of the League for a Revolutionary Communist International (LRCI), in July 2000, passed a resolution renouncing their previous characterization of Russia as a moribund workers state. They now consider Russia to be a bourgeois restorationist state. It is not entirely clear whether this change represents serious leftward movement or is simply an attempt to be rid of an embarrassing positioni.e., that for the past nine years Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin have been administering a state with a proletarian class character.
The LRCI resolution notes that in transitional periodstimes of revolution or counter-revolutionthe class nature of the state can be in sharp opposition to the class character of the economic system operating within its borders. Further, the LRCI now apparently accepts the elementary Marxist proposition that the class character of a state is determined by the class interests and property relations it promotes and defends:
The resolution unambiguously characterizes Yeltsins victory over the Stalinist hardliners attempted coup in August 1991 as the critical event in the destruction of the degenerated Soviet workers state:
This highly significant characterization is reiterated later in the text:
And, just to drive the point home, it is repeated a third time:
The LRCIs position now closely approximates our own:
The LRCI resolution also rejects the notion that there can be a proletarian institutionthe moribund workers statewhich Marxists are not obliged to defend in times of war. Yet it remains silent on the necessity to defend a workers state against internal counterrevolution. It seems unlikely that this is merely an oversight. While the resolution clearly signals a significant change in analysis, there is no indication of a corresponding programmatic development, nor any reassessment of LRCI members participation in the defense of Yeltsins headquarters during the 1991 coup.
August 1991: LRCIs Gordian Knot
On the question of defensism, the LRCI has concluded that its moribund workers state position lacks theoretical and programmatic utilityit brings nothing but confusion to the issue. Yet there is still confusion within the LRCI, even among the critics of the moribund theory. The article reports that at the LRCIs previous congress in 1997, the majority rejected the suggestion that, if indeed Russia under Yeltsin was some kind of proletarian state (albeit a moribund one), Trotskyists were obligated to defend it. In making this point, the proponents of the moribund workers state theory:
The moribund workers state theory is indeed absurd, but in seeking to change labels without drawing the programmatic conclusions, the LRCIs current majority leaves their Gordian knot intact. If it was impossible to defend proletarian property relations by forming a united front with Yeltsin, and if, as the LRCI majority now acknowledges, the counterrevolution triumphed in August 1991 with the defeat of the Stalinist coup, then Soviet defensists should have sided militarily with Yanayev against Yeltsin.
While the LRCIs new resolution fails to take sides in this confrontation, it does come close:
Until August 1991 LRCI comrades were defensists. After August this was impossible. But where does the LRCI stand on the August 1991 crisis? In an article in the May 1993 issue of the LRCIs Trotskyist International entitled, Sectarians abandon the gains of October, Keith Harvey, the architect of the moribund workers state theory, attacked us as ultra-lefts, dogmatistsand Stalinophiles for observing that Yeltsins victory represented the triumph of counterrevolution. In the introduction to his article, Harvey noted:
Today it seems that some in the LRCI may be edging closer to cutting the knot for themselves, after belatedly recognizing the significance of Yeltsins triumph.
No Middle Ground
LRCI cadres may find that revisiting Harveys 1993 polemic (which includes what may be the first public use of the term moribund workers state) helps to put their new position into sharper focus. The chief issue which comrade Harvey addresses is our assertion that Soviet defensists were obligated to side militarily with the coup leaders. Harvey defended the decision to side with Yeltsin in the 1991 showdown, and excoriates the political cowards of the Spartacist League/International Communist League who, for their own reasons, refused to back either side. He correctly observed that those who:
Comrade Harvey was absolutely rightthere is no middle ground for Soviet defensists in August 1991. Having recognized that Yeltsins victory was the decisive step in the destruction of the degenerated Soviet workers state, the LRCI majority, if it is to be politically coherent, must recognize that Soviet defensists had a duty to bloc with Yanayev against Yeltsin. The tortured theorizing that produced the absurd assertion that the Soviet workers state survived under Yeltsin, and now Putin, was, at bottom, an attempt to justify siding with the counterrevolutionaries in 1991.
In his polemic Harvey criticized our rigid adherence to a dogma, and cited as a mistake our assertion that:
Comrade Harvey, whose position is rather difficult to distinguish from that of the Third Camp, dismissed this dogma with the observation, this truth of Trotskys was historically grounded and therefore relative. The situation, Harvey claimed, had changed so much in the 50 years after Trotskys death that his Soviet defensist program was no longer valid:
Denouncing us as ultra-orthodox dogmatists, Harvey insisted: the imperialist bourgeoisie, who know a thing or two about property, have no doubt that the fundamental crossing of the Rubicon is yet to come. At the time this was written, in 1993, the imperialists were concerned by the deep split within the counterrevolutionaries between Russian nationalists (led by Aleksandr Rutskoi) and the pro-IMF compradors headed by Yeltsin. But there was general agreement that this was, at bottom, a dispute about how to build capitalism in Russia. The serious bourgeois press was, and remains, unanimously of the opinion that the Soviet Rubicon had been crossed two years earlier when Yeltsin took power and smashed the CPSU.
While the LRCIs reassessment of the significance of the events of 1991 represents an important step forward, it also raises a series of political questions. Harvey, to his credit, had the political courage to consistently follow through the logic of his position and draw the political conclusions. It is not yet clear whether the new majority possesses similar resolve, for a serious political reassessment of the LRCIs mistake in August 1991 will necessarily entail a reexamination of the whole chain of political errors that led up to it.
The resolution reprinted in Workers Power repudiating Harveys solution to the LRCIs Gordian knot does not mince words:
While it is certainly true that cowards and class traitors refuse to defend workers states against the class enemy, it does not follow that the moribund workers state theory is devoid of programmatic consequences. Harveys theory was essential to rationalize support for Yeltsins counter-coup. If Yeltsins victory had not threatened the survival of the degenerated workers state, and the only issue posed was whether or not the democratic rights conceded by Gorbachev would be revoked, then the LRCIs position would have made sense.
Moribund Confusionism on the State
Even though they have officially renounced the moribund workers state theory, the LRCI majority has yet to fully settle its political accounts. This is evident in its suggestion that events in China show that a Stalinist bureaucracy can:
To explain how a brittle caste of parasites, lacking any common economic or social interests beyond membership in the ruling party, could seamlessly transform itself into a new bourgeoisie without a ripple, the LRCI majority falls back on one of the key underpinnings of the moribund workers state theory:
This argument sits uneasily alongside the resolutions recognition that the state is an instrument of class struggle. The notion that the same state apparatus can serve different social classes flatly contradicts the Marxist position on the question:
Moreover, the LRCIs attempt to counterpose the bourgeois form of the Soviet Union, with its standing army, secret police, [and] unelected officials, to that of a genuine workers state is preposterous. The comrades of the LRCI surely agree that the USSR under Lenin was a genuine revolutionary working class state; yet Trotsky headed a standing army, Felix Dzerzhinsky headed a secret police force (the Cheka) and a system of party appointments of unelected officials to key posts was widespread.
Trotsky addressed the apparent riddle of the bourgeois character of the apparatus of a workers state in the Revolution Betrayed where he quoted Lenins comment that:
Trotsky explained what this meant:
The proletarian revolution is distinguished from all previous revolutions in that power passes to the majority, not from one privileged minority to another. Thus, in an important sense:
Trotsky pointed out that whereas the Bolshevik program had optimistically asserted that the state as a bureaucratic apparatus begins to die away the first day of the proletarian dictatorship, this proved impossible, due to the pressure of imperialism and the inherited legacy of economic backwardness. Trotsky did not ascribe the bourgeois character of the Soviet workers state to its bureaucratic degeneration under Stalin. Nor did he counterpose Lenins bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie to a hypothetical genuine workers state:
In a 1937 polemic with Joseph Carter and James Burnham, two Third Camp pioneers who, like the LRCI, also sought to contrast a genuine workers state to Stalins Russia, Trotsky returned to this question:
By the mid-1930s the state bureaucracy under Stalin had grown into a hitherto unheard of apparatus of compulsion which had turned into an uncontrolled force dominating the masses. It was necessary to carry out an armed insurrection, a political revolution, to break the grip of the oligarchy and restore the direct political rule of the working class. Yet Trotsky continued to insist on the necessity to defend the Soviet Union against capitalist restoration and safeguard the system of collectivized property. It was over this issue that Max Shachtman, Tony Cliff and all the other cowards and class traitors of the Third Camp broke with Trotskyism.
Who Touches the Russian Question Touches a Revolution
The final comment on the moribund workers state in the LRCI resolution states:
The moribund workers state theory brought plenty of confusion and certainly deserves to be cut away; but in doing so, LRCI members must confront their support to the Yeltsinite counterrevolutionies in August 1991. They would, moreover, do well to bear in mind James P. Cannons pithy observation: