LRCI’s Left Turn: ‘No Coherent Middle Ground’

Moribund No More?

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 position—i.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 periods—times of revolution or counter-revolution—the 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 state is an instrument of class struggle—it represents the power of fundamental social groups. Its essential nature cannot be understood if we see it as a mere passive reflection of impersonal economic forces. We must look instead for its class political essence—the class and the social system that it is actively fighting for.”

The resolution unambiguously characterizes Yeltsin’s victory over the Stalinist hardliners’ attempted coup in August 1991 as the critical event in the destruction of the degenerated Soviet workers’ state:

“the assumption of power by Yeltsin in Russia in 1991 and the abolition of the Communist Party did not immediately complete the restoration of capitalism. But it was a decisive step towards the final abolition of the crumbling post-capitalist property relations....”

This highly significant characterization is reiterated later in the text:

“The restoration of the capitalist state in Russia occurred when Yeltsin established his government in 1991 and abolished the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.”

And, just to drive the point home, it is repeated a third time:

“The Russian state today guards and defends the nascent capitalist property relations within Russia—since 1991 it actively promotes the class interests and the property of the world bourgeoisie there.”

The LRCI’s position now closely approximates our own:

“All available evidence leads us to conclude that the defeat of the coup and the ascension to power of the elements committed to reconstructing the economy on a capitalist basis constituted a qualitative turning point.”
—"Counterrevolution Triumphs in USSR," September 1991, reprinted in 1917 No. 11

The LRCI resolution also rejects “the notion that there can be a proletarian institution—the moribund workers’ state—which 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 Yeltsin’s headquarters during the 1991 coup.

August 1991: LRCI’s Gordian Knot

On the question of defensism, the LRCI has concluded that its “moribund workers’ state” position lacks “theoretical and programmatic utility—it 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 LRCI’s 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:

“presented a compelling argument — how could a united front with the restorationist regime of Yeltsin defend proletarian property relations?

“The absurd theory of the moribund workers’ state had created an absurd subsidiary dispute. The Gordian knot needs to be cut here. There can be no defencism because there is no workers’ state.”

The moribund workers’ state theory is indeed absurd, but in seeking to change labels without drawing the programmatic conclusions, the LRCI’s 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 LRCI’s new resolution fails to take sides in this confrontation, it does come close:

“Brezhnev was objectively counter-revolutionary, reactionary, undermined the working class property relations, but he did not actively set about destroying them. Nor did Gorbachev. Until August 1991 Trotskyists argued for revolutionary defencism and a united front with the regime in times of war, against imperialism and capitalist restoration. Since August 1991 the LRCI believes this to have been impossible.”

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 LRCI’s Trotskyist International entitled, “Sectarians abandon the gains of October,” Keith Harvey, the architect of the moribund workers’ state theory, attacked us as “ultra-lefts,” “dogmatists”and “Stalinophiles” for observing that Yeltsin’s victory represented the triumph of counterrevolution. In the introduction to his article, Harvey noted:

“The August 1991 coup attempt in Moscow continues to throw a long shadow over the Stalinophile wing of degenerate Trotskyism. This event and Yeltsin’s subsequent seizure of power from Gorbachev, his dissolution of the CPSU and then the USSR itself plunged these sects into the deepest gloom imaginable.

“They proved utterly unable to analyse what had actually happened. After a longer or shorter period of bewilderment they all decided to cut the Gordian knot and proclaim that the gains of the Russian revolution had finally been liquidated.”

Today it seems that some in the LRCI may be edging closer to cutting the knot for themselves, after belatedly recognizing the significance of Yeltsin’s triumph.

‘No Middle Ground’

LRCI cadres may find that revisiting Harvey’s 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:

“insist that the triumph of Yeltsin was synonymous with the end of the workers’ state...have a duty to retrospectively argue that they should have supported the SCSE [Yanayev’s Emergency Committee] since they would have delayed the outcome at the very least. In short, between the IBT and the LRCI there is no coherent middle ground on the question of the 1991 coup.”
—emphasis added

Comrade Harvey was absolutely right—there is no middle ground for Soviet defensists in August 1991. Having recognized that Yeltsin’s 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:

“While we defend democratic rights, we regard collectivised property in the means of production as a much more valuable conquest for the working class, and private property, not political dictatorship as the greater evil...”
1917 No. 12

Harvey acknowledged:

“the dogma starts from Trotsky’s correct observation that the Stalinist bureaucracy was a parasite feeding off the healthy body of the USSR; it provided no useful function but it had every interest in the self-preservation of the body without which it would perish. Hence...workers could bloc with them not to defend their privileges but to defend the foundation of future political and economic conquests.”

Comrade Harvey, whose position is rather difficult to distinguish from that of the Third Camp, dismissed this “dogma” with the observation, “this truth of Trotsky’s was historically grounded and therefore relative.” The situation, Harvey claimed, had changed so much in the 50 years after Trotsky’s death that his Soviet defensist program was no longer valid:

“In the USSR the biggest obstacle to this task [of developing proletarian class consciousness] was the existence of the Stalinist bureaucracy; it was at one and the same time the architect and enforcer of political and national oppression, the disorganizer of the planned economy, and the chief source of pro-capitalist ideas.

. . .

“ side with the bureaucracy against the working class and its democratic restorationist misleaders is criminal folly. It is in fact to drag the banner of Trotsky’s name in the filth of Stalinism.”
—emphasis added

Harvey proposed:

“By doing all it can to defeat the Stalinist-revanchist coup, the working class confronts the enemy Yeltsin with the decisive contest still ahead.”
—emphasis added

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 LRCI’s 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 LRCI’s 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 Harvey’s solution to the LRCI’s “Gordian knot” does not mince words:

“If we stick with the moribund workers’ state theory, we are left with a workers’ state—an institution of our class—that we do not defend against the class enemy. This means one of two things: either that we are cowards and class traitors, or, as we should now openly admit, that we have introduced into the lexicon of Marxism a category that is devoid of meaning and without programmatic consequences.”

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. Harvey’s theory was essential to rationalize support for Yeltsin’s counter-coup. If Yeltsin’s 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 LRCI’s 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:

“move to a fully restorationist policy and thus to a bourgeois state without a change of government or the abolition of the single-party system. The [Stalinist ruling] caste as a whole could avoid dissolution by transforming itself successfully into a ruling class.”

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:

“Why should we not be ‘thrown’ by these various possibilities? Because we have already recognised that the restoration does not require a ‘smashing’ of the state. The social counter-revolution took place peacefully. Under Stalinism the bureaucratic-military apparatus already had a bourgeois form: unlike a genuine revolutionary working class state, it had a standing army, secret police, unelected officials. All that was necessary was for a new government committed to capitalism to assume control within the commanding circles of this state power.”
—emphasis added

This argument sits uneasily alongside the resolution’s 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:

“Revolution consists not in the new class commanding, governing with the aid of the old state machine, but in this class smashing this machine and commanding, governing with the aid of a new machine. Kautsky slurs over this basic idea of Marxism, or he had utterly failed to understand it.”
—V.I. Lenin, State and Revolution

Moreover, the LRCI’s 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 Lenin’s comment that:

“under Communism not only will bourgeois law [in relation to the distribution of goods to individuals on the basis of their individual inputs] survive for a certain time, but also even a bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie!”

Trotsky explained what this meant:

“The state assumes directly and from the very beginning a dual character: socialistic, insofar as it defends social property in the means of production; bourgeois, insofar as the distribution of life’s goods is carried out with a capitalistic measure of value and all the consequences ensuing therefrom.”

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:

“The regime of proletarian dictatorship from its very beginning thus ceases to be a ‘state’ in the old sense of the word—a special apparatus, that is, for holding in subjection the majority of the people.”

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 Lenin’s “bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie” to a hypothetical “genuine” workers’ state:

“The dual function of the state could not but affect its structure. Experience revealed what theory was unable clearly to foresee....For the defense of ‘bourgeois law’ the workers’ state was compelled to create a ‘bourgeois’ type of instrument—that is, the same old gendarme, although in a new uniform.”

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 Stalin’s Russia, Trotsky returned to this question:

“The USSR as a workers’ state does not correspond to the ‘traditional’ norm. This does not signify that it is not a workers’ state. Neither does this signify that the norm has been found false. The ‘norm’ counted upon the complete victory of the international proletarian revolution. The USSR is only a partial and mutilated expression of a backward and isolated workers’ state.

. . .

“The assertion that the bureaucracy of a workers’ state has a bourgeois character must appear not only unintelligible but completely senseless to people stamped with a formal cast of mind....The workers’ state itself, as a state is necessary exactly because the bourgeois norms of distribution still remain in force.

“This means that even the most revolutionary bureaucracy is to a certain degree a bourgeois organ in the workers’ state. Of course the degree of this bourgeoisification and the general tendency of development bears decisive significance. If the workers’ state loses its bureaucratization and gradually falls away, this means that its development marches along the road of socialism. On the contrary, if the bureaucracy becomes ever more powerful, authoritative, privileged, and conservative, this means that in the workers’ state the bourgeois tendencies grow at the expense of the socialist; in other words, that inner contradiction which to a certain degree is lodged in the workers’ state from the first days of its rise does not diminish, as the ‘norm’ demands, but increases.”
—Leon Trotsky, “Not a Workers’ and Not a Bourgeois State?,” 25 November 1937

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:

“If it explains nothing, adds nothing programmatically, is not necessary and brings nothing but confusion, it must be cut away.”

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. Cannon’s pithy observation:

“’Who touches the Russian question, touches a revolution.’ Therefore, be serious about it. Don’t play with it.”
The Struggle for a Proletarian Party

1917 no.23: February 2001