The Nature of the Soviet Regime

Neither Marx, Engels nor Lenin ever imagined that a state with the grotesque totalitarian character of Stalin’s dictatorship would arise in the course of the world transition from capitalism to socialism.

Marxism has always rejected the idea put forward by capitalists and every brand of reformism: that the state has become a necessary condition of human existence. The state, explained Marx and Engels, arose with the development of society into classes. Taking power, the task of the working class was to dissolve class society. With this, the state also would wither away and disappear.

As they put it in the Communist Manifesto:

as the working class “sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.

In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

The establishment of the first worker’s state through the 1917 Russian Revolution was the highest achievement of human history. Yet, under the rule of the bureaucracy, this state degenerated into a form of rule barely distinguishable from Hitler’s Fascism.

As Trotsky wrote in 1936:

However you may interpret the nature of the present Soviet state, one thing is indubitable: at the end of its second decade of existence, it has not only not died away, but not begun to ‘die away’. Worse than that, it has grown into a hitherto unheard of apparatus of compulsion. The bureaucracy not only has not disappeared, yielding its place to the masses, but has turned into an uncontrolled force dominating the masses. The army not only has not been replaced by an armed people, but has given birth to a privileged officers’ caste, crowned with marshals, while the people, ‘the armed bearers of the dictatorship,’ are now forbidden in the Soviet Union to carry even non-explosive weapons.

With the utmost stretch of fancy it would be difficult to imagine a contrast more striking than that which exists between the schema of the workers’ state according to Marx, Engels and Lenin, and the actual state now headed by Stalin. While continuing to publish the works of Lenin (to be sure, with excerpts and distortions by the censor), the present leaders of the Soviet Union and their ideological representatives do not even raise the question of the causes of such a crying divergence between program and reality.

The Revolution Betrayed

Trotsky made an enduring contribution to Marxism by explaining how and why this “crying divergence” had taken place, the nature of this regime, and how its contradictions could be overcome.

Marxism on the workers’ state

The state, Engels had explained, is a “power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it… This public power exists in every state: it consists not merely of armed men but also of material adjuncts, prisons and institutions of coercion of all kinds.” (Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State)

As an inherently repressive institution, the state – Engels also explained – was “at best an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worst sides the victorious proletariat, just like the Commune, cannot avoid having to lop off at once as much as possible until such time as a generation reared in new, free social conditions is able to throw the entire lumber of the state on the scrap heap.” (Introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France. Our emphasis.)

At the same time, against anarchism, Marx and Engels insisted that the proletariat, on coming to power, could not simply abolish the state. The proletariat needed its own state, to use against all the forces of capitalist counter-revolution. There was no point trying to hide, or prettify, this reality.

Engels, for example, once wrote to the German Marxist Bebel criticising the idea of a “free people’s state”, then current in some sections of the German workers’ movement. This concept was, he wrote, “pure nonsense”: “so long as the proletariat still uses the state, it does not use it in the interests of freedom, but to hold down its adversaries, and as soon as it becomes possible to speak of freedom the state as such ceases to exist.” (18-28/3/1878, Selected Works, II, 42)

The classical works of Marxism referred to the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” By this, they intended not to hide the fact that so long as a state existed, it would be an instrument of repression. But, in contrast to all previous states which served the interests of an exploiting minority, the proletarian state would exercise its repression in a democratic way. The proletarian state would for the first time represent the interests of the majority in society: the toilers and the producers of wealth.

“Capitalist democracy” – wrote Lenin in his marvellous resummation of the Marxist theory of the state State and Revolution – “is inevitably narrow and stealthily pushes aside the poor, and is therefore hypocritical and false through and through.” This remains the case, even in the most democratic of bourgeois societies.

From capitalist democracy, Lenin continued,

forward development does not proceed simply, directly and smoothly, towards ‘greater and greater democracy’, as the liberal professors and petty-bourgeois opportunists would have us believe. No, forward development, i.e., development towards communism, proceeds through the dictatorship of the proletariat, and cannot do otherwise, for the resistance of the capitalist exploiters cannot be broken by anyone else or in any other way.

And the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e. the organisation of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class for the purpose of suppressing the oppressors, cannot result merely in an expansion of democracy. Simultaneously with an immense expansion of democracy, which for the first time becomes democracy for the poor, democracy for the people, and not democracy for the money bags, the dictatorship of the proletariat imposes a series of restrictions on the freedom of the oppressors, the exploiters, the capitalists. We must suppress them in order to free humanity from wage slavery, their resistance must be crushed by force; it is clear that there is no freedom and no democracy where there is suppression and where there is violence.

The proletariat, Lenin emphasised, needed: “a centralised organisation of force, and organisation of violence, both to crush the resistance of the exploiters and to lead the enormous mass of the population – the peasants, the petty bourgeoisie, and semi-proletarians – in the work of organising a socialist economy.” (Ibid)

In all previous states, the exploiting class had maintained its rule, in one form or another, through a standing army and a bureaucracy – a specialised machinery of repression. But the proletariat could construct its state on a different basis.

Even to suppress the exploiters, – as Lenin put it -“since the majority of the people itself suppresses its oppressors, a ‘special force’ for suppression is no longer necessary! In this sense, the state begins to wither away. Instead of the special institutions of a privileged minority (privileged officialdom, the chiefs of the standing army), the majority itself can exercise these functions, and the more the functions of state power are performed by the people as a whole, the less need there is for the existence of this power.” (Ibid)

Following Marx and Engels, Lenin showed how the working class in the Paris Commune – even though that experience was short-lived and imperfect – had pointed the way to this.

The Paris Commune had replaced a standing army by the people-in-arms. It had created a state of employees and workers, taking measures against their rising “above society” as privileged and unaccountable bureaucrats, namely: “(1) not only election but recall at any time; (2) payment no higher than the wages of a worker; (3) immediate transition to a regime in which all will fulfil the functions of control and supervision so that all may for a time become ‘bureaucrats’, and therefore nobody can become a bureaucrat.”

Capitalist culture [- Lenin added- ] has created large-scale production, factories, railways, the postal service, telephones, etc., and on this basis the great majority of the functions of the old ‘state power’ have become so simplified and can be reduced to such exceedingly simple operations of registration, filing and checking that they can easily be performed for ordinary ‘workmen’s wages’, and that these functions can (and must) be stripped of every shadow of privilege, of every semblance of ‘official grandeur.’


With computerisation and automation, how much more possible is all this today!

Abolishing the bureaucracy at once, everywhere and completely, is out of the question”, Lenin continued. “It is a utopia. But to smash the old bureaucratic machine at once and begin immediately to create a new one that will make possible the gradual abolition of all bureaucracy – this is not a utopia, it is the experience of the Commune…

We, the workers, shall organise large-scale production on the basis of what capitalism has already created, relying on our own experience as workers, establishing strict, iron discipline backed up by the state power of the armed workers. We shall reduce the role of state officials to that of simply carrying out our instructions as responsible, revocable, modestly paid ‘foremen and accountants’ (of course, with the aid of technicians of all sorts, types and degrees).

Such a beginning, on the basis of large-scale production, will of itself lead to the gradual ‘withering away’ of all bureaucracy, to the gradual creation of an order – an order without inverted commas, an order bearing no similarity to wage-slavery – an order under which the functions of control and accounting, becoming more and more simple, will be performed by each in turn, will then become a habit and will finally die out as the special functions of a special section of the population.


Marx and Engels had anticipated that the working class would establish its own state first in the most industrialised countries – where its education and culture was also most developed. Lenin wrote State and Revolution with the expectation that workers’ revolution would spread, in a measurably short space of time, from Russia to the more advanced countries of the West – or be defeated.

In power, the Bolsheviks sought to build a workers’ state on the lines outlined by Lenin. “Comrades, working people”, wrote Lenin in a decree “To the population” issued within days of the October insurrection:

Remember that now you yourselves are at the helm of the state. No one will help you if you yourselves do not unite and take into your hands all affairs of the state. Your Soviets are from now on the organs of state authority, legislative bodies with full powers.

Rally round your Soviets. Strengthen them. Get on with the job yourselves; begin right at the bottom, do not wait for anyone. Establish the strictest revolutionary law and order, mercilessly suppress any attempts to create anarchy by drunkards, hooligans, counter-revolutionary officer cadets, Kornilovites and their like.

Ensure the strictest control over production and accounting of products. Arrest and hand over to the revolutionary courts all who dare to injure the people’s cause…the great cause of peace, the cause of transferring the land to the peasants, of ensuring workers’ control over the production and distribution of products.

Pravda, 6/11/1917

But the fact that socialist revolution not only began in backward Russia but remained isolated there created entirely new circumstances for the development of the workers’ state.

“Bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie”

When Lenin, before his death, began to combat the bureaucratic distortions developing in the Soviet state, he started his analysis again from the ideas of Marx and Engels.

Marx had emphasised the obvious point that the working class, on taking power, began building “a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth-marks of the old society from whose womb it comes.” (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme) Lenin re-emphasised this reality in State and Revolution.

Marx (Lenin pointed out) had distinguished two phases of society in its development towards communism: a ‘lower’ and a ‘higher’ phase. In the first phase, the working class would still be struggling to emancipate itself from all it had inherited from the old society. Only with the “higher stage of communism” would all this be overcome:

In the higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his [or her] ability, to each according to his [or her] needs!

Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme

As Trotsky summarised the same idea of a lower stage of communism:

Capitalism prepared the conditions and forces for a social revolution: technique, science and the proletariat. The communist structure cannot, however, immediately replace the bourgeois society. The material and cultural inheritance from the past is wholly inadequate for that. In its first steps the workers’ state cannot yet permit everyone to work “according to his abilities” – that is, as much as he can and wishes to – nor can it reward everyone “according to his needs” regardless of the work he does. In order to increase the productive forces, it is necessary to resort to the customary norms of wage payment – that is, to the distribution of life’s goods in proportion to the quantity and quality of individual labour.

The Revolution Betrayed

Trotsky, in this passage, perhaps condenses the argument too much. The labour of the working class creates the value of what is produced. But the product is the private property of the capitalists, because they own the means of production. The capitalists pay in wages to the workers only a part of the value of what is produced. The rest is unpaid (surplus) labour by workers which goes to form the profit made by the capitalists.

In the “lower stage of communism” the means of production have been taken out of the private ownership of the capitalists, and are owned by the workers’ state, under the democratic control and management of the working class.

On this basis, capitalist parasitism is abolished. Under capitalism, large layers of society earn money for doing no productive labour – those Lenin called the “coupon-clippers”, the buyers and sellers of stocks and shares, the gamblers in currencies, etc. Under workers’ democratic rule the first principle would be to provide productive work for all, and that “he who does not work, neither shall he eat” (unless, of course, pensionable, sick, disabled, etc.).

In the lower stage of communism, there would still be a division between surplus labour and what is paid in wages. Out of the total wealth produced, a certain proportion would be deducted for re-investment and other social expenditure – though in contrast to the situation under capitalism, the distribution of this surplus would be democratically determined.

The remainder would form the amount out of which wages would be paid. Under capitalism, different layers and individuals among the working class receive different payments, around criteria of skill, experience, educational qualifications, etc. – though, at root, the level of wages is determined by the class struggle and by the degree of development of the capitalist society. Under the lower stage of communism, in contrast, it would be possible to pay every worker in accordance with the amount of labour that he or she had performed.

But as Marx, and, following him, Lenin, pointed out, even this would not establish equality or take full account of the criterion of need.

In fact, everyone, having performed as much social labour as another” – explained Lenin – “receives an equal share of the social product (after the above-mentioned deductions) But people are not alike; one is strong, another is weak; one is married, another is not; one has more children, another has less, and so on… The first stage of communism therefore, cannot as yet provide justice and equality: differences, and unjust differences, in wealth will still persist.

State and Revolution

Capitalism has been abolished in respect of the laws governing the ownership of production. But capitalism has not yet been abolished in respect of the laws governing the distribution of products. These principles, in Marx’s words, still ‘conformed to bourgeois law.’ The inequalities of bourgeois law in this respect continued to prevail, Lenin explained, “so long as products are divided ‘according to the amount of labour performed’.”

The socialist principle, ‘An equal amount of products for an equal amount of labour’, has been realised. “But this is not yet communism, and it does not yet abolish ‘bourgeois law’, which gives unequal individuals, in return for unequal (really unequal) amounts of labour, equal amounts of products.”

It followed, concluded Lenin, that, paradoxically, the bourgeois state still existed – or, at least, that the dictatorship of the proletariat had to operate in part, as a bourgeois state: “Of course, bourgeois law in regard to the distribution of consumer goods inevitably presupposes the existence of the bourgeois state, for law is nothing without an apparatus capable of enforcing the observance of the rules of law. It follows that under communism [more strictly, under the ‘first stage of communism’ – Eds] there remains for a time not only bourgeois law, but even the bourgeois state, without the bourgeoisie!”

Thus even if the working class had taken power first in the most advanced capitalist countries, the proletarian state would, at the beginning and in certain respects, still have had the characteristics of a “bourgeois state, without the bourgeoisie.” This would become transformed, above all, through the development of the forces of production, eliminating scarcity and want, and creating the ability to provide for the needs of all – combined with the training of all in the practices of administering society to promote the withering away of the state.

Today, the forces of production world-wide are enormously more developed than was the case when Marx, Engels, or Lenin were writing. With socialist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries – or with the restoration of workers’ democracy in the advanced Stalinist states – the possibilities for developing production, shortening the length of the working day, etc., are immeasurably greater. With that, so is the possibility of moving rapidly through the “lower stage” of communism to its “higher stage”.

Trotsky on the Soviet state

But the first workers’ revolution took place first not in an advanced country but in Russia, backward and undeveloped. By that token, the “bourgeois” characteristics of the proletarian state were the more pronounced at the outset. More than that, Russia was a society stamped not merely with the legacy of capitalism, but centuries of pre-capitalist backwardness, ruled over by a despotic imperial state machine.

When Lenin analysed and explained the bureaucratic distortions in the Soviet state, he did so in terms of these “bourgeois” and pre-bourgeois characteristics of the state. The necessary functions of the state in regulating distribution on an unequal basis could be tilted by the officials of the state in their own favour, in their own interest.

Trotsky took these arguments further. Lenin’s statement regarding “a bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie” was, as he pointed out, a “highly significant conclusion, completely ignored by the present official theoreticians [i.e. the Stalinists].”

Insofar as a state which assumes the task of socialist transformation is compelled to defend inequality – that is, the material privileges of a minority – by methods of compulsion, insofar does it also remain a ‘bourgeois’ state, even though without the bourgeoisie. These words contain neither praise nor blame; they merely name things with their real names.

The bourgeois norms of distribution, by hastening the growth of material power, [i.e. permitting the development of the forces of production] ought to serve socialist aims – but only in the last analysis. 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. Such a contradictory characterisation may horrify the dogmatists and scholastics; we can only offer them our condolences.

The Revolution Betrayed

The evolution of the workers’ state was “determined by the changing relations between its bourgeois and socialist tendencies”, continued Trotsky.

Under conditions where the forces of production were developed sufficiently, the socialist tendency in the state could triumph, making it possible for the “final liquidation of the gendarme [policeman] – that is, the dissolving of the state into a self-governing society.” But in Russia the reverse had happened.

‘A bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie’ proved inconsistent with genuine Soviet democracy. The dual function of the state could not but affect its structure. Experience revealed what theory was unable clearly to foresee. If for the defence of socialised property against bourgeois counterrevolution a ‘state of armed workers’ was fully adequate, it was a very different matter to regulate inequalities in the sphere of consumption.

The working class, anyway weakened in the civil war, had the least interest in grappling with these problems of regulating inequality. The bureaucracy, on the other hand, relished it. As Trotsky put it: “Those deprived of property are not inclined to create and defend it. The majority cannot concern itself with the privileges of the minority. For the defence 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.”

Hence, if the state in Russia was not “dying away”, but was growing more and more despotic, if a bureaucracy was consolidating itself in power over the working class, this was not simply for “some secondary reasons like the psychological relics of the past, etc., but is the result of the iron necessity to give birth to and support a privileged minority so long as it is impossible to guarantee genuine equality.” (ibid, Our emphasis)

The tendencies of bureaucratism”, continued Trotsky, “which strangles the workers’ movement in capitalist countries, would everywhere show themselves even after a proletarian revolution. But it is perfectly obvious that the poorer the society which issues from a revolution, the sterner and more naked would be the expression of this ‘law’, the more crude would be the forms assumed by bureaucratism, and the more dangerous would it become for socialist development. The Soviet state is prevented not only from dying away but even from freeing itself of the bureaucratic parasite, not by the ‘relics’ of former ruling classes, as declares the naked police doctrine of Stalin, for these relics are powerless in themselves. It is prevented by immeasurably mightier factors, such as material want, cultural backwardness and the resulting domination of ‘bourgeois law’ in what most immediately and sharply touches every human being, the business of ensuring his personal existence.


Russia entered upon the socialist revolution, in Lenin’s words, as “the weakest link in the capitalist chain.” With the revolution remaining isolated, bureaucratisation of the state was unavoidable. In the Russian workers’ state the “bourgeois tendencies” regarding distribution of goods triumphed over the “socialist tendencies.” What had at the beginning been mere “distortions” developed into a system. Quantitative change became qualitative change. The bureaucracy entrenched itself in state power as a force with a material interest. “Bourgeois law” as regards distribution prevailed. But the means of production remained state property.

In the first years of the workers’ state, what Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolsheviks feared – if the Russian revolution remained isolated, was a restoration of capitalism. This possibility remained inherent in the reality of the conflict between the “bourgeois” and the “socialist” tendencies in the state.

But the counter-revolution developed in a different way. The bureaucracy usurped power from the working class, but continued to rest on the same basis of nationalised and planned economy. It carried through a political and not a social counter-revolution.

This fact in itself showed the superiority of nationalised and planned economy over capitalism. The bureaucracy defended this economy, on the one hand because it feared to provoke the Russian working class by moving towards capitalism. As well as this, it did so because an expanding economy assured it of its own increasing privilege.

With nationalisation and planning, though at huge cost, the Soviet economy developed rapidly, even under the rule of the bureaucracy – at rates of 15%, 20% a year at their height, rates never achieved in the history of capitalism. In contrast, between World War I and World War II at least, capitalism made no fundamental breakthroughs in developing the forces of production, but lurched from crisis to crisis.

But, as we shall see later, the conditions in which the Soviet bureaucracy exists today are different from at that time.

The Soviet Union had not “achieved socialism”

Stalin and the bureaucracy concealed their counter-revolution by presenting their regime as in complete continuity with the regime of the October revolution. “From the proletarian character of the government, the bureaucracy deduces its birthright to infallibility: how can the bureaucracy of a workers’ state degenerate?” wrote Trotsky. “The state and the bureaucracy are thereby taken not as historical products but as eternal categories: how can the holy church and its God-inspired priests sin?” (The Struggle against Fascism in Germany)

Nevertheless, the bureaucracy could not escape tangling themselves in ideological contradictions.

Bolshevism described the Russian revolution as a socialist revolution. The term “socialist republic” was used by Lenin – as by Trotsky – to describe the Soviet Union in its early years. But these were not intended to represent a self-contained and completed process. They were not intended to convey the idea that socialism could be achieved in the framework of one country. These concepts identified way-stations in the struggle for the world socialist revolution.

This applied to the question of the Soviet state itself. The Bolshevik program of 1919 honestly declared: “The Soviet power openly recognises the inevitability of the class character of every state, so long as the division of society into classes, and therewith all state power, has not completely disappeared.”

In glaring contrast, the 1936 constitution of the Soviet Union of Stalin’s secret police dictatorship (which for the first time ratified a one-party state) proclaimed that “the principle of socialism has been realised.” The 1935 Congress of the Comintern, in even more self-contradictory terms, declared that “the final and irrevocable triumph of socialism and the all-sided reinforcement of the state of the proletarian dictatorship, is achieved in the Soviet Union.”

Among the decrees and regulations issued against the working class under this constitution were the following: the introduction of labour passports (20/12/1938); penalties for lateness in coming to work, and abolition of social security benefits for workers ‘guilty’ of such ‘offences’ (28/ 12/1938); denial of workers’ rights to move from job to job, and absenteeism of more than twenty minutes punishable by imprisonment (26/6/1940). Yet this constitution proclaimed the Soviet Union was a “socialist” society!

As Trotsky pointed out,

If socialism has ‘finally and irrevocably triumphed’, not as a principle but as a living regime, then a renewed ‘reinforcement’ of the dictatorship is obvious nonsense. And, on the contrary, if the reinforcement of the dictatorship is evoked by the real demands of the regime, that means the triumph of socialism is still remote. Not only a Marxist, but any realistic thinker, ought to understand that the very necessity of ‘reinforcing’ the dictatorship – that is, governmental repression – testifies not to the triumph of a class-less harmony, but to the growth of new social antagonisms.

The Revolution Betrayed

Classes have been finally liquidated, proclaimed the bureaucracy, but “elements of former classes still remain”; there are petty speculators, corrupt elements, etc. But, responded Trotsky, what serious counter-revolutionary threat could such “elements” and individuals pose to “socialism”…if socialism had already been achieved? Lenin had said that a special machinery of repression was not required even to crush the resistance of the exploiting classes as a whole.

“We have reached only ‘socialism’, the ‘lower stage of communism’ “, proclaimed the bureaucracy: it is only with communism itself that the state will disappear. They appeared to be on better grounds here.

But, as Trotsky pointed out,

if the country is really now on the road from socialism, that is, the lower stage of communism, to its higher stage, then there remains nothing for society to do but to throw off at last the strait-jacket of the state. In place of this – it is hard even to grasp this contrast with the mind! – the Soviet state has acquired a totalitarian-bureaucratic character.

By the lowest stage of communism”, he explained, “Marx meant, at any rate, a society which from the very beginning stands higher in its economic development than the most advanced capitalism…. The present Soviet Union does not stand above the world level of economy, but is only trying to catch up to the capitalist countries.


The bureaucracy claimed that the overwhelming statisation of property proved that socialism had been achieved. Trotsky responded:

it is exactly for the Marxist that this question is not exhausted by a consideration of forms of property regardless of the achieved productivity of labour….

In order to become social, private property must as inevitably pass through the state stage as the caterpillar in order to become a butterfly must pass through the pupal stage. But the pupa is not a butterfly. Myriads of pupae perish without ever becoming butterflies. State property becomes the property of ‘the whole people’ only to the extent that social privilege and differentiation disappear, and therewith the necessity of the state. In other words: state property is converted into socialist property in proportion as it ceases to be state property.


The full socialisation of property, in other words, was impossible without workers’ democracy and world socialist revolution.

The 1936 Stalinist constitution proclaimed: “In the Soviet Union, the principle of socialism is realised: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his work“. (Our emphasis) To this Trotsky retorted:

This inwardly contradictory, not to say nonsensical, formula has entered, believe it or not, from speeches and journalistic articles into the carefully deliberated text of the fundamental state law. It bears witness not only to a complete lowering of theoretical level in the lawgivers, but also to the lie with which, as a mirror of the ruling stratum, the new constitution is imbued.

It is not difficult to guess the origin of the new ‘principle’ To characterise the communist society, Marx employed the famous formula: ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.’ The two parts of this formula are inseparable. ‘From each according to his abilities’ in the communist, not the capitalist, sense, means: Work has now ceased to be an obligation, and has become an individual need; society has no further use for any compulsion. Only sick and abnormal persons will refuse to work. Working ‘according to their ability’ – that is, in accordance with their physical and psychic powers, without any violence to themselves – the members of the commune will, thanks to a high technique, sufficiently fill up the stores of society so that society can generously endow each and all ‘according to their needs’, without humiliating control.

This two-sided but indivisible formula of communism thus assumes abundance, equality, an all-sided development of personality, and a high cultural discipline…

Instead of frankly acknowledging that bourgeois norms of labour and distribution still prevail in the Soviet Union, the authors of the constitution have cut this integral communist principle in two halves, postponed the second half to an indefinite future, declared the first half already realised, mechanically hitched on to it the capitalist norm of piecework payment, named the whole thing ‘principle of socialism’, and upon this falsification erected the structure of their constitution!

The Revolution Betrayed

The bureaucracy was not a class

In explaining the nature of the Soviet regime Trotsky had also to address the arguments of some “socialist” intellectuals who asked (as Trotsky paraphrased their arguments): “Is it really possible to identify the dictatorship of an apparatus, which has led to the dictatorship of a single person, with the dictatorship of the proletariat as a class? Isn’t it clear that the dictatorship of the proletariat is excluded by dictatorship over the proletariat.” (“The Class Nature of the Soviet State“, 1933)

Some of these concluded, from this, that capitalism must have been restored in the Soviet Union. Some said the Soviet bureaucracy represented a new type of ruling “class” unforeseen by classical Marxism. Some said the regime was “state capitalist.” Trotsky answered, and rejected, all these arguments.

Yes, Marxism explained that the state was a class dictatorship, defending the property of that class. But “the dictatorship of a class does not mean by a long shot that its entire mass always participates in the management of the state” – as was evident from examining the history of previous ruling classes.

It was true that the rule of the proletariat differed from that of exploiting ruling classes in that its mission was to achieve classless society. To do so, it needed to draw ever wider masses of the people into the task of running society. “This argument is undebatable”, wrote Trotsky, “but in the given case it merely means that the present Soviet dictatorship is a sick dictatorship. The frightful difficulties of socialist construction in an isolated and backward country coupled with the false policies of the leadership – which in the last analysis also reflects the pressure of backwardness and isolation – have led to the result that the bureaucracy has expropriated the proletariat politically in order to guard its social conquests with its own methods.”

“The anatomy of society is determined by its economic relations”, he insisted. “So long as the forms of property that have been created by the October revolution are not overthrown, the proletariat remains the ruling class.”

To the argument that the bureaucracy had become a new type of ruling class, Trotsky replied:

A class is defined not by its participation in the distribution of national income alone, but by its independent role in the general structure of economy and by its independent roots in the economic foundation of society. Each class (the feudal nobility, the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie, the capitalist bourgeoisie, and the proletariat) works out its own special forms of property.

The bureaucracy lacks all these social traits. It has no independent position in the process of production and distribution. It has no independent property roots. Its functions relate basically to the political technique of class rule.

The existence of a bureaucracy, in all its variety of forms and differences in specific weight, characterises every class regime. Its power is of a reflected character. The bureaucracy is indissolubly bound up with a ruling economic class, feeding itself upon the social roots of the latter, maintaining itself and falling together with it…

… the privileges of the bureaucracy by themselves do not change the bases of the Soviet society, because the bureaucracy derives its privileges not from any special property relations, peculiar to it as a ‘class’, but from those property relations which have been created by the October revolution, and which are fundamentally adequate for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

To put it plainly, insofar as the bureaucracy robs the people (and this is done in various ways by every bureaucracy), we have to deal not with class exploitation, in the scientific sense of the word, but with social parasitism, although on a very large scale.



The Soviet Union then, remained a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, a workers’ state, because of the nature of property relations. The bureaucracy was not a new ruling class, but like a parasitic tumour (cancer): “it could grow to tremendous size and even strangle the living organism, but a tumour can never become an independent organism.” (ibid)

The bureaucracy used the state machine parasitically to consume a vast share of the wealth produced by the working class on the basis of proletarian property relations: nationalisation and planning.

Drawing on the legacy of Marxism, Trotsky characterised the rule of the bureaucracy as a form of Bonapartism.

Marx and Engels had analysed the phenomenon of Bonapartism in the rise of capitalist society: in particular, the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte (1799-1815) and Louis Napoleon (1851-1870) in France. They had explained the Bonapartist character of Bismarck’s rule in Germany (1860-1890).

Trotsky had also used the concept of Bonapartism to analyse transitional bourgeois governments which arose in the struggle between workers’ revolution and the counter-revolution – in Russia in 1917, and in countries in Western Europe in the 1930s. On the basis of the different property relations (proletarian rather than bourgeois) he applied the same concept to the Soviet Union.

The state, in general, is an instrument of class rule. Bonapartism is a form of rule by the dictatorship of a person, or a clique, exercised through the armed forces and bureaucracy of the state machine, in which the state apparently arises above the main contending classes, balancing between them, though in the last instance defending the existing property relations.

“If you stick two forks into a cork symmetrically, it will, under very great oscillations from side to side, keep its balance even on a pin-point: that is the mechanical model of the Bonapartist super-arbiter”, was how Trotsky once put it. (History of the Russian Revolution)

The possibility of such Bonapartist government is inherent in the nature of the state. As Engels explained, the state originated in conditions where society had:

split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state.

Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State

Under “normal” conditions, the ruling class has all manner of means for exercising its control over the standing army, bureaucracy and institutions of coercion of all kinds which constitute the machinery of state. But, in conditions of social crisis, the very fact that these institutions are special, self-organised bodies – on the basis of a hierarchy of command and obedience – gives them an autonomy of manoeuvre.

This is particularly the case in capitalism, where there is far greater separation than in any previous society between economic power (private ownership of the means of production) and political-military power (the state machine).

The rule of Napoleon I in France was the culmination of a political counter-revolution against the popular masses who had been the driving force of the French bourgeois revolution. As Trotsky summed it up:

The deepening but still very immature antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat kept the nation, shaken as it was to its foundations, in a state of extreme tension. A national ‘judge’ was in these conditions indispensable. Napoleon guaranteed to the big bourgeoisie the possibility to get rich, to the peasants their pieces of land, to the sons of peasants and the hoboes a chance for looting in the wars. The judge held a sword in his hand and himself also fulfilled the duties of bailiff [steward for the property-owners].

History of the Russian Revolution

Napoleon I ruled by the sword. He balanced between opposing classes in society. But he defended the new bourgeois property relations, and continued clearing away the remaining feudal obstacles. This was classic Bonapartism, when capitalism was on the ascendancy.

In 1851 Louis Napoleon (III) came to power in France in conditions where the working class had been developing for half a century, where it had shown its own independent social power in attempting insurrection in 1848, but where it was not yet strong or conscious enough of its own tasks to seize power. The bourgeoisie, on the other hand, was divided, terrified of the proletariat, and in crisis. Copying the first Napoleon under these different conditions, Napoleon III took power, balanced between the bourgeoisie and the working class, and rested principally on the “intermediate” social layer of the peasantry. A relative industrial and commercial “boom” in France stretched out Louis Napoleon’s rule until he was overthrown in 1870.

In the midst of the Russian revolution of 1917 the Kerensky government claimed for itself unlimited dictatorial powers. With the Tsar overthrown, it was trying to rise as a Bonapartist force of “order” between the weakened landlords and capitalists and the rising revolutionary working class and peasant masses. But the social conditions were different from those in which Bonapartism had arisen in the nineteenth century. Capitalism was no longer a rising force worldwide: it was ripe for overthrow, and it was blocking the development of Russia.

Kerensky and other aspirant Bonapartists “were confronted by a great revolution which had not yet solved its problems or exhausted its force”, wrote Trotsky. “There was no equilibrium. The revolution was full-blooded. No wonder Bonapartism proved anaemic.” (ibid)

In the crisis in Western Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, similarly “anaemic”, transitional, Bonapartist regimes arose, trying to balance between the forces of revolution and those of counter-revolution. Thus in Germany the Bruening government [see Chapter 2] was Bonapartist, balancing between the forces of Fascism, and those of the working class (still mainly trapped under the leadership of Social-Democratic reformism). In contrast to Russia in 1917, this Bonapartist rule was displaced by open fascist counter-revolution – as the result of the disastrous policies of the Stalinised German Communist Party.

Bourgeois Bonapartist rule takes many forms, involving different combinations of its component elements, under differing relations between the classes. Bonapartism in late capitalism differs from Bonapartism when capitalism was rising. But with the delay of the world socialist revolution, Bonapartism in one form or another has become a widespread feature of bourgeois governments, especially in the “Third World”.

Imperialism dominates the capitalist countries of the “Third World”, for the most part condemning the mass of the people to poverty. Their weak “national” bourgeoisies are incapable of leading serious struggle against imperialism or landlordism, uniting the nation, or developing the economy. The working class is held back by reformist and Stalinist leadership and the weakness of Marxism. The political consequence is Bonapartist rule – military dictatorships, “one-party states”, weak semi-Bonapartist parliamentary regimes, and shifts from one to the other – balancing between the opposing classes.

Proletarian Bonapartism

It was the same Bonapartist features, of a government “rising above society”, ruling by the sword, balancing between the classes (nationally and internationally), but preserving the existing property relations, which existed in the Soviet regime – and led Trotsky to characterise this peculiar form of the dictatorship of the proletariat as proletarian Bonapartism.

The conditions of relative scarcity in Soviet society, he pointed out, perpetuated all manner of conflicts of interest – of “social contradictions”. These existed “between the city and the village; between the proletariat and the peasantry;… between the national republics and districts; between the different groups of peasantry; between the different layers of the working class; between the different groups of consumers; and finally, between the Soviet state as a whole and its capitalist environment.”

“Raising itself above the toiling masses, the bureaucracy regulates these contradictions” – that is to say, it kept them “under control” – by favouring now one interest group, now another, balancing between them. “It uses this function [of regulation]”, continued Trotsky, “in order to strengthen its own domination. By its uncontrolled and self-willed rule, subject to no appeal, the bureaucracy accumulates new contradictions. Exploiting the latter, it creates the regime of bureaucratic absolutism.”

Thus, he concluded: “The social domination of a class (its dictatorship) may find extremely diverse political forms… The experience of the Soviet Union is already adequate for the extension of this very same sociological law – with all the necessary changes – to the dictatorship of the proletariat as well.

“In the interim between the conquest of power and the dissolution of the workers’ state within the socialist society, the forms and methods of proletarian rule may change sharply, depending upon the course of the class struggle, internally and externally.

The regime under Stalin was fundamentally different from the regime in the first years of the workers’ state, although the underlying property relations were the same. “The substitution of one regime by another did not occur at a single stroke, but through a series of measures, by means of a number of minor civil wars waged by the bureaucracy against the proletarian vanguard.

In the last historical analysis, the Soviet democracy was blown up by the pressure of social contradictions. Exploiting the latter, the bureaucracy wrested the power from the hands of mass organisations. In this sense we may speak about the dictatorship of the bureaucracy and even about the personal dictatorship of Stalin. But this usurpation was made possible and can maintain itself only because the social content of the dictatorship of the bureaucracy is determined by those productive forces which were created by the proletarian revolution.

In this sense we may say with complete justification that the dictatorship of the proletariat found its distorted but indubitable expression in the dictatorship of the bureaucracy.

The Workers’ State, Thermidor, and Bonapartism“, 1935. Emphasis in original

But this regime had its own unique features. Trotsky added to his characterisation of the bureaucracy in The Revolution Betrayed. He emphasised that the bureaucracy had achieved a greater degree of independence from the class which it dominated than in any previous form of Bonapartist rule.

“In bourgeois society, the bureaucracy represents the interests of a possessing and educated class, [i.e. the capitalist class] which has at its disposal innumerable means of everyday control over its administration of affairs. The Soviet bureaucracy has risen above a class [i.e. the working class] which is hardly emerging from destitution and darkness, and has no tradition of dominion or command.”

Fascism was one extreme variant of Bonapartist dictatorship, based on the middle class, ‘distancing’ itself from the capitalists, and crushing and atomising the working class. Nevertheless “the fascists, when they find themselves in power, are united with the big bourgeoisie by bonds of common interest, friendship, marriage, etc..” But the Soviet bureaucracy took on “bourgeois customs without having beside it a national bourgeoisie.”

“In this sense we cannot deny it is something more than a bureaucracy”, Trotsky pointed out. “It is in the full sense of the word the sole privileged and commanding stratum in the Soviet society.

There was a further, no less important, difference from previous forms of Bonapartism, rooted in the fact that the principal means of production were now in the hands of the state. This, Trotsky explained, created “a new and hitherto unknown relation between the bureaucracy and the riches of the nation. The means of production belong to the state. But the state, so to speak, ‘belongs’ to the bureaucracy.”

In both these respects, the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union had become more powerful as against the class whose property relations it defended, than in any system of bourgeois Bonapartism or fascism.

For Trotsky, the Soviet Union was a regime in transition from capitalism to socialism or, more precisely, “a preparatory regime transitional from capitalism to socialism.” (The Revolution Betrayed)

It was only preparatory because the productive forces – despite their rapid growth – were still far behind those of the most advanced capitalist countries and “far from adequate to give the state property a socialist character.” Backwardness, and scarcity, created “a tendency towards primitive accumulation” – towards “grabbing what you can” – which disrupted the development of planned economy. The bourgeois norms still necessarily present in regard to distribution promoted the development of new inequalities, above all, the rise of the bureaucracy. Economic growth, while it provided benefits for the mass of workers and peasants, also promoted the growth of the privileged bureaucratic layers.

The bureaucracy, furthermore, had “converted itself into an uncontrolled caste alien to socialism” – although “the social revolution, betrayed by the ruling party, still exists in property relations and in the consciousness of the toiling masses”.

The “further development of the accumulating contradictions”, Trotsky concluded, “can as well lead to socialism as back to capitalism. However, “on the road to capitalism the counter-revolution would have to break the resistance of the workers” while “on the road to socialism the workers would have to overthrow the bureaucracy.”

In the last analysis, the question of which direction would be taken by the Soviet Union would be decided “by a struggle of living social forces, both on the national and the world arena.” (The Revolution Betrayed)

Since that time, because of nationalised and planned production, the Soviet Union has risen to become an economic giant – though, under the rule of the bureaucracy, at tremendous and unnecessary cost of human lives. For reasons explained in the next chapter, the Stalinist system – proletarian Bonapartism – has spread from the Soviet Union itself to other countries of the world.

Yet, in all these countries, in one form or another, the essential contradictions identified by Trotsky exist, and in intensified form. The economic stagnation, even decline, and the acute social crisis now unfolding in the Soviet Union is the starkest expression of this.

Proletarian Bonapartism, like bourgeois Bonapartism, is a regime of crisis. In the case of the Stalinist regimes, the crisis – for both internal and international reasons – has been protracted. But now the system of Stalinism is headed for collapse.

The alternatives again posed are the restoration of capitalism – or a political revolution by the working class, overthrowing the bureaucracy, restoring workers’ democracy, and opening the road again to world socialist revolution.

Continue to Chapter Four