Workers in 1968: were they the ruling class?

Not a workers’ state

Did the Soviet Union remain a workers’ state from its heroic beginnings to its miserable end? Citing unchanged property relations is clearly unMarxist. What is decisive is production relations, argues Jack Conrad

Capitalism does not act, at least under present circumstances, as an absolute fetter on the productive forces. Nonetheless, capitalism produces wealth one-sidedly, antagonistically, destructively. The rich become super-rich, monopolies ever more monopolistic. War follows war and economic crisis follows economic crisis. Meanwhile, life for the many is increasingly insecure.

And, in the endless search for profit, capitalism is driven to exploit nature with a ruthlessness that can only be described as criminal. Instead of treasuring nature, it is plundered. Apart from science-denying oddballs, the results are universally acknowledged: record temperatures, droughts, spreading deserts, degraded oceans, deadly air pollution, hellish wildfires, shrinking polar icecaps, rising sea levels and ever more frequent floods. Such developments threaten to bring about mass animal and plant extinctions, economic refugees by the tens of millions and, quite conceivably, civilisational collapse.1

Yet, by the simple measure of putting the means of production under social control, nature can be restored to good health, all necessary needs met and humanity returned to communism. That return, on a higher level, is actually what constitutes the defining aim of Marxism. Inescapably a universal task.

By giving conscious expression to the real movement of history, by fighting to win the battle for democracy, Marxists endeavour to raise the working class to becoming the ruling class. A ruling class, because the working class needs a state to organise itself … and to fend off the old exploiters internally and externally (a basic proposition which distinguishes Marxism from the nonsense of anarchism). But - and this is vital - the socialist state is so democratic, so pared down, so transparent that it amounts to no more than a semi-state that is already withering away.

Negative dialectic

Tsarist Russia was the “weakest link” of the imperialist chain (Lenin). A metaphor which can be misleading. It might be thought that with October 1917 the capitalist system had been broken, riven in two, put beyond repair. Needless to say, capitalism continued as a global system, in which the “Soviet economy was in large measure embedded … at all times in its history”.2

What had been conquered was a huge, but economically peripheral country, which, because of war, revolution and civil war, had been reduced to ruin and starvation. Nor did things go well internationally: defeat in Hungary and Finland, failure in Poland and Germany, fascist reaction in Italy and an Anglo-French cordon sanitaire stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

It was as if history had been put into reverse gear. A negative dialectic, which was hardly conducive to the conditions needed to sustain democracy, let alone taking steps in the direction of socialism. And popular exhaustion and unremitting hostility from the world’s dominant powers compelled the Bolsheviks to retreat from their programme. The revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry became the dictatorship of the Communist Party. Then the dictatorship of the central committee. Then the dictatorship of the politburo. Each narrowing had far-reaching, but often entirely unexpected, results. Counterrevolution within the revolution took root.

To begin with, the post-civil war Bolsheviks tried to restore the economy, so as to create the conditions necessary for the political revival of the working class. And, yes, that necessitated using capitalist methods. However, as argued elsewhere, a qualitative break came in 1928-29, with the launch of the first five-year plan.3 What had been a process, whereby the apparatus gradually developed sectional interests, reached the point of final rupture. Workers experienced not just a further erosion of civil and political rights, but atomising repression.

Any notion that the resulting social dust remained the “dominating class” is surely untenable.4 Indeed, a complete and utter absurdity. Workers faced coercion in every sphere of life. Arresting strike leaders, bogus workplace votes, enforcing speed-ups, internal passports, the effective statisation of trade unions, etc, were blessed with a socialist halo. But, in terms of collective strength, individual freedom and living standards, the position of workers in the Soviet Union was altogether inferior to the admittedly narrow, inadequate and always precarious gains that had been won in the more democratic capitalist countries.

Meanwhile, towering far above the ragged workers, hungry collective farmers and enslaved former kulaks, members of the apparatus enjoyed a privileged existence: spacious town houses, servants and chauffeur-driven cars, country dachas, closed shops, imported luxury goods, the best medical facilities, specially reserved Black Sea holiday resorts and the guarantee that their children would attend the best schools.

Not that members of the apparatus could amass capital in their own “private interests”. Yet, despite the obvious absence of capitalist wealth-making (vital, according to Adam Smith, for ensuring “the public good”), the Soviet Union seemed to represent the world’s future for a good three or four decades. Leave aside the ‘official communist’ parties and their millions of members. There were plenty of bourgeois friends of the Soviet Union too. Achievements were much exaggerated. Nonetheless, the steel plants, the hydro-electric dams, the mechanisation of agriculture, the achievement of near universal literacy, the health campaigns, the military might cannot be denied.

State property

According to the standard Marxist account, to the degree that social differentiation, along with the hierarchical division of labour, is flattened, the state too is pulled down, its special functions being absorbed by society at large. Ipso facto, state property ceases being state property. By the same logic, to the degree that the state rises above society, state property will serve as an instrument of exploitation. Evidently, although official doctrine insisted that with the first five-year plan class exploitation had forever been banished, the Soviet state showed not the least sign of withering away. On the contrary, it grew in size, reach and aspirations.

Trotsky was clearly wrong to insist that, because of the nationalisation of industry, the land, the means of transport, etc, the Soviet Union continued to be some kind of workers’ state. October 1917 resulted in state property forms: that much is undeniable. But the working class can only exercise control over property collectively. Hence the necessity of democracy. To be meaningful that has to include time off for representatives to master information, provision for debate, the right to present alternative proposals, regular votes, the election and rotation of managers, etc. Without democracy, state property could only belong to the apparatus. What had been taken from capitalists and landlords therefore once again confronted workers and peasants as an alien force.

Hence, the apparatus in the Soviet Union amounted to considerably more than any ‘normal’ bureaucracy. As a rule, bureaucracies occupy an elevated, but intermediate social position between the masses and the ruling class. The bureaucracy does the bidding, represents, serves the interests of the ruling class. There is, nonetheless, given the opportunity, an ever-present tendency for the bureaucracy to pursue its own interests. Fields of responsibility are expanded, functions become power, exorbitant salaries, bribes or favours come to be expected. Leading office-holders thereby claw their way into the ruling class - on occasion they manage to rise to the very top. The late Ottoman empire saw the grand vizier reduce the sultan to the status of a pampered puppet.

However, inside the Soviet Union, the apparatus stood alone. There was no ruling class to obey, ape or join.

Property and law

Because Trotsky pivoted so much of his argument on property, we are obliged to examine his thesis, not least because it still remains influential on the left.5

At first sight, it might appear that property is nothing more than a thing held, possessed, decided on by a particular person, or group of persons. However, as any worthwhile law commentary will tell you, property is “not a thing”.6 It is a concept, an institution, a “power relationship” … with, Marxists argue, origins in the emergence of classes and class society.

Property, is, in fact, a legal expression of the relations of production and, as such, fundamentally concerns relations between people. Under capitalism, those social relations are indirect: they are bound up with the market and appear to be relations between money, land, capital and labour-power (ie, property). But, in fact, as shown by Marx (most fully in Capital), behind this “commodity fetishism”, even if there is the assumption, in value terms, of like exchanging for like, there lies the production and extraction of surplus value. Workers as a class are exploited by capitalists as a class.

However, with the overthrow of capitalism, there comes the possibility of bringing about “the abolition of property” as an institution, as a power relationship (note, we are not talking about personal property: ie, toothbrushes, shoes, smartphones and the like; it is class property that makes way for collective appropriation).7

Bourgeois philosophers, economists and political writers are more than prone to eternalise property. John Locke considered that human beings have a natural property right over their “own persons” and that, when their labour is mixed with something provided by nature, “he makes it his property”.8 Adam Smith took the individual hunters and fishers among the “savage nations” as his methodological point of departure.9 Through the production and exchange of their property, he eventually arrives at the “civilised and thriving nations” of 18th century capitalism, along with their complex division of labour, different classes, states and contending schools of political economy.10

Not surprisingly, Robinson Crusoe has been seized upon. From Claude-Frédéric Bastiat to Murray N Rothbard, Daniel Defoe’s eponymous character is celebrated as the quintessential self-made man - adventurous, intrepid, canny, religiously pious and, perhaps clinching it, a conscientious accountant. Crusoe masters his environment through paying attention to detail and sheer hard work. But, contrary to the claims of capitalism’s apologists, when Crusoe raised his goats, dried his grapes and tended his garden plot, he did not convert the results of his labour into “property”.11 He was just a man on an island. There can, in other words, be no property outside society.

Of course, Crusoe goes on to save Friday from the cannibals and then puts him to work digging, planting, harvesting, carrying and fetching. Two more “subjects” are added to Crusoe’s “kingdom”: Friday’s father and a Spaniard. They too work for Crusoe’s benefit. Then, and only then, might we begin to talk of “property”.12 Crusoe, it should be added, got to know his little Caribbean island: its plants, wild animals, seasons, fresh water sources, tides, etc (that is, the natural resources). He also took great care to keep control over the seven muskets, two fowling pieces, two pistols, shot and gunpowder he salvaged from his wrecked Portuguese slaver-ship (simultaneously the means to exploit nature, kill enemies and, if necessary, intimidate subjects).

What about law? Law serves to regulate social production and the results of social production. Legislation, court judgements, contracts, lawsuits and appeals go together to provide predictable boundaries, a certain flexibility and state-enforced decisions. Law can, moreover, be given a new content by successive social formations. With the fall of the western Roman empire, the Frankish, Visigothic and Lombard kingdoms drew upon elements of Roman law. In England the fragmented, custom-based Anglo-Saxon law was maintained and developed by the Norman conquistadors to further their claims, interests … and ideals.13 Law, it ought to be stressed, is closely related to ideology. Those who make the law always have a particular social ideal lodged in their heads.

Nonetheless, the money-economy was from the beginnings of feudalism working like a social acid. What the Normans called the ‘law of Edward’ - ie, the legal practices operating at the time of Edward the Confessor’s death - thereby undergoes successive mutations. Law reached its highest stage with capitalist rule: in the late 19th century, it became common to talk of the “rule of law”.14

Socialism, undoubtedly, appropriates various aspects of bourgeois law … nevertheless, even when there is what might be called “proletarian law”, the legal form, as such, is already in the process of “withering away”.15 Communism proper dispenses with judges, barristers, prisons, the police, law books and all such crap. Instead there is mediation, arbitration and, hopefully, reconciliation (already the practice in the more enlightened capitalist countries, when it comes to various social issues).

However, as we have repeatedly argued, far from withering away, the legal system in the Soviet Union, just like the ever-expanding state machine, was deemed to have an ever growing role to play in protecting “state property” - pilfering was endemic, though state property supposedly belonged to the “whole people”.16 The anti-worker, anti-peasant thrust of legislation in the 1930s and 40s is unmistakable.

In this context - ie, post-1928-29 - those associated with the Marxist idea of law withering away were denounced as wreckers in the field of jurisprudence. Eg, Pēteris Stučka - commissar for justice in November 1917 and later chair of the supreme court of the RSFSR. Many were arrested, many were executed. Stalin wanted the law to instil a glacial fear into the hearts of the population. Judges, therefore, had to be bound to the principle of retribution. In a series of polemics Andrey Vyshinsky championed ‘legal formalism’: adversarial trials, law as a series of strict rules, interpreting the law to accord with original intent, etc. All lauded as high cultural achievements that ought to be strengthened and rigorously enforced (not that that prevented Soviet law being extraordinarily arbitrary in practice, even post-Stalin that continued to be the case17).

Yet, to make the salient point, society’s property relations and, closely related to that, the ever expanding body of Soviet law, were second-order, not first-order determinates. Draconian legislation and the population’s willingness to flout the law; the Stalin cult and residual Bolshevism; Russo-centric Soviet nationalism and the underground existence of rival nationalisms; state hostility towards religion and the continued hold of religion - all such factors collide, interact and colour real-life events. In many cases, amidst the swirling multitude of accidents, this or that superstructural phenomenon will largely determine the resulting forms. Nevertheless, it is economic realities which ultimately assert themselves “as something inevitable” (Engels).18

When it comes to locating the Soviet Union in historical terms, it is not what it said about itself in central committee resolutions, ministerial speeches, constitutions, legal rulings, socialist-realist novels and newspaper articles that are decisive. That hardly needs saying. Nor, however, are property relations decisive. Though property relations provide the foundations for the legal superstructure and therefore stand in close proximity to the relations of production, in the final analysis what is crucial are the relations and forces of production themselves. Surely then, the task of the serious investigator is to search out, discover and fearlessly present what lies at the most fundamental level of determination.

State property, in and of itself, has nothing to do with socialism: that is for sure. Ancient China, Babylonia, India’s Mauryan empire, the Incas all presided over state lands, state projects, state trade and state serfs. And, of course, there is the “state monopoly capitalism” Lenin discussed. That Trotsky relied on the Soviet state’s property relations - ie, the legal expression of the relations of production - just goes to show the tenuous, the superficial nature of his claim that the post-1928-29 Soviet Union remained a workers’ state.


Nonetheless, Trotsky was fully aware of the ruthless extraction of surplus product. Determined to catch up with the west, the regime resorted to the “classic methods of exploitation” and to “such naked and crude forms as would not be permitted even by reformist trade unions in bourgeois countries”.19 And, therefore, while Trotsky credited the apparatus with defending socialistic production, he denounced the forms of distribution as capitalistic. “Where there is scarcity,” he said, “there will be a struggle of each against all.”20 Under such circumstances, the ‘parasitic’ apparatus was bound to win out.

Yet the fact of the matter is that the apparatus did considerably more than parasitically misappropriate the best houses, holiday resorts, medical facilities, schools and consumer goods. The apparatus was just as intrinsic to the system as workers and peasants. As Gosplan, the apparatus drew up detailed target figures and did its best to allocate resources and monitor results; as management, the apparatus directly involved itself in the production process, right down to the shop floor. And, though the apparatus could only exert partial control over the product, there can be no doubt that the production process as a whole was designed to serve the interests of the apparatus (including the infatuations, enthusiasms and hunches of various top leaders).

The consumption of the apparatus clearly amounted to far more than the use-values they and their families enjoyed. Output that is destined to go to the state machine ought to be included too. Hence, when it comes to department B, it might be helpful if we broke it up into three parts (department A being the production of the means of production and department B being the production of the means of consumption).

Department B can be presented as department B (i) and department B (ii). Department B (i) is the means of consumption going to reproduce workers and peasants. Department B (ii) accounts for the items of individual consumption going to the apparatus. When it comes to that portion of output that goes to the armed forces, the prison system, the propaganda machine, the secret police, etc, it is worth designating it as an entirely separate department in its own right. Department B (iii), or, given its sheer scale, what we might call department C, represents the production of the collective consumption of the apparatus.

Anyway, what Trotsky believed to be the dual nature of Soviet society - socialistic production, capitalistic consumption - saw him insist upon the inherently unstable nature of the regime. One-man management - of the entire system - could organise production along military lines and ensure the atomisation of the population. That notwithstanding, a social formation which cannot rationally plan, which is dogged with poor-quality products, which has its pre-history in a proletarian-led revolution, which organises wave after wave of mass killing of its own leading cadre, which faces a hostile world of redivisionist powers - such a social formation can only but be extraordinarily fragile.

In the “interests of clarity and simplicity”, Trotsky concluded that the Soviet Union ought to be defined as a “contradictory society”.21 And, as such, either it would succumb to a violent capitalist counterrevolution, from within or from without; that, or there would be a violent political revolution, which restores the working class to its rightful place - any such development being closely connected to the world revolution. Incidentally, the emphasis on violence has nothing to do with any bloodlust. Trotsky discounted the possibility of a peaceful capitalist counterrevolution, because the working class, having come to power, would not allow the restoration of capitalism without putting up the stiffest opposition.

He clearly refused to countenance even the possibility that the first five-year plan and the 1930s orgy of killings was a social counterrevolution within the revolution. As for a violent political revolution, Trotsky knew that Stalin and his henchmen would never give up their power, their privileges, their grand ambitions without putting up the stiffest opposition too. The supposed lack of violent counterrevolution served, for Trotsky, as proof that the Soviet Union remained a workers’ state, albeit a degenerate one. Given the largely peaceful events of 1989-91, a proposition that has demonstrably been disproven. There was counterrevolution within the counterrevolution.

Heirs and successors

On the supposed ladder of historical progress Trotsky depicted the Soviet Union as having taken one step forward with October 1917 and half a step backwards with the Stalin regime. The Soviet Union could either take a half-step up or a half-step down. Standing mid-air, so to speak, was clearly untenable. Trotsky convinced himself that the Stalin regime would not be able to survive the coming world war - a war that everyone, apart from the determinedly naive, expected.

When it did survive, when it became the world’s second superpower, when it put in place a defensive outer wall of people’s democracies, that was bound to trigger a profound crisis in the so-called Fourth International.

But Trotsky’s post-1945 heirs and successors could not bring themselves to radically rethink the ‘degenerate workers’ state’ theory. Instead they adapted themselves to the unanticipated reality of the ‘socialist camp’. Michel Pablo, Ernest Mandel, Nahuel Moreno, Juan Posadas, Gerry Healy, James Robertson, Jack Barnes and Ted Grant not only normalised the abnormal situation in the Soviet Union. Eastern Europe, China, North Korea, North Vietnam, etc were given the title ‘deformed workers’ states’ and likewise credited with being “in transition from capitalism to socialism”. In 1951 Michel Pablo (Michel Raptis), then the leading figure in the Fourth International, argued that World War III was “unavoidable” and that the transition period would “probably” take “several centuries”.22 True, he saw the “Stalinist or Stalinized leadership” as a temporary phenomenon, nevertheless, the fact of the matter was that Trotsky was convinced that Stalin’s regime could survive no more than a few years. Now it had not only survived but spread.

The problem of how there could be a workers’ state in the absence of a working class revolution remained. The solution lay in the theory of ‘structural assimilation’. Georgia, the Baltic countries and eastern Poland had been absorbed into the Soviet Union both territorially … and socially. Now eastern Europe, China, North Korea, etc were being absorbed - not territorially, but socially - through the “combined efforts of internal forces and the external role of the USSR”.23 A perfectly reasonable idea … except, of course, that the Soviet Union remained wrongly categorised.

Either way, the unintended consequence of the theory, for its Fourth International advocates, was that the October Revolution went from being the model to a magnificent exception. The centrality of working class self-liberation, democracy and the Marxist programme had to become ever less central. Gradually, step by step, these principles morph into final aims, optional extras - or, with the most degraded fragments, antiquated relics. Stalin’s T34s, Tito’s partisans, ‘official communist’ parties, national liberation movements, Mao’s cultural revolution, leftwing army officers, the CIA-financed Solidarność, oil-state bonapartes, formless protest movements, Iran’s theocrats … and eventually Nato’s proxy war against Russia in Ukraine - all have been proclaimed as being in the vanguard of world progress.

The idea that there could be no return to capitalism without violent counterrevolution had long before been thoroughly internalised. We were endlessly told that the ‘film of history’ could not be run backwards. Such was the mantra into the late 1980s … and, amazingly, well into the 1990s.

Yet, it is clear, a largely peaceful restoration of the “bourgeois order” was no chimera. Khrushchev’s deStalinisation resulted in Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, not the revival of the socialist working class, as Isaac Deutscher and others in and around the Fourth International expected.24 Despite the noticeable absence of a conscious working class, Gerry Healy - and, after him, Tariq Ali - hailed Gorbachev, then Yeltsin, as being the personification of Trotsky’s political revolution.25 To put it mildly, an error of judgement.

Under sustained criticism, Ernest Mandel abandoned the dogmatic claim that the Soviet Union was inherently superior to capitalism - a society destined to outcompete the advanced capitalist countries in one field after another. He was forced to admit the waste, the irrationality, the economic slowdown, the growing possibility of capitalist restoration. However, in terms of the system’s “objective contradictions”, Mandel stuck to the triad of bureaucratic (socialistic) property forms, bureaucratic (capitalistic) distribution, and bureaucratic parasitism. And, showing an enduring inability to grasp the real movement of history, Mandel expressed his admiration for Gorbachev and the “modernist wing” of the apparatus: a social stratum which he still insisted on defining as a “faction” of the working class.26

Again to put it mildly, another error of judgement.

  1. See J Diamond Collapse: how societies chose to fail or survive London 2006.↩︎

  2. O Sanchez-Sibony Red globalization: the political economy of the Soviet cold war from Stalin to Khrushchev Cambridge 2016, pp5-6.↩︎

  3. For my most recent articles, see ‘First plan backgrounds’ Weekly Worker June 15 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1447/first-plan-backgrounds); and ‘First plan realities’ Weekly Worker June 22 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1448/first-plan-realities).↩︎

  4. L Trotsky The revolution betrayed New York 1980, p248.↩︎

  5. See D Lazare, ‘Serious problem’, Letters Weekly Worker July 27 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1453/letters).↩︎

  6. K Gray and SF Gray Land law Oxford 2011, p32.↩︎

  7. EB Pashukanis The general theory of law and Marxism New Brunswick NJ 2003, p98n.↩︎

  8. J Locke Two treatises on government London 1821, p208 - my emphasis.↩︎

  9. A Smith Wealth of nations London 1937, p1.↩︎

  10. Ibid p2.↩︎

  11. See F Bastiat The Bastiat collection Auburn AL 2007; MN Rothbard Man, economy and state Auburn AL 2006; and his Ethics of liberty New York 2002; U Grapard and G Hewitson (eds) Robinson Crusoe’s economic man: a construction and deconstruction Abingdon 2011.↩︎

  12. S Hymer ‘Robinson Crusoe and the secret of primitive accumulation’ Monthly Review September 2011.↩︎

  13. Thanks to Mike Macnair for giving me a steer on law during late antiquity and early feudalism.↩︎

  14. A term popularised by the British jurist and constitutional expert, Albert Venn Dicey. He first used it in 1875. See FW Lawson The Oxford law school:1885-1965 Oxford 1968, p72.↩︎

  15. PI Stučka, R Sharlet, PB Maggs and P Beirne Selected writings on Soviet law and Marxism London 1988, p9.↩︎

  16. Article 6 Constitution of the USSR Moscow 1969, p13.↩︎

  17. See AM Yakolev Striving for law in a lawless land: memoirs of a Russian reformer London 1996.↩︎

  18. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 49, New York 2001, p35.↩︎

  19. L Trotsky The revolution betrayed New York 1980, p82.↩︎

  20. Ibid p55.↩︎

  21. Ibid p254.↩︎

  22. M Pablo, ‘Where are we going?’ January 1951 - www.marxists.org/archive/pablo/1951/01/where.html.↩︎

  23. Apparently, the idea of ‘structural assimilation’ was originally coined by Ernest Mandel around about in 1950, but he then dropped it. Wohlforth redeveloped it in relation to Cuba, but kept his head down till his break with Healy. See ‘The theory of structural assimilation’ (1964) - www.marxists.org/history/etol//writers/wohlforth/1962/communistsagainstrevolution.pdf.↩︎

  24. I Deutscher, ‘Russia in transition’ Universities and Left Review spring 1957, Vol 1, No1. See banmarchive.org.uk/universities-left-review/spring-1957-vol-1-no-1/russia-in-transition.↩︎

  25. See G Healy, ‘Political revolution in the USSR - a process of contradiction’ Marxist Monthly Vol 1, No7, September 1988; T Ali Revolution from above: where is the Soviet Union going? London 1988. Tariq Ali’s gem was actually dedicated to Boris Yeltsin.↩︎

  26. See E Mandel Beyond perestroika: the future of Gorbachev’s USSR London 1991 ppxi-xii.↩︎