Marxists against Stalinism by Ernest Mandel

Paul Le Blanc writes the introduction to the latest volume of Ernest Mandel's work released by Resistance Books.


Marxists against Stalinism by Ernest Mandel

A debate with Chris Harman

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This volume contains an important confrontation between two outstanding figures in late twentieth-century Marxist thought, Ernest Mandel (1923-1995) and Chris Harman (1942-2009).

Essential aspects of Ernest Mandel’s contributions to the body of Marxist thought are presented in the previous volume of his writings – He is perhaps most widely known for his economic analyses, presented in Marxist Economic Theory, The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx, Late Capitalism, Long Waves of Capitalist Development, as well as his very substantial introductions to the three volumes of Marx’s Capital that had been produced by the editors of the journal New Left Review in widely-distributed paperback editions in 1977-1981.  A leading figure in the Fourth International, a federation of revolutionary socialist groups founded in the 1930s by Leon Trotsky and his co-thinkers, he has also written two influential studies on Trotsky’s thought: Trotsky, A Study in the Dynamic of His Thought and Trotsky as Alternative.[i]

Chris Harman is perhaps best known for his massive survey A People’s History of the World, but significant contributions to historical writing are also to be found in The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918-1923 and Class Struggles in Eastern Europe 1945-1983.  In addition to a significant body of historical and political analyses, he has developed searching economic analyses, the primary example being his last major work, Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx.  Like Mandel, Harman devoted most of his life to building the revolutionary socialist movement, although his International Socialist political current (culminating in the British Socialist Workers Party), led by Tony Cliff, had split from the Fourth International in the early 1950s, largely around the particular variant of “state capitalist” theory developed by Cliff.[ii]

There is much uniting Mandel and Harman.  Both are rooted in the rich traditions of revolutionary Marxism.  Both are unrelentingly anti-Stalinist – insistent on the inseparability of actual socialism with genuine workers’ democracy – and share a common reference-point in the perspectives of Leon Trotsky.  Like Trotsky, they were both uncompromising revolutionary internationalists.  Related to this, like Trotsky, but unlike some on the left, their anti-Stalinism did not cause them to align themselves with the essentially imperialist foreign policy of “the West” in the global Cold War rivalry of the United States and the Soviet Union.  Unlike yet others on the left, they did not align themselves with what some called “the socialist camp” (headed by the Soviet Union), whose pretentions of actual socialism both men considered to be a travesty.  Both favored a revolution that could bring genuine socialism to the Soviet Union and similar countries – but embedded in this position was the fundamental difference that divided Mandel and Harman from each other.

Mandel favored what Trotsky had urged: a political revolution, which would break the stranglehold of the privileged bureaucratic elite over the nationalized and planned economy of the and establish democratic control by the majority of laboring people over the economy.  This meant that important elements remained from “the conquests of the October Revolution” – and that these were worth defending even amid the struggle against the privileged bureaucracy.  Harman was convinced that Trotsky had failed to comprehend that what had crystallized in the Soviet Union under the Stalin regime was a new variant of capitalism – state-capitalism – which required a different attitude toward, and a more thoroughgoing social revolution, in what Trotsky had considered a “degenerated workers’ state.”  The notion that the Soviet Union could possibly represent any kind of “workers’ state” was anathema to the partisans of the state-capitalism analysis.[iii]

In this volume, we will find a set of polemics in which these impressive comrades – in sometimes fierce disagreement – seek to comprehend and explain the nature of the realities facing those who seek to change the world.  In this introductory essay, we will indicate the historical and theoretical context of the debate, explore key aspects of Trotsky’s analysis of the nature and trajectory of post-revolutionary Soviet society, and offer some reflections on the debate presented in this volume.

I. Contexts of the State Capitalism Debate

Mandel’s arguments in the state-capitalism polemics are inseparable not only from Trotsky’s perspectives of the 1930s, but also from his own empirical studies and analyses of later decades – for example, in two of his three last major works, Beyond Perestroika and Money and Power.  Such studies form a literary contextual frame within which his polemics on state-capitalism must be situated.[iv]

Yet the context was by no means simply literary.  The historical actualities of what many saw as the first actual socialist revolution, and what became of it, also were essential to the debate.  The Russian Revolutions of 1917 – particularly the triumphant October rising led by Lenin and Trotsky, establishing the power of the soviets (democratic workers’ councils) – were seen as providing a pathway to the liberation of humanity, and became a crucial field of study and source of inspiration for such Marxists as Mandel and Harman.  The fact that the realities turned out to be more complex and problematical than had originally been hoped, and that the October Revolution led not to the liberation of humanity but to a new form of tyranny compelled such theoretical activists to explain what had happened and why, and what this might mean for practical work of the future.[v]

Of course, Mandel was hardly working out his thinking in isolation.  He was a leading figure in a global political collective, the Fourth International, with vibrant national sections and numerous prominent thinkers and activists sharing their experiences, analyses and perspectives.[vi]  Similarly, Harman’s perspectives were developed within the quite different context of a 1950 British split-off from the Fourth International, a group around Tony Cliff which came to be known as the International Socialists, and eventually the Socialist Workers Party, inclined to subject the movement that Mandel was part of  to sharp and polemical assaults (which didn’t hold back from responding in kind).[vii]

Some of the polemics, including those contained in this volume, are elements in yet another context which is discussed exhaustively by Marcel van der Linden in his outstanding work Western Marxism and the Soviet Union.  Appearing in 2009, this work surveyed more than a hundred contending Marxist-influenced analyses which have rejected the Stalinist contention that what existed in the Soviet Union was some kind of “socialism,” but have wrestled with how to characterize the socio-economic system that actually existed there.  Most critical-minded analyses, according to van der Linden, fall within three broad categories: (1) degenerated workers’ state, Soviet society being an unstable and bureaucratically deformed formation having the potential of leading to socialism; (2) state-capitalist, Soviet society being simply a variant of capitalism which (as with capitalism in general) must simply be overturned and replaced with socialism; (3) bureaucratic collectivist, a new form of class society neither capitalist nor socialist which should be replaced with socialism (although some adherents of this theory concluded this would necessitate an alliance with the power structures of U.S. capitalism).  While none of these approaches are fully consistent with what he calls “orthodox Marxism,” van der Linden also contends that none of them have proved capable of adequately analyzing the complex phenomenon of Soviet society.  Yet he also concedes that each might have “practical utility” in dealing with aspects of this phenomenon and be useful in the development of an adequate theoretical explanation in the future.[viii]

It could be argued that such an open approach is consistent with the actual development of Trotsky’s analysis.  As Thomas Twiss painstakingly documents in his remarkable study Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy, what Trotsky presented in his book The Revolution Betrayed was the culmination of an ongoing process of theoretical reformulation and innovation, driven by his engagement with the ongoing manifestation of complex realities.[ix]

Because he was in fact essential to their perspectives, it may be helpful to give attention to Trotsky’s work to better grasp what Mandel and Harman present in their own polemics.

II. Trotsky as Reference-Point

Leon Trotsky’s classic The Revolution Betrayed was completed in 1936. Like the Communist Manifesto, it is a clear exposition that is nonetheless densely packed with ideas. As with the manifesto of Marx and Engels, successive readings of Trotsky’s book yield new insights that often have a startling contemporary relevance.[x]

In Pittsburgh long ago, a socialist study group in which I was a participant organized a four-part class series on this book which was completed as the orchestration and collapse of the August 1991 coup took place in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  A significant residue of the old Communist Party bureaucracy sought to overthrow the USSR’s reforming Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in a vain effort to push things back to how they used to be – only to be thwarted by a popular mass mobilization around an even more radical reformer, Boris Yeltsin.  Yeltsin, an avowedly ex-Communist bureaucrat, won the support of the military and much of the old state apparatus, and then swiftly oversaw the dismantling of the USSR and an enthusiastic embrace of capitalism.

Our study group discovered passages in The Revolution Betrayed almost seeming to predict what was unfolding before our eyes.  Clearly, this is one of the crucial texts of the 20th century – particularly for those wishing to contribute to the realization of a better future.

The late academic Robert H. McNeal once asserted in an influential essay that, despite “a lot of writing about Stalinism over many years,” Trotsky simply “could not come to terms with the cruel irony that confronted him in Stalin’s Russia and Comintern,” because it contradicted his deep belief “in human progress, most particularly in the progressive meaning of his life as a revolutionary.”[xi] After all, the vision of socialism (or communism) advanced by Marx and Engels posited a free association of producers in which there would flourish the free development of all. But while Lenin and Trotsky led the Bolsheviks to power in the Russian Revolution of 1917 precisely in the name of this liberating vision, the eventual product of the revolution was the system of Stalin.  “By their fruits ye shall know them.”

Across the political spectrum – even among those willing to admit that the Bolshevik revolution involved a profoundly democratic upsurge of working people – this line of argument has been employed to demonstrate that Stalin is Lenin’s ”true heir,” that the Bolshevik tradition of revolutionary Marxism logically leads to totalitarianism.

This is an issue of crucial importance particularly for those who are committed to a socialist revolution.  If Bolshevik perspectives can actually lead to a socialism of freedom and community instead of to a bureaucratic dictatorship, then the phenomenon of Stalinism should be most adequately explained by a Bolshevik analysis, one that is true to the liberating conception of socialism contained in the Communist Manifesto and Lenin’s State and Revolution.

In fact, from a Bolshevik standpoint, it is absolutely essential to develop such an analysis in order to guide one’s practical political work. This was a primary task which Trotsky set for himself in The Revolution Betrayed, to develop a critique of Stalinism and the nature of Soviet society that could at one and the same time be faithful to the facts and to the revolutionary socialist goal. Indeed, the commitment to the goal was a key to developing the most profound analysis – it is impossible to understand things as they are without having a sense of how they can and should be.

  • Trotsky’s Summary of The Revolution Betrayed

One striking feature of Trotsky’s study is that it begins, in the very first paragraph of the first chapter, by summarizing his theory of permanent revolution, and also the underlying law of uneven and combined development. This provides the broad and firm foundation of his analysis. The democratic revolution against the tyrannical tsarist system in Russia could only be accomplished by the working class, but that put political power in the hands of the working class; this, in turn, necessarily propelled the policies of the new regime in a socialist direction; the international factor immediately came into play, not simply in the form of military hostility against the infant Soviet Republic by the world’s capitalist governments, but in the form of innumerable and profound pressures of the world capitalist economy on the daily life of the Soviet peoples. Trotsky observes that the future of socialism, not to mention the very survival of the country and its population, made it essential “to catch up” with the level of economic development of the advanced industrial countries. Throughout the book he also stresses another aspect of the international factor: that the Bolsheviks saw as absolutely essential (including for the development of socialism in the USSR) the success of socialist revolutions in other countries, especially more advanced industrial countries.

“The extraordinary tardiness in the development of the international revolution, upon whose prompt aid the leaders of the Bolshevik party had counted, created immense difficulties for the Soviet Union, but also revealed its inner powers and resources,” Trotsky noted. Reviewing the immense gains in industrial and cultural development, despite all the grave set­backs, that were accomplished by the planned economy and by the immense idealistic energy of a great many people, he added that, even if there were to be an eventual collapse of the USSR, “there would remain as an earnest of the future this indestructible fact, that thanks solely to a proletarian revolution a backward country has achieved in less than ten years successes unexampled in history.”[xii]

Yet he also insisted that socialism – predicated upon the ability of a technologically developed economy to provide a decent life for all, and also upon a significant degree of harmonious economic cooperation among nations – did not and could not exist in the economically backward USSR of that time, despite all of the glowing propaganda to the contrary of the Stalin regime and its foreign admirers among the liberal-radical intelligentsia. “Law can never be higher than the economic structure and the cultural development of society conditioned by that structure,” he quoted from Marx, following up with another Marx quote: “A development of the productive forces is the absolutely necessary practical premise [ of communism], because without it want is generalized, and with want the struggle for necessities begins again, and that means that all the old crap must revive.”[xiii]

We can see that Trotsky – unlike many superficial analysts on the left – did not base his analysis of “what went wrong” on the evil designs of Joseph Stalin.  In fact, he identifies the problem as developing before Stalin’s dictatorship was consolidated.  He notes that in the midst of foreign intervention, civil war, and economic collapse, “democracy had been narrowed in proportion as difficulties increased.  In the beginning, the [Bolshevik, or Communist] party had wished and hoped to preserve freedom of political struggle within the framework of the Soviets [democratic councils]. The civil war introduced stern amendments into this calculation. The opposition parties were forbidden one after the other. This measure, obviously in conflict with the spirit of Soviet democracy, the leaders of Bolshevism regarded not as a principle, but as an episodic act of self-defense.”[xiv]

Instead, Trotsky notes, democracy soon disappeared not only in the party itself, as well as in the soviets, but also in the trade unions, the cooperatives, cultural organizations, etc.  “Above each and every one of them there reigns an unlimited hierarchy of party secretaries.”[xv]  This was not generated by some “fatal flaw” in Bolshevism or Lenin’s ideas, he insists, but by something more fundamental that developed during the civil war period and the early years of the New Economic Policy (that is, from 1918 through the early 1920s). Trotsky indicates the dynamic in this remarkable passage:

The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of con­sumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all. When there is enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there is little goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the power of the bureaucracy. It “knows” who is to get something and who has to wait.[xvi]

It is impossible here to do justice to the full range and complexity of Trotsky’s analysis in The Revolution Betrayed.  But it is worth examining, and reexamining, Trotsky’s own summary of his analysis, in which he provides a useful checklist of nine key points:

The Soviet Union is a contradictory society halfway between capitalism and socialism, in which: (a) the productive forces are still far from adequate to give the state property a socialist character; (b) the tendency toward primitive accumulation created by want breaks out through innumerable pores of the planned economy; (c) norms of distribution preserving a bourgeois character lie at the basis of a new differentiation of society; (d) the economic growth, while slowly bettering the situation of the toilers, promotes a swift formation of privileged strata; (e) exploiting the social antagonisms, a bureaucracy has converted itself into an uncontrolled caste alien to socialism; (f) the social revolution, betrayed by the ruling party, still exists in property relations and in the consciousness of the toiling masses; (g) a further development of the accumulating contradictions can as well lead to socialism as back to capitalism; (h) on the road to capitalism the counterrevolution would have to break the resistance of the workers; (i) on the road to socialism the workers would have to overthrow the bureaucracy. In the last analysis, the question will be decided by a struggle of living social forces, both on the national and the world arena.[xvii]

  • Bonapartism and the Transitional Regime

Trotsky asserted that Stalin was part of a tyrannical lineage that includes Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte, as well as Napoleon’s nephew Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (who became Napoleon Ill). In each case, a somewhat similar governing system took the name of the individual in question. Caesarism, Bonapartism, Stalinism each involves the rise, in a strife­torn society and highly factionalized political atmosphere, of an authoritarian “super-arbiter” who utilizes democratic and popular rhetoric and claims to represent the interests of society as a whole. The power of the state is raised above the nation, apparently autonomous of all social classes, although actually preserving, in general, the privileges of the upper strata.

“The Stalin regime, rising above a politically atomized society, resting upon a police and officers’ corps, and allowing of no control whatever, is obviously a variation of Bonapartism – a Bonapartism of a new type not before seen in history,” Trotsky wrote. “Caesarism arose upon the basis of a slave society shaken by inward strife. Bonapartism is one of the political weapons of the capitalist regime in its critical period. Stalinism is a variety of the same system, but upon the basis of a workers’ state tom by the antagonism be­tween an organized and armed soviet aristocracy and the unarmed toiling masses.”[xviii]

Trotsky drew attention to another form of 20th century Bonapartism – fascism. “Stalinism and fascism, in spite of a deep difference in social foundations, are symmetrical phenomena,” he observed, adding grimly: “In many of their features they show a deadly similarity.” A revolutionary internationalist insight was also highlighted in his analysis: “the crushing of Soviet democracy by an all-powerful bureaucracy and the extermination of bourgeois democracy by fascism were produced by one and the same cause: the dilatoriness of the world proletariat in solving the problems set for it by history.”  Obviously thinking of the ongoing Spanish civil war and revolutionary possibilities in France, he added: “A victorious revolutionary movement in Europe would immediately shake not only fascism, but Soviet Bonapartism.”[xix]

Significantly, Trotsky denied that the privileged Soviet bureaucracy actually constituted a class similar to the slave­owning patricians, the feudal nobility, or the capitalist bourgeoisie. It did not represent either a variation of capitalism (“state capitalism”) or a new form of class society (such as “bureaucratic-collectivism”).  Rather, he saw the Soviet bureaucracy as being more akin to the enriched, conservative, undemocratic, and sometimes gangster-ridden bureaucratic layer that has so often arisen in the trade union movements of many countries. This parasitic elite, he felt, did not serve the same organic function as did the bourgeoisie in the capitalist mode of production. Therefore, the roots of the bureaucracy in Soviet society were not as deep, the bureaucratic stratum as a whole not as resilient, and the future of the bureaucracy as a ruling elite not as sustained as has been the case, for example, with the capitalist class.

The fact that the bureaucratic system consolidated under Stalin collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions after only six decades would seem to vindicate Trotsky’s insistence that it does not represent a new form of class society.  The same is true for his insistence that bureaucratic rule is not a final resting-place for the revolutionary process in the USSR but, instead, is transitional.  No less significant is his warning against “the mistaken idea that from the present Soviet regime only a transition to socialism is possible. In reality a backslide to capitalism is wholly possible.”[xx]

  • Contradictions and Predictions

Trotsky’s analysis of the contradictions of Soviet society in the mid-1930s has considerable relevance to what eventually happened to the USSR.

The growth and power of the bureaucracy came into conflict with a rationalization of the economy and the development of productive forces in the USSR.  “Just as absolute monarchy became in its time irreconcilable with the development of the bourgeois market” capricious bureaucratic management, an essential element in Stalin’s hyper-centralized “command economy,” prevented the keeping of accurate accounts essential for rational planning. Red tape, bottlenecks, nepotism, and incompetence in a relatively autonomous bureaucracy – free from the threat of controls imposed either by laws of the market or by workers’ democracy – vastly complicated the tasks of economic production and distribution. Even with the meeting and surpassing of phenomenal production quotas, bureaucratically imposed from the top down, the quality of goods produced inevitably suffered: “bureaucratism destroys the creative initiative and the feeling of responsibility without which there is not, and cannot be qualitative progress.”[xxi]

The brunt of this is born by Soviet consumers. “The ulcers of bureaucratism are perhaps not so obvious in the big industries,” Trotsky commented, “but they are devouring, together with the co-operatives, the light and food-producing industries, the collective farms, the small local industries – that is, all those branches of economy which stand nearest to the people.”  While “it is possible to build gigantic factories according to a ready­made Western pattern by bureaucratic command – although, to be sure, at triple the normal cost,” this is not viable for long­term economic development: “the farther you go, the more the economy runs into the problem of quality, which slips out of the hands of a bureaucracy like a shadow.”  Noting that “Soviet products are as though branded with the gray label of indifference,” Trotsky also placed his finger on the alternative to the dictatorship of both the bureaucracy and the capitalist market: “Under a nationalized economy, quality demands a democracy of producers and consumers, freedom of criticism and initiative – conditions incompatible with a totalitarian regime of fear, lies and flattery. . . . Soviet democracy is not the demand of an abstract policy, still less an abstract moral. It has become a life-and-death need of the country.”[xxii]

In the mid-1930s the Soviet bureaucracy, beset by intense internal and external pressures, stood at a crossroads.  A portion of it indicated an inclination to move in the direction of “liberal” reform.  But even the thought of this was soon obliterated by the assassination of Leningrad party boss Sergei Kirov, in retrospect sometimes seen as Stalin’s potential rival (yet termed by Trotsky as “clever and unscrupulous,” and identified by more recent historians as a firm “Stalin man”).  Kirov’s murder was used as a pretext for the mass arrests, imprisonment, and slaughter of real, potential, and imagined opponents of Stalin’s regime – all accused of being part of a “counter­revolutionary Trotskyite conspiracy.”[xxiii]

Trotsky’s analysis, completed just as this living nightmare began, considered what might happen if, on the contrary, a “liberal reform” wing of the bureaucracy made headway. (This has special relevance for what came to pass in the 1980s and 1990s.)  Predicting that the economic crisis would generate “an open political crisis,” he suggested that as a preventive measure the new Soviet constitution of 1936 might be utilized to channel deep popular discontent into the voting booth in order to admonish and correct sectors of the bureaucracy that were responsible for some of the society’s difficulties. “However, it has happened more than once that a bureaucratic dictatorship, seeking salvation in ‘liberal’ reforms, has only weakened itself,” Trotsky wrote, pointing out that this could create “a semilegal cover for the struggle against” the Stalinist regime.  Trotsky predicted: “The rivalry of bureaucratic cliques at the elections may become the beginning of a broader political struggle. The whip against ‘badly working organs of power’ may be turned into a whip against Bonapartism.”  What failed to mature in the 1930s became the reality half a century later: “All indications agree that the further course of development must inevitably lead to a clash between the culturally developed forces of the people and the bureaucratic oligarchy. . . . With energetic pressure from the popular mass, and the disintegration inevitable in such circumstances of the government apparatus, the resistance of those in power may prove much weaker than now appears.”[xxiv] 

Yet Trotsky did not assume that only good things could result.  He favored a political revolution, renewing Soviet democracy, and leaving the socio-economic conquests of the 1917 revolution intact.  But he was able to envision a grim alternate scenario:

A collapse of the Soviet regime would lead inevitably to the collapse of the planned economy, and thus to the abolition of state property. The bond of compulsion between the trusts and the factories within them would fall away. The more successful enterprises would succeed in coming out on the road of independence. They might convert themselves into stock companies, or they might find some other transitional form of property – one, for example, in which the workers should participate in the profits. The collective farms would disintegrate at the same time, and far more easily. The fall of the present bureaucratic dictatorship, if it were not replaced by a new socialist power, would thus mean a return to capitalist relations with a catastrophic decline of industry and culture.[xxv]

Bad as daily life under Stalinist tyranny might be, things could get worse. The replacement of job security with the economic whip of unemployment; the erosion of even the often poor quality hous­ing, medical care, education, and other social benefits guaranteed by the 1917 revolution –these and other possibilities strengthened the hand of the bureaucracy. “The vast majority of the Soviet workers are even now hostile to the bureaucracy,” Trotsky argued, but “the workers have almost never come out on the road of open struggle,” because of the fear that, “in throwing out the bureaucracy, they will open the way for a capitalist restoration.” Trotsky saw this as a dialectical contradiction in the Soviet reality. The destruction of the planned economy would set the country back for decades, and the bureaucracy fulfilled a necessary function by preserving that economy. “But it fulfills it in such a way as to prepare an explosion of the whole system which may completely sweep out the results of the revolution.”[xxvi] 

Whether the USSR would finally slide back into capitalism or move forward to socialism would be resolved through immense struggles involving the Soviet masses themselves.  This opinion that Trotsky expressed more than once is also consistent with a point that Ernest Mandel would also express in later years (including in the pages that follow), often in his characteristic spirit of boundless optimism.  There was, however, an essential element in Trotsky’s analysis which is too often overlooked.

  • The Importance of the Left Opposition

Trotsky knew that relatively spontaneous mass upsurges of the working class could begin a revolution, but he did not believe this meant the working class could “spontaneously” win a revolution. Taking political power was possible only through conscious preparation, including the development of experienced militants, as well as the development of a sound political program and the ability to effectively communicate it to masses of people.  He believed the existence of the Left Opposition in the USSR – which at that time he considered the largest section of the Fourth International – constituted such a force.

This was by no means a figment of his imagination. These courageous men and women – in many cases veterans of the revolutionary struggle against tsarism and capitalism, leading cadres in the 1917 revolution and the civil war period, early defenders of Marxism and Bolshevik principles against the first signs of bureaucratic corruption – constituted a tremendous reservoir of political experience, organizing skill, and invaluable moral authority.[xxvii]

“The prisons, the remote comers of Siberia and Central Asia, the fast multiplying concentration camps, contain the flower of the Bolshevik Party, the most sturdy and true,” Trotsky wrote. Noting the loss of hundreds of Left Oppositionists through executions, starvation during hunger strikes, suicides, etc., he stated that at least 20,000 remained.  The Communist Party of Stalin had two million, but “on such a question a mere juxtaposition of figures means nothing,” Trotsky pointed out. “Ten revolutionists in a regiment is enough to bring it over, in a red-hot political atmosphere, to the side of the people.”[xxviii]  He quoted the recently freed Victor Serge, one of the few Left Oppositionists to escape from the prison camps:

Thousands of these Communists of the first hour, comrades of Lenin and Trotsky, builders of the Soviet Republic when Soviets still existed, are opposing the principles of socialism to the inner degeneration of the regime, are defending as best they can (and all they can is to agree to all possible sacrifices) the rights of the working class …. I bring you news of those who are locked up there. They will hold out, whatever be necessary, to the end. Even if they do not live to see a new revolutionary dawn.[xxix]

One of the most important changes to take place since Trotsky wrote The Revolution Betrayed is that almost all of these precious comrades – precious human beings, irreplaceable revolutionary cadres – were almost completely eliminated. Some were finally broken, capitulating to Stalin’s authority. Others were able to stand fast to their beliefs, and they were massacred in 1937-38. There are accounts of them being marched out in batches from the labor camps, at gunpoint, into the tundra. Some eyewitnesses recount that they walked with dignity, raising the Communist clenched-fist salute, and proudly, defiantly sang “The Internationale” before reaching the spot where they were shot down. Those few who survived were, by the late 1980s, old – mostly in their eighties and nineties, unable to play the role Trotsky had envisioned half a century earlier.  By 1990, there were disparate, fragmented currents of younger dissident Marxists in the USSR, some working-class activists still inspired by the ideas of Marx and Lenin, and small groups of fresh militants who knew little of the heritage of the Left Opposition. But the seasoned and relatively cohesive force that was the Soviet Left Opposition had passed out of existence years before. 

In The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky wrote that ”the bureaucracy can be removed only by a revolutionary force,” adding: “To prepare this and stand at the head of the masses in a favorable historic situation – that is the task of the Soviet section of the Fourth International.”[xxx]  When the “favorable historic situation” finally arrived, however, the Soviet section of the Fourth International was no longer there.  Under these circumstances, the triumphal return to capitalism that Trotsky saw as a possibility would become almost inevitable.[xxxi]

It can be argued, however, that the historic program of the Left Opposition remains vibrant even now – not only for the Soviet Union in the time of Stalin, but for the how socialism can best be understood in the here and now. This program involved, first and foremost, “the restoration of democracy in the trade unions and the Soviets. It would be able to, and would have to, restore freedom of Soviet parties. . . .  A restoration of the right of criticism, and a genuine freedom of elections, are necessary conditions for the further development of the country.”  Trotsky had no patience for the anxiety that some might stumble into political “heresy” and error. “The youth will receive the opportunity to breathe freely, criticize, make mistakes, and grow up. Science and art will be freed of their chains.”[xxxii]

There would also be a settling of accounts, a necessary cleansing. “Together with the masses, and at their head, [a revolutionary party] would carry out a ruthless purgation of the state apparatus,” eliminating the tyranny of Stalinism root and branch.  Of course, “it is not a question of substituting one ruling clique for another, but of changing the very methods of administering the economy and guiding the culture of the country. Bureaucratic autocracy must give place to Soviet democracy.”[xxxiii]

Moving away from the bureaucratic strangulation of the means of production and distribution, ”the proletariat would have to introduce in the economy a series of very important reforms, but not another social revolution.”  Rather, “it would retain and further develop the experiment of planned economy.”[xxxiv] 

But the planning must assume a qualitatively different character: “The bringing of democracy into industry means a radical revision of plans in the interests of the toilers. Free discussion of economic problems will decrease the over­head expense of bureaucratic mistakes and zig-zags. … ‘Bourgeois norms of distribution [such as inequality of incomes, market mechanisms, etc.] will be confined within the limits of strict necessity, and, in step with the growth of social wealth, will give way to socialist equality.”[xxxv]

“And, finally,” Trotsky concluded, “foreign policy will return to the traditions of revolutionary internationalism.” Insisting on the utter utopianism of the Stalinist notion of building socialism in a single country, he predicted: “The longer the Soviet Union remains in a capitalist environment, the deeper runs the degeneration of the social fabric. A prolonged isolation would inevitably end not in national communism, but in a restoration of capitalism.”  He added: “If a bourgeoisie cannot peacefully grow into a socialist democracy, it is likewise true that a socialist state cannot peacefully merge with a world capitalist system.”  The Bolsheviks, upon taking power in 1917, had proclaimed their “fundamental task” to be “the establishment of a socialist organization of society and the victory of socialism in all countries.” This must guide a revitalized Soviet Union, Trotsky insisted. “More than ever the fate of the October revolution is bound up now with the fate of Europe and of the whole world.”[xxxvi]

It is obvious from Trotsky’s work that he did not believe bureaucratic tyranny in the Soviet Union would be capable of enduring for another half century.  With the coming of the Second World War, Trotsky believed that out of the horrors and carnage – and in reaction against what the various capitalist regimes and the Stalin regime had done to the world – a new revolutionary wave would sweep across the planet and bring into being a socialist world.  In his massive and sympathetic survey, The Marxism of Leon Trotsky, Kunal Chattopadhyay strikes a sharply critical note: “By insisting that the coming war would lead either to a clear-cut proletarian revolution or an immediate transformation of the USSR, he took an undialectical position, and in a way miseducated his followers.”[xxxvii] 

The fact that the anticipated revolutionary triumph was not forthcoming resulted in crisis and fissures in the small but vibrant revolutionary movement inspired by his perspectives.  Trotsky himself had been assassinated as the war began to unfold, so it was left to his contending comrades to try to make sense of the realities they faced.[xxxviii]

III. Reflections on the State-Capitalism Debate

There will be no effort here to summarize the debate presented in the pages that follow.  The authors quite clearly state their own cases, and the task of making judgments on who seems to have a better grasp of the complexities they discuss will have to be made by each reader.  My concluding comments will be restricted to my own views on (1) a historiographic matter relevant to the debate and (2) strengths that seem to emerge in Mandel’s contribution.

In the general, complex, and (for the past few centuries) accelerating swirl of uneven and combined development characterizing the history of the world, a variety of economic forms and practices have coexisted.  In his succinct study of capitalism, Jürgen Kocka argues that elements of capitalism have existed throughout the world for thousands of years, reflected in the creation of commodities, the existence of currency, trade routes, commercial transactions, and more.  We can find such capitalist elements in Imperial China, in what is now India, in the Middle East, in portions of Africa, in the Roman Empire, etc.  These have blended with other, more dominant modes of production over the centuries.  According to Kocka, a mature capitalist system came into being in Europe through a process taking place between 1500 and 1800 – crystallizing, essentially, as the dominant mode of production (drawing more and more aspects of life into a system of generalized commodity production, driven by a relentless capital accumulation process) within more and more areas of our planet down to the present-day.  As it has done so, Kocka tells us, it has assumed various forms that include merchant capitalism, plantation capitalism, industrial capitalism, etc.[xxxix]

This is consistent with my own perception (advanced elsewhere) that 

capitalism involves an incredibly dynamic process of development, a process of capital accumulation, transforming the world over and over again. It remains true to its own dynamism by taking on a variety of different forms. … We must see capitalism as a complex and dynamically evolving reality, a vast and contradictory process, assuming different forms in different moments of history and in different places on our planet. All this is inseparable from the relentless process of capital accumulation. The diversity of “capitalisms” cannot be defined by a single description.[xl] 

Such a methodological point can be harmonized with capitalist aspects of economic life in the Soviet Union discussed by Chris Harman and his co-thinkers in a way the supports their theory – the existence of “a diversity of capitalisms” would certainly leave room for their notion of state capitalism. 

There remains, however, Mandel’s insistence that the dynamics of the Soviet economy were qualitatively different from those of capitalist economies.  The capital accumulation process was central to the system analyzed by Marx, and Harman makes liberal use of the term in his own discussion of Soviet realities – but Mandel observes that it seems to have a different meaning in Harman’s analysis.  The Soviet economy and “traditional” capitalist economies also seem to function differently in regard to the “law of value” and the tendency toward overproduction – according to Mandel each operates according to a different logic (or illogic).  Far more than shedding light on the economic system dominant in the Soviet Union, he stresses, the state capitalism concept blurs and blunts one’s understanding of the traditional (or actual) capitalism that came into being in the Modern Era and has been evolving since then into the global system that dominates our lives.

Mandel goes on to note that – with “the collapse of Communism” – assertions about state capitalism seem to pale: “Now, as has been clear for a long time, the issue is posed whether capitalism will be restored in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, Cuba and China.”  If such countries were already capitalist, what would there be to restore?  Despite bureaucratic degeneration or deformities, revolutionary gains (the “gains of October” that Trotsky insisted must be defended) would seem to have been real after all, targeted by bureaucrats transforming themselves into entrepreneurial oligarchs.  As Mandel puts it:

Socialists must resist every attempt to destroy the collectivized property relation – concretely this means battling without reservation against attempts to privatize enterprises and destroy the social gains of the working class – the inefficient, unfair, chronically disorganized, but nonetheless real gains of huge subsidies on rents and food, ultra-cheap housing and transport, free childcare and healthcare – and above all guaranteed employment.

This seems a reasonable program, and one consistent with the analysis advanced by Mandel.  Those who read these polemics, however, will need to determine the extent to which Mandel’s side of this debate, and that of his adversary, make sense.  What seems incontestable, however, is that as scholars and activists engage with what Mandel offers, they will find not only theoretical insights, but also ideas that might help advance the struggle for human liberation.

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[i] Bibliographical information on the works just mentioned, and discussion of Mandel’s life and ideas, can be found in Jan Willem Stutje, Ernest Mandel, A Rebel’s Dream Deferred (London: Verso, 2009), and Gilbert Achcar, ed., The Legacy of Ernest Mandel (London: Verso, 1999).  Another important source is the Ernest Mandel Internet Archive: Additional information and writings can be found through the Marxist Internet Archive:

[ii] An informative collection of remembrances on Harman can be found in the journal International Socialism #125, Winter 2010, also available online:  Writings and information can also be found through the Marxist Internet Archive:

[iii] In a 1979 interview, Tony Cliff commented that his state-capitalist theory originated with the notion that “if the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class, then you cannot have a workers’ state without the workers having power to dictate what happens in society,” as cited in Marcel van der Linden, Western Marxism and the Soviet Union (Haymarket Books, 2009), p. 119.

[iv] Ernest Mandel, Beyond Perestroika: The Future of Gorbachev’s USSR (London: Verso, 1989); Ernest Mandel, Money and Power, A Marxist Theory of Bureaucracy (London: Verso, 1992).  

[v] See essays and materials in Paul Le Blanc, Ernest Mandel, David Mandel, Rosa Luxemburg and V.I. Lenin, October 1917, Workers in Power (London: Resistance Books/International Institute for Research and Education/Merlin Press, 2017). An intensive examination of complex and problematical developments is offered in Paul Le Blanc, October Song: Bolshevik Triumph, Communist Tragedy 1917-1924 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017).  Surveys of the history can be found in Ronald Grigor Suny, The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the Successor States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) and Moshe Lewin, The Soviet Century (London: Verso, 2016).

[vi] The range of prominent thinkers and activists comes through in Ernest Mandel, ed., Fifty Years of World Revolution 1917-1967, An International Symposium (New York: Merit Publishers, 1968).  A sympathetic overview of the Fourth International can be found in Pierre Frank, The Fourth International: The Long March of the Trotskyists (London: Ink Links, 1979), with much additional detail to be found in the massive and more critical Robert J. Alexander, International Trotskyism 1929-1985: A Documentary Analysis of the Movement (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991).  A useful firsthand account can be found in Livio Maitan, Memoirs of a Critical Communist: Towards a History of the Fourth International (London: Resistance Books/International Institute for Research and Education/Merlin Press, 2019).

[vii] On the birth and development of this current, see Tony Cliff et al, The Origins of the International Socialists (London: Pluto Press, 1971) and Ian Birchall’s splendid biography Tony Cliff, A Marxist for His Time (London: Bookmarks, 2011), the key work being Tony Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia (London: Bookmarks, 1988).  The Cliff group’s 1950 characterization of the Fourth International (Birchall, p. 134) terms it “bankrupt politically, capitulating to Stalinism and Titoism, lack a consistent policy toward reformism, showing all the signs of bureaucratic degeneration.”

[viii] Van der Linden, pp. 302, 305, 313, 318.  It should be noted that adherents of the “bureaucratic-collectivist” current sharply divided between those like Max Shachtman who supported U.S. foreign policy and others like Hal Draper who rejected that path and remained equally critical of both sides in the Cold War. See Peter Drucker, Max Shachtman and His Left, A Socialist’s Odyssey through the “American Century” (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1994), and Hal Draper, Socialism from Below (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2019). 

[ix] Thomas M. Twiss, Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015).

[x] This section of my discussion draws from Paul Le Blanc, “Trotsky and the Democratic Struggle in the USSR,” Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, December 1991, pp. 8-11.

[xi] Robert H. McNeal, "Trotskyist Interpretations of Stalinism," in Robert C. Tucker, ed., Stalinism (New York: W.W. Norton, 1977), pp. 31, 30.

[xii] Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, What is the Soviet Union and Where is It Going? (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co.), pp. 6, 8.

[xiii] Ibid., pp. 53, 56.

[xiv] Ibid., p. 96.

[xv] Ibid., p. 100.

[xvi] Ibid., p. 112.

[xvii] Ibid., p. 255.

[xviii] Ibid., pp. 277-278.

[xix] Ibid., pp. 278-279.

[xx] Ibid., p. 254.

[xxi] Ibid., pp. 274, 275.  For an overview of Soviet economic development, see Alec Nove, An Economic History of the USSR: 1917-1991, 3rd Edition (Penguin, 1993).

[xxii] Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, pp. 275,276.

[xxiii] On the short-lived liberalizing “good years” and the horror that followed, see: Ronald Grigor Suny, The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR and the Successor States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 247, 257-268;  Robert C. Tucker, Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928-1941 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990), pp. 238-254, 271-337, 366-478; Oleg V. Khlevniuk, Stalin, New Biography of a Dictator (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), pp. 122-141, 150-162.

[xxiv] Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 287.

[xxv] Ibid., pp. 250-251.

[xxvi] Ibid., pp. 285, 286.

[xxvii] My own summary description of the Soviet Left Opposition before and during its destruction can be found in Paul Le Blanc, Leon Trotsky, (London: Reaktion Books, 2015), pp. 117-125.  Eyewitness accounts are provided in: Maria Joffe, One Long Night (London: New Park Publications, 1978); Joseph Berger, Shipwreck of a Generation (London: Harvill Press, 1971), pp. 82-98; George Saunders [Shriver], ed., Samizdat: Voices of the Soviet Opposition (New York: Monad Press/Pathfinder Press 1974), pp. 61-181, 206-216; and Victor Serge, Russia Twenty Years After New Edition (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1996), pp. 94-123.  Richly informative accounts can also be found in Pierre Broué, “The Bolshevik-Leninist Faction,” Revolutionary History, Vol. 9, No. 4, 2007, and in volumes by Vadim Z. Rogovin, Bolsheviks Against Stalinism 1928-1933: Trotsky and the Left Opposition (Oak Park, MI: Mehring Books, 2019) and 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror (Oak Park, MI: Mehring Books, 1998).

[xxviii] Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, pp. 282, 283.

[xxix] Ibid., p. 284.

[xxx] Ibid., p. 288.

[xxxi] See Suny, pp. 449-505, and Stephen F. Cohen, Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001).  A little-known but invaluable collection of primary documents, first-hand reports, and contemporary analyses can be found in Marilyn Vogt-Downey, ed., The USSR 1987-1991: Marxist Perspectives (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1993), and a set of penetrating on-the-spot interviews is available in David Mandel, Rabotyagi: Perestroika and After Viewed from Below, Interviews with Workers in the Former Soviet Union (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1994).  For additional analyses and information relevant to the issues at hand, see: David Kotz, Revolution from Above: The Demise of the Soviet System (London: Routledge, 1997) and Roy Medvedev, Post-Soviet Russia: A Journey Through the Yeltsin Era (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).  

[xxxii] Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, pp. 252, 289, 290.

[xxxiii] Ibid., p. 252.

[xxxiv] Ibid., p. 289.

[xxxv] Ibid., pp. 253, 252, 289.

[xxxvi] Ibid., pp. 290, 300- 301, 291.

[xxxvii] Kunal Chattopadhyay, The Marxism of Leon Trotsky (Kolkata: Progressive Publishers, 2016), p. 561.

[xxxviii] A brilliant analytical discussion of the war itself is offered in Ernest Mandel’s The Meaning of the Second World War (London: Verso, 1986).  For a summary of what actually happened in the years following the Second World War, see Le Blanc, Leon Trotsky, pp. 178-186.  Aspects of the fragmentation of the Trotskyist movement are traced in Alexander, International Trotskyism.

[xxxix] Jürgen Kocka, Capitalism, A Short History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016).  Much in this train of thought seems similar to analyses in Jairus Banaji, Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011).

[xl] Paul Le Blanc, “Explorations in Plain Marxism,” Revolutionary Studies: Studies in Plain Marxism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), pp. 11, 12. 

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Paul Le Blanc is the author of works on the labour and socialist movements, including Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (1990), From Marx to Gramsci (1996), and Leon Trotsky (2015). He is an editor of the eight-volume International Encyclopaedia of Revolution and Protest, and a co-editor of The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg.

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