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The Struggle for Socialism Today

A reply to the politics of the Socialist Workers Party

The revolutionary Party

Democratic Structures

We apply democratic centralism — or democratic unity — as we sometimes now call it — not just in our individual sections, but also in our International. It is not enough to have an international outlook. It is necessary also to build an international organisation, a world party of socialism, to put this into effect. Only within such an organisation can the lessons of work in other countries be brought into debates such as we have had over Scotland.

Having said this, we understand that decisions taken by the International cannot simply be forced onto reluctant sections. Even after the decision is taken it is necessary to try to convince those still opposed. We are very hesitant about imposing organisational sanctions, especially in this post-Stalinist period, when the emphasis must, in Lenin’s words, be on "patient explanation." In relation to Scotland, the CWI has registered its disagreement with the Scottish section but has, at the same time, allowed them a period to put their tactics into effect.

We are not fully aware how the Socialist Workers Party is structured. It is clear that yours is a more bureaucratic centralist than a democratic centralist party. Your decisions are from the top down, but without the necessary rights of internal debate guaranteed. Your refusal to allow any democracy in campaigns which you set up is an indication of an autocratic method of leadership which extends into the internal life of your party.

When you change the "line" you do so in the manner of the Stalinist Comintern; a new position appears from above and is declared to have been the position all along. Your membership learn nothing from this. They are not "educated" they are miseducated; they are not left more "informed," only mystified. An organisation which uses this method of debate can only hold together if there is a revolving door membership, if those with a memory of past positions are heading for the exit as the "line" is changed.

In a genuine revolutionary organisation issues need to be democratically debated, not just on a national, but an international level. You have sister organisations in a number of countries but, as far as we can gather, you have no democratic international structure, you do not hold a World Congress and do not have a properly elected international leadership. In building a revolutionary party it is not possible to proceed from the experience of only one country. After the Russian Revolution the Bolsheviks made the building of a new International a central task. Even though faced with civil war and armed intervention by the imperialist powers they took the time to bring together delegates from across the globe to found the Third International. When this International was eventually destroyed by Stalin, Trotsky turned his attention to bringing together the forces of a new revolutionary international. Although a political refugee, hounded across the world by Stalin’s GPU, he devoted much of his efforts during the 1930s to this task.

This is the importance which revolutionary Marxism places on an International. As far as we can observe the SWP organisations around the world are not part of a democratically structured revolutionary International. When you left the Labour Party in Britain in the 1960s you made a call for an International — but then dropped it. Since then you have kept your international structures a secret and have placed no public emphasis on the need to build a new workers’ International. This is no secondary issue. If there is no democratic world structure for debate and decision-making how can decisions be democratically arrived at? How can the sections be guided and assisted? Without a World Congress and elected leadership bodies the line of each section will either be taken by slavishly following the lead and "advice" of the biggest and most influential section or it will be a matter of each section "doing its own thing." It will either be a "dictatorship" by the dominant section or else a post box, exchanging information. Either way this is not Marxism, it is not the structure of the revolutionary party.

Your "ambiguity" on the issue of structures and on the nature of an international is not some minor, secondary question. It is a serious flaw which must have political consequences. It is not possible to build a mass revolutionary party based on bureaucratic methods. And to carry through the tasks of the socialist revolution it is necessary to build a revolutionary international.

Transitional Programme

On the matter of internal structures you are at odds with the tradition set down by Lenin and Trotsky. So on the question of programme. In preparation for the 1938 Founding Conference of the Fourth International, Trotsky drafted a document, "The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International," which outlines a Transitional Programme for the new International.

Trotsky argued that it was not enough to put forward a call for the abolition of capitalism and the setting up of a new society. Under most circumstances this remains abstract propaganda, far in advance of the consciousness of the mass of the working class. As well as immediate and partial demands which arise from day to day struggles, Trotsky stressed the need for transitional demands, that is those which relate to present consciousness but point the way forward to the need for the overthrow of capitalism. As he put it: "It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist programme of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power for the proletariat." (The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, Pathfinder Press, 1983, pg 114.)

Trotsky contrasts a transitional programme with the programme of reformism, of Social Democracy. Social Democracy, before its most recent move to the right, maintained the general objective of a socialist society — but at some remote future time! "Meanwhile," its programme was for reform within the framework of capitalism. Trotsky did not reject the struggle around immediate objectives. He pointed to the absence of any link between the day-to-day programme and activities and the supposed objective commenting that "the Social Democracy has no need for such a bridge, since the word socialism is holiday speechifying." (ibid)

The SWP up to now have rejected Trotsky’s advice on the need for transitional demands. Examine your programme set out in the "Where we stand" column of your paper. This does not begin with demands relating to today’s consciousness and pointing forward to the need for socialist change. Rather it has generally opened with a call for "revolution not reform." Here is a typical example of it’s opening, taken from your Irish paper of three years ago: "The present system cannot be reformed out of existence. Parliament cannot be used to end the system. The courts, army and police are there to defend the interests of the capitalist class not to run society in a neutral fashion. To destroy capitalism workers need to smash the state and create a workers state based on workers’ councils."

This is true, but it is a theoretical position, not a programme. Under today’s conditions your call for the smashing of the state and workers councils, when not even the faintest outline of these exist in reality, is abstract propaganda, ultra-left musing, nothing more, nothing less. You put the conclusion which is drawn by Marxists — a conclusion which would only become clear to the mass of the people in a period of revolutionary upheaval and dual power — and don’t bother with the reasoning which leads to this conclusion. It is as comprehensible to the working class audience as listening to someone read answers without bothering to read out questions.

When it comes to day-to-day activity, theoretical concepts cannot substitute for a programme. Even the SWP has stumbled on this reality. Your "revolution not reform" maxim, especially in the crude way in which you present it, has no immediate practical meaning for workers. If used as a platform for intervention in the day-to-day struggles of the working class it will be met — at best — with incredulity and shrugged shoulders.

Those — the SWP included — who try to intervene under an ultra-left "revolutionary" banner tend, in the words of Trotsky, to be "toppled by reality" at every step. Ultra-leftism/sectarianism, when it comes in contact with reality, tends to find its bodily form in opportunism. When intervening from the sidelines the SWP are usually the loudest, most defiant, most "revolutionary." But when it comes to campaigns that you run, or to any arena in which you have some influence, you almost invariably switch to limited, often quite liberal demands and, forgetting the denunciations of treachery you made a moment before, unite with whomever you can on this programme.

The SWP programme for the future is "revolution not reform." For the here and now you find that this will not do and so you put forward an "action programme"; that is, such demands as arise to "mobilise the working class to action." We understand that in formulating this "action programme" the British SWP has recently presented this as an update of Trotsky’s Transitional Programme — despite having for years specifically rejected the idea of transitional demands.

You may now pay lip service to Trotsky on this, but we don not believe you are one step closer to a transitional method when it comes to formulating a programme. Your "action programme" remains an immediate set of demands put forward to try to mobilise people around the SWP and the various "campaigns" you launch. Between this and the need to "smash the state," set up "workers’ councils" etc., there is no connection, no bridge. The "action programme" is for now, the "revolutionary programme" is for the long term, for later. And so, masked under a heavy camouflage of revolutionary sounding phrases, the SWP actually adopts the same programmatic method as Social Democracy.

In recent election material — we quote here from your election platform for the Scottish Assembly — the SWP put forward its "action programme." This included demands for a minimum wage, trade union rights, and a cut in hours, which we would include in our transitional programme. We would go further however and call for a cut in hours without loss in pay and a minimum wage tied to the cost of living — neither of which your raise. We would also find a formulation to raise the need for public ownership under democratic workers’ management of the biggest industries and financial institutions so that we can take control of the wealth in society and use this to pay for the improvements to services, to living standards and to the overall quality of life which we want to introduce.

Your material is at best foggy on this. Instead of clearly demanding public ownership of the profit making industries it calls for nationalisation of firms which lay off workers. On privatisation it demands a halt to sell-offs and the scrapping of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI). There is not even a mention of bringing services and firms already sol off back into public ownership.

Where will the money for reforms come from? Our answer is found under the headline "Tax the rich." "We say tax the rich and big business to provide the money for the services we need. That money could be used to boost the NHS and education, abolish tuition fees and reinstate full student grants." That is no different from the position of the Labour left who in the 70s and early 80s avoided the question of public ownership by putting forward the idea of a wealth tax. Except that sections of the left at times went much further than you do. Tony Benn, at one point, advocated the nationalisation of the top 25 companies in Britain.

Your "action programme" is in fact a left reformist programme, a set of radical reforms which could be paid for, within capitalism, by soaking the rich with taxes. This is your minimum programme to be struggled for now. And what of your maximum "revolutionary" programme? Yes, the call for "revolution not reforms" is still there, but as something to be attained in the future. As your Scottish election literature, alongside the immediate "action programme," says, "In the longer term we have to change the whole basis of society." (our emphasis) Reform now, revolution tomorrow — it is the classic standpoint of left reformism and has nothing in common with Marxism.

Transitional demands cannot be divorced from the struggle to implement them. It is true that in a general sense the demands which make up the Transitional Programme cannot be fully realised and consolidated within the confines of the present system. This programme is modest — for a decent standard of living to be guaranteed to all — but the fight to achieve it raises the question of where the resources to meet these needs will come from. This inability of the market to deliver poses the need for an alternative, for public ownership of the wealth-producing industries so that additional wealth can be generated to cater for human need, not to satisfy the thirst of a few for profit. That is why this programme is "transitional" — the struggle to achieve these demands brings the working class up against the limitations of capitalism, or, in Trotsky’s words, to the "doorstep" of the socialist revolution.

This does not mean that we put these forward with the rider that they are unachievable, that nothing is possible under capitalism, that action in parliament will achieve nothing, that we must have rule by workers councils — in other words we do not preface our programme with the opening phrases of your "Where we stand." To do so would be a recipe for paralysis.

Although in a general sense transitional demands cannot be fully realised under capitalism, this is not to say that concessions cannot be won. It is possible to wrest reforms from the system. Faced with powerful social movements, the capitalists and their representatives at times have to retreat and make concessions they do not want to make. During the post Second World War economic upswing real concessions were won and maintained for a whole period. The demand for wages to be linked to prices which Trotsky put forward in the 1938 programme were won in Italy, for example, in the form of the "Scala Mobile," and in other countries.

In the present epoch of economic crisis and counter reform it is more difficult to win concessions and, if won, the capitalists will move more quickly to take them back, either directly or in some other form. Nonetheless it is still possible to make gains, but only on the basis of a concerted movement, and increasingly of a movement which goes beyond national boundaries. Although the general period is characterised more by struggles of a defensive character it is still the case that reforms can be won, but increasingly only as a by-product of revolutionary struggle.

We do not believe that this is the SWP’s attitude to struggle. For you, reality is simple. Capitalism must go. A revolutionary party is needed and as there is no one or nothing as "revolutionary" as the SWP all other considerations must be pushed to the side in the frantic haste to "sell papers and recruit." Above all the party cannot be diverted from this by over-involvement in struggles or campaigns, which in any case cannot achieve anything, but which tie up resources, consume huge amounts of energy on small tasks and which cannot simply be dropped when a new issue arises. In the sectarian world of exaggerated self-importance the tempo of the class struggle must not interfere with the tempo of party activity.

Your day-to-day demands and slogans are not really an "action" programme or a call to struggle. The action you see as necessary is to get people on the streets or into a room so that you can have an audience for your maximum "revolutionary" programme. The "action" programme is any demand or slogan which will achieve this. It is not intended as the first step in a struggle to implement it. Such a struggle would mean that the party would lose the agility to leapfrog to the next issue and to put forward the "action" demands on that subject which might, momentarily, bring a new audience.

Demands which are unrelated to real struggle do not make up a living programme. At best they are propaganda, comment, and not a call to action. If the main concern is to get an audience for the SWP, they can put forward without regard to the consciousness of the working class and without concern about how to develop this consciousness, step-by-step, in the direction of socialism.


Ultra-leftism and opportunism are reverse expressions of each other. In Lenin’s words they are "two sides of the same coin." The ultra-left urns ahead of the masses issuing demands which appear abstract and unreal; the opportunist tail ends the working class seeking the lowest common denominator in drawing up a programme. In both cases demands are not related or tailored to existing consciousness and the question of how to develop this consciousness is not even asked.

In real terms the distance between ultra-leftism and opportunism is small and to journey from one side to the other requires only a small step. Those, like the SWP, who regularly make this journey, are unable to relate demands to consciousness and have no need of a programmatic bridge, no use for the transitional method of Marxism. This is why we cannot define the differences between ourselves and the SWP statically in terms of a list of specific disagreements. It is a difference of method. The SWP's history is one of incessant movement from ultra-leftism to opportunism and back again. You have been consistent only in your inconsistency, your somersaulting from one political position to another, your discarding, disowning and even denying of your old ideas in the process.

There are as many examples as there are areas of work in which you have been engaged. Your recent letter still holds that Broad Lefts in the unions are electoral alliances with left bureaucrats and therefore a stain on "revolutionary purity." On electoral politics all are "damned" who take the parliamentary road. Yet, in recent SWP campaigns you invite "left" trade union officials onto your platforms and make no criticism of them when they are there. You also have invited speakers from the Irish Labour Party and other political parties and again make no criticism of what they say. Ken Livingstone, in your language, "betrayed" the struggle to stop the Tories closing down the Greater London Council (GLC). Recently he championed the NATO attacks on Serbia and Kosovo. Yet, the SWP in London have run a campaign backing Ken Livingstone to be selected as New Labour's candidate for Mayor of London.

In the 1970s and 1980s you attacked Militant for being within the Labour Party in Ireland and in Britain — and in other social democratic parties, elsewhere. You argued that we were "reformist" because we worked within these mass parties. Yet, in the last few years your members in Germany, France and in a number of other European countries have joined the social democratic parties and are working within them.

There is a difference between what we did when we were in the Labour and social democratic parties and what you are doing today. We worked within them at a time when they were unmistakably connected to the working class through the trade unions, both in terms of individual membership and broad support. Our view — that the working class in moving into political activity would first turn to these organisations and attempt to change them — was at least partially borne out. In Britain, for example, the Labour Party was radicalised during the early 1980s and shifted significantly to the left, drawing a large section of the working class with it. Within the party we worked openly, always putting forward our ideas and maintaining our separate publications.

During the 1980s the left suffered a series of defeats within these parties. In both Britain and Ireland the expulsion of Militant was a milestone in the shift to the right. The rightward drift has been reinforced during the 1990s. Within all of the social democratic parties in Europe a counter-revolution against the left has either been carried out or is being carried through. The umbilical connection with the working class has been broken or is being broken. Those which are not already bourgeois parties are in the process of becoming so.

You chose to dismiss the idea of working within the mass working class parties at that time when the basis existed for fruitful work as part of the left within them. Yet now that they have shifted to the right, are no longer working class in composition and have no prospect of moving back to the left, you have chosen to put your forces inside them in a number of countries. Given the rule changes and dictatorial control now exercised by the right wing leaderships it is no longer to carry out the revolutionary work we were able to do within these parties in the past. The only way to stay within them is to keep your head down, to bury yourself so deep you will be undetected. This is precisely the manner in which your forces are now working. From the revolutionary denunciations of the past you have moved over to an opportunist accommodation to social democracy.

So when we discuss co-operation now or in the future with the SWP we will want to know if the convergence of ideas which makes this possible is because of a fundamental rethink and change of method on your part. Or is it just a case that the political pendulum which carries you from sectarianism to opportunism, and back again, just so happens to be passing close to the position we adopted, but without any consideration of the changed situation?

As you point out in your letter, our organisations have long differed over the question of the class character of the former Stalinist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe. To some degree the collapse of these regimes after 1989 has rendered this difference historical. But not entirely.

The collapse of Stalinism has been a process which is not yet complete in all parts of the world. The Castro regime remains in power in Cuba. We characterise this as a deformed workers state. According to the SWP it is and always has been capitalist. Were the regime to fall and were the capitalist calls in waiting in Miami to return Cuba to its former status as an offshore haven for US capital, we should have very different attitudes.

Despite our criticisms of the Castro regime we would see this as a setback, a counter-revolution in terms of property relations. But, if you were consistent and applied the same approach as you did to what happened in Russia and Eastern Europe, you would see this not as a reverse but as an "opportunity." According to your letter "We saw the collapse of these regimes not as a setback for socialists, but as an opportunity to begin the fight for real socialism in these countries."

The difference is still a live issue even in relation to Russia and Eastern Europe where the restoration of capitalism has been carried through. The CWI is carrying out work in a number of these countries. An essential theoretical foundation for this work is an understanding of what happened after 1989. We begin from the position that there was a change in property relations and capitalism was restored. If we held your view that this counter revolution was not a "defeat," not a victory for world capitalism, but a sideways move from one form of capitalism to another, we would have no adequate explanation for the demoralising and disorienting effect on the working class, the throwback of consciousness with the re-emergence of reactionary ideas which had not had an organised expression since Tsarism, nor for the economic and social collapse which has followed.

Our analysis of the collapse of Stalinism is fundamental for our work within the former Stalinist states. It is also important in the rest of the world since an explanation of what went wrong in Russia is essential if we are to convince workers and youth that socialism can work. For these reasons our differences with the SWP over the class nature of these states remains a live issue.

Trotsky’s Analysis

Contrary to what you have implied recently in your paper we were never "defenders" of these regimes. You argue as though our analysis of the USSR somehow places us at variance with Trotsky. In your letter you say: "While denouncing Stalinism and claiming adherence to the letter of the Trotskyist tradition, you nevertheless regarded these regimes as "deformed" or "degenerated workers states."

This comment is ironic indeed; ironic because one of the greatest contributions made by Trotsky to the history of Marxism was his analysis of Stalinism. Trotsky was exiled, persecuted, members of his family were murdered, his supporters in Russia and elsewhere were butchered, all because of his unstinting and incisive criticism of the Soviet bureaucracy. We stand with Trotsky when he described the Soviet bureaucracy as "one of the most malignant detachments of world reaction," ("Preface to Spanish language edition of Revolution Betrayed," Writings, 1936-37, p. 378). We are also with Trotsky when he presented the other side of the equation and described the USSR, with this "malignant bureaucracy" at the help, as still a workers state, albeit a "degenerated workers state."

In fact, every argument you present in your letter to justify your theory of state capitalism was answered by Trotsky in the 1930s. We therefore make no apology for quoting extensively from Trotsky in dealing with these points. You dismiss the characterisation of the former USSR as a deformed workers state. Of "revolutionaries" who, in the 1930s, likewise reject this label and flirted with the idea of "state capitalism" Trotsky was particularly scathing: "But can such a state be called a workers’ state — thus speak the indignant voice of moralists, idealists and revolutionary snobs…," ("Workers State Thermidor and Bonapartism," Writings, 1934-35).

Stalin came to power because the defeats of the revolutionary movement in Europe left the 1917 revolution isolated to Russia. Socialism could not and cannot be built in one country, least of all in an underdeveloped country as Russia was at that time. The isolation of the revolution and the exhaustion of the working class allowed space for a privileged layer to emerge. Stalin was the personification of the interests of this bureaucratic caste.

Trotsky in 1935 posed the questions "What does Stalin’s ‘personal regime’ mean and what is its origin?" He answered himself thus: "In the last analysis it is the product of a sharp class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. With the help of the bureaucratic and police apparatuses the power of the ‘saviour’ of the people and the arbiter of the bureaucracy as the ruling caste rose above the Soviet democracy, reducing it to a shadow of itself." ("Again on the question of Bonapartism," Writings, 1934-35, p. 208).

Under Stalin political power was wrested from the working class and placed in the hands of a privileged bureaucratic caste. But not all the gains of the 1917 revolution were lost. The economy remained in state hands; there was planning, albeit carried out in a crude and bureaucratic manner; and the state held a monopoly over foreign trade. The economic foundations of a workers’ state remained in place.

The bureaucracy did not become a class. It did not own the industries which it managed. While the bureaucracy, by dint of privilege, was self-perpetuating it did not enjoy the right of inheritance. Its relationship to the economy was more akin to that of the heads of nationalised industries in the west to the industries they manage. These people are privileged, they are as removed from their workforces as the capitalists, but they are not capitalists.

The capitalist class is defined by what it owns, not by what it consumes. The Soviet bureaucracy consumed a large slice of the surplus wealth produced by the working class. But this is not unique. Every bureaucracy rewards itself for its commanding position by creaming off a larger share of wealth for itself. Unlike the capitalists, the Stalinist rulers did not have ownership of the surplus, and could not have unless they undid the other gains of 1917 and privatised the economy. Trotsky was absolutely clear and categorical on this: "Still the biggest apartments, the juiciest steaks and even Rolls-Royces are not enough to transform the bureaucracy into an independent ruling class." ("The class nature of the Soviet State," Writings, 1933-34, p. 113).

According to your letter you "never accepted the argument that the ‘planned nature’ of their economies meant that they could escape the contradictions of capitalism and crisis." In fact, the contradictions of capitalism, other than its relationship to the capitalist world economy, did not apply to the USSR. The cyclical rhythm of capitalist production, of boom and slump, was absent. There was no crisis of overproduction such as affected capitalism in the 1930s and is a spectre which has returned in the 1990s.

This does not mean that there was no crisis or that there were no contradictions. But the contradictions of the Soviet economy, and the reasons for the economic impasse which eventually brought Stalinism to its knees, were different. The most fundamental contradiction was between the fact of a planned economy and the bureaucratic administration of the plan. Not for nothing did Trotsky argue that the planned economy needs democracy just as the human body needs oxygen. For a period the advantages of state ownership and a form of plan, however bureaucratically drawn up and autocratically implemented, did lead to significant economic improvement. The USSR went from being a backward country, an India, to the second world superpower, something which would not have been possible on the basis of capitalism.

Once the economy reached a certain degree of sophistication the disadvantages of bureaucratic methods, of the absence of democratic decision making, began to outweigh the advantages of public ownership and of planning. By the Brezhnev era, certainly by the end of this time, the economy had ground to a halt and the bureaucracy, by their crude methods, were incapable of taking it forward. Stalinism came up against its economic limitations, not the limitations or contradictions of capitalism, but the restraints imposed by the stifling fact of bureaucratic misrule. The choice, ultimately, was not of ongoing rule by the bureaucracy but either its removal and the establishment of workers’ democracy or else a return to capitalism.

Transitional Regimes

Your letter scorns the idea that these regimes were "transitional." Trotsky, however, repeatedly refers to their "transitional" character. The triumph of Stalin was a step back from October 1917, but not a complete step away from the gains of that revolution. Trotsky’s view was that if the bureaucracy remained in control, at some point the pressures of world capitalism would tell. Counter-revolution, perhaps initially in the form of the invasion of cheaper goods from the more developed capitalist economies, would triumph. It would be the triumph of higher productivity, of "less labour," in the advanced capitalist states, over the less productive, more labour intensive, industries in the isolated Russian economy. The bureaucracy, or a section of it, would seek to transform itself into a capitalist class. Only a movement of the working class to overthrow the bureaucracy could offer an alternative way out.

In the Transitional Programme he writes: "The USSR embodies terrific contradictions. But it still remains a degenerated workers’ state. Such is the social character. The political prognosis has an alternative character: either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers’ state, will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back into capitalism; or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism."

Trotsky’s either/or prognosis, developed particularly in his classic book, The Revolution Betrayed, was correct, but it took a whole historic period to work itself out. What Trotsky could not have foreseen was that Stalinism would emerge from the Second World War enormously strengthened. The defeat of Germany and the exhaustion of the British and US troops, who were not prepared to follow those generals who wanted to continue the war against Russia, allowed the powerful Red Army to conquer Eastern Europe unopposed.

Having taken control of the state, the new rulers proceeded to take over the economy and set up regimes modelled on the Stalinist regimes in Russia. The peculiar circumstances allowed that capitalism was abolished, from above, with the support of a large section of the working class, but not as the conscious and independent action of that class. Again, it was the particular circumstances of the time which allowed the guerrilla armies which later seized power in China and Cuba to follow the Russian example and eradicate landlordism and capitalism.

These did not become socialist societies, but were precisely "transitional" regimes in which the choice was either political revolution to overthrow the bureaucracy or else ultimately counter-revolution and their reintegration into the capitalist world market. Since they had not been at any point healthy workers’ states the term "degenerated workers’ states" used by Trotsky to describe Russia was not quite accurate. We used the term "deformed workers’ state" as a more precise definition.


The emergence of the USSR as a world superpower allowed the regime a relative stability for a period. Trotsky’s 1930 perspective was postponed. However, what happened in 1989 and after brilliantly bore out his analysis. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of the eyes of East Germans to the goods and lifestyles which seemed to be available in the West ushered in the counter-revolution which ended with the restoration of capitalism. In Russia and Eastern Europe, most of the bureaucracy went along with the restoration — bearing out what Trotsky had also said — that faced with the choice of a workers’ movement for political freedom or the restoration of capitalism they would look to the latter as the only way to maintain their privileges.

Counter-revolution, as with revolution, means decisive change. It is clear that the events of 1989-91 marked such a change in Russia and Eastern Europe. The old Stalinist states collapsed, the state apparatus in part "moved over" and in part was replaced. The new states which emerged were intent on re-establishing capitalism. The overthrow of the old state apparatus ushered the beginning of a change in property relations. It was a repeat of 1917, only this time in reverse.

If the SWP believes that the USSR was capitalist you need to show at what point the counter-revolution in property relations was carried through. The victory of Stalin in the late twenties and the thirties, and the purges which followed, represented a political victory for this caste. The property relations — state ownership and the plan — which were established in the years after 1917 were maintained. If this was state capitalism then what was set up by the Bolsheviks was state capitalism also. Or else we would have to draw the entirely un-Marxist conclusion that a change in political rule is tantamount to a change in the social system. In other words, we would have to start out from what is in fact the underlying theoretical premise of reformism.

In fact, this is your entire argument. You say in your letter "For the SWP, as for Marx, the decisive criterion is social relations of production — which class controls industry and society. The key question is whether the working class is really in control and is the real ruling class. For those with eyes to see it was obvious that workers not only did not control industry but were systemically deprived of basic democratic rights. To describe such societies as a ‘workers state’ as the Socialist Party and its predecessors did, is to make words lose all meaning." (11 January letter)

For Marx, the decisive question was which class owned industry, not whether that class exercised democratic control in management of that industry. There have been occasions when the capitalist class have lost direct control over the state, but so long as property relations remain unchanged, they remain the ruling class. You have mixed up changes to the superstructure — the method of political rule — with the more fundamental question of the economic base. We determine the class nature of society by examining its economic foundations.

Must the working class have a direct hold on the levers of political power before we can use the term "workers state"? Let Trotsky answer you on this:

"The dictatorship of a class does not mean by a long shot that its entire mass always participates in the management of the state…The anatomy of society is determined by its economic relations. So long as the forms of property that have been created by the October revolution are not overthrown, the proletariat remains the ruling class." ("The class nature of the Soviet State," Writings, 1933-34, p. 104).

And again: "But this usurpation (by the bureaucracy) was made possible and can maintain itself only because the social content of the dictatorship of the bureaucracy is determined by those productive relations that were created by the proletarian revolution. In this sense we 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," Writings, 1934-35, p. 173).

In basing your characterisation on the fact that the working class were deprived of democratic rights, were oppressed and in a sense "exploited," you are in the camp of liberalism, not Marxism. We have already quoted Trotsky on his attitude to the "moralists" who looked at the horrors of Stalinist rule and indignantly professed that this could not be a "workers state." From there your argument gets worse. The regimes in Eastern Europe, you say, cannot be "workers states" because they were installed from above. Marx, you remind us, had argued that "the emancipation of the working class must be accomplished by the working class."


This indeed is the standpoint of Marxism. But the same Marx who argued in a general historical sense that the bourgeois, or capitalist, revolutions which overthrew feudalism were the historic tasks of the rising capitalist class, also pointed out that in some cases the capitalists relied on other forces to carry this out.

Even the ‘classic’ bourgeois revolution — in France 1789-1815 — unfolded with a rich complexity which confounds the one-dimensional historical view of the SWP. The backbone of the revolution at its high point in 1792-94 was the urban poor, the sans culottes, who acted in alliance with the Jacobin left wing of the bourgeoisie. But the power of the plebeian masses who overthrew absolutism began to encroach on the bourgeoisie. The period of Thermidor leading to the triumph of Bonaparte saw many of the gains of the revolution, such as the declaration of universal male suffrage, removed. Bonapartism meant rule by the sword. The state rose above society and, by military means and by decree, ‘arbitrated’ between the rival class interests. This was a step back in terms of political rights but the new capitalist class relations which were established by the overthrow of feudalism and absolutism remained fundamentally in place.

In 1815, Bonaparte was defeated by the forces of reaction in Europe. The Bourbons were restored. In appearance it was back to pre-1789. But the substance was different. Capitalist property relations remained in place. If the class nature of the state was just a matter of the political superstructure then France after 1815 would have been a feudal state. This was clearly not the case. The rising bourgeoisie had to surrender political power, but in the main the property rights created by the revolution stayed in place.

The revolutions of 1830 and 1848 did away with the Bourbons and with the dynasty of Louis Philippe of Orleans. The working class was by now more powerful than in 1789, but was not yet capable of taking power. The bourgeois, trembling in the face of the growing strength of the working class, were divided and unable to rule. As the struggle between these two modern classes could not be fought to a decisive conclusion, the state stepped into the equilibrium and once again assumed the role of arbiter. The Second Republic achieved mainly by the armed working class in 1848 became the Second Empire under the dictatorship of Napoleon’s nephew, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte.

The state arbitrated but ultimately came down on one side, the side of the bourgeois. Even in the "classic" example of France the rule of the bourgeois was finally consolidated by a Bonapartist regime which took direct political power from the capitalists, and which creamed off a good proportion of the wealth for itself. Engels, in his introduction to Marx’s The Civil War in France, written just over a hundred years ago, uncovers these complex and seemingly contradictory processes in a living manner which contrasts sharply with the crude one-dimensional approach to history which the SWP applies to the less complex processes of revolution and counter-revolution in Russia.

"Louis Bonaparte took the political power from the capitalists under the pretext of protecting them, the bourgeois, from the workers, and on the other hand, the workers from them; but in return his rule encouraged speculation and industrial activity — in a word the dominance and enrichment of the whole bourgeoisie to an extent hitherto unknown. To an even greater extent it is true, corruption and mass thievery developed, clustering around the imperial court, and drawing their heavy percentages from this enrichment." (The Civil War in France, Progress Publishers, 1968 edition, p 8.)

In other cases the bourgeois played even less of a role in "their" revolution. In the case of Germany the unification of the country was carried through from above by the reactionary Prussian nobility through the "blood and iron" methods of their representative, Bismark. The German bourgeoisie were too cowed by the power of the working class which had been demonstrated in the revolutionary uprisings of 1848, to play any role. "Their" rule came into being under the militaristic banner of the reactionary rulers of the Prussian House of Hohenzollern.

Stalinism was a modern form of Bonapartism. The political gains of the revolution were wiped away. Tsarist autocracy was replaced by Stalinist autocracy. But as in France the social gains of the revolution were not abolished. Even though the working class did not have political power, Russia did not return to the orbit of capitalism. It was not in any sense a capitalist state.

This is not to say that there can be an exact parallel between the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries and the scientific revolutions. 1789 in France may have been carried through by the majority, the great mass of the oppressed in France, but it inevitably had to end as rule in the interests of a minority, the capitalists. In the words of Engels it may have proclaimed "the Kingdom of Reason," but in reality it established "the Kingdom of the bourgeoisie." The socialist revolution, on the other hand, is not carried out by the majority, it allows that majority, for the first time in a real sense, to rule. It is therefore correct to say that the socialist revolution cannot be completed by any class or section of society other than by the working class. But this is not to say that the course of the socialist revolution, like the bourgeois revolutions, cannot be tortuous, that it cannot move along dead ends, or that all sorts of transitional formations cannot be thrown up along the road to its completion.

Marx and Engels were absolutely right when they stated that the working class would be the "gravedigger" of capitalism and that no other class could play this role. But truth is always concrete. A general statement made by Marx over one hundred years earlier does not alter what actually happened in Eastern Europe, and under slightly different conditions in China, Cuba, Vietnam and a number of other countries. The inability of imperialism to hold back the colonial revolution and prevent the coming to power of guerrilla armies, or of other forces hostile to the West, combined with the "model" of the already existing Stalinist states, meant that in these cases one part of the task of the socialist revolution was carried through without the working class playing the leading role.

Does this contradict Marx’s general aphorism on the role of the working class? Does it mean, as you claim, that "workers revolution" becomes only "one option among many possible roads to socialism,"(11 January letter)? In order to arrive at this conclusion you use terminology with a looseness that really does "make words lose all meaning." In the space of a few sentences your letter interchanges the terms "deformed" or "degenerated workers states" as though all mean the same thing. So, if we argue that deformed workers’ states have been carved into being by Red Army bayonets, this comes to mean that "genuine socialism" can be created and society liberated in this way.

Of course it means no such thing. As Trotsky said, the Stalinist regimes were transitional, not socialist. This did not mean that they could evolve gradually and peacefully into healthy workers’ states. The bureaucracy would not voluntarily surrender its privileges and step aside any more than the capitalists in the West would voluntarily hand over their property. The transition to "genuine socialism" required the revolutionary overthrow of the bureaucracy.

Political Revolution

We did not support or defend these regimes. We defended all that was left of the October revolution, the state ownership of industry — as did Trotsky: "The economic foundations of the USSR preserve their progressive character. These economic functions must be defended by the toiling masses of the whole world and all friends of progress in general with all possible means," ("The End," Writings. 1936-37, p. 189). To defend the economic foundations did not mean defending or giving any measure of support to the bureaucracy. As history has demonstrated the only way to preserve what was left of 1917 was to overthrow the bureaucracy.

Our position was to fight for democratic rights, for the limitation of wages and the election of all officials, for the establishment of rule through genuine workers’ councils. Whereas in the capitalist countries we stand for a social revolution to change the ownership of the means of production, in these states we stood for a political revolution to get rid of the bureaucracy and place the working class in direct control of society. This revolutionary emancipation could only be achieved by the working class itself.

The ultimate test of a theory is the effect it has in practice. The working class in Eastern Europe moved into action on many occasions against Stalinism. They did so in East Germany in 1953, in Hungary and Poland in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, Poland in 1970, 1976 and again in 1980. On each occasion, the initial direction of these as revolts was towards political revolution. Even in 1989-91 the gaze of the masses was at first towards political change and ending bureaucratic rule. The decision of the East German bureaucracy to open the Berlin Wall was taken in order to save their own skins by diverting the movement towards the West and capitalism.

The position of the Committee for a Workers’ International in intervening in these events was to support the mass movements and to put forward the demands of the political revolution. At the same time, we warned against the illusion that capitalism could deliver Western European living standards.

Ours was a programme to take the mass movements forward to the establishment of workers’ democracy. Because of the absence of any leadership to take this programme to the masses, the pendulum swung very quickly from the possibility of political revolution towards counter-revolution and the restoration of capitalism. When this happened, we held our ground opposing the sell-off of state property, even though this position meant temporary isolation as the counter-revolution gained pace.

A decade on, our prognosis of what capitalism would mean has been graphically confirmed. Russia has experienced an economic and social collapse. The working class has been demoralised, partially atomised and left unable to resist. Even now, working class struggles and independent working class organisations are at an elementary level of development. Such is the scale of the setback and defeat which was suffered. Another, more subjective measure of the extent of the counter-revolution is the fact that the group which was sent by the SWP to work in Russia gave up after a period — telling our local comrades that they were leaving because it was "impossible" to build there.

The programme of political revolution which flows from our analysis of the class nature of the Stalinist regimes armed the working class politically. It raised consciousness and pointed the way forward towards "genuine socialism." It was a call to action, at one and the same time to remove the incubus of the bureaucracy and to stave off the threat of counter-revolution. The tragedy of the mass movements which erupted against the Stalinist rulers from East Germany and Hungary in the 1950s to the events of 1989 was that there were not sufficient forces armed with these ideas to have an effect on the outcome.

Capitalism — A Sideways Step

By contrast, the practical conclusions which flow from the theory of state capitalism could only have had the effect of disorienting, stunning and paralysing the working class in the face of the threat of capitalist restoration. If these regimes are already capitalist it is only a matter of change from one form of capitalism to another. And if this is so, the only consistent position socialists could take is one of neutrality, of a plague on both your houses. Otherwise, they would be backing one form of capitalism as somehow more "progressive" than another.

Political consistency is not a hallmark of the SWP. On this question as on all others the tendency has been to bend opportunistically to the prevailing mood within society, and to modify your stance accordingly. During the Korean War, in which the capitalist South, backed by imperialism, took on the deformed workers’ state in the North, the forerunners of the SWP adopted a position of neutrality. After all this, to them, was a war between two capitalist states. The fact that, leaving aside the class character of North Korea, it was also a case of imperialist intervention in the ex-colonial world did not make a difference to your party. To understand your position at the time it is necessary to remember that the Korean War did not provoke a mass movement of opposition among the working class either in the US or in Europe.

With Vietnam, it was a different matter. Opposition to US involvement helped trigger the student and youth radicalism of the late 1960s. Eventually, the anti-war sentiment spread to large sections of the working class as well. In class terms, Vietnam was a mirror of the Korean conflict. North Vietnam was a deformed workers’ state. In the South there was a puppet regime of imperialism which was maintained only by the military backing, first of the French, and then of US imperialism.

This was how most of the left viewed it — but not the SWP. In SWP terms, it was a war between two capitalist states — as was Korea. Yet, not altogether surprisingly, the SWP did not adopt a neutral stance this time. To have done so would have completely cut off your party from the radicalised youth. In fact you, along with most of the left, went too far, giving largely uncritical support to the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong. Our position was to demand the withdrawal of US forces, but also to criticise the programme of the Vietcong and warn that the result of a Vietcong victory, on the basis of this programme, would be the formation of a Stalinist regime modelled on Russia.

There was no Vietnam-style mood of popular sympathy for the deposed tyrants of Russia and Eastern Europe in 1989-91 — and thus no pressure on the SWP to adapt its position accordingly. But there were huge illusions in capitalism and these were reflected in the stance you adopted. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, your German comrades supported German reunification on a capitalist basis, adding only the rider that this should not be carried through by Kohl.

When the regime in the USSR finally crumbled in 1991 your Irish paper greeted the event with the exultant headline: "Communism is dead. Now fight for real socialism." The introductory paragraph of your lead article read: "’Communism has collapsed’ declared the newspapers and the TV. It is a fact that should have every socialist rejoicing." (Socialist Worker, September 1991.)

The events of the time brought Boris Yeltsin to power with a programme for the privatisation of industry and the opening of Russia to the market and foreign capital. Inside your September 1991 paper you attack the left for the view that "Boris Yeltsin represents a step back, a return to capitalism," and go on to state that "Yeltsin is neither a step forward nor a step backward." You present Yeltsin as a more enlightened member of the state capitalist class who, "confronted with deep crisis, want(s) to haul the economy out of its downward spiral and to organise production more competitively on the world market…He is offering the state capitalists in Russia a lifeline for their own survival." These words appear alongside articles calling for the break up of the USSR and supporting the demonstrations which were pulling down the statues of Lenin. "Socialists in Russia should be on these demos just as the Bolsheviks in 1905 went on a religious procession to the tsar’s palace."

All this you wrote in 1991 just as events in Russia decisively strengthened the counter-revolution. The comparison with the 1905 revolution against Tsarism is absolutely false. The 9 January 1905 demonstration you refer to was a hundred thousand strong march, overwhelmingly proletarian in composition, held days into a strike wave, which, yes, was led by a priest and there were some people carrying religious icons, but it was hardly a "religious procession." The massacre that took place that day deepened the revolution, brought it from the underground to the surface, spread it from capital to towns and cities across the continental land mass of Tsarist Russia.

The 1905 massacre ushered in two months of revolution. The 1991 events prefaced a capitalist counter-revolution which so far has heaped almost a decade of misery on the heads of the people of the former USSR. It is a poor revolutionary who cannot distinguish revolution from counter-revolution, who does not know the difference between a step forward and a step backward.

The political myopia has practical consequences. It preaches passivity in the face of the impending reaction. If Yeltsin is simply a sideways step, another "capitalist" ruler no better or worse than those who have gone before why particularly challenge his policies? If the privatisation of industry is just a switch from one form of capitalism to another, why resist it, why defend the "capitalist"(!) state ownership?

We have to provide a theoretical answer to your idea that the Stalinist societies were actually just another form of capitalism. But surely, the most crushing refutation of this theory is the fact that its one practical conclusion was to preach passivity and complacency in the face of counter-revolution.

The chapter is not yet closed on Stalinism. In Cuba, the Castro regime struggles on, despite huge economic problems which have already forced it to partially open up to the world market. The direction of events is clearly towards capitalist restoration. It may be that this will take place less traumatically than in Eastern Europe. Or it could be that resistance by the regime will produce a more dramatic confrontation.

Cuba is not viewed in the same way as was Ceaucescu’s Romania or Honneker’s East Germany. Among large sections of the youth in Europe and the US, but especially so in Latin America, Cuba evokes images of Che Guevara and of guerrilla fighters heroically standing against the military might of the US. Should Castro resist further incursions by capitalism, he could touch a chord of support and sympathy among the most radical youth, which could give rise to big movements in defence of Cuba in parts of Latin America.

This may not happen but if it does we can expect the SWP to abandon the logic which led them to regard restoration in the USSR as neither a step forwards, nor a step backwards; the logic which led them to be neutral in the Korean War; and instead to embrace the more persuasive logic of opportunism and put a pro-Cuba, and perhaps even a pro-Castro position, which would be more appealing to radical youth.

In Ireland, the most pronounced and obvious difference we have had with the SWP has been over the North. During the course of the Troubles our parties have adopted positions so divergent that any form of practical co-operation on issues relating to the North would have been impossible.

For most of this period, the SWP has approached the conflict from the standpoint of Republicanism, putting forward what can, at best, be characterised as a left-Republican position. By contrast, we have rejected all forms of sectarianism and have consistently advocated the unity of Catholic and Protestant workers as the only possible road to a solution.

You will, no doubt, deny the charge that you have been lodged in the camp of left-Republicanism for much of the last thirty years. Your letter specifically does so and lays claim to a different political legacy. "The claim that we supported the tactic of armed struggle is wrong and most probably designed to win cheap support from forces to the right of both the SWP and the SP — we have consistently attacked the armed struggle as counterproductive and helped to initiate labour movement demonstrations which opened the way to peace," (SWP letter, 11 January 1999).

This illustrates a difficulty in conducting any form of political dialogue with the SWP. It is not just that you chop and change your ideas to correspond with the then-prevailing mood, but that you do so in total denial that there has been a change, or that you ever said anything different from what you are saying today. In regards to the North, your party suffers from a severe case of political amnesia. The above statement from your letter is quite simply a lie. We will illustrate this by quoting what you actually said.

These quotes will show that your views have chopped and changed in what at first might seem an almost random manner. But there is an underlying consistency in these shifting sands of political inconsistency. To uncover this, all that is necessary to do is to take soundings of the mood swings in the Catholic working class areas. When Catholics welcomed the British Army, you were silent about the role that troops would play. Only when the repressive methods of the troops turned this support into enraged opposition did you oppose their role. When the IRA enjoyed a mass base of enthusiastic support among the Catholic youth, you defended their military campaign. Now that the predominant mood is against a return to war, the SWP are opposed to a return to "futile" military methods.

Today you are against paramilitary methods and for class unity. Had this change come about through an honest reassessment and correction of an analysis that has turned out to be mistaken, we would be prepared to discuss with your members to see if there is now political common ground between us. No revolutionary organisation is immune from mistakes. The real test is how it faces up to its errors, how it goes about correcting them. A change of position, properly debated and explained at every level of the party, can strengthen an organisation, creating a firmer theoretical base.

A change carried out in the manner of the SWP, behind the backs of the membership, with no explanation except denial that it has taken place, will do no such thing. It means that we can have no confidence that what you are saying today will be what you are saying tomorrow, and neither can your membership have any confidence. The working class will not take seriously a "revolutionary" organisation whose opinions are contoured, like desert sand, according to the prevailing political wind.

A change of policy arrived at blindly and empirically is bound to be piecemeal. So your shift from the sinking ideology of left-Republicanism to the firmer ground of class politics, has been partial and incomplete. Your upper body may have shifted towards the labour movement, your feet remain fixed where they were, in the camp of left-Republicanism. When class issues are to the fore, we have the new thinking of the SWP on the North. When the issues of parades like Drumcree emerged, and a confrontational sectarian mood developed in Protestant and Catholic areas, your party very quickly reverted to its old ways of thinking.

In replying to the specific issues raised in your letter we will refer to the actual record of your party on the North, not to what you now falsely claim that record to have been. When it comes to our policies and our role, your letter contains quite blatant distortions. We will put these to the side and set out what we have actually said and done.


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