How did Trotsky and the Trotskyists see these events? Trotsky maintained to the end that Russia was a degenerated workers’ state, progressive despite Stalin. But in September 1939, as we will see, he made an enormously important shift within that general position.
Between his expulsion from Russia in February 1929 and his death in August 1940, he shifted from being critical of the regime, but an all-out defender of the USSR against social-democratic and other enemies, to being an all-out advocate of a new working-class revolution against the Stalinist “autocracy”. For “technical” reasons he called that new working-class revolution a “political revolution”, but what he advocated was a full-scale working-class social revolution.
In polemics in 1937 he had detached the idea that Russia was a apecies of (deformed) workers state from the idea that it was progressive in terms of the development of the productive forces. He argues thatt it was progressive in terms of the economy even if it was not any sort of workers state; that for this reason it should therefore be defended, workers’ state or not. His opponents in that discussion, James Burnham and Joseph Carter, though they rejected the idea that Russia was any sort of workers state, were at that stage "defencists".
By his end, Trotsky himself would, more or less, have abondoned the idea that Russia, whatever it was, was progressive. It was, he said, only potentially progressive - on condition that the workers overthrew the bureaucracy and restored wworking class rule. But this idea would have an enormous and shaping influence in the Fourth International after his death, when the Trotskyists had to come to terms with the fact of Russia's survival in the World War and the great expansion of Stalinism in Europe and Asia.
In 1936 Trotsky had already ripped away all possible credence from any variant of the idea that nationalised property was automatically “working-class” by identifying the key question behind such system as: “but who owns the state?”
“The means of production belong to the state. But the state, so to speak, ‘belongs’ to the bureaucracy” (The Revolution Betrayed).
That was the crux of the argument of all those in and around the Trotskyist political current who would reject Trotsky’s surviving conclusion that Russia was still some species of workers’ state. By 1939 Trotsky, on Russia, was floundering in a large bog of seeming contradictions and self-contradictions.
In the Transitional Programme (the founding document of the Fourth International which the Trotskyist movement declared in September 1938 (having previously described itself only as the “movement for a Fourth International”), Trotsky wrote that “Stalin’s political apparatus does not differ... [from] fascist countries [such as pre-Holocaust Nazism] save in more unbridled savagery”.
He wrote that the form of exploitation the bureaucracy imposed on the workers “from the standpoint of the interests and position of the popular masses... is infinitely worse than any ‘organic’ exploitation. The bureaucracy is not a possessing class, in the scientific sense of the term. But it contains within itself to a tenfold degree all the vices of a possessing class”.
“We can and must say that the Soviet bureaucracy has all the vices of a possessing class without having any of its ‘virtues’ (organic stability, certain moral norms, etc.)” “The Soviet oligarchy possesses all the vices of the old ruling classes but lacks their historical mission”. “The bureaucracy... fights for its existence with a convulsive fury such as has not been displayed by any ruling class in history. Along this road, it has arrived in a short time at the commission of crimes such as not even fascism has yet perpetrated...”
“Historically, no class in society has ever concentrated in its hands in such a short time such wealth and power as the bureaucracy has concentrated during the two five year plans”.
“In order that nationalised property in the occupied areas, as well as in the USSR, become a basis for genuinely progressive, that is to say socialist development, it is necessary to overthrow the Moscow bureaucracy”. “The conquests of the October Revolution will serve the people only if they prove themselves capable of dealing with the Stalinist bureaucracy, as in their day they dealt with the Tsarist bureaucracy and the bourgeoisie...”The totalitarian oligarchy [has] become an absolute obstacle in the path of the country’s development...”.
But simultaneously he argued that the nationalised property in the USSR was the visible measure of its class nature, the sole empirical criterion for considering it a degenerated workers’ state — and that the nationalised property was “owned” by the bureaucracy which “owned” the state.
Yet, in September and October 1939 Trotsky wrote plainly that if the Stalinist system in Russia spread across the world — as some people then thought it might — then the new world system would be one of slavery.
“It would be necessary in retrospect to establish that in its fundamental traits the present USSR was the precursor of a new exploiting regime on an international scale... What social and political forms can the new ‘barbarism’ take, if we admit theoretically that mankind should not be able to elevate itself to socialism... Fascism on the one hand, degeneration of the Soviet state on the other, outline the social and political forms of a neo-barbarism...”
He did not mean that the system under which, in his words, the workers would become “the slaves of the totalitarian bureaucratic society” would become on the world arena more intense or more complete in its slave-driving than he said it was in Russia, only that it would then have stabilised itself.
And yet at the same time he called Russia a “degenerated workers’ state”. He insisted that the system which he had said would provide “a basis for genuinely progressive development” on when the workers “overthrew the Moscow bureaucracy” should be defended against conquest by any capitalist state.
There were many other contradictions and seeming contradictions. On the face of it, Trotsky seemed to be talking incoherent nonsense.
That it was all highly contradictory he did not deny, but the contradictions were in the reality they confronted. He insisted on his approach against people who (he thought) could see only one facet of Stalinism, not the phenomenon as a whole. People, he thought, who were blundering into a break with the basic Marxist ideas about the shape of history and the necessary relationship of socialism to advanced capitalism. That is why in the middle of a very heated faction fight he wrote an outline of dialectical logic, of the "Marxist method" in understanding the things they were quarreling about.
Why, though he wrote so much that implicitly said that Russia was a new form of exploiting class society, did he go on until his death insisting that Russia was a degenerated workers’ state?