Why did Trotsky hold on to the view that Russia remained a degenerated workers’ state, when others - basing themselves on his account of the realities of Stalinism and his formula of 1936 about the bureaucracy “owning” the state - argued that it was a new form of exploitative class society?
In fact, by the end, Trotsky held on to the idea that Russia remained a workers’ state with increasing tentativeness. I will come back to that.
He rejected the idea that Stalinist Russia was a viable class-exploitative society for the same reason that he had rejected Stalin’s and Bukharin’s programme of building up socialism in an isolated Russia (“socialism in one country”). He did not believe that a system of production more advanced and more viable than capitalism could be developed in an enclave alongside capitalism, and come to replace it by outgrowing, and out-producing it.
Trotsky stuck to the idea that Russia remained (or maybe remained) a workers’ state, a very degenerated workers’ state, a "counter-revolutionary" workers' state so that his assessment would, until events forced him to a different general conclusion, remain within the Marxist notion of the necessary evolution of the stages of class society, and because he was sure it was too soon in terms of the experience of Stalinism over a short period - in historical time a very short period. As he wrote in one of the polemics he reserved the right to "revolutionary optimism".
He registered the Russian realities conscientiously. In September 1939 for the first time he recognised the possibility that Stalinist Russia as it was, without any new counter revolution might in the near future have to be recognised as a new form of exploitative class society. Then he said, wait: let us see what happens in the war. He had good reason for holding to that view then. It did not imply the sort of politics which the "Orthodox Trotskyists" would follow vis a vis Stalinism after his death.
Class society had gone through a number of stages — primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, etc. — and a number of in-between transitional formations, with each stage or formation leading into another. There had been distinct systems of “Asiatic despotism” or “hydraulic society” in various parts of the world, from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, through the Inca and Aztec societies in the Americas, to India and China, which in terms of social and economic development had been blind alleys and which had been broken up by the impact of the arms and the trade of European capitalism.
In the basic Marxist theory, working-class rule and socialism could not precede advanced capitalism. Capitalism prepared the way for socialism by its creation and education of the proletariat itself. Socialism, the beginning of the elimination of class exploitation, was impossible until relative economic abundance, the social precondition for the abolition of classes, had been created.
Before modern capitalism that precondition had not been created and could not be created. In conditions of low labour productivity and of scarcity, classes of slaves and masters had arisen again and again. Classes and class exploitation were a necessary condition of civilisation for human history before capitalism.
The idea of socialism preceding advanced capitalism was in Marxist reasoning as absurd as the idea of the child preceding its parents. Capitalism was the father of socialism, and the working class its mother.
As the Russian workers and the Bolsheviks had proved in 1917, the workers could take power in conditions of capitalist underdevelopment where in isolation they could not hope to build a socialist society. They could take power there because the technology and capital of advanced capitalism could be transplanted to a generally underdeveloped country, like Russia, and there create a highly concentrated working class existing in an urban archipelago within a social sea that had scarcely emerged from feudalism. To develop a new society on the basis of that power the Russian workers would depend on the extension of the revolution, by workers taking power in the more advanced countries.
It was in defence of that basic pillar of the Marxist theory and programme of working-class socialism that Trotsky and his comrades had rejected “socialism in one country”, the early rallying-programme of the Russian bureaucracy that had overthrown the working-class power set up in 1917.
That way of focusing it — socialism in “one country” — was supplied by Stalin and Bukharin. It was misleading. The question was not whether socialism could be built in one country, or six, or eight countries. The USSR was anyway a great deal more than “one country”. Its territory covered one-sixth of the Earth’s land surface.
The question was whether socialism could be built in backwardness, before advanced capitalism had done its work of developing the economy and the working class.
The Marxist programme of socialism presupposed the resources of the entire international economy, woven together into a world system by advanced capitalism. It was an international programme to replace international capitalism, or it was an utopia, an attempt akin to the colonies constructed by pre-Marxist utopian socialists to build up an alternative society and compete with capitalism from outside.
The Marxist programme was built on the development of the working class within advanced capitalism, and that working class eventually coming to be able to overthrow and replace capitalism. A classless socialist society could not be created at will in conditions of economic backwardness.
In conditions of economic scarcity, exactly the same thing would happen with any new putatively socialist society as had happened throughout history. In Marx’s words, “all the old crap” would re-emerge: class differentiation, class struggle, the establishment of an exploiting class lording it over the producers.
Like Lenin and the Bolshevik party in 1917, Trotsky saw and expected that in isolation the economically backward Russian state where the workers had power would inescapably be engulfed by world capitalism, which would link up with the peasantry and other petty bourgeois groups within its boundaries.
An alternative society — in the theory of “socialism in one country”, a nominally socialist society — could not be built side by side with advanced capitalism and go on to replace it. The “alternative” society would inevitably suffer an inner transformation, rooted in its backwardness, that would reduce it to the surrounding international level of capitalist society.
A stable, fully-formed alternative type of exploiting class society emerging on the fringes of capitalism to compete with it and replace it from outside was ruled out for the same reason that “socialism in one country” was.
A system built on a low level of economic development, and therefore of labour productivity, and cut off from the world networks and connections created by capitalism, could not, just as “socialism in one country” could not, coexist independently side by side with advanced capitalism and successfully compete with it.