Barry Sheppard: Three theories of the USSR

"In the US and elsewhere, including Britain, a mass anti-war movement developed against the US war in Vietnam. By 1968, the International Socialists in the US and the IS in Britain changed their line [of neutrality between the 'two imperialisms'] and came out against the US and defended Vietnam. In the US they joined the mass demonstrations to 'Bring the troops home now!'"

Read more by Barry Sheppard HERE.

By Barry Sheppard

June 6, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- In this two-part article I examine the ramifications for today of the three theories of the USSR that emerged from the Left Opposition: state capitalism, bureaucratic collectivism and Leon Trotsky’s theory of the degenerated workers’ state. (Read more on the theory of state capitalism HERE.)

First, to clear the air, let’s briefly look at what the three currents had in common, as well as their political differences, up to the end of the Second World War. All three traced their roots to the Russian Revolution and its leadership, and the new Communist International that emerged from it. They also agreed that as a result of the international isolation of the revolution, its encirclement by hostile capitalist regimes, the economic backwardness inherited from tsarism and the destruction by the imperialist-backed civil war coming on top of that of the First World War, the economy of Soviet Russia was devastated.

In this situation of deprivation and scarcity, bureaucracy mushroomed. The bureaucracy became more and more an organ devoted to its own special privileges and carried out a counter-revolution against the workers and peasants through extreme violence and repression, and established a totalitarian regime. To do this, it had to subvert and physically destroy the party that had led the revolution. This didn’t happen all at once, but was a process that took years to complete.

There was agreement that the Stalinist bureaucracy was playing a counter-revolutionary role in the class struggle worldwide, sabotaging the worldwide struggle against capitalist imperialism and capitalism itself. One proponent of the state capitalist view, C.L.R. James, wrote a book, World Revolution, that detailed this counter-revolutionary role. This was one of the first books I was encouraged to read by the US Socialist Workers Party (SWP) when I first joined.

All three currents recognised that the bureaucracy could not be reformed but a new revolution of the oppressed and exploited was necessary to overthrow the bureaucracy.

As the term implies, those who held the state capitalist analysis believed that the counter-revolution led by Stalin had resulted in a new form of capitalism, state capitalism. Those who held the bureaucratic collectivist view thought the counter-revolution had established a totally new form of class society, which while not following the laws of capitalism, exploited the workers and peasants with new mechanisms. These two views were mutually exclusive in their analyses, but came to the same political conclusion regarding the Second World War, namely that the USSR should not be defended when German imperialism under the Nazis launched its invasion of the USSR. This was termed the “third camp” view.

In the United States, there were only a few who supported the state capitalist view, including a minority current in the SWP. Among those who considered themselves third camp, the bureaucratic collectivist current dominated in the Workers Party led by Max Shachtman. In addition to maintaining the hands-off, third-camp position regarding the Nazi-Soviet war, the Workers Party also took a third-camp position in the war by colonised China against its Japanese occupiers.

Trotsky’s position

The SWP in the United States and the Fourth International it its majority held to Trotsky’s analysis. This view posited that the ruling bureaucracy was not a new ruling class in a new form of class society, as the bureaucratic collectivists maintained, nor a capitalist class ruling through a new form of state capitalism. The bureaucratic counter-revolution had not destroyed all the gains of the Russian Revolution, especially the property forms the revolution had established – the nationalised and planned economy and subsidiary aspects such as the monopoly of foreign trade. Labour power was no longer a commodity and the reserve army of the unemployed no longer existed. The bureaucracy did not derive its privileges through ownership of the means of production, but through its control over distribution. It was a parasite on the nationalised and planned economy. The new property forms that were established by the revolution were working-class conquests that remained. These gains had to be defended both internally and from imperialist attack, so this current defended the USSR against the Nazi invasion. It also defended China against Japan and all movements by oppressed countries against imperialist colonisation and oppression.

Another point of clarification: in WWII the Workers Party opposed the imperialist war aims of the United States, as did the SWP. One could speculate that this common position should have allowed greater cooperation. The SWP leadership had proposed to the minority members before the split that they should remain in the SWP, but be a public faction of it, with their own publication, but the minority rejected this.

It is not my purpose to rehash all the many polemics between these three currents. There is an extensive literature that interested comrades can refer to. Rather, I want to take up those aspects of this topic that have direct relevance to our views on world and US politics today.

Three theories of the USSR in light of its collapse

When the Soviet Union collapsed 1989-91, the return to regular capitalism was carried out in a brutal way. Workers were hard hit. Unemployment was re-introduced, subsidised housing was done away with, as were many other welfare guarantees including universal health care. The standard of living for workers dropped precipitously. In Russia the average life span decreased, as did the population of the country as a whole. In other parts of the former USSR, notably Ukraine, the workers suffered even more than in Russia.

It became rapidly apparent that there simply wasn’t enough capital in the country to buy the formerly nationalised means of production at anywhere near their value of the world market. These were privatised by outright theft through various schemes.

One scheme among others devised by Jeffrey Sachs, a US advisor to the bureaucracy under Yelstin on how to privatise, was to create “stocks” handed out to workers in an enterprise. Given the dire conditions workers faced, enterprising elements of the former bureaucracy, because of their privileged connections, were able to buy these chits for next to nothing, becoming the new owners. These former bureaucrats, as well as criminals who had amassed some capital through the black market and some other entrepreneurs of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s “second economy”, snapped up the means of production for a song by this and other schemes.

The transition was named by many “gangster capitalism”.

Inevitably, massive corruption accompanied the return to capitalism, since it was those who had connections in the state apparatus – which was the organ that carried out the privatisations – who were in the best position to monopolise ownership of the newly privatised enterprises. In just a few years the “oligarchs” sprang up like poison mushrooms. These newly minted capitalist billionaires dominate politics.

No capital accumulation

The fact is that the bureaucracy in its over half century of bureaucratic rule had not amassed anywhere near the capital necessary to buy the means of production. This fact contradicts the theory of state capitalism. If the USSR was capitalism of any kind, vast amounts of capital would have accrued to the bureaucracy, but this was not the case.

As Marx explained in volume one of Capital, the capitalist system is characterised not by the formula of C-M-C, of earlier commodity production, whereby independent producers created commodities (C), sold them in the market for money (M), which was then used to buy other commodities, completing the circuit of C-M-C.

Rather capitalism is characterised by a different circuit, M-C-M’, that is, the capitalist brings money into the market and buys commodities such as raw materials and machines etc. and one other crucial commodity, labour power sold to the capitalist by workers. The capitalist sets these commodities into motion in capitalist enterprises and new commodities are produced, which he then sells on the market for money. Since the crucial commodity of labour power has the ability to create new value greater than the cost to the capitalist of labour power, the commodities that the workers produce but the capitalist owns have greater value than that of the original M the capitalist started with and when those commodities are sold for money, M’ is greater than M. The circuit can then be renewed with M’-C-M”.

In the Soviet Union there was no such M-C-M’ circuit and no capital accumulation. That explains why after a half century of supposed state capitalism there wasn’t enough capital in the former USSR to buy the privatised means of production. If M-C-M’ had existed, there would have been enough money capital to do so.

The theory of bureaucratic collectivism did not face this difficulty. According to this theory, the economic privileges the bureaucracy enjoyed stemmed from a non-capitalist mechanism. The fact that the bureaucracy had not amassed enough capital to buy the means of production in the return to capitalism indicated that bureaucratic collectivism – if that’s what it was -- did not exploit the workers and peasants to the degree that capitalism does.

If what existed in the USSR was bureaucratic collectivism, then it was certainly short-lived, not long enough to be considered a new historical stage or a new type of exploitative society as its original theorists believed. On the scale of history the collapse of the USSR makes clear that the choice remains, capitalism or socialism, not a third way.

It is clear that the social force that carried through the return to capitalism was the bureaucracy itself. It was not the workers or the peasantry. Both “third camp” theories have no explanation why the bureaucracy would want to do this and excluded this possibility, unlike Trotsky, who predicted it.

For Trotsky’s view, I’ll quote from the Transitional Program for a brief synopsis:

The Soviet Union emerged from the October Revolution as a workers’ state. State ownership of the means of production, a necessary prerequisite to socialist development, opened up the possibility of rapid growth of the productive forces. But the apparatus of the workers’ state underwent a complete degeneration at the same time: it was transformed from a weapon of the working class into a weapon of bureaucratic violence against the working class and more and more a weapon for the sabotage of the country’s economy. The bureaucratisation of a backward and isolated workers state and the transformation of the bureaucracy into an all-powerful privileged caste constitute the most convincing refutation – not only theoretically but this time practically – of the theory of socialism in one country.

The USSR thus embodies terrific contradictions. But it still remains a degenerated workers’ state. Such is the social diagnosis. 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 to capitalism; or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism.

The bureaucracy

Isn’t it true, unfortunately, that the first alternative is what happened? It is clear that the social force that carried through the return to capitalism was the bureaucracy itself. It was not the workers or the peasantry. Both “third camp” theories have no explanation why the bureaucracy would want to do this and excluded this possibility.

Neither third-camp theory had any explanation why, unlike every preceding ruling class in history going back to ancient slavery in Rome, the bureaucracy denied its own existence and never codified in law its privileges or its right to rule. A ruling class afraid to admit its own existence!

Both the state capitalist and bureaucratic collectivist currents acknowledged that the pressure of world capitalism on the backward and isolated workers’ state was the cause of the rise of the bureaucracy and its counter-revolution. But, unlike Trotsky, their theories analysed the USSR subsequent to the counter-revolution by looking at its internal dynamics alone, abstracting these from its real existence in a world dominated by capitalism.

Trotsky’s theory, in contrast, linked the internal dynamics of the bureaucracy to world capitalism, connecting not only its beginning but the bureaucracy’s continued existence to the pressure of world capitalism. In fact its dynamic was to become more and more an organ of world capitalism inside the workers’ state. Unless it was overthrown, Trotsky saw that this dynamic must lead to the bureaucracy’s overthrowing the nationalised and planned economy and the restoration of capitalism. He saw this back in the 1930s. While Trotsky still looked to the other variant, that the workers would overthrow the bureaucracy before it could restore capitalism, as the most likely, unfortunately the second variant is what happed.

Trotsky’s theory explains the collapse of the USSR, while the other two do not.

Trotsky also understood from the 1920s that the bureaucracy’s adoption of “socialism in one country” would lead to the abandonment of the Marxist concept of world revolution. This too became reality as the Stalinist betrayed revolution after revolution. As we shall see, the proponents of state capitalism and bureaucratic collectivism progressively abandoned this critique of Stalinism too.


As Trotsky noted, the USSR embodied terrific contradictions. A weakness of the state capitalist and bureaucratic collectivist views was to deny the nature of those contradictions and their dialectical connection to world capitalism. A result was to develop a formalistic and purist definition of criteria for the existence of a workers’ state, as one characterised by full workers’ democracy (the shared norm of the three theories). Any revolution that did not meet this norm was dismissed.

This is classical formal logic, reasoning by a definition of what a workers’ state must be (the norm we all hold of a healthy workers’ state sketched out in Lenin’s State and Revolution) and imposing it on the often contradictory reality of revolutions in backward countries that by reason of their backwardness spawn bureaucracy – just as happened in Soviet Russia because of the revolution’s isolation in a relatively backward country.

A fetishised and formalistic concept of “socialism from below” was adopted, sometimes bordering on anarchist theory denying that a stage of a workers’ state with a nationalised and planned economy was an inescapable and necessary precondition for socialism and that socialist parties were needed after the seizure of power.

In fact, if proponents of these two theories were consistent (and I hope they are not) Soviet Russia ceased to be a workers’ state by the summer of 1918 or shortly thereafter as all important decisions were increasingly made by the Communist Party (all other parties having rejected the revolution) and even its political bureau, not by the soviets, in the context of the exigencies of the brutal civil war and its aftermath. And, the USSR was never a workers’ state by the criteria advanced by the “third camp” positions.

I should also criticise myself, the SWP and the Fourth International. We tended to gradually dismiss the unfavourable variant of Trotsky’s prognosis and to think that a return to capitalism was unlikely. We pointed to the growth of the working class, its greatly increased educational and material level, the advances in science and the forces of production, as well as the revolutions and upsurges in East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland, which would have achieved the overthrow of the bureaucracy and begun the establishment of worker’s democracy based on the nationalised property form if the Kremlin’s troops had not intervened.

We thought the variant of anti-bureaucratic revolution in the USSR itself was prefigured by these revolutions in Eastern Europe and was much more likely than the bureaucracy’s overthrowing the remaining conquests of October and re-establishing capitalism.

We were wrong, not in our position for an anti-bureaucratic political revolution, but in tending to ignore Trotsky’s unfavourable variant. We too, like the state capitalist and bureaucratic collectivist currents, more and more ignored Trotsky’s analysis of the bureaucracy as an organ of world capitalism and the danger this represented.

Trotsky’s analysis contained in The Revolution Betrayed was that under the bureaucracy’s rule, big advances could still be made by copying already existing capitalist technology. But without international expansion of the revolution, without workers’ democracy, without workers’ participation and innovation, correction of the plan would become progressively stifled. The result would be a falling behind the advanced capitalist countries, not closing the gap. Growing economic stagnation would occur and in fact did develop in the final decades before the collapse. (I use the word stagnation, not recession, because the USSR did not experience the capitalist business cycle.)

On top of this, was the mounting expenditure on arms forced on the USSR by the West’s launching of the threat of atomic war and the overall arms race. In this situation, the bureaucracy looked with jealousy at the owners and managers of capital in the West and increasingly wanted to be like them. They wanted more than what they were able to siphon off the nationalised and planned economy. They wanted to become capitalists themselves and that is what many did.

This transformation was a process. During the last several decades of the Soviet Union, there was a gradual greater (still secondary) role for the “second economy”, both legal and illegal capitalist enterprises, under Brezhnev. Mikhail Gorbachev introduced “perestroika” (restructuring) beginning in 1985, a deepening of this trend.

Gorbachev’s “reform program” included decentralisation of the economy, partial de-collectivisation of agriculture, the abolition of the state monopoly of foreign trade and the convertible ruble. By 1989, these reforms were put into effect in earnest.

These ideas were sometimes called “market socialism”, but taken as a general tendency they moved away from socialism. In the end, to fully carry them out, it was necessary to restore private property in the means of production. This was done under Boris Yeltsin beginning in 1991 under the guidance of US advisor to Yeltsin, the economist Jeffrey Sachs.

The contradiction between the rule of the bureaucracy and the nationalised and planned economy was denied by both “third camp” theories. Both held that that the rule of the bureaucracy was perfectly compatible with the nationalised and planned economy, while Trotsky saw that the bureaucracy was “more and more a weapon for the sabotage” of the nationalised and planned economy and by stifling innovation and criticism would lead to economic stagnation.

That the bureaucracy was able to lead the overturn of the nationalised and planned economy rather peacefully exposed the extent of the depoliticalisation and atomisation of the working class.

Bureaucracy vs. the nationalised and planned economy

The view that the fundamental cause of the collapse of the USSR was not the bureaucracy, but the nationalised and planned economy itself has become common in the left. Such a conclusion would take the failure to see that a fundamental contradiction in the USSR, the bureaucracy vs. the nationalised and planned economy, to its logical conclusion.

Following the collapse of the USSR and East Europe and the restoration of capitalism in China, the proponents of the three currents drew sharply different conclusions.

Both the theorists of the state capitalist and bureaucratic collectivist views thought that nothing much of importance had occurred. One exploitative system had been replaced by another, “regular” capitalism. There wasn’t a regression, but some sort of “moving sideways” as a member of the US International Socialist Organization (ISO) told me.

The British SWP took this conclusion even further, seeing the collapse of the USSR as a positive development, since in its view one of the two “imperialist superpowers” had fallen. This blow to world capitalism, the British SWP reasoned, meant that the 1990s would be a period of working-class radicalisation worldwide, something like the radicalisation of the 1930s. The British SWP imposed this view on the groups that looked to it around the world, causing great disorientation.

Of course, in Britain, the US and most of the imperialist countries, the 1990s saw not a radicalisation of the working class, but motion in the opposite direction, the weakening of unions and the move to the right of the Communist and social-democratic parties.

Tremendous loss

I think that a workers’ state had been overthrown by the bureaucracy, a tremendous loss to the workers of the world.

First of all, was the blow to socialism as an idea. Most of the peoples of the world looked to the Soviet bloc and/or China and the advances they had made under the nationalised and planned economy as some type of socialism. (Of course, proponents of all three theories under consideration here knew that socialism had never been achieved anywhere.) The capitalists proclaimed that the collapse proved that socialism had failed and that capitalism was the only choice. This had a massive impact on workers and peasants throughout the world.

Nationalised and planned economy was held to have failed, not that bureaucratic counterrevolution had finally completely triumphed. The idea put forward by British Conservative Party Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, that “there is no alternative” (“TINA”) to capitalism, became accepted by billions, for a whole period. (Following the 2007-2008 financial collapse, the Great Recession and subsequent stagnation, this has begun to change, but only begun.)

Surely we all must recognise this ideological blow to the socialist movement, which has been pushed back. This in itself is retrogression, not a “sideways” move or a positive one.

Moreover, the collapse of the workers’ states in the USSR, Eastern Europe and China meant the collapse of an anti-capitalist material force in the world. Huge new populations were opened to capitalist penetration and exploitation. A source of material support to the struggles of oppressed nations, however miserly and with political strings attached, was suddenly gone.

The Palestinian struggle was a case in point. A source of support was eroded and then gone. The Palestine Liberation Organisation turned to reaching agreements with imperialism and Israel, agreements that were cruelly broken and betrayed.

Cuba suddenly had 85 per cent of its foreign trade cut off, a big blow in the face of the imperialist blockade.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would have been much more difficult for US imperialism to contemplate had the USSR still existed and been able to pose a counterweight to these wars bordering the USSR.

In general, imperialism was given a freer hand in the exploitation of the oppressed nations.

Capitalism was given a big boost throughout the world. Many Communist parties that had mass influence abandoned socialist revolution completely and moved to the right, while social democracy even moved further to the right, to support of neoliberalism.

Revolutionary socialist organisations remained isolated. We had hoped that the end of Stalinism would open the way for revolutionary socialism to advance. But the way it ended, in favour of capitalism, meant the opposite.

We should face these facts about the new situation following the collapse of the USSR, not pretend that nothing of importance in the world relation of forces has occurred, which has turned against us. We have to face reality, in order to move forward.

Of course the class struggle continues. We have seen examples of our side fighting since 1991. We have new opportunities in the situation of capitalism following 2007-2008 to begin to regain the ground we have lost.

The failure of proponents of both third-camp theories to understand the real relation of class forces worldwide engendered by the return to capitalism in the USSR and China continues to this day. It is one reason why this discussion is not just of historical or theoretical interest, but affects present-day analysis of politics.

Another difference that persists today is a result of both third-camp positions revising the Marxist theory of modern capitalist imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism, in order to justify their position that China and the USSR were imperialist. What is more, since the return to capitalism, they continue to maintain that China today is imperialist, as well as Russia, in accordance with their view that nothing much has changed. This too affects their present-day analysis of world events, for example, concerning Ukraine and conflicts in Asia.

Part two: Eastern Europe, Korea, China, Cuba and Vietnam

I’ll now jump back in time to the post-WWII period, to outline the differences between proponents of the three theories up to the end of the Vietnam War.

While there were a few proponents of the state capitalist theory in the US, including a minority in the Socialist Workers Party following WWII, this theory did not have a major organisational expression here in the US until the International Socialist Organization formed in the 1970s. Consequently, I will take up the position of the bureaucratic collectivist proponents for the first decades after the war.

During the split in the SWP in 1940, the bureaucratic collectivist position was championed by James Burnham. Burnham moved rapidly to the far right however and the mantel fell to Max Shachtman and the Workers Party, which he was the main leader of. In 1949 the Workers Party changed its name to the Independent Socialist League (ISL).

Eastern Europe

In WWII, the USSR was allied with Britain and the United States against Nazi Germany. Toward the end of the war, conferences held by Churchill, Roosevelt (then Truman) and Stalin carved up spheres of influence in post-Nazi Europe. The US, Britain and then France controlled the western part of Germany, while the Red Army dominated the eastern part, as well as what became known as the countries of Eastern Europe.

The USSR played such a large role due to the fact that its Red Army played a disproportionate role in defeating Germany, which had launched a massive invasion of the USSR. At least 80 per cent of the German war effort, and even more of German casualties, occurred on the eastern front and the Red Army consequently occupied much of Eastern Europe as the Nazis were pushed out. In fact, the Red Army was the first of the allied armies to enter Germany and its capital, Berlin.

The Soviet workers and peasants paid a heavy price in defeating the German imperialist invasion, suffering on the order of 20 million-plus dead.

At first, Stalin maintained capitalism and capitalist governments in Eastern Europe, propping them up as “buffer states”, although the Red Army was the real power. Beginning in 1948, however, there were a series of overturns of capitalism in the countries of East Europe.

The ISL and the majority of the SWP came to different conclusions about these overturns, although they agreed that the societies in these countries were basically the same as in the USSR. So the differences over the Soviet Union were carried over to these countries.

But there were new differences and new questions.

The ISL held that the overturns in Eastern Europe signalled “A New Russian empire” – the title of an article by ISL theoretician Hal Draper published in New International in 1949. While the position of the Workers Party WWII of neutrality after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union implied the position that the USSR was imperialist, this article made it explicit.

Draper asserted:

The “orthodox” Fourth International theory that Russia is still a (degenerated) workers’ state, since “nationalised property equals workers’ state”, now requires the conclusion that the East European satellites are likewise “workers states”. But this means that Stalinism – by no matter what unexpected or unpleasant means – has shown its ability to make the socialist revolution and overthrow capitalism in favor of a form of workers’ power. It means further that while the working class and a revolutionary-socialist workers’ party is a good thing and perhaps even necessary for a further healthy development of the “revolution”, they are not necessary for the making of the socialist revolution. It means further that the only role to be played by the revolutionary party is as a democratic opposition in, or wing of, the Stalinist movement …

Draper goes on to say that “the theory that Russia is essentially capitalist – whether capitalism overladen by statification or capitalism at its ‘highest’ peak of development” is even more wrong. He explicitly rejects that “Russia is developing in the direction of capitalism”.

Draper’s misconceptions

Before outlining the view on Eastern Europe of the SWP majority, I want to reject two important misconceptions contained in Draper’s article.

The first is that he attributes to Trotsky and his followers the idea that “nationalised property equals workers’ state”. He even puts this in quotation marks, as if it came from Trotsky, but no such quotation exists.

In the upsurge of the colonial revolution following the WWII, there were many countries that established economies dominated by nationalised property, in Africa and elsewhere. Two examples were Burma and Egypt. In both, the development of the national bourgeoisie was stunted by imperialism, Japanese in the one case and British in the other. In Burma, formerly Japanese-owned businesses were nationalised, which constituted most of production. This was true to a lesser extent in Egypt (after the British-appointed monarch was overthrown in Nasser’s coup). In both cases nationalised property, old and new, was used to hot-house the development of the national bourgeoisie, which is why capitalism became so intertwined with the military and the state apparatus, even after privatisations, which remains true today. This could be considered a type of state capitalism (but quite distinct from Tony Cliff’s view of the USSR), where the state apparatus was used to develop a capitalist class. This was true in other countries, including those implementing what was once known as “African socialism”.

But the Trotskyists never considered Burma or Egypt as “workers’ states”, whatever the percentage of nationalisation. (There were some in the Trotskyist movement who raised the idea that Egypt was possibly some kind of workers’ state, notably Livio Maitan for a short period, but that was never the view of the great majority.)

The difference with the USSR was the whole historical development, where a workers’ state suffered a degeneration. That wasn’t true for Egypt, Burma or “African socialism”, which were intent on building capitalism.

The second misconception – really a factional misrepresentation unworthy of him – was Draper’s charge that the Trotskyists think “the only role to be played by the revolutionary party is as a democratic opposition in, or wing of, the Stalinist movement”.

The SWP never was a “democratic opposition in, or wing of, the Stalinist movement” in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, the United States or anywhere else. The SWP supported every movement against Stalinism in the USSR and Eastern Europe, big and small, from the Vorkuta concentration camp revolt to samizdat to struggles of the oppressed nationalities.

We supported the 1953 East German workers’ uprising; the 1956 Hungarian revolution; the 1956, 1970 and the 1980 Solidarity upsurges in Poland (we were the only group in the US to publish Solidarity’s program in English and in full). We published more books, pamphlets and articles about these struggles than the “third camp” organisations combined. We published the English translation of Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski's book against Stalinism in Poland (, irrespective of its state capitalist analysis. Concerning that last point, we viewed anti-Stalinists inside these countries who held state capitalist views quite differently from those in the imperialist countries who utilised such views to adopt the stance of neutrality vis a vis imperialism. Kuron and Modzelewski defended Poland against any Western invasion.

Draper’s position also meant the abandonment of Trotsky’s view that the Soviet bureaucracy was fundamentally conservative, seeking accommodation with capitalist imperialism, not its overthrow. That’s what the “theory of socialism in one country” meant. Draper instead postulates two imperialisms in mortal conflict, with Soviet imperialism seeking to overthrow capitalism in the West, while the West sought to overthrow bureaucratic collectivism.

At the time of the overturns in Eastern Europe, the imperialists of the West were beating the drums about “Soviet expansionism” and the “Red threat” at the same time greatly expanding their military budgets, threatening nuclear war and launching the anti-communist witch-hunt in the United States. This was the political atmosphere when Draper’s article was written.

The SWP, on the other hand, saw the extension of the system in the USSR to Eastern Europe not as Soviet aggression, but as a defensive move against the West’s initiation of the Cold War. This was signalled by the US development of the atomic bomb in WWII and its use against civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a seemingly irrational display of cruelty and mass murder, since by August 1945 Italy was defeated, Germany had surrendered and Japan had lost the war.

But the real target of the atomic bombing wasn’t Japan but the Soviet Union, a deliberate display of US imperialism’s readiness to use atomic weapons against cities in the USSR.

It took some time for the US public, which had lauded the Soviet victory over the Nazis in the wartime alliance, to be softened up and won over to fear the Soviet Union. In 1947 Winston Churchill gave his “Iron Curtain” speech, which was echoed by Washington. The anti-Soviet war drums were reaching a crescendo in the US, Britain and Western Europe. Stalin had kept military control of Eastern Europe after the war as a buffer against any future invasion from the West, like the one initiated by Germany in the just concluded war, while leaving capitalism intact.

But the war threats emanating from the US, Britain, etc. by 1948 were raising hopes among the capitalists in Eastern Europe that the West could push back the Soviet occupation. Stalin reacted to this danger by expropriating them.

On Stalin’s part, this was basically a conservative move, not an aggressive one. In the decades after 1948 up to 1991 the Kremlin’s policy was to seek accommodation with imperialism, not its overthrow, as is well documented.

In his 1949 article, Draper speculates about how in the future the large Communist parties in France and Italy might, under the right circumstances, be instruments of further Soviet imperialist expansion. But history showed otherwise.

After the war right up to the collapse of the USSR these parties were instrumental in preserving capitalism in France and Italy through their popular front policies, while seeking “peace” with the USSR, just as they had done in the 1930s. They could have taken the path toward taking power right after the war given their support in both countries, but didn’t, supporting the rebuilding of capitalism instead.

A telling example was the role of the French Communist Party in the May-June 1968 worker-student uprising and great general strike, when the French CP again could have taken power, but demobilised the working class instead.

The SWP majority viewed the overthrow of capitalism in Eastern Europe by the Stalinist bureaucracy as two fold. One aspect was the imposition on these countries of the Stalinist counter-revolution, as well as Great Russian national oppression. The other side was the establishment of a nationalised and (bureaucratically) planned economy, which was progressive. The ISL saw only the first aspect. It was not the nationalised and planned economy that workers and peasants in Eastern Europe found oppressive. They supported this transformation, having just gone through the experience of the worst form of capitalist rule and exploitation in history under the Nazi occupations.

In the subsequent worker-led uprisings and revolutions in Eastern Europe, the position of the vast majority was to preserve the nationalised and planned economy, while seeking the overthrow of Stalinism’s bureaucratic totalitarian rule, corruption and distortion of the economy. For example, Solidarity’s program in Poland defended the nationalised and planned economy while demanding socialist democracy in society and the economy at all levels.

After the war, Stalin initially pillaged East Germany, even moving some of its factories into the USSR. The impoverishment of the workers and peasants as a result led to the 1953 East German worker’s revolt. The Kremlin was forced to reverse course. In the following years as new struggles against Stalinism erupted in these countries, the USSR made further economic concessions. In fact, in some Eastern European countries, such as East Germany and Czechoslovakia, the standard of living began to outstrip that in the USSR.

The countries of Eastern Europe are now recognised by many scholars as having been a drain on the Soviet economy. An odd form of imperialism.

The view that the USSR was imperialist was also held by the state capitalist theorists. But since they thought a form of capitalism existed there, they had to modify Lenin’s theory of imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism, because Lenin’s theory didn’t fit the USSR. One example was that in Lenin’s theory the capitalist imperial centres extract surplus value from the oppressed countries they dominate. This was not the case in the relation of Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union, so this criterion of Lenin’s was dropped by this tendency.

Korea and China

Under the theory that the USSR was imperialist, both third-camp theories grossly misunderstood the revolutions in Korea and China and the wars capitalist imperialism waged against them.

With Japan’s defeat in WWII, Korea, an oppressed country which had been occupied by imperialist Japan, saw a revolutionary uprising in 1945. Mass committees of workers and peasants were formed throughout the peninsula. In the absence of a revolutionary socialist party, the local Stalinists came to dominate the uprising, but it took some years for them to tame the committees and bring them under their control and establish the ultra-Stalinist regime we still see today.

The US was alarmed by the uprising and intervened. Stalin was alarmed by the US intervention in a country bordering the USSR. Finally, Truman and Stalin agreed to divide the country into North and South.

The third camp denied that any revolution had occurred in Korea. There was only a Soviet takeover in the North and a US takeover in the South.

When the US invaded Korea in 1950, the third campers were neutral. They saw everything that was happening in the world as solely a war between the USSR and the West. In an editorial in the July-August 1953 New International the ISL leaders explicitly say this is what the war (which ended in a ceasefire that year) was about. In so doing, they ignored the fact that Korea was a country oppressed by imperialism and that the elementary duty of revolutionists in imperialist countries is to oppose any wars by their own imperialism against semi-colonial countries whatever their leaderships.

The Trotskyists were not neutral and opposed Washington’s war.

The Korean war was launched by Washington in part as a challenge to the 1949 victory of the Chinese revolution. Once again, the third-camp position saw not a revolution but merely the extension of the Soviet “empire”. In reality, it was one of the most important events of the mid-20th century. It grew out of the war by China (under two forces, the Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek and Mao’s peasant army in areas it occupied) against Japanese imperialism during WWII. In that war the Workers Party was neutral, another example of a third-camp organisation not defending an oppressed country fighting imperialist oppressors.

With the Japanese defeat, a new struggle broke out within China between a Maoist (Stalinist) led peasant uprising fuelled by the demand for land and the Nationalists. Mao’s millions-strong peasant army defeated the Nationalists in 1949 in mainland China, with the Nationalists retreating to the island of Formosa (later called Taiwan), under US protection.

While the Maoists led the peasantry to carry out land reform (itself a revolution in property form) in the areas they held before the victory over the Nationalists, upon taking power they halted its further development. This was part of the Maoists’ Stalinist program, which envisioned halting the revolution at the capitalist “stage”. This was expressed in the program of a “bloc of four classes” in a “New Democratic Revolution” that would overthrow feudalism and colonialism, in a bloc of the workers, peasants, petty bourgeoisie and the national “patriotic” bourgeoisie. Capitalist property would not be touched. The Maoists went further in halting the land reform to attempt to win over landowners who had ties to the capitalists.

But then the Korean War intervened. The US army, together with the puppet army of South Korea, marched deep into North Korea and directly threatened China at its border. The Maoist reacted by sending the People’s Liberation Army into North Korea. Together with the North Korean army, the Chinese army succeeded in driving back the US from North Korea and fighting the US into a bloody stalemate. US General Douglas MacArthur even suggested using the atomic bomb against China, a proposal Truman wisely rejected.

During this battle, the Chinese “patriotic” bourgeoisie and remaining landlords began to sabotage the economy, in the expectation that the US would succeed in moving into China itself and overthrow the revolution. The Maoists then dropped the “bloc of four classes” and brutally with Stalinist methods smashed the remaining landlords and the bourgeoisie and set up a nationalised and planned economy on the Soviet model, together with bureaucratic rule copied from the Stalinist Soviet Union.

The SWP defended North Korea and China against the US invasion, as they were colonial countries fighting imperialist attack and also as (bureaucratically deformed) workers’ states. At the same time, it opposed the Stalinist regimes in both countries and as in Eastern Europe and the USSR, called for a new revolution to overthrow the bureaucracies while maintaining the nationalised and planned economy.

The third camp, on the other hand, remained neutral and impotent in these momentous events.

The Chinese revolution gave a major impetus to the colonial revolution throughout the world. It set back Washington’s plans to attack the USSR, which was able in this period to develop its own atomic weapons overcoming the US nuclear monopoly, creating a counter-power to Washington and an atomic stalemate, setting the stage for the Cold War.

This article is not the place to chronicle all the twists and turns of Mao’s disastrous policies in foreign policy (e.g. Indonesia) and domestically including the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution – which were a great leap backward and a cultural disaster respectively. As in the USSR, the bureaucracy later set out on the road to restore capitalism, which it has succeeded in doing.

A word has to be said here about the development of the ISL and its youth group, the Young Socialist League (YSL). In 1956, the US Communist Party went through a crisis as a result of Soviet Premier Khrushchev’s speech denouncing some of the crimes of Stalin and the Kremlin’s suppression of the Hungarian revolution. Many left the CP, including the editor of the Daily Worker who supported the revolution. Some estimates are that it went from 20,000 to 2000 members that year. The CP shut down its paper and dissolved its youth group, which was also in ferment.

The ISL during this crisis of the CP moved in the direction of joining the moribund and pro-imperialist social democracy (Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation), which the ISL soon did. In the YSL this caused a split. The majority of the YSL went along with the ISL line and joined the youth group of the SP-SDF, the Young Peoples Socialist League (YPSL). The minority went in the opposite direction, joining a process of “regroupment”. The ex-ISL and ex-YSL rapidly became supporters of the Democratic Party, in line with the SP-SDF and YPSL position.

The Reverend A.J. Muste, whose American Workers Party fused with the Trotskyists in the 1930s (he soon left the fused group and became a leading pacifist), never lost his feel for the mass movement and would later become a leader of the anti-Vietnam war movement. In 1956-57, Muste saw an opportunity to reach out to the thousands of disaffected CPers, by organising a place where they and other socialists could meet and discuss, called the American Forum for Socialist Education.

The SWP joined this process of “regroupment” and discussion. One result was agreement to run a “united socialist ticket” against the Democrats and Republicans in New York state elections. Another was the formation of the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) from the minority of the YSL, youth members of the SWP, former CP youth and a few from other tendencies. In the next period the YSA and the YPSL became rivals and opponents.

In 1960, a simmering dispute between the Soviet Union and China came to a head, with the Sino-Soviet split, which would cause splits in world Stalinism. The polemics between the two sides were quite sharp. The Chinese CP supported Stalin against Khrushchev and came to the conclusion that the USSR had become state capitalist. The Kremlin thought that the more militant posture of the Maoists vis-a-vis imperialism cut across its desire for “peaceful coexistence” with the West. Both accused the other of “Trotskyism”.

This development punctured Washington’s myth of a monolithic Soviet menace. It also forced the bureaucratic collectivist tendency, now in the SP-SDF and YPSL, to abandon its previous position that China after 1959 was merely an extension of the Soviet empire and to conclude there were now two bureaucratic collectivist rival imperialisms.

The Cuban Revolution

Cuba’s July 26 Movement came to power early in 1959 through a combination of a guerrilla movement with a mass base in the peasantry and a mass movement in the cities culminating in a general strike. It overthrew the corrupt and hated dictatorship of the US-backed Batista, who fled to his masters.

The Cuban leadership’s program was a radical national-democratic one that included land reform. When they came to power early in 1959, the Castroists initially set up a coalition government with figures from the anti-Batista bourgeoisie. This blew apart when it soon became evident that the new leaders were intent on actually implementing the land reform and the bourgeois figures in the initial government also fled to Miami in Batista’s footsteps.

The land reform deepened and soon expropriated the lands owned by US imperialist firms, most notably the big sugar plantations of the United Fruit Company. Washington retaliated by refusing to buy sugar (Cuba’s main crop under the distortions of its economy imposed by Spanish and US imperialism) it had imported previously from the country. Cuba then turned to the Soviet Union and established a barter arrangement to trade sugar for oil from the USSR. The US struck back, ordering the US-owned oil refineries on the island not to refine Soviet oil. The Cubans then took over the refineries. This dynamic culminated in October 1960 with the complete expropriation of both imperialist and native capitalist firms and the creation of a nationalised and planned economy.

Throughout this whole process, the masses of workers and peasants were mobilised and took the lead, sometimes in advance of the revolution’s leaders.

The SWP and YSA followed this process closely and sent leaders to the island to observe firsthand. In the US, we together with Cuban July 26 people living in the US, helped set up the Fair Play for Cuba Committee to counter Washington’s lies and demand “US Hands Off Cuba!” The US Communist Party initially was part of the FPCC, but pulled back as the revolution radicalised, as defending it cut across the CP’s efforts to promote “peaceful coexistence” with the USSR.

In Cuba, the Castroists bypassed the Stalinists from the left. Moscow, in its pursuit of “peaceful coextence” with Washington, was opposed to anti-imperialist revolution in Latin America, which the US ruling class viewed as its back yard ever since the Monroe Doctrine. The Popular Socialist Party (PSP) was the name of the Stalinist party in Cuba. The PSP initially opposed the struggle of the July 26 Movement and only came to support it later when it neared success.

In the summer of 1960, there was a sharp public debate in the Cuban press on the future of the revolution. Blas Roca argued forcefully for the Stalinist line that in oppressed countries, like Cuba, there could only be a bourgeois democratic revolution to establish an independent capitalist country and therefore it would be wrong to expropriate the national capitalist class and move from a democratic to a socialist revolution. It was this Stalinist position regarding the colonial world that Trotsky labelled the “second wave of Menshevism” because the Mensheviks had the same position regarding the Russian Revolution.

Blas Roca was answered by the sweeping nationalisations of October, a few months later.

Subsequently, the Cuban Stalinists tried to shove aside the July 26 movement cadres and take over the leadership. This led to some sharp debates by Castro himself against them and leadership moves to decisively clip the Stalinists’ wings.

The SWP came to the conclusion that a workers’ state had been established in Cuba. While soviet-type forms of workers’ rule hadn’t been created (one of our criticisms), the Cuban revolution rested on the mobilisation and involvement of the workers and peasants and was not saddled with a totalitarian bureaucracy such as existed in China and Eastern Europe from birth.

In so doing, the SWP did not simply extend to Cuba its view of a bureaucratically degenerated workers’ state in the USSR, or workers’ states bureaucratically deformed from birth as in Eastern Europe, North Korea and China, but started with the facts. Thus we didn’t think any of the three theories discussed in this article applied.

The democratic thrust of the Cuban revolution, its standing up to imperialism only 90 miles from its shores, its calls to extend the revolution and its attempts to do so in Latin America would inspire the new generation of radical youth soon to come on the scene. The humanism of its leaders’ ideas, exemplified in Che Guevara’s essay on Socialism and Man, his denunciation of Moscow’s imposition of unequal trade with Cuba and Vietnam in his speech in Algiers, his opposition to utilising material incentives alone and emphasising moral incentives and communist consciousness to raise production and then his call to “create two, three many Vietnams” also were an inspiration to the new youth radicalisation.

The “bureaucratic collectivists”, from their perch in social democracy, blindly denounced the revolution as just another example of Soviet imperialism. They wouldn’t even join the effort to demand “US hands off Cuba!”

The YPSL did have significant growth after the YSL majority joined. It was the main force behind the Student Peace Union that grew substantially in the early 1960s, concentrating on the issue of nuclear weapons testing. Their slogan was “No tests, East or West”. The YSA argued in the SPU that our fire should be on Washington, which started the atomic arms race.

During the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the YPSL placed equal blame on not only the US and the USSR, but also on Cuba. This meant the YPSL played almost no role in the mobilisations against Washington’s threats of nuclear war in the crisis and marked the decline of the SPU.

International Socialists

In the 1964 US presidential election, the YPSL revolted against the SP-SDF position of supporting the Democratic Party’s Lyndon Johnson. As a result, the adult group stopped funding the YPSL. Out of the YPSL crisis eventually emerged the International Socialists (IS).

The IS was supported by Hal Draper, who also broke with the SP-SDF to the left. (Hal Draper went on to write valuable books on Marxism, that I urge socialists to read.) The IS rejected supporting the Democratic Party and in a political sense was a rebirth of the old ISL and YSL before they dissolved into the social democracy. Without this break from social democracy, the bureaucratic collectivist current could not have made an important shift during the Vietnam War, discussed below.

Cuba’s policies were to the left of Stalinism. This can be seen in their rejection of Moscow’s position that there should be no anti-US revolution in Latin America in accordance with “peaceful coexistence”, to their rejection of the Stalinist theory that any revolution in the Third World must remain at a national democratic stage in alliance with the national bourgeoisie (“socialist revolution or caricature of revolution” was their stance), to their attempts to extend the revolution (although with the mistaken strategy of rural guerrilla war initiated by small groups, which failed), to their domestic programs concentrating on food, health, education and housing unlike the Stalinists.

But the third camp was blind to all this, thinking that analysis ended with slapping the bureaucratic collectivist or state capitalist label on the revolution without regard to the concrete reality.

On the question of the Cuban revolution’s emphasis on mass access to food, health, education and housing, which remains to this day, there was a sharp break with Stalinist bureaucratic planning, which emphasised quantity over quality, establishing quantitative norms of production for enterprises. This led such enterprises to find ways around the centralised plan by meeting quantitative targets but not qualitative ones. Thus the centralised plan itself was sabotaged at the local level.

Another aspect of emphasising quantity over quality was that shoddy products were produced, especially consumer goods and services. This was part of Stalinist bureaucratic planning giving short shrift to the needs of the most important sector of any economy, the producers, the workers and peasants, itself furthering cynicism and demoralisation resulting in harm to the economy.

The Cuban emphasis on food, health, education and housing goes in the opposite direction.

(Here I will note that in many other areas in the 1970s the Cubans adopted aspects of Soviet-style planning, with a growth of bureaucracy and many of the same problems. This led to a denunciation of these practices in 1986 by Castro himself and a “rectification campaign” leading to cutting bureaucracy substantially, greater emphasis on Guevara’s moral incentives vs. material ones, greater freedom for workers to initiate their own local projects with volunteer labour with state-supplied materials, etc.)

The SWP had its differences with the Cuban leadership and publicly expressed them, including on question of bureaucracy, on foreign policy such as the Cuban’s reluctant support of the Kremlin’s invasion to reverse the Czechoslovak Spring in 1968, but we saw the overall revolutionary thrust of the Cuban leadership.

Vietnamese revolution and war

The Vietnamese struggle against imperialism began under the long domination of France. The Vietnamese Communist Party, which had become Stalinised with the rest of the Communist International, played a leading role in the 1930s, although there was a significant Trotskyist group in Saigon. Japanese imperialism pushed out the French and the Vietnamese CP-led guerrillas, the Viet Minh, fought them during WWII. With Japan’s defeat, France moved back in, leading to a new war with the Viet Minh.

In 1954, the Vietnamese inflicted a mortal defeat on France. In a subsequent “peace” conference, the US and other imperialist powers, with the support of (betrayal by) the Stalinists in Moscow and Beijing, pushed back on the Vietnamese victors and divided the country into the North and South, setting the stage for the next Vietnam war, the US invasion.

After 1954, the US-backed regime in the south increasingly instigated greater oppression of the peasantry, re-imposing landlordism. The peasants began to fight back and over time organised a mass-based guerrilla war against the regime, organised into the National Liberation Front. The NLF was necessarily opposed to US imperialism, as its name implies. The NLF was supported by the north.

The regime in the south became increasingly isolated by the uprising and the US stepped up its intervention, finally invading the country to save its puppet.

The state capitalist tendency, centered in the British International Socialists (later the British SWP) and the bureaucratic collectivist tendency, centred in the IS in the United States, at first took a neutral position concerning the US invasion of this poor Third World country for the same reason they were neutral in the previous conflicts between imperialism and the colonial countries of Korea, China and Cuba. That is, they did not support the defeat of the US invasion.

In the US and elsewhere, including Britain, a mass anti-war movement developed. In this context, by 1968, the IS in the US and the IS in Britain changed their line and came out against the US and defended Vietnam. This was a most welcome development. Although they sniped at the US SWP with ultraleft criticisms and did not join the mass anti-war united front organisations, the US IS did join the mass united front demonstrations that the SWP was spearheading to “Bring the troops home now!”

In Britain, where the IS became strong, the IS joined the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, a united front committee spearheaded by the International Marxist Group connected to the Fourth International. The VSC organised mass actions of tens and then hundreds of thousands, against US imperialism’s war and the British Labour Party government’s complicity with it.

In 1969, Tony Cliff, the central leader of the British IS, proposed a fusion with the IMG, which the latter, unfortunately, rejected. Politics on the far left in Britain and beyond would have been very different if the IMG hadn’t made this blunder.

In the years after Vietnam, both third-camp tendencies have taken positions in general opposed to imperialist attacks on the oppressed countries. In too many instances, however, for example in the case of Cuba, these positions remain on paper with very little action or even articles defending the formal position. Exceptions have been Israeli aggression against Palestinians and other countries in the Middle East and the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, where they have joined mass actions.

A final comment on the blinders of both third-camp tendencies in their analyses of Korea, China, Vietnam and Cuba. By throwing them all into one reactionary “camp” with no regard for the differences they had with the USSR and Eastern Europe, they missed the anti-imperialist nature of their very real revolutions, their mass bases in the peasantry and the struggle for land reform. By painting them all with the same brush, they failed to see the differences with the USSR that resulted from their armed struggles with imperialism, which necessarily required mass mobilisations. Yes, Korea, China and Vietnam were saddled with Stalinist bureaucracies, but their policies were not replicas of Moscow’s, as the Sino-Soviet split demonstrated. These differences were most pronounced in Vietnam, which was at open war with Japanese, French and US imperialism almost without pause since 1940, which necessitated mass mobilisation for an extended period. Much has been written on these divisions that the third camp was blind to and just dismissed.

And both tendencies have been weak concerning the more recent developments in Latin America. In general, neither pays much attention to the poor nations. The most extreme example occurred at a meeting of the World Social Forum some years ago, when there was a lively discussion about how Venezuela’s Bolivarian process could move forward toward overthrowing capitalism. A representative of the British SWP spoke up to the effect that a socialist revolution was impossible in a backward country like Venezuela and declared the discussion moot.

[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988. Read more by Barry Sheppard HERE.]