National Sections of the L5I:

The error of the 'Moribund workers state' - a correction

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The Fifth Congress of the League for a Revolutionary Communist International (LRCI), in July 2000, discussed the meaning and significance of the shift back to capitalism in Eastern Europe and the former USSR following the collapse of Stalinism in the period 1989-1991.

After a sharp debate, the delegates concluded by a clear majority that elements of the LRCI's previous analysis had proved to be "radically i false and misleading". In particular, the Congress rejected the theory advanced by the LRCI of the "moribund workers' state" - a term we used to describe a state in which capitalism had not yet been fully restored as a social system but in which a counterrevolutionary government was actively seeking to restore capitalism.

Here we print the resolution of the Fifth Congress below, edited with additional explanatory material by Richard Brenner.

The theory of the moribund workers' state contains several incoherences and errors. It should be corrected now. In place of the term moribund workers' state we should instead use the words: bourgeois restorationist state.

This change preserves the insights into the economic process of capitalist restoration made by the LRCI and recorded in Trotskyist International over the past ten years. But this change rejects:

• the notion that despite capitalist restorationist governments the state apparatus has a proletarian class character in countries where capitalist property relations have not been successfully restored

• the undialectical view that the class character of a state is defined by the property relations that pertain within its jurisdiction rather than by the class interests and property relations it promotes and defends

• the entire category "moribund workers' state"

• the notion that there can be a proletarian institution - the moribund workers' state - which Marxists are not obliged to defend in times of war (as set out in the LRCI's Fourth Congress resolution on The Restoration Process).

This means that formerly Stalinist countries, in which the economy is still not operating on fully capitalist lines, are not necessarily workers' states of any type. The key determinant is not the prevailing property relations, but the class and economic system that the state power promotes and defends.

It is vital to understand that in transitional periods - times of revolution or counter-revolution - the class nature of the state can be in sharp opposition to the class character of the economic system operating within its borders.

In 1917, when the workers' councils (soviets) took power in Russia after destroying the capitalist state, capitalism - the generalised production of commodities and dominance of the law of value - was not immediately abolished. But the state had changed from one that defended capitalism to one that set about the systematic abolition of the dominant bourgeois property relations on its territory.

Similarly - in reverse - the assumption of power by Yeltsin in Russia in 1991 and the abolition of the Communist Party did not immediately complete the restoration of capitalism. But it was a decisive step towards the final abolition of the crumbling post-capitalist property relations, already weakened by decades of Stalinism.

The state is an instrument of class struggle - it represents the power of fundamental social groups. Its essential nature cannot be understood if we see it as a mere passive reflection of impersonal economic forces. We must look instead for its class political essence - the class and the social system that it is actively fighting for.

We therefore reject the idea that states like Russia, where the transition to a fully functioning capitalist economy is incomplete, must somehow be "workers' states" because of this. The only workers' states today - both degenerate ones - are Cuba and North Korea. If and when it can be shown that the govemment and decisive forces within the bureaucratic-military apparatus in these states promotes fully-fledged capitalist restoration rather than limited market reforms we should then define them as capitalist states. Russia, Ukraine, Vietnam, Romania, Bulgaria and all states with governments that aim to restore capitalism in full are bourgeois states.

When did the change occur?

Despite the theory of the moribund workers' state, the LRCI has already identified when the governments in Eastern Europe shifted from opposing capitalism to promoting it. We referred to a shift from bureaucratic workers' governments to bourgeois restorationist governments; in each case they proceeded to remove the constitutionally guaranteed leading role of the party and the nomenklatura system.

At the time we said this was a change in the class nature of the government. We can now re- apply this periodisation of governmental change to understand when the capitalist state was restored.

The restoration of the capitalist state in Russia occurred when Yeltsin established his government in 1991 and abolished the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The restoration of the capitalist state in East Germany occurred not, as the LRCI has said, at the time of the currency union in July 1990, but on the election of the restorationist CDU government of Lothar de Maziere in March 1990.

The point at which the capitalist states were restored was obvious in many cases: Russia, Germany, Czech Republic. Yet we failed to register its significance. We observed and logged that the government had changed - we said bureaucratic workers' governments had become bourgeois restorationist governments. But before we would say the class character of the state had changed, we waited and searched for signs that capitalism as a social system had been effectively restored.

This confused state with superstructure, base with superstructure, polity with economy.

At the time, we were keen to preserve the distinction between the character of the government and the broader concept of the state as a whole. And indeed, the distinction between government and state can and must be retained. The assumption of power by a bourgeois restorationist government in a workers' state need not theoretically be the same thing and take place at the same moment as the restoration of the capitalist state.

Nevertheless, it has occurred at the same time in every historical social counter-revolution so far. This is because the government would be quickly overthrown if it could not rely on and use the army, police, judges, security forces, etc.

Where elements within the state apparatus continue to resist and obstruct the restorationist programme of the government, this means elements of dual power persist, but not that the totality of the state can be defined as proletarian.

Our explanation of how the post-war overturns of capitalism were carried out in Eastern Europe, China and Cuba remains accurate. But our periodisation of the precise point when these states became degenerate workers' states should be changed. For example, we currently say they became workers' states when proletarian property relations (central planning; state ownership of the means of production; state monopoly of foreign trade) were introduced. Instead, we should recognise them as workers' states from the point at which the governments and states began to move decisively against capital and capitalism and to create bureaucratically planned economies on the Stalin model, i.e. in 1948-49.

The moribund workers' state is defined by the Fourth Congress of the LRCI as a degenerate workers' state in which the government actively seeks the dismantling of the proletarian property relations. But this is not a definition of a working class state at all - in this the concepts of state and economy are hopelessly confused.

It is a widely held view in the LRCI that the class character of a state is determined by the property relations on which it rests. This means that if proletarian property relations predominate over capitalist relations within the territory of a given country, then it must be a workers' state.

In most situations, in ordinary times, this is the case. But at the most important times, at times of revolution and counter-revolution, it is radically false and misleading. It fails to account for the fact that in a social revolution or counter revolution, the state must at some point be against the economic foundation of society, must be in contradiction to it.

If Leon Trotsky ever wrote that the class character of the state is determined by the property relations on which it rests, we would have to reject his view as one-sided and therefore false. But he never wrote any such thing.

In his 1937 article "Not a workers' and not a bourgeois state", (Writings, 1937-38) Trotsky explained that a state could retain a proletarian character even if working class democracy had been overthrown by bureaucratic dictatorship. In an influential passage he wrote:

"The class nature of the state is consequently, determined not by its political forms but by its social content; i.e., by the character of the forms of property and production relations which the given state guards and defends."

Guards and defends is a far more dynamic concept than the static, passive, "rests upon", and with good reason. The key is the state's relationship to the economy. The Russian state today guards and defends the nascent capitalist property relations within Russia - since 1991 it actively promotes the class interests and the property of the world bourgeoisie there.

Yeltsin went a long way, but did not finish the job of restoring capitalism. This means that the state and the bulk of the economy can have different class natures. Can this be? Of course. Again Trotsky explains:

"But does not history know of cases of class conflict between the economy and the state? It does After the 'third estate' seized power (during the great French Revolution], society for a period of several years still remained feudal. In the first months of Soviet rule the proletariat reigned on the basis of a bourgeois economy. In the field of agriculture the dictatorship of the proletariat operated for a number of years on the basis of a petit-bourgeois economy (to a considerable degree it does so even now)."

That is all very well in relation to a revolutionary government trying to deal with capitalism. But what about during the restoration process? Trotsky immediately goes on to anticipate the problem:

"Should a bourgeois counter-revolution succeed in the USSR, the new government for a lengthy period would have to base itself upon the nationalised economy. But what does such a type of temporary conflict between the economy and the state mean? It means a revolution or a counter-revolution. The victory of one class over another Signifies that it will reconstruct the economy in the interests of the victors."

There are several things to be said about this passage. Trotsky predicts that the restorationist government would not be able to overthrow proletarian property straight away, but this does not mean that the state would remain proletarian. The counter-revolution, the "victory of one class over another", would not mean that the economy had already been reconstructed as capitalist (how could it?). It would signify "that it will reconstruct the economy" in this way. Notice also that for Trotsky, the existence of a new bourgeois government co-existing with ("based on") the proletarian economy is described as "connect between the economy and the state".

In the past, when confronted with a version of this argument (notably the Leninist-Trotskyist Tendency's critique of the LRCI's theory in their brochure In Defence of Marxism), we replied that the word state has two meanings - one is "narrow", i.e., the superstructure, and the other is broad: the ensemble of political and economic factors within a given territory.

We have to say now, as frankly as we can, that this argument was and is specious, unconvincing and unhelpful. All it allowed us to do was to point to the non-capitalist character of the economy whenever we were asked to justify defining a "moribund workers' state" as in some way proletarian. We effectively said "the state is proletarian wherever the economy is proletarian because in one sense the concept of the state means the economy" - in which case it is not useful as a discrete concept at all. This was a circular argument which totally confused the issue. We should never use it again.

Take Russia. What was proletarian about the state under Yeltsin? Without referring to the residual economic forms, which Yeltsin tried to overcome under successive governments with relative, but not absolute success, was there anything within the military, the bureaucracy, the police, the judiciary which opposed capitalism, defended the residual proletarian relations and which predominated over all other elements within the apparatus? There were significant pockets of obstruction, but to define the entire state bY these subordinate elements was absurd.

Some could argue that this position leads us to a dangerous idealism - that we are elevating a subjective change, maybe even a change of pol_ icy on the part of a regime, to a factor capable of altering the class character of a state.

Certainly, if this alternative explanation is right. a bureaucratic workers' government could become a capitalist restorationist one by passing a vote at a meeting, providing the state machinery actually set about carrying it out But this has never happened so far. In fact, every such change has been accompanied by enormous political upheavals. And understandably so. It has involved not only a massive change of economic and class direction, but also the liquidation of the nomenklatura system and the abolition of the leading role of the Stalinist party. In each case in Eastern Europe in 1989-91, it involved a political tumult and the effective dissolution of the old parties.

The theoretical possibility remains tbat a ruling Communist Party could move to a fully restorationist policy and thus to a bourgeois state without a change of government or the abolition of the single-party system. The caste as a whole could avoid dissolution by transforming itself successfully into a ruling class. China is the crucible for this perilous experiment

Why should we not be "thrown" by these various possibilities? Because we have already recognised that the restoration does not require a "smashing" of the state. The social counter-revolution took place peacefully. Under Stalinism the bureaucratic-military apparatus already had a bourgeois form: unlike a genuine revolutionary working class state, it had a standing army, secret police, unelected officials. All that was necessary was for a new government committed to capitalism to assume control within the commanding circles of this state power.

It is on the question of defencism that the "moribund workers' state" position reveals its lack of theoretical and programmatic utility - it brings nothing but confusion to the issue.

The resolution of the LRCl's Fourth Congress in 1997 tells us that we should not operate the policy of revolutionary defencism towards the moribund workers' state in the way that Trotskyists did with the earlier types of degenerate workers' state. This was because no united front is possible with the government, or with the bureaucratic military apparatus, or presumably with the army, in defence of proletarian property relations, because the regime itself seeks to dismantle them.

A large minority of delegates to the Fourth Congress objected to this - partly because they wrongly believed such defence could be operable in practice, but also partly because they could not accept the idea that there can be any proletarian institution that should not be defended from the bourgeoisie. But the majority proponents of non-defencism presented a compelling argument - how could a united front with the restorationist regime of Yeltsin defend proletarian property relations?

The absurd theory of the moribund workers' state had created an absurd subsidiary dispute. The Gordian knot needs to be cut here. There can be no defencism because there is no workers' state.

Brezhnev was objectively counter-revolutionary, reactionary, undermined the working class property relations, but he did not actively set about destroying them. Nor did Gorbachev. Until August 1991 Trotskyists argued for revolutionary defencism and a united front with the regime in times of war, against imperialism and capitalist restoration. Since August 1991 the LRCI believes this to have been impossible. The restoration process is not complete but no alliance is possible with the state as a whole to defend the remnants of post-capitalist property.

This reveals an acceptance of the programmatic use of th is alternative theory - that the state as a totality is bourgeois in character. If we stick with the moribund workers' state theory, we are left with a workers' state - an institution of our class - that we do not defend against the class enemy. This means one of two things: either that we are cowards and class traitors, or, as we should now openly admit, that we have introduced into the lexicon of Marxism a category that is devoid of meaning and without programmatic consequences.

Now we can render this non-defencist position coherent. We do not ally ourselves with these states to defend them against restoration because they are already capitalist states; of course, democratic, national and anti-colonial considerations may dictate defencism in specific cases.

This change of line will not overthrow any of our genuine insights - on the role of credit and inter-enterprise debt in resisting the predomination of the law of value, on the ways in which workers and plant enterprise managers have blocked capital from destroying existing enterprises, on the remaining obstacles to the full reintroduction of capitalism.

The entire concrete content of our combined programme for political and social revolution in the "moribund workers' states" we can also retain. Though we should recognise that it is, in its overall character, a social revolution we are fighting for in these states, there remain important elements of the preceding programme of political revolution relating to remaining remnants of the planned economy.

But for the rest of the structure of the moribund workers' state theory, Occam's Razor applies. If it explains nothing, adds nothing programmatically, is not necessary and brings nothing but confusion, it must be cut away.