David North
The Heritage We Defend

The Metaphysics of Nationalized Property

In reviewing the history of the “buffer states” discussion, it should be noted that among those who originally disagreed most vociferously with placing central emphasis on nationalized property relations as the chief criteria of a workers’ state was Ernest Mandel (Germain).

In a document written in October 1949 and published the following January, he insisted that the decisive question for Marxists in defining the class character of a state was not this or that economic measure instituted by a new regime—no matter how apparently radical—but its historical and political origins. Furthermore, Mandel stressed that for Marxists, the smashing of the capitalist state had not merely a negative, but a positive content—that is, it implied the creation of a new state apparatus based on the revolutionary proletariat.

Mandel raised crucial theoretical questions that were anathema to those like Pablo, Cochran and Joseph Hansen who, beneath the guise of correct “sociological” definitions, were working toward a wholesale rejection of Marxist principles and an abandonment of the historical perspective of the Fourth International.

The most important section of Mandel’s document was entitled “The Metaphysics of Nationalized Property.” He recalled that in 1948, the Johnson-Forrest tendency had attempted to attribute to the Fourth International the position that a workers’ state is brought into existence merely through the nationalization of the means of production.

We immediately refuted this absurd accusation. We said that only the nationalization of the means of production resulting from the proletarian revolution was a criterion for the existence of a workers’ state.

Only if one considers the economic transformations produced by the October Revolution in their entirety has one the right to consider for the USSR such formulas as “mode of production,” “relations of production” and “property relations” as three equivalent formulas expressing the existence of the proletarian revolution on the economic, social and juridical arena respectively. But it does not at all follow that any nationalized property whatever is to be identified with a non-capitalist mode of production and therefore with a revolution in the productive relationships.

Such a conception would in fact be “economist,” that is, a serious phenomenological deviation from Marxism. But that was never Trotsky’s conception or that of the present majority of the Fourth International.

Today the comrades of the RCP [then led by Jock Haston] and several comrades who favor the theory of the working class character of the Yugoslav state revive the accusation of the Johnson-Forrest comrades against us in an inverse sense: they accuse us of having abandoned Trotsky’s conception which, according to them, identified nationalized property with the workers’ state.

Naturally, by applying themselves to the task they can find here or there in Trotsky’s articles ambiguous formulas which can be interpreted in an “economist” sense. But these formulas have exactly as much value as certain quotations from Lenin concerning the possibility of “the victory of Socialism in Russia” which are presented uncritically by the Stalinists.

What is involved in both cases are not systematic theoretical expositions of the question but elliptical formulations in polemical articles whose real significance cannot be understood without considering them in context. On the whole in his theoretical writings, dealing especially with this question, Trotsky shows a preference for the formula “nationalized property established by the revolution” whose meaning has been clarified above. …

Considering all these factors we define as metaphysical the reasoning of comrades who say: Yugoslavia (and most of the buffer zone countries) are workers’ states because industry and wholesale trade is almost completely nationalized. In effect these comrades make an abstraction of decisive factors in estimating the character of these nationalizations: who instituted them, when, in whose benefit, and under what conditions.

They isolate a historic factor from its context and reduce what should be a profound historical analysis to a simple syllogism, in fact to a tautology and to a begging of the question. For in saying that Yugoslavia is a workers’ state because industrial property is nationalized, they presuppose that these nationalizations are workers’ nationalizations, that is to say they presuppose what they have to prove. …[1]

Mandel noted the contradictions into which those who placed a one-sided emphasis on the fact of state ownership inevitably find themselves:

In our epoch when capitalist society is decomposing and the proletarian revolution is considerably delayed, we are confronted by transitional cases, cases of combined development in which the property relations can be overturned without the economy thereby automatically becoming an economy orienting away from capitalism toward socialism and without permitting us to conclude that what we have is a workers’ state.

A striking example is given by the Popular Republic of Outer Mongolia. This country is the first example of a country treated like those of the buffer zone of the USSR. It has a constitution faithfully modeled on that of the Soviet Union. A quasi-complete statification of the means of production and exchange has been proclaimed and undoubtedly realized there.

But it is impossible to designate Outer Mongolia as a “workers’ state” for the simple reason that neither a proletariat, a bourgeoisie or even a numerous class of agricultural proprietors exists or has ever existed, and almost the entire population consists of nomadic shepherds. The mode of production is much closer to primitive communism than to modern socialism. Nevertheless, we find there the most advanced property relations in the world.

Combined development has thus given to all metaphysicians a brilliant lesson they would do well not to forget when they study the transitional society of the buffer countries. …

But we have more recent examples of nationalizations: Burma and Czechoslovakia. Burma displayed the decision, ever since the proclamation of independence, to set up a regime of statification of the means of industrial production, the land and the banks. In fact, Burma has been given a constitution copied after the Yugoslav Constitution, declaring that all the wealth of the land and its subsoil, all the industries and all the banks belong to the people. Would there be anyone among us who would designate Burma on this account a “workers’ state” (Moreover, it is interesting to note that the Burmese Constitution also declares that power emanates from the Peoples’ Committees. It is time to understand that words and formerly clear formulas have alas! today been filled with a content which varies according to those who use them). …[2]

Arguing that these examples demonstrate that the statification of the means of production can be carried out by states which are clearly not of a proletarian character, Mandel then came to his central point:

According to the Marxist-Leninist theory of the state, the transition from the bourgeois state to the workers’ state can only come about by means of the violent destruction of the bourgeois state apparatus and the establishment of a new type of state apparatus, the apparatus of a workers’ state. The partisans of the theory of the working class nature of the buffer states have quietly dropped this whole fundamental part of Marxist theory, without giving the slightest explanation as to why they have abandoned it.[3]

Mandel warned that the historical prognosis latent in the positions of those who were arguing on behalf of the proletarian character of the buffer states was

a perspective of the possibility of a growth and increasing development of Stalinism on an international scale in the years and decades to come!…

Up to now, we have justified our entire attitude toward Stalinism by judging its activity from the standpoint of the world revolution. We have never abandoned the criteria of historical materialism which consists in judging modes of production by their capacity for developing the productive forces.

We have never condemned Stalinism from an abstract moralistic point of view. We have based our entire judgment upon the incapacity of Stalinist methods to effect the world overthrow of capitalism. We have explained that the shameful methods employed by the Kremlin cannot promote but only serve to impede the cause of the world revolution.

We have explained the impossibility of overturning capitalism on a global scale “by any means whatsoever” when there is only one method to apply: that of the revolutionary mobilization of the proletarian masses through their organs of proletarian democracy. And we have appraised—and condemned—the structural assimilation of this or that province or small country into the USSR precisely from this point of view, by saying: what counts today is not the expropriation of the bourgeoisie on small bits of territory but the world destruction of the capitalist regime; and, so far as this world destruction is concerned, the lowering of the workers’ consciousness, the demoralization and destruction produced on a world scale by the crimes of Stalinism are infinitely heavier in their consequences than these few isolated “successes.”

Obviously the hypothesis of the destruction of capitalism, not in Estonia or in Roumania or even Poland, but in all Europe and the greater part of Asia would transform our attitude toward Stalinism from top to bottom. The destruction of capitalism among more than half of humanity, embracing all the important countries of the world except for the United States, would radically change the balance of historical advantages and disadvantages of Stalinist activity. OUR CRITERION OF STALINISM FROM THE STANDPOINT OF ITS INEFFECTIVENESS AGAINST CAPITALISM WOULD LOSE ALL ITS MEANING. …

The comrades adhering to the theory of the proletarian character of the buffer countries are far from envisaging this eventuality, but it would be the logical conclusion of the road on which they have embarked and would oblige us to revise from top to bottom our historical appraisal of Stalinism. We would then have to examine the reasons why the proletariat has been incapable of destroying capitalism on such extensive territories where the bureaucracy has successfully achieved this task.

We would also have to specify, as certain comrades of the RCP have already done, that the historical mission of the proletariat will not be the destruction of capitalism but rather that of building socialism, a task which the bureaucracy by its very nature cannot solve. We would then have to repudiate the entire Trotskyist argument against Stalinism since 1924, a line of argument based on the inevitable destruction of the USSR by imperialism in the event of an extremely prolonged postponement of the world revolution.

Even today, certain comrades explain that “the destruction of Stalinism will come about by its extension.” All these revisions of Trotskyism would be perfectly justified if they corresponded to the facts, BUT IT IS NECESSARY TO HAVE THE COURAGE TO FOLLOW THROUGH THIS LINE OF THINKING TO THE END AND TO FORMULATE THE CONCLUSIONS IMPOSED BY THE FACTS![4]

In the early part of 1950, the majority of the SWP Political Committee indicated its agreement with Mandel and again expressed reservations about the implications of the buffer states discussion. In February, at a plenary session of the SWP National Committee, Morris Stein once again reviewed the development of the discussion:

Let us therefore start with this question of: What are the criteria for a workers state? In Marxist theory and in historical experience, we know of only one way in which a workers state can come into existence—by way of the proletarian revolution. That is, the proletariat, through its independent mass action and guided by the revolutionary party, is the only force in modern society able to abolish capitalist rule and construct a workers state.

We know also, from theory, and one might add a century of Marxist practice, that the bourgeois state cannot be reformed into a workers state, but it and all its institutions must be abolished. And only then, can it be replaced by a workers state and its specific ruling organs. …

Purely economic criteria for establishing the existence or non-existence of the workers state have figured in our movement only in discussing the degeneration of a workers state previously established by a proletarian revolution. …

In brief, the most important element in the social revolution is the consciousness and self-action of the working class as expressed in the policy of its vanguard party.[5]

Stein took exception to the arguments of Hansen, whose main contribution to the discussion was his insistence that statification of the productive forces was the essential criterion for establishing the existence of a workers’ state.

It seems to me that it is Comrade Hansen and not Germain who needs enlightenment—not on planning—but on the difference between a workers state arising from a proletarian revolution and this process of structural assimilation, or incorporation, of countries which the Stalinist bureaucracy is now trying to carry through as a substitute for proletarian revolution. …

The minority will be wasting its shots if it continues to fire away at planning as a criterion for a workers state; or at dependence on the world market; or at the capitalist nature of agriculture in the buffer countries, and so on. We readily grant all these points and even go a step further and say that the immediate nationalization of industry is not necessarily a criterion for a workers state either—provided the regime in the country is that of workers’ power arising from a proletarian revolution. …

They are fully aware, for example, that the origin of the Soviet Union in the October Revolution is an inseparable part of our definition of the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers state. They have tried to overcome this difficulty in two ways, both equally dangerous. On the one hand, some of them try to minimize the importance of origin. This is very dangerous because such a course can only lead them into the trap of “bureaucratic revolution.” That would be the unavoidable conclusion of such an argument pursued to its logical end.[6]

Stein concluded:

The simplified approach which reduces itself in essence to the proposition: nationalization equals workers state, can only disorient our movement. It is a caricature of Marxism. It substitutes bureaucratic nationalization decrees for a real analysis of the living class forces and their relative position within society. Such an approach cannot conceivably serve us either as a guide to understanding the events transpiring in the buffer countries or as an aid in shaping our policy toward them.

Nationalization of industry, important as it is, can be considered as only one field in which the bourgeoisie has been compelled to surrender its decisive positions. But the bourgeoisie still has, as I mentioned earlier, considerable strength in society. Not the least of these is the fact that the agricultural relations remain capitalist, and that the bourgeoisie permeates all the institutions of the state, nationalized industry included.[7]

The importance of the arguments of Mandel and Stein were that they correctly placed central emphasis on the historical perspective of proletarian revolution against a growing current of opportunist adaptation to the Soviet bureaucracy and its ephemeral “successes.” This does not mean, however, that the eventual decision to acknowledge the existence of “deformed” workers’ states in Yugoslavia and the rest of Eastern Europe was wrong. When properly understood and properly used, this new definition fulfilled a necessary theoretical and political function. But as with all dialectical concepts, that of a “deformed workers’ state” is acceptable and retains its validity only within a given historical and political “tolerance.”

That is, as a means of defining the “hybrid” states which came into being under the specific and peculiar conditions of the postwar period, and of emphasizing the distorted and abnormal character of their origins, the concept of a deformed workers’ state establishes the principled basis upon which the Trotskyist movement asserts the necessity of defending these states against imperialist intervention, while at the same time clearly indicating the political tasks that confront the working class within these countries.

The use of the term deformed places central attention upon the crucial historical difference between the overthrow of the capitalist state in October 1917 and the overturns which occurred in the late 1940s in Eastern Europe: that is, the absence of the mass organs of proletarian power—Soviets—led by a Bolshevik-type party. Moreover, the term itself implies the merely transitory existence of state regimes of dubious historical viability, whose actions in every sphere—political and economic—bear the stamp of the distorted and abnormal character of their birth.

Thus, far from associating such regimes with new historical vistas, the designation deformed underscores the historical bankruptcy of Stalinism and points imperiously to the necessity for the building of a genuine Marxist leadership, the mobilization of the working class against the ruling bureaucracy in a political revolution, the creation of genuine organs of workers’ power, and the destruction of the countless surviving vestiges of the old capitalist relations within the state structure and economy.

However, the ambiguity of the new definition provided an opening which opportunists were quick to exploit. Within the Fourth International, the use of the term “deformed” was being treated as if it were no more than a sort of adjectival afterthought. Rather than being seen as a historical mutation, produced under peculiar and exceptional conditions, which were bound up with the unresolved crisis of proletarian revolutionary leadership, the theory of the deformed workers’ states was being transformed into the starting point for an entirely revisionist perspective.

In effect, the “dialectical tolerance” of the concept was violated in order to present such deformed states as the social and political prototypes of future regimes! As this was being done, the essential universal forms of the workers’ states, which had been revealed in the Paris Commune of 1871, and the Soviet power created by the October 1917 Revolution, were downgraded to simply abstract theoretical norms of no special doctrinal and programmatic consequence.

The proletarian revolution—understood as the armed uprising of the working class, supported by the oppressed masses, led by its own Marxist party and culminating in the establishment of the dictatorship of the class realized through definite state forms—was no longer seen as the historical premise of a workers’ state.

Hansen put the matter most crudely:

One of the easiest errors to slip into when considering this question [What is a workers’ state?] is to make a kind of fetish of the category “workers’ state.” All of us tend to think of it as something glorious that arose to put an end to the blood and filth of capitalism, To this day an aura surrounds the words “workers’ state” because of all the associations with Lenin and Trotsky and the great emancipating struggle they led. We therefore find difficulty connecting it with anything base, and even when we insist on its degeneration in the USSR a brightness still clings to it. We want it to be something noble and great and inspiring.[8]

If taken to its logical conclusion, as it eventually was by the SWP in the 1960s, Hansen’s argument led inexorably to the separation of the socialist perspective from its proletarian and revolutionary base. For Hansen, the term “workers’ state” provided a bridge to the complete repudiation of the scientific Marxist conception that socialism is the historical product of conscious struggle of the international working class. The crass pragmatism which underlay Hansen’s arguments came out most clearly in his insistence that the analysis of the buffer states in Eastern Europe had to be carried out on a country by country basis: a method which excluded any serious theoretical evaluation of the historical process manifested in Eastern Europe, its relation to the international class struggle, its place in the development of the world revolution, and its broad political implications for the Fourth International.

Moreover, Hansen’s suggestion that the Fourth International was reluctant to credit Stalinism with having created new workers’ states because of sentimental considerations recalled earlier and equally vulgar arguments by various petty-bourgeois intellectuals in the 1930s that Trotsky maintained that the USSR remained a workers’ state because of a psychological inability to recognize that nothing was left of the 1917 Revolution. Hansen’s method of reasoning was so backward and superficial that he could not understand that at issue in the debate over the class nature of the Eastern European states was not a fetishistic preoccupation with abstract norms, but the most fundamental question of all: the historical role of the working class as the gravedigger of capitalism and the builder of a world socialist society.

In April 1950, at the eighth session of Executive Committee of the Fourth International, it was officially decided to designate Yugoslavia a deformed workers’ state. (Mandel had, in the meantime, slipped his old positions back into his briefcase and was soon to forget all about them.) More significant than the actual definition, from the standpoint of the development of the Fourth International, was the manner in which it was justified. In proclaiming that a workers’ state had been established in Yugoslavia, Pablo and Mandel lavished extravagant praise upon the Tito leadership.

It was openly suggested that the crisis of leadership was being resolved in Belgrade, that the Yugoslav CP was “ridding itself of the last ideological vestiges of Stalinism” and that the Titoites were preparing “the regrouping of revolutionary forces on an international scale,” facilitating “the organization of the new Communist opposition arising in the Stalinist parties and with which it is possible to envisage the construction in the near future of revolutionary Marxist formations for an entire series of countries.”[9]

As the SWP prepared to go along with the executive committee, there was a farsighted and perceptive dissenter—John G. Wright, the one authentic Marxist theoretician within the American movement, who had been Trotsky’s closest intellectual collaborator during the late 1930s. He was troubled by the political drift that was ever more apparent within the Fourth International. In a memorandum written in May 1950, Wright made the following warning:

The developments in Yugoslavia have been and continue to be of a transitional and intermediate character and do not allow of such a definitive formulation as the one accepted by the majority.

The formulation adopted is virtually word for word Lenin’s own definition of Soviet Russia as it emerged from the October revolution, that is “a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations.” It is premature to define Yugoslavia so categorically and sweepingly.

In the Soviet Republic under Lenin and Trotsky there could be no question whatever of the passage of state power from the hands of the bourgeoisie into the hands of the working class and of the installation of a new type of state, a new social order, with new organs of state power truly proletarian in character. It is not correct to say that the same is already the case with Yugoslavia.

It is inadvisable from the standpoint of our theory, nor is it necessary from the standpoint of the most effective and correct intervention in the unfolding Yugoslav revolution. On the contrary, it may provide a theoretical trap and under certain conditions lead to dangerous consequences.

In the recent period the Yugoslav party and its leadership on the whole have been taking big strides toward completing the Yugoslav revolution. They are now moving to the left more rapidly that at any time since the 1948 break with the Cominform. From many indications it is quite possible that the evolution of the Yugoslav CP and of Yugoslavia itself may proceed in a relatively peaceful manner to the actual construction of a workers’ state and the conversion of the party into a genuine Leninist, that is, Trotskyist party.

They may go all the way. This is and must be the goal of all our efforts. But this cannot be assumed in advance. There is a real danger that this our goal, and the Trotskyist intervention as a whole, may be obscured by a standpoint which declares as already achieved something whose attainment still lies in the future and which can come only as the result of conscious political action and struggle. …

In other words, the genuine organs of workers power, the freely elected Soviets and mass organizations are yet to appear, the working class itself, above all, its self-acting vanguard organized in the revolutionary party, is still in a formative process.

This situation is neither a mere shortcoming, a “deformation” nor a coincidence. Historical results can never be superior to the policies that produced them. Nor is the issue merely one of a desirable “reform.” It goes far deeper than that.

If the actual leap has not yet been accomplished but still lies in the future, it means, for one thing, that most critical period internally lies ahead and not behind for the Yugoslav leadership, the Yugoslav party and the country itself. In fact, this critical period may be precisely the one through which Yugoslavia is now passing.

If the main organs of proletarian power—the Soviets — do not appear in the period immediately ahead, if the mass organizations are not soon permitted the maximum of self-action, initiative and proletarian democracy, then a process in the opposite direction may readily and even rapidly set in and decide Yugoslavia’s fate in just the opposite sense from the one indicated by the majority.

This variant of development is left out completely by the majority formulation. This should be corrected.

One of the guarantees of the completion of the Yugoslav revolution is not only what the Yugoslav leaders and party say and do; it is also what the world Trotskyist movement says and does. One of the chief shortcomings of the Yugoslav movement has been its tendency to draw more or less definitive theoretical and political conclusions from episodic, conjunctural and intermediate situations. This dictates all the greater caution by the Trotskyists in drawing their own theoretical and political conclusions.

The revolutionary weight and potential of the Yugoslav developments is fully taken into account by the standpoint that Yugoslavia is not yet a workers’ state, that the Yugoslav revolution, precisely because it is not yet completed, is unfolding along the only road that it can take in order to survive, and that is to really establish in Yugoslavia what was really established in the Soviet Union under Lenin and Trotsky.[10]

Little more than a month after these lines were written, the misplaced confidence of Pablo and Mandel in the “remarkable qualities” of the Tito leadership was glaringly exposed by the outbreak of the Korean War. In a crucial vote inside the United Nations, which provided the pretext for imperialist intervention, Yugoslavia abstained, thus taking the very path against which the Fourth International had warned in July 1948, that of maneuvering between imperialism and the Soviet bureaucracy, rather than the path which the FI had urged—of world socialist revolution.


SWP International Information Bulletin, January 1950, pp. 9–11.


Ibid., pp. 12–13.


Ibid., pp. 18–19.


Ibid., pp. 40–42.


SWP Discussion Bulletin, no. 3, June 1950, pp. 2–4.


Ibid., pp. 7–8.


Ibid., p. 14.


SWP Internal Bulletin, vol. 12, no. 2, February 1950, p. 9.


SWP International Information Bulletin, September 1950, p. 6.


SWP Internal Bulletin, vol. 12, no. 3, October 1950, pp. 5–6.