(The excerpt below is from the article "The problem of Eastern Europe" by Joseph Hansen, a long-time leader of the Socialist Workers Party. It was written in December 1949 and is published in its entirety in Class, Party, and State and the Eastern European Revolution, an Education for Socialists bulletin published by Pathfinder Press. The bulletin costs $7.00 and can be ordered from bookstores on page 12, or from Pathfinder (see address on page 9). The portion that follows deals with the question of what is a workers state. It is copyright Pathfinder Press and is reprinted by permission.)
One of the easiest errors to slip into when considering this question is to make a kind of fetish of the category "workers states." 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 associations with [Russian Bolshevik leaders V.I.] Lenin and [Leon] 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....
To make a scientific appraisal, however, we must learn to cut through the superficial appearance. The state should be regarded as expressing a relation between classes. It is a relation of coercion that takes the form mainly of a civil bureaucracy and armed forces. Through this apparatus one class coerces or oppresses another....
The dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, as we all know, is based on private property in the means of production. To maintain this social relation it oppresses the working class.
The dictatorship of the proletariat begins with the elevation of the working class into a ruling class in place of the capitalists. The task of the new power is to end the social relation peculiar to the capitalist class. But this does not occur over night. Even a model workers state is still nothing but a hangover of capitalist society. On top of this, a workers state is forced to maintain for a time, even in the best of circumstances, bourgeois modes of distributing the national income.
We have a contradictory reality - a state that is based on destruction of bourgeois property forms and the nationalization of economy but which still retains vestiges of capitalism.
When this state eventually begins to wither away as the productive forces expand and all danger of a capitalist restoration vanishes, then we can first begin to speak of socialism, the lower stage of communism. If we call a workers state "socialist" it is more because of its aims and tendencies than what it is when it first emerges from the womb of capitalism.
A workers state is a transitional state, transitional between capitalism and socialism.
A healthy workers state carries this transition through as rapidly as possible by extending the revolution along the international spiral. But history has forced us to include in our general category a workers state that is not healthy, one that is retrogressing toward capitalism. This degenerated workers state, spilling over the frontiers fixed at the close of World War I, has upset capitalist property relations in Eastern Europe and given rise to formations that are pretty much replicas of the USSR. Their fate is intimately bound up with that of the Soviet Union. If the USSR must be included in our general category of a workers state, I do not think it is incorrect to include Yugoslavia and the other Eastern European countries where the capitalists have been displaced as the ruling class.
Social content and political form
In November, 1937, Trotsky wrote a most illuminating article on the character of the USSR. The title is "Not a Workers and Not a Bourgeois State? Political Form and Social Content."....
Written in a pedagogical manner, it picks up the theoretical threads of the pamphlet written four years earlier, The Soviet Union and the Fourth International. Trotsky explains the difference between the economic and social content of a workers state and the variegated political forms that it can assume.
Here is one of Trotsky's illuminating instances: "The domination of the Social Democracy in the State and in the Soviets (Germany 1918-1919) had nothing in common with the dictatorship of the proletariat inasmuch as it left bourgeois property inviolable. But the regime which guards the expropriated and nationalized property from imperialists is, independent of political forms, the dictatorship of the proletariat."....
"Only the intrusion of a revolutionary or a counter revolutionary force in property relations can change the class nature of the state," Trotsky emphasizes.... Then he continues: "But does not history really know of cases of class conflict between the economy and the state? It does! When the Third Estate seized power, society for a period of years still remained feudal. In the first months of Soviet rule the proletariat reigned on the basis of bourgeois economy. In the field of agriculture the dictatorship of the proletariat operated for a number of years on the basis of petty-bourgeois economy (to a considerable degree it does so even now). Should a bourgeois counterrevolution succeed in Russia, the new government for a lengthy period would have to base itself upon nationalized economy. But what does such a type of temporary conflict between economy and the state mean? It means a revolution or a counterrevolution. The victory of one class over another signifies that it will reconstruct the economy in the interests of the victory. But such a condition of transition appearing during the necessary time in every social revolution, has nothing in common with the theory of a classless state which in the absence of a real boss is being exploited by a clerk, i.e., by the bureaucracy."
This paragraph deserves the closest study and thought, in my opinion, for the light it can shed on the events in Eastern Europe. For one thing, it seems to me to place the question of the class relations in agriculture in their properly subordinate place in determining the character of the state.
More important, it indicates the contradiction that can exist for a time between the economy and state during a transition period. Finally, it reaffirms the Marxist law that a fundamental change in property relations cannot occur without the intrusion of a revolutionary or counterrevolutionary force. The events in Eastern Europe constitute a test of these propositions. The problem is to work out how they either confirm or invalidate Trotsky's theses....
Criteria and norms
To illustrate his meaning, Trotsky uses the familiar analogy between a workers state and a trade union. Our norm, embodied in the program we fight for, calls for a trade union to be an organization of class struggle. But reality gives a different kind of trade union, in fact a great variety of them. Some of them are definitely reactionary but that doesn't mean they are not trade unions.
Trotsky then tells us by what criteria we can distinguish both trade unions and workers states: "The class character of the state is determined by its relation to the forms of property in the means of production. The character of such a workers organization as that of a trade union is determined by its relation to the distribution of national income." Because William Green & Co. defend private property in the means of production they are bourgeois. So long as the AFL bureaucracy is forced to defend the workers' share of the national income, however, they continue to head genuine trade unions. "This objective symptom is sufficient in all important cases to permit us to draw a line of demarcation between the most reactionary trade union and an organization of scabs."