Degenerated workers' state

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In Trotskyist political theory, a degenerated workers' state is a socialist state in which direct working class control of production has given way to control by a bureaucratic clique. The term was developed by Leon Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed[1] and in other works.[2]

The Soviet experience

Trotsky held that in Russia between the 1917 October Revolution and up to Joseph Stalin's consolidation of power, there was a genuine workers' state.[citation needed] The bourgeoisie had been politically overthrown by the working class and the economic basis of that state lay in collective ownership of the means of production. Contrary to the predictions of many socialists such as Lenin, the revolution failed to spread to Germany and other industrial Western European countries (although there were massive upheavals of working people in some of these countries), and consequently the Soviet state began to degenerate.[citation needed] This was worsened by the material and political degeneration of the Russian working class by the Civil War of 1917–1923.

After the death of Lenin in 1924, the ruling stratum of the Soviet Union, consolidated around Stalin, was held to be a bureaucratic caste, and not a new ruling class, because its political control did not also extend to economic ownership. The theory that the Soviet Union was a degenerated workers' state is closely connected to Trotsky's call for a political revolution in the USSR, as well as Trotsky's call for defense of the USSR against capitalist restoration.

Trotsky summarized the more optimistic arguments within the International Left Opposition thus:

Perhaps this is a workers’ state, in the last analysis, but there has not been left in it a vestige of the dictatorship of the proletariat. We have here a degenerated workers’ state under the dictatorship of the bureaucracy.[3]

Trotsky always emphasised that the degenerated workers' state was not a new form of society, but a transitional phase between capitalism and socialism (and closer to capitalism) that would inevitably collapse into one form or the other. He argued however that whether this downfall led to the restoration of workers' democracy or to capitalist restoration would depend on whether the movement to overthrow the dictatorship of the bureaucracy was led by the organised working class:

The inevitable collapse of the Stalinist political regime will lead to the establishment of Soviet democracy only in the event that the removal of Bonapartism comes as the conscious act of the proletarian vanguard. In all other cases, in place of Stalinism there could only come the fascist-capitalist counter-revolution.

"Degenerated" vs. "deformed"

The term "degenerated workers' state" is commonly used to refer only to the Soviet Union. The term deformed workers' state was coined by Trotskyists of the Fourth International to describe those states, like the Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe as well as China, which are or were based upon collectivised means of production, but in which the working class never held direct political power. The two terms are therefore similar as they both describe states where the bourgeoisie no longer holds power, where the means of production has been socialised and where an unaccountable bureaucratic elite now holds the political reins, where they differ is in the history of how this situation has arisen: the bureaucratic degeneration of a genuine workers' democracy, as in Russia; or the creation of a deformed workers state resulting from the overthrow of bourgeois rule and ownership by some force other than the mass action of the organised working class, such as an invasion, a guerrilla army, or a military coup.


Besides the supporters of the Soviet Union holding the belief that the state was a healthy workers' state, the theory has been criticised from within the Trotskyist movement, and by other socialists critical of the Soviet Union. Among the disputed issues are the relationships between a workers' state (of any type), and a planned economy. Some authorities tend to equate the two concepts, while others draw sharp distinctions between them.

Among Trotskyists, alternative but similar theories include state capitalism and bureaucratic collectivism.

Related terms

Another theoretical term used by some Trotskyists, most notably Ted Grant, to describe the dictatorial rule of bureaucracies in such "degenerated" or "deformed" workers' states is proletarian bonapartism.[4]

See also


  1. Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, 1936
  2. See, for example, Leon Trotsky, "The USSR and Problems of the Transitional Epoch", extract from The Transitional Program (1938), or "The ABC of Materialist Dialectics", extract From "A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party" (1939), in Leon Trotsky, In Defense of Marxism, 1942)
  4. Trotsky (1935) The Workers' State, Thermidor and Bonapartism