Compare and Contrast

ICL vs. IBT on Stalinism & Soviet Defencism

The following is a selection of quotes from publications of the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT—including the External Tendency of the iSt, the IBT's predecessor) and the International Communist League (ICL—including the international Spartacist tendency, the ICL's predecessor) highlighting differences between the two organizations on questions connected to Stalinism and the defense of the deformed and degenerated workers' states. The complete texts of many of these items can be found on this website.


1980s: ‘Military Victory To' or ‘Hail' Soviet Army in Afghanistan?


In an early polemic against the then-External Tendency, we noted: "If the ET were more honest, they would admit that they hated it when we hailed the Soviet Red Army's military intervention in Afghanistan" (see "The ‘External Tendency': From Cream Puffs to Food Poisoning," WV No. 349, 2 March 1984). Four years later, they finally openly renounced and denounced our call, "Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!" arguing that it was "not a Trotskyist slogan, because what it tells workers is to trust the Stalinists, put your faith in the Stalinists, hail the Stalinists."

On the contrary, our hailing of the Soviet Army intervention was based on the recognition that, whatever the intentions of the venal bureaucrats in the Kremlin, this military action offered the possibility of extending the gains of the October Revolution to Afghanistan. Many Soviet soldiers saw themselves as fulfilling their internationalist duty in fighting to defeat the imperialist-financed forces of Islamic reaction. But for such internationalism to have been fulfilled required, as we pointed out, a political revolution to oust the Kremlin Stalinists and a return to the proletarian internationalist program of Lenin and Trotsky's Bolshevik Party.

--"The International Bolshevik Tendency--What is it?"


The trouble with the slogan "Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!" is that it failed to distinguish between political and military support. The Soviet army (which has not officially been called the "Red Army" since 1946) is the military arm of the Kremlin bureaucracy. The army's policies are those of the bureaucracy. Its role is therefore a contradictory one, like that of the bureaucracy itself. Insofar as the Russian army defends the Soviet Union against imperialism (and this was indeed its purpose in going into Afghanistan), we are on its side militarily. If it sweeps away oppressive social structures and replaces them with collectivized property in the areas under its control (and this was undoubtably one possibility of the Russian intervention), we will support such measures. But to support the Soviet army uncritically (i.e., to "hail" it) would put us in the position of having to apologize for the Stalinists when they accommodate themselves to the social status quo or undertake a cowardly retreat. And, not surprisingly, this is exactly what they have done in Afghanistan.

…the SL advanced this deliberately angular formulation in the face of a wave of anti-Sovietism which was sweeping America. Commendable as this impulse may have been, there is no getting around the fact that taken literally and by itself, the slogan amounts to a blanket political endorsement of the Soviet role in Afghanistan.

…The call for "Military Victory to the Soviet Army" corresponded to the concrete situation in Afghanistan because it placed us squarely on the Soviet side of the battle lines without assuming any responsibility for Stalinist betrayals.

--1917 No. 5

1981: Solidarnosc vs. Polish deformed workers' state


From their inception, the BT claimed to hold many positions in common with us. For example, they too raised the slogan "Stop Solidarnosc Counterrevolution in Poland!" But when the question of stopping Solidarnosc was most urgently posed, they went crazy over our statement that if the Kremlin Stalinists intervened militarily, in their necessarily stupid and brutal way, that we would support this and take responsibility in advance for whatever idiocies and atrocities they might commit. The Trotskyist position of unconditional military defense of the deformed and degenerated workers states meant exactly that, i.e. no conditions. For the BT, this was simply further evidence of our supposed "Stalinophilia."

--"The International Bolshevik Tendency--What Is It?"


This paragraph is a Stalinophilic perversion of the Trotskyist position of unconditional military defense of the bureaucratized workers' states. As we noted in ETB [Bulletin of the External Tendency of the iSt] No. 1:

"Trotskyists give unconditional military support to Stalinist regimes battling internal counterrevolution (i.e., Solidarnosc) or external capitalist forces (i.e., Finland 1940). This is quite a different matter than extending political support to the Stalinists. We take no responsibility for the crimes of the Stalinists against the working people—whether in the course of military defense of proletarian property forms or otherwise. Military support is extended despite such crimes."

The SL's willingness to "take responsibility in advance for whatever idiocies and atrocities they [the Stalinists] might commit" is precisely the opposite of the position put forward by Leon Trotsky in the context of the defense of the USSR against Nazi Germany in World War Two:

"While arms in hand they deal blows to Hitler, the Bolshevik-Leninists will at the same time conduct revolutionary propaganda against Stalin preparing his overthrow at the next and perhaps very near stage.
"This kind of ‘defense of the USSR' will naturally differ, as heaven does from earth, from the official defense which is now being conducted under the slogan: ‘For the Fatherland! For Stalin!' Our defense of the USSR is carried out under the slogan ‘For Socialism! For the World Revolution!' ‘Against Stalin!'"
In Defense of Marxism (emphasis in original)

The slogan "Against Stalin!" signified that instead of "taking responsibility" for the anti-working class crimes of the bureaucrats, the Fourth International opposed the atrocities committed by Stalin and the caste he represented.

--"ICL vs. IBT," Trotskyist Bulletin No. 5

1983: Shooting down of KAL 007 spy plane


If the government of the Soviet Union knew that the intruding aircraft [Korean Air Lines Flight No. 007] was in fact a commercial passenger plane containing 200-plus innocent civilians, despite the potential military damage of such an apparent spying mission, if they deliberately destroyed the airplane and its occupants, then, to paraphrase the French, the act of shooting it down would have been worse than a barbaric atrocity….

--Workers Vanguard No. 337, 9 September 1983


We say that defense of the Soviet Union includes defense of Soviet airspace. The loss of innocent civilian life was indeed lamentable, but the only "barbaric atrocity" committed was by the South Korean and American spymasters who used these unfortunate people as their unwitting hostages.

--ET Bulletin No.2, January 1984 (reprinted in Trotskyist Bulletin No. 1)

1984: On Yuri Andropov


He sought to curb the worst excesses of the bureaucracy.
He sought to increase the productivity of the Soviet masses.
He made no overt betrayals on behalf of imperialism.
He was no friend of freedom.

--Andropov In Memoriam box, Workers Vanguard No. 348, 17 February 1984


Andropov's failure to make any "overt betrayals on behalf of imperialism" can properly be attributed to his short tenure in office. He certainly didn't send any more MIGs to Nicaragua or AK-47s to the Salvadoran leftists than his predecessor. He did want to raise productivity—but big deal, so did Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev. (In any case, Trotskyists must view any productivity schemes devised by the bureaucracy skeptically since they usually have an anti-working class character. Trotsky was no endorser of Stakhanovism!) Any sensible top-ranking bureaucrat is going to be interested in curbing "the worst excesses of the bureaucracy" in order to increase the efficiency, security and stability of the regime he runs. Your little homily for Andropov focuses on his subjective intentions rather than the objective inevitability, and even necessity, of corruption and inefficiency in a planned economy run by bureaucratic fiat and secret police.

--Reply to Comrade Samuels, 22 April 1984, ET Bulletin No.3, May 1984 (reprinted in Trotskyist Bulletin No. 1)


Your comparison of Andropov with Stalin and Beria, the mass murderers of tens of thousands of Communists and Red Army officers, is an obscene amalgam worthy of the pages of Commentary. Andropov's entire political career was shaped by a more tranquil period domestically. To hold him personally responsible for the psychopathological mass crimes of Stalin reflects the methodology that holds the bureaucracy to be a homogenous reactionary mass counterrevolutionary through and through -- i.e. a new exploiting class.

--Letter to External Tendency from Reuben Samuels, 3 January 1984, Workers Vanguard No. 348, 17 February 1984 (reprinted in Trotskyist Bulletin No. 1)


The crux of your argument eventually devolves on your profoundly revisionist assertion that it is "obscene" to compare Yuri Andropov with Joseph Stalin. This you say is worthy of Commentary. But this must be taken to mean you think that: (a) Andropov is in some sense closer to Leninism than his predecessor and/or (b) he is in some sense less a representative of the bureaucratic caste which strangled the political rule of the working class in the Soviet Union and/or (c) the caste which he represented has in some fundamental sense been transformed since the time of Stalin. Any of these positions belong in Pravda or in the Daily World, but certainly not in a newspaper purporting to be Trotskyist.

--Reply to Comrade Samuels, 22 April 1984, ET Bulletin No.3, May 1984 (reprinted in Trotskyist Bulletin No. 1)


Trotskyism provides a coherent world-view in which the contradictory character of the Stalinist bureaucracy is reflected. Your assertion, "On the most general level Andropov and the bureaucrats he represents are counterposed to everything that Trotsky fought for," is both undialectical and very distant from Trotskyism.

--Letter to External Tendency from Reuben Samuels, 3 January 1984, Workers Vanguard No. 348, 17 February 1984 (reprinted in Trotskyist Bulletin No. 1)


For Trotsky, unlike your goodself, the axis of the dialectical contradiction in Soviet society is not within the bureaucracy (energetic Andropov versus sluggish Brezhnev), but between the bonapartist oligarchy and the social structure from which it derives its parasitic existence. This naturally conditions the Trotskyist attitude toward the relationship between defense of the Soviet Union and the overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracy. It is the responsibility of revolutionists to defend the Soviet Union despite the rule of Yuri Andropov and his caste -- but not in his name!

--Reply to Comrade Samuels, 22 April 1984, ET Bulletin No.3, May 1984 (reprinted in Trotskyist Bulletin No. 1)

1989: Stalinism & Consciousness


The false identification of Stalinism with Bolshevism provided Stalin with dedicated political agents throughout the world; only Stalin and perhaps a half-dozen cronies (who these were changed over time) knew what it was all about.

--"International Communist League Launched," Workers Vanguard No. 479, 9 June 1989

No longer can a Stalin and his half-dozen conscious accomplices wield "monolithic" parties as instruments of class-collaborationist treason in the name of "building socialism."



Like the trade union bureaucracy in bourgeois society, the ideology of the Soviet oligarchy has a material basis in its desire to protect its own privileged social position. Trotsky estimated, in a 13 January 1938 article, "that the bureaucracy devours not less than half of the national consumption fund." He stated that "the big aristocrats, the very highest stratum of the bureaucracy, live like American millionaires" (emphasis added). When he talked of the highest stratum of the bureaucracy, he was clearly not referring to Stalin's personal clique. In June 1937, Trotsky observed:

"Even from the standpoint of ‘vengeance,' terrorist blows cannot offer satisfaction. What is the doom of a dozen high bureaucrats compared to the number and scope of the crimes committed by the bureaucracy?"

Trotsky never considered that the erratic political zig-zags of the Stalinist bureaucracy, its crimes and betrayals, were determined in advance according to some design known only to "Stalin and his half-dozen conscious accomplices." The SL's recent "discovery" that, apart from an inner core of "conscious" Stalinists, the rest of the bureaucratic caste, as well as their international agents, were either hostages or unwitting pawns, has more in common with Khrushchev's self-amnestying denunciation of Stalin's "cult of the personality" than Trotsky's materialist analysis of the Soviet bureaucracy.

In a historical sense, none of the conservative and careerist bureaucrats, including Stalin, were fully conscious about what they were doing….

With the criminal idiocy of the "Third Period," the Soviet bureaucracy quite unintentionally facilitated Hitler's victory. Similarly, the Kremlin oligarchs proved to be the Nationalists' most valuable ally in the Spanish Civil War, although they did not deliberately seek to hand victory to Franco. Stalin's murderous purge of the Red Army officer corps, and his irrational confidence in Hitler's promises, laid the basis for the military catastrophe of the summer of 1941. But again, this was not what he intended.

It is ludicrous to imagine that, apart from a sinister half-dozen who "knew what it was all about," the rest of the cogs in the machine of bureaucratic terror which physically exterminated tens of thousands of revolutionists, were simply "dedicated political agents" of what they mistakenly took to be Leninism. This was certainly not Trotsky's opinion…..

So why are the Spartacists suddenly pushing this whole notion in the first place? Is it a Robertsonian metaphor for life in the SL? Perhaps, but it may also have a more immediate practical purpose: to make it easier for disaffected Stalinists to feel at home in the ICL.

--1917 No. 7, Winter 1990

1989-90: Capitalist counterrevolution in the DDR (East Germany)


At bottom, the IBT's position reflected complete defeatism over the capacity of the Soviet working class to struggle. They had an identical posture toward the nascent political revolution in the former East German deformed workers state following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, i.e. they declared that there was no possibility of a proletarian political revolution. Correspondingly, they denounced the ICL for mobilizing our resources heavily and internationally to intervene with a revolutionary Trotskyist program into the events in the former East German workers state in 1989-90.

--"The International Bolshevik Tendency--What is it?"


Here the ICL utilizes one of its favorite polemical techniques -- ascribing a position to an opponent and then attacking the invention. We certainly did not argue that proletarian political revolution was impossible in the DDR -- simply that, contrary to the ICL's assertions, it was not under way. "In the aftermath" it has been the ICL, not ourselves, that has had to adjust its position. It is easy to understand why the ICL's "optimistic" position with regard to the DDR proletarian political revolution is one they would prefer to bury quietly.

--"ICL vs. IBT," Trotskyist Bulletin No. 5, IBT

With his perspective of a "treaty community" between the DDR and the BRD [West Germany], Prime Minister Modrow had already signaled his readiness to capitulate to West German imperialism when the new government was formed on 17 November 1989. The concessions he offered did not, however, give the bureaucracy its anticipated breathing space, but only provided further impetus to the counterrevolutionaries. The right won on the ground, while confusion prevailed among the more politically conscious workers who trusted the "honest, reformed" Stalinists. This is why the Modrow regime was especially dangerous, and why it was imperative to warn the workers against it.

The ICL avoided a sharp confrontation with the Modrow regime. Fearing isolation, it saw such a confrontation as inopportune, since all tendencies in the Stalinist party supported Modrow to the end. Such a confrontation would have endangered the ICL's policy of "Unity with the SED."

In this period, the ICL did not focus on attacking Modrow as a sellout whom the workers must sweep away in defense of the DDR. Instead, they criticized him only in passing….

--1917 No. 10

1990: The Treptow Demonstration


The Trotzkistische Liga Deutschlands and the Spartakist-Gruppen played a key role in initiating the united-front action at Treptow. Our speakers called there for workers militias and for workers and soldiers soviets to stop the Nazis and prevent the political revolution from being turned into a social counterrevolution. We warned that social democracy was the agency for selling out the DDR. We noted that the struggle for workers soviet rule in the DDR could inspire the workers in the Soviet Union, the prime target of imperialism, to take the same road.

--Workers Vanguard No. 495, 9 February 1990


In the TLD's call for the demonstration there was absolutely no criticism of the SED-PDS's [SED, the Stalinist ruling party of the DDR, changed its name to the Party of Democratic Socialism in December 1989] course of capitulation, and not one word about Modrow bowing to BRD imperialism and German nationalism. But it was these politics that had initially emboldened the Nazis who had carried out the attacks [at the war memorial].

In her speech at the Treptow demonstration, TLD/SpAD comrade Dahlhaus laid out the "SED-Unity" line in full: "Our [!] economy is suffering from waste and obsolescence. The SED party dictatorship has shown that it is incompetent [!] to fight this." (Arprekor No. 15, 4 January 1990). This statement, along with "the SED's monopoly on power has been broken" was all that was said about the politics of the Stalinists (Ibid.). In Dahlhaus' speech only Honecker's SED, which the demonstrators wanted nothing more to do with anyway, was mentioned. But the actual illusions in the "reformed" SED-PDS were not attacked.

…Treptow is worth mentioning again. An invitation to the SDP/SPD [Social Democrats] to participate in the mass demonstration against the fascists was indispensable. Workers had to be broken from the SPD. One way to raise the class consciousness of the SPD's base would have been to challenge its leadership to take a position before the demonstration took place. When Vogel, Boehme, Meckel & Co. [SDP/SPD leaders] initiated the bourgeois outcry against the demonstrators after January 3, the anti-fascist mobilization naturally had to be defended against these SPD scoundrels. Revolutionaries had to try to win SDP workers and SDP branches to support this defense….The ICL, on the contrary, refused to try to draw the SDP into a united action, and justified this a week later on the grounds that the SDP had "no proletarian mass base" (Arprekor No. 18, 12 January 1990)….The TLD [SpAD] deliberately sought to involve only the SED in the Treptow demonstration. [For the Robertsonites] obviously the SDP/SPD workers were part of the "reactionary mass," and the TLD even had the gall to cite Trotsky's writings against fascism as a basis for this (Arprekor No. 16, 8 January 1990).

--1917 No. 10

1991: Capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union


The working people of the Soviet Union, and indeed the workers of the world, have suffered an unparalleled disaster whose devastating consequences are now being played out. The ascendancy of Boris Yeltsin, who offers himself as Bush's man, coming off a botched coup by Mikhail Gorbachev's former aides, has unleashed a counterrevolutionary tide across the land of the October Revolution

--Workers Vanguard No. 533, 30 August 1991

The "gang of eight" not only did not mobilise the proletariat, they ordered everyone to stay at work.

The "gang of eight" was incapable of sweeping away Yeltsin in its pathetic excuse for a putsch because this was a "perestroika coup"; the coupists didn't want to unleash the forces that could have defeated the more extreme counterrevolutionaries for that could have led to a civil war if the Yeltsinites really fought back.

--Workers Hammer No. 127, January/February 1992

November 7 [1992] marked the 75th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. But the workers state erected by the Bolshevik power…did not survive its 75th year. The period of open counterrevolution ushered in by Boris Yeltsin's pro-imperialist countercoup in August 1991 has, in the absence of mass working-class resistance, culminated in the creation of a bourgeois state, however fragile and reversible.

--Workers Vanguard No. 564, 27 November 1992

The August 1991 events ("coup" and "countercoup") appear to have been decisive in the direction of development in the SU, but only those who are under the sway of capitalist ideology or its material perquisites would have been hasty to draw this conclusion at that time.

--Workers Vanguard No. 564, 27 November 1992

The events of August 1991, placing the forces of open capitalist restoration in the ascendancy in the Soviet Union, marked a turning point in contemporary world history.

--Spartacist No. 47-48, Winter 1992-93

The IBT attempts to dress up its defeatism in August 1991 by declaring military support for the Stalinist coup plotters -- a ludicrous position since the coup plotters, who were just as committed to capitalist restoration as Yeltsin, were not about to undertake the kind of political and military mobilization required to mount a serious opposition. In any case, the BT's position that "it's all over," if propagated in the Soviet Union at the time, could only have had the effect of demoralizing and paralyzing any nascent proletarian opposition to Yeltsin's takeover.

"International Bolshevik Tendency--What is it?"


We took sides in August 1991—with the Stalinists, against the Yeltsinites. The SL, which claimed to be the party of the Russian Revolution, didn't support the victory of either—which amounts to being neutral. The SL is uncomfortable with this characterization, but the political logic of it is contained in their contention that:

"military support for the Stalinist coup plotters [is] a ludicrous position since the coup plotters, who were just as committed to capitalist restoration as Yeltsin, were not about to undertake the kind of political and military mobilization required to mount a serious opposition."
—emphasis added

All the contradictions of the SL position are contained in the above passage. If in fact the Yanayevites were "just as committed to capitalist restoration as Yeltsin," then why should Trotskyists care about whether or not they undertook a political and military mobilization? If the Stalinist bureaucrats (including the heads of the KGB and the military) had been "just as committed" to capitalist restoration as the CIA's friends gathered around Yeltsin in the Russian White House, then there would indeed have been nothing of great importance at stake in August 1991. Yet, if one asserts that Yanayev et al were "just as committed to capitalist restoration" as Yeltsin, then it follows that at some point prior to 19 August 1991 the CPSU bureaucracy had been transformed into a formation that was counterrevolutionary through and through and to the core.

If Yeltsin's triumph was merely a victory of one gang of counterrevolutionaries over another, if by 19 August 1991 the social counterrevolution had already taken place, then the coup and counter-coup were merely squabbles over the spoils. Yet such a position would conflict with the SL's equally absurd assertion that Yeltsin, the historic leader of capitalist counterrevolution, presided over a workers' state for over a year, until, at some undisclosed point in the latter half of 1992, Jim Robertson decided that "it was clear that the working class was not going to move against Yeltsin." If Yeltsin's successful countercoup opened the "floodgates of counterrevolution," as WV asserted, then the SL should have taken sides. (See the extensive polemics on this question in 1917 Nos 11 and 12.)

--"ICL vs. IBT," Trotskyist Bulletin No. 5

All is by no means lost for the working class of the Soviet Union. The pro-capitalist governments that have hoisted themselves into the saddle are still extremely fragile, and have not yet consolidated their own repressive state apparatuses. Most of the economy remains in state hands, and the Yeltsinites face the formidable task of restoring capitalism without the support of an indigenous capitalist class. Workers resistance to the impending attacks on their rights and welfare will therefore involve a defense of large elements of the social/economic status quo. The embryonic bourgeois regimes now forming in the ex-USSR can be swept aside much more easily than mature capitalist states.

None of this, however, can change the fact that the workers will now be forced to fight on a terrain fundamentally altered to their disadvantage. They have not yet constituted themselves as an independent political force, and remain extremely disoriented. The Stalinist apparatus--which had an objective interest in maintaining collectivized property--has been shattered. Further resistance by the Stalinists is unlikely, since they have already failed a decisive political test, and those cadre who attempted to resist are now in forced retirement, in jail or dead. In short, the major organized obstacle to the consolidation of a bourgeois state has been effectively removed. Before the coup, massive working-class resistance to privatization would have split the Stalinist bureaucracy and their armed defenders. Now workers struggling to reverse the restorationist drive will face "bodies of armed men" dedicated to the objectives of Western capitalists and their internal allies. This incipient state power must be disarmed and destroyed by the workers.

--"Counterrevolution Triumphs in USSR," September 1991 IBT statement, reprinted in 1917 No. 11

The critical question is not when did the new Russian bourgeois state consolidate itself (it is still only very partially consolidated), but rather when did it come into being? Unlike the LRCI, the ICL has never claimed that there was a dual-power situation in the ex-USSR following the coup. Nor have they argued that the post August governing apparatus was not committed to either bourgeois or collectivized property. If these two possibilities are excluded, there is only one other answer: the bourgeois state came into being with Yeltsin's victory in August 1991.

--1917 No. 12