This question is addressed in New International no. 11, U.S. Imperialism Has Lost the Cold War. It describes the foundations of what socialists call a workers state as state property, a monopoly on foreign trade, and economic planning, established through the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. This is a transitional state along the long-term road to establishing socialism as part of the world struggle against imperialist and capitalist exploitation and oppression. As such, a workers state can go backward toward a capitalist one, but so far none have.
The workers state is not simply a block of nationalized property. It is fundamentally a set of social relations conquered by the working class in its struggle for state power. It will take another strugglea counterrevolutionary war, in factto reverse such relations. That war has not yet been joined anywhere in the world, although it remains a key goal of the imperialist rulers.
Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky explained this in The Revolution Betrayed, describing why the Soviet Union remained a workers state despite the takeover of the government and party by a privileged bureaucratic caste led by Joseph Stalin. As a conscious political force the bureaucracy has betrayed the revolution, Trotsky wrote. But a victorious revolution is fortunately not only a program and a banner, not only political institutions, but also a system of social relations. To betray it is not enough. You have to overthrow it.
The [Russian] revolution has been betrayed by the ruling stratum, but not yet overthrown. It has a great power of resistance, coinciding with the established property relations, with the living force of the proletariat, the consciousness of its best elements, the impasse of world capitalism, and the inevitability of world revolution.
Today, proletarian property forms continue to dominate industry and agriculture in Russia and other workers states including in Eastern Europe. A 1998 report by the pro-imperialist Freedom House found that 95 percent of state and collective farms in Russia are largely unreformed, meaning the land has not been privatized. That situation has not changed much since then. And while a substantial amount of industry has been turned over to private owners, the core of industry remains nationalized.
The strike in October by 24,000 coal miners in Kazakhstan, formerly part of the Soviet Union, shows why many foreign capitalist firms are reluctant to pour money into the workers states. The miners walked off the job after a blast killed 41 miners at the Lenin mine owned by Dutch-based steel giant Mittal. They only returned when Mittal promised to double their wages and improve mine equipment.
The socialist consciousness Trotsky refers to no longer exists in the bureaucratized workers states. Decades of Stalinist miseducation and repression destroyed that. That explains the fact that today Stalinist parties in those countries are sometimes voted into office despite their anti-working-class politics.
What does exist in these countries is a trade union consciousness and the assumption by the working class of the right to a historically defined minimal social wage. These remain the first great obstacle that will lead to massive struggles in the workers states against the reimposition of capitalism.
One of the most important gains from the collapse of Stalinist governments and parties in the former Soviet bloc countries is that the myth that these counterrevolutionary gangs represented Marxism has been shattered. They are no longer able to derail revolutionary anti-imperialist and anticapitalist struggles in the way they did previously. That bodes well for the development, over time, of a new working-class leadership on a world scale, including in the bureaucratized workers states.
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