The Fate of the Russian Revolution, volume 1. Introduction. Part 3

Submitted by martin on 10 September, 2015 - 7:43 Author: Sean Matgamna

The "locum" and totalitarian economism

"It is self-evident that owing to the needs of the system' he [Hegel] very often had to resort to those forced constructions about which his pigmy opponents make such a terrible fuss even today. But... even though unconsciously, he showed us the way out of the labyrinth of systems to real positive knowledge of the world". Frederick Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach

There were thus two distinct, and by the end sharply contradictory, strands in Trotsky's political legacy. The one that would dominate in "orthodox" neo-Trotskyism, however, was the strand developed around the idea of the Stalinist autocracy being a "watchman", "gatekeeper", or locum for the working class. Let me recapitulate. The end of the civil war, in November 1920, brought stalemate. The Bolsheviks had won, but the Russian Revolution could not thrive or indefinitely survive unless it spread; the counter-revolution could not triumph unless and until it smashed the apparatus of state power sustained by the Bolsheviks; and it had failed definitively to do that. The Bolsheviks could not at will spread the revolution; but they could "hold on" until it spread: from this situation grew the policy that the Bolshevik party would act "in loco proletariis", as stand-in or "watchman" (Trotsky) for the Russian working class - for the class which had been massacred by the Whites, dispersed by great dislocation of industry, or absorbed into the state bureaucracy and the Red Army, and which was only in the process of being recomposed in the NEP. This was the situation that Lenin at the 10th Party Congress described as a "workers' state with bureaucratic deformations". From this practice and this policy came the idea that governed Trotsky's understanding of the USSR for the next two decade, namely that something other than the proletariat could act historically for the proletariat. It started as the rational and limited idea that an association of the most determined and educated working-class activists (the Bolshevik Old Guard) could guard and develop the gains of a broader working class that had temporarily been diminished, dispersed and exhausted. It grew into the notion that the post-Civil-War Russian bureaucracy and then the totalitarian Stalinist autocracy acted as locums for the working class, and represented the working class in power so long as they still defended the nationalised economy - for this nationalised economy was the settled residue of the expropriation of the bourgeoisie in 1917. Despite all the qualifications which Trotsky added to it, and which led him to a programme of a new full-scale workers' revolution against the Stalinist autocracy, in its fully-extended form the doctrine of the "locum" implied that the workers could rule as abstract historical subjects, in "high theory", even where as living people, in practice, they were beasts of burden exploited by a privileged autocracy. The metaphysics of nationalised economy and the idea of the locum intertwined with and mutually conditioned and sustained each other. From this idea, embedded in Trotsky's defence of the proposition that the Stalinist USSR remained a workers' state, neo-Trotskyists developed a series of extensions and extrapolations to embrace Titoites, Maoists, Castroites, Ho-ists, etc. etc. etc. The locums too could have locums and then again locums. Thus the post-Trotsky "Trotskyists" solved the "crisis of working class leadership" that Trotsky defined by discovering that the "socialist" revolution could be made (distortedly, unsatisfactorily, and only in a preliminary way, to be sure) without either the proletariat or a revolutionary socialist party. In Trotsky, the idea was over the years modified and qualified by intense loathing, resentment, condemnation and hatred for the Stalinist bureaucracy and its crimes. By the end of his life, so the evidence suggests, Trotsky was close to breaking with it entirely. But he never did break with the notion that the survival of nationalised economy made the USSR still working-class and progressive or - according to Trotsky at the end - potentially progressive, even under what he himself denounced as the totalitarian rule of an autocracy with all the vices of history's ruling classes, differing from pre-Holocaust Nazism (so he wrote in The Transitional Programme, 1938) "only in more unbridled savagery". That notion was, for Trotsky and Trotskyism, the shirt of Nessus, which once put on seeped poison and corrosion into the tissues of its doomed wearer. It was a garment that could not be removed a piece at a time. So long as the basic notion was upheld, no crime by the totalitarian rulers could destroy their credentials as a residually progressive locum for the proletariat and guardian of the economy and social system coming from October - no crime at all, not destruction of the labour movement, not industrial enslavement of the workers, not the murder of millions of workers and revolutionaries, not the creation of huge privileges and social inequalities while workers starved - no crime, that is, except dismantling the nationalised economy. So long as nationalised economy existed, defined and assessed as Trotsky continued to assess it, as the solid residue of the workers' expropriation of the bourgeoisie in 1917-18, there was no limit. It was all-defining. Thus, out of the reasonable and unavoidable Bolshevik solution to the dilemma of the Russian working-class revolution at the end of the civil war had grown the root idea of a totalitarian economistic "socialism" subversive of every key notion that had defined Marxism from the Communist Manifesto onwards. Trotsky thought that he was formulating provisional theorisations for a very brief historical aberration. The Stalinist regime - a "workers' state" with a regime more savagely anti-worker than any bourgeois state - could not last for long. The USSR would break down, either through bourgeois counter-revolution or through a new workers' revolution. In fact it would last 50 years after Trotsky. Ideas Trotsky juggled with as interim, short-term solutions took on a life of their own, drawing their strength from the survival and expansion of Stalinism. Despite enormous shifts, in reality and in Trotsky's thinking, there is continuity in this idea from the end of the civil war to Trotsky's death and way beyond. In Lenin's time, when the party was a party of working-class revolutionaries, whose selfless loyalty to socialism had been proved again and again, the idea was rational and true. In the circumstances, what else could they do? Then, the ruling group periodically purged itself of self-seekers and careerists. By 1924 Stalin's bureaucracy was harvesting careerists and promoting self-seekers, while persecuting revolutionaries. In 1927 it expelled the authentic Bolsheviks, and in December 1929, with the shooting of Jacob Blumkin, a Soviet official who had dared to visit Trotsky in Turkey, it started to kill them. After 1928 the bureaucracy destroyed the Russian labour movement and began to reduce the working class and the whole people to slavery and semi-slavery. It could now be seen as locum for the working class only if the autocratically collectivised socio-economic system could be defined as a conquest and residue of the workers' revolution. In fact, that system, as it was shaped after 1928, was a system erected by an autocracy which seized the institutions and forms created by the working class in 1917-21 and perverted them for its own use on ground cleared by the revolution. Except for the eruption of Russian imperialism and the beginning of the expansion of this system a decade or so later nothing fundamental changed for 60 years. The distinction made in some of the texts in this book, that before 1928-30 Trotsky defined the working-class character of the regime only by the political regime and its alleged reformability, is, though valid, far too sharply drawn. Already in the mid-1920s Trotsky used the "social conquests" as central to his idea of the USSR as a workers' state; as late as the early 1930s he cited the possibility of the workers regaining power by "reform" as crucial to the "proletarian" character of the state; even in 1938, his perception of the Stalinist leadership was conditioned by the idea that it (unlike the newer elements of the bureaucracy, surrounding it) was closely tied to the nationalised economy and would be in a "united front" with the workers against the bourgeois counter-revolution he saw as an imminent danger. In the 1920s, Trotsky had called for "reform" in the USSR. He publicly changed his position only in October 1933, adopting then a somewhat understated early variant of what he would from July 1936 call "political revolution". Yet Trotsky's own word for his policy before 1933, "reform", is radically misleading. How could the exiled, jailed, hounded and murdered Opposition have expected to reform the Stalinist regime? Was this "reform" in the usual sense of peaceful and gradual change?

Trotsky himself explained: "The Democratic-Centralists ... criticize our road of reform in a very "Left" manner - a road which, I hope, we have sshown by deeds is not at all the road of Stalinist legality; but they do not show the working masses any other road. They content themselves with sectarian mutterings against us, and count meanwhile on spontaneous movements." In fact all Trotsky's perspectives for "reform" were centred on the eruption of a radical crisis, towards which Trotsky thought all the regime's policies - positive actions and derelictions alike - were inexorably building. In this crisis, the apparatus would fragment; the scattered forces of the Bolshevik party would regroup and reorganise themselves; the Left Opposition, with its clarity, programme, far-sightedness and tempering would, overtly or implicitly, assume the leadership. Most likely this crisis would include civil war, or elements of civil war. Not between the bureaucracy and the working class, but between the regime and bourgeois counter-revolution, whose mass forces would be the peasantry. In this the Opposition would ally with the regime and support it as the Bolsheviks supported Kerensky against the attempted army coup of Kornilov in 1917 - in Lenin's phrase "as the rope supports the hanged man". They grew in strength and soon dealt with Kerensky. Reform was displacement of the Stalinist regime in the civil war against the counter-revolution. The policy was "reform" only to the extent that it included the retention of the reformed - politically, revolutionised - apparatus. In this process the workers would reconquer power from the bureaucracy. The apparatus which, despite everything, preserved structures created in the revolution and civil war against what Trotsky saw as the urgent threat of fascistic peasant-based bourgeois counter-revolution, would be cleansed, purged, deprived of its Stalinist-bureaucratic technique of domination over the people, and subordinated to a newly reconstituted Bolshevik party. This was "reform" in the midst of revolutionary convulsion. There was much of revolution in it. And, likewise, the idea of the bureaucratic locum underlies and interweaves with Trotsky's policy at every point, lending to it an ambivalence that is there even in his strongest condemnations of bureaucratic rule and most ardent and vehement advocacy of working-class action to overthrow the bureaucracy. He will name it, variously, bureaucratic centrist; Bonapartist; absolutist; totalitarian; a ruling caste; a new aristocracy. He accuses it of concentrating in itself all the vices of all the ruling classes of history and, though he avoids the word, of imperialism. In all of these phases, though the criticism and hatred intensify, as do the negative evaluations of the elite, there is always something left: nationalised property, mixed in Trotsky with increasingly tenuous but always present degrees of ideologising and fantasising about its connections to the working class. Trotsky continues to see the autocracy, despite everything, as in some essential ways still a reflective, mechanical, passive agency of the workers' revolution, as if the "soul" of the dead party and the murdered working-class revolution has passed to the nationalised economy and from that to the state and the autocracy. The working class does not hold power (or not "direct" power). The autocratic locum rules, and rules savagely, over the workers. But the social conquests of the dead and defeated working class revolution remain because the bureaucracy has a dual role. Trotsky is forced to insist that the key idea that the working class, unlike the bourgeoisie, can only rule politically, that is democratically, is operational only on a higher stage and in other situations. The USSR is different. History, Trotsky, insists, is richer than socialist norms. Where, he asks, has a degenerated workers' state been observed before? Trotsky is a scientist - genuinely so, but also in a self-disabling "abstracted" sense, forcing himself into the pose of a "disinterested observer". "Objectivity", caution and restraint work against drawing "hasty" conclusions about the class character of the Stalinist USSR - conclusions that in fact would have been not at all hasty. The socialist norms get progressively battered out of shape and are relegated to the background, rather as the 17th century British empirical scientists pushed God to the margin of their concerns, as the distant "first cause", while they explored material reality beyond the first cause. The consequence was the disorientation of generations of revolutionary socialists. With neither Trotsky's political balance nor his historical perspective, the post-Trotsky Trotskyists reduced Trotsky's idea to arid totalitarian economism: a state like Mao's China, which as a political system was fascistic and as a socio-economic formation was nearer to oriental despotism than to the capitalist society which for Marxism prepares the economic, social and cultural pre-requisite for the emergence of socialism, was defined by nationalised economy as working-class and in transition to socialism. Trotsky describes the autocracy accurately as having all the vices of a ruling class, and yet continues to reject the idea that it is a ruling class because of the fatal combination of the two ideas: totalitarian economism and the locum. So long as the view that there could be a locum was held, and so long as nationalised property defined the USSR as working-class, Trotsky's was an impregnable ideological system. So long as the Stalinist autocracy's post-1928 bureaucratic revolution remained shrouded in myth and was not properly separated out from the working-class October Revolution the "defence of the nationalised economy" could be logically extended into defence of a full-blown Stalinist empire. If nationalised property defines a totalitarian socio-political system as a workers' state - and if you do not recognise or become inhibited by reductio ad absurdum - then the extension of the system has infinite possibilities. The ideology can and did develop in parallel with the development of the Russian empire and the spread of Stalinism. In principle, you can recognise the "progressive" aspects of new workers' states formed by peasant armies such as Mao's or Pol Pot's, or by Stalin's conquering army; and simultaneously advocate self-determination for the component parts of the Russian Empire, and political' revolution against the bureaucratic locum. One pre-requisite of this ideological system is a fetish of the economic form of nationalised property. Another is a pre-Marxian form of nihilistic negation of capitalism or "sectarianism towards capitalism" - substituting a fixed stance of desiring what is anti-capitalist, regardless of what it may represent positively, for the Marxian notion of a socialism built on the progressive achievements of capitalism. This system puts the definition of "workers' states" essentially outside all political judgement. If the fetish - nationalised property - exists, or is coming into existence in China or Cuba, then the regime is by definition a working-class "locum", no matter what atrocities it commits against living workers. The ideology is a closed system defined entirely by its own inner points of reference. Large areas of political judgement are pre-empted and killed off. Within such a system, unconditional defence of the USSR, conceived of by Trotsky as a policy to maximise the chances of working-class regeneration of the USSR and forestall its full collapse into the fascistic capitalist barbarism which was engulfing much of the world in the 1930s, becomes socialist hara-kiri in the service of the "progressive" system and vicarious Russian imperialism. Trotsky should have drawn the indicated Marxist conclusions when the bureaucracy crushed both bourgeois and proletarians and made itself "sole master of the surplus product". That was the point at which the idea of the Bolshevik Party acting as locum turned into support for a collectivised class of exploiters ruling over the working class. The Bolshevik Party was genuinely the locum for the working class. The Stalinist "locum" for this locum was a new, exploiting, counter-revolutionary ruling class. While holding to the idea of the Stalinist locum that remained at least residually progressive as custodian of nationalised property, Trotsky did not think that it could go on indefinitely and evolve into socialism. This is of fundamental importance. Trotsky finally put a term to it and indicated empirical tests for reassessing the USSR. In September-October 1939 he put a question mark over the whole idea and indicated that if the Stalinist USSR should survive the convulsions of world war, then it must be reassessed even if it retained nationalised property. Had he been allowed to hold these tests, the experience of the next few years after August 1940 would, on Trotsky's published reasoning, have compelled him to break with the idea that the bureaucracy was a locum for working-class rule, and the USSR still a workers' state. Trotsky's disciples would continue to see the autocracy - and other bureaucracies modelled on Stalin's - as locums until 1991. This idea led to very strange things. The Trotskyists, unlike the ignorant honest CP members or fellow travellers, knew the main facts. From Trotsky's idea that the "what" of a working-class essence contained in the socio-economic formation, supposedly defined by the nationalised-economy residue from 1917-21, could develop autonomously from the "who" of the working class, flowed the possibility of mentally "lifting out" the idea of working-class revolution above the actuality of the working class. With these ideological spectacles, the neo-Trotskyists could see working-class revolutions being made by "locums" which reduced the working class itself to semi-slavery. Stalin's Russia could spread revolution by its "Red" Armies (World War 2). "Workers'" revolutions could be made by peasant armies. This vision contained the seeds of religion. For a while in the early 1950s, the Fourth International was dominated by an idea closer to medieval millenarianism - the idea of social transformation through the miracle-working second coming of Christ - than to a Marxist view of socialism being made by the agency of the working class and through the opportunities created by the contradictions and achievements of capitalism. The neo-Trotskyists looked to a "War-Revolution" in which a hidden logic of history, operating from above and beyond all particular human agency, would transform a Third World War between the USSR and the USA into socialist revolution. The little literary apparatus that called itself the leadership of the Fourth International could work literary wonders, make fantastic compounds and combinations in their heads, and project fantasies on to the activities of the Stalinist movements, as they did for decades, only because the notion of the locum had become central to neo-Trotskyism. Considering the pressures on them, the true heroism of the post-Trotsky Trotskyists is seen in their stubborn resistance to the logic of the theories which they accepted, of the "locum" and of "totalitarian economism", and their presentation in however battered a form of a Marxist critique of Stalinism, together with a programme for transforming the Stalinist societies. Sometimes,as we shall see, they were bent out of shape under the pressure, but they remained - or returned to - what they fundamentally were. By doing so they kept alive a revolutionary socialist movement which today can renew itself by rediscovering and building on the other thread in Trotsky's ideas on the USSR, the thread represented by the concrete and detailed analyses in The Degeneration of Theory, The Revolution Betrayed and The Bonapartist Philosophy, by the indications for reconceptualisation given in "The USSR in War", and by Trotsky's increasingly militant advocacy of workers' revolution against the Stalinist autocracy and an independent proletarian "Third Camp" against both capitalism and Stalinism.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.