Iraq debate 4: an analogy with the USSR in 1928/9

Submitted by Daniel_Randall on 28 January, 2005 - 6:27

A postscript to the discussion in Solidarity of the politics of our former comrades who now purvey a stupid right-wing caricature, a reductio ad absurdum, of AWL politics on Iraq.

They think that our common solidarity with the Iraqi trade unions necessarily implies support for Bush and Blair; they counterpose to the popular front of the “reactionary anti-imperialists” (the SWP, George Galloways, etc.) with the political-Islamists, Sunni-supremacists, and Ba’thists of the Iraqi “resistance”, not independent working-class politics but a popular front with Bush, Blair, Shia clericalists, the Communist Party of Iraq, and others.

Let us assume for the sake of argument — and only for the sake of argument — that Blair, Bush, and their allies now stand for a bourgeois-democratic political revolution, imposed from outside and from above, in Iraq, and possibly in a series of other countries. What attitude should socialists take who, for a choice, want a working-class socialist revolution, but, for their own reasons, would see the establishment of bourgeois-democratic rights in Iraq as a great step forward for the working class?

Should they loyally support Bush and Blair and their allies in Iraq now? Support the American neo-conservatives and the “honorary” neo-conservative Blair?

In the mid 1920s, Trotsky and the Left Opposition, then the United Opposition (with Zinoviev), advocated a programme of industrialisation for the USSR. Their opponents, the Stalinists and the Bukharinites, scoffed at such an idea.

Then in 1928-9, faced with an upsurge of resistance by rich peasants (the “kulaks”), the Stalinists, who controlled the state, broke with the “right wing” Bukharinites, wiped out the kulaks, and forcibly drove the peasants into collective farms, wreaking vast destruction in rural Russia. Simultaneously, they launched a powerful drive to industrialise the USSR.

Their state waged a savage one-sided civil war on most of the people over whom they ruled. They turned Russian society upside down. In the Ukraine they created an artificial famine and used it to break the resistance of the peasants, three million or more of whom died.

The Trotskyists had been finally defeated in December 1927, and many hundreds of them, including most of those who had led the Bolshevik revolution, exiled to Siberia and similar wilderness places. From there they saw the Stalinists beginning to industrialise the USSR, at a furious pace and with murderous recklessness.

Some of the exiles began to ask themselves, and each other: isn’t this our programme which Stalin is carrying through? A cruel, crude, wasteful caricature of it, indeed. But the Stalinists are what they are, and, even so, it is a version of our programme that they are implementing. Don’t we want to see done what they are trying to do? Putting our “factional” feelings aside in the interests of the revolution, don’t we want them to succeed?

And if they are defeated in their struggle with the peasants, will that not lead to bourgeois counter-revolution, to the final destruction of the October Revolution? Aren’t we, as serious people, obliged to do whatever we can to help them?

So many of the defeated Oppositionists began to think.

Some of them were demoralised and wanted only an excuse to give up the fight. Many of them were entirely sincere. They began to resent Trotsky, Rakovsky, and the other irreconcilables. In that mood, hundreds of them capitulated to Stalin in 1928 and 1929.

Abandoning their own politics, they served the Stalinists. Some, Pyatakov for example, took leading positions in the construction of the new industries. In the purges of the mid-30s, almost all of them would be shot or imprisoned.

Against these self-depoliticised ex-Bolshevik would-be “administrators”, what did Trotsky and his comrades say? Trotsky insisted that, quite apart from specific criticisms of what the Stalinists were doing — and he was highly critical — the fundamental thing for revolutionary socialists was not only what was being done, but who was doing it, and how.
Lenin, expressing the same idea in general, says somewhere that the most fundamental issue in the politics of class society is “who? whom?” Trotsky now posed the same basic question to the capitulators: who? whom?

At that point Trotsky too believed that, fundamentally, what the Stalinists were doing was historically progressive, despite all that had to be said against their methods. He believed that the pressure of the Opposition and its programme had played a big part in determining that the Stalinists, when their old pro-kulak policy broke down, turned on the rich farmers and on the Bukharinite right wing of their own party.

But Trotsky refused to blind himself to the difference between the programme of the working-class Left Opposition and what the bureaucracy was actually doing “on the ground”.

Both the Trotskyists and the rightists around Bukharin had wanted to retain the “New Economic Policy” market framework. The Stalinists shattered it entirely and created a regime in which the totalitarian state used mass terror as the instrument for enforcing its own arbitrary and subjective economic and social decisions, recognising neither economic nor human nor any other restriction or restraint.

Where the Left Opposition had coupled proposals for industrialisation with proposals for raising working-class wages and improving working-class conditions, the Stalinists in their drive to industrialise cut wages, savagely worsened working-class conditions, destroyed the trade unions as workers’ defence organisations, and created pseudo-unions to regiment the workers on behalf of the state and its objectives. They turned the working class of the USSR into something closer to a class of slaves than to a free proletariat.

The result was needless chaos, waster, starvation, deprivation, famine, and the death of millions.

They did however industrialise the USSR. To this day you will find academics to argue that Stalin carried out the industrialisation programme of the Left Opposition — that the Left Opposition had advocated the policies that Stalin carried out. In fact Stalin’s was a different industrialisation, serving different objectives, and, for the working class and society as a whole, producing radically different results. Who? whom? proved to be the all-defining questions. Means shaped ends, the “who” determined the “what”.

Looking back with the hindsight of three quarters of a century, we can see what Trotsky did not so clearly see, that the difference between the programme of the Left Opposition and the variant of it being carried out by the Stalinists was a class difference. Both the Left Opposition and Stalin were for “industrialisation”, but they represented different class programmes of industrialisation.

What Trotsky did see clearly in 1928-9 was that socialists who had undertaken to organise and lead the working-class struggle for emancipation had to distinguish between the industrialisation of the bureaucracy and the sort of industrialisation, serving the working class, that the Opposition had advocated. He saw that the Opposition had to maintain their own political programme. They had to criticise the bureaucracy and its methods mercilessly, and continue to counterpose their working-class programme to that of the bureaucracy.

They had to defend the working class, and help the working class to defend itself from the bureaucracy. Whatever it meant for the tempo of the bureaucracy’s version of industrialisation, the immediate material interests and well-being of the working class had to be championed and secured — just as, under capitalism, whether its work was considered progressive or not, the Marxists put the organisation, education, and self-assertion of the working class before everything else.

They did not identify with bureaucratic industrialisation. They did not politically support Stalin. In short, they refused to join their ex-comrades who chose to betray the interests and the cause of the working class and go over to the “progressive” bureaucracy.

And Iraq now? If Bush and Blair are carrying through, from above and from outside, their own “bourgeois-democratic revolution” in Iraq — that is, doing something resembling that establishment of bourgeois-democratic rights which we see as the best condition in which the working class can organise and educate itself to win socialism — then it will be something very different from a bourgeois-democratic revolution originating from “below” and from inside Iraqi society.

The bourgeois-democratic revolution carried through from above in the Prussian and German state by Bismarck was necessarily alloyed with regressive and reactionary Junker (landlord) elements, whose interests Bismarck also served. It was recognisably something like the bourgeois-democratic revolution aspired to by the revolutionary democrats in the defeated revolution of 1848 — but it was also something radically different.

What follows for Iraq is not that if, under US auspices, a regime is created which allows certain democratic freedoms — including freedom for the trade unions and working-class parties to develop — it will be worthless, or that socialists are indifferent to the outcome in Iraq now. What follows is that even the best possible results of a US-imposed “bourgeois-democratic revolution” will be marked by their origins, may be only shallowly rooted, and will certainly be shot through with elements embodying the interests and pressures of the US hyperpower and of local reactionaries who for their own reasons support the USA.

If the USA had managed to bully, bribe, and blackmail enough UN votes to give them prior UN authorisation to invade in 2003, that would have made no difference to the judgement of serious people. That the US-engineered political arrangements in Iraq are now “UN-backed” likewise makes no difference.

Those who remain socialists will understand that, say it, and continue to advocate independent working-class politics against Bush-Blair and their allies as well as against the clerical fascists and their “reactionary anti-imperialist” allies in Britain and elsewhere.

And, of course, even limited good results may not emerge at all. It may turn out that what, by smashing Saddam Hussein’s regime, seemed to make a bourgeois-democratic transformation possible, was simultaneously — because of the brutality, rapacity, great-power arrogance, and incompetence of the US post-war administration of Iraq — what ultimately made it impossible. If Iraq collapses into full-scale reaction, then an enormous part of the responsibility for that will lie with the Bush regime and its methods — and with those who back them.

Even when they say they are doing something we want done, socialists give no reliance, trust, or political confidence to the US hyperpower or to its satellites like Britain. We do not give them our political support. The Third Camp of independent working-class politics can be built only by maintaining the political independence of the socialists and those workers who we can influence now.

Unlike the negativists of the reactionary anti-imperialist camp, we honestly analyse, describe, and define what is going on. That is, we tell the truth — in the first place to ourselves. But we tell the whole truth, including the truth about who and what the Bushes and the Blairs are, and why any seeming variant of what we want which they achieve will necessarily be seriously different from what socialists and consistent democrats advocate.

The argument would be beside the point that Bush and Blair, represented free-market pluto-democracy, are not to be compared to the peon-making totalitarian Stalin. The analogy is between the Left Oppositionists who saw Stalin carrying through what looked like a variant of their industrialisation programme, and socialists now who see Bush’s and Blair’s attempt in Iraq to realise, in their own way and for their own reasons, a bourgeois-democratic regime that for us is both desirable and, when the working class is not yet ready to make a socialist revolution, necessary.

The analogy is between the demoralised ex-Trotskyist capitulators who thought that the best contribution they could make to securing the interests of socialism was to go over to Stalin and commit political and moral suicide — and our former comrades who think that the best contribution they can make to progress in Iraq is to cease to be other than notional socialists, and, instead, to become cheerleaders for Blair and Bush and their Communist Party collaborators in Iraq.

The differences between our contemporaries who go over to Blair and the oppositionists who went over to Stalin are instructive too. Stalin was embattled when the capitulators rallied to him; Blair controls Britain, and Bush, the world-bestriding hyper-power.

The 1928-9 capitulators thought Stalin was defending and extending working class power; and that they really could make a difference in the fight, as they mistakenly saw it, between historical progress and historical reaction. Their view that they themselves could make a difference was not absurd. While today, quite apart from what is politically right and wrong, as a matter of practical calculation it is preposterous to think that we can, by backing Bush and Blair, control or improve the outcome in Iraq.

To believe otherwise is to believe in sympathetic magic. The degree of misapprehension of the relationship between cause and effect, between ends and means, is as great as with the witch-doctor whose conscience makes him dress in green and do his best to help the Spring in its difficult journey back!

The only practical consequence is that the socialists remove themselves as socialists from the longer-term political “process”. That is too high a price to pay for the cheap and foolish pretence that we can thereby write ourselves into the current big-bourgeois and imperialist scenario.

The idea that Iraq is “the hinge of our times”, as someone expressed it, may be true or false, but, either way, the political conclusion for serious socialists is not that we amalgamate ourselves politically with Bush and Blair. Trotsky correctly wrote in the early thirties that Germany was the hinge of European and world politics. Most of subsequent 20th century history, maybe even the final consolidation of Stalinism in Russia, was shaped by Hitler’s triumph.

But what, before 30 January 1933, followed from Trotsky’s correct perception? That Marxists should throw their weight behind the bourgeois-democrats, the liberals and the Social Democrats — the biggest working-class based party in Germany? That we owed them loyal, and even uncritical, support? That in the presidential election of 1932, when it was a choice between Hitler and the old mainstream right-winger Hindenburg or Hitler, we should have followed the Social Democrats in backing Hindenburg?

Not for Trotsky! By driving the disaffected into the camps of the Nazis and Stalinists, the liberals and Social Democrats helped Hitler. And finally, when Hindenburg, just recently the “democratic” candidate against Hitler for president, called Hitler to be Chancellor, they “democratically” acquiesced in the “democratic” Reichstag.

Nobody not born yesterday can seriously think that the American “bourgeois democrats” will not install some clericalist or quasi-fascist regime, or — after they have rebuilt the Iraqi army — some military dictatorship, with or without “democratic” frills, if that is the “best” they can get. Or that Blair would not “democratically” acquiesce. The more the situation deteriorates the more likely something like that becomes.

The pixilated kibitzers and fantasy footballers on the right are the mirror image of the “reactionary anti-imperialists” on the kitsch left.

Capitulators of Today and Yesteryear - Solidarity 3/65, 20 Jan 2005

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