Poland and Trotsky's theory of bureaucracy

Submitted by martin on 2 July, 2019 - 8:47 Author: Chris Reynolds

August Grabski's obituary of Karol Modzelewski (Solidarity 511, bit.ly/ag-km) was interesting, but I want to take issue with what he says about Trotsky's theory of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

"Without the analysis of the bureaucracy by Trotsky expressed in his Revolution Betrayed from 1936", write August, we can't understand what happened in Poland.

Trotsky's Revolution Betrayed was about the bureaucracy in the USSR. Essential to his idea of the bureaucracy as a fragile stratum, without the solidity and historical clout of a class, was that part of the bureaucracy was linked back to the revolution of 1917 and rested in some distorted way on the working class.

It was linked to nationalised industry in the USSR which was then unique, and Trotsky thought that 20th century history had shown that such comprehensively-nationalised industry could in fact (even if other possible routes had been abstractly conceivable) be created only by a workers' revolution.

Trotsky's ideas on the bureaucracy continued to evolve after 1936, but as late as 1938 he saw it as likely to split soon into a "faction of Butenko" (fascist, capitalist-restorationist) and a "faction of Reiss" (loyal to the nationalised industry).

Even if that was right for the USSR, the theory would be almost entirely irrelevant to Poland.

Poland's ruling bureaucracy, formed after 1945, had no links to any workers' revolution. The nationalised industries over which it presided had been shaped by Russian invading armies, not by workers' revolution.

It was far from unique. Similar nationalised-industry structures had been or would be created over a third of the world, from North Korea through Burma and South Yemen to Cuba, and not at all by workers' revolutions.

Those nationalised-industry structures "belonged to" the bureaucracies that ran them, rather than being inherited by them from a past with which they were radically at odds.

Trotsky's arguments against calling the USSR bureaucracy a ruling class all fall down for the non-USSR bureaucracies. (And, though that is another matter, the falling-down compels reassessment of the arguments for the USSR).

The Polish bureaucracy, over time, lost coherence and confidence in its project of running the economy by bayonets. When the working class had subsided after seven years of martial law, 1981-8, the bureaucrats also saw the prospect of following models visible elsewhere and converting themselves into a subsection of a new capitalist class, mostly using private ownership. That new capitalist class would also draw in people from the "middle class" which had grown up in but become frustrated by Stalinist Poland.

The development was not what you might conclude from August's article, a private-capitalist restoration pushed through by a Butenko faction of the bureaucracy against the combined resistance of a Reiss faction and the working class.

The working class supported and indeed impelled the development. The working class forced the bureaucrats into seeing their status quo as unviable, and seeking a new, more flexible, mode of exploitation.

It is tragic that by then the working class had concluded that its program of 1980-1 - a "self-managing society" on the basis of collective ownership - was not achievable. Accepting economic forms which seemed to "just work" (if imperfectly) in Western Europe seemed an inescapable price to pay for the "bourgeois" freedoms which the workers rightly wanted. (Even economically, Poland's GDP per head has gone up from one-quarter of Portugal's in 1990 to two-thirds of it now, or from less than Cuba's to twice Cuba's).

The tragedy came because, thanks in large part to the influence of intellectuals-made-cautious like Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski himself, the workers' movement of 1980-1 hoped to get its "self-managing society" by way of a "self-limiting revolution". It hoped to build the new society within the shell of the old, without risky confrontation with the Polish bureaucracy and the Russian power standing behind it.

It got the confrontation anyway, with martial law in 1981. Then, on the one hand, the Polish bureaucracy lacked the cohesion and clout to prevent Solidarnosc sustaining an underground existence; on the other, the Solidarnosc leaders, seeing their hopes of 1980-1 dashed and no strong anti-Stalinist socialist alternative in the West, drifted to their anti-utopianism of 1988 and after.

The USSR's disarray after its "years of stagnation" and its failure to subdue Afghanistan, and its declaration that it would no longer try to police Eastern Europe closely, completed the conditions for what happened in 1988-9.

There is no mystery about why the ex-Stalinists later became ardent neo-liberals. They had previously secured their privileges by exploiting the workers through command-economy mechanisms which had become increasingly clumsy; now they concluded, and rightly, that they (or most of them) could get better privileges more adroitly by another mode of exploitation.

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