Left Oppositionists in Siberian exile, late 1920s
Published in Workers Liberty Series 1 No.59/60 December 1999 / January 2000
The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism Volume One is a significant contribution to the literature of the anti-Stalinist left. Long buried in the archives the polemics and analyses of those socialists who refused to accept the definition of Stalin’s barbaric regime as a “workers’ state” simply because property was nationalised and private property, large and small, was obliterated, deserve to see the light. My criticism of this anthology should in no way detract from the valuable contribution made and, in view of the promised second volume, the criticism may be premature.
Al Richardson, in his review (WL 53), rightly emphasises that the book is weak in its analysis of the structure of the regime, its contradictions, and its “laws of motion.” He also notes that this anthology represents the work of “Max Shachtman... and of his co-thinkers”. As I documented in my review of Peter Drucker’s biography of Shachtman (WL 25 and 27) these two facts are related. There was a great deal of material on the questions that rightly concern Richardson but little of it was produced by Shachtman.
Of course, most of it was done after the period covered in this anthology which, for all practical purposes, ends with the end of the Second World War. But even in this period, James Burnham, Joseph Carter and Dwight MacDonald began the investigation of these problems and their very interesting contributions are slighted. Carter is represented by one piece. Burnham appears only as the opponent of the “defencist” position of James P. Cannon and the American SWP. And even at that his 1937 article which predated Shachtman on this issue and has some interesting things to say is ignored. His 1940 articles on “the Managerial Class” which were extremely important even if they were, in my opinion, mistaken are not reproduced. MacDonald is simply ignored! But these articles are important because they raise the fundamental questions facing the left today. The “Russian Question” in its original form obviously died in 1991. But the more fundamental questions remain: what is socialism? What is the alternative to a dying capitalism if the working class movement is unable to reorganise society on progressive lines? Is anticapitalism even in authoritarian forms automatically “progressive”?
In the period between 1948, when the Independent Socialist League (ISL) adopted as its official position the vews first advanced by Joseph Carter, and 1958, when the ISL dissolved, its publications devoted most of their attention to these questions. The majority of the articles, but by no means all, were written by Hal Draper. I want to mention three of the major topics. First of all, there was the whole question of “Titoism” and what the ISL called “national Stalinism”. This discussion was provoked when the Fourth International reacted with enthusiastic support to Tito on his expulsion from the Comintern — even going so far as to address an open letter to “Comrade Tito”.
This enthusiasm for a regime that was as tightly organised a Stalinist dictatorship as its Russian model marked the definitive break with Trotsky’s politics. It was denounced as such by Natalia Sedova, Trotsky’s long time political and personal partner.” But several groups and writers who had previously identified themselves with “the Third Camp” also welcomed Tito’s break as a step towards socialism. It was a classic case of Stalinophobia leading to its opposite. Hatred of Stalin and Stalin’s Russia led honest socialists to embrace any opponent of Stalin’s even when, as in this case, the opponent was a class which was socially identical to its Russian counterpart. The same phenomenon was to reappear in 1963 at the time of the Sino-Soviet split.
For the ISL it was not enough to simply denounce Tito as a pocket-size version of Stalin. That was easy enough to demonstrate. Far more important was the theoretical analysis of the source of national conflict and national oppression in the Stalinist system. Precisely because it was a “national socialism”, national conflict was an inherent part of the system. Centralised planning requires a rigid, hierarchical structure which can only be maintained by police state measures. This is a fundamental economic requirement of the system. “Fraternal relations between socialist countries” can only be maintained if the local bureaucracy is willing to commit class suicide. And so, national conflict was one of the principal forces that undermined the Russian Empire built by Stalin. The revolts in Poland and Hungary in 1956, the Sino-Soviet split in 1963, the Czech Spring in 1968, Ceaucescu’s pro-NATO policy in the ‘60s, all were fueled, in whole or in part, by the conflict between the “national Stalinism” of the indigenous bureaucracy and Russian imperialism. When, in 1989, the Russian centre could no longer control its Czech and German satellites the house of cards collapsed.
Underlying this analysis of the national conflict was the ISL’s understanding of the fundamental contradiction of the system. The bureaucracy’s control of the economy depended on its destruction of the last vestiges of private property and, therefore, anything resembling a market. In place of the gradual elimination of private property through a democratic state controlled by the organised working class as Engels, Lenin and Trotsky envisioned, Stalinism brutally expropriated the small proprietor, especially the rural small proprietor. The process rivaled in brutality the expropriations by the bourgeoisie in England and Ireland in the period of “primitive accumulation.” More to the point, as Trotsky documented in The Revolution Betrayed, this expropriation far exceeded the bounds of economic rationality. It corresponded to the economic and social needs of the bureaucracy but not to the level of technical development of the country. At the same time, the bureaucracy could only consolidate its position by destroying all forms of democratic representation, especially of the working class. The result — a system lacking any feedback mechanism. It had to plan everything but it could plan nothing.
If the fundamental contradiction in capitalism is between the ever-expanding productivity of capital and the ever-shrinking ability to produce at a profit, the fundamental contradiction of state planning is between the economy as conceived in the plan and the economy as it actually exists. And there is no way to reconcile the two.
Articles in the ISL press constantly emphasised the economic significance of the black market. It was the only mechanism available to reconcile the plan and reality. A shipment of 500 tyres leaves Minsk for Smolensk. Duly noted in the plan. By the time the shipment reaches Smolensk there are 250 tyres. Is this just gangsterism? Well, if the other 250 tyres had not been used to replace worn out tires unknown to the plan, three factories would have been forced to shut down for lack of parts. I have to confess I made up this example but similar ones can be found in Alec Nove’s The Soviet Economy. Even more biting is the account in Konstantin Simis’ USSR: the Corrupt Society. Simis and Nove are basically muckrakers. They have no theory. But their books should be read by anyone who wants to understand what happened to the economy of the USSR. And, for that matter, to understand the current Mafia economy of Russia and the other former Stalinist economies. The ISL did organise this material in a theoretical framework.
The final, the most important contribution of the ISL was to rethink the whole question of what socialism was really about. The main document here was Hal Draper’s The Two Souls of Socialism. Stalinism, according to Draper, was not a sport, a strange mutant, but, rather, the recrudescence of the oldest concept of socialism; the idea that the people, the common herd, were too corrupted to save themselves. Capitalism and its unfettered competition could only be defeated, or controlled, by some form of collective authority, usually the state, safely in the hands of “those who know”. It was Marx and Engels who were out of step in putting their faith in the popular movement. For a period, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Marxism prevailed intellectually, at least on the surface. In part, this was due to the genius of Marx. In part, to the attractiveness of the idea itself. But, in the main, it was due to the assertiveness and self confidence of the working class at that time. Conversely, the renewed popularity of authoritarian and statist alternatives to capitalism today are a result of the defeats suffered by the workers’ movement in this century.
For a few years in the early 90s, following the spectacular collapse of the USSR, the illusion that a new “global” society would provide the economic basis for a rebirth of nineteenth century, laissez-faire liberalism prevailed. Even many on the left agreed, with more or less reluctance. Those illusions have been rudely shattered. Who defends the classic liberal values of freedom of speech and assembly, representative government, a free press and the rest? Boris Yeltsin’s gangster friends? Gennady Zyuganov and his party of “Communist” antisemites? The former New York banker Slobodan Milosevic? The Chinese Stalinist “friends of Bill” and his Republican opponents? Everywhere, the unopposed rule of international capital has unleashed the most vile passions as the majority of the people see their lives destroyed in a moment.
But there is something more fundamental going on. Despite the anti-government rhetoric of capitalism’s intellectual apologists, the process of increasing state control and state planning in capitalist economies continues. The IMF, the World Bank, GATT and the various trading blocs are based not on “free trade” but on managed and planned trade and investment. And the planning is done by nation states. It is not only the Great Powers and in particular the United States who do the planning. Without the co-operation of the state in the debtor countries the whole mechanism would fall apart. The predictions that the nation state would become an anachronism have proved false. What is happening is that within individual states what representative institutions exist have been weakened as against the executive and the bureaucracy.
To describe in any detail the process of “bureaucratic collectivisation” of capitalism that is taking place would require far more space than is available in this review, but this part of the ISL’s contribution is the most relevant today. At no time has the blind identification of statification and socialism been more destructive and debilitating than it is today.
1. I should confess here that, as the editor of an earlier anthology which concentrated on these issues (Neither Capitalism Nor Socialism: Theories of Bureaucratic Collectivism: Humanities Press and the Centre for Socialist History) my comments here are not disinterested.
2. The complete theoretical collapse of what was left of the official Fourth International was demonstrated by the fact that, shortly before Tito’s unexpected break with Stalin, his regime had been described, in theses formally adopted by the Second Congress of the Fourth International, as “an extreme form of Bonapartism” whose function was to preserve capitalism.