Thursday November 29 2012

USSR Review: Sticking with old dogmas that have failed time and again

Paul Flewers reviews: Workers Power, 'The degenerated revolution: the rise and fall of the Stalinist states', Prinkipo, 2012, pp584, £13.90

Leon Trotsky: the Stalinist system was still in its infancy. But we do not have the same excuse

The rise of Stalinism and the emergence of the Soviet socio-economic formation under the first five-year plan posed some very difficult questions for revolutionary Marxists, and started a debate that has continued to this day.

Unlike those who considered that the Soviet Union had become a state-capitalist society, and others who claimed that it represented a new form of exploitative society, Trotsky viewed it as a degenerated workers’ state: although, he argued, the Soviet leadership had politically expropriated the working class, it had nonetheless laid the economic basis for a workers’ state by establishing a planned economy. Despite its political powerlessness, the proletariat remained the ruling class, and the bureaucracy was a parasitic growth upon society which the working class had to remove from power if the potential of the economy was to be fully realised.

When Workers Power emerged from a split in the International Socialists back in the mid-1970s, it still adhered to the state capitalism of its parent organisation, but within a few years it had come to accept Trotsky’s analysis, and the original edition of this book, published in 1982, was intended to demonstrate its continued validity. However, this adoption of a basic tenet of conventional Trotskyism did not mean that the group endorsed any of the various permutations of Trotsky’s analysis presented by Trotskyists in the decades following his death in 1940.

The degenerated revolution provides a detailed account of how the Trotskyist movement managed to be continually wrong-footed in respect of the survival of Stalinism during World War II and its expansion afterwards, and of Trotsky’s analysis by Ernest Mandel, Michel Pablo and Joseph Hansen led many Trotskyist currents to adapt to Stalinism not merely in the Soviet bloc, but also in Tito’s Yugoslavia, Mao’s China and, especially, Castro’s Cuba, and to consider that Stalinist regimes could play a progressive role once they were in power and even be very positive players in the global struggle for socialism. The book also shows that the split in the Fourth International in 1953 and the ensuing demonisation of ‘Pabloism’ in various international Trotskyist currents not only did not really come to terms with this theoretical confusion and ensuing adaptation to Stalinism, but actually extended it, albeit in different ways.

The degenerated revolution marks itself off from the idea that Stalinism is entirely counterrevolutionary on the basis that this led, on the one hand, to Mandel considering that, as Tito did seize power in Yugoslavia, he could not have been a Stalinist, and, on the other, to the Lambertists in France adapting to anti-communist forces within the labour movement. It also demurs from the idea that Stalinism has a dual nature, as this leads to ‘the petty bourgeois eclecticism of choosing the ‘good’ or ‘positive’ acts or aspects of Stalinist policy and supporting them uncritically, while rejecting the ‘bad’ or ‘reactionary’ ones (p209), with the result that some of those taking this standpoint ended up endorsing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the suppression of Solidarność in Poland.

Dualistic theory

However, despite this disavowal, The degenerated revolution in fact does accept the idea that Stalinism did have a progressive side: otherwise why should it implore us to “defend the post-capitalist economies against attack by imperialism or its agents” (p233)? This desire to have it both ways arises from the fact that the basic problem did not start so much with the Trotskyist movement’s various distortions of Trotsky’s theory, but is inherent in the theory itself, which certainly does promote the idea that Stalinism has a dual nature.

The fact that the property relations in the Soviet Union “were not capitalist and that economic policy was determined by central planning did not mean that this statified property in the USSR had a socialist character”, The degenerated revolution states confidently (p52). However, this sits unhappily with the veritable rhapsody to Stalinist industrialisation, which kicked off Trotsky’s most substantial and in places incisively critical analysis of Stalinism, The revolution betrayed - and which is cited here approvingly on p62: “Socialism has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of Das Kapital, but in an industrial arena comprising a sixth part of the Earth’s surface - not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity.”

Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism ensured that the movement he created was hobbled from the start. Notwithstanding the very valid criticisms that the book makes of the Trotskyist movement on this question after 1940, it is nonetheless unable to escape from the consequences of this flawed theoretical framework.

The degenerated revolution stand firmly in the traditional Trotskyist theoretical framework. It insists that, “while the bourgeoisie under capitalism is a necessary component of the relations of production”, the bureaucracy was “not … a necessary element in the planned property relations of the Stalinist economy” (p89). Is this the case? The Soviet bureaucracy did not seize power from a working class that was in control of a functioning planned economy. A genuine planned economy requires as an absolute necessity the democratic involvement of producers and consumers in the drawing up and implementation of the plans, but the Soviet working class had been steadily excluded from exercising political and economic power through the 1920s; by the time the first five-year plan was inaugurated in 1928-29, the bureaucracy was already confronting the working class as a ruling elite.

The abandonment of the largely capitalist New Economic Policy, the establishment of a massive industrial base and the breaking of the power of the peasantry by means of forced collectivisation enabled the bureaucracy to become a fully-fledged ruling elite, standing in opposition to the working class and peasantry. As this new economic infrastructure was not organised on a capitalist basis - the law of value being firmly suppressed - but by way of top-down targets, commands and allocations, and specifically excluded the involvement of the working class other than purely as subordinates with less rights than those that workers have won in bourgeois democracies, it is fair to consider that the bureaucracy was an “indispensable part” of the Soviet socio-economic formation. It created it, dominated it and managed it on a day-to-day basis, to the exclusion of all other social strata. To consider the bureaucracy as an essentially superfluous excrescence is to make a mockery of Marxist analysis. It involves the wrenching apart of the economic infrastructure from the political superstructure, as if there were no essential interrelationship between them in a Stalinist society.

As a result of the absence of market relations and their only viable replacement, democratic planning, the Soviet economy was institutionally and operationally dysfunctional from the very start of the first five year plan. Even after the extremely precarious situation of the early 1930s had passed, it was affected by a wide range of problems at every level. Plan targets were rarely met, and perennial problems included a lack of coordination and disproportions amongst the different sectors of the economy and within individual sectors; falsified statistics; poor product quality, resulting in vast quantities of defective goods; poor labour discipline and lack of skills; lack of innovation and discouragement of initiative; and poor maintenance and storekeeping.

Irrespective of the considerable quantitative and to a lesser degree qualitative achievements of the Soviet economy, these factors were not isolated occurrences or teething problems, but were inherent in the system - a necessary result of the property relations established under the first five-year plan, and therefore never eradicated. To call this dysfunctional mess ‘planning’, even if qualified by the word ‘bureaucratic’, is to demean the very meaning of economic planning under socialism: any similarity between the Soviet command economy and the planned economy of a socialist society was therefore purely coincidental and superficial. This book dismisses all too easily those who concluded that the Soviet Union suffered from ‘planlessness’, a concept that first appeared in the early 1930s and which looks all the more valid in the light of historical observation.

Faulty analogy

The degenerated revolution follows Trotsky in the insistence that “the working class remained the ruling class because the property forms in existence were those that the working class requires in order to build socialism” (p89). But how indeed could the Soviet Union be a ‘workers’ state’ if the working class was cruelly oppressed by the ruling bureaucracy, stripped of practically all of its democratic rights?

Trotsky’s explanation - that the working class was only politically expropriated by the bureaucracy and that, because the economy was not capitalist and rested upon an economic foundation ultimately made possible by the success of the October Revolution, it was nonetheless the ruling class - is unconvincing. His analogy with fascism - that a victorious fascist party politically expropriates the bourgeoisie, but that, as capitalism still exists, that stratum thus remains the ruling class - is also unconvincing. While the bourgeoisie does not require democratic structures to be able to rule, and the capitalist classes in fascist countries have broadly appreciated the fascists’ suppression of the working class, socialism requires a workers’ democracy as a prerequisite.

Without workers’ democracy, not only does the working class lack political and economic power, but the socialist nature of the society goes into abeyance. Should the working class for whatever reason relinquish its political and economic power, some other social force must take over the reins of state power - either a revived capitalist class or a new elite emerging from the state machinery that the working class can no longer control - and this cannot but have a substantial effect throughout society.

The degenerated revolution endorses Trotsky’s accusation that to view the victory of the bureaucracy as signifying a change in the socio-economic nature of the Soviet Union is to predicate such a shift originating in the superstructure of society, rather than in its economic infrastructure. But this accusation is based upon a crude, schematic reading of Marxism. Changes initiated in the superstructure can impact upon the infrastructure. The tremendous transformation of the economic infrastructure in the Soviet Union after 1928-29 was inaugurated by the bureaucracy - that is, by a conscious decision within the superstructure - and these changes in turn impacted back upon the bureaucracy: they provided the material base by which the bureaucracy could become a fully-fledged ruling elite. This was not unique to the Soviet Union: an analogous process occurred in 19th-century Japan and Germany, when the ruling elites consciously decided to develop a capitalist economy and by so doing transformed themselves into authentic bourgeoisies.

The working class in a Stalinist state did not need to expropriate a capitalist class, but nonetheless was required to seize state power from the bureaucracy and assert its control of the means of production and distribution in order to start running society in its interest. This was a task as thoroughly revolutionary as anything facing the working class under capitalism. The Stalinist state could not be taken over ready-made and used in the interests of the working class any more than the state in capitalist society. It was not a question of the working class overcoming the obstacles “to the full realisation of the potential of the property relations of the USSR” (p89), but the replacement of those property relations by those of socialism, the replacement of the regime’s systemically inefficient and wasteful bureaucratic administration of the economy by economic planning, democratically elaborated and implemented by the producers and consumers.

Question of reform

The degenerated revolution devotes barely half a dozen pages to two key events in Soviet history: the process of de-Stalinisation after 1953 and the abortive Liberman market reforms of the 1960s. Trotsky considered that the insecure social position of the Soviet elite as result of its being a parasitic excrescence necessarily made its rule chaotic and convulsive, and that the extreme violence of the Soviet regime during the 1930s was symptomatic of that insecurity. His insistence upon the centrality of terror to the Soviet regime implied heavily that any genuine measure of liberalisation of the regime was an impossibility, and this book duly points to “the inability of Stalinism to survive as anything other than a regime of terror” (pp90-91) - after having denied that Stalin’s malignant personality was responsible for the great terror (p80).

Firstly, unlike the violence that was a central feature of the first five-year plan - which was inevitable once the decision had been made to engage in breakneck industrialisation and forcibly collectivise the peasantry - that of the great terror was the policy choice of Stalin himself as a means of dealing with his rivals in the party leadership (the show trials) and disciplining the bureaucracy as a whole (the wider purges). Had Stalin been replaced by Kirov around the time of the 17th Party Congress in 1934, it is extremely unlikely that the great terror would have occurred.

Secondly, the Soviet leadership did manage to forgo mass terror and arbitrary rule after Stalin’s death, and it did liberalise the regime to a considerable degree. De-Stalinisation was not “an attempt to return to the norms of pre-1934 Stalinism” (p78). Although after 1953 the Soviet Union remained a police state with considerable restrictions upon democratic rights, the regime never again resorted to the degree of coercion seen during the first five-year plan, let alone that of the great terror. The suppression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 and the repression of rebellious workers in Novocherkassk in 1962 were exceptions, not the rule.

The proposed Liberman reforms of the 1960s were the result of considerable discussion within the Soviet apparatus during Khrushchev’s time as leader in respect of the slowing down of the rate of growth of the Soviet economy. Nonetheless, despite their modest nature, these proposals for a degree of marketisation in the economy were soon abandoned because, although the Soviet leaders recognised that all was not well in the economy, they instinctively understood that any major move towards introducing the market would have unpredictable consequences. The last thing any Soviet bureaucrat wanted was uncertainty, and the bureaucracy was loath to try anything even slightly risky, let alone something that could undermine its entire social foundation.

However, in the light of the stagnation that was soon to affect the Soviet economy, and the dynamism of the Chinese economy after it introduced market measures, one might ask whether the Soviet bureaucracy could have avoided its fate by fully engaging in a thoroughgoing process of market reforms in the 1960s, when the economy still had some life left in it and had not yet slipped irreversibly into stagnation. Unfortunately, despite covering in some detail both the terminal decline of the Soviet economy and the move to the market in China, this is a question that The degenerated revolution does not ask.

National development

If the Soviet Union was not a state-capitalist country, did not represent a new form of class society and was not a workers’ state, however degenerated, what was it? Hillel Ticktin has provided an analysis which convincingly argues that the Soviet socio-economic formation was an historical accident that was the result of the bureaucratisation of an isolated workers’ state, and was inherently unstable and historically unviable because it did not constitute a new mode of production. That the Soviet economy lasted barely six decades from the promulgation of the first five-year plan (with the last decade being one of terminal decline following one of stagnation), that the tendency towards declining growth rates was both immanent to the system and irreversible within it, and that the Chinese bureaucracy openly went for the market a little more than two decades after the ‘great leap forward’, show that we did not have an historically viable social formation.

It is worth placing the Soviet-style socio-economic formation in the broader historical context of the development of capitalism on a world scale. Well over a century ago, Marx wrote in the third volume of Capital how capitalism was forced to distort its own laws of motion in order to advance, by means of suppressing competition through monopolies and joint-stock companies, and Engels extended the analysis in Anti-Dühring by investigating the use of the state within capitalist society. The experience of the Soviet-style socio-economic formation enables us to take their observations to a new level.

If one strips the Soviet-style socio-economic formation of its ideological facade, and considers it as what it really was - a programme of intense national economic and social development, in a country in which a state apparatus under a forceful leadership takes the place of a non-existent or failed bourgeoisie - then some interesting factors come to light. The Soviet Union and China were the last significant countries to undergo a profound process of indigenous modernisation. Both were huge states containing vast amounts of natural and human resources. Both had at their helm a national leadership that was determined to push aside all internal resistance and external opposition in order to carry out its programme. And under this leadership, and with these essential resources, these countries were indeed transformed into modern industrial societies. The process was often haphazard, wasteful and inhuman, but, all in all, the basis for a modern industrial society was indeed laid down. Within a world dominated by a few imperialist powers, the far-reaching modernisation in the Soviet Union and China required the suppression of the law of value. The changes that took place under Stalin and Mao could not have occurred if the ruling criterion in their societies had been profitability.

Where else since the dawn of the 20th century has this process of indigenous modernisation been carried out? There have been relatively coherent examples, such as in the British dominions and South Korea, but the process here was encouraged by imperialist states and carried out under their aegis. In most of the non-imperialist world, modernisation has been patchy and lop-sided, and modern industry, where it exists, sits incongruously alongside primitive agriculture and vast, barely productive shanty-towns. The national leadership in India has proved unable to root out pre-bourgeois social forces; the current industrial development of Brazil is largely dependent upon investments from the big powers, with a great deal coming from China.

The irony of the Soviet-style socio-economic formation is that, whilst it can forcibly modernise a big, backward country, there is a limit to its ability to maintain the process of modernisation. As the Soviet economy matured under Stalin’s successors, its growth rates declined, but the Soviet elite backed away from embarking on the programme of market reforms that it considered introducing as a means to reverse this process. The result was stagnation and ultimate collapse: the transition under Gorbachev and his post-Soviet successors was not to a modern capitalist society, but to Russia becoming more akin to an impoverished, gangster-ridden third-world supplier of primary products.

The institution of a serious process of market reforms in the 1960s may well have enabled the Soviet elite to embark upon a far more successful transition to the market. Success would not, of course, have been guaranteed; but the results could not have possibly been worse for the rulers than what actually happened. The Chinese elite, however, keenly watching the stagnation to the north, realised that, if it were to survive, let alone thrive, it needed carefully to guide the Chinese economy back to the market. This it has done with considerable aplomb and, even if success is not guaranteed, China is in a better position than most of the developed capitalist powers to confront today’s parlous economic situation.

So what we actually had was a temporary process of non-capitalist national modernisation that would enable the Soviet and Chinese elites to build up their societies - not to build a socialist society (why would any ruling elite wish to relinquish its social power?), but, whether they realised it or not, so that they could at some point rejoin the capitalist world. To paraphrase Marx’s The holy family, it is not a question of what this or that Stalinist bureaucrat, or even the whole bureaucracy, at the moment regarded as its aim; it is a question of what the bureaucracy was, and what, in accordance with this being, it would historically be compelled to do. Compelled to rejoin the capitalist world, the Soviet bureaucracy fatally misjudged its re-entry; its Chinese counterpart has timed it well.

The degenerated revolution defends a theoretical construct which was faulty when it was conceived during the 1930s and which has consistently misled the Trotskyist movement and underpinned many of its major miscalculations over many decades. Back when Trotsky was evolving the theory, he did have the mitigating circumstances that he was confronted by a socio-economic formation that was only just coming into being and that his knowledge of it was constricted to some degree by the relatively limited amount of information available, exacerbated by the difficulties of working in exile. Marxists today do not have those excuses.


A longer version of this review will appear in the next issue of Revolutionary History

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