Friday, May 25, 2007
KOREA COLUMN 23
The Nature of Stalinism
Stalinism is an appropriate name for the political regime operating in the Soviet Union in the nineteen thirties and forties because a) Joseph Stalin was its absolute ruler in those years, and b) the name rightly differentiates this regime from socialism or communism in general, and from the Leninist period of Soviet power that preceded it. However, the term does not tell us anything about the economic, social or class character of the society over which Stalin and Stalinism presided.
What was the economic dynamic of Stalinist Russia – was it fundamentally the same or different from that of western capitalism? Was it fundamentally a class divided society or a classless society, or was it a transitional society on the way to becoming classless? If there were classes in Russia, what classes were they and which was the ruling class? These questions which were all bound up with one another and in reality all boiled down to one – the class nature of Soviet Union – were the subject of intense debate among socialists and Marxists for more than sixty years.
The issue was hugely significant not only in Russia itself and in other similar ‘communist’ countries, but everywhere in the world because the Soviet Union claimed, and to a considerable extent exercised, leadership of the whole international communist movement. The issue remains important today, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and of East European communism, partly because some Stalinist and semi-Stalinist regimes survive – most notably North Korea – partly for historical reasons, and partly because, theoretically, it goes to the heart of what we mean by capitalism and socialism.
In the course of the debate four main positions emerged:1) that the Soviet Union was socialist; 2) that it was a degenerated workers’ state; 3) that it was neither capitalist nor socialist but bureaucratic collectivist; 4) that it was state capitalist.
The first position was by far the most common – it was shared by mainstream ‘communists’, many social democrats, and by the right, and therefore became the ‘common sense’ view - but it was also the most damaging. On the left it often involved the denial of well established historical fact, but at bottom it rested on the idea that the essence of socialism is simply state ownership of property, not working class self emancipation or workers’ power. The right agreed with this because they regarded workers’ power as impossible anyway and knew that identifying Stalinism with socialism discredited socialism in the eyes of the masses.
The degenerated workers’ state position was associated with Trotsky and Trotskyism. It argued that the Stalinist bureaucracy had betrayed the aims of the Russian Revolution and was a counter revolutionary force hostile to the development of socialism in the Soviet Union and to workers’ revolution internationally. It called for a political revolution to overthrow Stalinism. However, it also insisted that, by virtue of its nationalised property relations, the Soviet economy remained post capitalist and this made Russia a workers’ state which was more progressive than world capitalism and had to be defended by socialists. The strength of Trotsky’s position was that it combined revolutionary socialist opposition to both Stalinism and western capitalism. Its weakness was that it opened the door to separating socialism from the self emancipation of the working class.
The bureaucratic collectivist position was first developed within the Trotskyist movement (particularly by the American, Max Schachtman) in opposition to the workers’ state view, but has subsequently been adopted by various academics. It rejects the idea that state ownership equals socialism or a workers’ state, but accepts the idea that state ownership means the abolition of capitalism. It maintains that Russia represented a new form of class society, with a new ruling class. Unfortunately the advocates of this theory have not been able to identify clearly the economic dynamic of this new mode of production or its position in historical development. This has produced confusion as to whether ‘bureaucratic collectivist’ societies were more or less progressive than capitalism and has led many its supporters to move to the right, including support for US imperialism, on the grounds that Stalinism was worse than capitalism.
The designation of Stalinist Russia as state capitalist seems to have been there from the beginning among some Trotskyists and other oppositionists, but the most coherent theory of state capitalism was developed in the late 1940s by Tony Cliff, founder of the International Socialist Tendency. Cliff’s point of departure was that if Stalinism had brought socialism or workers’ states to Eastern Europe (and North Korea) – by means of the Red Army and without workers’ revolutions – then Marx’s fundamental ideas on the revolutionary role of the working class would have to be abandoned. Faced with the choice between the state property criterion and the self emancipation of the working class, between socialism from above and socialism from below, Cliff opted decisively for the latter.
This led him to look beyond property relations as such to the actual relations of production underlying forms of property. Where state property was concerned Cliff argued that it had existed in many different societies and that the real question for Marxists was which class owned or controlled the state. He then showed, through detailed analysis, that the real relations of production in the Soviet economy, were capitalist relations: the control of the means of production by a small minority, with the large majority forced to live by the sale of their labour power and be exploited in the process.
Cliff also showed that once Stalinist Russia was seen in the context of the world economy rather than in isolation the idea that it was basically a planned economy was false. When the Stalinist bureaucracy opted for ‘socialism in one country’ it committed itself, in fact, to competition with western capitalism on capitalism’s terms, i.e. the accumulation of capital, and thus to the ruthless subordination of living labour (the workers) to dead labour (capital) – precisely the fundamental characteristic of capitalism as analysed by Marx in the Communist Manifesto and Capital.
The theory of state capitalism was not only the theory that accorded best with the Marxism of Marx, but it was also the position that best stood the test of time and events. The fall of communism in 1989-91 proved that far from constituting a superior, more progressive mode of production the so-called socialist countries had lost their economic competition with the west. It showed that the working class not only did not control these states, but also felt no allegiance to them. Finally the way the old Stalinist bureaucrats simply ‘moved sideways’ from state to private ownership, without, in most cases, losing power proved there was no fundamental, i.e. class, difference between the two systems.
The theory of state capitalism is thus a hugely important development of Marxism, essential for understanding the world in the 20th and 21st centuries and for continuing the struggle to change it.
25 May 2007
Sunday, May 20, 2007
KOREA COLUMN 22
Russia: What Went Wrong?
The Russian Revolution of 1917 was the world’s first successful socialist revolution. It proved that the working class was capable taking power even when it was a still a minority in society. It also showed the world the form of political organisation, the workers’ council or soviet, through which the working class could actually run society.
But if we look at Russia twenty years later, in 1937, we see a society which, with the exception of being dominated by state rather than private property, is completely at odds both with the conception of socialism held by Marx and with the aims of the 1917 Revolution.
It is a society ruled by an absolute dictator, Stalin, with the aid of a vast apparatus of secret police. It is a society in which freedom, debate, and democracy are non- existent and where the slightest dissent is punishable by imprisonment or death. The working class live in grim poverty forced to work long hours for low wages, without even real trades unions to defend them. Many of the peasants have recently endured famine and starvation. Inequality, having been massively reduced by the Revolution, is now increasing rapidly as the new rulers, managers, bureaucrats etc. enrich themselves and the preaching of equality is an offence against the state.
So what went wrong? Obviously a great deal hangs on the answer to this question, not least the possibility of making a convincing case for socialist revolution now, in the twenty first century. Before setting out our own views on this issue let us begin by considering some of the other answers that have been put forward.
There are two major groups who, basically, deny that anything went wrong - the western ruling classes (and their ideologists) and the Stalinists themselves. The western bourgeois view is that since working people are inherently incapable of running society, all talk of workers’ power, freedom and equality is a pipedream, and dictatorship and tyranny is either the conscious aim, or at least the inevitable outcome, of any attempt to create a socialist society. The Stalinist view is (or mainly was) that the Soviet Union in the thirties was a true embodiment of socialism and of the ideas of Marx and Lenin and that all talk of tyranny and a police state is bourgeois propaganda.
The bourgeois view is based on a) prejudice against the working class, and b) ignorance of socialist and Marxist ideas. I shall not answer it further here, as every word of this series of columns, from first to last, is an answer. The Stalinist view is based on either ignorance or denial of the facts. It has been refuted by a mountain of evidence and eyewitness testimony, including from genuine revolutionaries (see for example the memoirs of Victor Serge) and, above all, by history. If Russia, or the other so-called socialist countries of Eastern Europe, had really been the promised land for working people, it is inconceivable that these regimes could have been overthrown as they were in 1989-91, without the working class lifting a finger in their defence.
From those who recognise that a problem exists the main focus has been on the character and ideology of Russia’s political leaders – Stalin, Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. In 1956, Khrushchev, in his ‘Secret Speech’ to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, denounced the crimes of the Stalin era. He blamed the ‘cult of personality’ that developed around Stalin and the latter’s sadistic character. Both the cult and the sadism were facts but the weakness of this as an explanation is obvious: why was the cult developed and why did the Communist Party install and sustain a sadistic monster as its leader?
The main explanation favoured by western academics has stressed the role of Leninism and Bolshevism. It was, the argument goes, the totalitarian character of Lenin as an individual and of Leninism as an ideology, both embodied in the totalitarian Bolshevik Party, that led, more or less inevitably, to the excesses of Stalinism. This view has to ignore or discount important historical facts such as the extremely democratic character of the Bolshevik Party, before, during and immediately after the Revolution, and Stalin’s need, in order to establish his regime, to physically eliminate virtually the entire Bolshevik old guard. *
However, all these explanations suffer from a deeper flaw. They are all versions of what might be called the bourgeois ‘great man’ theory of history, which sees the course of history as shaped, first and foremost, by the ideas and deeds of the tiny minority at the top (usually kings, generals etc. but in this case Marxist theorists and activists). In reality history is shaped primarily by the struggle between classes, which in turn is conditioned by the development of the forces and relations of production, and this historical materialist approach should be applied to the fate of the Russian Revolution just as much as to the rest of world history.
The real question, therefore, is how did the working class who took power in October 1917 then come to lose it again? Once this is established as the core question the main answers are not hard to find.
First the backwardness of Russian economic development, compared to Europe and North America, and consequently the relatively small size of its urban proletariat. This was not in itself decisive (or October 1917 would have been impossible) but it weakened the position of the working class from the start.
Second the utter devastation of the Russian economy in the Civil War of 1918-21 which followed the Revolution and which was imposed on Russia by Western imperialist intervention. The scale of this devastation is hard to grasp: large scale industrial production fell to 21% of its 1913 level, factories closed, transport ceased to function, epidemics of cholera and TB raged and there was widespread famine. Above all this destroyed the economic foundations of the working class. Added to this was the slaughter of a large proportion of the most advanced workers in the Civil War. By 1921 the class, which took power in 1917, had virtually ceased to exist and was no longer able to assert its collective will over society. In the absence of the working class another social force had to take control. Normally it would have been the aristocracy or bourgeoisie, but they had been expropriated and driven out, consequently it was the bureaucracy, of the state and the party which came to the fore, more and more freeing itself from popular control.
Finally, the isolation of Russian Revolution, its failure to spread internationally. This was a very close run thing, especially in Germany, but the effect was to deprive the Revolution of the aid needed to restore the economy and renew and refresh the working class, and to put Russia under immense economic and military pressure from western capitalism.
It was the interaction of these real material factors, not human nature or the alleged defects of Marxist or Leninist ideology, that sealed the fate of the Russian Revolution and produced the phenomenon of Stalinism. The precise nature of that phenomenon will be discussed in the next in this series.
* The claimed ‘textual basis’ of this argument in Lenin’s What is To Be Done? has recently been meticulously refuted by the US scholar Lars T. Lih in his book Lenin Rediscovered – sadly it is very large and very expensive.
11 May 2007