Thursday January 10 2013

USSR polemic: In defence of defencism

The Soviet Union did indeed feature a form a form of planning, argues Jim Creegan in his reply to Paul Flewers

First five-year plan ... and supposedly done in four

Few disputes within the anti-Stalinist left over the nature of the Soviet Union or kindred states revolved around either the facts or the remedy. All parties - Trotsky foremost among them - held that Stalinism was the authoritarian rule of a party-state. All acknowledged the bureaucracy’s material privileges, its cynical betrayals of revolutions abroad, the brutality of collectivisation and the great purges, and the gross inefficiencies of Soviet planning. None (with the possible exception of Isaac Deutscher) denied that the bureaucracy could be removed only by force, and that genuine institutions of workers’ democracy and socialist planning would differ vastly from the rigidly hierarchical structures they would replace. That Trotsky was not aware of the full enormity of Stalin’s crimes does not change any of his essential conclusions.

There was, however, no place for Stalinism in the historical progression Marxists envisioned: workers’ revolution, followed by proletarian dictatorship, leading to socialism. This was the nub of the theoretical dilemma Stalinism presented. Trotsky argued that the first major faction of his movement to abandon Soviet defencism - the Burnham-Shachtman group of 1940 - was deficient precisely because it failed to answer the all-important question of Stalinism’s place in history. The label the group eventually affixed to the Soviet regime - bureaucratic collectivism - was a description, not a theory.

Barring stronger evidence to the contrary (to which he remained open), Trotsky continued to view Stalinism as an “abhorrent relapse” from proletarian revolution. Being a degeneration-product of the October revolution, the Stalinist ruling caste lacked any historical bona fides of its own. Its urge to constitute itself a ruling class was held in check by the objective conditions under which it ruled. Willy-nilly, the bureaucracy found itself the custodian of the state-held property brought into being by the revolution, which it was forced to defend if only to preserve its privileged position. But its elite status made it fearful of the masses. It defended collectivised property with bureaucratic methods that may have achieved their aim in the short run, but in the long run were bound to fail. The USSR therefore remained a workers’ state not merely because of its revolutionary origins, but also because its survival could only be assured by a renewal of workers’ democracy.

In the best case, Stalinism would prove in the end to be no more than an episodic detour on a historical trajectory with socialism as its end point; in the more pessimistic variant, it would succumb to capitalism. However, capitalist restoration would signal the complete defeat of the October revolution; on the other hand, a society based upon the expropriation of the old ruling classes and state ownership of the means of production still contained the possibility of socialist regeneration. It represented a historical step, however halting and provisional, away from an economy governed by laws that defied conscious intervention, and toward the insertion of human agency into economic life: ie, in the direction of socialism. It should therefore be defended against the imperialist powers and their domestic allies in their attempts to re-establish the sway of blind market forces.

The gains of the Russian Revolution could only be preserved and enlarged by a resurgent working class. Everything ultimately depended upon the revolutionary capacities of the proletariat, both within the Soviet Union and internationally. Hence, Trotsky’s final writings on the Russian question - his polemics against Burnham and Shachtman during the last months of his life - were aptly titled not In defence of the Soviet Union, but In defence of Marxism. At stake was not merely the USSR, but the entire reading of the post-World War I period as one of revolution and the transition to socialism, and the ability of the working class as a revolutionary agent.

More complicated

The theoretical picture was complicated by the appearance of states similar in structure to the USSR, but born neither in workers’ revolution nor introduced, as in eastern Europe, on the turrets of Soviet tanks. The Chinese and Cuban revolutions were led by the same nationalist, modernising, petty bourgeois layers that existed in almost all colonial and semi-colonial countries. But these revolutions were not simply on a continuum with other bourgeois-nationalist takeovers in the third world, as argued recently, for instance, by Neil Davidson in How revolutionary were the bourgeois revolutions? Bourgeois-nationalist regimes came to power without any massive disruptions to the existing social order. Nationalisations conducted in places like Mexico, Algeria and Egypt were on the whole bourgeois and imperialist-friendly. Compensation was paid; former owners were commonly invited to run newly nationalised enterprises, and could still make cash derived from compensation or official corruption function as capital in national and international markets.

The Chinese, Vietnamese and Cuban revolutions, on the other hand, were led by petty bourgeois elements that had severed their ties to their class of origin to place themselves at the head of peasant guerrilla armies, which, upon coming to power, wound up expropriating the bourgeoisie without compensation and driving most of them into exile. Links with international capital were severed. These revolutions were led by communist parties that were Soviet-aligned to begin with, or, in Castro’s case, were forced to turn to the USSR in order to survive. They were drawn to the Soviet economic model both ideologically and under pressure exerted through Soviet aid.

The privileged strata that all these societies threw up were, like the Soviet elite, unable to become the owners of capital. Their material privileges were restricted to the sphere of use-value consumption, and they were constrained by the fact that, due to the egalitarian ideology in whose name they ruled, their prerogatives were never fortified by official legal sanction.

Thus, contrary to Trotsky’s prediction that the fate of the USSR would be decided by whether or not World War II ended in new workers’ revolutions, the Soviet Union survived and the post-war period saw an extension of the Soviet model, either as a result of Red Army conquest or revolutionary upheaval in societies of belated development. Because these states were not brought into being by proletarian agency, the appellation, ‘workers’ state’, which orthodox Trotskyists clung to, became much more problematic. Yet the conundrum of how these states fit into the Marxist theory of history persisted.

One solution, entertained by Trotsky in In defence of Marxism and adopted by James Burnham in The managerial revolution - that the Soviet bureaucracy, the New Deal and fascism represented the global rise of a new managerial ruling class - was discredited by events. Tony Cliff and others, by distorting Marxian concepts beyond recognition in this writer’s opinion, argue that these states represented a variant of capitalism.

A new answer

In his recent review of The degenerated revolution by Workers Power, Paul Flewers offers yet a third solution (‘Sticking with old dogmas that have failed time and again’ Weekly Worker November 29 2012). He asserts that state ownership represented “a temporary process of non-capitalist national modernisation that would enable the Soviet and Chinese elites to build up their societies … so that they could at some point rejoin the capitalist world”. Flewers continues: “… 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 … it would historically be compelled to do.”

Yet, in Flewers’ telling, this bureaucratic deus ex machina, which appears on the historical stage to do the work of “failed ruling classes” and suspends the law of value before ultimately liquidating itself into the international bourgeoisie, is a self-contradictory creature. On the one hand, Flewers acknowledges that the Soviet system was too impermanent to constitute a mode of production in its own right. He is, for this reason, careful to avoid characterising the nomenklatura as a ruling class (which only a mode of production can contain in Marxist theory), instead referring to it as a “ruling elite”. On the other hand, however, Flewers calls this elite “fully-fledged”, writes that “the bureaucracy was an ‘indispensable part’ of the Soviet socio-economic formation”, and speaks of the “property relations” established as a result of the first five-year plan. But is there any other term in the Marxist vocabulary for a “fully-fledged”, “indispensable” ruling group, basing itself on a characteristic set of property relations than ‘social class’? And is there any “socio-economic formation” to which classes belong other than a mode of production: ie, a durable way of economic life that defines entire historical epochs?

Flewers also takes issue with any description of the USSR as a planned economy. He argues that the system was “planless” and a “dysfunctional mess”, and points out that production targets were seldom met. Yet further on we read: “… these countries [the USSR and China] 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.” Here we have the paradox of “planless” economies appearing, in the wider historical frame, to have achieved the essential objectives of the planning process.


I submit that the Soviet economy did represent an attempt at economic planning on a vast scale, no matter how ineptly or brutally plans were carried out. Moreover, it was precisely the role of bureaucrats as planners that prevented them from consolidating themselves into a new ruling class.

Any state apparatus that concentrated in itself control over all aspects of economic life must, in the nature of the case, have devoted most of its activity to providing for the needs of society as a whole. The amount of use-values the bureaucracy could pilfer, or the amount of social labour it could direct towards the production of luxuries for its own consumption, must, in an economy of the magnitude of the USSR, have been limited to a small fraction of the total product and labour of that society. Despite the fact that the enjoyment and maintenance of the bureaucrat’s material privileges were no doubt his or her chief subjective motive, this motive contradicted rather than reinforced his/her function as an initiator or executor of the plan. This tension between motive and function meant that the bureaucrat prospered at the expense of the plan, and that the plan was undermined by the avarice and indifference of the bureaucrat, and indeed of workers themselves. Only by restoring private property in the means of production could the motives and function of the elite be brought into alignment.

But could this contradiction have been resolved only through capitalist restoration, which Flewers appears to argue was somehow foreordained, at least from the launching of the first-five year plan in 1928? At the heart of Trotsky’s Soviet defencist position was the belief that another resolution was conceivable. Trotsky held out the possibility that a resurgent Soviet proletariat could have forcibly removed the bureaucracy from power and reinfused the planning process with the spirit of workers’ democracy and voluntary collective discipline. This outcome depended in part upon developments beyond the borders of the USSR. A new revolutionary outbreak somewhere else in the world would probably have been necessary to give the impetus to Soviet workers. And, in the final reckoning, only massive aid from revolutionary regimes in the advanced countries could have spared the Soviet working class from the extreme scarcity that makes a recrudescence of class stratification inevitable.

But - Flewers and others will be quick to object - would not such democratic socialist planning have been so different in quality from bureaucratic commandism as to qualify the upheaval introducing it as a social revolution (a fundamental social change), rather than the merely political revolution (the ouster of the ruling group) that Trotsky called for? In In defence of Marxism, Trotsky was willing to concede this point. Call it a social revolution if you like, he says in reply Ciliga, Bruno and others. Terminological preferences do not answer the fundamental, practical question that would have confronted the Soviet workers after having settled accounts with their Stalinist taskmasters. Should they retain state control over the major levers of economic life through a newly democratised workers’ state, or should they, in accordance with the wishes and designs of capitalist classes the world over, permit the economy to revert to private hands? Trotsky urged the former course. And as long as the Soviet economy contained elements that would give the working class this choice - which they would not have had under capitalism restored - Trotsky considered the USSR worth defending when the property regime was at stake.

Forward, sideways or backward?

Along with the Socialist Workers Party, Flewers may regard the capitalist restoration that has taken place in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, and is now unwinding in slow motion in China, as a forward historical step. Or he may, like others still, view it as a lateral movement, neutral with regard to progress or regression. Yet, while fully acknowledging how dreary and stifling daily life was in the Soviet bloc as compared to the west, I would argue that Trotsky’s reasoning was basically sound: that the replacement of a hybrid economy in which inequality had not yet congealed into a class system, and elements of conscious planning existed, by an entrenched class order governed by economic laws more powerful than human purposes, is, by any yardstick of progress we Marxists hold, a step backward; and further that this backward movement was only destined to occur, as Flewers argues it was, to the extent that the global defeat of the working class that took place over the last several decades was also inevitable.

With the incomparable advantage of hindsight, we can now see that the fundamental error in Trotsky’s thinking was not mainly in his analysis of the USSR, but in his reading of the historical period in which he lived. He believed, in keeping with the Bolsheviks of 1917 and not at all unreasonably for his time, that capitalism had exhausted its ability to develop human productive forces, and that proletarian revolution was the only means of saving society from decline and catastrophe. The post-war boom in western countries postponed such a final reckoning, however. The trente glorieuses (1945-75), in fact, saw a greater economic expansion in the countries of advanced capitalism than had occurred in any place in any period of comparable length in human history. And when the ‘golden age’ began to wane in the mid-70s, capitalist classes throughout the world, led by the British and Americans, responded with a mounting offensive that continues to this day. It decimated industrial workers in the west, broke the power of unions, slashed wages, undermined the welfare state and insinuated the logic of the market into every pore of social life.

On the international front, US imperialism won the biggest prize of all: victory in the cold war and the re-establishment of private property in the eastern lands. It is true that the Soviet Union did not fall due to western pressure alone. From the 1960s on its economy experienced declining growth rates - an inevitable development once technology-intensive, rather than the older labour-intensive production methods, were required to compete on a global scale. But the United States under Carter and Reagan deliberately pushed Soviet stagnation to crisis levels - by goading the Russians into intervening in Afghanistan and threatening them with a new arms race in outer space (‘Star Wars’).

It was partly due to the launching of the second cold war that large sections of the Soviet elite (but by no means all of it, as Flewers seems to suggest), and indeed - at least in the Polish case - broad swathes of the working class itself, were driven to the conclusion that their future lay with the west. This outcome was not the preordained product of economic deceleration. A more favourable balance of class forces internationally could have led to an outcome more in keeping with Trotsky’s optimistic scenario. Things turned out as they did because the capitalist class captured the initiative on all fronts.

The undeniable success of the neoliberal offensive can leave no doubt that we stand today in a much less favourable historical place than the one Trotsky thought he occupied circa 1940. The young Marx wrote that ideas can themselves become a material force once they have gripped the masses. Conversely, it can be said that the absence of mobilising ideas can deprive the masses of a critical weapon in their struggles. Today, as capitalism’s neoliberal fix wears off, signs multiply that the masses are beginning to fight back. But they do so with an implicit awareness that the industrial working class of the west did not rise to the historical role classical Marxism assigned to it, and - while few held up the Soviet Union as any kind of model - that all major attempts to reconstruct society along non-capitalist lines have gone down to defeat. They thus react against growing attacks without the faith in the socialist future that once gave millions confidence.

Restoring that faith is part of our job as Marxists. But only by acknowledging the defeats of the recent past -and facing up to the theoretical difficulties they present - can Marxists hope to overcome them.

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