Marxism and Chaos Theory

James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science, Minerva, 1997. Paperback, 400pp, £7.99

Reviewed by Alan Smith

DEFENDERS OF the market economy would have us believe that they have solved the problems that give rise to class struggle and that socialism is now officially dead. Relatively recent events such as "Black Monday" when billions of dollars were wiped off share prices, and the collapse of major merchant banks, would suggest otherwise. Periodic crises have always been a feature of the capitalist system and a lasting solution giving rise to sustainable growth has so far eluded capitalist economists. Widespread use of modern communications and computer systems has made possible a big increase in the rate of circulation of money and has created the appearance of a more efficient and dynamic system, but the recent events cannot be put down to a mere computer glitch. That such events came as a surprise to both capitalists and socialists alike, suggests a degree of systematic complexity that is not fully understood by either.

Recent developments in the analysis of complex dynamic physical systems can help illuminate this socio-economic complexity. For a popular exposition of what has now been called "chaos theory", one could do no better that read the book Chaos (Making a New Science) by James Gleick. The diverse studies leading to the development of the theory are described; the computer simulations of weather patterns which produced the Lorenz attractor, a graphical representation in three dimensions showing that the weather patternsnever exactly repeat themselves; the use of topology to understand these patterns; the population growth models of Robert May; experiments in fluid dynamics using a liquid helium convection cell; Mandelbrot’s study of cotton prices. Later it describes how Mandelbrot went on to produce the fullest mathematical expression of chaos, the Mandelbrot set best known for the infinitely complex graphical depiction of fractals and finally the discovery by Feigenbaum of the universality of chaos, cutting across all established scientific boundaries.

As always in the nature of the development of scientific knowledge, a new theory became necessary because the existing models of complex systems no longer accurately reflected scientifically-observable laws of motion in the real world. Digital computers employing numerical methods provided the resolution needed to observe the changes in a system that occurred when parameters were varied. May discovered that with his non-linear population growth model the stability of a population is dependent upon a parameter which described the ability of the ecological system to support a growing population. This he called its "boom-and-bustiness". When the parameter is low the population becomes extinct. When the parameter rises, so does the equilibrium level of the population. On increasing further the population oscillates between two different levels on alternate years. Further still, a second component of the oscillation appears at double the frequency and so on until the system passes into a chaotic region where the variation in population appears totally erratic. On closer scrutiny this apparently random behaviour on the surface reveals a complex combination of all of the oscillations. The term used to describe the degree of complexity of a system is the fractal. The Mandelbrot set is a graphical generalisation of fractals.

An interesting aspect of the book is Gleick’s account of the historical development of the chaos school of thought in spite of the reluctance of scientific establishment to accept the new ideas. The notion that mathematics is pure knowledge and not just a means of modelling the real world apparently lingers on. This blinkered view is reminiscent of the early empiricists of the 17th century at the time of Newton, based on metaphysical thought. What Gleick refers to as a "revolution" was required for the theory to be accepted. A general acceptance of the theory has now taken place as more after-evidence has come came to light to support the theory in one scientific field after another, from fluid dynamics to ecology.

Socialists should contribute to, and learn from, debates concerning the development of scientific method, as did Marx and Engels with their application of the dialectical method to the scientific controversies of their day. We have an interest in using any available tool that betters our understanding of the world and in particular the terminal crisis of capitalism. We also have a duty to test out new theories that claim, like chaos, to be universal in their application. One science only briefly mentioned in Gleick’s account and one deserving greater attention was that of economics. Capitalism is a system which amply demonstrates the tendency of systems towards chaos, and perhaps a more detailed study would have been too revealing to include in a best seller. Socialists, however, have nothing to fear from exposing the fundamental contradictions of the market system. If the drive to increase the rate of profit is pushing capitalism deeper into chaos, socialists need to understand the consequences so that we can understand and confront capitalism before it destroys us.

China and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

Gregor Benton, ed, An Oppositionist for Life: Memoirs of the Chinese Revolutionary Zheng Chaolin, Humanities Press, 1997. Paperback, 330pp., £12.95.

Reviewed by Jack Bernard

With the partial exception of Joseph Hansen’s analysis of the emergence of the Cuban workers’ state in the early 1960s, it appears to me that there is little in the theory and practice of Western "Trotskyism" that justifies the label: Marxism. The same, I believe, does not apply to Chinese Trotskyism, in particular, it does not apply to this book by Zheng Chaolin. Though this autobiography was not intended as, and indeed is not, a theoretical work, it nevertheless contains invaluable perceptions. For a Marxist, this book is a must.

In the final chapter, written much later (1990) than those preceding it, Chaolin writes: "It is a matter for rejoicing that now I celebrate my ninetieth birthday, important events are taking place in the world that show who was right and who was wrong in the greatest debate of the century. I mean the great debate about whether socialism can be built in a single country."

The "theory" of socialism in one country arose as a counter to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. But if this central plank of Stalinist ideology has now been shown by events to be wrong, this does not prove that Trotsky’s theory is right. Indeed, it is time to review the theory of permanent revolution in order to determine not simply whether it won the debate with "socialism in one country", but whether it is an adequate theory for explaining the history of the twentieth century and therefore a guide to the next.

Though the Chinese Communist Party began as a proletarian party, by the time that it finally seized state power at a national level it had long been a peasant party. It now appears certain that the Chinese workers’ state has undergone a transition into a state of a fundamentally and irreconcilably different class character, i.e. from a workers’ state into a bourgeois state.

Incidentally, it also appears that this process probably took place earlier than the analogous process in the USSR. In an article in What Next? No.1, I dated the latter to the period 1985-90.

But if Chinese society in, say, the 1960s was not a dictatorship of the proletariat then what was it? Just as Lenin had, according to Trotsky, characterised both "the epoch of dual power" and "the first period of Soviet power from November 1917 until July 1918" as partial realisations of the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry (democratic dictatorship), i.e. of the formula that Lenin finally broke with in April 1917, we must, I believe, adopt a similar characterisation of the social regime established in China in the early 1950s.

It is essential to reject the ill-informed tradition of dogmatic "Trotskyism" with its absolute denial of any possibility of realising a democratic dictatorship. Trotsky, for instance, believed otherwise and wrote in The Permanent Revolution: "A democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, as a regime that is distinguished from the dictatorship of the proletariat by its class content, might be realized only in a case where an independent revolutionary party could be constituted, expressing the interests of the peasants and in general of petty-bourgeois democracy – a party capable of conquering power with this or that degree of aid from the proletariat, and of determining its revolutionary program." Written in 1929, this is not a bad characterisation of the regime established in early 1950s China.

But whilst acknowledging the theoretical possibility of the realisation of a democratic dictatorship, Trotsky, however, continued by arguing that, just as it had not been realised in Russia, i.e. had only been partially realised, the democratic dictatorship would also not be realised in China:

"As all modern history attests – especially the Russian experience of the last twenty-five years [1904-29] – an insurmountable obstacle on the road to the creation of a peasants’ party is the petty bourgeoisie’s lack of economic and political independence and its deep internal differentiation. By reason of this the upper sections of the petty bourgeoisie (of the peasantry) go along with the big bourgeoisie in all decisive cases, especially in war and in revolution; the lower sections go along with the proletariat; the intermediate section being thus compelled to choose between the two extreme poles. Between Kerenskyism and the Bolshevik power, between the Guomindang and the dictatorship of the proletariat, there is not and cannot be any intermediate stage, that is, no democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants."

Though Chaolin in his memoirs appears to follow this orthodoxy, he however, unwittingly gives an important clue that helps to explain why reality turned out differently to Trotsky’s prognosis, i.e. why a "democratic dictatorship" was realised in early 1950s China. Chaolin observed that: "The big and middle landlords in China were inextricably connected to the urban bourgeoisie. So land revolution in China [in 1925-27] was intrinsically anti-capitalist in nature."

Here there was a difference with the land revolutions of 1905 and 1917 in Russia. The latter were aimed against semi-feudal remnants in agriculture and against the rural landlords that maintained them. Thus in China there existed the possibility of a peasant party leading a revolution against the big landowning urban capitalists – a possibility that was later to be actually realised in the social revolution of late 1940s and the early ’50s.

The editors of the 1932-33 volume of the Writings of Leon Trotsky – George Breitman and Sarah Lovell – claim in their notes to this particular volume that the term "workers’ state" is a "more modern substitute" for the term "dictatorship of the proletariat". This is not so. Whereas a workers’ state can be established by, for example, peasant revolution or bureaucratic edict, a dictatorship of the proletariat can only be established by the active participation of the urban proletariat itself. The concept of dictatorship of the proletariat implies more than simply the holding of state power.

As far as I know, it was in his October 1933 article "The Class Nature of the Soviet State", that Trotsky first presented his clarification on this point. It constitutes a correction, a development of Marxism, and therefore part of Trotsky’s important contribution to Marxism. Whilst maintaining that the Paris Commune was the first, albeit short-lived, workers’ state, Trotsky audaciously, but politely, corrected his great teachers by arguing: "If Marx and Engels called the Paris Commune ’the dictatorship of the proletariat’ it was only because of the force of the possibilities lodged in it. But by itself the Commune was not yet the dictatorship of the proletariat."

This new and more precise conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat meant that it was not simply necessary that their existed a dominant political power intent on guarding and defending a character of production and property relations that were in the interests of the proletariat rather than those of the bourgeoisie (regardless of whether these relations had yet been brought into being). To establish a dictatorship of the proletariat it is necessary, in addition, for the these production and property relations to actually be brought into being and for the proletariat to establish its control over the legal and political superstructure that rests on this base and which, among other things, governs the production and property relations, in other words, for the proletariat to establish its social dictatorship as a class.

It has only been in the heartland of the Russian revolution that a real dictatorship of the proletariat has ever existed – it has not existed in any other revolution in history. This important fact must at all times be borne in mind when reviewing the process of permanent revolution in the post-second-world-war period. The Chinese revolution, for instance, though it established a workers’ state, did not establish a dictatorship of the proletariat.

Personally, I gained much from Chaolin’s brief explanation of "national revolution" as a component part of the "democratic revolution". It is a tragedy born of philistinism that so many of today’s "Trotskyists" reduce the national question, as revealed in the collapse of the USSR and Yugoslavia, to the cause of petty-bourgeois "freedom" of the individual nations expressed in the implicit and unrealisable idea of "one nation, one state".

If, for the colonial or semi-colonial countries of the twentieth century, the national struggle has consisted of the "country" as a whole uniting against imperialism, surely it is all too clear that a major component of the counter-revolution in the USSR and Yugoslavia is an un-resolving of the national question – Balkanisation in the interests of world imperialism? A similar process now threatens China.

In his theory of permanent revolution, Trotsky never claimed that a workers’ state could solve the tasks of the democratic revolution. Far from it. Trotsky’s theory was based on the premise that under imperialism there exists only one truly revolutionary class, not the "working class" as many would like it, but the urban proletariat: "With regard to countries with a belated bourgeois development, especially the colonial and semi-colonial countries, the theory of the permanent revolution signifies that the complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leader of the subjugated nation, above all of its peasant masses."

The Chinese revolution, because the urban proletariat played far less of a role than in the Russian revolution, particularly challenged Trotsky’s theory, but, as it becomes more clear, with no success.

As I have said, Chaolin, in writing his memoirs, did not set out primarily to write a theoretical work; but it is precisely his first-hand observations as a genuine Marxist, and his extremely sound theoretical conceptions, that make his writings so valuable as an aid to understanding the rise and fall of the Chinese workers’ state and the fortunes of permanent revolution.