A Critical Attempt to Defend Revolutionary Marxism: A Reply to Mike Jones
From New Interventions, Vol.3 No.4, 1993
To his credit Mike Jones [‘A Critical Attempt to Evaluate Trotskyism’, New Interventions, Vol.3 No.3] is not rejoicing at the current, temporary, victories of the capitalists. But as he correctly states these events have by-passed Trotskyism. Nowhere have Trotskyist-led workers overthrown the Stalinist bureaucracies in political revolutions, and nowhere have significantly sized Trotskyist groups grown on the wreckage of the old order. Mike contests that this is due to the theoretical legacy of Trotsky, a legacy that he rejects, but in favour of what remains somewhat obscure. However, I will argue that despite some correct observations Mike’s thesis is fatally flawed, and that the crisis that he ascribes to Trotskyism is in fact a crisis of his own Marxism.
The task that lies ahead of us is a great one. If we are to be sure of victory in the future we must begin to re-forge the Trotskyist movement now. The need for a powerful workers’ international body is as great as ever – a genuine Fourth International, made up not of self-proclaimed sects, but of large and powerful Marxist workers’ parties. It is with this perspective that this article is written.
Bolshevism, Trotskyism and the October Revolution
The Bolsheviks underwent a great many changes in the years between 1903 and 1917. The changes reflected the altered material circumstances produced by the ups and downs of the class struggle. This was not an automatic process; on many occasions individuals or groups wanted to maintain the methods of the previous period, sometimes due to a conservative routinism, sometimes as the result of a misjudgement of possibilities. In the 1905 Revolution it was the Bolsheviks who lagged behind the most advanced workers and Trotsky who marched with them. In February 1917 the Bolshevik leadership inside Russia misjudged the signs of the coming revolution, and leaders like Kamenev, Zinoviev and Stalin began moving towards the Mensheviks and conciliation with the bourgeoisie. Lenin himself had held a mistaken view of whether or not a proletarian revolution was possible in his concept of a workers’ and peasants’ revolution that would achieve a democratic bourgeois regime, a position negated theoretically with his ‘Letters From Afar’ and ‘April Theses’ and negated in practice in October. The Bolsheviks therefore were certainly not in a position of having a monopoly of wisdom! But they did have something that Trotsky took time to understand and Mike mistakenly rejects: a theory of organisation in the form of a vanguard party that when it became combined with a correct political programme led to discipline and strength, the qualities that are the absolute prerequisites for a successful proletarian revolution.
What did this mean in practice? Mike thinks that this organisational quality of the Bolsheviks was responsible for preventing a ‘genuine’ workers’ revolution and for the development of a supposedly almost immediate dictatorship of the Bolsheviks over the workers. These are very old and tired accusations. Indeed Mike has yet to say anything that has not already been said by the likes of Karl Kautsky. No matter, a few old facts will be enough to counter them.
By October 1917 Lenin had moved a long way from his conceptions in What Is To Be Done? His ideas were re-forged in 1905 by the spontaneity of the revolutionary actions of the masses, no longer would he claim that revolutionary ideas could only come to workers from without. He harshly criticised the inertia of many Bolsheviks and the negative attitude they showed towards the newly formed Soviets because they had not adopted a Bolshevik programme (some, like Bogdanov, even believed that the Soviets would become an anti-socialist force). When some Bolsheviks claimed authority for their actions in the pages of What Is To Be Done? Lenin replied by wanting all the ‘functions, rights and privileges’ of these committee men ‘sent to the devil’, and that the Party gates be opened wide so that militant workers could swamp the power of these cadre, the backbone of the Bolsheviks’ illegal organisation.
These sentiments were reinforced after February 1917. In the late summer of that year the Bolsheviks were transformed into a mass party of the working class in every sense of the term. At the CC meeting of 16 October Sverdlov was able to report that the party ‘has grown on a gigantic scale; it can be estimated that it now encompasses no fewer that 400,000’. Even if this figure is passed off as an exaggeration it is beyond question that the Bolsheviks had at least a quarter of a million members by October, a massive rise from the 23,600 members reported for the previous February. Add to this the fact that the industrial proletariat was of a relatively small size in Russia, then it is clear that the percentage of workers who actively supported the Bolsheviks was enormous. This expansion was not simply in the lower bodies, however; the party hierarchy was also strengthened by many who came from groups previously outside Lenin’s organisation. Trotsky and his ‘interdistrict’ group, people like Kollontai from the Mensheviks and former Bolshevik ‘dissidents’ who had either left or had been expelled in previous periods. All together these amounted to significant numbers in the Bolshevik leadership who had previously been in opposition to Lenin. This far reaching process quantitatively and qualitatively transformed the Bolsheviks into a mass party with a vibrant internal democracy. It is well known that on many occasions Lenin found himself in a minority within the CC, or that the CC had little effective control over many bodies of the party, even in Petrograd and Moscow.
Inside Russia, Mike would have us believe that the degeneration the Bolshevik regime after 1917 was due entirely to inbuilt ideological factors inherent in Bolshevism. The material circumstances that existed – an almost complete breakdown of industry, mass starvation, the killing of the very best workers in the fight against White reaction – all of this is secondary in Mike’s schema. He rejects the Marxist method of dialectical materialism and replaces it by a metaphysical empiricism. According to Mike, therefore, the rise of the power of the bureaucracy was due not to the material circumstances of the failed world revolution and the low economic and cultural level of Russia, but to ideological determinism on the part of nasty Mr Lenin and his Bolshevik dictatorship.
The Marxist Historical Method
Victor Serge responded to the view that Bolshevism led to Stalinism by saying that Bolshevism contained ‘many seeds’, Stalinism included, but only under certain extreme conditions could that particular seed germinate at the expense of the many other seeds present That was a very good assessment, and outlined a process that can be seen as a general law of history, one that I shall describe as the ‘bush approach’. This view sees history not as an inevitable progression from one level to the next, a view known as the ‘Whig approach’ where past events are viewed from the perspective of today’s conditions and other events that are felt not to have made a contribution are ignored or down played (for example, the Whig historian will view the 1688 ‘Glorious Revolution’ as being far more important that the real revolution of 1642-1649), but rather as a dialectical process where a number of different outcomes are possible depending on the relationship between contending classes etc. This dialectical approach should view history in the shape of a great bush where although important events may not have been directly responsible for the present (or surviving stems) they nevertheless represent important growths in their own right.
The Marxist method sees things in their totality, from all sides and angles. Using this method the rise of Stalinist degeneration cannot be separated from the material circumstances of post-Revolution Russia. This is not to dismiss any of the mistakes of the Bolsheviks, or the relatively few acts of unnecessary repression that were carried out by them, but it is to look at the process in a materialistic manner. Using the method of Mike we might as well say that the reactionary seed of Bernstein revisionism was always present in Marx, and that Bernstein was the ‘inevitable’ outcome of Marxist thought. Bernstein after all grew from certain sides of Marx, isolated from the whole, but of course in reality he negated Marxism because the revolutionary core of Marx was lost. As Marxists we can see that the rise of this reformist political aberration that clothed itself in Marxist attire was due in part to the material conditions of Germany that allowed reformists the utopian fancy of being able to work in harmony with the capitalists. In the same manner we can see that Stalinism was a negation of Leninism, as the revolutionary core of Lenin was destroyed. Stalinism was a response to the material poverty of Russia and the psychological exhaustion of the proletariat, both the products of the failed world revolution. There was nothing ‘inevitable’ in this process, unless you see history as a pre-determined straight line drawn from the past to the present. Mike’s methodological errors have inevitably brought him to a position where not only is the political heritage of Lenin and Trotsky rejected, but also the very foundations of the world’s only successful proletarian revolution to date.
The Jacobin Myth
The term ‘Jacobinism’ has a number of different meanings. Its negative use concerns allegations of fanaticism, destructive sectarianism, individualism and cliquism. However the historical record of the Jacobins does not in fact lead to this conclusion. The Jacobins were the vanguard of the French Revolution, enemies of both the old reactionaries and of those moderates who wished to compromise with the old order such as the Girondists. Like Cromwell’s ‘saints’ the Jacobins represented the needs of the Revolution as a whole, not simply their own sectional interests. When seen in this progressive revolutionary sense the term Jacobinism is no longer an insult, rather the description of proletarian Jacobins adequately sums up the Bolsheviks of 1917 as the only party of the Revolution. As Rosa Luxemburg remarked in 1918 in her pamphlet on the Russian Revolution: ‘The real situation in which the Russian Revolution found itself, narrowed down in a few months to the alternative: victory of the counter-revolution or dictatorship of the proletariat – Kaledin or Lenin.’ In this way she could make the correct statement (and it was not an insult) that: ‘The Bolsheviks are the historic heirs of the English Levellers and the French Jacobins.’
In the French Revolution the Jacobin party was destroyed by the Thermidorian reaction, a reaction that had come from the right wing of the Jacobins themselves. The level of productive forces at the time made this particular process an inevitability, the petit-bourgeoisie, supported by the Sans Culottes, were forced by historical limits to make way for the big bourgeoisie and a political counter-revolution. The terror began by the Thermidor can in no way be compared to the terror under the Jacobin dictatorship, a terror directed against the reactionary enemies of the Revolution – primarily the aristocrats. The Thermidorian terror was used against the revolutionaries in order to reverse many of the Revolution’s gains. Only fools like liberal academics could see no difference between the two phases of the Revolution, the first in the ascendancy, the second on the downward curve leading to Bonapartist dictatorship. In the Russian Revolution a similar process took place. Surrounded by enemies and saboteurs the Red terror slowly took shape, always in response to attacks on the fragile Soviet regime. This terror had one objective: to maintain the Soviets in power whilst awaiting help from workers’ revolutions in Europe. Whilst no help came from revolutions in the West this process, like that in the French Revolution, was inevitable – but the level of productive forces in the West meant that with aid that process could have been halted and reversed. As Trotsky wrote in Terrorism and Communism in 1920 against Kautsky and other liberal opponents of the Bolshevik regime who said terror was always wrong:
‘The terror of Tsarism was directed against the proletariat. The gendarmerie of Tsarism throttled the workers who were fighting for the socialist order. Our Extraordinary Commissions shoot landlords, capitalists, and generals who are striving to restore the capitalist order. Do you grasp this ... distinction? Yes? For us communists it is quite sufficient.’
But with the growth of bureaucratic reaction a renewed terror took place. A terror that was used with the purpose not of defending the Revolution, but of defending the Stalinist-led bureaucracy. The Soviet Thermidor was not the inevitable outcome of Leninist ideology, rather it was the outcome of the specific material conditions that had led to the degeneration of the Revolution itself. The Soviet Thermidor, which developed from the early 1920s, prepared the way for the Soviet Bonapartism of Stalinist dictatorship. As in France the Soviet Thermidor was directed against the revolutionists. To claim that Stalin simply carried on where Lenin had left off, albeit with more resolution, is simply not true. Had Lenin still been alive then he too would have ended up in exile or before a firing squad. It is necessary to distinguish the phases of the Revolution correctly. The Soviet Thermidor was the reactionary downward curve, quite separate from the immediate period following the Revolution. For us Trotskyists the distinction is quite sufficient.
Often critics have claimed that this Jacobin vanguardism resulted in the October Revolution being a coup of a narrow elite, and therefore not a genuine workers’ revolution. It is quite clear however that at that period the Bolsheviks were the working class. This was not just due to a mass membership and active allegiance of the Soviets of workers, soldiers and sailors, but also because of the passive support given by other workers and peasants who were pulled behind the lead given by this vanguard, a vanguard who had earned that position and not simply arrived there by self-proclamation as many of today’s sects imagine is possible. Passive (in many areas active) support came from millions of peasants who rightly saw the Bolsheviks as liberators from landlordism, and even if in many areas they gave backing to the Left SRs that party in turn gave support to the Bolsheviks.
Where does this leave the so called ‘inevitability’ of the one-party state? Mike seeks to prove this by saying that it was inherent in the Bolsheviks believing that they represented the real interests of the proletariat. But they would be strange Marxists if they believed anything else! Any Marxist who believes that he or she represents anything less in their actions is either a fool or a renegade. In any case there is nothing in the Bolshevik/Leninist theory that leads to the position Mike proposes. This much is evident from looking at the immediate period after October when the Bolsheviks shared power with the Left SRs and Menshevik Internationalists on the basis of Soviet democracy. Had other revolutionary groups existed that supported the Soviet system (i.e. in practical terms the dictatorship of the proletariat) then we can safely assume that they too would have had access to power. The tragedy of the situation was that through no fault of their own the Bolsheviks were left with few allies in the Soviets. In 1918 in protest at the Brest-Litovsk Peace the Left SRs staged an attempted coup and went on a terrorist rampage of bombing and assassination whilst the Soviet forces were engaged in a life and death struggle with the Whites. Was this the fault of the Bolsheviks? There was no choice other than to suppress the Left SRs in this situation. Likewise many of the anarchists, some of whom had been given responsible posts in the Soviet regime, had to be suppressed when they too began a fight for the overthrow of the Bolsheviks at this time. If the Bolsheviks were ‘inherent Jacobins’ in the way Mike alleges, then why on 26 October was a workers’ democracy of Soviet parties established? Of course there were other parties in existence, but they were all in the camp of White reaction; the Right SR and Right Mensheviks joined almost immediately In the armed attack on the weak workers’ state, other Mensheviks vacillated in confusion – and in areas like the Ukraine, Siberia and the Volga region Menshevik forces actively supported the counter-revolution under the guise of ‘democracy’ or a regional ‘constituent assembly’, a reaction that butchered all Bolshevik workers in those areas and gave full power to White generals who were in the pay of foreign imperialism. Was all this the fault of the Bolsheviks? The civil war almost destroyed the working class and it devastated the economy; the destruction and dislocation of the proletariat was mirrored by degeneration within the Bolsheviks themselves. In 1917 there were around three million workers in Russian industry, by 1921 that number was halved, as was the population of Moscow and Petrograd. It is against this background that the one-party state arose, on a spontaneous rather than a pre-planned basis.
Working Class Democracy and Bolshevik Rule
At this time the party was clearly in a substitutionist role, and the fact was admitted. The proletariat was in a state of exhaustion, and total disintegration seemed near. The economy was wrecked by shortages of raw materials, workers in the cities were starving, the supply of grain ceased and counter-revolution was still a serious threat. The ban was not taken lightly. At a time of serious paper shortages 250,000 copies of the Workers Opposition platform were printed by the government and a long pre-conference discussion took place. It was genuinely believed that the ban would be temporary, and it was made clear that debate would not be stifled in the future. The ban was mistaken, but it is understandable why it was made, especially in light of what alternative the Workers Opposition represented in their fanciful, semi-anarchistic and wholly utopian programme.
Indeed, with discontent amongst many workers the danger of what a split in the Bolsheviks would mean should not be underestimated. The events at Kronstadt showed clearly that however genuine demands were for change, or in the case of the Kronstadters for a ‘third revolution’, the counter-revolutionary forces were willing and able to take advantage of all such manifestations to attack the Soviet regime. That danger was not taken lightly, even by the Workers Opposition who also took up arms against the Kronstadt rebels, realising that they were objective tools for counter-revolution. Victor Serge, no apologist for the Bolsheviks, strongly argued that the situation demanded no other solution than to crush the mutiny. A great many Bolsheviks shed genuine tears for the task they had to carry out, but neither Martov nor the anarchists were in a position to defend the regime from reaction.
Against the accusations that the curtailing of democracy was a deliberate and avoidable policy, compare Serge’s account of the party in 1918, at the time of the fierce debates over the terms of peace with the German imperialists, with its later degeneration, a degeneration not inherent in ideology, but a product of terrible circumstance:
‘This party, so disciplined and so little encumbered by an abstract fetishism for democracy, still in these grave hours respects its norms of internal democracy. It puts its recognised leader in a minority; Lenin’s tremendous personal authority does not hinder the militants in the central committee from standing up to him and energetically maintaining their point of view; the most important question are settled by vote, often by small majorities (a margin of one vote, or seven votes out of fifteen present etc), to which the minorities are willing to defer without abandoning their ideas. Lenin, when in the minority, submits while waiting for events to prove him right, and continues his propaganda without breaking discipline. Even though impassioned, the discussion remains objective. Neither gossip nor intrigue nor personalities play any important part in what is said. The militants talk politics, without trying to wound or discredit the comrades on the opposing side. Since the opposition is never bullied, it shows only the minimum of emotion that one would expect in events of this order, and soon recovers from its rash decisions’. (Year One of the Russian Revolution, Bookmarks edition 1992, p.173.)
Lenin’s Political Heritage and the Cosmopolitan Trotsky
Whilst it is the case that Lenin and Trotsky had different ideological influences and methods of work, this is not enough to explain any ideological tendency within the Bolsheviks that was destined for degeneration, as Mike seems to imply. But even if we agree that the two had some differences of opinion on the Marxist method at certain times, this is meaningless when the Bolsheviks themselves were never a totally homogeneous entity. A great many strands of thought developed, one of the most famous being the theories of Bogdanov, systemised in his ‘tektology’, a theory of a ‘universal science of organisation’. Bogdanov was of course expelled in 1909 because of his political ultra-leftism, but his views continued to be more influential within the party than is normally realised. In fact it is interesting to note that only in the years of reaction after the defeat of 1905, when Bogdanov’s political methods came to the fore, did Lenin use his philosophical views, contained in the volumes on ‘Empirio-Monism’, to launch a political attack on the ‘God-seekers’. Bogdanov never rejoined the party, although he could have done (other supporters of the ‘Forward’ group formed after the expulsions, such as Lunacharsky, went on to be leading members of the Bolshevik Party). Instead he concentrated on educational and cultural matters in aid of the regime after 1917. Many Bolsheviks openly shared his ideas, and his works were in great demand at party schools until the ‘Leninist’ orthodoxy of Stalin had them removed. The influence of Bogdanovism within the Bolsheviks after 1917, and its tolerance by Lenin, hardly fits Mike’s metaphysical notion of Bolshevism.
Other ideological influences were also apparent within the party, but if the majority continued to look to Plekhanov for theoretical inspiration then is this such a bad thing? Plekhanov developed into a bad revolutionist, but as a Marxist theoretician his philosophical views were unsurpassed for a great many years, and still stand out as excellent works on the dialectical materialist method. Let us by all means admit that his political views were dogmatically schematic, that was why he was a Menshevik, home to those mechanical Marxists who believed that backward Russia was only fit for capitalist development and a bourgeois democratic revolution, a revolution in which the proletariat would be cheer-leaders of the middle-class revolutionaries. Let us also admit that Lenin had a similar outlook on the coming revolution’s democratic tasks and limitations (with the important, if theoretically loosely defined, difference that he saw an alliance of workers and peasants carrying out these tasks), but can Mike not see that the October Revolution was a negation of this schema, a schema that Lenin had theoretically negated in the ‘April Theses’?
As to the view of Kautsky’s influence, this in fact is no more spectacular than the fact that Lenin’s prime concern was with Russian politics. Unlike Trotsky he did not have much contact with the European labour movement as an exile, and so therefore the revolutionary phraseology of Kautsky, and his fight against Bernsteinism, was enough to convince Lenin of Kautsky’s revolutionary credentials – unlike Rosa Luxemburg he did not view him ‘up close’. Only with the shock of Kautsky’s betrayal in 1914 did Lenin recognise him for what he was. This was a fault of Lenin’s; Krupskaya often told of how Lenin was too trusting, taking comrades at face value and by their word. But this does not then prove that Lenin was a continuer of the methods of the Second International, nor does it mean that Lenin did not see degeneration developing within the Second International at an early stage (for early and late writings on the subject see ‘Marxism and Revisionism’, 1908, and ‘What Should Not Be Copied From the German Labour Movement’, April 1914).
There is one important ideological influence that was a remnant of Second International ideology, however. That is the fatalist and catastrophist view that capitalism would inevitably break down. Lenin believed that the situation immediately after the war was one of the inevitability of widespread revolutions as capitalism had exhausted itself and could not recover. The first congress of the Communist International also had this underlying belief in its decisions (Bukharin was a leading exponent of this view of capitalist breakdown, see for an example his ‘Platform of the Communist International’, 1919). So was this mistaken position a unique part of Lenin’s heritage? In fact it can hardly be said so, as Trotsky equally held this conviction; such ideas were in reality the reflection of existing objective conditions of severe capitalist crisis and exhaustion from the First World War. Revolution was indeed the order of the day, but in opposition to Marxist expectations all except the Russian failed, leading to a stabilisation of the system. Trotsky would return to this fatalism of the capitalist ‘death agony’ when writing the Transitional Programme. That position was also a reflection of contemporary objective conditions and the theoretical expectations that flowed from them. The position was mistaken, but then the post-war stabilisation and beginnings of the ‘Cold War’ could not have been foreseen or imagined. The tragedy is that for years the epigones of Trotsky maintained a similar position in the face of reality. Organisations like the Healyite WRP turned Trotskyism into a religious dogma by repeating the letter and not the spirit of Trotskyism. But there is a difference between making mistakes based on the Marxist method, as Lenin had done in 1918, or Trotsky had done twenty years later, and rejecting that method altogether. Let us not forget that Marx too made plenty of predictions of the ‘final crisis’ that all proved to be false dawns. These serious mistakes of analysis did not negate the Marxist method.
Internationalism and the Third International
What Is A Workers’ State?
It seems to me that there are two main criteria for examining the issue, firstly, the existence of workers’ power, and secondly, the mode of production. How does the Soviet Union in the years after the Revolution measure up on this basis?
Quite clearly in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution the working class was in the saddle. Political power resided with the workers’ and soldiers’ Soviets and a mass democratic workers’ party. Just like the Paris Commune of 1871 this was an example of a workers’ state. However the economic mode of production had not changed. Lenin described the period as one of ‘state capitalism’, where the capitalists had in many cases not been expropriated and the law of value fully applied to the running of the economy.
During the course of the civil war what was called ‘War Communism’ was introduced. War Communism saw the economic expropriation of the capitalist class to be replaced by state control of industry together with a tight control of the market and a monopoly of foreign trade. War Communism was forced upon the regime by the needs of the fight against the Whites, but many saw it as a fast road to a genuine communist state. This was of course wrong; the NEP of 1921 was the necessary response to virtual collapse of industry due to a lack of raw materials and the mass starvation due to the lack of grain that was able to be seized. The NEP reintroduced the market and many capitalist norms, but not the capitalist class. And yet the sheer devastation of the proletariat during the civil war years had led to a situation where workers no longer directly controlled the state. That control came indirectly through the Bolshevik party. Mike believes that this moment saw the end of the existence of a workers’ state, although he doesn’t say what replaced it. I think he is wrong. There is no question that the regime was in a process of degeneration, but this process could still at this time have been reversed if Russia was rescued by a successful revolution in the West. In any case the capitalists did not regain power, and the ‘Nepmen’ should not be seen as their substitutes.
The USSR never represented a new mode of production as such, as this will only be achieved with the transition to a communist society; but the regime, and the other Stalinist states, did represent a transitional phase between capitalism and socialism, a phase that was never advanced due to the rule of the parasitic bureaucracy. Within these transitional regimes a conflict was continually in operation between the existence of the planned economy, where the law of value was suppressed or negated, and the existence of certain capitalist forms of distribution. Surplus value within these economies was effectively replaced by surplus product due to the absence of generalised commodity production and a capitalist labour market. Preobrazhensky termed this economic phase as one of ‘primitive socialist accumulation’ where production was of a contradictory ‘commodity-socialist’ nature, and finished categories of ‘capitalist’ and ‘socialist’ do not apply (see his excellent book The New Economics written in 1924).
When Stalin instituted the first Five Year Plan the concessions to the internal capitalist market were ended. It is clear that the law of value inside the Soviet Union was now consciously suppressed by the planned economy, existing only in a few peripheral areas of exchange rather than in large scale production, and as external trade was negligible neither did it apply in this area either (thus undermining theories of state capitalism, regardless of Cliff’s sophistry and substitution of use value for exchange value). Stalinist Bonapartism existed in a post-capitalist society, although it could not be called a socialist society. By this time the working class were clearly not in control of the state, and on a permanent basis reform was no longer possible. Only a renewed revolution, in this case a political revolution that removed the bureaucracy whilst leaving the basic relations of production intact, was now required. Such a revolution would indeed have met the essential Marxist requirement of the self-emancipation of the working class.
There were inherent advantages in the planned economy, even if they were steadily negated by the mismanagement of the parasitic bureaucracy. Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed explains this process very well. It was these advantages that gave the Stalinist regime a progressive content and allowed it to rapidly industrialise on a scale not seen before (although of course the plan was for the benefit of the bureaucracy and not the working class). In post-war Eastern Europe the same process took place, most notably in the devastated (and formerly largely rural) GDR which was literally able to pull itself up by its bootstraps in the absence of capitalist relations of production. Mike is quite right to point out the progressive stagnation of these regimes from the 1970s which steadily undermined their progressive social content until the majority of the bureaucratic caste saw capitalist restoration as their only hope if they were to avoid a workers’ revolution which would have destroyed them entirely.
Trotsky was brilliant in his analysis of Stalinism. His writings were indeed always in a state of evolution, but I doubt whether he would have changed the basic analysis found in The Revolution Betrayed and In Defence of Marxism after 1945. Of course his time-scale for the collapse of Stalinism in the USSR was completely wrong, but the nature of that collapse and the current capitalist restoration taking place do fit his conceptions very well as this passage shows:
‘If ... a bourgeois party were to overthrow the ruling Soviet caste, it would find no small number of ready servants among the present bureaucrats, administrators, technicians, directors, party secretaries and privileged upper circles in general. A purgation of the state apparatus would, of course, be necessary in this case too. But a bourgeois restoration would probably have to clean out fewer people than a revolutionary party. The chief task of the new power would be to restore private property in the means of production. First of all, it would be necessary to create conditions for the development of strong farmers from the weak collective farms, and for converting the strong collectives into producers’ cooperatives of the bourgeois type – into agricultural stock companies. In the sphere of industry, denationalization would begin with the light industries and those producing food. The planning principle would be converted for the transitional period into a series of compromises between state power and individual "corporations" – potential proprietors, that is, among the Soviet captains of industry, the émigré former proprietors and foreign capitalists. Notwithstanding that the Soviet bureaucracy has gone far toward preparing a bourgeois restoration, the new regime would have to introduce in the matter of forms of property and methods of industry not reform, but a social revolution.’ (The Revolution Betrayed, Pathfinder 1987, p.253.)
This process has been completed in East Germany and Poland, and is almost complete in the other former European Stalinist states. Due to the extended time-scale of the fall of Stalinism very few of the gains were still in existence, and this in turn had destroyed the consciousness of the proletariat, allowing capitalist restoration to take the place of a workers’ revolution. But gains there were, we only have to see the present devastation of the ex-USSR, or for that matter Afghanistan, to see that capitalist restoration is a historic defeat for the working class.
On Errors and Critics
But even if we are honest, can we say that things could have been done very differently? In many instances, like the mistaken invasion of Poland in 1920, or the banning of party factions in 1921, things could indeed have been done for the better, and with the benefit of hindsight. But for the most part free choices were very few for the Bolsheviks, and they operated in a situation that they had little control over. Subjective factors were at times very important (not least the subjective role of the party that led to success in October), but they were always secondary to the objective situation. When we look at the degeneration of the Revolution it is clear that throughout the period the conscious aims of the Bolsheviks were consistently subverted by the objective situation (although one of the more serious criticisms I have of Trotsky is that at this time he made virtues out of necessities). Mike, and other critics, have yet to say concretely what they would have done instead, and, more importantly, even if ‘perfect’ Marxists (by their own criteria) had taken the place of the Bolsheviks would things have turned out very differently? All Mike can say is that they should have gone down fighting, and not dirtied their hands, but it is clear that they did go down fighting – why else did Stalin need to purge the party of all trace of revolution and revolutionaries? Did not Trotsky go down fighting in 1940? And what an insult to those workers who gave their lives in the civil war in the name of internationalism and the hope of rescue of the Soviet state by revolution in the West.
Mike’s main ideological support for his criticisms of Bolshevik policy come from Rosa Luxemburg. I have already stated that I think her criticisms of Lenin in 1904 are essentially historical in relation to the Bolsheviks in power. A lot happened in the years between then and when the revolutionary tide began in 1917. As Trotsky said of the issue in reply to a similar view: ‘All subsequent experience demonstrated to me that Lenin was correct in this question as against Rosa Luxemburg and me. Marceau Pivert counterposes to the Trotskyism of 1939, the Trotskyism of 1904. But after all since that time three revolutions have taken place in Russia alone. Have we really learned nothing during these thirty-five years?’
I think that the criticisms that Luxemburg made in 1918 of the Bolsheviks are more important to this debate, and so I will concentrate on these.
Mike calls these ‘devastating criticisms’ but a closer examination shows that is somewhat of an exaggeration. On important issues in her 1918 pamphlet on the Russian Revolution Luxemburg makes some quite serious errors, due in many respects to her lack of detailed information of events (it was written in prison). These errors include her attitude to the nationalities question, the peasant policy and the Constituent Assembly. Just how wrong Luxemburg had been on the last of these was shown graphically during the German Revolution of 1918 when the National Assembly was put forward as the alternative to workers’ councils by the capitalists and their allies in the SPD. Luxemburg now described the National Assembly, the German version of the Russian Constituent Assembly, as ‘an attempt to assassinate both the revolution and the workers’ and soldiers’ councils’. In deeds she negated her former theoretical position, and the last days of her life were spent trying to create a communist party that would be able to seize power at the head of the German proletariat
What of her other criticisms voiced in the Russian pamphlet? Most serious are the ones concerning the questions of workers’ democracy. I believe that in these questions she was wrong, her attacks on the Bolsheviks ‘rigged scheme’ of promoting Soviets at the expense of ‘democratic institutions’ is quite clearly nonsense. At the time the White reactionaries were championing these institutions precisely because they saw them as a weapon against workers’ democracy in the form of the Soviets. Luxemburg was to find out at first hand the incompatibility of the two institutions. As to the example she uses to back up her position, that of the ‘Long Parliament’ of the English Revolution, this shows a remarkable ignorance of those events. Yes, the Long Parliament did undergo many changes as the Revolution progressed, and without having further elections (although it did have a number of armed purges), but ultimately the far left of the revolutionary forces, the Levellers, were forced to directly confront the power of Parliament in order to try and progress further and prevent reaction. The events at Burford, where the revolutionary soldiers’ councils had arranged to gather in order to fight Cromwell and Parliament, show the complete falsehood of Luxemburg’s analogy.
On other issues of Bolshevik administration Luxemburg was also wrong, or misinformed. But I think Mike deliberately misrepresents her attacks in order to fit his anti-Bolshevik schema. So let me quote a few things from it myself:
‘The party of Lenin was thus the only one in Russia which grasped the true interest of the revolution in that first period. It was the element that drove the revolution forward, and, thus it was the only party that really carried on a socialist policy.’ (Surely a recognition of the invaluable role of the Bolsheviks as the proletarian vanguard?)
‘Moreover, the Bolsheviks immediately set as the aim of this seizure of power a complete, far-reaching revolutionary programme: not the safeguarding of bourgeois democracy, but a dictatorship of the proletariat for the purpose of realizing socialism. Thereby they won for themselves the imperishable historic distinction of having for the first time proclaimed the final aim of socialism as the direct programme of practical politics.’
If this is not enough to show the fraternal support of Luxemburg for the Bolsheviks then the last three paragraphs of the pamphlet are worth quoting in full:
‘Let the German government socialists cry that the rule of the Bolsheviks in Russia is a distorted expression of the dictatorship of the proletariat. If it was or is such, that is only because it is a product of the behaviour of the German proletariat, in itself a distorted expression of the socialist class struggle. All of us are subject to the laws of history, and it is only internationally that the socialist order of society can be realised. The Bolsheviks have shown that they are capable of everything that a genuine revolutionary party can contribute within the limits of the historical possibilities. They are not supposed to perform miracles. For a model and faultless proletarian revolution in an isolated land, exhausted by world war, strangled by imperialism, betrayed by the international proletariat, would be a miracle.
‘What is in order is to distinguish the essential from the non-essential, the kernel from the accidental excrescences in the policies of the Bolsheviks. In the present period, when we face decisive final struggles in all the world, the most important problem of socialism was and is the burning question of our time. It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: "I have dared!"
‘This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realisation of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labour in the entire world. In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to "bolshevism".’ (Quoted from Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, Pathfinder 1980, p.395.)
The Fourth International
The founding of the Fourth International must rank as one of Trotsky’s finest achievements. It was a necessary response to the objective situation where the workers’ movement was disorientated and split by the rise of fascism, the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism and the utter bankruptcy of reformism. The small forces that came together to form the FI were to be a beacon of proletarian internationalism throughout the period of the Second World War, and indeed the sole reason for the survival of an international revolutionary Marxist current in this period. In occupied Europe comrades faced repression and death from both the fascists and the Stalinists, but at the end of the war despite some disorientation the FI remained capable of advancing on many fronts. However, the seeds of the degeneration of the FI were already present in the failure by the majority of the leadership to advance Trotskyism to meet new and unexpected situations. What emerged from this situation was the bureaucratic distortion and political opportunism that has continued to the present day in the ‘57 varieties’ of the ‘Fourth International’ on offer. By any meaningful standards the FI is dead as a living party of world revolution.
Mike sees this as a failure of Trotskyism. In purely empirical terms he is right, but Trotskyism is no more a failure than Marxism itself, another ‘ism’ that we are told is dead by academic wiseacres. Trotskyism remains as the only progressive strand of Marxism, and in world terms the majority of revolutionaries rightly attach the label to themselves rather than any other brand of Marxism or anarchism etc. But Trotskyism cannot be advanced by repeating parrot fashion the Transitional Programme or by any other attempts at orthodox purity. This is the method of a religious sect and not a Marxist organisation. Trotsky’s basic writings on Stalinism, or the Transitional Programme itself, remain essential starting points and guides to action for us today, but it is necessary to advance them to meet today’s situation. Such is the task that we must attempt. The need for a re-forged FI is as great as ever – the calls by Tony Benn and others for a ‘Fifth International’, or the belief by those like Mike that we need to return to small discussion groups, cannot meet the needs of the present situation and the continued crisis of leadership. Nor can attempts to build purely national groups (with perhaps the possibility of a few well-controlled satellites, in the manner of the SWP and Militant) be successful; experience shows that it is impossible to maintain a revolutionary orientation when operating on a purely national basis. An international organisation based on a progressive revolutionary programme must be built, one of the first stages being the urgent regroupment of all genuine revolutionary forces. This is the perspective that has convinced me to join the Workers International League, part of the Leninist-Trotskyist Tendency, in the last few months after years spent outside left groups after I parted company with the SWP in the 1980s. It is a position which I know Mike and many other readers of New Interventions will oppose; so be it, but I hope that the constructive discussions can continue to enable us all to move towards our shared goal of replacing capitalism with socialism.
The need for a principled vanguard party is greater than ever. In present day capitalist society the control over ideology by the bourgeoisie is extremely strong (see my ‘The Labour Party, Marxism and Liverpool’ article in New Interventions, July 1992), and when coupled to the reduction in the number of workers employed in large workplaces where they can feel their power, this means that the problems of sectionalism and differentiation among the proletariat is far higher now than in Lenin’s day. This raises problems for those, like Mike, who desire a purely spontaneous self-emancipation by the working class. Those who hold this view often look to support in the writings of Rosa Luxemburg. However, just before she died Rosa became convinced of the absolute necessity of a vanguard organisation to lead the class as a result of her recent experience. In the 11 January 1919 edition of Die Rote Fahne she wrote: ‘the absence of leadership, the nonexistence of a centre responsible for organising the workers of Berlin, cannot be allowed to continue. If the revolutionary cause is to progress, if the victory of the proletariat and socialism are to be more than a dream, then the revolutionary workers must set up leading organs capable of guiding and utilising the fighting energy of the masses.’ Such is the task of Marxists today; to fight world capitalism it is necessary to have a world party.
I for one want to be able to see kids standing on the rubble that was Buckingham Palace waving red flags, and I do believe that revolution is a real possibility, not a dream. Without doubt new leaders will come forward in the stormy period that lies ahead of us. Then we will probably call revolutionary Marxism by another ‘ism’, perhaps named after an African or an Asian rather than a Russian. Until that time ‘Trotskyism’ will do just fine, because only by adopting the revolutionary programme that it enshrines will it be certain that workers will again cry ‘WE HAVE DARED’.
18 December 1992