Sunday, 10 February 2008

The USSR: it did what it said on the tin

I was intrigued by this post on the popular* Trot blog Lenin's Tomb. I guess the point is that analysis of the USSR typically fails to seriously consider alternative interpretations of what was going on in the USSR, such as those developed by Trotskyist thinkers. What the USSR actually was and why it (and other regimes like it) went so badly wrong are clearly important questions, and it is notable that in the comments under the post there are references to other books which appear to seek to defend the drive behind the Bolshevik project and separate that from what the USSR did in practice.

I just don't buy it. The more I read about the USSR the more convinced I am that it was simply a genuine and serious attempt to put a Marxist version of socialism into practice. They had 70 years to get it right, admittedly including two serious attempts to destroy the regime. For most of the time the Soviet leadership had unchallenged power and as far as I can see all they tried to do whilst in power was put Marxism into practice. This is from A Short History of Soviet Socialism (which is probably guilty of 'ideologoical conformity' too):

"[O]ne of the striking features of the theory and practice of Soviet socialism was the degree of continuity and stability exhibited between 1917 and 1985. The worldview of Bolshevik Marxism-Leninism - constructivist, rationalist, productivist, technocractic - continued to underpin the process of building socialism in the USSR after 1917 (and indeed remained during the early stages of perestroika). The CPSU also maintained a striking commitment to the core features of "socialism" as a transition phase, as derived from their readings of Marx, Engels and Kautsky and from the practice of the German war economy: central planning, state ownership, central direction of social processes, leading role of the comminist party, proletarian internationalism. The stability or rigidity of the core features of the ruling ideology has long been remarked upon by Western commentators. Although the precise meaning of many of these features was subject to periodical reinterpretation in the light of political imperatives (especially the leading role of the communist party, and the commitment to proletarian internationalism), the party maintained that socialism was a transitional society defined according to a set of structural features to be consciously constructed."

Personally I don't think it is unfair to judge a Marxist version of socialism by the results of the regimes established in its name. Whilst I think it is always useful to keep an open mind about how things might have turned out there is a lot of evidence available to us - 70 plus years of the USSR, 50 plus years of the PRC and the experience of plenty of other regimes. In effect the same experiment was run a number of times in a number of countries and yielded similar results - undemocratic, inefficient and unpopular regimes with poor living standards. In contrast those that argue that a Marxist version of socialism could have been different a) tend to rely on dispositional explanations of previous failures (ie if only Trotsky had beaten Stalin) and b) don't have anything like the same level of evidence to back up their position, it is principally theoretical speculation.

As such my view is that it is the Trots who have got it wrong - they fail to take the stated ideological aims of Marxist regimes seriously and as such allow themselves to ignore a huge amount of problematic evidence.

(* Lenin seems to get very chippy about his traffic stats.)


lenin said...

I'm afraid this is rather glip, and your post involves several misconceptions.

1) The point in my post is not that the analysis of the USSR fails to consider what Trotksyist thinkers said about it. It is that it was domesticated and disciplined by a hegemonic Cold War discourse that made serious investigation of any disjunctures beyond the pale. It fails to consider any analysis beyond an extremely limited purview.

2) The alternative point of view expressed is not that the "drive" behind the Bolsheviks was right, but it just somehow went wrong and can be repeated in better circumstances. It is that the revolution was fundamentally defeated. It is not only that the "drive" was defensible, but that for a time the revolution produced something that one could have called socialism (a highly deformed kind, as the Bolshevik leaders acknowledged).

3) 'They' did not have 70 years to get anything right. Most of the leaders of the original revolution were murdered by Stalin, in the process of a radical transformation of Russian society which involved a massive accumulation of power at the level of the state, utterly incommensurate with anything envisaged by Lenin and Trotsky. Most of the layers of working class activists and fighters who had made the revolution were liquidated. The institutions that sprung up from the revolution were turned into rubber stamping mechanisms for a hypertrophic bureaucracy.

4) The quotation from Mark Sandle is incoherent. There isn't a single thing right with it. Let's do some tests. Was there any difference in the commitment to nationalisation in 1918 and 1928? Well, one difference was that in 1918 it was largely driven by the soviets and it was often not encouraged by the Bolsheviks. In 1928, forced collectivisation of an immense scale took place, with enormous social consequences. It was an unprecedented rapid accumulation of power and capital. It doesn't sit well to simply gloss that over as a fundamental continuity, as Sandle does. It's a huge change, and it demands explanation. Further, what sort of commitment to "proletarian internationalism" did the Stalinist regime actually display? In practise, it supported the French Empire in North Africa and made a pact of aggression with the Nazis. How internationalist was that, exactly? In what way did the proletariat stand to benefit from these policies? On the question of weltanschaung, Sandle handles the matter rather glibly with a few glittering generalities - but how can Stalin have been consistent with the Bolshevism of the revolutionary era when he wasn't even consistent with himself? I don't simply refer to the daily flips and flops of doctrine to accomodate the latest shift in priorities among the Stalinist elite. I mean, on the fundamentals, Stalin changed his line. One year an avowed internationalist, believing that socialism cannot survive in one country. The next year, an assured isolationist, who believed that socialism could survive in one country provided socialism was redefined as his highly personalised bureaucratic dictatorship.

Now, of course you think they tried to put marxism into practise. Sandle told you they did. But while that may adequately reflect the outlook of the CPSU and its global supporters, it simply won't do as a measure of the reality. One of marxism's most elementary commitments is to working class democracy (sometimes known misleadingly as the 'dictatorship of the proletariat'). This was expressed not only by Marx and Engels and of all the classical revolutionary parties, but also by Lenin and Trotsky. It is an indisepensable component of marxism. But, while the authoritarian conditions of civil war and the subsequent ossification of the party bureaucracy seriously eroded the achievements of the revolution, it was decisively destroyed with the last act of liquidation and the first five year plan in 1928.

5) One last thing, then. It is staggering to pretend that the "same experiment" was run a number of different times in different countries. It is not only empirically false (this would imply roughly the same programme with the same diagnosis underpinning it being implemented each time), it is analytically purblind. The conditions in which each of these revolts took place were different, the agencies that produced them were different, the historical motor was different, the underlying analysis was different, etc etc. It defies belief that one can describe the Russian Revolution and its subsequent anfractuous course as the "same experiment" as that which took place in China. The latter was a nationalist anticolonial revolt that produced an authoritarian developmentalist state. Although, impressed by the achievements of Lenin, many of the anticolonial leaders took an orientation toward the USSR, at no point did the working class assume power in any way in either Vietnam, China, North Korea or Cuba. In three of these, there were revolts led by intellectuals with a strong rural base and little involvement from the working class. The states they produced were developmentalist ones, modelled to some extent on the Soviet Union in its postwar condition. In one, North Korea, the state was created by the US Navy and not on the basis of any kind of revolution. Given that, and given the overriding commitment of marxism - which is that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class - it is not surprising that what ensued bore no resemblance to anything that Marx or Lenin or Trotsky would have referred to as socialism.

Charlie Marks said...

Tom - is this an argument against workers' power or for it?

Tom P said...

he he... more on this later

Tom P said...

Hi Lenin

I'm sorry you found my post glib and analytically purblind. It wasn't meant to be a theoretical masterpiece, I was just intrigued by your own post and thought I'd post up some thoughts of my own.

I even sort of agree with one of your points above. For example I'm not sure to what extent nationalists in some countries put on Marxist clothes in order to strengthen their own position. But in general I find the Trot defence unconvincing. For one, no political programme of any persuasion is ever going to be implemented in perfect circumstances. If it requires lab conditions to work properly maybe it isn’t a very practical programme in the first place. But in any case on what basis are you so certain that the result would be different if the circumstances were different? Where’s the evidence?

You say that the USSR killed off many committed socialists, whether thinkers or activists, and that’s clearly true. It was certainly true at Kronstadt. But equally millions of communists in the USSR and elsewhere thought that they were trying to put the theory into practice. The few remaining Stalinists clearly still think that. Why are you sure they are wrong? – they’ve been reading the same Marx that you have.

In addition doesn’t the fact that successful revolutions did not occur, or even ever look likely in many cases, in countries that did develop a large working class might lead you to question whether the idea that they would inevitably do so is flawed in itself? Perhaps the ideal envisaged by Marxism is simply not realizable. Maybe it’s just a theoretical model with no practical application.

To me Stalin’s various twists and turns look like normal politics – pragmatic and expedient because of the shifting situation – in an extraordinary setting (a one-party state). With the huge benefit of hindsight Trots claim to be able to see how the nasty bits of the USSR have nothing to do with their ideal, and that if the ‘correct’ decisions had been taken, and strategies implemented it would all have been different. That to me is parlor game politics – it is an interpretive model that enables users to ignore difficult bits of evidence in order to allow their theoretical ideal to remain untarnished.


"Now, of course you think they tried to put marxism into practise. Sandle told you they did."

This is a bit condescending. I haven't reached my viewpoint solely on the basis of one book, though I probably haven't read as much about the subject as you. But your line of argument could be equally turned back on you. Perhaps your understanding of the nature of the USSR is faulty because you take Trotskyist accounts of it at face value. And to be honest you probably have more of an interest in doing so because your belief system requires these accounts to be true.

lenin said...

tom, to avoid getting into the business of point-by-point demurral, which could be tedious for both of us, I just want to settle on what I think is the central theme. You say:

. With the huge benefit of hindsight Trots claim to be able to see how the nasty bits of the USSR have nothing to do with their ideal, and that if the ‘correct’ decisions had been taken, and strategies implemented it would all have been different.

The fact of the matter is, there's no hindsight about it. Lenin plainly stated that what had come about as a result of the civil war was not socialism. Trotsky stated "there was no socialism here and there could not have been". They were always clear that given all prevailing pressures, the working class - the supposed base for socialism to be created - was being decimated. The Bolshevik Party was taking a substitutionist line as a result of that - and while I'm happy to entertain serious critique of their policies in the early 1920s, the question is whether or not there was a qualitative transformation from this strategic retrenchment and bunkering to something radically different under Stalin; and further, whether it was understood as such at the time.

There was in fact a critique at the time, not least by the original Trot himself. There was Bukharin before he was destroyed by the Stalinist bureaucracy. There was a Left Opposition. There was opposition from below, moreover, as workers tried to defend the political gains that they had made, and increasingly found the managers and bureaucrats ossifying into a class that was utterly hostile to the working class (see Kevin Murphy's 'Revolution and Counterrevolution' for a close-up case-study of this).

So, it's not hindsight, nor is it simply about a set of gaffes or misapplication of theory - it is about the fundamental goals for which the revolution was fought in the first place. The dissident marxist analysis is that the social layers that made the revolution possible were destroyed by civil war and the Entente invasion; the failure of the revolt to spread to European countries isolated an already embattled state, with a catastrophic cyclical crop failure and several epidemics breaking out; and the party that was initially quite a vibrant and democratic one (despite extremely authoritarian conditions in Tsarist Russia) became increasingly bureaucratised and integrated into the old Tsarist state ('radish communism', Lenin called it - red on the outside, white on the inside). That didn't mean that no rearguard defense was possible to conserve trade union and soviet autonomy and prevent the extreme concentration of power in the hands of a class bureaucrats who were committed to militarisation and modernisation at all costs. But it did mean that the range of choices available were extremely constricted and determined by a catastrophic situation that made the final victory of the counterrevolution a very likely occurence.

I might add that Lars T Lih has debunked the idea that the conception of 'transitional state' and 'central plan' was the same under Lenin as under Stalin. In fact, the early Bolsheviks were quite clear that when they referred to a transitional state, it was actually a transition from a non-socialist war-wrecked command economy to a normally functioning society as the basis for then moving onto the first stage of socialism. The Stalinist elite adopted a highly mechanistic and dogmatic schema, a sort of state religion, which it called Marxist-Leninism. In a crude, stageist approach to history, it insisted that by simply industrialising it would create a working class that would in turn create full communism. A process of permanent redaction was imposed, in which the thought of forebears was carefully tailored to accord with the priorities of the new elite (number one priority, of course, was to show that Trotsky was a petit-bourgeois traitor all along, precisely because he held up the possibility of an alternative).

Tom P said...

Hi Lenin

We are obviously destined to agree to disagree.

It's a simplistic point but just because Lenin or Trotsky stated something does not mean it is correct and we don't really have a reliable way of judging if their interpretation of events is any better than that of other self-professed Marxists at the time who did think that the USSR was a genuine attempt to put the grand plan into effect. I think you also underplay the extent of support for the Soviet regime both in the Russian working class and in labour movements in other countries. The majority of commies at the time sided with Stalin not Trotsky.

There are several things I genuinely find surprising about Trots. One is the absolute faith in a system which by their own accounts has never been implemented - how do you 'know' it would work? And if you don't why do advocate such extreme measures (ie a revolution) to test it out. Secondly, as I have stated, I do think there is an element of self-deception in the analysis of the USSR etc.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, it just seems like such a longshot as a project to sign up to. You can't really know that it will work. And in any case to persuade people to suport you you've got to get across a very difficult message that all those regimes that called themselves Marxist were actually not Marxist at all, and that your version whilst called the same thing and employing similar language and analysis wopuld be totally different.

It seems like an impossible task. Which leads me to believe that for some that is actually part of the appeal. It's a fantastic ideal, but that's all it needs to be. And as such it's more preferable to cling on to the hope that the ideal is unspoilt than to look properly at the experience of those who thought they were trying to put into practice the same ideas.

Anyway, thanks for dropping by. Always nice to have a chinwag even if we aren't destined to agree on much. Did I read that you're from Norn Iron? My other half is from Bangor.

Rik said...

Dear "Tom P", kindly forward this, or get me in touch with "lenin" re: his comments about Lars Lih. Thank you very much.