Stalinist and Trotskyite Crisis

Part 1 of this article was published in the last issue of Open Polemic

Please note in Part 1 of this article, O.P.No.5, p 22, para 3. After 'Judicial and ideological superstructure' insert, 'how much stronger must be the case against inferences made on the basis of the formal characteristics of the superstructure,'

In the article carried in edition no. 4 of 'Open Polemic' Workers Power accuse Tony Cliff's 'State Capitalist' analysis of 'reification', i.e. treating categories that refer to processes between people (or classes) as relations between things. In particular, they accuse Cliff of possessing a reified concept of capital.
They quote Engels in clarification. Marxist economics he says,

'is not concerned with things, but with relations between people and in the last instance between classes.'

Quite so. But in their enthusiasm to wring the SWP's neck, they themselves, together with other Trotskyite analysts, commit precisely this error of 'reification'.

They write:

'The bureaucracy syphons off a considerable portion of the surplus product for itself [So far so good]. Remove the privileges of the bureaucracy, remove it from power, and the essential mechanism of allocating life's goods would not change. The relations of production would not change.'

This they imagine, proves that the bureaucracy is not a class.

As we have seen, the relations of production consist, for Marx, precisely in relations between people - or more exactly, classes. What does Workers' Power say here? Change in their entirety the relations between the bureaucracy and the direct producers (the people or the classes), and the 'essential mechanism' would not change! That is, the 'thing', the mechanism, that remains after abstracting from the concrete social forces involved, stays intact. The picture that Workers' Power tries to present is that of the proletariat replacing the bureaucracy in the driving seat of the independent 'mechanism' (like taking over at the wheel of a car) and hey presto socialism! If this is the case, in what, exactly, does the mechanism that is left over, consist of ? Clearly not the physical means of production themselves. The legal forms of the Soviet Constitution perhaps? Or some kind of ghostly bureaucratic apparatus or blueprint? None of these look at all promising. Obviously, the 'essential mechanism' is nothing more than the ensemble of the relations of authority, control and allocation, and the whole range of social processes that issue from it, existing between the bureaucracy and the producers. The concrete network of social interactions - strictly, class practices - that this involves constitutes the mechanism. The concept of an independent apparatus determining social relations yet external to the class struggle is profoundly un-Marxist. If the bureaucracy is removed from power, if its privileges are withdrawn, then the 'machinery' simultaneously vanishes. This of course, is just the reason why Marx insisted that the machinery of the capitalist state has to be smashed: for reproducing the pre-existing social relations - the 'mechanisms' albeit with alternative agents (even workers of the purest pedigree) is precisely to reproduce the pre-existing 'machinery'!

A system of social relations ( reflected by the 'property relations') that produces a set of decisions resulting in the distribution of goods according to need, does not possess the same 'essential mechanism' as a system of social relations that produces a set of decisions that results in luxury for the bureaucracy and privation for the masses. What the Trotskyites should really say, is that, on a certain level of abstraction, the legal or superstructural expression of the property relations remains the same! Only, because the Trotskyites of Workers' Power and other organisations systematically substitute the reified and abstract concept of 'property relations' for Marx's concept of the 'relations of production' can they believe that the two totally distinct social processes share an identical 'mechanism' is then proposed as the defining feature of a workers' state!

The same error underlies their mechanical division of the spheres of production and the sphere of distribution. Workers' Power claims that:

'Trotsky sees the bureaucracy not as a class stratum rooted in the necessities of the modern industrial process but in the distribution process: specifically in the survival of bourgeois right in distribution during the transition period.'

The picture in this case is supposed to be this: the proletariat controls ('owns') the means of production (through abstract 'property relations'), but the bureaucracy meanwhile controls the quite independent sphere of distribution through the concrete appropriation of surplus product. This of course, is not what Marx meant to indicate by the 'survival of bourgeois right'.

Marx refers to the bourgeois principle of 'to each according to his work or ability' in contrast to the socialist principle of 'to each according to his need'. For the bureaucracy therefore, to enforce bourgeois right in the sphere of distribution would mean that they appropriated the amount of commodities that corresponded to the product of their labour, while the proletariat made do with the lesser amount that corresponded to theirs.

To this extent, as elaborated by the concept of bourgeois right, a strictest exchange of equivalents would take place, without a relationship of exploitation.

This bears no resemblance to the relationship between the bureaucracy and their direct producers in the Soviet Union. The bureaucracy appropriated a proportion of the surplus product (a 'considerable proportion' according to Workers' Power) arising from the labour of the workers in addition to any notional 'wage' that might accrue to them in their own right - the same exploitative relationship occurs under capitalism. How were they able to maintain this exploitative relationship? Precisely through their control of the means of production and the workers' dependence upon selling his labour power ie. the workers' 'freedom' from the means of production!

The Trotskyite analysis again depends upon a 'reification' of the two spheres, now considered as mere conglomerations of use-values: the physical means of production on the one hand and aggregates of commodities on the other. Their reality as relations between people (classes) has been replaced by their character as relations between things. Each 'sphere' is then considered to be subject to autonomous and contradictory laws. The sphere of production is considered to be structured according to the principles of proletarian dictatorship, while the sphere of distribution is structured by a social force, the bureaucracy. This is the origin of Trotsky's formula, that even with the Stalinist system at its most ferocious, the proletariat is the 'dominant class'. The empirical data alone ought to be enough to dismiss such a ridiculous conception.

On a theoretical level, it has to be pointed out that this is not how the two spheres are conceived by Marx. For him, they are no more than aspects of a single totality of social relations. So although bourgeois right may continue to prevail in the distributive relations of a workers' state where workers' control of the means of production exists not merely as a legal form or fiction, but in reality, it cannot take the general form of exploitation. This is guaranteed by the integrity of the two spheres, their concrete totality in the social and economic formation, which incorporates the dominance of the relations of production.

Returning to actual conditions in the Soviet Union, is there any sense in which the Stalinist state could be called a 'transitional' regime? For it is incomprehensible that a workers' state should exist for 70 years and that no elements of socialism, no concrete manifestations of its theoretical nature, should appear in practice. How is it possible to understand someone who asserted that a workers' state existed for an entire historical span of time, without the slightest movement towards any of the conditions characteristic of socialised production? Where then, is the empirical evidence of transition? Is there anyone calling themselves a Marxist who believes that the Stalinist bureaucracy contained any tendency, any social force or historical dynamic towards the implementation of socialist conditions, primarily, workers' democracy and control? Or even that it is conceivable that it should do so given the concrete conditions of its existence? If not, in what possible sense can it be considered 'transitional'? And if the transition is indefinitely postponed, does the expression (degenerate) 'workers' state' have any meaning at all.

In his analysis in Capital vol. 1 of the transition from a feudal to a capitalist economy, Marx distinguishes between the 'formal' and 'real' subsumption or assimilation of the relations of production under capitalism. By this he meant that when capitalists had succeeded in organising feudal production in workshops and factories, production was only 'formally' capitalist. Not until the capitalist revolution in the technical basis of production which essentially consisted in the introduction of machinery, does Marx consider that production was truly capitalist. Can the Trotskyists then say that in the Soviet regime a similar distinction can be applied so that the Stalinist command economy represented a mode of production that was 'formally' socialist and in transition to real socialism? Clearly not. Marx considers the formal stage of capitalist production to be capitalist on the basis that individual capitalists owned the means of production, that the producers they employed possessed nothing but their labour power and were used to produce surplus value which was then appropriated by the capitalist. Only the technical level of the means of production remained to be reformed.

It follows that the technical level of the forces of production in Soviet Russia, its backwardness, could be said in Marxist terms to preclude its characterisation as truly socialist. But this is no help to the Trotskyist for it is equally clear that for socialism to exist in such a state even in Marx's 'formal' sense, the proletariat would, as a class, have to control the means of production and itself appropriate the surplus product. Given that even Trotsky himself insists that workers' control had been eliminated by the non-proletarian Bolshevik dictatorship and that the bureaucracy appropriated the surplus product resulting from the exploitation of the workers, this cannot be the case.

Trotskyists have always laid great emphasis on the elements of 'conscious control' and 'planning' within the Stalinist states as inevitably culminating in the development of the productive forces beyond the limits inherent within capitalism. But once again, control and planning are, in relation to specific societies, abstractions. They are not, as we have seen in the arguments developed above, appropriately conceived as reified and independent mechanisms external to the class struggle that could be used indifferently by antagonistic social forces. 'Conscious control' and 'planning' are neither progressive or reactionary in themselves isolated from the precise historical conditions of their implementation.

Engels wrote:
'The social character of the means of production and of the products ... is quite consciously asserted by the producers, and is transformed from a cause of disorder and periodic collapse into the most powerful lever of production itself.'

Notice once again, how Engels, here insists that conscious control of the means of production, if it is to be progressive, must be 'asserted by the producers' and that this control 'transforms' its previous capitalist character. But no-one imagines that the bureaucracy of the Stalinist states is the organisation of the 'producers'; just the reverse. It is significant that when Grant goes into raptures over the 'conscious control of the laws of the economy', he writes in the following terms:

'because man now understands the nature of the productive forces, to that extent he can control them. But he cannot transcend the given development of the productive forces ... etc.'

The discussion in terms of the bureaucracy and the workers has been dropped and been substituted by meaningless humanist talk of 'mankind'. The real question, as to which class exercises 'conscious control' of the productive forces is obliterated. As history of our own century has proved, this question is a crucial one. For conscious control exercised by a bureaucratic class in its own self interests in antagonism to the producers is very different in its material effects from control by the producers themselves. There is no economic or legal autonomism that guarantees the development of the productive forces as a result of conscious control regardless of which class exercises that control and for what purpose.

While conceding that the 'bureaucracy manages and plans industry', Grant suggests that,

'in that sense it is true that it has more independence from its economic base than any other bureaucracy or state machine in the whole of history.'

So on the one hand, the bureaucracy controls the means of production, but that very control establishes its 'independence' of its economic base! The 'economic base' referred to here is alleged to be the socialised means of production in the possession of the working class! On the contrary, in place of this incomprehensible proposition, it must be insisted that this control incorporating the appropriation of the surplus product, establishes its position as the ruling class.

The most that could be claimed on the basis of Engels' own remarks is that the abolition of bourgeois property in the means of production is a necessary condition of the transition to socialism - a conclusion that no Marxist would contest. It is equally plain that he is explicitly denying that this abolition in itself constitutes such a transition - and in this, as we have seen, his analysis is in agreement with that of Marx. To claim, as the Trotskyists wish to, that complete abolition or stratification in itself marks the change of capitalism into its opposite (as 'quantity changes into quality' claims Grant) in abstraction from the social forces determining and controlling the transition is to indulge either in a brutal form of economic autonomism or sheer mysticism. It has to be concluded that there is simply no precedent or authority in Marxism for the Trotskyite analysis.

Within Stalinism the 'conscious control' - literally the command - of the economy was exercised by an echelon of the bureaucratic hierarchy - naturally, in its own interests. Frequently this input would be distorted by overriding political imperatives decided by the top party apparatus in direct conflict with economic imperatives. The system therefore can be characterised as autocratic and information deficient. In contrast, even the advanced capitalist mode of production guarantees in addition to the 'conscious' regulation of the state acting as a management committee of capitalist interests in general, the intervention of a myriad of individual capitalist companies supported by an infrastructure composed of petty capitalist concerns and self employed businessmen. A great deal of information, albeit anarchically organised, and a great many individual choices and decisions, albeit class based, are therefore built into its operation. This is very far from a workers' democracy and the potentialities of a truly collective and socialised system: but at the same time, severely limited as it is, it has been proved over a period of decades to incorporate a far greater informational component than the command economy of Stalinism.

In relation to the development of the productive forces who can doubt that contemporary capitalism has proved more advanced than the centralised command structure of the Stalinists? It is no use pretending that just because the Stalinists of the Communist regimes were the enemies of our enemies, the capitalist class in the West, that the Stalinists must therefore be our friends. Marxists cannot afford such superficial attitudes. But the sort of 'nostalgia' for Stalinism perceived as the mighty developer of industry felt by many socialists in the West has, when examined, no better foundation than a feeling of this kind.

This leads to the final argument left to the Trotskyists position in favour of the Stalinist regimes of workers' states is that, despite everything, despite, 'the totalitarian Stalinist regime which results in the worst features of capitalism coming to the fore', (the 'capitalist relationship pushed to the extreme' as Engels forecast) they are 'historically progressive'.

Grant asserts as

'the main criterion for Marxists analysing social systems' the question, 'Does a new formation lead to the development of the productive forces?'

He claims that,

'Not for nothing did Trotsky point out in 'The Revolution Betrayed' that the whole progressive content of The Stalinist bureaucracy... was the raising of the productivity of labour'.

At least this moves beyond the sterile formalisation of the claim that the Stalinist regime 'must' be a workers' state since property has been formally collectivised or because the law of value has been partially negated.

Now it emerges that the final decision has to he based on the objective basis of the content of production; not the more form of this production. Of course, it is possible to answer this question positively, whilst refusing to concede that the 'new formation' was in anyway a workers' state. For example, capitalism itself lead to the development of the productive forces in relation to feudalism.

Arguing against the neo-Trotskyist State Capitalist position Grant says that if they:

'admit that capitalism is declining and decaying on a world scale, yet preserving a progressive role in Russia in relation to the development of productive forces, then logically [they] would have to say that state capitalism is the next stage forward for society.

If, alternatively, the crisis of capitalism [in the thirties] on which we have based ourselves for the past decades was not insoluble ... a new epoch ... opens up before us. This would shatter the entire basis of the Leninist-Trotskyist movement.'

At this point, the cards are really on the table:

'in the long run, the economic factor, as in bourgeois society, with many upheavals and catastrophes, will emerge triumphant.'

Or in Trotsky's own words,

'[Stalinism] is progressive in comparison with capitalism, for on the basis of nationalised property the new possessing 'class' has assured the development of productive forces never equalled in the history of the world.'

He too admits the criterion of material development as the one from which there is no appeal:

'when we are faced with the struggle between two states which are ... both class states, but one of which represents imperialist stagnation and the other tremendous economic progress, do we not have to support the progressive state against the reactionary state. Yes or no?'

It is a question that the people of Eastern Europe and now of the Soviet Union have answered for themselves. They want the material progress represented for them by the capitalist West (no matter what illusions they may have in this respect); not the bankruptcy, empty shelves and appalling working conditions of the 'workers' states'. In the 1990s, this 'basis of the Leninist-Trotskyist movement' as Grant phrases it, can't be looking too good. In a theoretical sense, it has indeed been 'shattered'.

The predicament of the neo-Trotskyists who admit many of these arguments against their orthodox brothers, is hardly any better. For in political terms their entire analysis rests on the feasibility of the proposition that the nature of the Soviet regime underwent a quite fundamental change in 1928. They argue that Russia was ruled by a workers' state to about 1924, by a degenerate workers' state to 1928, and then underwent a complete transformation from workers' state to (bureaucratic) state capitalism in 1928. The orthodox Trotskyists are obliged to argue that the workers' state was actually deepened and entrenched in the years following 1917, particularly after Stalin's final elimination of petty bourgeois elements, since their only criterion is the nationalisation and state direction of the means of production.

The neo-Trotskyists are on the opposite horns of the dilemma: they are obliged to argue that the workers' state became progressively weakened to a point, in 1928, when it underwent a qualitative change into a state capitalist regime. This is despite Lenin's own acknowledgement that even in 1918, 'petty-bourgeois capitalism rules in Russia' and the conscious restoration of petty-bourgeois capitalism through the New Economic Policy from 1923 onwards! On the face of it, it is odd to argue that capitalism was restored in the Soviet Union only at the precise time that Stalin's forced expropriation of the Kulak basis of petty-bourgeois capitalism began. The best known exponent of this view on the British left is Tony Cliff in his book, 'State Capitalism in Russia', Grant argues that:

'Cliff's attempt to manufacture an artificial bridge between the workers' state and the capitalist state, because he has not been able to find the smashing of the workers' state machine has led him to seek economic differences between the two periods, pre- 1928 and post 1928.'

As argued in RA no. 60, it can be conclusively shown that the political expropriation of the proletariat - 'the smashing of the workers' state machine'- was effectively completed during 1921 and that the description 'workers' state' can properly be applied to the Russian regime only in the immediate post-revolutionary situation. Grant continues that:

'Cliff may argue ... that unless the working class has direct control of the state, it cannot be a workers' state (just as the Red Action article argues). In that case, he will have to reject the idea that there was a workers' state in Russia, except possibly in the first few months.'

Cliff cannot do this, for he identifies with the party dictatorship of Lenin and the reformist project of Trotsky until the latter's exile early in 1928. This is where the apparent crucial nature of the 1928 divide stems from - in the last analysis, from the personality cults created around the political personalities of Lenin and Trotsky that virtually all sections of the British left have succumbed to. It is worth noting that this tendency follows, presumably unconsciously, Stalin's lead in ascribing decisive political weight to such personalities - positive in the case of Lenin and negative in the case of Trotsky. True Marxists of course must look beyond such quasi-religious cults to the social and economic forces that underlie them. Cliff is consequently driven to draw a 'metaphysical line' as Grant accurately terms it, at 1928, bringing in the familiar hocus pocus about the dialectic and quantitative change turning into qualitative change that socialists in a corner all too frequently practice in tight circumstances.

In any real instance of a qualitative change, say that of water into ice, a precise and dramatic objective correlation can be observed, ie. that the change occurs at 0 degrees C. Does such a correlation exist here? Since no fundamental shift took place between the social forces in Russia in 1928, Cliff's only real argument in fact, is that before 1928 the bureaucracy did not appropriate surplus product and that post- 1928 it did.

Presumably up to 1928, the bureaucracy earnt an honest crust, and did a fair day's work for a fair days pay! Petty bourgeois capitalist elements multiplied from 1923 to 1928 and declined thereafter; so the answer in respect of the capitalist 'restoration' cannot he there.

As Grant argues:

'leave aside the period from 1917-1923, what was the situation from 1923 to 1928 when the Stalinist bureaucracy was consolidating itself? There were far more actual individual capitalist elements in the economy of the country than there are today. The pressure of world capitalism from an economic point of view was indisputably far greater.'

It is possible to understand the outrage of the orthodox Trotskyists against Cliffs 'revisionist' position - it really is as inconsistent as Grant claims. The sharpness of the neo-Trotskyist's dilemma is felt precisely at this juncture. Desiring above all else to maintain the legitimacy of the Leninist-Trotskyite party dictatorship ( which bears an iconic relationship to their own parties) it is impossible for them to concede that the state under its rule was anything but a workers' state. Yet once the ascendency of the Stalinist party is complete, it is impossible for them to allow that it remains a workers' state in any sense at all. The crucial element defining any workers' state, workers' democracy and control, is therefore depressed in the analysis before 1928 only to be resurrected in the analysis of the post- 1928 regime! In this way disabled from using the political arm of the analysis, the neo-Trotskyists are obliged to rely on economic criteria alone. They would have to show that the bureaucracy did not exist in an exploitative relationship to the proletariat under the Leninist-Trotskyite party dictatorship.

But even in 1927 the Trotskyite Left opposition was protesting that, 'the swollen and privileged administrative apparatus is devouring a very considerable part of the surplus value' and all the empirical data bears this out. The Russian economy was in all essentials the same in 1928 as it was under Lenin in 1923. The vaunted 'qualitative change' is a chimera disguising the real political dilemma beneath.

On the one hand only a monstrous contempt for the political facts of the situation could lead any analysis to accept their Stalinist regime as a workers' state. But on the other, the political theory and practice of the neo-Trotskyists is based upon that of the political personalities of Lenin and Trotsky, and the structure of the Bolshevik party (and its dictatorship) that they legitimated. The only way out of this impasse is to construct a 'transitional stage' between a Leninist-Trotskyist workers' state and a subsequent Stalinist state capitalist regime. Lenin died in 1924 and Trotsky was exiled in 1928. This is the real objective correlation being applied! So 1928 it is - a quite arbitrary date stemming from what is in Marxist terms, a quite arbitrary analysis,

One lesson in particular emerges from this discussion. For many decades past, the left in this country (and throughout Europe) has been shackled by its fetishisation of Bolshevik political organisation and the political personalities of Lenin and Trotsky. It should not be necessary to add that it is not being argued here that Lenin and Trotsky were not great Marxist thinkers and tacticians and that contemporary Marxists should reject their political theory and its practice in its entirety. But the recognition that each made fatal mistakes (not mere 'forced errors'!) in addition to positive contributions is an essential precondition of an advance in Marxist analysis. Both the historical analysis of key developments and events and the formation of current perspectives within socialism are distorted and crippled by the dogmatic refusal to renounce the scriptural status of their political legacy. Marxism itself is twisted and formalised accordingly.

Given the facts surrounding the history of the Russian revolution, this was no doubt an inevitable development with the Marxist movement for a certain period of time - at the time of the German revolution for example.

In contemporary circumstances, this fetishisation is a disaster for the left, preventing both on a theoretical and practical level, the development of a socialist movement possessing a genuine mass character.

Contribution from Red Action BM Box 37 LONDON WC1N 3XX

Open Polemic Issue 6