Stalinism in theory and history

Submitted by Wheeler_G96 on 22 February, 2021 - 3:16 Author: Pablo Velasco

Published in Workers' Liberty Series 1 No. 62 March 2000

In theories of Stalinism, as Haberkern comments in his review of The Fate of the Russian Revolution (WL59-60), plainly there are many nuances, and valuable contributions from the likes of Burnham, Carter and Draper which ought to be more widely known. But the book, criticised by Ernie for its failure to include more such texts, was not intended as a compilation of theories of bureaucratic collectivism. It is rather a critique of the ideas of latter-day Trotskyism, from the premises of Trotsky and by his most ardent followers.

Many critiques of bureaucratic collectivism have pointed to its negative character, and Ernie is right to stress that it contained positive elements. Hal Draper defined the economic motor of Stalinism as; 'the contradiction between (1) the absolute need of the economy to be planned, since in a statified economy only the plan can perform the role in society which under capitalism is the function of the market and market relations; and (2) the impossibility of workably planning a modern complex society from the top down under conditions of bureaucratic totalitarianism". (Stalinist Imperialism and the Cold War Crisis, Labor Action, 10 May 1954). This conception certainly has its merits, but as far as I know, it was never really seriously developed into a theory of the USSR. Nor was there a great synthesis of such insights, beyond some journalistic flourishes. The peculiarities of Russia, let alone of Yugoslavia, China, and Cuba were well sketched, but not really fleshed out into an explanation of their development and decline.

As far as I am aware, the American comrades didn’t deal adequately with the place of Stalinism in history either, although their responses to major events in the class struggle in the forties and fifties (e.g. on the Russian army in Eastern Europe, on China in 1949 and on Hungary in 1956) were valuable indicators for how to respond in 1989-91 when Stalinism collapsed. I don’t think Ernie’s discussion of the ‘bureaucratic collectivisation' of capitalism adds much to what Marx called the concentration and centralisation of capital. It is also potentially confusing. One of the most significant aspects of Trotsky's writing on Stalinism, continued by Shachtman, Carter, and others, was their argument that Stalinism could not be slotted neatly into Marx's theory of capitalism. Ernie says that the essence of Stalinism was different from capitalism, but then depicts bureaucratic collectivist' tendencies as a broad, all-embracing trend of the present epoch. This may make bureaucratic collectivism sound more relevant to current discussions on globalisation and such like, but only at a loss of its historical specificity.

How should Marxists analyse different class societies in history? Carter addressed this question when he wrote, against CLR James' theory of state capitalism: "The process of accumulation is then consciously directed through the state, and the state alone. It is this ‘specific manner" in which the factors of production are united, this specific way in which surplus is extracted from the working class, that differentiates bureaucratic collectivism from capitalism." Aspects of Marxian Economics, New International, April 1942. He was only paraphrasing the master-key Marx identified to understand different societies in history: "The specific economic form in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of the direct producers, determines the relationship between rulers and ruled".

Ernie also does Shachtman a disservice. When Stalinism expanded into Poland and Finland, Shachtman's critiques of Trotsky, initially on the meaning of ‘defence of the Soviet Union' and the political conclusions which followed from it, were exceptionally valuable, as was his devastating critique of ‘orthodox Trotskyism' during and after the war. It is possible to recognise this groundclearing as important without ignoring criticisms of Shachtman, including his ambiguities on Stalinism. Shachtman also prominently reaffirmed the crucial conception of the ‘third camp', meaning independent working class politics.

Shachtman wrote in 1939, 'The independent revolutionary movement cannot be brought into existence and advance if we support the Stalinist invasion. The forces of the third camp are already at hand- scattered, demoralised, without program or perspective. The problem is to bring them together, to infuse them with morale, to supply them with program and perspective. To argue that these forces are small and insignificant, has no political meaning, for the argument could apply both ways (if they are insignificant, they can no more 'defend' than ‘defeat'). Political meaning is contianed only in the line upon which we expect the vanguard to come together and along which we urge them to act." (Fate, p. 557).

Whilst socialism from below is necessary for the renewal of Marxism, it does not really explain what revolutionaries should do once they accept this conception of socialism. To stretch the point a bit, a good syndicalist might agree that the focus should be on the working class, and on work in the unions, without having a clear idea of how to take the movement forward, of how to transform the existing (reformist) labour movement into one that can fight for socialism, or indeed of the role of socialists beyond making propaganda. The point is that from big ideas like imperialism down to how to intervene in particular struggles, the answers do not flow logically and simply from a commitment, as important as it is, to socialism from below.

The third camp conception defined by Shachtman, that revolutionaries have to carve out the socialist project by their own efforts in the working class, is grounded in working class self-emancipation - but it goes further. It addresses the next question: if the workers are to make their own revolution, how will they do so, when the ruling ideas of the epoch are those of the ruling class. It demands that the revolutionary socialists wage an unceasing fight on the ideological front of the class struggle for clarity of ideas, which is what the book does in tracing the rise of Stalinism and where Trotskyism went wrong in analysing it. It demands that socialists organise within the working class movement internationally to wage the class struggle, not only in the realm of ideas or in the unions, but on the political front, in the realm of parties and of government.

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