Response to Ed Maltby on "The Two Trotskyisms"

Author: 

Steve Bloom

I would not expect to see birds splashing
in a fountain on this cold autumn day.
But there they are.
And they are more than one.

Steve Bloom, “Meditations”

First let me thank Ed Maltby and others who have offered critical comments regarding my review of The Two Trotskyisms for their seriousness and honest attempt to investigate real questions. I am, therefore, choosing to jump into the conversation again. I think each round gets us a bit closer to the collective understanding we all require to move forward.

I feel compelled to add, however, since it's a subject Maltby himself raises: The style of conversation we are engaged in here does stand in sharp contrast, for me, with Shactman's approach in his polemics which are included in the book. (If it had only been the one instance of his response to Braverman's review I wouldn't have raised it.) Let me assure readers that I do not lack regard for Shactman's contributions to the revolutionary movement. I simply consider his style of polemic to be one of his weaknesses—though it probably appeared to his comrades at the time as a strength, and apparently it still seems that way to some. It's a weakness that ought to stand out sharply for us given the complaints, from Shactman himself, that the Cannon faction failed to engage in a respectful discussion of the opposition's views during the 1939-40 faction fight.

I do believe it's possible for individuals to make great contributions while still having significant weaknesses. Not only is it possible, it's what we should have learned to expect by now. The main point at the outset of these remarks, however, is that what we have in the present exchange is a good example of a respectful discussion, and I appreciate it deeply. I trust others will feel that this reply continues in the same spirit.

1) The first part of Maltby's contribution is a defense of The Two Trotskyisms as an antidote to the previous hegemony of “orthodox Trotskyist” history. I can understand why those who identify with the “heterodox” tradition might want to take this view. They, in turn, should be able to understand why I felt the book went too far in diminishing what the “orthodox” wing of the movement really did contribute. This question of balance shouldn't be decisive, however, and we ought to be able to tolerate some level of difference between us. I will try to understand why Maltby feels the way he does. He should try to understand why I have a different reaction.

Below we will return to this concept of mutual understanding without trying to resolve our differences. I think grasping it is one of the keys to advancing our conversation.

2) But first let me take up an issue that I do not feel can be treated in this way. It's one where our differences have to be investigated deeply, and probably resolved if we are going to make significant progress. It is also, I would say, the most important subject Maltby raises: the question of method. He calls mine “wretched” (which I will take as an attempt at a scientific characterization rather than as a personal attack). He tells us: “Also wretched is the attitude to socialist theory that Bloom betrays. Bloom seems to be suggesting that the long-worked-at body of socialist theory surrounding how we define socialism is simply abstractions picked from the air—rather than a distillation of and extrapolation from the experience of workers’ struggle and capitalist development going back over a century—and should not be allowed to get in the way of his ‘reality-based’ approach.”

Let me respond to this by assuring Maltby that his fears regarding what I “seem to be suggesting” are misplaced. We are, actually, in complete agreement: “the long-worked-at body of socialist theory” on any and all questions has nothing in common with “abstractions picked from the air.” It is indeed “a distillation of and extrapolation from the experience of workers' struggle and capitalist development going back over a century.” (Please note, however: “distillations” and “extrapolations” are still abstractions. This may be part of our problem. I use the term “abstraction” and Maltby, all on his own, adds “picked from the air.” No, that is not inherent in the concept of “abstraction.” I use this term in its scientific sense, not as a pejorative or as a synonym for “myth” or “mystification.” Our theories emerge based on our experience, yes. But they are not our experience. They are abstract statements about that experience.)

So let's proceed to consider the question of method based on this common understanding: that our theories are distillations based on experience. It's a good starting point. But it is only a starting point. We then have to ask: What is the nature of this distillation? To be precise (and dialectical—I will insist on my right to be dialectical) we must add: “Our theory is an incomplete and—inevitably—at least a partially inaccurate distillation.” Adding these extra words makes some considerable difference as we consider what method we should apply in relation to our own theories.

Why are our theories incomplete and at least partially inaccurate? There are two fundamental reasons:

a) Human theories about reality are inevitably incomplete because no matter how deep our theory goes, reality always has another layer of complexity which goes deeper still. Thus in any science, and the science of revolution is no exception, there are a host of new and yet-to-be-answered questions revealed to us by whatever answers we discover, or think we have discovered, to the set of questions we were originally considering.

b) Our theories about reality are inevitably inaccurate, at least in part, for the same reason: because reality has layers of complexity that our theories do not touch. Revolutionary theory is also inaccurate, however, because we are always describing reality as it was a moment ago, when we last observed it. In the meantime, between the moment we last observed reality and the subsequent moment when we elaborated our theory based on that observation, the reality itself has changed. It then continues to change. The further we travel in time after elaborating our theory the more profoundly the process of change will have effected reality, and the more inaccurate our elaborated theory becomes.

This is the primary reason we need a new and different theory to make revolution in the 21st century than was needed in the early to mid-20th century. It's not the fault of the theory of revolution as developed by people like Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, and Trotsky (based on their experiences). It's because the passage of time has changed the social reality we live in, transforming it into something qualitatively different from the social reality they lived in. Some (many) elements of our previous theory remain useful, even essential in my view, such as our theory of the state, because the reality of the state has not changed much. But other elements of our previous theory need to change a great deal, because the underlying reality today is substantially different. Let me suggest that the role of the industrial working class as the primary revolutionary subject is one of the most obvious. (Note: putting the word “industrial” in that sentence is what makes it true in my judgment. I am not challenging the role of the working class understood more broadly.)

If we are, then, condemned to always be formulating incomplete and inaccurate distillations based on our experience, it should be obvious that our theories cannot be determined once and, thereby, established immutably for all time—no matter how good and true they might seem to be at the moment we formulate them. Theories have to be constantly tested, reconsidered, reaffirmed or changed as needed. So yes, there is indeed something we should not let our previous distillations and extrapolations from experience get in the way of: They should never be allowed to get in the way of their own growth and development.

An example from the natural sciences if you will permit me: Isaac Newton's laws of motion were not “simply abstractions picked from the air.” They were “a distillation of and extrapolation from the experience” of actual bodies engaged in actual motion that Newton could observe. Bravo. Then Einstein came along—and pointed out that Newton's laws could not account for the motions of other things in the universe which, through no fault of Newton's, he had been unable to observe.

This analogy is quite useful for our present conversation, because if we look at the relationship between what Einstein discovered and Newton's laws it is the same as the relationship between newer and older theories of revolution: Einstein did not throw Newton's laws away. He incorporated them into a deeper and more substantial theory. I am suggesting a similar process with the theory of workers' democracy (the “definition of socialism”) that Maltby—along with other contributors to this discussion—considers so important. I too consider it important. I do not propose to throw it away. I propose to incorporate it into a deeper and more complete theory of post-capitalist society and the range of possibilities for its development.

If the only mammals I had ever seen were zebras, elephants, and gazelles I might reasonably conclude, based on a distillation and extrapolation from my experience, that “mammals are, universally, creatures that walk on four legs and eat plants.” Introduce me subsequently to lions and leopards and, if I follow Ed Maltby's method—of believing that my previous distillations from experience are sacred and not to be challenged—I am likely to have some trouble understanding what I am seeing. Don't even ask what will happen when I discover bats and dolphins and kangaroos. This analogy is not frivolous. The base of actual revolutions that our movement in the 1940s could use as it attempted to distill and extrapolate from its experience was very much like a knowledge of mammals that is limited to zebras, elephants, and gazelles. The experience in the 1930s and '40s of actual anti-capitalist revolutions that took power consisted of the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution, and a very brief experiment in Hungary. That's hardly an adequate basis for drawing theoretical conclusions which we then enshrine as immortal.

The Marxist method, we should remember, is to “doubt everything.” That includes doubting our own “distillation and extrapolation from experience.” Doubting something in this way doesn't mean negating it. It means being open to discovering its limitations, thereby adding new elements as the need for those new elements reveals itself based on new experience. This is the heart of my “reality-based” method. I believe it was also Marx's “reality-based” method, and the “reality-based” method of other revolutionaries of note whom we admire and wish to emulate. I will defend it vigorously against the various alternative methods that others may propose.

3) Maltby challenges me to give a more full-throated defense of the workers' state thesis, suggesting that my failure to do this in our exchange so far reflects theoretical weakness and/or demoralization. I feel some need to challenge this assertion.

I have chosen, up to now, in this particular conversation, not to consider whether the Soviet bureaucracy was a parasitic caste or a new ruling class simply because the question has little or no practical impact on our actions today. (This is one of the ways the world has changed since the 1940s and '50s, yes?) I reject Maltby's contention that the outcome of the cold war renders me unable to make a credible argument. Indeed, as you will see below, I believe the outcome of the cold war actually strengthens the argument I'm inclined to make.

I would, on the other hand, agree with Maltby that the “orthodox” focus on this issue as the key dividing line between revolutionaries and non-revolutionaries in the workers' movement was at least exaggerated, and probably misplaced. But whatever we might say about that, Cannon was certainly correct to believe that in the 1940s and '50s this was a central question on which everyone was required by life itself to express a judgment. Today that is, simply, no longer true.

Since Maltby has challenged me, however, let's pursue the conversation a bit.

First: I do not base my viewpoint on some pragmatic need of the moment, as he asserts Trotsky did at the outset of World War II. I base it on what I consider to be the clear analytical advantages of maintaining the theory of a bureaucratic caste. Let me list the three most important of these advantages:

* Historical materialism posits that new ruling classes come to power because they resolve contradictions that emerge within the previously-existing society—between the development of the productive forces and the relations of production. In other words, ruling classes arise because they fulfill a historical necessity. I reject elevating the Soviet bureaucracy to the level of historical necessity. (And here is where, I believe, the outcome of the Cold War strengthens my position. In the end the Soviet bureaucracy exited from the historical stage with barely a whimper. It melted away to nothing in an instant, because in reality it was based on nothing and represented nothing—if we measure in terms of social necessities. To me this confirms the fact that it was never correct to identify it as a ruling class.)

* Ruling classes universally work to promote the maximum possible social surplus in order to also maximize their own ability to expropriate the lion's share of that surplus. In the USSR the state consistently imposed economic choices—based primarily on political needs—that significantly hampered the production of a social surplus. This is best explained as the behavior of a parasitic bureaucracy, not of a ruling class.

* In all societies historically dominated by ruling classes, the exchange values of different commodities have had some meaningful relationship to each other based on the law of value. This is, I would say, a necessary condition for a ruling class as it attempts to measure the social surplus product in order to maximize it. The Soviet rulers, however, were able to arbitrarily set prices without regard to the law of value.

I therefore continue to believe that the “parasitic bureaucracy” characterization is analytically superior to any of the other theories that have been suggested over the years.

At the same time I will acknowledge that there is an argument to be made for an alternative point of view—based on different criteria than the three I cite. I am not persuaded by that argument, but I can understand why others might be. Please return to my thought above about the need, at times, to settle for understanding why we have a disagreement, and finding a level of tolerance for that disagreement when it's possible to do so, rather than insisting that there is one and only one right answer. I will acknowledge that what I think is not the only possible way to think, even within a generally revolutionary paradigm, though to my way of thinking it remains the best way to think. It would, I suggest, be a step forward both for Maltby and for our discussion if he is able acknowledge the same truth in reverse, trying to understand why I still maintain the assessment I do even if he may continue to disagree with me.

4) “Ultimately, a custom and culture in which the 'economy of prestige' within the organisation conditioned and limited the opportunities for political debate and collective self-correction paved the way for further degeneration. . . . This part of [the orthodox] legacy is surely fatal.”

As Maltby himself notes, he and I share this general critique of the Cannon tradition. Where we part company is in his last statement. I see the reality he describes as a substantial distortion, but not “surely fatal.” It did turn out to be fatal under a particular set of circumstances. Under different, and quite conceivable circumstances it might well have been overcome in my judgment—especially by a new generation of party leaders.

Once again we are confronted with a difference of historical assessment which we probably cannot, and also don't actually need to, resolve. In terms of practical action we can simply agree that as we proceed to develop our revolutionary organizations in the future that we will avoid this destructive practice. This should be sufficient.

5) Maltby acknowledges my distinction between a party (the SWP under Cannon) which was able to correct its erroneous assessments and projections in the 1940s and '50s, and another party (the SWP under Jack Barnes) which justified and deepened its errors instead. In this context he raises an additional distinction which I want to acknowledge, then reflect on a bit: “This was a correction, to be sure: but it was an 'office correction': there was never any open admission of an error, much less an accounting for the change made clearly in the course of open debate. The correction involved, the pulling-back from a frankly mystical and pro-Stalinist position, was a matter of members of a restricted circle coming to their political senses.” We do not need “deft adjustments by licensed experts,” he explains further, but “political struggle and clear public accounting within the organisation at large.”

Here I think we have another difference of assessment—not about the facts, but about the weight to give them. What Maltby says regarding the process of correction in the SWP during the 1940s and '50s is incontrovertible. I also think it is, probably, a natural part of revolutionary organization-building (perhaps any kind of organization-building) that we are going to have to learn to tolerate, even though it is far from an optimal process. We can try to recognize it when it happens, and to struggle against it. But we should not expect to overcome it.

To bolster this statement let me cite as an example one of the seminal experiences in our collective history: Lenin's return to Russia in the Spring of 1917 and his famous “April Theses.” True, this was not an “office correction” of the kind Maltby describes. But I suggest that's so only because Lenin got resistance from everyone else in the office. He was therefore compelled to engage in an open struggle among the ranks of the Bolshevik Party. This historical event nevertheless shares with the SWP experience a certain common thread: “there was never any open admission of an error, much less an accounting for the change.”

When confronted with the reality that he was, essentially, overturning the entire program of the Bolshevik Party Lenin failed to admit/recognize that the old program had been mistaken. He said, essentially: That was then; this is now. And the revolutionary movement subsequently paid an extremely high price for this default by Lenin, because it allowed Stalin to drape himself in a convenient ideological cloak of “old Bolshevism” during the 1930s and '40s, using a lack of clarity about what April 1917 actually represented in order to both attack Trotsky (the theory of permanent revolution) and obscure the fact that he was strangling revolutions in Europe and elsewhere.

We will arrive at a similar appreciation if we examine the shift from “War Communism” to the “New Economic Policy” in the early 1920s. You will not find a single acknowledgment at the time, from any Bolshevik leader, that the theory of war communism was a crazy, ultra-left adventure which needed to be corrected. This is because the shift really was conceived by them as a purely pragmatic affair. There was no deep critique of the policies that had come before—until many years later.

I don't know if there's a name for the general psychological phenomenon which is reflected in this kind of process. But it is obvious to me that there is a general psychological phenomenon at work: People will much more readily change their behavior than they will admit that there was anything wrong with their previous behavior. We see this constantly in the revolutionary movement, and not only in the revolutionary movement. Changes occur, often just pragmatically in response to reality. It is only after a period of months, or years, or even decades that the actors involved are able to look back and say: Our previous approach was based on a fundamental mistake, which we really do need to acknowledge and correct. I myself have experienced the same dynamic in my own thinking, even though I like to consider myself to be reasonably objective and self-aware. I will change my approach to a subject on the fly based on immediate and obvious necessities, developing an ad-hoc rationale to justify what I am doing. It is only some time later (sometimes much later) that I can seriously contemplate the more fundamental reasons why a specific adjustment was needed.

So Lenin's reply to his critics in April 1917 was probably the best he was capable of at the time, and the same would most likely be true of the SWP's office correction of its mistakes during the post-war era. Yes, the process Maltby calls for is far better. But I believe it is probably unrealistic for us to expect it from flawed human beings, at least most of the time. We will have to learn to do the best we can with an imperfect process.

6) Maltby challenges my assertion that nationalized property clearly had a progressive content in Eastern Europe, revealed to us by the anti-Stalinist uprisings in Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland: “Revolutionary workers’ movements developed both East and West of the iron curtain in the post-war period. Capitalist Portugal, France, Chile and Turkey to name but a few all saw post-war workers’ movements which shook their ruling classes to the marrow. Nationalised property was not a necessary factor in their development.”

What makes the Eastern European experience an illustration of the progressive nature of nationalized property, however, is not merely the fact that uprisings took place, but the role that nationalized property played in those uprisings. In each of these cases, if we had to work out a program for the coming revolution after the insurgent forces took power from the Stalinist bureaucrats, it would surely have included maintaining the nationalized property while creating democratic structures to control it. Indeed, with the exception of Poland—where the question of subjective intent is far from clear—this was, in fact, the actual program embraced by those involved in the uprisings. If that's true, then it surely tells us something about the nature of the property forms in question: The nationalizations, despite their bureaucratic origin, had already accomplished a task that the next revolution would otherwise have been required to carry out. What can that be called if not “progressive”?

There is no parallel whatever with the tasks of the revolutionary movements in Portugal, France, Chile, and Turkey.

7) Based on what he has written here I doubt whether Maltby and I have a serious disagreement regarding the theoretical relationship between our commitment to struggling for our ideas (“our” meaning those of us who continue to identify with the Trotskyist tradition in its broadest sense) and the process of listening and relating to ideas proposed to us by others. We do seem to have some difference in terms of applying that abstract theoretical understanding to the real world—which is probably worth a bit of further exploration. But I am going to leave that process of exploration for another time.

As far as my personal commitment to struggling for the Trotskyist (Marxist) ideas I learned in the SWP and which I still believe to be essential, I can refer Maltby to an extensive series of writings both before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is interesting that in the U.S. socialist organization I belong to, Solidarity, I am labeled by some as a sectarian throwback at the same time that Maltby denounces me for abandoning the faith. I would like to think that means I'm getting it about right, but only time and more experience can tell us for sure.

* * * * *

Let me close where I began, by thanking Ed Maltby and others for what I think is an interesting and enlightening exchange of views.

Steve Bloom
January, 2017

Comments

Caste or class or elite?

Just a passing remark -- or a few remarks -- on Steve's debate with Ed.

Every ruling class or elite above the working class is in a sense parasitic in that their existence isn't necessary for society to function. The working class could (and should) collectively run society without any entity dominating/directing/exploiting us.

But I'd argue with Steve that he, Mandel and Trotsky were wrong in their description of the way in which the Soviet elite was parasitic.

Marcel van der Linden, in Western Marxism and the Soviet Union, explains:

"A third problem is posed by the fact that Trotsky only ascribed a distributive and parasitic function to the bureaucracy, and thereby denied that it could have roots in the productive sphere. From an orthodox [Marxist] standpoint, this idea is impossible to sustain. The Soviet bureaucracy, after all, led the enterprises, and hence also the production processes.

[...]This dual character of the leadership function obviously also applied to Soviet enterprise management, which, on the one side, tried to organise production, and, on the other side, simultaneously embodied the oppression of the workers. Clearly, the corollary must be that at least an important part of the Soviet bureaucracy was not exclusively parasitic, but also performed
productive labour in the Marxian sense."

That said, I don't think the idea of a "bureaucratic collectivist mode of production" has held up well either. The EVOLUTION of Russia, China, Vietnam towards capitalism has made it clear that the Stalinist elites of these countries were NOT a new type of ruling class. They wanted to be, they tried to be, but they couldn't do it on the basis of the defective, dysfunctional Stalinist social system. The same elites now rule these states but increasingly as the representatives of capitalist classes.

So if these elites weren't a "bureaucratic collectivist ruling class" or a parasitic labor bureaucracy, what were they? I'd argue that in the 1920s the Soviet party-state became a representative of the peasantry, not the proletariat. As one author has put it:

"The peasantry cannot rule: and in consequence it can only, when it acts independently, find a master who will coerce it to produce for the society. That master is the absolutist state. The forced collectivizations and their consequences were not the result of Stalin the monster, or even merely of economic mismanagement. They were the consequences of letting the peasantry loose in the first place through the land reform and the ideology of the smychka. That this is the case can be demonstrated easily enough from the parallels in other Soviet-model states. The very same phenomenon -- scissors crisis, leading to a wildly ultra-left swing to coercing the peasantry under the name of "mobilizing" them, leading to mass starvation, etc. -- can be seen most clearly in China's "Great Leap Forward" and "Cultural Revolution". Milder forms of the same phenomenon have occurred in every Soviet-style regime to have had a significant peasantry in the first place or to have created one through "land reform". A more extreme version can be seen in Cambodia under Pol Pot."