Why the workers want to restore capitalism: the legacy of Stalinism
By Sean Matgamna
Socialists like ourselves, watching the replacement of the Stalinist state economies not by socialist workers' power and a democratic collectivist system, but by capitalism, are in a position roughly similar to the pioneering Marxists George Plekhanov and Karl Kautsky when they watched the Russian workers take power although their dogmatic expectation was that only the bourgeoisie could replace the Tsar.
In fact not the Russian bourgeoisie, but the working class led by the Bolsheviks, replaced the Tsar. The parallel has lessons for us.
What we are witnessing in the USSR is a bourgeois revolution. The leaders of the anti Stalinist revolution and their ideas; the ideas in the heads of the mass of the people (including the working class); the West European and US social models they look to - all define it as a bourgeois revolution. It is not a bourgeois revolution against the working class, or against feudalists, but against the rule of the collectivist bureaucratic ruling class, the class which clustered around the once all-controlling state which was, so to speak, its property.
It is a bourgeois revolution having much in common with the revolutions against absolutism in France after 1789 and in various parts of Central Europe in the mid 19th century. It has more, a great deal more, in common with the (abortive) bourgeois revolution against the decayed oriental despotism of China at the beginning of this century, though the USSR is greatly more developed and it would probably be misleading to draw an exact equivalence between the Stalinist system and oriental despotism.
Nevertheless, a bourgeois revolution it is. It faces tremendous difficulties. But they are material, practical, technical difficulties - the lack of markets and of an entrepreneurial bourgeoisie, the tremendous weight of the bureaucracy even after it is certifiably brain-dead, etc. - not difficulties arising from the resistance of the working class, or by the coherent resistance of any other class.
The bureaucracy is a class - the class which has organised the system of production and appropriated the surplus product for over 60 years - but it, too, or its thinking layers anyway, favours the full bourgeoisification of Stalinist society. When Gorbachev now calls himself a "Scandinavian social-democrat", it is just an euphemism for a bourgeois society. When he talks - and Yeltsin, too - - about democracy, that is an euphemism for the same thing.
Where Yeltsin and Gorbachev differed was not in their programme, but in their relationship to the old decayed, disintegrating, bureaucratic ruling class. Until he suddenly cut loose last weekend, Gorbachev was still half-tied to it; Yeltsin was outside. Now the failed coup has unleashed mass revolutionary action and destroyed the power of the bureaucracy. Its collective institutions - its party property, its private economy-within the-economy, access to which came not from money but from caste status - all that is being hacked down now.
Gorbachev has been a cross between the nobles who overthrew the Tsarist autocracy with a palace coup, and Kerensky, who tried to hold the balance between left and right until displaced by the October Revolution in 1917 - except that the movement is not from a half-shaped bourgeois society to workers' power, but from Stalinist collectivism to a bourgeois society, whose champions now have the upper hand.
It is a bourgeois revolution with a still feeble bourgeoisie - even more feeble than the bourgeoisie reared under Tsarism and blighted by economic symbiosis with it, then pushed aside by the Bolshevik party leading the workers and peasants. But bourgeois ideas are a great power because they have indeed "gripped the masses".
For many decades, in the West and South, millions fervently looked to the Soviet Union as their model for liberty and prosperity (and many in the Third World probably still do: myths do not evaporate easily). Today the masses in the ex-Stalinist states have an ironically identical attitude to capitalism. The workers are locked in behind the aspirant bourgeoisie and the intellectuals and the Churches, into an ideal of a free and prosperous market-organised society. The ideas of liberty, and the hope of prosperity, have for them become fused with support for the market.
The great common enemy of "society" is the bureaucracy and the old system. Though opinion polls may show some mass support for socialist values (and liberty and prosperity are socialist values), ideas of class interest seem to be rudimentary and trade union level.
The very conception of class consciousness is discredited and tainted by its misuse in the ideology of the bureaucracy, who presented their savage repression as a matter of fighting the proletarian class struggle.
Worse than that, the experience that has shaped and is still shaping the working class in the Stalinist societies propels them away from socialist collectivism, towards marketism and individualism: the hated old system was collectivist.
For masses of workers to form the idea of their own democratic collectivism would be difficult in the circumstances even if a respected and big working-class-based democratic-socialist anti-Stalinist organisation had presented and argued for such a programme in the heat of the struggle against Stalinism. No such party exists: the Stalinists saw to that.
No tradition of independent socialism has been allowed to survive: Stalin saw to that, too, extirpating socialists and even socialist ideas as well as presenting grotesque caricatures of those ideas as his own ideological self-justifications.
The negative impact of bourgeois market capitalism and the exploitation of workers by private capitalists allied to the state helped shape the anti-capitalist labour movements in Europe and pre-1917 Russia, pushing workers struggling against the system towards collectivism, and allowing the socialists to be the most conscious element of the class, rendering the gut reactions of workers in struggle coherent and scientific.
All that is turned inside out and upside down in the crazy mirror-image society created by Stalinism.
Whereas in the 1890s the first great wave of mass working-class strikes could link up with the Marxists and the young Russian working class began the work of hammering out an independent working-class programme and an organisation to fight for it, now the very opposite course is almost mechanically imposed. The instinctive reflex reaction against totalitarian collectivism pushes the proletariat not towards its own necessary programme, the alternative to all exploitation, capitalist or bureaucratic, but organically towards the programme of the bourgeoisie.
The weak socialist groups in the Stalinist states have to argue against the grain, paralleling perhaps the few honest utopian liberal democrats back in 1917.
The collapsing system was imposed by Stalin on a largely petty bourgeois society and economy. Nothing in the Marxist programme indicated such all-embracing collectivism, even for a far more developed and less petty-bourgeois society; Trotsky criticised it, though not enough.
In fact Stalin's action in this grew from the competition of the bureaucracy with the petty bourgeoisie and aspirant bourgeoisie for the surplus product: it arose in the bureaucracy's struggle to root out all competitors. The natural evolution would have been to collectivise the "commanding heights" of the economy, controlling and regulating the rest, making controlled links with the world market.
That was the policy after 1921 of Lenin and Trotsky. Even when the Left Opposition argued, between 1923 and 1929, for more "socialistic" measures, they argued within the market-based "New Economic Policy": Stalin broke it entirely.
Now the Stalinist economy is unravelling because for nearly four decades it has had neither the Stalinist terror that energised it and controlled the bureaucracy in the early decades, nor conscious working-class democratic self-control in society and the economy.
The consequence for socialists now in the USSR who want to stand against the tide is that they have to argue for a better and different sort of collectivism in face of the utter failure of the Stalinist totalitarian collectivism. It is probably a task difficult to the point of impossibility: that is why the socialist groups remain tiny and isolated, unjustly tainted with both Stalinism and utopianism. They are powerless to demonstrate except in words - words worn away and debased by the Stalinist counterfeiters - what their socialism is; and powerless also against the pressure of international capitalism.
The political force able to conduct the necessary struggle - a democratic socialist party - will have to emerge out of the immediate class struggles - both the sectional economic struggles and the political struggles to win, consolidate and defend democracy, in which the socialists should take the lead, competing with the Yeltsins - and out of the discussion of what went wrong with Stalinism.
There is on another level, too, a lawfulness about the bourgeois character of the revolution. In terms of human liberty - freedom of utterance, organisation, sexuality, habeas corpus, the rule of law - the Stalinist world until recently had fallen backwards in history hundreds of years, further back even than some of the notoriously brutal Third World authoritarian regimes.
It was as if all the advances since the Middle Ages associated with the rise and spread of bourgeois civilisation had never happened: except that they existed and flourished in Europe and the US and other places, side by side with but beyond the borders of the Russian Empire. Inevitably this system acts as a great magnet and beacon for the lost tribes of the Stalinist world. They have looked across the borders - especially the thinking intelligentsia in the Stalinist states - at the advanced bourgeois world as from across hundreds of years of historical time.
No independent working-class outlook was formed, for all the reasons above and because of repression, but also because Stalinism was above all characterised by a propensity to disguise itself in forms taken from advanced bourgeois society. Thus you had "unions" that were police-state unions, anti-unions; empty political parties; and you had the old socialist ideas of self-organising democratic collectivism transmuted into ideological camouflage for the bureaucratic collectivist ruling-class exploitation.
Vast difficulties were thus placed in the way of the proletariat developing its own outlook; those difficulties still operate now, after the era of savage police-state repression has passed.
And yet the only way that the road from Stalinist totalitarian collectivism to democratic working-class socialist collectivism could be a direct one, eliminating the capitalist stage now at hand, would be for the working class to be able to formulate its own clear programme and organise itself. For the totalitarian state economy to be replaced by a working-class, democratically-planned socialist economy and not by chaos, as now, the working class would have to take central directing control of the economy. Everything has militated against the working class being prepared to do that.
Stalinism in its long, but until recently still savage, stagnation and decay, pinned the working class under its own dead weight. To change the image: it was not working-class socialism that could gestate within the womb of the Stalinist society. At the same time, a bourgeoisified layer of the bureaucracy, and a sizeable "middle class", developed. The only way the system could open up was when its own central rulers acted to paralyse it at the centre.
The Bolsheviks in 1917 knew that the Russian workers' state could not escape from world capitalism and build socialism. They could only act as a pioneer for the West European workers who would overthrow advanced capitalism.
Neither did it prove possible for the Stalinist system - which also counterposed itself to the bourgeoisie and proposed to find its own way to the future, competing with advanced world capitalism - to supplant Western capitalism starting on the basis of the backward Russian empire: they were too poor for the competition; and the bureaucratic ruling class never succeeded in establishing an articulated, coherent, self-regulating economic system.
Everything including the empire and the pretensions to world power status rested on the grotesquely inflated military machine, which devoured maybe a third of the gross product of the empire! Collapse was inevitable.
As I have argued above, only a sharp degree of independent class consciousness would make independent working-class politics possible, a sharper degree of historical and theoretical awareness than was necessary to make independent working-class politics possible in 1917. Inevitably, since independent working-class politics in the Stalinist state require the working class to go against the grain of its own repulsion from the system of its immediate oppressors and exploiters, vastly greater masses of workers would have to consciously understand and hold to a broad historical perspective than held the socialist perspective of the 1917 Bolsheviks.
Its existence in misery an oppression, without free speech or free organisation or honest information, under the control of the bungling, ignorant, hierarchically-organised medieval-minded bureaucracy, was the worst possible conditions for the working class to achieve that, or for the socialists even to prepare the ground for it. The reviving socialist movement in the USSR is at an even more rudimentary stage than it was 100 years ago.
Everything seemed organised by some malign spirit of History to push the working class behind a bourgeois revolution in the Stalinist states.
And not only behind it: one of the most remarkable events of history is the fact that the Polish nation came after 1980 to re-form itself around the labour movement, and still it was a bourgeois anti Stalinist revolution that issued from the ultimate victory.
And yet what happened in Poland corresponded more than any revolution since the Russian Revolution of 1917 to Trotsky's formula of the permanent revolution - "the reconstruction of the nation under the leadership of the proletariat".
The working class took the lead, with a great revolutionary strike and the creation in 1980 of the Gdansk soviet, rallying all the people around it against the autocracy and against foreign domination - and produced a bourgeois revolution. The facts above, and the "consciousness of priests" and pro capitalist intellectuals, influencing Solidarnosc in the dog days of its 1980s outlawry, explain that result.
At the core of this experience is the ideological defeat of the working class and its consequent political enslavement to alien forces, the terrible havoc wreaked by Stalinism and by its ideological forgeries and palimpsests on the old working-class socialist ideas and programme. It is all, in its own way, a terrible negative proof of the truth of the Marxist teaching about the class struggle and about the need for a political organisation of the working class able to play the vanguard role of political and ideological trailblazers. As the Communist Manifesto defined it: the Communists have no interests apart from those of the working class, but they represent the future of the movement in the movement of the present
For all the bourgeois propaganda that the idea of a working-class vanguard organisation is inevitably, even organically, Stalinist, the bourgeoisie have won their victory and are set to win more because they have their "vanguard" in place - their coterie of priests and academics and groups of defecting bureaucrats.
Despite the vast propaganda equating Marxist organisation with Stalinist pseudo parties, what the USSR, like Eastern Europe in the last two years, shows us most powerfully is that its own class-conscious, fighting Marxist party is irreplaceable for the working class if it is to free itself from bourgeois influence
These are the explanations why socialists like ourselves see things developing in a radically different direction to the one we hoped tor - why we are reduced to Kautsky's and Plekhanov's fury at history's perversity. But it is not perversity. One consequence of Stalinism is to ensure that those who insisted that Russia could develop only by way of capitalism towards the possibility of working-class power are, after a detour of three quarters of a century, proved right!
They were not inevitably right: the victory of the working class in Western Europe which was possible would have saved the Russian Revolution from the Stalinist counter-revolution and the world from Nazism. It was not inevitable, but it is what is happening now.
A strong socialist movement in the West might have helped ensure a different evolution for Solidarnosc, the only real mass working-class movement to have been consolidated in the Stalinist societies. If the Western labour movements had not - under Stalinist, and sometimes "Trotskyist", influence - scabbed on Solidarnosc, or had effectively helped independent trade unions in the other Stalinist states instead of junketing and hobnobbing with the police-state "trade unions", then things might have gone differently. But things have gone the way they did.
Our hopes and expectations that after this system would come workers' power are now shown to be so many delusions which must be painfully shed. Without illusions, we must support the democrats in the revolutions now taking place. Recognising that the more thoroughly democratic these revolutions are, the more the old Stalinist state is destroyed, the better for the free development of the future working-class struggles and for the growth of a socialist labour movement, we must do what we can to help them. In the first place we must try to understand them.
Above all, we must give practical and moral support to the tiny groups of socialists now painfully beginning to rebuild a real socialist movement and a socialist labour movement in the states where Stalinism is collapsing on the ground poisoned for so long by the Stalinist counterfeit of socialism.