The myth of Bolshevik "shock doctrine"

Submitted by martin on 3 June, 2016 - 9:30 Author: Martin Thomas

Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine is a left-wing book, an indictment of neoliberalism. She argues that to impose neoliberal economic doctrine, governments impose political "shock" tactics - from military coup and mass murder in Chile to milder forms of atomising the population, in Britain under Thatcher - in order to break social connections and norms.

Klein, however, throws in some side-swipes against the Bolsheviks, whom she describes as also having contrived social disaster and dislocation in order to make a population pliable to their will. In doing so she makes a misquotation which has a long history.

Keith Joseph, one of Margaret Thatcher's most loyal allies in government, was fond of this misquotation. "It was not for nothing that Lenin recommended inflation as the arch destroyer of what he called bourgeois democracy and we call democracy", he declared in a keynote speech in 1974. In the 1970s, when inflation was high, this idea that it was a devilish socialist and Leninist device to undermine bourgeois society was a common theme of Tory agitation.

The left-winger Klein attributes the same idea to the Bolsheviks as did the Thatcherite Joseph. She attributes it not to Lenin, but to Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, and even cites a page number (although from an edition not readily accessible).

Here are the facts.

The Lenin "quote" comes from John Maynard Keynes, who wrote: "Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the capitalist system was to debauch the currency... Lenin was certainly right. There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency..."

Keynes got it from a report published on 23 April 1919, by the Daily Chronicle in London and the New York Times, in which Lenin was said to have described the inflationary printing of paper money in Russia then (which was a fact: the hard-pressed Bolshevik government had scant means of collecting taxes) and to have commented that the decline of the currency would help kill "the spirit of capitalism" because "men will cease to covet and hoard [money] so soon as they discover it will not buy anything".

As two academics who have examined the record comment, "there are grounds for questioning the veracity of the interview. The Daily Chronicle’s Special Correspondent in Geneva was very hostile to the Bolsheviks..." Why should Lenin want to decry the worth of the money his own government was printing in order to pay its bills?

The Bolsheviks were anxious to stabilise the currency. They started coining silver and gold coins from 1922-3, and eventually, in 1924, managed to stabilise the ruble.

In any case, Lenin was talking about inflation under a workers' state, not as a mechanism which revolutionaries could contrive (how?) in order to subvert capitalism.

As Ephraim Kleiman establishes in an article in the academic journal History of Political Economy 32.2 (2000), the quotation from Bukharin and Preobrazhensky on which Klein relies is also about the inflationary printing of money in civil-war Russia, not about devilish socialist tactics under capitalism.

Bukharin and Preobrazhensky wrote that the revolutionary government had been unable to collect the taxes it planned, and so "the main source of revenue for the state has been the issue of paper money". This, they note, "leads indirectly to the expropriation of the money capital of the bourgeoisie", but they immediately comment that "the issue of paper money cannot in the long run constitute a means of revenue for [the] state..." They thought it could be replaced by government revenues from government-organised services, like public transport. In any case, their discussion had nothing to do with an idea of bringing about socialism by manipulatively creating chaos within capitalism.

It is true that some Bolsheviks were tempted by fanciful doctrines of sudden remaking-from-above in the most frantic periods of war communism. Even then, however, other Bolshevik leaders remonstrated.

And before that, in 1917-8, the Bolsheviks were notably cautious about such remaking-from-above. For example, the Bolshevik government carried out no comprehensive nationalisation of industry until late 1918, when it was pushed into it by demands from the workers in the factories and the fact that the old owners refused to submit to worker control and either fled or sabotaged production.

In the last period of the civil war, the Bolsheviks sharply rejected war communism and introduced the "New Economic Policy", deliberately saying that they had to use some capitalist market mechanisms to advance.

They knew well Marx's comment, made in his pamphlet on the Paris Commune: "The working class... have no ready-made utopias to introduce par décret du peuple... They have no ideals to realise, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant".

Socialist revolution requires the more-or-less sudden overthrow of the capitalist state - not by choice of the socialists, but because socialism cannot be built under a capitalist state, and a capitalist state will violently resist being reformed bit-by-bit. But after the overthrow of capitalist power, socialist economic advance is necessarily evolutionary, and in the first place a matter of "setting free" the elements of socialisation, planning, liberty, and equality already incubated by capitalism.