Or read online:
- 1. Why is socialism in disarray? part i and part ii
- 2. What Stalinism Did to Socialism
- 3. The survivors of Atlantis
- 4. The poverty of "anti-imperialism" and today's left
- 5. Build a Revolutionary Party? What is a Revolutionary Party?
- 6. Does socialism make sense in the 21st century?
The economic crisis has shaken the tremendous mystique which the world capitalist system had built in the two decades since the collapse of European and Russian Stalinism. They had been decades of globalisation; of enormous capitalist expansion; of US hyper-power bestriding the world; and of mass belief in markets as the self-sufficient god-like regulator of economic and therefore of all social, that is of all human, affairs. Now writers in the ultra-Tory Daily Telegraph (20 September, 2008) feel compelled by events to admit that the capitalist “cycle” has been “more accurately predicted by Karl Marx” than by bourgeois economists.
Something else too startled the world. In an era of globalization and market fetishism, it was revealed that we, in the US and Britain, were ruled by “socialistic” – selectively socialistic but socialistic all the same — governments.
The ultra-right-wing neo-liberal US administration of George W Bush and the neo-Thatcherite Blair-Brown government of Britain, both previously amongst the extreme idolaters of the market, stepped in and assumed the role which the failing large banks had played, the role of social banker, financial organiser, and regulator of the entire economy.
They used the government power to collect and redistribute taxes, to channel many, many billions of dollars and pounds from society to subsidise the banks and stop them collapsing.
This was an implicit acknowledgment that uncontrolled markets led not to the creation of the inexhaustible social cornucopia, but to social disaster. The British government’s explanation is more than merely plausible — that if it had not intervened as it did to play the role of organiser, financier, and guarantor of the financiers, then the high street cash-point machines, the fuelling-points of all mundane commercial and social activity, would have closed down. “Society”, would have seized up, as the US economy did when the banks closed their doors in the early 1930s, or worse.
As governments in ancient societies of “Asiatic despotism” and other “hydraulic societies”, in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, had had to play an essential role in organising the prerequisites of social production — irrigation canals, etc. — so the ultra-free-market US and British governments were compelled, on pain of financial and social dislocation and collapse, to step from behind the ideological curtain of pretence and assume the role of social organisers.
In the crunch the banks depended on social action by the overall representatives of society to avert a catastrophe generated by their own capitalist system, to act to cancel out the natural consequences of market relations for the bankers and for society.
But if this “socialism”, or “social-ism”, was in the interests of society, it was also pointedly in the direct interests of the bankers and those who own, control, and benefit most from the economy.
It was bankers’ socialism, fat-cat socialism. Bourgeois socialism.
It did, however, point to and underline the fundamental rationale of Marxist socialism, the thing that makes it sensible and, essentially, invulnerable to the defeats or errors or even annihilation of socialist parties and of Marxists: capitalism itself prepares and continually develops the socialist transformation of society. As Friedrich Engels put it: socialist society “invades” large-scale capitalism. Marxist socialism is only the conscious expression of this objective reality.
Capitalism grows from small-scale production to ever more gigantic concentrations of the means of production in huge society-wide enterprises. Capitalism has developed from a world where markets regulated the affairs of small commodity production to a world of giants whose size modifies the workings of markets and whose needs — and society's needs in relation to them — can, as we have just once more seen, only be met by social, society-wide action.
Today, whole towns-worth of shops are concentrated in each big supermarket. Whole branches of social economy are organised in the giant and increasingly international companies that dominate human life.
But these gigantic social enterprises are still organised and regulated to produce the maximum private profit. Not human need but the income of shareholders and executives rules their decisions. The fate of the workers within them — whether, for example, the enterprise shuts up operations in one locality and migrates across national borders, or continues to allow a particular community to go on working, existing — all that is regulated by the obligation of the enterprise to produce profit for shareholders and enormous salaries and bonuses for the corporate bosses who run these great chunks of social activity and social labour.
An anti-Marxist polemicist (Observer journalist Nick Cohen) dismisses the idea that Marx, writing early in industrial capitalism, could have understood its essentials. In fact Marx, according to himself, based his analysis of capitalist society on over 400 years of capitalism in history — as distinct from industrial capitalism — before his time. In any case the question is, did he see into the essentials of our system?
Does capitalism continue to have and to be dominated by the characteristics which Marx analysed and their manifold manifestations in our society? Doesn’t it? Do we live in a world dominated by capitalist companies, entities whose driving force and goal is to wring the maximum profit for their shareholders out of their operations — that is, out of those who work in them — no matter what the human and social consequences, have more wealth and immeasurable more social power than many contemporary governments?
Our world is shaped and reshaped, calmed or tsunami-hit by those companies’ competition for profit.
It would not be too fanciful to say that the big shareholders in each company bear something like the same sort of relationship to those employed by the companies, or conglomerates of companies, as the minority of citizens in an ancient Greek city state had to the four or five times more numerous slaves, women and foreigners who made their lives there.
The competition of these international entities is reshaping our world now in ways whose ultimate working-out can only be surmised.
The great tragedy-bearing paradox of political and social life is that though this social development corresponds to the bedrock Marxist expectations of the way capitalism, in accordance with its inner drives and needs, had to develop, the fundamental case for socialism today, socialism in general and Marxist socialism in particular, is marginalised, more discredited that at any time in one hundred years and more.
Yet the necessity and the possibility of replacing this system by genuine social control, under the social ownership and the day-to-day, interstice-by-interstice control of the producers, is a great deal more obvious now, and more pressing than in the time and the capitalism of Marx and Engels. And we are now in the worst economic crisis in many years, perhaps decades… An editorial in the Daily Telegraph in 2008 said the plain truth: “the world now corresponds more to the expectation of Karl Marx than of any other economist or social philosopher.”
Commentators point to the absence of an intellectually credible socialism as one of the great assets which capitalism in this crisis possesses. There is no denying it. That, indeed, is how things stand with socialism. Socialism is in intellectual, political and organizational disarray, everywhere.
The question I want to explore in this series of articles is why, by way of what events, has the socialism that embodies the project of substituting for the capitalist system a rational, democratic and non-exploitative form of economic and social life come to stand for so little in a world where once again the fundamental ideas of Marxism about capitalism have been shown beyond serious argument to be stark truth. Why is it socialism, and not capitalism, that is most discredited?
On one level, the answer is expressed in one word: Stalinism. But European Stalinism has been dead twenty years. Why has the authentic socialism, the socialism of whose who fought Stalinism, and often fought it to the death, not revived, not springing alive and young again out of the vanished shadow of Stalinism?
Because, to a large extent, like Joe Hill in the song, Stalinism can assert: “I never died”. Stalinism, politically, intellectually and in ingrained collective habits of mind, is still alive on the would-be left. If that left is to emerge from its present nullity, it will have to purge itself of the traits I will analyze in these articles.
[Note. The text here has an additional section, not in the printed version, section 8, and some small additions]
A] THE STALINIST ROOTS OF THE PRESENT CRISIS OF THE LEFT
1) Defining an age
2) ”Communism" and the Left
3) Stalinism and Socialism
4) The Old Left and the New
5) The Basic Beliefs of Old Socialism
6) Bolshevism, Marxism and the Russiann Revolution
7) Old Socialism and Stalinism
8) Lenin, and Anti-Utopian Marxism
9) Stalinism Was Utopianism
B) THE POLITICAL CONTENT OF THE STALINIST COUNTER-REVOLUTION
1) The Stalin[ist]-Refashioned Left
2) The Politics of Anything-Goes Expediency
A. Stalinist roots of the present crisis on the left
1. Defining an age
In the summer of 1933, a few months after the Nazis had consolidated power in Germany, a conversation that defines a whole political age, and in so doing offers a key to understanding the malaise of the left today, took place in a group of young members of the Communist Party, in Cambridge. Some of the participants in that conversation would serve the USSR as double agents within the British secret services for decades to come, and be exposed, in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The story of that conversation is told in Andrew Boyle's The Climate of Treason.
Kim Philby, just back from Germany, reported to his friends. Hitler had been allowed to come to power peacefully. The powerful German Communist Party (KPD) had had six million voters and hundreds of thousands of militants. It had its own armed militia, which until the Nazis consolidated their power had had the strength to repress the fascists in the working-class districts of Berlin. And yet the KPD had allowed itself to be smashed, without even making a fight of it. When the bourgeoisie called the Nazis to power, the KPD had slunk into its grave — without even token resistance.
During the two and a half years from the September 1930 elections to the consolidation of Nazi power in January-March 1933, as the Nazis grew spectacularly, the KPD had refused to try to unite with the Social Democrats to oppose them. In 1920, a general strike had defeated an attempt at right wing coup, the so-called Kapp Putsch; in 1933 the KPD did not even attempt to organise a general strike! The KPD and the Social Democratic Party — whose leaders in the Reichstag pledged to be a loyal, legal opposition to Hitler — destroyed the possibility of a general strike. They ensured that the call for a general strike made by the small Trotskyist organisation met with no response.
It was one of the great pivotal events in the history of the labour movement, and in the history of the 20th century. The final consolidation of Russian Stalinism, World War Two, Stalin's conquest of Eastern Europe, the decline and decay and ultimately the complete destruction of the revolutionary working class movement that had rallied to the Russian October Revolution.
In fact, the KPD acted as it did on Stalin's direct orders. Stalin had decided that it was in the USSR's interests to let Hitler come to power because Hitler would try to revise the Treaty of Versailles imposed on defeated Germany by the victors of the First World War and “keep them busy in the West while we get on with building up socialism here”, as he put it to the German Communist leader Heinz Neumann. Stalin would later have Neumann shot: his wife Margurite would be one of a trainload of German Communist refugees from Hitler who were transferred — in an act that symbolised and summed up Moscow’s relationship with the international “communist” movement — from Stalin’s concentration camps to Hitler’s, in 1940, as a gesture of goodwill to the German ally, after the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939. She lived to tell the story.
In Cambridge in that summer of 1933 the young men listening to Philby's report tried to make sense of events — of their own political world. The Communist International was still denying that any defeat at all, still less a catastrophe, had occurred: it denied that the KPD had been destroyed. It was still playing with idiotic slogans: “After Hitler — our turn!” Those who wanted to stay in the Stalin's “Communist International” had to accept that way of looking at it. This was the period of “High Stalinism”: the Pope in Moscow decided such things and brooked neither opposition, disagreement nor sceptical reserve. Even so, the question forced its way through: were the leaders of the Communist International correct?
More daring than the others, one of the Cambridge group suggested that, maybe — maybe — mistakes had been made. Maybe they should have fought the Nazis rather than let them consolidate fascist rule peacefully? Perhaps Stalin's critics were right? Perhaps, after all, Stalin did not quite know what he was doing.
“No!”, said Philby, the future KGB general, very heated. The KPD not had made mistakes, and Stalin had not got anything wrong in Germany. To talk of even the possibility that Stalin was mistaken was to miss the point, Philby insisted: he denied that, where the affairs of the labour movement were concerned, Stalin could be mistaken and wrong. Like the infallible Pope, who cannot err where Catholic “matters of faith and morals” are concerned, Stalin could not err where the affairs of the left were concerned. “W...why”, he stuttered, “W...what-ever Stalin does – th… tha… that is the left!” There was no left other than Stalin.
2. “Communism” and the left
It is a statement that sums up an entire epoch in the history of the left, and, to call things by their proper names, what was becoming the ex-left: for the hitherto left and right were now melding in a new Stalinist synthesis. What Stalin did, what the Russian and later other Stalinists in power did, whatever they did, including things that had previously characterised the right, whatever they said in the name of socialism and communism — that was now socialism, that deed and doctrine, was now the left! The left today is the child and grandchild of that “left”.
Defence of what that “socialist state” did, and generalisations from what it did, whatever it was — that became the left. The official accounts of what they were and what they did; the rationalisations, fantasies and lies which disguised the real nature of what they did; the learned “Marxist” commentaries on the “reasons” for what they did; the deep “theoretical” “Marxist” arguments that were concocted to explain what they did and why “socialism” in the USSR was so very far from the old hopes and socialist goals of the old left; the codification of Stalinist practice, written over and into the basic texts of socialist learning, turning “communism” and “Marxism” into incoherent and ever-changing Stalinist palimpsests — that was now “the left”.
With the Stalinist counter-revolution, what had for decades been socialism, a powerful progressive force in the world, the implacable enemy by instinct and belief of oppression, social inequality, repression, exploitation, superstition, unreason, and of its own opposite, the right in instinct and conviction, was transformed into a “socialism”, that, amongst other things, as we will see, incorporated the basic traits of the old right and was itself the negation of the old socialism. Everything socialistic was transformed.
3. Stalinism and socialism
The old aspirant socialism promised freedom; the new “ socialism” brought slavery. Socialism was “the free association of producers”; “socialism” brought a murderous intensification of labour exploitation under a ruling class which, as Trotsky put it at the end of the 1930s, concentrated in itself all the worst traits of all the ruling classes of history.
Aspirant socialism was first the victory of the working class in the class struggle against the bourgeoisie, what the Communist Manifesto defined as “to win the battle of democracy”. “Socialism” was the victory of the bureaucratic Stalinist ruling class in its class struggle with the workers of the USSR. Aspirant socialism was republican liberty and equality; “socialism” was an absolute monarchy whose King-Pope-Caesar-Caliph-Sultan, as Trotsky observed, could truly say, like Louis XIV “society, c'est moi”. Society - it is I.
Socialism was democracy all through society and the economy — a world with no racial, national, religious, sexual or class oppression, a world with neither slave nor ruling brigand. “Socialism” was political and social tyranny. Even where there was economic progress, this “socialism” fell behind bourgeois civilisation, excising and stigmatising the gains of centuries in culture, everyday rationality and human rights, most relentlessly, of working-class political and social rights.
Socialism meant the cutting down of the state's repressive functions and its power, the beginning of its withering away; “socialism” was the rising up of a totalitarian state to the exercise of unprecedented power over society, installing a state-worship identical with that of fascism. Socialism was the triumph of a rational, humane morality, replacing class society's morality of the jungle and of petrified superstition with the moral principles of consistent, comprehensive human solidarity, rooted in the working class solidarity on which labour movements are erected; at all the levels of “socialist” society, “socialism” knew only the morality of the slave market, of the venal courtier, of the insecure, hypocritical ruling elite, of the unfeeling, greedy, privileged consumer in a world of scarcity and famine.
Socialism was the victory of reason over the murderous unreason of class society; “socialism” raised irrationality to the pitch of nightmare, and sometimes outright madness. Aspirant socialism was reason in revolt; “socialism” was reason in captivity to a church-state, ruled-over by a Pope-Caesar, with his cardinals, bishops and local supervising, enforcing, preaching and “educating” secular clergy all across the world. The intellectual and moral foundation of socialism was the ruthlessly critical appraisal and reappraisal of reality. In Marx's words, it continuously “plucked the imaginary flowers [of religious consolation] from the chain, not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. [It] disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses...” “Socialism” was consoling, degrading cant and lies about the state of things in the Stalinist-ruled part of the world.
Aspirant socialism was a coherent, developing view of history, of social evolution, and of socialism itself as the heir of capitalism in history. “Socialism” disarranged all the ideas, meaning-charged words and perspectives of socialism, shuffling them and reshuffling them into indecipherability and arbitrary, shifting meanings, interpreted by a caste of state-Caesar-Pope-licensed priests. Aspirant socialism proposed to reorganise and reconstruct advanced capitalist society and on the basis of capitalism's own prior achievements to liberate first the workers and then all of humankind from class society; “socialism” took as its goal the development of backward societies towards what capitalism in the advanced countries had already achieved from what for socialism was the take off point for working class socialism.
Aspirant Marxist socialism saw capitalism and socialism as succeeding stages; “socialism” conflated and identified the “swinishness” that was inseparably part of “catching up with” and “outstripping” advanced capitalism, with the emancipation from swinishness of the socialist future, reducing it to incomprehensibility.
Aspirant socialism organised revolutionary political parties in which discipline in action was prepared, assessed, and made real by freedom of thought, of initiative, of criticism and of dissent. “Socialism” created monolithic sect-parties without freedom of thought or criticism or dissent, parties organised not according to the needs of the class struggle and of reason, but by the Jesuit rules of hierarchy and unreasoning obedience, self-suppression and self-hypnosis.
Socialism was the great clean, un-won truth of the 20th century; “socialism” was the foulest lie of the 20th century. Socialism is, remains, socialism; “socialism” was, of course, Stalinism.
For sixty and more years, socialism, in common discourse, was the “socialism” that existed in the USSR. The ideas conveyed by the words socialism and communism before Stalin established his system faded into the mists of pre-history, and “socialism” came to be the theory and practice of Stalinism — what became known in the 70s and 80s as “actually existing socialism”.
4. The old left and the new
The Marxist left developed its ideals and goals and norms from out of the programmes and goals of the defeated plebeian left in the bourgeois revolutions, right back to the Renaissance, the English Revolution of the 1640s and the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century (the Anabaptists, the Levellers and Diggers, the sans-culottes, Noel Babeuf). It had carried forward their drive for democracy and equality against the shallower pluto-democratic, bourgeois, versions of these ideas. Thomas Rainsborough had expressed this goal and this spirit beautifully during the “Putney Debates” at the end of the English Civil War: “I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he…”
Fundamental to “old socialism” had been a conception of the capitalist system, as a regime under which, in order to live, workers are compelled to sell their labour-power to employers who own the means of production, exchange, and communications, and who, by setting the workers to work, get those workers to produce far more value than is paid to them as a wage. That system is regulated by fear — fear of poverty, deprivation, penurious old age, of the future of the young generation. It operates in the workplaces as a pitiless tyranny designed to exact, wring out, use, the labour power purchased by the capitalist — wage slavery.
Before the Russian Revolution, “socialism” was interchangeable with terms such as “the Cooperative Commonwealth”, the “Workers' Republic”, the “Republic of Labour”. It meant the reorganisation of the means of production, of the means of life, around which the citizens expend most of their time all over the world — under the collective control of the producers.
Old socialism proposed to substitute for capitalism and wage slavery common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and communication, and democratic common administration for the common good. Collective ownership by all of society is necessarily democratic ownership: it if isn’t “collective ownership” by those who “own” the state which administers the “collective” economy.
The democracy at every level of socialist society would, socialists believed, be profound and all-embracing. Where now, what Marxists call bourgeois-democracy is at its best a shallow and one-dimensional political democracy, socialism would remake the whole of society. Democracy would become real — real and full self-administration by the working class. Under socialism, socialists believed, there would be equality for all, irrespective of gender, race, sexuality. The sisterhood and brotherhood of all people would be realised. Reason, and not the blind forces of market economics, would govern society. The democratic Commonwealth of Labour would replace rule by aristocrats of the bank account, skin, inherited status and privileged, pre-empting education.
What, with their different methods, tempos, and perspectives, had all the different strands of socialism in common?
All of them — the socialist reformists such as Keir Hardie and Nye Bevan, no less than the revolutionaries — sought to abolish capitalism and the exploitation and wage-slavery on which it rested, and to replace it with a non-exploitative, rational, humane society.
Their ideas of what would replace capitalism differed greatly, for instance, as between anarchists and Marxists (though Marxists and revolutionary anarchists — which is not by any means all anarchists — agree on the ultimate goal, a state-free society). But all the socialists sought to replace private ownership of the means of production and exchange and the exploitation of the producers that goes with it, by collective social ownership by the workers themselves.
All of them, in one way or another, with one qualification or another, looked to the working class, the slave-class of the capitalist era, to achieve this great social revolution.
They saw themselves as educators and organisers of the working class, working for social betterment and for the socialist transformation of society.
Before the spread of the Stalinist plague, Marxist socialists were guided by adherence to the working class, to the working class side in the class struggle — always and everywhere and in all circumstances; and to the education of the labour movement in consistent democracy, in working-class political independence, and consistent anti-capitalist militancy.
Plekhanov, the founding father of Russian Marxism expounded the idea that governed what the Russian Marxist movement did and aimed to do. It was what all socialists, more or less, did and thought they existed to do.
“What is the socialist movement?... To a contemporary socialist the socialist movement does not look anything like it did to a [utopian] socialist in the 30s [for whom] ‘future history resolves itself into propaganda and the practical implementation of their social plans...’
“What did the [Marxists] see in it? Above all class struggle, the struggle of the exploited with the exploiters, the proletariat with the bourgeoisie. In addition they saw in it the inevitability of the impending triumph of the proletariat, the fall of the present bourgeois social order, the socialist organisation of production and the corresponding alteration in the relationships between people, i.e. even the destruction of classes, among other things.
“If, therefore, for the [Marxists] the whole future history of bourgeois society resolves itself in the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie, all their practical tasks are prompted by precisely this class struggle. Standing resolutely on the side of the proletariat, the new Socialists do everything in their power to facilitate and hasten its victory.
“But what exactly can they do? They “agitate, educate and organise” the working class and raise it to the position of an aspirant ruling class.
“A necessary condition for the victory of the proletariat is its recognition of its own position, its relations with its exploiters, its historic role and its socio-political tasks. For this reason the [Marxists] consider it their principal, perhaps even their only, duty to promote the growth of this consciousness among the proletariat, which for short they call its class consciousness.
“The whole success of the socialist movement is measured for them in terms of the growth in the class consciousness of the proletariat.
“Everything that helps this growth they see as useful to their cause: everything that slows it down as harmful. Anything that has no effect one way or the other is of no consequence for them, it is politically uninteresting.”
(GV Plekhanov: The Tasks of the Socialists in the Struggle Against the Famine in Russia, 1891)
5. The basic beliefs of old socialism
Marx had argued that socialism would grow out of advanced capitalist society, which had developed the forces of production far enough that want in the basic necessities of life could be abolished almost immediately; that socialism would be the creation of the mass of the people, led by the working class, which would rule, could only rule, collectively and, by definition, therefore, democratically. That socialism would immediately destroy the old state machine, replacing it with an accountable system of working-class administration.
Marx uncovered the mechanics of the exploitative relationship between, on one hand, the owners of the social means of production, and, on the other, the sellers of labour power. The participants in the exchange are legally free and in law equal, and yet it is exploitative.
In a sentence: the worker sells his labour power to an employer, who puts him to work; his work produces more than it costs the capitalist to buy his labour power at the hourly or daily rate.
Marx explains: “The value of the labouring power is determined by the quantity of labour necessary to maintain or reproduce it, but the use of that labouring power is only limited by the active energies and physical strength of the labourer. The daily or weekly value of the labouring power is quite distinct from the daily or weekly exercise of that power, the same as the food a horse wants and the time it can carry the horseman are quite distinct. The quantity of labour by which the value of the workman’s labouring power is limited forms by no means a limit to the quantity of labour which his labouring power is apt to perform.
“[For example], to reproduce his labouring power, [a worker may need to produce new value equivalent to] working [three] hours daily… But… the capitalist has acquired the right of using that labouring power during the whole day or week. He will, therefore, make him work say, daily, [nine] hours. Over and above the [three] hours required to replace his wages, or the value of his labouring power, he will, therefore, have to work six other hours, which I shall call hours of surplus labour, which surplus labour will realise itself in a surplus value and a surplus produce [profit, interest, rent, etc.]
“The worker cannot become rich in this exchange, since, in exchange for his labour capacity as a fixed, available magnitude, he surrenders its creative power…Rather, he necessarily impoverishes himself…because the creative power of his labour establishes itself as the power of capital, as an alien power confronting him. He divests himself of labour as the force productive of wealth; capital appropriates it, as such…
“The productivity of his labour, his labour in general in so far as it is not a capacity but a motion, real labour, comes to confront the worker as an alien power; capital, inversely, realises itself through the appropriation of alien labour.”
The Marxian socialist programme is no more than the solution to this radical contradiction in bourgeois society, and the lesser contradictions at all levels which arise from it, which have shaped and continue to shape that society.