Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Myth of Soviet “Socialism”

From the November 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

An analysis from Russia makes many of the points we do.

On all sides we hear it said that “after 1917 a Marxist utopia was realised in our country,” that we had a “communist regime” or “socialist state,” that “we were building socialism and communism,” and so on. This makes it essential for us to grasp the true essence of Marxism, to understand what socialism and communism are.

From a scientific – in particular, Marxist – point of view, communism (or socialism, as Marx and Engels rarely distinguished between these two concepts) means an absolutely free society of universal equality and abundance, in which all people work – more precisely, seek self-realisation – voluntarily, in accordance with their abilities and inclinations, and receives goods in accordance with their needs.

This is the second stage, the phase of socialism or communism (or communism, strictly speaking). The first stage (or, more rarely, socialism in the narrow sense) means almost the same, with the sole difference that there is still some connection between how much labour an able-bodied person has given society and the quantity of goods that he or she receives.

But for Marx and Engels, as a rule, the words “socialism” and “communism” were synonyms.

And so, socialism or communism is the complete liberation of each person and all humanity from any form of exploitation and oppression! The government of people is replaced by the administration of things. The absence of any state power over people!

Socialism in a single country?

Marx and Engels categorically denied the possibility of establishing socialism or communism in a single country or in a few countries. They even denied the possibility of the sustained victory or success of a workers’ revolution in a single country – let alone in a backward or not very developed country. For a whole number of serious reasons.

Let us start with the fact that such concepts as “socialism” or “communism” are absolutely incompatible with the concept of “the state.” For a real Marxist, the very idea of a “socialist” or “communist” state is empty nonsense, the height of absurdity.

Of course, so long as another, hostile system exists, especially if it dominates the greater part of the planet, there can be no question of the state dying out. Let us imagine a state in which a workers’ revolution takes place but is not soon followed by a world revolution. That state is forced to compete with other states in the surrounding world in the accumulation of armaments, heavy industry, and so on.

But competitive accumulation – of capital, in the final analysis – runs counter to the popular need to give priority to consumption. It prevents expansion of the conquests of the revolution and makes it necessary to preserve the state. Giving priority to consumption would require abolishing a fundamental feature of capitalist society – accumulation for the sake of accumulation. For this two conditions are needed: workers’ self-management (working people themselves taking control of production) and the elimination of national borders (that is, of competition on a world scale). The latter also requires abolition of the state.

From the elementary foundations of Marxism it follows that such phenomena as commodity-money relations and the law of value are absolutely incompatible with socialism. For capitalism, according to Marx and Engels, has two chief defining defects. First, goods have to be produced as commodities (for sale), in the form of commodities, thereby giving social relations a fetishized, mercantile character. Second, the basic purpose of production is the extraction of surplus value, which is the source of the exploitation of man by man.

It is self-evident that money and the state can only die out together. Commodity-money relations cannot exist in the absence of state structures. For money is backed up by the assets of the state bank. Given commodity production, competition, the necessity for each state to compete economically with other states, a common measure of some sort is needed to calibrate inputs and outputs in comparison with other countries. Therefore, prices inevitably exist so that records can be kept of value. Finally, some way is needed to monitor the effectiveness of economic activity.

In order to realise the specifically capitalist tendency of accumulation for the sake of accumulation, two things are necessary. First, workers must be alienated from the means of production and from the results of their labour. Second, there must be competition between capitalists. In the absence of workers’ revolution on a global scale, the pursuit of surplus labour in the world as a whole inevitably thwarts any attempt to establish socialism, even if it is undertaken in a highly developed and wealthy region.

Socialism – a world system

Thus, socialism or communism can only be a world system. In this respect it resembles capitalism, which also arises at the international level, becoming a world system as it expands to absorb the pre-capitalist periphery. According to Marx, capitalism is characterised by the concentration of the means of production in the hands of a few, the organization of labour as social labour, and the creation of a world market. In principle, two world systems cannot exist simultaneously.

“Dictatorship of the proletariat”

For a long time the Bolsheviks justified their dictatorship by calling it “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Marx used this term to mean not dictatorship as a repressive political regime but social dominance of the working people as a counterweight to the exploiters (while they still exist) – a workers’ semi-state. He put forward this idea in opposition to the idea, popular in his day, of the dictatorship of revolutionary leaders.

The democratic power of the working class, the conquest of true, broad democracy, and not the power of any leaders – that was and is the meaning of “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Undoubtedly, such a regime is not socialism. It is still capitalism, although of a milder and more democratic variety.

The Bolshevik party dictatorship

The Bolshevik party dictatorship has its origins in the upheaval of 1917. After the fall of the autocracy, Russia won great democratic freedoms and became (for a short time) the most democratic state in the world. However, the provisional government failed to act. It did not begin peace negotiations and made no attempt to get out of the war. It did not embark on agrarian reform. It took no measures against the forces of reaction. The people got neither peace nor bread nor land. What is more, despite all the rights and freedoms, strong democratic institutions (apart, perhaps, from the Soviets) were not created in the country. Thus, there was nothing surprising about the Bolshevik takeover. A reactionary military dictatorship was also a real possibility at the time.

The Bolshevik regime claimed the mantle of a workers’ state. However, in a workers’ state (more precisely, semi-state) there would have been the broadest freedom and human rights, with political power exercised democratically through Soviets, trade unions and competing political parties.

The actual situation, alas, was nothing like this. Political power was exercised mainly through a dictatorship of the Bolshevik party and vanguard, with all forms of democracy restricted from the very first months. Yes, in the early years there were progressive, humane laws in various spheres. (To what extent they were observed is another question.) But the main trends were negative: further curtailment of democratic rights and freedoms, consolidation of the one-party system, secret police repression even within the ruling party, formation of a hierarchy of officials appointed from above.

Stalin’s industrial revolution

The Stalinist faction, which in 1925 had introduced the anti-Marxist conception of “building socialism in a single country,” gained full control by the end of the 1920s. The chief concern of the ruling group was now the forging of a “great power”; this required expansion of the industrial base through unrestrained exploitation of the working people – for the sake, above all, of successful competition with the outside world, with foreign states. In practice, this meant the rapid accumulation of capital.

By the 1930s the authoritarian state had evolved into a totalitarian state. It was precisely at this period that the gap between the higher-ups and the masses deepened into an abyss. By means of so-called “collectivisation” the peasants were either, in essence, enserfed or driven from the soil and turned into a reserve labour force for industry. (Those who managed to get to the cities became, as a rule, hired workers.) Repression intensified, filling the rapidly expanding Gulag with prisoners.

During the first five-year plan, real wages declined by at least half, while the working day lengthened. Thus, the living standard of the absolute majority of the population fell substantially and exploitation sharply increased.

The Stalin regime was totalitarian state capitalism with significant elements of serfdom and slavery (which weakened but did not disappear even after the tyrant’s death). In practice, it accomplished an industrial revolution – that is, the accelerated accumulation of capital. To a large extent, this was primitive accumulation. We find pertinent parallels between industrialisation under Stalin and the path followed by Japan from the bourgeois “Meiji revolution” to World War Two. There too, capital grew rapidly. There too, despotic methods were used to modernise the economy, create an industrial base and strengthen military might, with the state playing a major role.

Thus, both under Stalin and later we had in Russia a right-wing dictatorship with a state monopoly over the economy. Stalinism is a broader concept than the Stalin regime. In the USSR, the Stalinist era lasted from the late 1920s until the collapse of the “Soviet” “socialist” system in 1991 (with various changes and modifications, of course).

Bureaucratic state capitalism

Stalinism is bureaucratic state capitalism. The bulk of direct producers did not own means of production and so were forced to sell their labour power to the real owner of those means of production – a special group called the nomenklatura. The members of this group belonged to a hierarchically organized system for the appropriation and distribution of surplus value. The ruling class of the Soviet Union was therefore a state bourgeoisie. It was an exploiting class that through the possession of state power owned the means of production, the whole of the so-called “national economy.”

In this way the traditional ultra-conservative status quo was re-established and the Russian Empire restored.

For several decades, both under Stalin and after his death, the ruling class or state bourgeoisie governed the country through a powerful and ramified bureaucratic apparatus. They relied on the age-old traditions of the Russian Empire and out of inertia continued to make formal and hypocritical use of pseudo-socialist, pseudo-communist, pseudo-left and pseudo-Marxist slogans. Such slogans were a convenient means of masking their real aims and playing on the sincere faith of many people, both inside the country and abroad.

(Translated by Stefan)

Vladimir Sirotin, Moscow

First Way Marxists (2000)

Book Review from the June 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Canadian Marxists and the Search for a Third Way by Peter Campbell, McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal; Kingston, pp.303, 1999.

Peter Campbell discusses, and focuses on, the lives of four individuals—Ernest Winch, William Prichard, Arthur Mould and Robert Russell, all of whom originally came from Britain and from religious backgrounds. The title and the phrase, "a Third Way", is something of a misnomer, as the author himself admits, writing:
"The description requires explanation, because these socialists might more accurately be called Marxists of the first way. Their guiding philosophy is to be found in the provisional rules of the International Workingmen's Association, founded in London, England, September 1864 . . ."
Campbell's definition of a Marxist, and on occasion a socialist, is somewhat more wide than ours, although less so than that of many writers and commentators. His introduction is as important, and revealing, as his four pen-portraits.

The author uses the phrase "third way" in order to differentiate his subjects—and the organisations to which they belonged—from mass social democratic parties, such as the German Social Democratic Party, and later the so-called Communist parties. In that sense, he feels that they were Marxists of a "third way", opposing the idea of leadership, and advocating mass understanding as the only way to working-class emancipation. Education was, and is, everything. "Challenging the wages system meant educating the workers, and education became the key concern of Marxists of the third way", says Campbell. "The overthrow of capitalism and the eradication of the wages system were the responsibility of the workers themselves", although in practice, education was seen as a predominately male realm, as few women in such parties as the Socialist Party of Canada became public speakers or lecturers.

Nevertheless, Campbell shows that the early "third way" socialists, and particularly members of the SPC, were largely free of sexist and racist prejudices. Indeed, their close ties to the Jewish community became very important during the general strike, in Winnipeg, in 1919. Interestingly, although socialists like Bill Prichard came from predominately religious backgrounds, they put the scientific method to the fore, with much emphasis on evolution.

Except for Arthur Mould (of whom more later), they were not pacifists. They considered violence a possible, if not unavoidable, outcome of revolutionary change; but they argued that the more that the workers understood, the more educated they became in socialist ideas, the less likelihood there would be of violence. Bill Prichard saw "revolutionary violence" as a sign of weakness in the working class. Says Campbell: "The assumption was that significant numbers of capitalists would see the futility of resisting a well-educated, well-organised working-class majority and go over to the winning side."

Inevitably, not all "third way" socialists remained consistent in their views or beliefs. A few joined the Communist Party; others embraced the reformism of the Social Democrat and Labour parties. And a few, like Bill Prichard, embraced reformist politics for a few years, only to return to revolutionary socialism, and membership of the Socialist Party of Canada or the World Socialist Party of the United States, later.

Between 1910 and 1940, Ernest Winch was successively a leading member of the Social Democratic Party, secretary of the International Longshoremen's Association in British Columbia, president of the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council, for a time a member of the Socialist Party of Canada, an organiser of the Independent Labour Party, secretary and organiser of the "bogus" SPC in the early 1930s and, lastly, a Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) member of the British Columbia provincial legislature for almost twenty-five years. Yet he considered himself, and was considered by many others, to be a Marxist and defender of "third way" Marxism.

Winch was renowned for his fiery, revolutionary phraseology, defending Marxism and "scientific socialism"; yet in practice his politics led to reform, not revolution. And during the late 1920s and through much of the 1930s Winch co-operated with the Canadian Communist Party. Of him, Campbell says: "While Winch's rhetoric continued to be revolutionary, many of his thoughts were confused and contradictory."

Bill Prichard, however, was far more consistent except for a period during the 1930s.

On 21 May 1911, he arrived in Vancouver, from England. Two days later he applied for membership of the Socialist Party of Canada, and was admitted a week later. He became an avid reader of socialist and scientific literature. From December of that year, he wrote regularly for the Western Clarion, the paper of the SPC, and was its editor from 1914 to 1917. Despite his religious background, Prichard became a materialist and atheist "believing religion was irrational". Although not mentioned by Campbell, Prichard was largely responsible for the SPC reprinting the SPGB pamphlet Socialism and Religion. He accepted, and propounded, the materialist conception of history, the class struggle, the labour theory of value, and the necessity for workers, in a majority and without leaders, to abolish the wages system. As Campbell notes, there was no shortcut to emancipation—"nothing less than class conscious effort and class conscious knowledge". But he was no mere theorist. He travelled over vast areas of Canada, and British Columbia in particular, speaking at SPC meetings, often under horrendous conditions. And for many years, he was actively involved in various trade and industrial unions.

This, almost inevitably, led to his arrest and imprisonment following the Winnipeg general strike of 1919. His two-day speech at the trial in January 1920 is part of Canadian working-class history. During his imprisonment, Prichard was visited by Adolph Kohn, a member of the SPGB, who brought him three volumes of Marx's Capital, which he was able to pass through the bars to him! During this period, Bill Prichard, unlike some of his comrades, was very critical of the Communist Party and its undemocratic tactics.

However, in 1932, Prichard joined the recently-formed Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, and became heavily involved in its activities. In 1938, he left Canada for California. And some time later "he returned to Marxism of the third way by joining the World Socialist Party of the United States (WSPUS) a sister party of the Socialist Party of Canada". He continued to propound revolutionary socialism until his death in 1981.

Arthur Mould is, at least to his reviewer, a far less interesting figure; and whether he could be described as a Marxist "of the third way" is highly problematical.

He was never a member of the pre-1919 Socialist Party of Canada; indeed, he began as a Methodist Church lay preacher in England. He was not as well read in Marx's writings as Prichard or even Winch. Although he was a forthright critic of organised religions, he was not opposed to religion as such. Although opposed to war, at least until the Second World War, Mould was more a pacifist and admirer of Leo Tolstoy than an opponent in the Marxist tradition of the SPC. In fact, he was particularly upset when Moses Baritz, a member of the SPGB who was speaking on behalf of the SPC, defended the use violence in a lecture on the French Revolution in 1916. At about this time, Mould became active in the Independent Labour Party, in London, Ontario. Although remaining a committed Christian, during the 1920s he became increasingly sympathetic towards the Communist Party and joined it in 1943. And in 1961, still a member of the CCP, though a critical one, Arthur Mould died.

Robert Boyd Russell was an active member of the US Socialist Party, a key figure in the Winnipeg general strike, a leading organiser of the Railway Machinists during the First World War, a ceaseless advocate of industrial unions, in which he emphasised the necessity of waging the class war from a position of strength, and an active member of the One Big Union which had been formed in the aftermath of the Winnipeg strike in 1919. He, like Prichard, was imprisoned. In 1922 he dropped out of the Socialist Party, but continued as general secretary of the OBU and, later, editor of the OBU Bulletin following the resignation of Charles Lestor, until the OBU became part of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) in 1956. He died in 1964.

Although this reviewer has some strong reservations about some of the views expressed by Peter Campbell, this is an important book, detailing as it does, much information on the Canadian labour and socialist movement. It is well worth reading.
Peter E. Newell