New Book on Marxist Theory:
The Life and Death of Stalinism
The League for the Revolutionary Party has just published a major new book, The Life and Death of Stalinism by Walter Daum. It is an indispensable tool for understanding the system that has prevailed for over half a century in the Soviet Union and is now in upheaval in East Europe, China and elsewhere. Also, as indicated by its subtitle, A Resurrection of Marxist Theory, it is a far-reaching effort to restore Marx's original, class-determined conception of capitalism.
The book fills in the analysis behind the LRP's theory of Stalinist society as statified capitalism. The range of questions addressed includes capitalism's laws of motion in general and in this epoch in particular, the nature of imperialism today, the strategy of working-class revolution (with an updating of the Trotskyist transitional program) and the development of socialist society. It could not be otherwise; after all, how can one determine whether states are capitalist, workers' states, or something else, without understanding these conceptions?
The question of Stalinism is of immense practical importance. A large fraction of the world's population, including tens of millions of workers, have lived under that system. And now crisis-ridden Stalinist society is engendering new struggles against capital -- even if many workers for the moment think that it is socialism they are against and capitalism they are for!
Above all, the book is part of the struggle against the cynicism of our age, the patronizing contempt toward the working class spawned by social democracy and Stalinism. With the fall of Stalinism, a major barrier to the revival of class struggle is now gone. This book is based on high hopes for humanity and the revolutionary proletariat.
Many of the ideas addressed were first presented in this magazine, but in the book they can be treated with the necessary depth. They are not the work of one author alone but the product of years of discussion, debate and practical activity by the LRP and now its fraternal organization, Workers Revolution of Australia.
Among the key points of the LRP's theory of Stalinism elaborated in the book are the following:
1) Stalinism is a product of the decay of capitalism as that system is driven toward concentration and statification by its own internal laws. Although it presents itself as socialist and anti-imperialist, it is in reality counterrevolutionary. Its function is to defeat and derail socialist revolutions and incorporate the working class in order to prolong the life of an obsolete system.
2) Stalinism is a highly contradictory brand of capitalism, warped by its origin as the usurper of the Soviet workers' state in the 1930's. Its drive for development in isolation was a reactionary utopia: as the book notes, "socialism in one country" inevitably became capitalism in one country. Its attempt to suppress capitalist economic laws through proletarian property forms and crude planning created a strikingly inefficient and unstable form of capitalism.
3) Stalinism's initial totalitarian repression was battered by proletarian upheavals, forcing it to make concessions to the workers and accelerating its economic decline. In order to survive and better exploit the proletariat, it has had to subordinate itself openly to Western imperialism and the discipline of the world market. Indeed, from the start it has been heading in the direction of pluralist capitalism, including openly competing capitals and the abolition of workers' gains that interfere with profit-making.
The investigation of Stalinism's pseudo-socialist capitalism required a thorough re-examination of the foundations of Marxism. The proletarian science has been grossly distorted for half a century, both by open opponents and by alleged adherents. Falsifiers have succeeded not through any theoretical cleverness but because of the practical defeats of the working class, above all the degeneration of the Russian Revolution.
This situation necessitates both a peeling away of encrusted myths to rediscover revolutionary teachings, plus the application of the theory to the present-day world. Perhaps the best previous example is Lenin's rescue of Marx's theory of the state from social-democratic reformism in his State and Revolution.
In our time, the most fundamental distortion has been to suppress Marx's understanding of the centrality of class struggle. It is both the motive force of capitalism's development and the key to its destruction. In their effort to replace proletarian revolution with populism and class collaboration, middle-class theorists have declared competition to be the inner essence of capitalism, not the derivative aspect it was for Marx. Although Marx condemned this small shopkeeper outlook, today most of those who speak in his name subordinate the proletariat to one or another competing sector of the bourgeoisie.
But Marx's writings cannot be treated as Holy Scripture. (To do so is a gross insult to a thinker whose motto for his own work was "Doubt everything.") Hence our book does not hesitate to criticize our teachers when we think that their efforts have fallen short.
Take Marx's theory of the falling rate of profit. He noted that surplus value, the source of profits, was based on living labor. Capitalists must measure their rate of profit against their total investment, which includes ever larger amounts of constant capital -- dead labor. Thus arises the tendency for the rate of profit to fall. Marx, however, did not effectively weave this insight into his theory of capitalism's periodic crises -- partly because he could not envision the system's operation under imperialism and monopoly capitalism. As a result, he never successfully showed how the falling rate of profit tendency could overcome the countertendencies also engendered by capitalist development. And he did not explain how a workers' state, which would certainly increase the relative weight of machinery to save workers' labor, would not be overwhelmed by this dilemma and be subject to crises as much as capitalism.
Comrade Daum links the falling rate of profit tendency to the system's multiplicity of independent capitals. He explains how monopoly capitalism deepens this tendency. And he applies this theory to the Stalinist states to help account for their increasing backwardness. As well, a workers' state will begin overcoming this tendency by abolishing competing capitals. (The book's explanation is of course more detailed and complete -- which is why one must read it and not just a review.)
Other basic Marxist questions clarified in the book include:
The theoretical anticipation of state capitalism in the writings of Marx and Engels and their extension under modern conditions by Lenin and Trotsky;
The vital distinction between socialist society and the workers' state transitional to it, a distinction habitually blurred by all interpreters from Maoists to ultra-leftists and would-be Trotskyists;
Trotsky's necessary differentiation between political and social counterevolution in a workers' state. In the book this point is studied closely to illuminate Trotsky's well-known use of analogies to the French revolution (Thermidor and Bonapartism) in order to show how the political counterrevolution of the 1920's developed into the social overthrow in the 1930's.
And since Trotsky's work, The Revolution Betrayed, is the necessary starting point for any Marxist analysis of Stalinism, Daum undertakes a careful analysis of Trotsky's developing and changing theory. This results in a deep appreciation of his understanding of Stalinism's counterrevolutionary nature, as well as a critique and explanation of his failure to see that the capitalist counterrevolution finally won out in the USSR.
Permanent Revolution Extended
Another example of a theory which has been corrupted is permanent revolution. This cornerstone of Trotskyism was originally applied to Russia and then extended by Trotsky to embrace a world perspective.
Permanent revolution means that in the epoch of capitalist decay, only the internationalist proletarian revolution can fulfill the tasks once carried out by bourgeois democracy. Faced with the rising threat of the proletariat, the bourgeoisie abandons the demands of its own revolution, for fear that the workers will use them as a weapon against capitalism. In the book, Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution is closely integrated with Lenin's theory of imperialism, and both are tied to Marx's laws of capitalist development.
In the aftermath of World War II, however, a number of democratic gains were made by forces not led by the proletariat: national liberation struggles, Stalinist and non-Stalinist, were successful in many parts of the "third world." Oppressed groups were able to make gains in the imperialist centers themselves, and living standards were improved at least temporarily. All this happened without a revolutionary internationalist leadership of the proletariat.
It is clear this has to be accounted for, but how? One solution is to claim that permanent revolution is wrong, as many leftists do. One version says that permanent revolution has been "deflected" by the workers' "failure" to act as Trotsky predicted, a view that ignores the fact that the workers did rise up after the war but were defeated because of Stalinism. Another distortion is to rob permanent revolution of its proletarian content: that is, the middle-class forces that led these struggles are part of an objective revolutionary process -- hence they can lead socialist struggles as substitutes for the self-organized working class.
Against these views the LRP introduced a corollary to permanent revolution: in the wake of the international proletarian defeat, middle-class (including Stalinist) forces can secure some democratic and popular gains. The sanctity of property can be challenged when the proletariat had been rendered temporarily unable to take such challenges to their socialist conclusion. But the middle-class leaders cannot systematize or long maintain these gains, much less achieve socialism. They become defenders of capitalism.
This description of what took place in the postwar years is a defense of permanent revolution itself. It is based on the chief premises of the theory and renews its validity in the light of new experiences. It allowed the LRP, like no other left tendency, to see well in advance that new revolutions (like those in Angola and Nicaragua) could not become Stalinized, since their rulers were not in position to entrap and crush the proletariat.
We have also charted completely new territory for Marxism in examining the Stalinist system. We developed a theory of Stalinist imperialism, a question that has not only been left unsolved by all other theories of Stalinism -- even those labeling it a class society -- but has not even been raised at the theoretical level. How capitalism's laws of motion operate in a statified economy as an extension of their operation in the imperialist epoch is another part of the exhaustive analysis in this book.
Style and Content
Some comments should be made concerning the book's style. First, its polemical tone: this is a combative book. It develops extensive and often severe attacks on a variety of Marxist "authorities." The purpose is much more than to bring our ideas into sharper relief, although that is a welcome result. Our differences are not questions of alternate roads to the same goal of socialist revolution but of alternate class outlooks.
The book dissects a variety of theories -- Soviet defensist, state capitalist, bureaucratic collectivist, etc. -- in particular those of Michel Pablo, Ernest Mandel, Tony Cliff, Max Shachtman, Paul Sweezy and Charles Bettelheim. It shows that what permeates their analyses of capitalism, Stalinism and socialism as well as their political prescriptions is a deep cynicism towards the working class.
The question comes down to revolution against capitalism versus reform and class collaboration in its defense. The ultimate service the left renders to capitalism is to build a last-ditch obstacle to masses moving in a revolutionary, class-conscious direction. The reformists must be politically defeated, and sections won over to revolution, if a viable proletarian vanguard is to be constructed to lead the class to victory and liberate the human race. The stakes are high, and the book's polemical tone reflects this.
For this reason, Marxist works in general are highly polemical: they wage the class struggle on the level of ideas. From the Communist Manifesto and Capital to practically all of Lenin's works, Marxists have waged bitter battles against both open opponents and inconsistent allies. We follow in the same tradition, with the same purpose. The best elements of the left will be won only through principled combat. In Trotsky's words, we "say what is."
The book is not casual, easy reading. It is a tightly woven work that does not promote skipping; in terms of literary style, parts are dry and could use some added flair and color. It remains intense throughout and is particularly taxing in the sections on Marxist "economics." Although the book contains much historical data and economic statistics, it always draws out the political consequences. Therefore, even a beginner in Marxist theory who is a serious reader will be able to follow the analysis.
Anyone concerned with controversial questions of class struggle and world politics will find it deeply interesting and decidedly challenging. As well, while the book is aimed at the proletarian vanguard, it establishes the basis for a popular exposition of the LRP's theory.
The Socialist Future
Every major work has its political weaknesses, if only relative ones, and The Life and Death of Stalinism is no exception. The weakest section is the exposition of the Marxist conception of how the workers' state makes the transformation from capitalism to socialism and an outline of socialist (and communist) society. The book does a good job of exposing standard leftist conceptions, once again demonstrating their middle-class character. Still, in comparison with other sections, the discussion is left at an abstract level. What a socialist society would look like is not drawn in detail.
The fact remains that this weakness is a problem for Marxism itself. Marx analyzed the capitalist society he lived in and projected his vision of the workers' state and socialism from the clues he found in capitalist society. Because he was scientific, he refused to engage in any elaborate pictures of the socialist future but kept to a minimum outline. There is not a great amount of material that can be added to Marx's original vision, although the book does add a few wrinkles. In part, this is a reflection of how far he was ahead of his time. But it is also reflects the fact that we cannot rely on the experiences of living workers' states to strengthen our conceptions. The only model we have, the early Soviet state, offers only fleeting and distorted insights because of its isolation and backwardness. New breakthroughs have to await the new experiences of revolutionary workers' societies.
A Marxist analysis of the present-day world should be capable of political foresight. The upheavals within Stalinism in the past year have confirmed our analysis and prognoses. No, we didn't predict that the Berlin Wall would open on November 9, 1989; crystal-ball gazing is impossible. But we were able to outline the direction the Stalinist societies were headed in: their steady move toward pluralism, their inefficiencies and breakdowns, and their growing dependence on the West.
These insights were not stopgap explanations to cover a quick turn of events; they were developed years in advance. Using our theory we projected -- at the height of the cold war -- that the dividing line for a future world war would be drawn between the U.S., Germany and Japan rather than between the U.S. and the USSR.
This contrasts with the confusion and simple wrongheadedness of the majority of the left. Practically every prominent "Marxist" proclaimed that the Soviet Union had overcome capitalism's inevitable crises or embarked on an unstoppable epoch of economic expansion. Most theories saw the USSR as a strong power and successor to traditional capitalism, for good or for bad. We said the opposite, and Stalinism's collapse has confirmed our prediction.
Our theory also tells us that Stalinism's downfall does not make Western capitalism any more viable. In fact the most inefficient, least productive aspects of Stalinism are extensions of tendencies already inherent in the West. As well, with its Stalinist prop crippled, capitalism must face the rebellious masses without its aid. In whatever form, capitalism is in a state of reactionary decay. This understanding is corroborated by daily life under capitalism but remains to be fully confirmed in the coming period.
Understandably, many East European workers accept the bourgeois assessment of Stalinism: that its collapse proves both the failure of Marxism and the need for market forces and Western capital. The Western line appears credible because they have suffered under oppressive "socialism" for decades and the West is in better shape. As a result, the revolutions of the past year, made possible by the immense social power of the working class, are being hijacked by pro-bourgeois and pro-Western forces.
But the West will be unable to deliver the goods. Western capitalism is itself in trouble. Loans to East Europe will come to much less than hoped, and investments are dribbling in very slowly. Western capital is overextended and needs a cathartic crisis to clean out its weakest firms and more thoroughly exploit the workers. As under Stalinism, however, the system's giant companies are interlinked, so that if one or two fall the entire economy is endangered. Hence governments continue to prop up the weakening structure, guaranteeing only that the collapse when it comes will be all the more devastating. The book's explanation of how the forms of Stalinist decay are being mirrored in the West is very much to the point.
Moreover, a Marxist analysis of Stalinism (and post-Stalinism) as capitalist shows us that the new bourgeois honeymoon with the East European workers cannot last. In Germany, there is mounting opposition to the terms of unification, as jobs and living standards come under attack. In Poland, resistance to the austerity program has burst out; it required the authority of Lech Walesa to end workers' strikes against the government he brokered himself. In the USSR, Gorbachev has been unable to impose his drastic austerity program, openly citing the fear of mass explosions.
It was, after all, the potential proletarian revolution in Poland that showed Gorbachev the handwriting on the wall and thrust perestroika and glasnost onto his agenda. Other working-class upheavals, or the threat of them, forced the Stalinists out of power in East Europe. And Eastern workers have shown that while they reject Stalinism, they support the gains won from the Stalinist regimes -- above all the right to a job. The mass unemployment accompanying the "free market" will not go down easy. The contradictory laws of capitalism in the East have already torn Stalinism asunder, and the class struggle which these laws configure gives authentic communists confidence that social revolution was on the agenda.
Revolutionary Program and Party
The situation is wide open. Some of the most decadent and reactionary social forces like religious mysticism and monarchism have re-emerged. Stalinism will continue to decompose, and the capitalists of all varieties will continue to try and tighten the screws, prompted by an increasing world economic crisis. Whether or not the bosses succeed will depend on the class struggle: the proletariat's ability to mount a revolutionary defense and counteroffensive.
A first step in building that defense is the elaboration of a strategy for socialism. The book presents a program of demands and methods as a bridge from the workers' present consciousness and experiences to revolutionary conclusions. It is based on Trotsky's Transitional Program, and it includes new demands to meet the new conditions.
The basic method is the same under Stalinism as under Western capitalism. An outline appeared in our last issue and a full exposition is in the book. Most organizations claiming to be Trotskyist avoid programmatic specifics, issuing vague calls for workers' power and a "political revolution" against Stalinism -- while giving direct or backhanded support to the post-Stalinist regimes. Some do apply the anti-capitalist demands of the Transitional Program to Stalinism -- but without explaining how this makes sense in what they suppose are workers' states.
The explosions under Stalinist rule are just some of the hot spots in a seething world. From Johannesburg and Seoul to Beijing and Moscow, a new upsurge of the world proletariat is gaining momentum. To meet that challenge there have arisen a variety of "radical" solutions, based on a defeatist notion of the working class, which aim to keep the proletariat chained to middle-class leaders. The Marxist alternative sees the potential of the proletariat to change the world and to build its own leadership and movement. The book makes the choice that much clearer.
Indeed, the summation of the book's program is the necessity for the re-creation of the Fourth International, the world party of socialist revolution. The proletariat needs its mass organizations of struggle and class rule. But without an organization embodying its most advanced consciousness -- the revolutionary party -- such institutions invariably turn against the class's interests. This lesson is drawn though historical examples and the book's sharp critiques of alternative programs, above all those in revolutionary guise.
In our time the revolutionary party must be Trotskyist. But not the "Trotskyism" that betrays the centrality and independence of the working class, not the "Trotskyism" that tails nationalism and Stalinism in the name of spurious "Fourth Internationals." Trotsky aptly pointed out that as objective conditions come to a head in our epoch, the crisis of humanity is encapsulated in the crisis of proletarian leadership. That is above all why the book insists on confrontation with pseudo-Marxist conceptions.
The decomposition of Stalinism in the past year is a vindication of our tendency's world view. The glue that holds capitalism together is becoming unstuck. This book can arm working-class revolutionaries with the authentic Marxism they need for the great days ahead.
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