Marcel Duchamp: ‘Transition of virgin into a bride’ (1912)

Going nowhere fast

The present period is one of transition, argues Hillel Ticktin. But how can we escape from the current impasse?

Let me start by mentioning two types of transition. The first is the classical transition between capitalism and socialism, which, as Trotsky said, is the period we live in. He said that after the Russian Revolution and the social democratic betrayal in 1918-19, we had entered such a period. Trotsky was expressing the fact that not only was there potential for revolution everywhere, but that society would have to react to it.

However, both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were transitional forms in a different sense. Nazi Germany came into being because capitalism had entered a transitional period: the world was highly unstable, the bourgeoisie wanted a way out and ended up taking that road, even though it did not consciously seek it.

However, the Soviet Union was a very different kind of society and in certain respects was far worse. Why did it deteriorate? What happened in the Soviet Union, among other things, was the atomisation of society. Bourgeois theorists of totalitarianism - with whom I do not agree, needless to say - take this atomisation as a given. It is true that both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were atomised societies in a sense, but the depth of atomisation was far greater in the former. This reflected the fact that it really had broken with capitalism, whereas Nazi Germany was still a capitalist entity.

At no time was production in the Soviet Union based on profit. More than that, production in the Soviet Union ceased to be based on money, either in the Marxist or bourgeois sense. Leaving aside questions of the secret police and so on, individuals cease to have the degree of independence they possess when they have no money. Most people in capitalism tend to think that money is the root of all evil, but under feudalism, the serf does not have money. The serf is - not wholly but partially - dependent on their feudal lord (I am here repeating what Marx said in the Grundrisse, where he wrote pages and pages on the question of dependence). Capitalism began the process of abolishing dependence, but then maintained it in a particular, looser way. There was a movement away from total dependence (slavery and other forms) and, although true independence arrives only with the advent of socialism, money introduced a degree of independence that did not exist before. Obviously, whilst a very rich person may be highly independent, an ordinary worker can be so to a much more limited degree.

In a society without money the dependence can become total. It is one of the reasons why the secret police in the USSR could play such a massive role. There were at the time of Gorbachev possibly over a million secret police (and it was not just a case of occasionally listening in to phone conversations). Of course, there were civilians in both the USSR and Nazi Germany who aided the state, but the numbers in the Gestapo were a fraction of those working in the secret police in the Soviet Union.

Stalin used children against their parents and parents against their children and had no problem with killing one or the other. Under Brezhnev if you were a professor and did or said something that was seen as a challenge to the system, you would be stripped of everything - you were no longer a professor, no longer had any recognised qualifications, you no longer had anywhere to live. This can occur in a society where individuals lack the relative independence money affords, and it is highly unusual.

Of course, Nazi Germany was also a murderous society, but there clearly were more citizens killed by the state in the USSR than those killed by the Nazis in percentage terms. This is despite the fact that, as well as the millions killed in the holocaust, the Nazi state launched a war that killed millions. It is worth pointing out that if it was not for Stalin a lot less would have died - millions of Soviet soldiers were killed as a result of his crazy orders. Half the population of Kazakhstan died of famine, and the Soviet Union under Stalin simply could not have been worse than it was. You are talking about a catastrophe that really has no comparison.

The Soviet Union had overthrown capitalism, but it had gone nowhere and could not advance. While I was living there during the 1960s, it was absolutely clear to me that it could not last. This was a transition that did not go anywhere - a transition that held the world back for a century.


However, it is worth remembering that in the Soviet Union capitalism had been overthrown and there were considerable, lasting consequences. It is no coincidence that in Britain, for example, the vote was conceded to all men and some women after 1918, and a similar trend occurred elsewhere. From this point, and particularly after World War II, there was a gradual acceptance of the need to make concessions - it is these that the ruling class is currently trying to withdraw.

After 1945 there was extensive nationalisation. Of course, we cannot argue that nationalisation is in itself a socialist measure - the capitalist class was quick to adapt it to the system itself. However, governments were compelled to accept unions in a way that the private sector would not. Concessions on democracy also meant concessions in the workplace. Similarly, subsequent privatisation has also been politically driven. The idea is to take on the unions again.

A nationalised sector cannot operate as if it is functioning on the basis of profit, and therefore does not embody the kind of efficiency that capitalism requires - it cannot exploit its workers in the same way. However, while the Thatcherites’ claim that the public sector is less efficient was not untrue, that does not mean that this would be the case in socialism. But it is the case that a form that lies in between capitalism and socialism will tend to malfunction.

This has a political and ideological effect, as well as an economic one. It becomes difficult for socialists to argue their case if they do not make the point that I have just made: it is an unfortunate fact that we cannot get to socialism gradually. This does not mean that nationalised sectors do not protect workers - they clearly have done. One also has to say that in the health sector, for example, work is not carried out directly in the interest of capital, but at least to some extent on the basis of what is needed.

In a socialist society one would expect that people do the work they want to do and enjoy doing it. A socialist society, according to Marx, is one in which work becomes “humanity’s prime want”. This is in total contrast to the way in which people are forced to work under capitalism, in occupations in which they usually have no interest. But, up to a point, when performing a humanitarian role, such as that of a doctor or nurse, people do tend to work in a different way - one that goes beyond simple compulsion. While people are still compelled to work to earn money, the incentive system in the nationalised sector is on a much lower level.

There is a comparison here with the future society. Imagine that capitalism has been overthrown and we are proceeding to build a socialist society. You cannot immediately nationalise everything - a proportion of industry will continue to be privately owned. So how do you incentivise people who work in the nationalised sector? Once you make this point, it becomes more difficult to see what will propel society forward.

I think the answer is there would have to be education, so that people could see the way forward to a society in which work becomes our “prime want”. In other words, why would somebody want to go down a coal mine? Obviously our intention is to abolish coal mines completely, quite apart from the question of pollution. You do not want people to have to perform such work, but to begin with it will be necessary.

Where next?

How do we proceed from the current transitional period? I have argued that the current system is in decline - the productivity of the future society would be higher than today. The second aspect of decline is that mediations become more and more difficult. This is very obvious at the present time of crisis. As I have said, this is not simply a cyclical crisis, but a crisis of the system itself. What it expresses is that the polar opposites are unable to come together and in fact they stand in conflict.

What we have seen in Greece is evidence that in this period reformists cannot be reformists: that is to say, they cannot implement reforms and in reality they have to go backwards. What happened also exposed the fact that the bourgeoisie is anti-democratic - its whole treatment of Syriza was undemocratic. Having gradually granted limited democracy after 1917, the capitalist class is today acting in an undemocratic way that also produces destabilisation. But the bourgeoisie and its representatives seem to have no understanding of history. Trotsky makes the point that when a ruling class is in the ascendancy its representatives appear to be geniuses, but when it is in decline they appear to be stupid. This is how they appear in their reaction to Greece. I actually think they had very little choice, but the way in which they imposed their will was just stupid.

However, the crass way in which those political representatives are behaving can play into the hands of the left. The Financial Times has stated that what is happening in Britain is becoming dangerous and from their point of view the more intelligent line would be to accept the continued need for concessions - after all, what is Corbyn calling for? Almost nothing. For instance, in spite of what I said earlier, nationalised rail would clearly be better than what exists - the private sector has been so bad at running the railways that continuing with the current situation is crazy. The political reality though is that the ruling class will not accept this.

How long this will be the case I do not know. Both here and in Europe much stronger opposition parties must surely be thrown up. In the third world also, the situation is now dire. We need a much more serious debate on the left about how the working class can take power. The way forward will become clearer, as things begin to move.