Serious problem

In ‘Fifty years of socialist theory’, her report on Critique: Journal of Socialist Theory, Yassamine Mather makes a statement that can’t be allowed to stand. To wit:

“Here in Britain, in addition to the standard pro-Soviet and Maoist anti-USSR positions, as far as the Trotskyist left was concerned, two views of the Soviet Union dominated: Tony Cliff’s position that the Soviet Union under Stalin and his successors had undergone a process of bureaucratic degeneration, where a ruling elite had usurped power from the working class and established a state-capitalist system; and the more standard, Trotskyist view that the USSR was a ‘deformed workers’ state’, based on what Leon Trotsky had said in the late 1930s. This latter, softer analysis of the Soviet Union was often used (and is still used) to justify some of the most bizarre positions of the USSR at the time - and ironically it is used today to justify Putin and Russia (presented as legitimate successors of the Soviet Union).”

This is wrong from beginning to end. Trotsky did not call the Soviet Union a ‘deformed workers’ state’. He called it a ‘degenerated workers’ state’, because it had devolved from a healthy workers’ state to a terrifying dictatorship under the Stalinist faction. ‘Deformed’ rather was a term his followers reserved for post-war states like the People’s Republic of China that were Stalinist from the start. Trotsky did not develop his analysis in the late 1930s, but in 1933, following the German Communist Party’s capitulation to the Nazis.

As for his analysis being ‘soft’, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could have been fiercer in his attacks on the Stalinist bureaucracy. Trotsky blasted it for sabotaging the Chinese revolution in 1927, for its disastrous collectivisation campaign, beginning in 1929, for undermining of the Spanish revolution, beginning in 1936, and, of course, for the nightmarish purges it launched in 1937-38 - purges that ended up claiming the lives of his son and daughter, thousands of his followers and, of course, Trotsky’s own life in August 1940.

Regarding Mather’s statement that Trotskyism was used to “justify some of the most bizarre positions of the USSR”, this is inexplicable, since Trotsky repeatedly attacked Stalinist foreign policy on the grounds that it was undermining the revolutionary gains of 1917. The same goes for her statement that it is “used today to justify Putin and Russia (presented as legitimate successors of the Soviet Union)”. How can a theory of Soviet development be used to justify a counterrevolutionary, post-Soviet regime of the sort that Trotsky repeatedly warned against?

Trotsky’s theory of a degenerated workers’ state is the only way to understand Soviet Russia - a country in which property relations remained nationalised despite the monopolisation of political power by a small, self-serving Kremlin clique. There was no bourgeoisie, no private investment and no private property to speak of beyond personal possessions.

The problem with the state-capitalist theories advanced by Tony Cliff and others was not only their dogmatic insistence on seeing Soviet capitalism where there was none, but the fact that they completely did away with the need for anything resembling revolutionary defence. After all, why defend the USSR against capitalist onslaught if it’s already capitalist itself? While workers the world over held their breath, as Red Army soldiers engaged in a desperate struggle for survival at Stalingrad, state-capitalist adherents called for a plague on both their houses. Could anything be more repellent?

Mather concludes her article by paying tribute to various people who have served on Critique’s editorial board over the years - people like Suzi Weissman and Robert Brenner - and also by noting that the journal is now “well aware of the need to ... develop a clearer analysis of China and a better understanding of the United States as a hegemon power in decline”. But Weissman and Brenner were among other followers of the late Ernest Mandel who signed a June 2022 statement declaring support for “the resistance of the Ukrainian people against the aggression of Russian imperialism and its attempt to rebuild the tsarist and then Soviet empire.” (This statement, issued by the European Network in Solidarity with Ukraine, is available at anticapitalistresistance.org/with-the-resistance-of-the-ukrainian-people-for-its-victory-against-the-aggression). While Marxists in no way support Putin’s “special military operation”, they do not characterise the current Russian regime as imperialist and they don’t describe the ex-USSR as an empire either.

With people on board like this, any attempt to come to grips with US imperialism is crippled from the start. It seems that Critique has a serious problem on its hands.

Daniel Lazare
New York

Marx wrong

I thank comrade Andrew Northall for replying to my letter of July 13. However, I still think the comrade is saddled with the mistake of Auguste Blanqui and Karl Marx in referring to working-class, socialist rule as a ‘dictatorship’ (Letters, July 20).

The comrade also mistakenly suggested that I fail to recognise that society is divided into antagonistic classes and this has led me to confusion over the concept of ‘dictatorship’ and ‘democracy’. Generally speaking, the bourgeoisie don’t go around referring to their rule as a ‘dictatorship’, and there is even less reason for the representatives of the working class to use this in incorrect Marxist terminology, borrowed from Blanqui, for socialist rule.

The first thing to point out is that Blanqui and Marx misused the concept of ‘dictatorship’ when they applied it to socialism. This is at the heart of the difference between 19th century German Marxism and British democratic socialism. The term ‘dictator’ originated back in the times of the Roman republic, when the senate could give an individual emergency powers for a limited duration. After the emergency, the dictatorial powers had to be laid down, and the senate would resume its position of authority. During the emergency period the dictator was above the law. This is the essence of the meaning of the term - rule untrammelled by any law, as Lenin clearly recognised in his debate with Kautsky. Dictatorship, in this sense, is closer to feudalism than modern bourgeois democracy - or worse, because even monarchs usually had to abide by certain traditions of rule.

As far as I know, Blanqui was the first to introduce the term ‘dictatorship’ into communism, which is nowhere to be found in Marx’s Communist manifesto of 1848. We should not forget that Blanqui was a rival to Marx in the early communist movement and, when he started prating on about the need for a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, he was trying to win over Marx’s supporters by projecting a more radical image. Marx responded by adopting Blanqui’s position in a modified form, pointing out that, whereas for Blanqui dictatorship referred to a small group, for Marx dictatorship referred to a whole class. But the term simply means rule unrestricted by law.

I agree with Andrew that class rule is at the heart of the Communist manifesto, but like all Marxists the comrade equates all class rule with dictatorship. Dictatorship today is a police state to one degree or another. Why would you need a police state to defend socialism? This would only be necessary if you started a socialist revolution in a mostly backward country, where the working class formed a minority of the population: for instance, Russia in 1917. Lenin once wrote that the will of a whole class can be expressed through an individual. This is true, and shows the dialectical unity between the general and the particular, but this doesn’t mean that such an individual has to be a dictator.

From the time of Blanqui onwards Marx unintentionally misled communists about the meaning of the term ‘dictatorship’ and its applicability to socialism as a form of rule. Calling it a proletarian dictatorship doesn’t change the meaning of the term: lawless rule. Marx and his uncritical supporters confuse dictatorship with the need for state coercion, but there is a big difference between the two.

Comrade Northall seems to believe that I view Stalin as some sort of ultra-democrat for sponsoring the 1936 Soviet constitution, but this was not the point I was making in previous letters. The point I was making was to show the contradiction between the 1936 constitution and the internal and external reality faced by Stalin and the Soviet Union. Stalin was not responsible for starting a socialist revolution in a mostly backward country in 1917, and in fact was for unity of the left, before the arrival of Lenin and Trotsky, with their ultra-left stance of starting a socialist revolution prematurely. A dictatorship, by its very nature, is a police state. This is far from saying that the Soviet regime had no mass support: on the contrary there was a great deal of support for the regime - especially in the period of Stalin, without whom the Soviet Union would have probably gone down to defeat in 1941. Russia still celebrates the victory in the Great Patriotic War, and rightly so.

Comrade Northall says that I oppose Marxism, but I don’t oppose Marx’s support for a classless, communist society. What I oppose are the flaws within Marxism - a 19th century doctrine which contains three important, fundamental flaws: philosophical, economic and political.

At the philosophical level, the Marxist view that ‘being’ determines consciousness is obviously wrong - while ‘being’ influences consciousness, it doesn’t determine it. At the economic level, Marxism is based on an almost complete lack of awareness of the fact that modern, industrial society arose from, and is based on, an abundance of cheap, fossil-fuel energy. Reading Marx’s opus magnum, Capital, the impression is given that modern industrial society resulted from the circulation of money and capital accumulation. But money and the accumulation of wealth existed for thousands of years without leading to capitalism. What made the difference in more modern times was the energy revolution, which is almost completely ignored by Marxism.

Even today, most Marxists are not aware that the world is approaching a serious energy crisis resulting from the peaking of global oil production. Marxism views the circulation of money rather than energy as the foundation of capitalism. But this is all superficial stuff. For instance, you could be a billionaire who lives in a mansion, with a fleet of cars, a private jet and a yacht. But these things are of no use if you don’t have the energy to run them. Energy comes first.

At the political level, Marxism confuses dictatorship with state coercion, while claiming that a ‘dictatorship’ is necessary under socialism. Blanqui’s influence on Marxism is clear at the political level, so why does Andrew say I am putting forward a conspiracy theory. No conspiracy was involved. Marx simply took over Blanqui’s argument and adapted it for his own use, and as a result ended up misleading the communists for several generations.

Andrew concludes by saying that I have not demonstrated any credible alternative to Marxism as a means of achieving socialism of any variety. It is as if the comrade has not learnt anything from the collapse of the Soviet Union after Gorbachev’s inept attempts to bring about democratic socialism in the face of opposition from Leninism. The alternative to old-style Marxism is to win people over to the idea of democratic socialism. It is deluded to think Marxism-Leninism can come to power in advanced countries in the 21st century, having previously collapsed in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe. The collapse of Marxism-Leninism occurred when it did because of the increasing contradiction between these societies and their forms of political rule. This same contradiction is at work in China, and what the communists there need to do is lead society to democratic socialism. If they fail to do this, unfortunately, communists in China could lose power, as happened in the Soviet Union.

Tony Clark
For Democratic Socialism


Ansell Eade argues against the militia demand as addressed to the police, by claiming, first, that the workers’ movement has never tried it and, second, that, since conscription to military service is resisted, the effect would be that only volunteers actually served (Letters, July 20).

Conscription of beat police has, in fact, been used by capitalist countries in several periods - but within the framework of militarised police structures, with the long-service professionals shaping the police culture.

Secondly, high-profile draft-dodging does not render conscription generally unworkable: under most conditions, the large majority comply with conscription. The USA and Nato countries abandoned armed forces conscription because in Vietnam the conscript soldiers proved politically unreliable in face of an obviously unjust war. England abandoned the conscription of parish and ward constables with the creation of Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police and its provincial equivalents for the same reason: the relative political unreliability of the parish and ward constables, backed by their neighbours, in face of popular campaigns for the right to vote, strikes, etc, and the violent unpopularity of deploying the army, as at Peterloo.



Mike Macnair

Left errors

Left economists make a big deal out of proving that wages are never the cause of inflation - or trying to play down its role as much as possible.

While there are sound logical reasons for doing this most of the time, I can’t help but feel that the analysis is predicated on some methodological errors. Michael Roberts’ ‘Wages, profits and inflation’ is a good example of how the analysis proceeds (July 20).

The primary error of this approach is over the category of wages. Wages are presented for the whole population and not broken down into subsets. A subset that would seem highly appropriate is one based on class, so we could analyse wages minus managers’ wages; wages for the unskilled; wages minus professional classes’ wages. Etc, etc.

When you start to analyse the data based on the subsets, which is surely the correct way to proceed, the picture becomes more complicated and more is revealed. For example, gentrification comes into the picture - how low-income families are priced out of neighbourhoods and services, etc. The privatisation project, exemplified by Tony Blair’s latest advocacy of neo-Thatcherite policies in relation to a bare-bones National Health Service, is explained; the failure of crackpot cooperative ideas, such as pooling workers pension funds, is because it is predicated on treating wages across the whole population. I could go on.

The ‘catastrophist Marxists’, such as pro-imperialist and neoliberal Arthur Bough predicting a huge fall in house prices, surely result from these categorical failures. This is another failure of the ahistorical, econometric school of economics, because dealing with subsets is just so much more difficult in econometric modelling, aside from all its other failures.

I think something deeper is going on though. These categorical errors are the result of Britain’s place in the world market and this sort of analysis is a complement to imperialist apologetics: ie, an uncritical attitude to Britain’s place in the world market and all that entails. Then there is the need of ‘Marxists’ to lump as many people as possible into the revolutionary class: ie, The politicisation of analysis leads to categorical errors.



Steve Cousins