Behind the mask of Trotskyism

Reply to Ian Donovan of ‘Revolution and Truth’. Part three: self-liberation, democracy and economism

No one can discredit Marxism more than those who falsely speak in the name of Marxism. That has certainly been the case with our terrible 20th century. Two main illegitimate rival orthodoxies have in their time laid claim to ‘Marxism’. On the one side social democracy - the title adopted by Marxists from the late 19th century - and on the other side ‘official communism’.

Eduard Bernstein was the father of social democratic revisionism. Schooled in the classical Marxism of his day - Engels named him along with Karl Kautsky as his literary executor - Bernstein claimed to be no more than an honest critic. Capitalism was not collapsing in final crisis and immiserising the masses as Marx “predicted”, but steadily growing and improving living standards. State intervention was regulating and socialising production.

However, Bernstein’s project had nothing to do with deepening and enriching Marxism; its revolutionary essence was to be surgically removed. He repudiated dialectics and confidently expected that the class struggle was destined to decrease in intensity. Parliamentary reform and routine trade unionism would step by slow step ensure the evolution of the democratic capitalist state into the democratic socialist state. In this ‘modernising’ spirit in 1899 he famously, not to say notoriously, coined the dictum: “the movement means everything  ... the final aim of socialism … is nothing” (E Bernstein Evolutionary socialism New York 1961, pxxix).

Bernstein’s revisionism initially caused a storm of protest. His views were solemnly condemned by the German social democracy and the Second International. In point of fact he was doing no more than providing a theoretical justification for, or reflection of, the actual day-to-day practice engaged in by the European social democratic leaders. Theory followed practice. For them the parliamentary fraction and trade union coffers were everything ... “the final aim of socialism” was something for conference speeches and pious resolutions. In other words nothing to do with practical politics.

The rise of the democratic state and the extension of suffrage, tripartite conciliation boards and the institutionalisation of collective bargaining saw many social democratic trade union officials effectively fuse with bourgeois society, albeit as a subaltern caste. Occupying what the Webbs rightly described as “a unique position” between the working class and the “property-owning class”, the trade union bureaucracy operated as merchants (S and B Webb History of trade unionism London 1919, p467). They expertly haggled with owners of capital over the price of the commodity, labour power, but no longer questioned the fact of its sale. Indeed their privileged existence as a caste relied on the continuation and maintenance of the exploitative labour-capital social relation. ‘A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’ was their common-sense slogan, not the ‘utopian’ call to ‘abolish the wages system’.

The process of bourgeoisification was completed with the outbreak of World War I. A majority of socialist leaders suddenly discovered that they had a patriotic duty to rally workers in defence of the nation, its institutions ... and by inference their sectional stake in it. Marx was quoted by belligerents on both sides to justify inter-imperialist slaughter. These blood-splattered social chauvinists went on to form a caste of professional politicians whose height of ambition was to loyally staff the capitalist state. Germany, Britain and Austria all had such governments in the 1920s. Of course, by the 1950s social democracy found it expedient to drop any pretence of formal loyalty to Marxism. Here was the era of Cold War and McCarthyism. European social democracy became Labourised. Their socialism was reduced to little more than state nationalisation of various strategic industries. Today the “final aim” is becoming nothing ideologically. Under the rubric of the ‘third way’ it is completing the transformation into something to all intents and purposes indistinguishable from bourgeois liberalism.

‘Official communism’ grew out of the decay of Leninism. From Stalin onwards the idea of socialism was nationalised, bureaucratised and primitivised. A “complete socialist society” could be achieved in a backward country like the Soviet Union, in isolation from the world revolution (JV Stalin SW Vol 8, Moscow 1954, p67). Marx’s insistence on socialism as a mass, self-liberating break, involving from the start at least several advanced countries, was paradoxically explained away as something applying exclusively to pre-imperialist conditions.

Marxism as a whole was reworked, doctored and reinvented as a rigid and monstrously simplified doctrine. Human liberation and the necessity of active democracy was replaced by a classless worship of the productive forces and a bureaucratic anti-capitalism. Socialism, or the transition to communism, was equated with the famished but living reality of the Soviet Union. Socialism thus became associated with the strong state, nationalised property forms, the absence of capitalism and the rule of the Communist Party. Given the treachery of social democracy and the enormous prestige enjoyed by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, a wide layer of advanced workers sought to emulate the Soviet experience. Bureaucratic socialism became the aim. Each ‘official’ Communist Party invented its own national road to socialism: France, India, Britain, China, USA, Ireland, Korea, etc. Inevitably this was interpreted through the prism of different consciousness. Undoubtedly there were those who knew the Soviet Union for what it was and eagerly looked forward to establishing their own personal dictatorships or furthering parliamentary or trade union careers. But, along with the cynics, the dull reformists and myopic time servers, there were the self-sacrificing, the heroic and the youthful dreamers.

In any contest between reality and utopia, reality must out. Utopia turns into expediency. The state needs of the Soviet Union kept changing and that required a constant change in its ‘Marxism’. The alliance with the peasantry gave way to the expropriation of the peasantry, equality to inequality, cooperation with Nazi Germany to cooperation with western capitalism. Soviet or official ‘Marxism’ steadily lost the power of explanation and descended into mere ritual.

Crucially, the Soviet Union itself was not a viable social formation (that was also true of similar states modelled on the Soviet Union post-1928 and established through bureaucratic revolution). It could with terror, the importation of foreign technology and the burning subjective desire to catch up with advanced capitalism carry through an enormous leap forward. That entailed turning the Soviet Union into a brutally exploitative social formation. True, in the midst of the world capitalist slump, the first and second five-year plans appeared almost miraculous. But the revolution in the productive forces could not be made permanent. Absolute exploitation was feasible, not relative exploitation. As the surplus population evaporated; so did dynamism. The Soviet Union was thus within itself superior to capitalism and inferior. In the short term the bureaucratic plan could brilliantly substitute for the law of value, but not in the long term. Hence disintegration was inevitable.

So the 20th century witnessed the eclipse of working class political independence, and the failure of social democracy and ‘official communism’ as alternative routes to liberation. Both proved attractive, but illusory. Both followed a logic that led back to capitalism. Between these two camps revolutionary Marxism was squeezed, persecuted and reduced to sect-like proportions. However, in the shape of Trotskyism it was not simply a matter of size. Isolation from the real movement of the working class led either to social democratisation in the attempt to gain a hearing or pro-Soviet apologetics. Put another way, the wings of Trotskyism merged with social democracy and ‘official communism’.

Obviously germs of such a degeneration can be found in Trotsky’s writings in the 1930s. On the one hand there was the French turn; on the other the theory that the Soviet Union remained a workers’ state because of so-called socialist property forms: ie, nationalisation. Nevertheless there can be no doubt that what was potentially opportunist in Trotsky became actual with his epigones. Behind the mask of contemporary Trotskyism we find almost every form of opportunism - the extreme Labour-loyalism once promulgated by Peter Taaffe, petty nationalism à la Alan McCombes and Tommy Sheridan, ridiculous semi-religious sectarianism, narrow economism and sterile apologetics. So Trotskyism as an ideology plays a highly ambiguous role. Without a thorough-going internal revolution it is doomed in the 21st century to farcically repeat the tragedies we have witnessed in the 20th century.

As a good Trotskyite our friend Ian Donovan knows his Trotskyism. However, instead of using it as a means of investigation, a way of approaching the truth and charting a programme towards human freedom, he is forced to deny the scientific method and the vital role of democracy for the proletariat before and after the revolution in order to remain faithful to his version of Trotskyism. We have already shown in parts one and two of this article that he denigrates pre-1917 Leninism by classifying it as a variety of Menshevism because of its stress on democracy; and how, exactly like the Stalinites, he cleaves apart democracy and the conquest of state power by the working class (the Stalinites do it not in theory, but practice; comrade Donovan at least has the virtue of theoretical honesty). He even maintains that a workers’ state can come into being without the working class. Cuba, Vietnam, Eastern Europe, North Korea, Cambodia. His twofold criteria for a workers’ state are nationalised property forms and anti-capitalism. For Marxism it is working class self-liberation, democratic control over production and society, and an armed population.

In this third, and final, article we want to show that ironically modern Trotskyism owes much to the mechanical ‘Marxism’ fabricated by the right wing of the Second International in the years before World War I. This we will do under three main headings - one, the Soviet Union, nationalised property forms and exploitation; two, bourgeois revolutions; and three, economism.

Let us begin with the Soviet Union. Rightwing social democracy has traditionally had a statist vision of socialism. We have already cited Bernstein. Lassalle was certainly a precursor. Essentially the idea was to extend state power over the economy so as to overcome the vagaries, crises and inequalities of capitalism. The beneficent state would liberate the lower orders or at least bless them with full employment, a conformist education and adequate housing by mobilising them as state slaves. Whether the state is an existing one or a new one born of revolution is a detail. The principle of self-liberation is absent. That is why Marx and Engels mocked and ruthlessly fought all forms of staatssozialismus.

Of course, for comrade Donovan the difference between reforming the existing state and building a new one is key. The overthrow of the capitalist state and the expropriation of capitalist property is not only equated with a ‘workers’ state’ but the end of exploitation. He brands Jack Conrad “anti-Marxist” for even suggesting that Stalin’s Soviet Union and other such states were exploitative social formations. They were more akin to bureaucratised trade unions, he says. Bribery and corruption were endemic features of the system. Individual bureaucrats could through such methods secure extra privileges. However, the system itself was a giant exploitative metabolism designed to systematically pump out surplus product from the workers. This relied primarily on political, not economic means.

Comrade Donovan huffs and puffs and does his best to create a thick smokescreen. The above formulation is dismissed as a “remarkable inversion of basic Marxism”. He attempts to evade the exploitation of Soviet workers not by proving that it did not take place, but by referring vaguely (“in the last analysis” and “notwithstanding all kinds of complex mediations”) to supposed timeless general laws. The result is indeed a “remarkable inversion of basic Marxism”.

This is what he writes: “In the last analysis, notwithstanding all kinds of complex mediations, every class society rests on an economic base - except it appears this one, where exploitation was through ‘political not economic means’.” There is no way

“Lenin (or Marx, or Engels, or Trotsky) would have argued than an exploiting class could reproduce itself by ‘political not economic means’. Jack, like Kautsky and Cliff before him, in the absence of evidence that the driving force of the bureaucracy was ‘economic’ exploitation, reinvents ‘exploitation’ in a manner that is divorced from economics, and turns Marxism on its head” (Weekly Worker August 27).

Jack Conrad does not think that the Soviet Union had no economy. That would be stupid. Not only has “every class society rest[ed] on an economic base”, but so have, and so will, non-class societies. Primitive communism had a hunter-gathering economy. Distribution took place according to need and status. Advanced communism too will engage in economic activity and rest upon the abundant production of consumption of products. However, when it comes to class or exploitative societies, we are presented with a qualitative difference between capitalism and all other forms.

Marx explained that capitalism actually creates or establishes economics and politics as distinct and separate categories. Making money is the business of competing capitalists. This labour of Sisyphus takes much time, effort and considerable selfish dedication. Politics is often entrusted or ceded to high grandees or a subaltern caste. In the 19th century the aristocracy specialised in and was synonymous with government. Whig and Tory governments were government by aristocrats. Nowadays middle class careerists form the majority in cabinets, Tory or Labour. Actual working capitalists in government are a rarity (apart from those who, having inherited or made their millions, semi-retire in order to perform ‘public service’). The ruling class is itself peculiarly ill-adapted to directly taking charge politically. The capitalist state is therefore prone to hypertrophy and relative autonomy. There is no automatic correspondence between the politics of the capitalist state and the economic interests of capital.

Capital is produced and reproduced as a dominant social relation economically, primarily through the market and not the appropriation of the labourer. The secret of surplus value is to be found in the everyday “exchange” of money-wages for labour power at its value (K Marx Pre-capitalist economic formations London 1978, p99). Labour power is sold by the worker for a ‘fair day’s pay’. There is no need for cheating or robbery. Exploitation occurs indirectly because living labour can reproduce itself physically and culturally and yet still leave a surplus when put to work by the owners of capital. Under capitalism exploitation and the extraction of surplus is therefore essentially economic (primitive accumulation is an exception). There can be nothing cruder than to universalise the relations and categories of capitalism. To do so is to make an elementary error.

How do other class and exploitative societies differ from capitalism? It could be argued that feudal lords in medieval England, the pharaohs of ancient Egypt and the caesars of Rome played a vital economic role in their respective societies. Castles were built to defend the land, rivers tamed and roads built. That would be to miss the point however. The surplus necessary for such achievements of yore were obtained primarily by force: ie, to use a concept comrade Donovan rejects, through “politico-legal relations of compulsion” (P Anderson Passages from antiquity to feudalism London 1996, p147). Marx, Engels and other authorities could be quoted. But it is all very ABC.

This “extra-economic coercion” took the form of labour services, forced labour, rents in kind or customary dues. Politics and economics formed a unity based on military power - naked or concealed. War was the main business of feudal lords and other such rulers. Politics and economics thus tend to be fused in the same personnel. It was from the political vantage point of possessing a monopoly of force that surplus was extracted. Labour was performed with no pretence of an equal return. Serfs had to do compulsory work for a fixed number of days for their lord and hand over a definite proportion of their product as tithes. Tribute was extracted by armed tax gatherers in the ancient world. Slaves in Rome worked under the overseers’ lash.

In the Soviet Union, as a generality labour power was neither bought nor sold (private services were only performed on the margins of the system). Nor was there money or commodity production. So there was no surplus value. Surplus product was exacted however by the state - and from 1928 onwards on a huge scale. Here was the counterrevolution in the revolution. The five-year plans increased the available surplus dramatically. Any objective study will prove that this was done at the expense of the workers - their social position and subsistence levels dropped precipitously and disastrously.

Was this ‘self-exploitation’? The unequivocal answer must be no. Workers lost all democratic rights with the five-year plans. Trade unions became docile tools of management and an alien state. Internal passports were reintroduced. Leaving work without permission and absenteeism became criminal and in due course capital offences. The workers and peasants were reduced to the position of miserable state slaves. They exercised no positive control over society nor the product of their work. Revenge was exacted in the slow pace of work, sabotage, and the appalling low quality of the product. Nevertheless the means of production and the resulting surplus was the exclusive collective property of a politically defined bureaucracy; it possessed a monopoly over force. That, comrade Donovan, describes not mere “political despotism” but an exploitative social formation and exploitative property relations ... needless to say, not of the capitalist sort. Exploitation was not indirect, but direct: it was “extra-economic” coercion that was responsible for the power and reproduction of the exploitative bureaucracy.

Comrade Donovan has a mechanical view of history and social development. He appears to follow the primitive communism-slavery-feudalism-capitalism-communism schema Stalin outlined in his Dialectical and historical materialism. That no doubt explains why his thinking is fossilised and fragile. Highly complex social phenomena such as the transition from one mode of society to another are for him “really quite simple”. There is no need for study or thought. Thus “in a bourgeois democratic revolution, obviously democratic demands predominate”. In the proletarian revolution against a fully developed capitalist society democratic demands are “secondary”. So-called class demands are primary; their “ultimate expression is the demand for the ‘economic’ expropriation of the bourgeoisie”.

One is left wondering why comrade Donovan says that in his “bourgeois democratic revolution” class demands are not primary. After all in his Menshevik-Stalinite theory the “democratic demands” are “aimed at smashing pre-capitalist obstacles to the development of capitalism and thereby to the growth of the proletariat”. But surely, if we examine real bourgeois revolutions, such a contention stands revealed as nothing more than crude teleology. No bourgeois revolution aimed at “smashing pre-capitalist obstacles to the development of capitalism and thereby to the growth of the proletariat”. Yet for comrade Donovan that is heresy. He wants to hang, draw and quarter Jack Conrad for supposedly writing about the “lack of role of the bourgeoisie in the bourgeois revolutions of the past”. Comrade Donovan should try reading and thinking before he rushes to condemn. He quotes me thus:

“There have certainly been bourgeois revolutions - that is, revolutions led by the middling elements. England 1642 and France 1789 are classical examples. However, it would be profoundly mistaken to imagine that what was in both cases a bourgeois class-in-formation was a class of industrial capitalists or that their victory was over feudalism and directly ushered in capitalism.

“Those who led the English revolution were commercial farmers, well off gentlemen and the lesser nobility. In France it was lawyers and office holders. They did not overthrow feudalism. That society was long dead. As a system in Western Europe feudalism originated in the collapse of the Roman empire before invading Germanic barbarians and had given way to centralised kingdoms and commercial trade by the 14th century - fief and vassalage characterised a military society where the elite was bound by ties of ‘personal’ fidelity.”

Hence, as can be seen in black and white, Jack Conrad does recognise that revolutions have been led by a bourgeois class-in-formation. But what he does not accept is that this class in England or France was a class of industrial capitalists. Bourgeois and industrial capitalists are not synonymous. Nor did these revolutions aim to smash “pre-capitalist obstacles to the development of capitalism and thereby to the growth of the proletariat”. That might have in due course been an unexpected and unintended consequence. Cromwell and Robespierre mobilised the masses with democratic slogans and promises in order to advance in sectional interests middling elements. But these types were not natural democrats. They regarded the masses or the mob with barely concealed contempt and eventually violently turned on them. As to industrial capitalism, that certainly was neither their aim nor immediate legacy. Only those who are blinkered by a linear theory of social development could suppose otherwise.

Not surprisingly then he dismisses Jack Conrad’s speculation about the possibility of a 17th century English republic stamped by the Levellers or a 19th century French republic stamped by the sans culottes. Such talk is “anti-materialist”, he decrees. Their struggles were “anticipations” of the future class of proletarians and “could not have been more at the time”. Here is real “anti-materialist” thinking. History for comrade Donovan is a closed system with no other possibilities within it other than what happened. He applies the same dire method to our century ... Mao ushered in a workers’ state because that is what follows capitalism on the ladder of social evolution.

True, with hindsight we can designate popular struggles of the past as ‘anticipating’ the modern day. But they were more than that. The Levellers and sans culottes were real social movements made up of sentient, socially formed human beings who, like Spartacus, Watt Tyler and Jan Huss and their followers made history according to their own beliefs, fears, desires and interests. The Athenians established a peasant-citizen republic; the Hussites fought off the pope’s counterrevolutionary crusades for half a century. Neither the Levellers nor the sans culottes were doomed to defeat. Their programmes were utopian, but that could have found material expression in an extensive democracy under the influence and scrutiny of those below. The extent democracy was expanded downwards and oppression was lessened in the past is a tribute to such as these and their strivings and struggles, not the supposed democracy of our exploiters.

Comrade Donovan goes on to mock Jack Conrad for stating above that the bourgeois-led revolutions of 1642 and 1789 did not overthrow feudalism. Feudalism is not defined by the comrade. Nonetheless he appears to equate it with the aristocracy. He cites the post-Cromwell reaction and even the Dreyfus case in the French third republic. This is plain silly. One can define feudalism very broadly as a mode of production based on agriculture and an aristocracy. But, as comrade Donovan himself rightly points out, the aristocracy had become thoroughly capitalistic from at least early modern times - surplus was obtained economically from rents, investments and real estate. The system of serfdom and a decentralised ruling class based on fief gave way to the centralised absolutisms typified by the Tudors and Bourbons. These dynastic systems might not have been capitalist, but by the same measure they were not feudalistic.

Apparently Jack Conrad’s “purpose” in trying to grasp the complex transition between feudalism and capitalism is to “obliterate the qualitative distinction between the bourgeois democratic revolution that made the bourgeoisie into the economically and politically dominant class, and the proletarian revolution whose task is to destroy the class rule of the bourgeoisie”. I have no such purpose. What Jack Conrad seeks to do is to show that the Second International theory of the bourgeois democratic revolution is bogus. That is why I praised Lenin for not letting a bad theory become a barrier to making a good revolution. There are what could be called bourgeois or capitalist limits to a democratic revolution in a backward country. But examples of any sort of bourgeoisie leading or making any sort of revolution are sparse indeed. As a class it is fundamentally cowardly, anti-democratic and anti-revolutionary. Equally germane, because Jack Conrad rejects the linear theory of history he can at least entertain the thought that the destruction of the “class rule of the bourgeoisie” need not automatically be equated with “proletarian revolution”. There are other freak or unviable possibilities. Nothing should be decided a priori. We should endeavour to discover the truth through concrete theorisation.

To achieve socialism requires revolution. Not just any revolution though. The revolution will have to be democratic, in the sense that it is an act of self-liberation by the majority and aims to take the democratic state to its limits as a semi-state that is already dying. Democracy and socialism should not be counterposed. The two are inexorably linked. Without socialism democracy always stops short of ending exploitation. Without democracy socialism is only post-capitalism: it is not proletarian socialism.

The task of the working class is to champion democracy, not leave it to the bourgeoisie. Existing democratic forms must be utilised, new forms developed - eg, soviets or workers’ councils - and given a definite social or class content. The objective is to extend democracy and control from below both before and after the qualitative break represented by the proletarian revolution.

Comrade Donovan downplays the struggle for democracy. Capitalism has more or less done it all. Instead he wants to concentrate on economic issues. In the here and now that means low pay, trade union rights and supporting and giving a Trotskyite coloration to strikes. Naturally we communists do not ignore or dismiss such matters. Nevertheless, in and of themselves such spontaneous struggles take place entirely within the sphere of bourgeois economics. The workers remain a slave class. There is no intellectual bridge between them and socialism. That bridge is and can only be politics. The working class must be trained through political struggle to become a universal class, a class that can master every contradiction, every grievance, every democratic shortcoming, a class that sees its interests in the liberation of the whole of humanity. For that, theory and a Marxist programme are vital.

Naturally comrade Donovan indignantly rebuffs the charge that his outlook is characterised by economism. He does after all “combat any concept that the working class can really achieve its objective without the revolutionary dissolution of the bourgeois state”. This is to reduce economism down to archetypical strikism. There are other manifestations. For example, the revival of economism as imperialist economism and now post-Trotsky Trotskyite economism.  Thus comrade Donovan would put off the struggle for certain democratic demands until after the revolution and at the same time he plays down the necessity for democracy after the revolution. Democracy as a central question is absent before and after. Whatever comrade Donovan’s noble intentions, the working class thereby remains a class of slaves. That is the upshot of post-Trotsky Trotskyite economism.

Faced with a national movement in Scotland, he answers with economic struggles now and in the future. Wages on the one hand, expropriation of the bourgeoisie on the other. He cannot bring himself to demand a federal republic because it does not abolish class exploitation. He might just as well object to divorce or homosexual equality. Every Marxist knows that democracy under capitalism is limited, partial and subverted. Yet democracy and the struggle to extend it brings to the fore the class contradiction between labour and capital. That is the crux of the matter. Far from being a diversion, demanding immediately that Scotland and Wales have the constitutionally enshrined right to self-determination within a federal republic is crucial. Without training the workers in such a spirit of democracy the struggle for socialism is impossible.

I make no apology for finishing this article with a passage taken from Lenin’s Imperialist economism. Lenin is chiding Kievsky - that is, Pyatakov - for failing to “appreciate the significance of democracy ... For socialism is impossible without democracy,” thunders Lenin,

“because: 1. the proletariat cannot perform the socialist revolution unless it prepares for it by the struggle for democracy; 2. victorious socialism cannot consolidate its victory and bring humanity to the withering away of the state without implementing full democracy” (VI Lenin CW Vol 23, Moscow 1977, p74).

Lenin was doubly right. Comrade Donovan is doubly wrong.

Jack Conrad