The problematic of negative ideology

Phil Watson calls for a conscious application of the dialectic in analysing the USSR

The paradox is this. Throughout its 70-odd years of existence the USSR remained trapped inside a system whereby social and political hegemony had become alienated from the broad ranks of the proletariat. Yet despite this the CPSU bureaucracy continued to exercise control in the name of Marxism-Leninism. For those mired by decades of mechanical epistemology this contradiction is, at best, of secondary importance, or, at worst, a reactionary diversion. However, the controversy surrounding the role of ideology in the USSR will not disappear whilst the demand for a complete critique of the Soviet Union persists. Partial truths, despite the honest intent which may lie behind them, can never hope to mediate and surmount the social whole. Logic becomes circular and thus reified.

A good example of such a process at work can be seen in Jack Conrad’s recent review of The fate of the Russian Revolution (‘Groping towards a theory’ Weekly Worker August 20). Conrad argues of the first five-year plan that “the [CPSU] bureaucracy finally separated itself from any proletarian vestiges, launching a ‘second revolution’ from above and forced industrialisation. Living standards plummeted. Millions died. The Communist Party was decimated and transformed into an organ which existed to promote the cult of Stalin. Here in the first five-year plan, was the qualitative counterrevolutionary break.” This all sounds blissfully straightforward. However, anyone studying the impact of the first five-year plan is duty-bound to consider the manner in which such developments were rationalised in the Soviet Union.

Sheila Fitzpatrick has argued that the development of the USSR through collectivisation and the first five-year plan was accompanied by a distinct ‘cultural revolution’. This was partly premised on the need for the CPSU to assert itself in the administrative and cultural spheres, with Stalin proving to be adept at utilising anti-bourgeois sentiment within fields such as science and philosophy in order to establish Party control. This revolution was also activated by an “iconoclastic and belligerent youth movement ... [who] were by no means a docile tool of the party leadership”. Fitzpatrick describes these revolutionaries as “intensely party-minded, asserting their own right as communists to lead and dictate to others, but at the same time ... instinctively hostile to most existing authorities and institutions ...” (S Fitzpatrick The Russian Revolution 1917-1932 Oxford 1982, p130). Such groupings provided the focus for a brief ascendancy of utopianism in Soviet society, publicised, funded and encouraged by many official bodies. The negative side of this juncture was the subjective leftism of groups such as the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP), a factor that proved grimly prophetic for the ideological development of the USSR.

For Jack Conrad this represents an enigma, or at best an empty formalism. His starting point is the Soviet product and its essentially alienated circuit through society. It seems methodologically acceptable therefore to abstract this social content from its ideological form (ie, a fundamental precondition for its materialisation into the Soviet Union). Conrad’s dualist beginnings stand exposed as the foundation for a partial, one-sided and false approximation of the USSR and its 20th century dynamic.

Let us be clear that ideology in this context is not to be solely premised on its narrow, political, meaning. For sure, we are attempting to account for the ideology of a very specific political grouping (the CPSU). Nevertheless it is not enough to merely identify a collective and its outlook: one also has to comprehend the idea of function and, as a result, process. It is at this juncture that we might wish to turn to Louis Althusser’s definition of ideology as “a matter of the lived relation between men and their world ... In ideology men do indeed express, not the relation between them and their conditions of existence, but the way they live the relation between them and their conditions of existence ...” (L Althusser For Marx London 1996, p233). Althusser’s problematic reveals itself as both broad and compressed. Broad in the sense that ideology becomes truly cultural, “an objective social reality ... an organic part of the class struggle” (ibid p12). Compressed, because it remains counterposed to scientific knowledge, the only correct method of accounting for the development of social formations.

In order to escape the reified clutches of Althusser we can usefully turn to the work of Raymond Williams. Under the influence of Lukács and Lucien Goldmann, Williams sought to bypass certain limited readings of the base-superstructure metaphor to a developed position of ‘cultural materialism’. Its author sought to emphasise “the centrality of language and communication as formative social forces ...” For Williams this meant “a theory of culture as a (social and material) productive process and of specific practices, of ‘arts’, as social uses of material means of production ...” (R Williams Problems in materialism and culture London 1997, p243). Williams shows how this “materialist (but non-positivist) theory of language, of communication and of consciousness” has been equated with ‘idealism’, “because, in received Marxist theory, these activities were known to be superstructural and dependent - so that any emphasis on their specific primacies (within the complex totality of other primary forms of the material social process, including those forms which had been abstracted as ‘labour’ or ‘production’) was known a priori to be ‘idealist’”(ibid pp243-244). This quotation illustrates rather well the nature of Williams’s paradigmatic shift. It also offers a coherent, radical solution to Althusser’s theorisation of ideology in its broadest cultural sense.

It would be wrong however to subsume Williams’s analysis under a specific social ontology. Rather it forms a moment of praxis - in Althusser’s words a “slogan of rejection ... and thus ... a practical signal ... [a] gesture towards a beyond ... which is not yet truly realised ...” (L Althusser op cit p245). At this juncture we are groping towards an understanding of our problematic. Marxism-Leninism was the ideology of the state in the Soviet Union and in that sense a distinct material force. Mészáros has argued that “in the post-revolutionary capital-relation labour could not be fragmented and atomised on the model of the capitalist labour process”. Part of the reason for this was the ideological apparatus of the Soviet Union:

“ ... the ground of legitimisation of ‘building socialism’ was the working class, and all talk about the ‘proletarian dictatorship’ and the ‘leading role of the party’ in it had to exclude quite explicitly the possibility of capitalist restoration and the subjection of labour to the alienating fetishism of commodity” (I Mészáros Beyond capital London 1995, p668).

The CPSU thus proved - ultimately - an unwieldy instrument for the realisation of Marxist-Leninist ideology in the totality of material social processes. In fact, under the rule of the bureaucracy its ideology suffered an endless blocked mediation, becoming ever more atrophied as the USSR neared extinction. The ideological power of Marxism in the Soviet Union was not insubstantial. Its lack of practical realisation was the problem: therefore its power was manifest in the most negative of senses.

It is the issue of mediation between theory and practice that forms our methodological key. Lukács provides us with a useful point of reference for our problematic. He describes how Second International theorists such as Hilferding and Kautsky could insist on the revolutionary nature of the imperialist epoch, whilst declining to organise the concrete mediation of that theoretical insight: the revolutionary party. This of course skewed the struggle against revisionism. “The upshot was that for the proletariat these differences of opinion simply remained differences of opinion within workers’ movements that were nevertheless revolutionary movements ... Because these views were denied any interaction with practice they were unable to concretise themselves or to develop through the productive self-criticism entailed by the attempt to realise themselves in practice. Even where they came close to the truth they retained a markedly abstract and utopian strain” (G Lukács History and class consciousness: studies in Marxist dialectics Cambridge, Mass 1975, p302).

In the context of the USSR, this dynamic was partially reversed. Marxist theory bore its practical fruit with the leadership of the Bolsheviks in the 1917 revolution. As the Soviet Union and the CPSU became subject to distinct bureaucratic distortions, this point of mediation became blocked. Marxism-Leninism lived on as an “abstract and utopian strain” within the edifice of Soviet society. Careful readers will have noted that, despite his blistering criticisms, Lukács still argues in the above extract that the opportunist parties of the Second International were “nevertheless revolutionary movements”. In a similar vein it can be assessed that the CPSU still represented a revolutionary movement and the USSR remained the world’s revolutionary centre until the bitter end of August 1991.

To formulate this problem a little more clearly we can usefully engage the typology of ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ potentiality that Lukács draws for us: “Potentiality - seen abstractly or subjectively - is richer than actual life. Innumerable possibilities for man’s development are imaginable, only a small percentage of which will be realised [ie, as concrete potentiality]”. Herein lies the reification espoused by the modernist as he/she attempts to subjectively substitute “these imagined [abstract] possibilities for [the] actual complexity of life”. This insufficient grasp of the need to seek a concrete mediation into real life leads to an oscillation “between melancholy and fascination”. Lukács goes on to suggest that “[w]hen the world declines to realise these [abstract] possibilities, this melancholy becomes tinged with contempt” (G Lukács The meaning of contemporary realism London 1979, pp21-22). Therefore the status of Marxism-Leninism in the Soviet Union is revealed as that of an ‘abstract potentiality’ - an essential precondition for the brief ascendancy of Gorbachev.

The Soviet Union refused to yield to the abstractions of Marxist-Leninist ideology and therefore left the bureaucracy prostrate before an alienated society of its own creation. Such immobility led to the contempt that Lukács details for us above. In this instance, however, worldly contempt no longer had anti-bourgeois angst as its content. The targets this time were October 1917 and the USSR. Hence the steady importation of bourgeois ideology, an ideology of resignation. This dynamic was eventually personified by the rise and fall of Gorbachev. Even at this late stage the self-perception of the CPSU still exhibited a certain negative power. Mészáros pictures the bureaucracy as making “a myth out of their own ‘leadership’ as a disembodied determination, divorced from its unsavoury ... social metabolic functions” (I Mészáros op cit p662). Therefore in the initial stages of perestroika the introduction of market forces into the USSR was hailed as a potential saviour of the socialist assemblage.

In submitting this short piece to external criticism its author is well aware that it functions less as an empirically grounded exploration of the Soviet Union and rather more as a methodological outline for the purposes of future research. Nevertheless it will have fulfilled a certain purpose if it can make a contribution to correcting one-sided (and at times hysterical) denunciations of the USSR and JV Stalin. These worrying formulas are the unambiguous product of tawdry theoretical beginnings whereby dialectical reticence appears as the only unifying feature. It is extremely doubtful whether the majority of CPGB comrades have even understood the question of ideological form as one of contradiction, let alone perceiving that contradictory reality as a unity. It logically follows that the issue of mediation is absent from the tortured narratives of many Party comrades. What we get instead is a hideous symphony of one-sided truisms, where radical phraseology becomes the substitute for serious revolutionary theory.

It is only through a conscious application of the dialectic that the Communist Party of Great Britain can counter this revisionist ulcer.