Stalin Society v CPGB

What was the USSR?

?Soviet Union: bureaucratic exploitation or proletarian socialism?? This was the subject of a debate in London?s Conway Hall hosted by the Stalin Society on June 19. Harpal Brar, president of Arthur Scargill?s Socialist Labour Party in London, spoke for the Stalin Society, John Bridge for the CPGB. Stan Keable reports

About 70 people, mostly from pro-Stalin groups, but also an assortment of anti-Stalinites, including Monty Johnstone, came to hear and take part in the debate - a good turnout for Stalin Society meetings - prompting comrade Brar to comment that ?comrade Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin continues to be as popular in death as he was in his lifetime?. Unfortunately, he was not joking.

Ivor Kenna, chairing, pointed out that the two speakers were leading figures in the Socialist Labour Party and Socialist Alliance respectively, which in the recent general election ?between them polled more than 110,000 votes - possibly the best vote ever in England for socialist candidates independent of the Labour Party?. But while comrade Kenna was pleased to celebrate this ?common? socialist advance (the SLP had deliberately targeted seats where it knew the SA would be contesting and its whole ?campaign? was nothing short of an anti-SA wrecking operation), the contrast between the two opposite visions of socialism was usefully drawn out in the debate.

For comrade Brar, state production was the key, at whatever cost to the working class, who had been happy to ?forego consumption in order to build the mighty Soviet state?. For comrade Bridge on the other hand, the content of socialism was extreme democracy and the self-liberation of humanity, led by the working class. The mass democracy of the soviets which made the revolution had already withered by 1918, he said, and the last vestiges of formal socialism were ended by the 1928 bureaucratic counterrevolution from within.

Evidently the Stalin Society stalwarts were not accustomed to hearing such sacrilege. A telling point for me was an intimate exchange between two SLP general election candidates. Comrade Iris Cremer, turning to comrade Ella Rule to share her amazement, shook her head, muttering disdainfully, ?Self-liberation!? The idea that the working class was capable of liberating itself was, for these champions of Scargillism, ridiculous. What many comrades present seemed to want, commented comrade Bridge, was not the rule of the working class, but rule over the working class.

The debate came about, according to comrade Brar, as a response to Jack Conrad?s series of four Weekly Worker articles on the life and politics of the late Tony Cliff, leader of the Socialist Workers Party until his death. Comrade Bridge had not been aware that these articles would form the basis of comrade Brar?s opening, but was pleased that Conrad?s ?self-confessed initial thoughts? on the nature of the USSR had been, ?on the whole, fairly represented?. And Brar did indeed present Conrad?s case in considerable detail, complimenting him on his ?excellent demolition job? on Cliff?s theory that the post-1928 USSR had been state capitalist.

But Conrad had replaced value with ?target value?, surplus value with ?surplus product?, and capitalist exploitation with ?bureaucratic exploitation?, complained comrade Brar.

Conrad had characterised Cliff as not only a great 20th century revolutionary, said Brar, but ?one of the invaluable links in the human chain which joined in some way the tradition of Lenin?s Comintern with the ? difficult struggles of the 1950s and 60s?. But he had also criticised Cliff for the ?three basic Es - economism, empiricism and eclecticism?. How could he have been a great revolutionary, then? In fact, said Brar, Tony Cliff had ?spent nearly seven decades cultivating counterrevolution in the service of imperialism?.

For Conrad, continued comrade Brar, the very adoption of the five-year plan constituted ?counterrevolution within the revolution?. Quoting Conrad?s words - ?Using terror, the bureaucracy established its monopoly position as the allocator of resources? - Brar commented: ?So you built industry, you collectivised agriculture, you within 10 years increased Soviet industrial production by nine times, you make the country self-sufficient in food, and you take the majority of the peasantry away from farms to industry. You actually destroy the very basis of small production in the countryside, which, as Lenin said, daily engenders capitalism. You have sufficient food to supply the industrial proletariat - but that is a ?counterrevolution within the revolution?. If that is the counterrevolution, I would dearly love it tomorrow in India and the rest of the world,? said comrade Brar. ?Obviously we have different terms of reference.? Evidently.

In trying to counter the ?infinitely commonplace argument, learnt by rote during the development of west European social democracy?, that backward Russia was ?not yet ripe for socialism?, Brar was in reality jettisoning Marx?s rejection of ?national communism?, which would bring back ?all the old crap?, and likewise rejecting the tenet that socialism must embrace the most advanced capitalist countries (The German ideology). He was attempting to defend the theory of ?socialism in one country?. But in the attempt comrade Brar was necessarily reduced to searching out textual authority - in this case Lenin.

?If a definite level of culture is required for the creation of socialism - although no-one can tell what that level of culture is - why cannot we begin by creating the prerequisites for that definite level of culture in a revolutionary way and then, with the aid of the workers? and peasants? government and the soviet system, proceed to overtake other nations?? This was precisely what the Soviet Union did, according to Brar: ?during the first two five-year plans and subsequently, with the result that they defeated German Nazism and world imperialism (sic), and then within three years of the ending of the war were able to bring production to the level of pre-war times and in the next three years to increase production by 50% ... This was the miraculous achievement of Soviet socialism, of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which has never been matched anywhere else in the world.?

In reply comrade Bridge stated he was ?perplexed? by the proposition that socialism in one country, which Marx had regarded as impossible in the period of competitive capitalism, had somehow become possible during the period of imperialism, when capitalist development had interlocked the world into a single, integrated system. Common sense pointed to the opposite conclusion, he maintained.

There is a problem, said comrade Bridge, with comrade Brar?s story of the ?miraculous success? of Soviet socialism. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Soviet workers did not rise to its defence. They ?either sat by and watched, or actively, in the form of the miners, precipitated that collapse?. The demise cannot be explained on the basis of the personality of a Gorbachev or a Khrushchev. Marxist analysis has to begin with the system and how it works. We must look for the causes of the collapse by going back to the very origins of the system. We cannot explain the system simply on the basis of its end. We must search out its end in its beginning and pre-beginning, he said.

Marx insisted, said comrade Bridge, that socialism was the breaking through on the basis of a mass movement of the working class from the conditions of the most advanced capitalism, not just in one country, but in a whole series of advanced countries. Marx?s socialism is ?a semi-state, socialism that is becoming communism, socialism that is leaving behind the law of value. It is socialism that isn?t the antithesis of democracy under capitalism - it is its triumph, its genuine fulfilment. That is how Karl Marx described socialism in The communist manifesto, in The German ideology and throughout his life.?

Where Bridge emphasised democracy, comrade Brar saw the rule of the working class in the form of the dictatorship of Stalin. To prove his argument he even quoted Trotsky speaking favourably of the ?dictatorship of Lenin?. As one Stalinist wag commented, ?Not enough people were shot?.

The failure of the Soviet Union was, for comrade Bridge, the inevitable result of its isolation. The main problem was the failure to make revolution in the west. Stalin was not really putting forward a programme for the development of socialism in one country, he said. Rather he was ?adapting to Russian backwardness and the impossibility of socialism in one country?.

I cannot say that many Stalin Society members were convinced by the arguments. But this dying breed has been given self-confidence and a temporary lease of life thanks to Arthur Scargill?s desperate need for foot soldiers in his moribund SLP. As a result they occupy positions that a short time ago they could only have dreamed of.