I very much look forward to the deeper engagement with the ‘Russian question’ that Jack Conrad motivates in his recent article (‘Getting the Soviet Union right’, November 7). I also agree with Conrad that the term, ‘workers’ state’, has lost all value as a descriptor of Stalinist regimes. The content of Trotsky’s thinking on the Soviet Union, however, cannot be dismissed by simply discarding an outdated label.
The two reasons Conrad gives for rejecting Trotsky’s analysis are a little puzzling. He says the USSR under Stalin was a police state, in which the working class exercised no power. But does Conrad actually think that Trotsky, as one of Stalin’s principal victims, was unaware of the brutality of a regime whose methods he on several occasions compared to those of Hitler? One must rather attempt to understand why Trotsky characterised the USSR as a workers’ state despite the bureaucracy’s political monopoly and a use of force that was more ruthless and widespread during his lifetime than at any time since.
Conrad further states that the collapse of the Soviet Union provides the ultimate refutation of Trotsky. I fail to follow his reasoning. Trotsky argued that the Stalinism in Russia was an inherently unstable social and political formation. The bureaucracy was unable to establish property forms particular to itself or to create a society in its own image. It presided over a nationalised property regime inherited from the October revolution, which it attempted to defend with dictatorial methods that were bound to undermine collectivised property in the long run. Stalinism, in other words, contained no long-term historical possibilities. The USSR would either be redeemed by proletarian political revolution or undergo capitalist restoration at the hands of a faction of the bureaucracy. These possibilities are laid out in The revolution betrayed, Trotsky’s major work on the USSR.
That Trotsky’s pessimistic variant is the one that came to pass is not an argument against his theoretical conclusions. To my mind, this outcome rather confirms that his analysis, despite difficulties made more apparent by the passage of time, came closer to capturing Soviet reality than its two Marxist rivals: bureaucratic collectivism, which viewed the USSR as a new form of class society, and state capitalism, which saw it as a different modality of the social order defended by its cold war rivals. Both theories tended to credit Stalinism with a viability it has been shown not to have possessed.
Blame it on oil
Jack Conrad believes that as long as the left remains contaminated by Stalinism we will never gain mass support. Most of the left blame Stalin for the negative features of the Russian Revolution, while those more sympathetic to Stalin turn to deviations from Marxism-Leninism to explain the demise of the Soviet Union. I used to belong to this latter camp, but I am no longer convinced by these explanations of why the revolution went wrong and eventually collapsed.
On the political level we need to look deeper. For instance, rather than advocating the democratic rule of the working class, Marx advocated the dictatorship of the proletariat. And, according to Lenin in State and revolution, ‘dictatorship’ means rule untrammelled by any legal restraint. Trotsky himself went along with this. Neither Marx, Lenin or Trotsky evinced any real awareness that dictatorship could lead to abuse of power. And whatever opposition Trotsky displayed to the Leninist theory of the party was binned after he joined with the Bolsheviks in 1917.
Thus, unintentionally, Marxism led part of the socialist movement towards totalitarianism, and Lenin’s theory of the party helped this process along. Also, not having a clear understanding of the nature of social change meant the Marxist attempts to change society caused countless unnecessary deaths. Had there been a better understanding of the relationship between reform and revolution, things might have turned out differently. Lenin’s absolutisation of the split in the working class meant such an understanding could not develop. This mistake contributed to the most dangerous racists and fascists gaining power in Germany.
As for the collapse of the communist-led states in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, it is redundant to blame their return to capitalism on Stalinism. Firstly, we need to understand that these regimes were socialist in essence, although this has been constantly disputed by the ultra-left. What the collapse of these regimes is telling us is that in the era of peak oil no regime is immune from collapse. Soviet oil production began to peak around 1988. But even before this, the Reagan administration had convinced the Saudis to stop supporting high oil prices which helped to keep the Soviet regime afloat. The Saudis flooded the market with cheap oil and prices collapsed. Since the Soviets were dependent on oil for most of their foreign currency earnings, something had to give. Having reached a regional peak oil, they could not increase their oil production themselves, at least not on the basis of the extant technology, and had they done so to earn more foreign currency this would have collapsed prices further.
With the USSR no longer able to provide cheap oil to the regimes in eastern Europe, they quickly unravelled. This process was aided by glasnost, or more openness and democracy. Soviet peak oil, the collapse of oil prices instigated by Reagan and the Saudis, more military pressure on the Soviet leadership with Star Wars, came at a time when the Soviet Union needed to increase grain imports with a falling income from oil.
Rather than Stalinism leading to the collapse of the east European regimes and the Soviet Union, it was mostly caused by the economics of oil. It not so much, or only, Stalinism which leads to the marginalisation of the left, but more because Marxists live in the past and also the fact that the masses are usually won over to the revolutionary left only in the most extreme of circumstances.
Blame it on oil
Blame it on oil
A deep tension weakens the analysis in Jack Conrad’s article on the USSR. He writes that the “welfare state, Keynesianism, the mixed economy, state regulation, the promotion of bourgeois democracy as a universal elixir - all were, in their various ways, a response to the Soviet Union”; and claims that “anyone who has studied the course of the Soviet Union, especially after 1928, can only but recoil in horror”. If everyone could only “recoil in horror”, how did the Soviet Union, by inspiring the masses the world over, force reforms on the ruling class?
I’d also ask that you consider this question: would you say the same about some monstrously corrupt workers’ union, where the bureaucrats kill opponents and suppress militants? Should people base their analysis on emotional recoil? Or does class analysis sometimes reveal truths that contradict naive moral intuition?
So Eddie Ford joins the rest of the soft left apologists for Len McCluskey’s betrayal at Grangemouth. (‘Gangster bosses and special measures’, November 7). So the “the CPGB’s Draft programme (section 3.7) says that, when ‘faced with plans for closure’, we should raise the demand to ‘nationalise threatened workplaces or industries under workers’ control’ - and under certain circumstances it would be a perfectly legitimate tactic for workers to occupy the workplace in order to back up this demand. Indeed, it would be a matter of pure self-defence.”
But on this occasion it just wasn’t appropriate, because the “Grangemouth workforce were unlikely to vote for an occupation” and, anyway, McCluskey “is a left bureaucrat at the end of the day” with “political limitations” so what could he do except “temporarily retreat in order to fight another day”?
Not as bad an excuse as the Morning Star of October 25: “Grangemouth’s workers have called bully-boy Ineos bosses’ bluff by saying they are willing to accept cuts if owners back down on a brutal closure threat” - but getting there.
So we have a programme for occupation up to the point when one becomes necessary and then, when the capitalist owner attacks us viciously by closing the plant, we outwit him and the entire class struggle by running away! What else could any decent left bureaucrat do? If you are a pig, then you surely must grunt.
An occupation under workers’ control immediately raises the question of who owns, or rather who should own, the plant and what production is for. Is it for the profit of capitalism or for the production of fuel for transport and heating oil and gas needed by workers, the middle classes and their families this winter?
An occupation would have raised the political level of the entire class struggle. Every trade union militant and socialist activist would have rallied vast sections of the working class movement behind it. Of course, a trade union bureaucracy will never take such revolutionary action unless severely pressured from below by a rank-and-file movement seeking to oust them and replace them with more militant and revolutionary leaders who are prepared to take such actions - with them if possible, but without them if necessary.
This is why your criticisms of Workers Power, the Socialist Workers Party and Jerry Hicks are well wide of the mark. Only a fight will reverse the attacks on the working class. McCluskey ran away over Vauxhall on Merseyside and the British Airways dispute to save ‘British’ jobs. He is not retaining his forces to fight another day; he is a cowardly bureaucrat who values his job and bloated privileges over the fate of his members. He would only fight if threatened from below with defeat or a movement he could not control. And who wants those kinds of sham leaders?
I write in response to Michael Chessum’s letter (November 7) stating that socialists should be feminists. Nothing could be further from the truth. Socialists should be opposed to feminism, not because we hate women, but because we fight to end oppression on class and not gender lines. Feminism wants equality for women under the capitalist system. Their movement does not want to overthrow capitalism. Because of this it’s a dead end for socialists, regardless of their gender.
Yes, I am in favour of equality for women, but you cannot fight to save capitalism and replace it with socialism at the same time. Socialists should see beyond a person’s gender and fight for the interests of their class and nothing but this.
On November 9-10 1938, Nazi stormtroopers led a wave of violent attacks on Jewish people and property throughout Germany and Austria, which the Nazis had annexed. During these pogroms, 91 Jews were killed, thousands were taken from their homes and incarcerated in concentration camps, 267 synagogues were destroyed, and some 7,500 Jewish-owned shops were smashed and looted. The Kristallnacht pogroms presaged attempts to remove Jews from German life completely.
Many Jews left hurriedly to seek refuge in friendly countries, including Britain, but Britain was already in the grip of an ‘aliens scare’. Newspaper headlines declared: “Alien Jews pouring in”, and claimed that “Refugees get jobs, Britons get dole”. The media accused Jewish asylum-seekers of ‘overrunning the country’. Despite wide public revulsion at the violence of Kristallnacht, powerful elements in British politics and business continued to admire Hitler and the Nazi regime.
Seventy-five years later, racists and fascists inspired by the Nazis continue to attack minorities in Europe. In Hungary, neo-fascists target gypsies and Jews. In Greece, Golden Dawn members and supporters brutally attack migrants and political opponents. Here in Britain, minority communities, especially Muslims, have been targeted in an atmosphere that is increasingly hostile towards migrants and refugees.
As Jewish people mindful of this history, we are equally alarmed at continuing fascist violence and the toxic sentiments expressed by many politicians and much of the media against migrants, asylum seekers, gypsies and travellers.
We stand shoulder to shoulder with migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers in their efforts to live here in freedom and safety, to contribute to society, and be treated as equals. As Jews, we stand together with all communities seeking to combat racism and fascism here and elsewhere.
There seems to be a factual error: the judgement of the SWP disputes committee on W’s accusations, I understand, was not that all accusations were “not proven” (‘Insiders call leadership to account’, October 31). The committee found that there had not been a rape, and that the accusation of sexual harassment was not proven.
Despite the claims of the Democratic Socialist Movement leaders in South Africa that they are building Wasp (Workers and Socialist Party) as a party of struggle, all signs point to an opportunist move to channel the revolutionary anger of the masses into the idle chatter box called parliament. The mother body of the DSM (and therefore Wasp) is the Committee for a Workers’ International.
The DSM proudly holds up their Irish, EU and US parliamentarians and candidates as great examples of revolutionaries in parliament. But in all of these regions the capitalists have waged massive attacks on the working class. What the CWI has achieved is getting a few more crumbs from the masters’ table, not stopping any of the large-scale attacks on the working class. If anything, what the CWI has helped do is sustain the illusion that fundamental change can take place through parliament.
In the current stage of world revolt against the capitalist system, where in many countries the masses have turned their backs on parliament and taken the path of open revolt against their regimes, the line of the CWI, of turning the eyes of the masses back to the capitalist parliament, is opportunist, and helps prop up a system of wage-slavery. Contrary to what the CWI claims, they play the role of turning a section of the vanguard fighters against the revolution for socialism.
At the launch of the Wasp earlier this year, a worker who attended asked, after hearing the input of the Irish Socialist Party member: “Is there socialism in Ireland?” This sums up the illusion that the CWI creates over their parliamentary work.