Thursday, 12 June 2008

A Reply To Mike McNair Part VI

“Class formations are tolerated by societies over prolonged periods of time for two reasons.”

I find this an odd formulation. It suggests a conception of society as some kind of conscious entity that makes a choice to tolerate this or that condition rather than the fundamental aspect of society being its process of development through the class struggle – indeed through other struggles too, such as gender sexuality etc. – a process which largely goes on behind the back of society as a whole.

“The first is that the competitive relations between private slaveowners, feudal barons, capitalists, etc., tend to create incentives to develop the forces of production (albeit more slowly in pre-capitalist than in capitalist societies).”

This is true but as I said above this is process which goes on behind the back of society not something it is conscious of tolerates or encourages. And although this is a social process it proceeds not because it is of benefit to “society”, but because it is of benefit to particular exploiting classes, and indeed to individuals within those classes. History is a process which goes on behind the backs of its participants, but it is nevertheless a process which unfolds as a result of the actions of real men, who are motivated by real needs and aspirations. As Engels put it,

“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.

We make our history ourselves, but, in the first place, under very definite assumptions and conditions. Among these the economic ones are ultimately decisive. But the political ones, etc., and indeed even the traditions which haunt human minds also play a part, although not the decisive one. …

In the second place, however, history is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a host of particular conditions of life. Thus there are innumerable intersecting force, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant — the historical event. This may again itself be viewed as the product of a power which works as a whole unconsciously and without volition. For what each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed. Thus history has proceeded hitherto in the manner of a natural process and is essentially subject to the same laws of motion. But from the fact that the wills of individuals — each of whom desires what he is impelled to by his physical constitution and external, in the last resort economic, circumstances (either his own personal circumstances or those of society in general) — do not attain what they want, but are merged into an aggregate mean, a common resultant, it must not be concluded that they are equal to zero. On the contrary, each contributes to the resultant and is to this extent included in it.”
Engels Letter to Bloch 1890

See:Letter to Bloch

“The second is that the institution of small productive property (the peasant’s farm, the artisan’s shop, and so on) legitimates the individual property claims of large owners.”

I’ll go along with that in part, but it is in fact the whole of bourgeois ideology, which reinforces each individuals daily experience of life which legitimates property large or small. The idea that each individual is free, that exchanges between labour and Capital are based on the equal and voluntary contracting of each party, that the worker too could be in the place of the Capitalist – and modern lottery and compensation culture exploits that desire to the hilt – imposes on all members of society property owners or not, the idea that the ownership of private property is natural, is the only basis on which production and distribution can proceed.

“The bureaucracy had neither form of legitimacy.”

Is that actually true? I’m not sure that it is. Did the bureaucracy develop the means of production? I think the answer is clearly yes they did. Not to the degree that Stalinist propaganda suggested, but on the basis of the arguments I have presented earlier, certainly to some considerable extent. Whatever, the distortions of Stalinists statistics, the actual production of armaments etc. cannot be explained away as false accounting. The large scale development of health provision, the mass and often voluntary literacy drives undertaken by Party members into the countryside, and so on resulted in tremendous improvements in workers and peasants lives. I’m not sure that the other form of legitimacy was absent either. The bureaucracy might have been dishonest in its ideological pronouncements, but those pronouncements certainly legitimised its existence by socialising the working class and peasantry into acceptance of its function. Rather as in France, too, the role of the State encouraged the view that one of the greatest services a citizen could fulfil was to aspire to a job within the State apparatus. I was on holiday in Cuba a couple of years ago, and had an interesting short discussion with a Canadian. The jobs at the hotel were considered privileged jobs. All of the waiters spoke many languages fluently. I was discussing this with this Canadian who made what was for someone from a Capitalist country not a surprising remark, but struck me as demonstrating the difference between the two types of society. Talking of the education and position of the waiter, the Canadian commented, and not approvingly, “Yeah, the only people who get on here are the people who get themselves educated.”

Now, of course if you mean that the bureaucracy did not have legitimacy as a separate CLASS then I entirely agree with you, it could only obtain the legitimacy I have outlined above by maintaining the fiction that it fully represented the interests of workers – both in the USSR and internationally. But, it could only maintain that fiction if to some extent it DID represent the interests of workers within the USSR and internationally. That is precisely the contradictory nature that the bureaucracy fulfils within the society – indeed in any society just look at the way the top Tory bureaucrats in the State capitalist NHS have to act in opposing at least verbally privatisation as a function of maintaining their well-paid position within that bureaucracy. That is why because it is not a class in its own right, because it has that contradictory nature as Trotsky described that it is forced to act in the way it did, why in contrast to the way the new class theorists believed it must act via “Soviet Imperialism”, it acts quite contrary to that in diverting resources to client states, and to national liberation movements.

“Instead, the bureaucracy is a segment of the intelligentsia, distinguished by political, managerial, etc., office within the hierarchy of the regime.”

I think it is wrong to describe the bureaucracy as a segment of the intelligentsia. For one thing the bureaucracy itself comprised millions of individuals. It was much larger than the intelligentsia so could not be a segment of it. As with any bureaucracy what we have is in fact a system of competing elites and power blocks operating and vying for power and prestige within the entire structure. In large part the State bureaucracy was made up of millions of clerical workers most of whom if they were in this country would have been members of the PCS. That is why as Trotsky said it would be foolish to treat the bureaucracy even as some monolithic block, because the interests of these ordinary workers although on a daily basis tied to their position within the hierarchy, had in reality conflicting social interests to the higher echelons just as ordinary Civil Servants in this country get drawn into the bureaucratic mindset, and empire building of the structures in which they work, and yet have completely different interests to the mandarins at the top.

The evidence seems to suggest that the children of the intelligentsia themselves tended to find their way not into the bureaucracy, but themselves into the intelligentsia or into the arts. The bureaucracy seems to recruit largely from the children of the workers and peasants who have progressed successfully through academic life. This in itself legitimates the bureaucracy. But, the same phenomena can be seen in the bureaucracy in capitalist countries. Even workers, and often even radical workers drawn into the bureaucracy – whether it be the State bureaucracy, or the Trade Union or labour Party bureaucracy – make progress by playing the game, by imitating the existing bureaucrats higher up the ladder whose positions they seek. They become absorbed, and the more he move up the ladder the more their lifestyle becomes separated from that of the ordinary worker from their roots, and they adopt a petit-bourgeois outlook.

Ask anyone who works in Local Government for instance. If they give you an honest answer they will tell you that even the ordinary clerks in the offices, believe that the Councillors are a bunch of uneducated buffoons, who should just leave them to get on with the job. Magnify that a few hundred times, and it is easy to see the mentality that would have existed within the Soviet bureaucracy.

“The bureaucracy as distinct from the petty proprietors in general is thus a political entity distinguished by its participation in the state as a special organisation of armed force.”

But the modern State is far more than just a monopoly of violence. The Soviet State as a bloated bureaucracy was far more than that.

“A state is a body of armed forces backed by a bureaucratic logistics apparatus and having a sufficient military preponderance in a territory to be capable of levying taxes to support itself. Put another way, a state is an exceptionally successful protection racket.”

I think this is fundamentally wrong from a Marxist perspective. Any State, including the Soviet State if it relied solely on force to remain in existence would quickly fall. By quickly I mean it might take a decade or so, but it certainly would not last the generations that most states last.

“If the bourgeoisie now appeals to force in order to save the collapsing “economic situation” from collapse, it is only showing that it is labouring under the same delusion as Herr Duhring, the delusion that ‘political conditions are the decisive cause of the economic situation’; that, just like Herr Duhring, it imagines that it can regenerate those ‘second order facts’, the economic situation and its inevitable development, by means of the ‘primary factor’, of ‘direct political force’, and that it can shoot and kill with Krupp guns and Mauser rifles the economic consequences of the steam engine and the modern machinery driven by it, and of world trade and the present day development of banking and credit.” Anti-Duhring (p211)

The State arises not as a protection racket, but as a mechanism of self-defecne for the ruling class. The means by which it extracts the surplus from society as Engels sets out in Anti-Duhring remains wholly within the sphere of economic relations, upon those economic relations class or social relations arise, it is only when the exploited class/es recognise the real nature of those economic and social relations and their position within society, and begin to challenge them that the State is required to come to the defence of the ruling class. A permanently mobilised state would give the game away, and tear away the legitimation of the ruling class.

“The second is that at the end of the day the state is a minority group and if it loots to excess, or fails to provide the services normally expected of states (military defence, dispute management and the management of natural emergencies) the society as a whole will cease to tolerate it.”

But again you talk about society tolerating the State as though society were some conscious homogenous entity rather than made up of competing classes and other social groups in constant interaction with each, indeed as Engels describes it above as millions of competing individual wills. In fact we have seen on many occasions that the State as a Minority group CAN rise above society where those millions of competing wills are sufficiently atomised, where they do not find sufficient common conditions and foundation to form cohesive classes, and whereby, therefore, the cohesiveness, and discipline of the State can assert itself.

I think your description of the way coherence and legitimation of the ideas of the ruling class are inhered within the State apparatus is at best incomplete for the reasons I have given earlier. If we take feudalism for instance, its true that religion played a crucial role in legitimating feudal rule – though the concept of the Divine Right of Kings was not Universal and was actually not a concept that arose early on – but probably far more important in legitimating the structure was the economic relations. The Church itself is a fundamental component of the State, and is tied to feudal rule through economic ties i.e. its right to levy tithes, its own large landed estates. As Hobbes points out the Sovereign is seen as providing in Exchange for the tribute paid, law and order, and protection of life and to a certain degree liberty. IN terms of the actual feudal State apparatus, we see, for instance, the children of the feudal aristocracy being channelled into the clergy, where they are not married into some other family, or do not inherit under primogeniture. As with bourgeois relations and the State ideology flows from real economic and social relations, whilst the implantation of those ideas, and culture within the State apparatus takes place via real human beings tied to the ruling class.

“All that was left was (a) nationalism - ‘socialism in one country’ - reflecting the character of the regime as the representative of the petty proprietors;”

Its not clear why this should be the program of the petty proprietors. There are in fact many reasons why the petty proprietors be they peasants, petty-bourgeois or intellectuals should be opposed to a policy based on economic autarky. Even Trotsky, the greatest opponent of “Socialism in One Country” admits in a number of articles that the great strain on the proletariat that the Revolution, War and Civil War had placed upon it, led to feelings that were accommodated to by Socialism in One Country, the feeling that the last thing we want is yet more sacrifice. Trotsky’s argument is not that Socialism in One Country did not have resonance within the working class, but that the role of the party was to stand firm against such sentiments based on defeatism within the class, and to argue that the only way forward was on he basis of Permanent Revolution.

“The bureaucracy thus tended, not to maximise the extraction of the social surplus from the primary producers, but to fail to extract a social surplus except in the absolutely marginal form of personal consumption privileges.”

I think this position and the argumentation leading up to it is correct. It is important, of course to add that a much greater social surplus than that which you rightly say was entirely marginal, in the form of consumption privileges, was produced, and without it these societies could not have grown. It is important, separately, to discuss the nature of the process by which this general social surplus was accumulated as a different process to the process of accumulation of Capital, a discussion which I think again completely undermines the State Capitalist argument, and goes a long way to undermining the BC argument.

“The working class, conversely, could not develop organisations and experienced local activists independent of the bureaucracy (a “workers’ vanguard”), because workers’ leaders who refused integration into the bureaucracy would be removed from the society.”

I am not convinced by this argument. There have been many instances of very repressive and totalitarian regimes through history in which, nevertheless, opposition movements have developed. That is not to say that it is not difficult for them to do so or that they must arise in every such situation. But, to deny the possibility it seems to me is too defeatist, and contrary to the evidence. One of the biggest socialist movements arose in Germany for instance despite the Anti-Socialist laws, we have the experience of East Germany, of Hungary, and of Poland where essentially workers movements arose. Its true that, for example, in the case of Poland, although in the early days Solidarity raised demands which were very similar to Transitional Demands, it was captured by Rightist elements, who we now know were being financed through the catholic Church with western money. But, that can only explain so much. The main reason for the direction those movements headed, and which indeed the working class either drifted toward or did not resist in Russia, was not CIA conspiracies, but was pure and simple the failure of Western Marxists over the last 100 years to have developed any credible alternative to Capitalism, any sizeable working class movement based around principles that Eastern European workers could have mobilised around. Western Social democracy could only offer a variety of western bourgeois democracy, the European CP’s could only offer more of the same, whilst the orthodox Trotskyists had become almost indistinguishable from the Stalinists, and the anti-Trotsky Trotskyists of the Third Camp had long since effectively given up hope of independent working class action – though they maintained it as a mantra in their propaganda – and had as Trotsky predicted they would simply attached their cart to supposedly democratic imperialism. Hence the AWL’s support for Yeltsin’s counter-revolution.

“The bureaucracy’s ideological claim to represent the working class, and its reflection in the integration of a section of worker leaders into the bureaucracy, had the effect of disabling class politics as an ideology of resistance. It was thus guaranteed that when the bureaucracy finally collapsed, and even in episodic crises like those in Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968, and Poland 1976 and 1980, the working class would be unable to develop class political independence.”

I agree that in the given situation this was the case, but for the reasons I have given above it need not have been the case. Had Marxists developed an adequate international Labour movement – not necessarily one that was based on Marxist principles, but at least one that offered a real alternative to capitalism and to Stalinism – then that movement clearly could have provided an alternative to workers in eastern Europe and elsewhere, indeed could have acted also to undermine the legitimation based on ideology of the Stalinist States.

“If the Soviet state was not only isolated on the world stage but also isolated within the international workers’ movement, ideological collapse would result. This dynamic produced the attempts of several distinct national bureaucracies after the Sino-Soviet split to produce their own ‘international communist movements’ (Beijing, Havana, Tirana).”

I think this indemnifies non-Stalinist Marxists to an unjustifiable degree. It is clearly true that the power of the Soviet State was a powerful force supporting Stalinist ideology throughout the globe. Even simplistic mantras such as “My enemies enemy is my friend”, which continue to lie behind the positions adopted even by supposedly intelligent Labour movement politicians, also worked in the favour of the Stalinists. But, it has to be said that the greatest failure has been the utter sectarianism of the international Marxist movement. In part I would argue that that is itself a remnant of Leninism, but I find it hard to believe that Lenin himself would have adopted the sectarian stance that the Marxist movement has adopted over the last 80 years. I have today been reading Trotsky’s Writings for 1934-5, including his call for the French Trotskyists to join the French Social Democrats. He faced considerable difficulty in arguing that position. As he concluded one of his missives, “The Koran relates that the Mountain came to the prophet, Marxism counsels the prophet to go to the Mountain.” Yet, the attitude of the revolutionary Marxists has largely been to say here is our Programme take it or leave it. It has been to approach workers within the LP who have not reached a class conscious position as class traitors to be denounced, and so on, and has largely as a result confined itself to being tribal groups of petit-bourgeois that pretend at being revolutionaries, but in effect largely abscond from the daily lives of real workers, entertaining themselves in “real politics”. It is not surprising that rather than building the small numbers that Trotsky began with in the 1930’s, they have succeeded, in turning those forces into even smaller, even less significant forces for the class struggle. We see the same thing now in relation to the LP.

“The hegemony of the bureaucracy in the international workers’ movement meant that it was absolutely impossible for a forward movement in the class elsewhere in the world to produce a rival revolutionary pole which could overthrow the bureaucracy, or animate a movement in the Soviet-model regimes for its overthrow, in the interests of the working class.”

Its not at all clear to me given what I have said above why you believe your argument holds here.

“Any such forward movement would, even if it started outside official communism, be forced to elect between the hegemony of the bureaucracy and that of the capitalist state system.”

Why would it?

“The pressure of US high-tech on Soviet military budgets displayed with awful clarity the inferiority of the bureaucratic regime as a producer of military technology and, indeed, more generally of ‘growth’.”

I disagree with the line of argument largely for the reasons I have outlined earlier. The evidence is that the USSR could where the bureaucracy was the direct purchases of equipment produce technological products of a high specification, hence its lead in the space race. It did have a problem of growth, which I think is explained by the brief comments I made earlier. All economies have to proceed on the basis of some balance and proportionality. An economy that is very basic can divert resources to producer goods in order to rapidly increase output, and still increase the production of consumer goods, for the simple reason that consumer demands are at such a low level. It has to proceed with some care, however, in its investments in producer goods, because of the reasons that Bukharin outlined in his “Economics of the Transition Period”. That is related to periods of turnover and the production of Surplus value as related by Marx in Capital. Too many very large Capital projects with long time spans require a disproportionate amount of wage goods to be produced to sustain the workers producing these Capital projects without any Value being returned for a long time into the economy from those projects i.e. they can only contribute to the economy on their completion. But, the more economies develop the more consumer demands increase for a wider range of products, it becomes more difficult maintaining proportionality. In addition, some of the problems were simply a matter of bureaucratic bungling. The so called “hare brained schemes” of Kruschev in the 1950’s were designed to increase agricultural production, but were based on quack science. Simple things like over farming areas that denuded the soil, the lack of integration of grain storage with production, and of transport were not problems that particularly required democratic planning, or workers inspection to achieve, they simply required some plain common sense.

Ticktin is right in much of his analysis of these kinds of failures that if anything disprove the new class theories starkly, because it is difficult to imagine any half competent ruling class, be it state capitalist or Bureaucratic Collectivist allowing so much of the potential surplus that it could have at its disposal simply disappear. The problem of military competition with the West ultimately then resolves itself into the inability of planning to solve the problems of a complex economy. The Chinese have recognised that problem as did Lenin – Lenin believed that the NEP might have to be allowed to run for 25 years – but unless, China develops either well capitalised, Co-operative enterprises, or State enterprises under workers control that develop, and thereby develop the working class as part of that process then the consequence will inevitably be the same as that faced by Stalin in the 1920’s, but on a much greater scale. The new capitalist class will simply see its ideas and interests infuse the state apparatus, and will ultimately seek political power for itself on the basis of bourgeois democracy. That may not happen. The State is keeping control of the main economic levers. Moreover, as Trotsky points out a counter-revolution never completely restores the position fully. In Russia, western businessmen complain that state officials do not understand private capital, or the concept of competition. The ideas developed within the state over 80 years even in corrupted form retain some grip. The Chinese Stalinists having witnessed the rise of the oligarchs in Russia, and the way Putin’s Stalinist state had to reign control back into the State, might learn that lesson too.

“the working class could not attain class-political independence without the prior overthrow of the bureaucracy by some other force, which inevitably meant its overthrow by capital.”

For the reasons I have given earlier I think this position is false, it takes the USSR and eastern Europe out of the context of the international labour movement.

“In addition, the Trotskyists and semi-Trotskyists, by their commitment to the cult of the personality of Trotsky, had committed themselves to not examining the proletariat’s loss of control of the state in 1918-21 or the centrality of 1921 to the ideology of the bureaucracy.”

I agree. Its interesting to note that even in the early 1930’s Trotsky was responding to the arguments of the ultra-lefts and petit-bourgeois socialists socialists, and their moralistic, Kantian analysis of the class nature of the Soviet State, their demand for a purity that is not to be had.

He wrote,

"Messrs. “Kantian” Sociologists (we apologize to the shade of Kant) often reach the conclusion that a “real” dictatorship, that is, one that conforms to their ideal norms, existed only in the days of the Paris Commune, or during the first period of the October Revolution, up to the Brest-Litovsk peace or, at best, up to the NEP. This is indeed sharpshooting: aim a finger at the sky and hit the bull’s eye! If Marx and Engels called the Paris Commune “the dictatorship of the proletariat” it was only because of the force of the possibilities lodged in it. But by itself the Commune was not yet the dictatorship of the proletariat. Having seized power, it hardly knew how to use it; instead of assuming the offensive, it waited; it remained isolated within the circle of Paris; it dared not touch the state bank; it did not and indeed could not put through the overturn in property relations because it did not wield power on a national scale. To this must be added Blanquist one-sidedness and Proudhonist prejudices, which prevented even the leaders of the movement from completely understanding the Commune as the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The reference to the first period of the October Revolution is not any more fortunate. Not only up to the Brest-Litovsk peace but even up to autumn of 1918, the social content of the revolution was restricted to a petty-bourgeois agrarian overturn and workers’ control over production. This means that the revolution in its actions had not yet passed the boundaries of bourgeois society. During this first period, soldiers’ soviets ruled side by side with workers’ soviets, and often elbowed them aside. Only toward the autumn of 1918 did the petty-bourgeois soldier-agrarian elemental wave recede a little to its shores, and the workers went forward with the nationalization of the means of production. Only from this time can one speak of the inception of a real dictatorship of the proletariat. But even here it is necessary to make certain large reservations. During those initial years, the dictatorship was geographically confined to the old Moscow principality and was compelled to wage a three-years’ war along all the radii from Moscow to the periphery. This means that up to 1921, precisely up to the NEP, that is, what went on was still the struggle to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat upon the national scale. And since, in the opinion of the pseudo-Marxist philistines, the dictatorship had disappeared with the beginning of the NEP, then it means that, in general, it had never existed. To these gentlemen the dictatorship of the proletariat is simply an imponderable concept, an ideal norm not to be realized upon our sinful planet. Small wonder that “theoreticians” of this stripe, insofar as they do not denounce altogether the very word dictatorship, strive to smear over the irreconcilable contradiction between the latter and bourgeois democracy."

See: Trotsky The Class Nature of the Soviet State 1933

“They were thus none of them real advocates of the overthrow of the bureaucracy, whose forms they replicated in little in their own ranks, producing unprincipled splits, a wilderness of sects, and a tendency to collapse politically into left variants of official communism. Those leftists who were prepared to recognise that the proletariat lost control of the state in 1918-21, on the other hand, clung to utopian commitments to the council state, rejected party organisation and the ‘Kautskyite’ preparatory tasks of building mass organisations of the working class and fighting for a minimum programme, and marginalised themselves - or else simply joined the camp of the social-democracy.”

I agree with this, except that I believe that the task of building those mass movements, and I believe that, precisely because the Trade Unions are necessarily reformist organisations that reinforce bourgeois ideology, the most important task is work to build a Workers Party, this runs through, in the concrete reality we face in pretty every bourgeois democracy, joining the social democracy, not as Entryists, but as honest builders of those parties, who seek in the process to win over the workers within them.

Go to Part VII

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