Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 2/3
Gains of the Russian Revolution?
In his review of In Defence of the Russian Revolution in Revolutionary History, Volume 6, no. 1, Ian Birchall compliments the book, apart from the introduction by the editor, Al Richardson, to which he gives the thumbs down. This owes itself to Al’s ridiculing of the state capitalist analysis of the ex-Soviet Union, and his proceeding to raise points that he considers pertinent to a discussion of where the orthodox Trotskyist analysis has failed. Surely this is in order, and arises from Al’s political evaluation. Were Ian to introduce the texts, he would also castigate the orthodox for their errors, but from his viewpoint, and then go on to admit to inadequacies in the state capitalist outlook. Had I introduced the texts, I would have considered some other analyses worthy of study, and developed some other issues worth discussing, but knowing Al’s viewpoint, I find his introduction both adequate and concise, and he rightly poses the questions he regards as relevant. I would, however, go a bit further.
Al writes: ‘Trotskyists always expected that the workers would fiercely resist any counter-revolution, and a Marxist party would be present to lead the struggle to restore working class control over social property.’ There are two problems with Trotskyism that require examination. Firstly, the idea that the working class – a new one, as the original one had ceased to exist by 1921 – identified with the Stalinist entity, and if it did, whether it was on the basis of a Communist or nationalist outlook; and secondly, the idea that parties can be created out of nothing regardless of existing consciousness. Both problems arise out of a major fault in Trotsky’s understanding of the creation of consciousness, and they keep showing up in his over-optimistic prognoses of revolutionary possibilities in Germany in 1923, Britain in 1926 and France in 1934, and ending up in the programme of the Fourth International.
Ian states: ‘What made Russia a workers’ state in the first place was the existence of soviets, or organs of direct working class power.’ What made Russia a workers’ state was the seizure of power by a working class party having the support of the majority of the admittedly quite small working class in alliance with, and with the support of, the working peasantry, and the establishment of a workers’ and peasants’ government resting on its own armed power, which implemented transitional measures of an anti-capitalist and anti-landlord nature. The soviets were merely an organisational form thrown up by the workers out of necessity.
During the Civil War, the proletarian dictatorship, or its caricature (as Rosa Luxemburg put it), became more narrow, and the class supposedly exercising it ceased to exist. Al points this out quite clearly. Within Russia, the regime’s continued existence demanded good relations with the working peasantry. The decision to ‘collectivise’ (or expropriate) the peasantry represented a civil war against the main prop of the regime. From then on it could only survive as a police state relying on terror. But none of the measures associated with this process represented any qualitative change in the nature of the regime, or the property relations it defended. The same one-party regime ruled, and the ban on factions in 1921 was only taken to its ultimate conclusion. An even bigger ‘caricature’ continued in existence until the destruction of the Bolshevik party during the trials of the 1930s. But the dictator and his apparatus which emerged out of it only represented a further degeneration. Attempts at reform took place with the death of Stalin, but they failed. No force existed to implement them against the ‘bureaucracy’. And Al makes the case, correctly in my opinion, that in the Brezhnev era quantity turned to quality, and the Soviet system began to fall apart. Capitalism and a capitalist class are only now being created in the ex-Soviet Union, and this is by no means a finished process.
There is a line continuing from the establishment of the ‘caricature’ to its demise: namely the extremely rickety proletarian dictatorship that quickly became replaced by a permanent state of emergency, but that was not predetermined – the decisive factor was the class struggle beyond Soviet Russia. The strength of world capitalism defeated the Russian experiment, which, as Al points out, raises ‘the question of the epoch’.
Ian asks ‘what “gains of the revolution” actually survived’ by 1929? If the Stalinist bureaucracy had transformed itself into a ruling class, and the proletarian dictatorship had turned into a new exploitative one along capitalist lines, then nothing was left to defend. But what about the Comintern? The Soviet party set it up and dominated its organs from the start. All key decisions were always discussed in advance in the Soviet Politbureau. Is Ian implying that after 1929 the Comintern was no longer attempting to foment revolution? Had it become a tool of the new ruling class? Were the Communist parties now mere agencies of that class? That would rule out united fronts with them, and would imply a witch-hunt against them like some Social Democrats engaged in. Was a new International required? And so on.
The arguments between new class and orthodox Trotskyist theoreticians usually do not bring us any advances in understanding the phenomenon of the degenerated Soviet society. Al describes the inability of the orthodox Trotskyists to build on The Revolution Betrayed as ‘theoretical ineptitude’. In his review of Tony Cliff’s State Capitalism in Russia in the Spring 1976 issue of the Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History, Eric Shaw, from another viewpoint, asks: ‘If the bureaucracy actually ruled, why did it allow Stalin to overrule its objections to the furious tempo of collectivisation and industrialisation ... Why, indeed, did it not prevent the dictator and the NKVD from decimating its ranks in the great purges? A ruling class – if Cliff’s thesis is to be accepted – appeared helpless before an individual.’
We can no more turn our backs on the Soviet experience than we can on a trade union taken over by gangsters, or the Labour Party taken over by non-Socialists of one variety or another. They were all created by the working class, and we have responsibilities for them – even the Socialist Workers Party, whilst rejecting the Labour Party as a working class party, still defends Clause Four, supports left wingers in leadership elections, and even calls for a Labour vote in elections, basing itself on some tortured arguments that Labour does in some way express different class interests – so rather than discard Al’s introduction, let a discussion begin over the questions raised by the collapse of the Soviet system, and a balance be attempted. It is no more helpful to walk away from the questions now than it would have been in 1929.
I’d like to reply to Steve Parson’s letter in the last issue of Revolutionary History. In republishing Jan Valtin’s Out of the Night, Fortress Books described it as ‘a classic Socialist autobiography’. I objected to that description in 1988. I refer people to the demolition job by Dieter Nelles, who was able to consult the records of the German Communist Party, the Gestapo and others. Nelles confirms my evaluation. The book started out as a maritime adventure tale, but was rewritten under the influence of Isaac Don Levine. Newspaper cuttings, gossip, fantasy and the author’s experiences are all included. Erik Nørgaard would not claim to be a labour movement historian. He is an investigative journalist specialising in legal affairs. I quoted the case of Anton Saefkow merely to illustrate Nørgaard’s scanty knowledge of the KPD. Saefkow is one of the KPD’s heroic figures. Just opposite the Ernst-Thälmann-Park, in Prenzlauer Berg, previously East Berlin, lies the Volks-Park-Anton-Saefkow, bordered on one side by Anton-Saefkow-Strasse. One finds errors in Nørgaard’s books which illustrate his superficial knowledge of the Communist movement. I used Saefkow to show that anyone with a basic knowledge of the KPD’s history would not give credence to accusations of him entering the Gestapo’s service.
Finally, readers will be interested in biographical details of Salomon Ehrlich and Esther Mihlstein, who were mentioned in the last issue of Revolutionary History (p. 18, n23 and p. 42, n60). Ehrlich (1907–1943) was born in Bedzin, near Katowice, Poland, the son of a Jewish banker. He lived in Palestine in the 1920s, and joined the Communist youth movement. Moving to Zürich to study economics, he joined the Swiss Communist Party, and developed sympathies for Trotskyism, for which he was expelled in 1931. He returned to Poland for personal reasons, and played an important rôle in building up the Trotskyist organisation. He published the Red Flag during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943, and perished there. Mihlstein (1903–1943) was born in Poland, moved to Palestine, worked as a seamstress, and joined the Communist youth movement. Moving to Switzerland, she joined the Swiss Communist Party, and was elected to the Executive Committee of the Clothing and Leather Workers Union, a ‘red’ union. Expelled from the party in April 1933 for Trotskyist sympathies, she was removed from her union posts. In June 1933 she was a member of the Trotskyist delegation to the Anti-Fascist Workers Congress at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, presided over by Henri Barbusse, and was forcibly prevented from speaking, and then ejected. She returned to Poland in 1936, where she helped to build the Trotskyist organisation. She died with Ehrlich in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. These details are from David Vogelsanger’s PhD Thesis, Trotzkismus in der Schweiz.
Updated by ETOL: 29.9.2011