Issue 172 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

A shaft of light

Two new books, both written by socialists, look at different aspects of the revolutionary tradition. Here Hazel Croft reviews Trotsky's final years and Chris Harman looks at what's wrong with the market

Trotsky's arguments went unheard as the fascists organised
Trotsky's arguments went unheard as the fascists organised

The last years of Leon Trotsky's life--from his banishment from Russia in 1929 to his murder in 1940--were the darkest years of the century for the international working class movement. Stalin consolidated his regime in Russia; Hitler and the Nazis smashed their way to power in Germany; Franco's fascist militias gained victory in Spain; the imperialist powers prepared the ground for the Second World War.

Trotsky insisted that there was nothing inevitable about the victory of reaction. He fought to keep the revolutionary tradition alive and to build a new international movement based on the real legacy of the Russian Revolution. He estimated that task to be the most important he had ever undertaken: 'I think that the work in which I am engaged now, despite its extremely insufficient and fragmentary nature, is the most important work of my life--more important than 1917, more important than the period of the civil war or any other.'

This final volume of Tony Cliffs four part political biography, The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Star, is a detailed examination, making use of new material from the recently opened archives in the US and Russia, of the immense struggle Trotsky faced.

Trotsky faced a massive task to explain a situation that had no historical precedent: how the step forward for liberation workers gained in Russia in 1917 could turn to its opposite--the Stalinist regime of tyranny and exploitation.

The USSR in the late 1920s was isolated. Revolutions in Germany and China had been defeated increasing the feeling of demoralisation among a working class weary of war and economic deprivation. Economic and social crisis threatened to reach monster proportions. Stalin's forced industrialisation and collectivisation began in 1928 as an attempt to overcome the paralysis of a floundering economy.

Forced collectivisation accelerated and aided speedy industrialisation--not to meet the needs of the population, but in order to build up the country's heavy industry and defence systems to be able to compete with the Western nations.

Stalin set out to achieve in just three years the kind of capitalist accumulation which had taken the English bourgeoisie over two centuries.

The result was catastrophic for the Russian population. In the countryside the policies created famine in 1932-33 in which 4 million people died. In industry there was a huge attack on the living and working conditions of the working class. The mass terror of the gulag--the notorious slave labour camps in which millions of workers and peasants perished--was how Stalin pushed through his plans.

How did Trotsky explain such monstrous changes in the regime? His major examination of the nature of the Soviet Union was contained in his last book, The Revolution Betrayed, published in 1937. Trotsky's main aim was to dispel Stalin's hideous notion that socialism had already been achieved in the Soviet Union.

Trotsky, writing in far away Mexico, gives a brilliantly detailed and uncompromising account of life in Russia, arguing that the brutal totalitarian state was incompatible with socialism, that Stalinism overturned every aspect of human liberation and emancipation that socialism stood for.

He also aimed to give a comprehensive analysis of the degeneration of the revolution. The roots of the rise of the bureaucracy were in the backwardness of the country:

But, argues Cliff, despite the brilliant insights and strength of this work, there was a fundamental flaw in Trotsky's arguments. He still believed the Soviet Union to be a workers' state, arguing that although the bureaucracy had usurped the working class politically, the basic economic gains of October were still intact:

The ruling bureaucracy had not therefore become a new ruling class, but rather a parasitic caste, who could be removed through a political revolution which would, much like the February Revolution which swept aside the Tsar in 1917, keep the economic base of society intact.

Tony Cliff gives a thorough critique of Trotsky's position as it developed in his earlier writings on the Soviet Union and in its mature version in The Revolution Betrayed. Cliff argues that not only was Stalin the gravedigger of the revolution, but during the first Five Year Plan the mode of production became capitalist. The bureaucracy became a ruling class, acting in its own interests, exploiting the workers who had no say in the running of production, and accumulating capital rapidly to compete with the West.

The biggest task facing Trotsky in his years of exile was to build the opposition to Stalin outside the USSR. It was a mammoth job. There was a vast chasm between the task Trotsky faced and the forces at his disposal. Stalin's regime commanded the respect of the left throughout the world. Stalin spoke, in the name of the revolution, through the Communist Parties of the Third International who held the allegiance of millions of working class militants. Trotsky, by contrast, vilified and persecuted by Stalin and his crew, was a leader of tiny groups with a minimal base in the working class movement.

The most urgent task was stopping the rise of the German Nazis. Germany, with its huge working class, was in the most acute social and economic crisis. Trotsky put all his resources into trying to influence the course of events against the coming catastrophe. The numerous articles and pamphlets about fascism are among Trotsky's most astute and clear writings--even more remarkable for the fact that their author was far removed from the events he describes.

Cliffs chapter on the struggle against the Nazis gives a wonderful flavour of the breadth of Trotsky's analysis of the economic and social changes and forces behind the rise of Hitler and the clarity of Trotsky's calls for action to stop him:

Tragically his call for action to stop the fascists was like 'a cry in the wilderness'. Trotsky's supporters in Germany were too small and uninfluential to make any impact on the working class over whom the disastrous policies of the Social Democrats and the Communist Party held sway. As Cliff says, 'Trotsky witnessed the most catastrophic defeat of the international working class without being able to affect the march of events.'

The puny size and influence of Trotskyist organisation was to become apparent not only in the defeat of the German working class, but amid the stormy revolutionary events of 1936 in France and Spain.

Trotsky's writings on these events, like those on Germany, form an invaluable 'revolutionary manual' for socialists today. His polemics against the bankrupt strategy of Popular Front policies pursued by the Communist Parties of these countries, by hanging onto the coat tails of the bourgeoisie, are unsurpassable. But Trotsky's voice went unheard. In France Trotsky's organisation was riven by splits and faction fights. In Spain Trotsky's group numbered only 30 by 1937.

In many ways, Cliff argues, the tragedy of Trotskyism in France was even more shattering than that of Germany. Whereas the efforts to build an organisation in Germany took place when the working class was suffering a continuous cycle of defeats, in France the organisation stagnated in a period of rising workers' struggle with millions of workers radicalised by mass strikes and demonstrations.

In many ways Trotsky's attempts to build a Fourth International were unsuccessful. Bitter quarrels and splits marred the building of influential Trotskyist organisations. But Trotsky's efforts to forge such organisation left one outstanding legacyof keeping the thread of the real Marxist tradition running through to future generations.

The greatest value of Cliffs book is that it is a critical assessment of Trotsky's work. It starts from recognising Trotsky as one of the giants of revolutionary Marxism who applied to all his work a materialist, Marxist method aimed at forwarding the revolutionary cause. But Cliff also looks at the problems Trotsky faced in having to analyse and explain the unprecedented events in Russia and the dire situation he found himself in. This makes the book not only an account of the last years of Trotsky's life, but also a marvellous guide to the unity of revolutionary theory and practice and how we can apply it today.
Trotsky: the darker the night the brighter the star
Tony Cliff
Bookmarks £6.95

Upsetting the stall

The collapse of the old Eastern bloc in the 1980s produced a deep crisis within much of the socialist movement in the West and the Third World. People who for years had claimed that the USSR and Eastern Europe showed the superiority of 'planning' over the market turned turtle and declared that there was no alternative to the market. The chorus of voices proclaiming this message reached its high point in 1990-91--just as the market capitalisms of the West were entering their deepest crisis since the 1930s.

The conversion from faith in the Stalinist economies to acceptance of the market was often not instantaneous. For a time in the 1970s and 1980s the fashion was not so much for full blown market capitalism as for an attempt to look to a halfway house between it and the Stalinist structures, usually called 'market socialism'. This appealed both to those seeking to maintain the old Stalinist structures through limited reform and to those, genuinely horrified by them, looking for a better model than that of the West. Today a few market socialists remain--notably Branko Horvat, the courageous Croatian social democrat recently interviewed in this Review who used to be the ablest analyst of the Yugoslav economy. But the eminent proponents of 'market socialism'--for example, the exiled former Polish planner Wlodzimierz Brus--had come round to the view by the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall that the halfway house was untenable. The logic of the market, they insisted, was incompatible with any form of socialist control over the economy. Socialism, Brus argued, could only survive as an ethical ideal not connected to any particular form of economic organisation.

Dave McNally, a member of the Canadian International Socialists, sets out in this book to argue the same case--but from a very different standpoint to Brus. The logic of the market undermines any possibility of rational social control over production, McNally insists. This means not that we have to abandon the fight for such control, but that it can only come about by a revolutionary transformation of society and the establishment of new economic mechanisms, quite different from those of both market capitalism and state capitalism.

An economic historian by profession, McNally develops his case by showing how the arguments about market socialism are not new. In the century before Marx wrote Capital there was a tension within political economy. Adam Smith, McNally points out, had believed a civilised society depended not only on the free play of the market, but also upon ethical standards which held people back from the most greedy forms of behaviour and provided guarantees against the impoverishment of the weakest sections of society.

Bourgeois economics after Smith, however, rejected the second part of his message. The Reverend Thomas Malthus insisted the market could not work if restrained in any way. If the poor were poor, he said in language which is still to be found in the preaching of the Tory right today, that was their own fault. Any attempt to protect their conditions would only, in fact, make them worse and undermine the prosperity of everyone else. Economists like Ricardo, who differed with Malthus on other questions, agreed with him on this. Sentiment and the market were incompatible. The rich had to get richer without any consideration for the welfare of others.

This was not, of course, a palatable doctrine to those linked in one way or another to the emerging working class movements. Robert Owen, William Thompson, Thomas Hodgskin, John Gray, John Francis Bray and Pierre Joseph Proudhon all tried to use political economy itself to refute the doctrine and to point to a more rational organisation of society. They had little difficulty in exposing the hypocrisy of the increasingly apologetic bourgeois successors to Ricardo and of getting across the message that existing society rested on the exploitation and oppression of the mass of people. But, McNally points out, they were unable to resolve a contradiction within their own thought. They began by accepting the market, and that undermined their arguments for a new society. Like the market socialists a century and a half later, they began by insisting on a society much different from capitalism--and then ended up sliding back into acceptance of the status quo.

Such was the situation when Marx became a revolutionary in the 1840s. His economic writings were a 'critique of political economy' in the double sense of criticising both the writings of Smith and Ricardo and of criticising the society they described. He began in 1844 and 1845 by accepting many of the points made by the earlier socialists. But he soon found he had to go further and challenge many of their assumptions if he was to overcome their limitations. That is why his first book on economics was his criticism of Proudhon, The Poverty of Philosophy.

The earlier socialists had argued it was the capitalist misuse of the market that was to blame for poverty, oppression and crises. Marx argued, by contrast, that capitalism was simply the full expression of the market. It was the system that came into existence once the market, commodification, penetrated every aspect of production, so that human labour power itself became a commodity.

Labour power was a commodity like any other, with a value determined by the amount of labour required to sustain the worker and his or her family. But once bought by an employer it had the peculiar property of being able, through the performance of labour, to produce more value, including a surplus over and above its own cost. But if one employer could extract such a surplus, every other employer was compelled to do so for fear of being driven out of business. This was not merely the basis of capitalist exploitation and capitalist competition. It was also the secret behind the capitalist drive to make workers labour even harder and to use the extra wealth created not for the interests of the mass of people but for blind accumulation. And because of this it was the root cause of the repeated economic crises which characterise the system.

If this were so, simply replacing the private capitalist by some other employer--the state or a workers' cooperative--could not do away with capitalism. The drive to make a surplus, to compete to accumulate, and to run into repeated crises, would remain. The only way out was to do away with the most fundamental feature of the system, to stop labour power being a commodity. Workers collectively had to take control of production and reorganise it, so that their livelihood did not depend on them selling their ability to work. They had to replace the market in labour power by the democratically planned use of labour power to satisfy their own needs.

The best chapter in McNally's book deals with the arguments used by those who claim such democratic planning is impossible. He points out that all those arguments derive from a school of economics which admitted that the market did not produce stable economies in which human beings could rationally organise their own activities, but rather a crisis riven 'order', characterised by great convulsions as well as great dynamism. He points out, too, that for all the talk of price signals allowing 'rational economic calculation', such signals could actually tell you nothing about what demand would be in a few years time for the output of investments made in the here and now.

Most importantly, he shows that democratic socialist planning does not mean, as its opponents claim, the virtually impossible task of listing in advance every item which is going to be produced. It rather means democratically deciding on priorities for the production of the most important goods that go into providing people's livelihoods, so that these are no longer dependent on competitive accumulation and the market. Then workers can look forward to using, for their own benefit, the free time left over after producing these goods as quickly and as efficiently as possible--they begin to move from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.

This book is not for complete newcomers to the subject. At times McNally gets bogged down in the economic history of the early capitalist period and the intricacies of the different political economists. And the excellent chapter demolishing the opponents of democratic socialist planning could deal with some of the counter-arguments in greater depth. But it is a very valuable contribution to a very important question--indeed, perhaps the most important question facing humanity at the end of the 20th century.
Against the market
David McNally
Verso £12.95

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