Of Tankies, Trots and Social Democrats

The uncomfortable questions of formerly existing something-or-other

Hammer and Sickle, 1976 - Andy Warhol

Hammer and Sickle, 1976 – Andy Warhol

On the left, there can be no subject more divisive than the question of unity. There are approximately three times as many opinions on the question as there are socialists. I probably hold at least four of those opinions myself.

One of the fissures rent by the “unity question” is provided by the debate on “formerly-existing socialism” – which is in quotes, of course, because somebody wants to emphasise that they don’t think it was socialism. This major dividing line has allowed the various Trotskyists to define themselves in relation to each other, and in relation to their “Stalinist” enemies who are naive enough to think these states represent something historically positive, but also between these and the Social Democrats, who think it proves that socialism doesn’t work.

I’ve had a number of chats, often in pubs, often with too many pints consumed, in which someone invariably stated: “Who gives a fuck whether it was a deformed or degenerated workers’ state, whether it was state-capitalism, bureaucratic despotism or characteristic of the asiatic mode of production?“ (In pursuance of full-disclosure, an interrogation of this question constitutes the majority of my OK Cupid profile).

Of course this sentiment seems wise, and indeed I would often in the past have found an internal voice responding along the lines of, “Yeah! What the hell does some backward feudal kingdom on the fringes of Europe in the early 20th century have to do with us?”

And maybe that could be the end of it, and we’d all get along, unity would be restored, and socialist activists would put their petty squabbles behind them and find themselves again as the vanguard of a mass working-class movement marching neatly into the world in our hearts.

That sounds great, except for the fact that the route of escape from the question is not so simple. The problem, as I see it, is not only our cantankerous and cranky disposition. It’s not (just) that lefties are entirely up their own holes and content with debating the number of angels which fit on the head of a pin (though I’ve a number of running wagers on the question). No, unfortunately there is a genuine question here; a question which doesn’t come from the socialist camp.

Perhaps you’ve eavesdropped on a dialogue of the following form, initiated by a an enthusiastic proselytic missionary:

Me: “We want a more free and equal society in which the power of production itself is held democratically by all and democracy is not limited to mere formal political power.”
Randomer: “That sounds good in principle, but in practice it would only lead to the totalitarianism of the USSR, you see, democracy can only exist within the free choices presented by the market.”

Maybe you nod sagely, and return to daydreams of introducing a Tobin tax, or maybe you sardonically muse on the need for a gulag construction programme. In any event, the point is clear, there can be no escape from the orbit of the theoretical black-hole of the USSR.

Instead, we are left with a spread of trajectories in which we find the germ of phenotypic variation of virtually all orientations on the left. Whether fish or fowl, eukaryote or prokaryote, we can construct virtually the whole taxonomy of socialists fauna from the reply to the nature of the USSR

  • The USSR was not socialist…
    • but a state, and states are bad, what did you think would happen?!
    • It was state capitalism – it was like capitalism but more-so, and therefore worse.
    • It was something sui generis, unique, bespoke, totalitarian etc.
  • The USSR was socialist…
    • But somehow less than ideal, degenerated, deformed, undemocratic etc.
    • And a utopia, everything you think was wrong is western propaganda.
    • …state planning, the abject failure of which shows…
      • We really want a socialist market system with lots of cooperatives, or something.
      • We now know that markets are necessary and investors are good for the efficiency of the economy. Socialism should mean sound taxation principles and concern for the most vulnerable.

I hope you enjoyed the socialist ideology choose-your-own-adventure game, and if you play it long enough you can probably list off by-heart which tendency you end up with.

In most of these narratives the USSR is a crazy aunt. Some want to lock her up in the attic, some want to pretend she isn’t crazy, and others have been poisoning her meals and intend to bury her in the back garden.

It’s time we stopped worrying so much about what the neighbours think. I mean, we’re talking about a crazy aunt who was also a third-degree black belt and taught rocket science even though she grew up on the farm.

Every narrative which hopes to escape questions of the USSR by throwing out the entire project as nothing to do with us, either because it was state capitalist, statist, or totalitarian, has to, as a consequence, supply the reason for it becoming this way.

The original sin must be found – and absolution invariably requires talismans and taboos. Hence the SWP’s obsession with “socialism from below” (whatever that means) together with its state capitalist theory, and the anarchist’s prohibition on anything that might be a state (a slippery subject with anarchists to be sure). Acceding to these has huge tactical and strategic consequences. As such, accepting their veracity is only worth doing if they are in fact true, and not as a mere PR exercise. When subjected to scrutiny, these stories are not much more than convenient myths.

In 1917, anarchists were more numerous in Petrograd, yet incapable of organising as effectively as the Bolsheviks. This doesn’t bode well for future attempts at anarchism. If you can’t out-organise the competition, you fail – it’s an objective law, and there is no point getting stroppy about it.

As for state capitalist theory, making out the USSR to be state capitalist involves such tremendous contortionism that only circus artists need apply. Failing to find any capitalists who had the capacity to invest and thereby accumulate further capital, we have to somehow make the entirety of the USSR into a sort of monolithic firm with a collective capitalist running the show. This difference in quantity is so great it becomes a difference in kind – it’s like a football game with one player. This narrative is even more damaging than the anarchist one as it prohibits any productive method from obtaining surpluses – something necessary if we are to reduce human toil.

To make matters worse, these convenient stories aren’t even believed by many of their adherents. I once confronted someone embellishing on the state capitalism theory to me in Lithuania. When I pointed out the absurdity of the theory from a technical viewpoint, she replied “yeah, I agree with you technically, but this is much simpler to describe”.

Socialists tried to make socialism in imperfect conditions, made imperfect choices and things were imperfect and sometimes disastrously imperfect. The (perhaps unfortunately complex) materialist analysis which looks at conditions in which decisions were made, what material forces were at hand and what balance of class forces existed within a given international context is the only one which is justified. Anything less leads to strategic confusion.

Which brings us to the final argument – that socialism (where it means the control of production itself) is the problem. This is the tack that the right-wing tend to take. Social democrats, for the most part, also believe that planning leads to totalitarianism and markets are therefore necessary, and we should focus on sanding down the sharp edges of capitalism.

There are two major plot holes in this story.

The first is that planning is widespread within capitalism itself. In fact, there seems to be increasing use of planning as planning scales become larger because of the increased capacities of computers. This can be witnessed in transport and logistics, in production planning, and in airline companies among others. If capitalism uses so much planning, avoiding planning can’t be the very reason why we need to retain capitalism.

Markets predate capitalism by millennia, and may postdate it depending on how things unfold. Markets are imperfect and unstable but effective means of settling on prices with very little infrastructure in a way which can help consumers to choose from limited resources.

The removal of markets as such is not really the question, and never was. People in the USSR, Yugoslavia and GDR went to markets to purchase from their incomes amongst a variety of goods. In many cases, the prices were allowed to be set in the market.

Socialists are primarily concerned with the way in which production takes place and how the socially produced value is distributed. How much is considered to be surplus, where this surplus is diverted into new production, and how people should be given access to the remainder.

The claim being made by social democrats is not really about markets or planning. It’s that democracy cannot be extended to the sphere of production because democracy, when applied to the economy, becomes bad. As such they are essentially Hayekians with a social conscience.

How and in what way we utilise markets versus planning is a technical question. For socialists, the political-economic question is how to put all production and investment under democratic control. The alternative is, by definition, undemocratic.

When we evaluate the history of democracy, the deficiencies of Western democratic states, or the deficiencies in any given democracy, we are not making an argument against democracy as such. Athens held slaves and suffrage did not include women. This is surely an inadequacy of Athens. Similarly the US, UK or really any other of the imperialist Western states has enough skeletons in the closet to fill several graveyards. Yet we can talk about progressive aspects such as the New Deal or National Health Service without having to hedge every statement.

Despite some really terrible tragedies such as the Soviet famine of 1932-33, it is quite possible to argue that the USSR has less blood on its hands than the US or UK when the total body count of industrialisation is considered from start to finish. The transition from agrarian to industrial society has nowhere been anything but brutal, but the socialist transitions were generally less so. As the liberal economist Amartya Sen once noted:

“India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame.”

Making such a claim is not an apology for bad things. Yet should we refrain from mentioning that the USSR almost single-handedly stopped the Nazis at a cost of some 29 million Soviet citizens, lest we become contaminated by its other faults, real or imagined? Perhaps defence of the NHS should be interpreted as support for starving Bengal? Yeah, I don’t think so either.

It has to be possible to talk about the progressive aspects of attempts at socialism without continually cowing to the demands for disavowal. Are we not embarrassed by this demeaning sycophantic compliance with the agenda of the right?

As horrifying as it might sound to liberal ears, there are positive lessons to be learned from the USSR, Yugoslavia, the GDR and Cuba. Universal healthcare, universal housing, zero unemployment, universal education, very small material inequalities, very fast increase in productive capacities. These should interest us given how utopian they sound, especially in this era of neo-liberalism.

The first attempts at republicanism in Europe didn’t end up with liberal democracies worthy of a travel brochure. And yet somehow Napoleon doesn’t haunt our nightmares when we talk about the need to extend democracy.

If we’re really concerned with forging ahead fighting for a better world against all of the forces of the powerful arrayed in opposition, to overturn a social order designed to make the super-rich super richer, a system utterly unconcerned with the vast majority of humanity, I think it’s fair to say we’re going to have to do it with a bit more of a backbone.

About Gavin Mendel-Gleason

An ex-patriate American living in Ireland. Former anarchist, present mass partyist, but always committed socialist.
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