Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 24, 2013

The New Deal, Leon Trotsky, and the bureaucratic state

Filed under: language,liberalism,racism — louisproyect @ 9:27 pm

Louis Menand

Ira Katznelson

The March 4th 2013 issue of The New Yorker Magazine has an uncharacteristically interesting article by Louis Menand on Ira Katznelson’s new book “Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time” differentiated from the usual dreary rot by Jon Lee Anderson, David Remnick, Hendrik Hertzberg, et al.

The article is behind a paywall unfortunately but I am going to quote the opening paragraphs that should be of particular interest to my regular readers:

In September, 1939, just as the Second World War was beginning, a left-wing Italian shoe salesman named Bruno Rizzi published a book, in Paris, called “The Bureaucratization of the World.” Rizzi brought the book out at his own expense; he couldn’t find a publisher. In early 1940, he was charged by French authorities with racial defamation–there was an anti-Semitic chapter in his book–and he was fined and received a suspended sentence. Remaining copies of the book were confiscated and pulped.

Rizzi hadn’t used his full name on the cover–he identified himself as Bruno R.–and he more or less disappeared from view in the chaos of the war. (He resurfaced afterward.) “The Bureaucratization of the World” might have slipped into oblivion but for one thing: Rizzi had managed to get a copy to Leon Trotsky, who was living in exile in the village of Coyoacan, outside Mexico City. Trotsky read the book and was sufficiently exercised to write an article criticizing it. The article was published, in November, 1939, in a journal called The New International, an organ of the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist organization based in New York City.

Rizzi had argued that under Stalin’s leadership the Soviet Union had a political system that was neither capitalist nor socialist. It was something that Marx had not foreseen: a system that Rizzi called “bureaucratic collectivism.” The Soviet Union was being ruled by a new class of Party functionaries and industrial technicians, who exploited the workers the same way the capitalists had. It had become just like the fascist states of Germany, Italy, and Japan.

What was more, Rizzi said, the United States was headed in the same direction. With Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, a ruling class of government administrators and corporate managers was taking over. Bureaucracy was emerging as the form of government everywhere. “A monstrous new world . . . is being born,” Rizzi wrote, “and born so evil that it is resurrecting slavery after two thousand years of history.” He predicted that the planet would eventually be dominated by seven or eight of these bureaucratic autocracies.

To Trotsky, this was heretical. Even after Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler and the Red Army invaded Poland, Trotsky’s position was that the Soviet Union was a genuine workers’ state. It had a planned economy and state ownership of property. In his New International article, Trotsky held Rizzi up as a comrade who had got things wrong. What Rizzi failed to understand, Trotsky explained, was that, although Stalin himself was a counter-revolutionary aberration, the Stalinist phenomenon had to be understood dialectically (Marxian for “the opposite of what it appears to be”). Stalinism was only an evil hiccup in the course of history–the course, correctly predicted by Marx and Engels, that led to the classless society.

Like all Marxist theoretical disputes, this was really a dispute over a practical question: Should people on the left continue to support the Soviet Union now that Stalin was an ally of Hitler? Trotsky insisted that they should. (For his pains, he was murdered by a Stalinist agent, in August, 1940.) But many of his American followers disagreed. The dispute split the Socialist Workers Party. One of the editors of The New International, Max Shachtman, resigned (or was expelled; accounts differ) from the Party. The other, James Burnham, also defected and soon rejected Marxism altogether, quickly becoming one of the most hawkish anti-Communist intellectuals in America. After the war was over, he recommended a preemptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union.

In 1941, Burnham published a book called “The Managerial Revolution.” He hadn’t read “The Bureaucratization of the World,” which, in 1941, was about as out of print as a book can be. But he had read Trotsky’s summary of it–he was Trotsky’s editor, after all–and his argument was basically Bruno R.’s argument. The economies of the major powers, Burnham said, had fallen into the hands of a new elite: the managers, executives, financiers, and stockholders who owned and ran corporations, and the government administrators who regulated them.

Burnham had earlier described the New Deal as “preparing the United States for the comparatively smooth transition to Fascism,” and he folded the United States easily into his picture of a world headed toward top-down managerialism. He thought that the nations farthest along the road were Russia, Germany, and Italy, which suggested that totalitarian dictatorship was managerialism’s natural political form. Rizzi had imagined a world dominated by seven or eight autocratic states; Burnham foresaw three, centered in the areas where advanced industry was already concentrated–the United States, Japan, and Germany. Wars of the future, he said, would be struggles among these superstates for world control.

Burnham, too, had trouble finding a publisher, but, when the book finally appeared, it was a huge success. Time listed “The Managerial Revolution” as one of the top six books of 1941; a critic at the Times named it one of the year’s notable books. A hundred thousand copies were sold in the United States and Britain, and it did even better in paperback. One of its keenest readers was George Orwell, and “The Managerial Revolution” was a major influence on “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” with its three totalitarian monster states.

This discussion of sectarian minutiae would probably make the average New Yorker reader’s eyes glaze over. A more typical article in the latest issue by Lena Dunham that begins “When I was a child, my greatest dream was to find a box full of puppies” had the same effect on me.

Menand, who is a literature professor with an interest in pragmatism, uses the Trotsky-Burnham debate as a background to introduce Katznelson’s latest book that makes the case that after the death of Roosevelt, “a belief in the common good gave way to a central government dominated by interest-group politics and obsessed with national security.”

Katznelson takes issue with the standard hagiographies, including Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.,’s unfinished “The Age of Roosevelt” (1957-60), William E. Leuchtenburg’s “Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal” (1963), and David M. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Freedom from Fear” (1999). For Katznelson, the notion that FDR was some kind of great democratic leader had to be revised. A dispassionate and critical view of the historical record would tend to put him much closer to the Orwellian nightmare.

Katznelson describes a sorry record at odds with Schlesinger’s worshipful treatment, as Menand’s capable summary reveals. To start with, the New Deal rested on a racist foundation as well as a barrier to trade union rights and economic reform:

But there was a worm in this fruit. During the entire period that Roosevelt was President (and well beyond it), seventeen states mandated racial segregation, and almost every senator and congressman from those states was a Democrat. Katznelson argues that the members of this Southern bloc were “the most important ‘veto players’ in American politics.” They maintained what he calls a “Southern cage” around New Deal legislation.

Southern Democrats were almost unanimously supportive of progressive economic policies, but they were, in one respect, solidly reactionary. They were vigilant to resist any threat to what they sometimes euphemistically referred to as the Southern way of life but more often called, quite proudly, white supremacy. “The colored race will not vote, because in so doing . . . they endanger the supremacy of a race to which God has committed the destiny of a continent, perhaps of the world,” Senator Claude Pepper, of Florida, said in 1937. And Pepper was a liberal. In 1950, he lost his seat to the conservative Democrat George Smathers, who campaigned against him by calling him Red Pepper.

The South was the most impoverished region of the country, and the Depression made conditions there worse. Katznelson says that the average annual income for all Americans in 1937 was $604; in the South, it was $314. The gross annual income of the average Southern farmer was $186. Almost a tenth of the population was illiterate. Southern Democrats were therefore happy to have railroads, public utilities, the financial industry–and, as Katznelson puts it, “other Northern-controlled capitalist firms”–regulated. As representatives of a region whose economy was mainly agricultural, they were also happy to support measures to help farmers. And since their principal goods, cotton and tobacco, were manufactured for export, they were eager to promote free trade. They were additionally pleased, in light of their economic circumstances but also in light of their history, to vote for programs that effectively redistributed wealth from the industrial North to the rural South.

Southern Democrats affected New Deal legislation in several ways. They carved out exceptions in bills regulating business–such as bills setting a minimum wage–for farming and domestic service, since that was work performed in the South predominately by African-Americans. They retarded the growth of the labor movement and tried to block efforts to unionize in the South, suspecting, rightly, that unions were motors of racial integration. They defeated anti-lynching legislation by arguing, first, that lynching was technically illegal already and, second, that, since people are regularly murdered elsewhere in the United States, a federal anti-lynching law would be discriminatory.

Most significant, though, they insured that the administration of New Deal policies was decentralized. They pried open the tax-levy coffers in Washington, but exercised strict control over how and to whom that money trickled down in their states. They tried to expand the regional economy without undermining apartheid. As the South has always done, they asserted the claim of states’ rights at just the point when the shoe started to pinch, and not a moment before.

The Dixie states benefited heavily from arms manufacturing in the South during WWII. At the end of the war, the military-industry state that operated in partnership with the USSR and that was administered by people like Harry Magdoff took on a new political coloration. The assembly lines continued to turn out tanks and planes but now the target would be Communism and decolonized states with the temerity to be aligned with the Kremlin.

Southern Democrats stoutly supported the Truman Administration’s military buildup, much of which was concentrated in the South. By the time Eisenhower took office, in 1953, $52.8 billion of the nation’s $76.1 billion budget was being spent on defense. Southerners also supported the granting of broad, nonspecific authority to the new Central Intelligence Agency, congressional investigations of subversives, and the creation of the Federal Employee Loyalty Program.

That program, established by executive order in 1947, assigned the F.B.I. and other agencies to undertake investigations of employees suspected of disloyalty. Over the next nine years, more than five million federal employees were screened. Twelve thousand resigned, and an estimated twenty-seven hundred were fired. (No espionage was ever discovered.) Beyond these cases–this is the subject of Landon R. Y. Storrs’s convincing account in “The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left” (Princeton)–the loyalty program had a chilling effect on government workers who regarded themselves as in the tradition of New Deal progressivism. Reform, planning, and organizing started to look un-American.

We tend to understand the rise of the national-security state as an overreaction to Cold War tensions, but the pieces were put into place during Roosevelt’s Presidency. The two War Powers Acts (December, 1941, and March, 1942) gave Roosevelt, as Katznelson puts it, “more power over American capitalism than he had achieved even during the New Deal’s radical moment.” Truman inherited a big government with enormous power already vested in the executive. When he was persuaded by advisers like Dean Acheson and Paul Nitze that the Soviet threat was real and that it demanded heightened military preparedness–ultimately, an arms race–the system was ready to accommodate him. He didn’t have to reinvent government.

While it is difficult to figure out whether Menand is speaking for himself or for Katznelson, there’s a happy ending to all this. The Democrats reinvented themselves “as the party of civil rights and individual liberties.” In 1964, in the wake of the Civil Rights Act, five Southern states backed Goldwater instead of Lyndon Johnson. With Richard Nixon’s embrace of a “Southern Strategy” 4 years later, the realignment was virtually complete. The Democrats then tried to figure out a way to win a national election without the backing of Southern states. They seemed to have found it in 2008, a success repeated in 2012.

Maybe Menand hasn’t been reading a newspaper or been on the Internet lately but a case can be made that Obama is the most Orwellian president we have ever had, even more so than Nixon. If there is strong if not febrile opposition to the president in the South from White voters, this does not mean that the national-security state dictates of the post-WWII period have abated. Obama’s use of drones, his attacks on civil liberties, the stiff sentences meted out against whistle-blowers during his presidency, his secret kill lists, his nauseating flattery of the Zionist apartheid state, his failure to prosecute any of the banksters responsible the ruining of the lives of millions of working class families, etc. are exactly the sort of thing that Orwell had in mind when he wrote “1984”.

In fact, we should avoid all temptations to downgrade Orwell on the basis of guilt by association with all the scum that have carried on in the recent past about how great he was and how they are trying to carry on in his tradition, especially Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman. It is worth having a look at the sort of thing that Orwell was saying in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.

Euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness? Surely Orwell was foreshadowing this sort of thing:

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions – that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

–Barack Obama, 2009 Inauguration Speech

While I would have been an unrepentant Marxist during the New Deal, there is one thing that you could say about FDR. He (or his speechwriters) would never have written such stultifying vapor. Here is a reminder of what convinced voters to pull the lever for FDR even when unemployment remained punishingly high.

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace–business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me–and I welcome their hatred.

I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

— Address Announcing the Second New Deal, October 31, 1936

22 Comments »

  1. Did Trotsky refer to the Soviet Union as a “genuine workers state?” Perhaps. But I am most familiar with his description of the Soviet Union as “deformed workers state.”

    Comment by Ken Hiebert — March 24, 2013 @ 9:52 pm

  2. For those interested, the article by L. Trotsky in New International the link is here:
    https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1939/09/ussr-war.htm

    It is of interest that James Burhnam was an editor of New International, in fact he’s listed as first editor.

    Comment by David Walters — March 24, 2013 @ 9:55 pm

  3. A potentially excellent article, referencing another excellent article. By why the need for snideness and rudeness? If an excellent article appears in the New Yorker, credit that article and its potential readership, as opposed to hurling blanket insults. I assure you, the New Yorker will hear from some of its readership about that utter nonsense by Lena Dunaham. (They have already heard from me.) My critique here is my usual contribution to this list: you need education in how to be an organizer. Organizers build on the positive and don’t needlessly make enemies. They use opportunities in order to appropriately educate, as the above posting partly does. The irony about this list is that it is snide about the academic left, yet replicates its worst tendencies in confusing insults with agitation. Those of us currently trying to defend public education, for instance, against the multiple assaults of the combined neo-liberal and overtly fascist national agendas cannot afford to hurl insults. We have to organize. It’s hard and delicate work, and we need the support of everybody, including the New Yorker readership. Only people who have given up on building movements have the freedom to dispense wholesale insults.

    Comment by Barbara Regenspan — March 24, 2013 @ 10:34 pm

  4. Barbara wrote:

    “Those of us currently trying to defend public education, for instance, against the multiple assaults of the combined neo-liberal and overtly fascist national agendas cannot afford to hurl insults. We have to organize.”

    Anybody correct me if I’m wrong, but weren’t there socialists, communists, labour leaders, etc. in the past (let’s just say in the late 20s and early 30s) who did do both? It looks like one American president (sort of) did; why can’t you, Barbara?

    Comment by Todd — March 24, 2013 @ 10:51 pm

  5. “The irony about this list is that it is snide about the academic left, yet replicates its worst tendencies in confusing insults with agitation.”

    I didn’t see anyone referenced by Louis that could be described as “the academic left”.

    Comment by Richard Estes — March 25, 2013 @ 2:03 am

  6. I don’t think Barbara read the article which was not a snide or insulting diatribe against anyone, but a political critique of the legacy of the New Deal and of Obama.

    Comment by Tom Cod — March 25, 2013 @ 1:28 pm

  7. So what’s the point? The New Deal wasn’t the expression of a “new state,” much less a new class. It was an attempt to resolve the failure of capitalist accumulation before a revolution did.

    17 Southern states mandated racial segregation? That’s news? What, there wasn’t the defeat of Radical Reconstruction, widespread terror against African-Americans, nightriders, Jim Crow, lynchings prior to the New Deal?

    Is the point that that Obama, having won reelection, is now truly free to be himself in his second administration? And that his real self is much more right-wing then the opportunist left face he presented prior to election in 2008? Strip my gears and call me shiftless.

    Dogs bite men, and women. Film at 11.

    Comment by S. Artesian — March 25, 2013 @ 2:00 pm

  8. The class nature of the state the state in general and any given state in particular is the thing that most exercises a Marxist’s mind. Without that understanding then Marxist politics is rendered utterly pointless. Trotsky’s final struggle against those who would deny the class nature of the state (i.e. Marxism) was truly heroic.

    Comment by Fillip — March 25, 2013 @ 4:02 pm

  9. S. Artesian: you know it and I know it, but that doesn’t mean that a lot of Americans know it, especially as the New Deal has been used to establish the left most boundary of acceptable discussion

    in recent years, there has been a proliferation of people promoting the notion that slavery was a good thing for African Americans, so the notion that a lot of people know that violence was used to suppress them during and after Radical Reconstruction is, sadly, dubious

    Comment by Richard Estes — March 25, 2013 @ 8:12 pm

  10. I should have said “degenerated workers state.” (See comment No. 1.)

    Comment by Ken Hiebert — March 25, 2013 @ 10:38 pm

  11. The idea of some sort of convergence between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union as ‘totalitarian’ states that represented a new form of statified (étatised) society predated Burnham’s conversion to this outlook by several years. In my book The New Civilisation? Understanding Stalin’s Soviet Union, 1929-1941 (London, 2008) I look at the material that was published in Britain during the period of the initial Five-Year Plans that promoted this idea. Walter Lippmann’s The Good Society (1937), Peter Drucker’s The End of Economic Man (1939), Frederick Voigt’s Unto Caesar (1938) and William Chamberlin’s A False Utopia (1937) are just some of the works that put forward this idea, either as a central thesis or as one of many topics covered.

    There was a fairly broad consensus, from left to right, growing from the early 1930s, and certainly well established by the start of the Second World War, that felt that there was a growing and inexorable trend throughout the world towards increasing and overbearing state intervention. The New Deal was seen as part of this, sometimes as a relatively moderate form of étatisation, sometimes as a preliminary stage of totalitarianism (the Communist Party at first thought it a step towards fascism; the right saw it as a step towards communism).

    How much Burnham was influenced by this trend would be interesting to learn. I feel that his The Managerial Revolution is just an alarmist development of other people’s writings and of ideas that were common amongst intellectuals of all outlooks. Most if not all of the works mentioned above would have been published in the USA, and Chamberlin was probably the most seasoned US observer of the Soviet Union. The idea of a totalitarian convergence was given great impetus by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939, and in Britain at least this idea became commonplace.

    I’d like to write something substantial on this brand of convergence theory, but it would require me to read various languages other than English, which I’m unable to do.

    Trotsky was interesting as he emphasised the continuance of private property under fascism and recognised that if the Soviet élite wished to continue its dominance over society for any length of time, it would eventually have to turn state property into its own private property. He was very much in a minority here, but I venture that he had a better understanding of things than those who saw an étatised future.

    Comment by Dr Paul — March 26, 2013 @ 2:07 pm

  12. PS: Anyone interested in my book can find details here.

    Comment by Dr Paul — March 26, 2013 @ 2:19 pm

  13. The question inevitably arises: why did so many Trotskyists — including and even especially the ones closest to Trotsky himself — become neo-cons, anti-communists, American patriots and more?

    Comment by Paul — March 26, 2013 @ 4:10 pm

  14. 13: The Zionist Entity. And filthy lucre.

    Comment by kjs — March 26, 2013 @ 7:53 pm

  15. I don’t know if these comments are moderated but the vile anti-semitism of comment 14 is repugnant

    Comment by Greg Adler — March 27, 2013 @ 4:58 am

  16. Sorry, but no, it’s a legitimate remark on the following grounds:

    1 A large number of Trotskyists were Jews (for various and excellent reasons);

    2 Jews understandably tend to support Israel, which before about 1970 depicted itself as a left-wing state;

    3 Endorsement of Israel thus enabled Trotskyists to exercise right-wing nationalism by proxy, which gradually gobbled up their minds and turned them into right-wing nationalists big time.

    Of course that doesn’t explain James Burnham, but “filthy lucre” would probably do for him. Plus a certain natural power-worship which arises out of continually fantasising about how much better the world would be if only I were where Stalin is.

    Comment by hismastersvoice — March 27, 2013 @ 6:54 am

  17. The answer to #13 is that your statement is false. There were a few people associated with the SWP who became neo-conservatives, and no more than that. Bill King gives a fair summary of all of the known facts on the matter here:

    http://www.enterstageright.com/archive/article/0304/0304neoncontrot.txt

    The false claim that “Trotskyists are neocons” was propagated as part of intra-Right crap-fights, but is not historically accurate.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — March 27, 2013 @ 9:29 am

  18. Oops! Small typo.

    http://www.enterstageright.com/archive/articles/0304/0304neocontrot.txt

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — March 27, 2013 @ 9:31 am

  19. Many white racists are so close to neocons in all respects except the devotion to Israel that they have had to conjure up a false claim asserting that neoconservatism is primarily a Leftist subversion of “true conservatism” as they see it. That has generated this very silly “Trotskyism is neoconservatism” campaign. Not a single one of the doofuses who propagate this has ever bothered to do any real research on precisely how many and to what extent real neoconservatives have had some past connection with Trotskyism. It turns out that they’re blowing up a molehill into a mountain.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — March 27, 2013 @ 9:37 am

  20. I don’t know where else to put this but here: anyone ever heard of Real News on youtube? It might not be the radical outlet some of you prefer, and of which I’ve no knowledge, but it’s not bad and they seem to be heading further and further left as the capitalist crises continues.

    There’s a part about 11:30 minutes in that should amuse Karl Friedrich. The interviewee reiterates the interviewer’s assertion that the Cold War started not decades after the October Revolution but the moment the revolution was successful.

    Comment by Pandora — March 28, 2013 @ 6:04 pm

  21. They look like the Trinity.

    Comment by Pandora — March 28, 2013 @ 6:04 pm

  22. Very relevant topic, especially since in this new age of warrantless wiretaps, the abolition of habeus corpus & uncontested drone strikes of American citizens & their offspring, plus the very immediate urgency of Gitmo hunger strikers (the Pentagon recently admitted that currently about 1/3rd of Gitmo detainees are on hunger strike but the lawyers of the victims claim it’s more three-fourths, and if to prove what a bleeding-heart liberal Obama is at his core, he recently imposed flight restrictions to Gitmo preventing the lawyers from seeing their clients.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/28/guantanamo-hunger-strike-propaganda

    Combined with all the doomsday prepper & “Prison Planet” website scenarios in popular culture, this topic, so popular back in the day of NOIR films (Orwellian in derivation) needs revisited.

    Yes, Pandora, the USSR was a victim of a relentless Cold War from 1918 up. Sure there was an interruption when FDR managed to dole out about 10,000 Dodge trucks to help the Soviets thwart Hitler’s assault but that little bit of material aid was hardly decisive.

    23 years ago Sam Marcy, whose now long dead but who grew up in NYC during the Bolshevik Revolution, wrote a book called: ” Perestroika: A Marxist Critique”. In a chapter called: “The class character of the Soviet Union” he remarked that:

    “The Gorbachev reforms rely so much on capitalist market mechanisms to stimulate the economy of the USSR that all this has inevitably raised once again the question of how to understand the social character of the Soviet Union. This is a subject that has preoccupied both friend and foe of the Russian Revolution, and has provoked commentary from the pedantic to the inane both inside and outside the USSR.

    There have been at least three schools of thought on this question. Take, for instance, one of the earliest stalwarts, Winston Churchill, the illustrious prime minister of the British empire. No ivory-tower think-tank analyst was he. Churchill’s claim to fame as a political analyst rested mainly on his career as a cunning practitioner of the art of imperialist diplomacy. His analyses are given far more weight in bourgeois circles than those of any professor precisely because he seemed to combine both theory and practice. During the Second World War in particular, every word he uttered in public seemed to the bourgeoisie like so many pearls of wisdom. Even before the war, when some imperialists looked askance at his advocacy of “collective security” among the great powers, that is, an anti-fascist coalition against Germany and Italy that included the Soviet Union, his views were generally considered profound.

    Bearing all this in mind, what are we to make of Churchill’s October 1939 speech in which he described the Soviet Union as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”?7 What was he trying to say about the USSR, and what was there in the given historical context that infused it with supreme importance?

    An enigma, a riddle, a mystery. Roget’s Thesaurus tells us that these three terms are used fairly synonymously. Any one would well serve the purpose. What was Churchill trying to do by putting all three together without further
    explanation? Were this said by anybody else, it would have been regarded as tautological rubbish, lacking any glimmer of a sociological appraisal of the USSR. Indeed, what we have here is a bourgeois statesman squirming and attempting
    to exude profundity, but offering no clue as to the social character of the USSR.

    At the time of his speech, Churchill had accumulated nearly 40 years of experience in imperialist diplomacy, 20 of them in venomous struggle against the Soviet Union. As British secretary of state for war and air (1919-1921), he had
    organized a coalition of 14 capitalist countries to invade the Soviet Union and try to overthrow the Bolshevik government.

    To understand Churchill’s statement, one has to remember its historical context. For several years Britain, France and the United States had promoted the concept of collective security with the USSR against the Axis powers. Indeed, the
    Soviet Union was the leading and original proponent of this strategy. It had so vigorously promoted the concept of collective security against fascism that it would seem the policy was carved in granite. It was beginning to be regarded as a
    permanent feature of Soviet diplomacy.

    Thus, when the Conservative Prime Minister of Britain, Neville Chamberlain, and Prime Minister Edouard Daladier, a bourgeois Radical Socialist representing France, decided to make a pact with Hitler and Mussolini in Munich in late
    September 1938, it seemed that the USSR had no choice but to accept it. By this diplomatic maneuver, Chamberlain and Daladier hoped to direct the aggressive thrust of Nazi Germany to the East, that is, into an attack on the Soviet
    Union, thus gaining breathing time for themselves. But the Soviet Union needed the breathing space for itself, and was less solicitous of its erstwhile democratic allies than had been expected. And so on August 22, 1939, the Soviet Union
    turned around and itself signed a non-aggression pact with Germany in order to gain time–essentially what the imperialist allies had wanted themselves. Ten days later World War II began. All of this is vitally important in understanding
    Churchill’s tautological nonsense in the face of an enormous international development.

    But while Churchill’s analysis was faulty at best, his class attitude, his class loyalty, and that of all the imperialist politicians was unambiguous. It was mortal hatred of the Soviet Union and all the revolutionary movements, as well as of the
    working class at home and the hundreds of millions of oppressed who suffered the yoke of colonialism. He and his class unfailingly knew which side they were on. He showed it very clearly when as chancellor of the exchequer (1924-1929)
    he lowered the workers’ standard of living, and then, when the trade unions responded with the first and only great general strike in Britain in 1926, his rabid editorials in the British Gazette led the government assault that broke the strike.

    While it might have been difficult for Churchill to arrive at a sociological appraisal, that never prevented him from taking a class position on the Soviet Union, on the British general strike, and above all on British colonialism. The bourgeoisie
    always know where they stand when it comes to the practical, day-to-day struggle. Their class bias in relationship to the socialist countries is merely an extension in foreign affairs of their position in the domain of domestic politics.

    In the U.S., this can be seen without fail whenever there is a strike. There hasn’t been one instance where the capitalist class, as represented by its press, has ever taken the side of the workers against the bosses, or urged the bosses to
    agree to the demands of the workers. Literally not one. Occasionally they profess a treacherous neutrality, urging moderation on both sides, or they will criticize a particular company at a particular time, but never do they cross class lines,
    never do they go to the extent of actually supporting the workers against the bosses. The only strikes they have ever supported have been in Poland, and then they did it to weaken socialist construction, not to help the workers.

    There is a second school of thought on the character of the Soviet state that goes by various names, but is best known as “bureaucratic collectivism,” a term that originated among some adherents to the broad leftist opposition to Stalin,
    notably Bruno Rizzi and Ciliga, and was eventually taken up in the U.S. by Max Shachtman. According to this view, the political power of the government, Party and managerial bureaucracy completely pervaded all avenues of Soviet society,
    allowing no movement in the direction of socialist democracy. The bureaucracy as they saw it had become a new ruling class in relation to the means of production. The followers of this view saw in the victories of the Chinese Revolution and
    others that followed merely confirmation of the tendency for bureaucratic collectivism to ultimately cover the face of the globe.

    This political tendency began to disintegrate when the imperialist Allies adopted a posture of goodwill toward the USSR during World War II. However, once the Cold War began it was revived in the works of the Yugoslav ex-communist,
    Milovan Djilas, who wrote: “The New Class.”

    The recent trends in the direction of democratization in the USSR, even though limited as yet and without the independent participation of the working class in the political struggle, certainly invalidate the bureaucratic collectivist view. The
    prospect for proceeding to genuine proletarian democracy seems far more probable than any backsliding toward what the proponents of bureaucratic collectivism envisioned.

    Bureaucratic collectivism saw as fundamental to the Soviet system those elements that in fact are part of the superstructure. Superstructural elements may in a given situation bolster or hamper the structure, as the case may be, but they are strictly derivative in character. Sometimes they serve as palliatives for reviving a decomposing social structure. At other times, they may be encrustations which paralyze a live and growing structure. In a broad and general way, history indicates that ultimately every new social structure which arises out of the needs of development of the productive forces will in time bring into correspondence its superstructure, or, failing that, will overthrow it.

    Finally there is the Orwellian school, which contemplated a future in which humanity would be swallowed up by a totalitarian machine from which there can be no exit. George Orwell’s first satirical novel on this subject, Animal Farm, was
    written in 1946, the year of Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech and the beginning of the Cold War. His gloomy outlook projecting a universal totalitarian regime was taken further in 1984, written in 1948. It was taken up as the portrait of the
    future by writers, politicians and bourgeois publicists of all sorts, as well as economists and sociologists. Now, 40 years later, when all the capitalist media have been full of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meetings, followed by the Bush-
    Gorbachev meetings, and have been showering applause on the new hero of peaceful coexistence, one can clearly see that the Orwellian view was a product of the Cold War and had little to do with the evolution of the USSR or an appraisal
    of its internal dynamics.

    Today these views have generally been replaced by a new bourgeois theory that the USSR will inevitably yield to capitalist restoration. This outlook is a product of the present historical conjuncture just as much as the Orwellian view was a product of the Cold War period. Neither is an independent, dispassionate conclusion based upon a study of the internal dynamics of the Soviet Union as a new historical social formation. The current view of the USSR is being pushed by
    bourgeois economists and sociologists with a vigor and enthusiasm comparable to the critical acclaim accorded the Orwellian view during the period of the Cold War.

    By now there have been scores of bourgeois studies of the Soviet reforms. Some give them high praise. Some may profess to show their shortcomings, but all, without exception, start with the built-in bias that a centralized, planned
    economy is invalid, economically inefficient and unworkable. Therefore, a return to the capitalist market is not only desirable but inevitable. Without this sacred predisposition, no analysis of the Soviet reforms is acceptable to the capitalist
    class. There are no studies whatsoever from the bourgeois side to show that a planned socialist economy is ever possible or desirable. Such a viewpoint must first be excluded before beginning any kind of analysis. This is true for all the
    “Sovietologists”–the Gerry Houghs, the Marshall Goldmans, the Ed Hewetts and other analysts of their ilk in capitalist academia.

    The problem with so many bourgeois analysts of the Soviet Union is their utter inability to really and truly come to grips with the social character of the USSR as a brand-new, dynamic social system. Invariably they view it mechanically,
    often statically, but not dialectically. Lenin explained “the essence of dialectics” as “the splitting of a single whole and the cognition of its contradictory parts.”8 What the bourgeois analysts fail to see in the USSR is precisely this
    contradiction, between the revolutionary social structure of the USSR and its superstructure, which is all too frequently at variance with its class basis. There is a continuing struggle between structure and superstructure, now open, now
    hidden, often violent.

    This contradiction has its origin in the fact that the legacy of czarism left the USSR with extremely low productive forces which were incapable of affording the USSR a socialist character immediately after the war. To a large extent, this has persisted for close to 70 years. Now, however, that the Soviet Union has achieved the rank of second only to the United States in its total productive forces, the contradiction which holds back its development is the urgent need to upgrade the social relations, to move forward in communizing the social relations especially in areas of the economy which have not sufficiently advanced from bourgeois forms. This cannot be resolved on the basis of a retreat to anachronistic,
    capitalist reforms that suit some privileged groupings….

    The Soviet Union is a contradictory social phenomenon. An attempt to unravel it would show that this phenomenon has a revolutionary class structure, in that it overthrew the landlords, bankers and industrialists, but has had a
    superstructure, for most of the time the USSR has existed, which is relatively at variance with its class structure. The still fragile class structure is vulnerable in the face of the global capitalist economy…

    The bourgeois scholars of today are incapable of facing up to the real problems of historical appraisal, that is, charting the course of social evolution. Human history shows a universal sequence from communal life to slavery, then feudalism, then capitalism. They won’t dare deny that capitalism is the product of social evolution, but they want to stop there. They exclude even the possibility that capitalism is being replaced by a new social system which inevitably brings with it
    the ownership of the means of production by society, beginning with ownership in the hands of the working class.”

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 7, 2013 @ 3:53 pm


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