Thursday, December 28, 2006
Tragedy and consolation. posted by Richard SeymourThe New Left Review used to say in its constitution that "post-revolutionary states... represent a historic progress over the capitalist or pre-capitalist societies that preceded them". As such, they should be defended "against every variety of capitalist attack". Thus, the anti-Stalinist NLR's response to the evident downturn in working class struggle in the early 1980s in the UK took the form of Deutscherism. Neil Davidson deals with the topic here. Deutscher maintained that the Soviet Union and various states modelled on it were transitional to socialism if not actually a form of socialism already. Thus, the Cold War was not a 'system' in itself, as diverse figures like Noam Chomsky and EP Thompson claimed - it was an intersystemic conflict, a world-historical conflict that was settled in an infuriatingly farcical fashion on the side of capitalism in 1990. Fred Halliday took this position in 1990, arguing that the USSR had maintained steady competition with the West as a bearer of global working class interests even after Stalin dissolved the Comintern, since the Red Army was "far more effective in spreading Soviet influence abroad". With Gorbachev's reforms, the end of the Cold War and the uprisings in Eastern Europe, there was "no longer a socialist camp". This was a logical corollary of previous writings. Halliday had in a 1987 pamphlet, 'The Reagan Doctrine and the Third World', published by the Transnational Institute, expressed the view that the US assault on Third World countries was both an attack on revolutionary socialist regimes, and an effort in the belabouring of the USSR as part of this world-historical combat. Previously, he had written extensively in support of the PDPA and the Russian occupation in Afghanistan, and co-written a book supportive of the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia. He was also one of the friendliest reviewers of Bill Warren's sympathetic reappraisal of imperialism. Given the collapse of the Soviet Union, Halliday concurred with Warren's assessment of "Late Capitalism" - "late for what?" Capitalism had, Halliday averred, simply demonstrated considerably greater resources than any marxist could have predicted, and had avoided the secular decline expected by most marxists. Moreover, capitalist democracy had much greater appeal than the various revolutionary states, and therefore socialism's fortunes in even the most propitious circumstances were diminished.
Halliday went on, as I previously mentioned, to embrace Fukuyama's claim that capitalism was all that we had to look forward to, and added that it at any rate had a universalising dynamic, wanted to make the rest of the world much like itself, needed no enemy and would therefore bring progress. He accepted that the idea of 'progress' is problematical in itself, but nevertheless cleaved to it. He was not alone in taking this position. Gregory Elliot, the eloquent and sardonic NLR writer, agreed in Radical Philosophy in 1993 with Fukuyama, saying that "we are witnessing the elimination, possibly only temporary, of socialism as a world-historical movement". He advised that it was time to take Deutscher's advice and retreat to the watchtower. (If he's up there, he sees perfectly well. His devastating assaults on Third Way politics have been complemented by timely critiques of French anti-socialism, and insightful writing on Althusser.) Perry Anderson, himself the doyen of Deutscherites and never too far from the watchtower, also embraced Fukuyama as an unconscious marxist who had correctly diagnosed the situation. He later explained in Renewals, an essay marking a new series of the New Left Review from the first issue in 2000, the depth of the changes that had taken place since the formation of the NLR as he saw it. In the 1960s, a third of the planet had broken politically with capitalism; a great thriving in marxist theory had taken place, especially since the collapse of Stalinist hegemony in 1956; and a massive cultural revolution was taking place, with its attendant shifts in theoretical perspective. Further, it appeared that the Soviet Union was amenable to reform, and the Sino-Soviet split was looked upon by Deutscher as indicative of the vitality of socialism. By 2000, however: "The Soviet bloc has disappeared. Socialism has ceased to be a widespread ideal. Marxism is no longer a dominant in the culture of the Left. Even Labourism has largely dissolved. To say that these changes are enormous would be an under-statement."
Some seek to find redemption in tragedy. Tariq Ali found it in Redemption, his (by all accounts terrible) satirical novel about the Trotskyist left and its response to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In it, Alex Callinicos is featured as Alex Mangoes, while Chris Harman is Nutty Sharman. Those closer to Ali's purview were not treated much more sympathetically. The thesis was that they (we) expected to triumphantly displace the old Stalinist parties, and were unable to perceive why this did not occur: by contrast, most parties of the Trotskyist left entered a crisis alongside the social-democratic parties. No doubt some of the hopes of 1989 were wildly overstated. No doubt the far left as a whole entered into a prolonged crisis, and their ability to survive hasn't been strictly correlated to their attitude to Stalinism. However, it's hard not to notice that the Deutscherite perspective invited such a collapse.
As Neil Davidson sort of argues, is a form of massive substitutionism in which the authoritarian states claiming to represent the working class are allowed to stand as instances of socialist success. Hence, as Davidson puts it, "No matter how difficult the current situation may have been in Western Europe or the US, no matter how few papers were sold on the high street of a rainy Saturday morning, socialism--or societies 'transitional' to socialism--already existed in the world and their number was being added to year on year: Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Angola, Ethiopia, South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia (where the phenomenon of a genocidal 'workers' state' was shortly to be discovered) and Afghanistan." Interestingly, Davidson notes that Hitchens converted to a kind of Deutscherite outlook a few years ago, despite the fact that his writing on the collapse of Stalinism was among his best, and most optimistic. He tripped on the first hurdle, which was Bosnia - what would happen to the former 'progressive' Yugoslav federation now that the rigours of the market and various national chauvanisms were tearing it apart? Hitchens gave the same answer that many on the left did: the right of nations to secede should be supported, Milosevic was the bad guy (he was, but not the only one), and the West should intervene (as if it was at that time serenely standing by). If that substitutionism was particularly susceptible to turmoil following the death of the police states, it didn't prevent many from adhering to a principled anti-imperialist position and defending the gains made by the working class in the form of the welfare state. Few, like Hitchens or Halliday, became apostles of 'globalisation' and 'imperialism'.
Still, if Davidson is right to say that Deutscherism is (was) a consolatory doctrine, the tragedy itself needs to be inspected in more detail. Was it inevitable that the Left Opposition in Russia should fail, even with the collapse of the German revolution (whose success, orthodoxy has it, would have supplied the revolutionary state with an expanded working class which could build socialism)? John Eric Marot recently took this question head-on in Historical Materialism, in the course of a sympathetic but trenchant critique of Tony Cliff. Cliff had been more critical of Trotsky than most of the latter's descendants were happy with (understatement alert). Marot says he didn't go far enough. He argues that all too often the Left Opposition shared the assumptions of the Stalinist reaction, which were: 1) the CPSU represented the interests of the working class; and 2) the peasants were an incipient capitalist class whose property should be forcibly collectivised in the interests of industrialisation, tending toward the expansion of the working class and socialist development. These assumptions disabled most criticisms of Stalin and his leadership by the Left Opposition, many of whom capitulated (where they were not simply killed). The most biting criticism Trotsky and his supporters had of the Stalinist elite for some time was that Stalin would not be willing to take on the kulaks properly. He did not see that the bureacracy, with its "thoroughly servile, career-seeking and timeserving rank and file" had formed divergent class interests - indeed, had become "unremittingly hostile to the working class and the democratic-socialist project". As a rule, the Left Opposition supported the ban on factions and extra-party political activity - and therefore could not support working class struggles against the bureacratic reaction. These huge failures, Marot contends, laid some of the ground for the broader European failure and the failure of revolution in 1930s America, and in the ability of Stalinism to hegemonise and limit and contain the anti-fascist struggle, and then to divert working class insurrections into reformism or subsume them into police states. You might think all this is a bit much to lump onto poor Trotsky's shoulders, but then as a man of considerable stature and perspicacity, his failures and those of his milieu are of world-historical significance. Further, Marot cites the historical research of Kevin Murphy, which demonstrates a considerable working class resistance to the Stalinist reaction, and therefore clear opportunities for saving the revolution from degeneration - if the conflation of the party with the interests of the working class had been abandoned in time. It isn't a moralising critique: it would be a little bit late for that, would it not? But it does address a colossal mistake, perhaps the most dangerous temptation for revolutionaries, which is to forget that the emancipation of the working class comes from the self-activity of the working classes. Recognising this doesn't involve separating oneself from movements with different traditions in a sectarian fashion: one supports Chavez as long as he helps the struggle for socialism, for instance, but one looks to the Venezuelan working class to secure its success.
If opposing substitutionist politics means refusing serenades about how socialism survives in Cuba or in the much-maligned North Korea (a police state, but not the psychotic monster that we are warned about), it also offers reasons to be cheerful. After all, if we are interested in the working class and not merely various forms of institutional representation, then the working class retains its structural capacities and material interests. They didn't disappear with the overthrow of Stalinism in Eastern Europe (as the syndicalist wing of the Solidarnosc quickly discovered). The class struggle has not disappeared - on the contrary, while its recovery is still slow in Europe, the global south is rebelling with increasing tempo. The demolition of the EU Constitutional Treaty by the French working class was a massive victory, and the institutional representation of left or postcommunist parties across Europe has grown. Not only French students, but British and Serbian students are resisting the neoliberal offensive. The American empire cannot be said to be in good shape, and opposition to it is global and increasingly integrated with the global anticapitalist movement. There's a long way to go, but if we can resist the optical illusion that results from investing hope in 'revolutionary' states, then we can see that not every gain has been wiped out, and not every historical account has been settled on the side of capitalism. Far from it.