Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 11, 2019

On John Marot’s peculiar understanding of the New Economic Policy

Filed under: Bukharin,New Economic Policy,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 12:48 am

No, John Marot, he did not “facilitate” Stalin’s forced collectivization

John Marot’s review in Jacobin of Samuel Farber’s “Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy” includes a defense of the New Economic Policy (NEP) based on Nikolai Bukharin being a lesser evil to Stalin’s forced collectivization. Leon Trotsky is also accused as an accessory after the fact:

But neither Farber nor the Trotskyist orthodoxy Farber attacks recognize Bukharin’s faction as the last line of defense against Stalin’s dictatorship, the only alternative to it. Instead, both think the Trotsky and Left Oppositions in the party under the NEP were champions of party democracy, offering viable options to the “rising Stalinist dictatorship” beginning as early as 1923, when Trotsky supported “a relatively democratic opening.”

Like Lars Lih, John Marot has little use for Trotsky. I wrote a much shorter piece on Marot four years ago that might help serve as an introduction to this much longer article.

Unlike Farber, who was hostile to all the Bolsheviks because of their alleged dictatorial methods, Marot sees Bukharin as at least having the merit of defending NEP Russia. If Marot was a Trotskyist, he might have described it as a “deformed workers state” rather than what would become a “degenerated workers state” under Stalin. Trotskyists use these terms to draw a contrast, for example, between Cuba and North Korea. That being said, Marot wouldn’t be caught dead sounding like a Trotskyist, especially for its leader’s support for Stalin’s forced march toward industrialization that was ultimately the USSR’s undoing:

The unpalatable truth is that Trotsky and the Left supported Stalin’s eighteen-month-long campaign against Bukharin and his partisans, and the Left Opposition’s backing of Stalin facilitated his victory. Nor did Trotsky’s support for Stalin over Bukharin have anything to do with advocacy of party democracy. It was driven by what Trotsky believed were more important considerations.

The NEP perhaps did not measure up to Farber’s “participatory control.” Certainly, it did not measure up to the gold standard of an “authentic socialism,” a democratic socialism. That is not the standard by which to judge the NEP. And it understates the self-determination the immediate producers — workers and peasants alike — enjoyed during this period.

For people unfamiliar with the musty annals of Soviet history, you might get the impression that Stalin and Trotsky were in cahoots against the NEP from Marot’s claim that “The unpalatable truth is that Trotsky and the Left supported Stalin’s eighteen-month-long campaign against Bukharin and his partisans, and the Left Opposition’s backing of Stalin facilitated his victory.” The truth is that the Left Opposition had been gagged to one degree or another ever since its formation in October, 1923. By the time Stalin embarked on his forced collectivization/rapid industrialization policies in 1929, Trotsky was in exile and his supporters still in the USSR reduced to scattered groupuscles of true believers in world revolution and socialist democracy. They would have about as much responsibility in “facilitating” Stalin’s victory as my critiques would have if Jacobin ever broke with the Democratic Party. Numbers count in politics. As Stalin once put it, “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?”

Before evaluating Nikolai Bukharin and the historical forces that made the NEP untenable, a word or two about John Marot might be useful. He is a history professor at Keimyung University in Korea and an acolyte of Robert Brenner, i.e., a Political Marxist. For PM’ers, the transition to capitalism begins with the transformation of “property relations” in agriculture, with a prime example being the introduction of lease farming in England in the 15th century that forced farmers to compete with each other and hire wage labor. The PM’ers tend to apply this criteria to developments prior to the 20th century, like Charles Post’s writings on 19th century America that characterize slave plantations as “pre-capitalist.”

Marot has the distinction of applying the Brenner thesis to Russia in the 20th century. In a distinctly odd fashion, at least among Marxists, he does not believe that there was capitalism. His 2012 book “The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect” puts it this way succinctly on page 2 of the introduction:

Against the party-leadership [i.e., Lenin, Trotsky, et al], I argue that a workers’ state could not substitute itself for the operation of capitalism in the Russian countryside because capitalism was not operating there in the first place. That is the first point. The second point: because the Russian peasantry was not subject to operating in a capitalist manner, it was, perforce, organising its life in a non-capitalist manner. The workers’ state attempt to freely and without coercion effect a transition in agriculture from a non-capitalist to a socialist mode of production had failed by the late 1920s.

Mechanically applying England’s transition to capitalism beginning in the 15th century, Marot views self-provisioning, small farms producing surpluses to the market as “pre-capitalist”. So, even though Czarist Russia had factories larger and more advanced than some West European nations, it still remained “feudal”. One cannot help but wonder how this would apply to South Africa where Bolshevik-like radical land reform would result in millions of poor Blacks ending up with their own small farm producing primarily for their own needs and secondarily for the market. Would that mean South Africa had become “feudal”? It is absurd to even pose the question.

Although Marot viewed “pre-capitalist” farming as the Achilles Heel of the Soviet Union, his Jacobin article appears to shed that belief to some extent. While not exactly concerned with how the USSR could have become industrialized under such backward conditions, he seems to see the countryside as having great possibilities, if not exactly socialist:

The mir, or peasant repartitional commune, managed the political and economic affairs of the peasantry in the villages in much of Russia, and had done so for centuries. Its officers, drawn from older, more experienced peasants, were elected in peasant assemblies, where decisions required unanimity in a great majority of cases. In their own sphere, the peasants obviously had hegemony.

Repartitional tenure assured the equitable distribution of communal land among the peasants, periodically redistributing it when required, a process determined by the greater tendency of those who had large plots to subdivide and bequeath the resulting smaller plots to their male children compared to those who had smaller plots, preventing the formation of an agrarian proletariat of any significance, under the NEP as well as under czardom.

So, if the preconditions for socialism rest on capitalist farming as well as capitalist manufacturing, why not simply allow the NEP-man and the Kulak to reign supreme? As long as the Bolsheviks retained state power, couldn’t the maturation of the “forces of production” pave the way for socialism? This is what Kautsky believed, right? Furthermore, this is how many Maoists account for China’s rapid development taking place.

Much analysis of the NEP has an ideological stamp. For example, you are likely to get a Trotskyist orientation reading Isaac Deutscher and a Bukharinite version from Stephen F. Cohen. Trying to find a scholar without an axe to grind, I came across Moshe Lewin’s “The Immediate Background to Soviet Collectivization” that appeared in the October 1965 Soviet Studies most helpful. It describes the NEP as a policy that had run its course by 1929. To see it as an alternative to the real unfolding of historical events involves an unfortunate Utopian way of thinking. By 1929, the Soviet state had become a dictatorship run by Stalin, abetted unfortunately by Bukharin—his eventual victim.

In 1927, the NEP had failed to produce the equilibrium between the farming and manufacturing sectors that existed under capitalist conditions in 1913. The state could only collect about half the amount of grain and lacked reserves against war or famine. This meant that workers were going hungry. Despite allowing factories to run on a for-profit basis, manufactured goods were expensive and of poor quality. Since state payments for grain were below the cost it took to produce them, peasants raised livestock or non-food products such as cotton.

There were alternatives to market relations in the countryside but the Stalin-Bukharin dominated state did little to sustain them. Despite Lenin’s belief that co-operatives were essential to socialist development in the USSR, there was little support for them or for state-owned (sovkhozy) or collective (kolkhozy) farms. In essence, the state had a laissez-faire attitude toward agriculture even when it had become clear that the NEP was a ticking time-bomb. It was the responsibility of Stalin and Bukharin to steer it in the right direction but they were asleep at the wheel.

Although you would have little inkling of this from Marot’s article, the Stalin-Bukharin team had begun to move toward the Left Opposition’s positions by 1927. Lewin writes:

About this time, Rykov [ally of Bukharin] had fairly clearly adopted an ‘industrializing’ line. He had accepted not only the need for perekachka (the pumping of resources out of the agricultural sector into industry) but also the principle of priority for heavy industry. He and Kalinin and Bukharin were prepared to limit the activities of the kulaks and to adopt more energetic measures in favour of collectivization. But so far as they were concerned, the objectives were moderate ones only, and any such measures were to reflect a proper degree of prudence.

None of this went beyond the brainstorming phase unfortunately. It only moved to the front burner in October, 1927 during a grain crisis. While Stalin’s assault on the countryside is often described as a war against the kulaks, the capitalist farmers using wage labor, most grain was being produced by the middle layer, the serednyaki. As opposed to the lowest level of peasants that produced mostly for their own needs using family members, the serednyaki were much more like the typical small farmer in the USA that produces for the market. The problem was that unlike American farmers they had no incentive to produce for the market since there were few commodities they could purchase with their money. This was a formula for disaster and certainly not to be overcome within the traditional NEP framework.

Despite Stalin’s decision to move ahead with forced collectivization against Bukharin’s objections, there was little preparation in effectuating such a transition as Lewin points out. Despite Stalin’s reputation as a forceful administrator, there were no signs of any “revolution from above”, as Marot put it, during 1928. The were was only one agronomist for 50 kolkhozy, a ratio similar to the number of doctors per patients in Mississippi. In 1929, top Stalinist leader Kalinin complained that there were zero research institutes relating to collectivized agriculture, whereas there were 30 studying industrial problems.

Instead of taking the kind of approach you might have seen in Cuba in the 1990s after the demise of the USSR, Stalin used brute force against the NEP-men and the better-off farmers. As might be expected, the normal commercial networks were trashed, without anything to take their place. Lewin writes, “In a country suffering from scarcity, the only result was even greater chaos. This was all the more true since this particular struggle, carried on, among other reasons, under the watchword of abolishing ‘pseudo-cooperation’, resulted in the destruction of the handicrafts sector and of small-scale industry, acts of which the regime bears the consequences to this day, and which contributed to a deterioration in the standard of living of the masses.” As the forced collectivization radicalized, the cost to the Soviet economy and its people only grew astronomically. Trotsky wrote about the impact in “Revolution Betrayed”:

Caught unawares by the radicalism of its own shift of policy, the government did not and could not make even an elementary political preparation for the new course. Not only the peasant masses, but even the local organs of power, were ignorant of what was being demanded of them. The peasants were heated white hot by rumors that their cattle and property were to be seized by the state. This rumor, too, was not so far from the truth. Actually realizing their own former caricature of the Left Opposition, the bureaucracy “robbed the villages.” Collectivization appeared to the peasant primarily in the form of an expropriation of all his belongings. They collectivized not only horses, cows, sheep, pigs, but even new-born chickens. They “dekulakized”, as one foreign observer wrote, “down to the felt shoes, which they dragged from the feet of little children.” As a result there was an epidemic selling of cattle for a song by the peasants, or a slaughter of cattle for meat and hides.

Obviously, this turn of events would be opposed by anybody outside of the ranks of Grover Furr and Roland Boer. You have to assume that Marot would have backed Bukharin against Stalin, just as I would. As someone who has written favorable reviews of Bukharin’s more philosophical books and praised his understanding of ecology, I regard him as Trotsky’s intellectual and political peer. Unfortunately, he has a very large stain on his career that explains why he was incapable of resisting Stalin. For most of the 1920s, he had been Stalin’s yes-man and an enemy of Soviet democracy.

While Marot sees Leon Trotsky as an anti-democratic bogeyman lending support to Stalin’s forced collectivization, Bukharin had the kind of power that Trotsky lacked. And what did he do with it? Helped Stalin develop his grip on the state apparatus. This took place on two levels, both ideologically and politically. As a strong supporter of socialism in one country, Bukharin broke with classical Marxism’s emphasis on international revolution. It was this misbegotten theory that subordinated the Communist Parties to bourgeois parties worldwide. It was only through the victory of Communist Parties that could have relieved the pressure on the USSR and made forced collectivization indefensible. Rather than given due consideration to the Left Opposition’s call for permanent revolution, Bukharin did everything he could to make it sound contrary to “Leninism”.

He was not the first to ostracize Trotsky. Before him, it was Zinoviev who sought to isolate Trotsky. He wanted to deflect blame from the German disasters in 1921 and 1923 under his leadership that I have written about extensively. This led Zinoviev to propose the “Bolshevization” of the CP’s everywhere, a tendency that penalized dissidence.

All the “old Bolsheviks” followed Zinoviev’s lead, with Bukharin’s participation made  worse by his inability to conceive of and act on alternatives to the NEP during its obvious implosion late in the 1920s.

Bukharin wrote an article in 1924 titled “The Theory of Permanent Revolution” that rehashed all the old slanders against Trotsky, including the “minimizing” of the peasantry. Referring to Trotsky’s book “1905”, Bukharin takes exception to the assertion that a victorious proletarian revolution would inevitably come into conflict not only with the bourgeoisie but also with the peasantry. Trotsky wrote:

This contradiction in the position of a workers’ government in a backward country, with an overwhelmingly peasant population, can be solved only on an international scale, in the arena of the world proletarian revolution. Compelled by historic necessity to break down the limitations of the bourgeois-democratic framework of the Russian revolution, the victorious proletariat will be compelled also to break down its national state limitations, that is, it will consciously strive to convert the Russian revolution into a prologue of the world revolution.

Bukharin’s objection to making the Russian Revolution contingent on the success of the world revolution in 1924 obviously anticipates the theory of socialism in one country. For that matter, what Trotsky wrote is not that much different from what Lenin wrote before him. In a “Speech on the International Situation” delivered to the 1918 Congress of Soviets, Lenin said, “The complete victory of the socialist revolution in one country alone is inconceivable and demands the most active cooperation of at least several advanced countries, which do not include Russia.” Bukharin surely remembered Lenin saying this but forgot to remember in 1924 when he was badmouthing Trotsky.

Bukharin’s article concludes with the kind of polemics that gave Leninist groups a bad name: “Thus, in spite of Comrade Trotsky, Comrade Lenin considered that Trotsky’s theory did underestimate the role of the peasantry, and however much Comrade Trotsky would like to evade the admission of this fundamental and cardinal error, he cannot evade it. One cannot play at hide and seek.”

If this sort of ham-fisted polemics was his only failing, Bukharin would not look nearly so bad. Bukharin was the architect of both opportunist and ultraleft strategies that undermined the revolutionary movement in two nations that had powerful Communist Parties.

If you’ve heard the term “Third Period”, you might associate it with the German CP’s notion of “social fascism”. This meant that the workers had to combat both the Nazis and the Socialist Party, the “social fascists”. It was not Stalin who came up with this insane policy, even though it was often tied to him. Instead, it was Bukharin who made a speech in 1927 that alluded to a “third period” in which a new approach to the SP was necessary. No longer would there be a united front of the kind that Lenin proposed in 1921 after the March Action debacle in Germany. Instead, there would be a “united front from below” that was of course impossible to carry out given the CP’s sectarianism. While it would be an overstatement to say that Bukharin’s ideas gave birth to the CP’s support for a “red referendum” sponsored by the Nazis that would remove an SP governor, it certainly didn’t help.

This ultraleft turn was the result of a disaster in China that was the product of Stalin and Bukharin’s opposition to the theory of the permanent revolution. Like all the “old Bolsheviks”, except those that agreed with Trotsky, this was a stagist conception that nearly upended the Russian Revolution when Lenin’s April Theses seemed to contradict long-held Bolshevik policies. Once Trotsky was isolated due to repeated attacks by Zinoviev, Stalin, Kamenev and Bukharin, it was much easier to apply “stagist” concepts to the colonial revolution, especially in China where the CP was instructed to subordinate itself to Chang Kai-shek. Just a few weeks before the massacre Chang Kai-shek unleashed against the CP in China, the Kuomintang was invited to join the Comintern. Bukharin wrote what amounted to an invitation:

What is essentially new and original is that now the Chinese revolution already possesses a centre organised into a State power. This fact has enormous significance. The Chinese revolution has already passed the stage of evolution in which the popular masses struggle against the ruling regime. The present stage of the Chinese revolution is characterised by the fact that the forces of the revolution are already organised into a state power; with a regular disciplined army … the advance of the armies, their brilliant victories … are a special form of the revolutionary process.

Given the disasters in China and Germany, the Stalin-Bukharin team was anxious to muzzle the Left Opposition since an open discussion might result in them being demoted from their lofty posts. Isaac Deutscher describes Bukharin’s fury directed against any criticisms from these quarters:

None, however, excelled Bukharin. Only a few months earlier he still appeared to be in amicable intercourse with Trotsky. Now he stood by Stalin’s side, as Zinoviev had stood there two years earlier, an assailed the Opposition with reckless virulence, exulting in its plight, brag threatening, inciting, sneering, and playing up to the worst elements in the party. The kindly scholar was as if transfigured suddenly, the thinker turned into a hooligan and the philosopher into a thug destitute of all scruple and foresight. He praised Stalin as the true friend of the peasant smallholder and the guardian of Leninism; and he challenged Trotsky to repeat before the conference what he said at the Politbureau about Stalin “the gravedigger of the revolution”. He jeered at the restraint with which Trotsky had addressed the conference, a restraint due only to the fact that the party had “seized the Opposition by the throat”. The Opposition, he said, appealed to them to avert the ‘tragedy’ that d result from a split. He, Bukharin, was only amused by the warning: “Not more than three men will leave the party—this will be the whole split!”, he exclaimed amid great laughter. ‘This will be a farce not a tragedy.’ He thus scoffed at Kamenev’s apology:

When Kamenev comes here and … says: “I, Kamenev, have joined hands with Trotsky as Lenin used to join hands with him and lean on him”, one can only reply with homeric laughter: what sort of a Lenin have they discovered! We see very well that Kamenev and Zinoviev are leaning on Trotsky in a very odd manner. (Prolonged laughter and applause.) They “lean” on him in such a way that he has saddled them completely (giggling and applause), and then Kamenev squeals: ‘I am leaning on Trotsky’. (Mirth.) Yes, altogether like Lenin! (Laughter.)

A year later, Trotsky would be expelled from the party and exiled to Alma Alta. Soviet cops would drag him to the train awaiting his departure. Whatever he wrote in critical support of Stalin’s rapid industrialization (that he would just as rapidly repudiate as soon as he saw where it was going), Trotsky lacked the power to change the course of the NEP. After seven years of demonization, anybody regarded as a Trotskyist would have to endure the indifference, or in the worst case, hostility of the Soviet masses that a state-controlled media and broad administrative support could engender.

Just before his exile, Trotsky spent the day in Moscow on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution accompanied by Kamenev and Nikolai Muralov, a member of the Left Opposition who Stalin had executed during the Great Terror. At Revolution Square, he attempted to give a speech to workers advancing to the Lenin Mausoleum (something Lenin would have never approved.) Deutscher describes the reaction:

At once policemen and activists assailed him. Shots were fired. There were shouts: “Down with Trotsky, the jew, the traitor!” The windscreen of his car was smashed. The marching column watched the scene uneasily, but moved on.

Bukharin helped to create the atmosphere that made this kind of reactionary behavior possible. It also helped to forestall any possibility that a viable NEP could have been created since it was obvious that by 1927 conditions had degenerated to the point that careful and respectful discussion between Communists was impossible. Stalin was well on his way to ruling the Soviet Union like Genghis Khan, as a chastened Bukharin would put it to Trotsky.

One can understand why John Marot would be supportive of the idea of the NEP persisting well past 1927. The problem is that material forces determine history, not ideas. By 1927, Stalin had accumulated all the power he needed to move forward with a disastrous policy. Through his ideological bias against Leon Trotsky, Marot has done Marxism a disservice. I urge readers of this article to read Trotsky’s Platform of the Joint Opposition that will shed light on his views about the NEP and other hotly contested matters. Although I have long ago rejected the idea of a Trotskyist movement, I find Trotsky’s writings indispensable.


May 17, 2019

Trotsky, Bukharin, and the Eco-Modernists

Filed under: Bukharin,Counterpunch,DSA,Ecology,Jacobin,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm


Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing “on faith,” is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste. We have not the slightest fear that this taste will be bad.

– Leon Trotsky, “Literature and Revolution” (1924)

For some Trotskyist groups, these words have been interpreted as a green light to support all sorts of ecomodernist schemas. For those unfamiliar with the term, it simply means using technology, often of dubious value, to ward off environmental crisis.

For example, the Socialist Workers Party, when it was still tethered to the planet Earth, was a strong supporter of Green values but after becoming unmoored it began to publish articles that asserted: “Science and technology — which are developed and used by social labor — have established the knowledge and the means to lessen the burdens and dangers of work, to advance the quality of life, and to conserve and improve the earth’s patrimony.”  These abstractions have meant in the concrete supporting GMO: “The latest focus of middle-class hysteria in face of the progress of science and technology is the campaign against foods that have been cultivated from seeds that have undergone a transplant of a strand of genetic material, DNA, from a different plant species–so-called transgenic organisms, or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).”

A split from the SWP, the Spartacist League is just as gung-ho. In a diatribe against ecosocialist scholar and Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster, they position themselves as global warming skeptics: “Current climate change may or may not pose a sustained, long-term threat to human society.” Their answer is very much in the spirit of the Trotsky quote above: “Instead, the proletariat must expropriate capitalist industry and put it at the service of society as a whole.” It turns out that Indian Point et al would be put at the service of society based on an article titled “Greens’ Anti-Nuclear Hysteria Amnesties Capitalism”.

Of course, the granddaddy of this kind of crude productivism is the cult around Spiked Online that is correctly perceived today as a contrarian and libertarian outlet. But its roots are in the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain that defended GMO, nuclear power, DDT, etc. using Trotsky’s rhetoric. Today, there’s nothing to distinguish it from Donald Trump’s Department of Energy.

As it happens, Trotsky’s business about moving mountains through technology serves as the epigraph to Jacobin’s special issue on environmentalism that is permeated by ecomodernist themes. Among them is an article by Leigh Phillips and Michael Rozworski titled “Planning the Good Anthropocene” that shares an affection for nuclear energy with the nutty sects listed above. They reason: “From a system-wide perspective, nuclear power still represents the cheapest option thanks to its mammoth energy density. It also boasts the fewest deaths per terawatt-hour and a low carbon footprint.” Their techno-optimism rivals that of Steven Pinker’s: “We patched our deteriorating ozone layer; we returned wolf populations and the forests they inhabit to central Europe; we relegated the infamous London fog of Dickens, Holmes, and Hitchcock to fiction, though coal particulates still choke Beijing and Shanghai.” As it happens, China is reducing coal particulates by displacing them geographically. The IEEFA, an energy think-tank, reported that a quarter of coal plants in the planning stage or under construction outside China are backed by Chinese state-owned financial institutions and corporations.

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