Notes on re-reading Lenin's The Development of Capitalism in Russia
By Chris Reynolds
To today's capitalist globalisation there, are fundamentally, two possible working-class responses. One is proposed, for example, by Robin Hahnel in his book Panic Rules (amidst much clear and valuable critique): 'We must act like Lilliputian Luddites first and stop corporate-sponsored globalisation by any means necessary. After corporate hegemony and the present system of global pillage have been defeated, our Lilliputian movement can cease to act like Luddites and begin to build a system of international equitable co-operation from below.'
The other is expressed, for example, by Michael Hardt and Toni Negri in their book Empire (amidst much obscurity and nonsense): 'The strategy of local resistance misidentifies and thus masks the enemy. We are by no means opposed to the globalisation of relationships as such... The enemy, rather, is a specific regime of global relations that we call Empire ['Empire', not 'an empire', to distinguish today's world order from the old imperialist system of rival colonial empires and spheres of influence]. More important, this strategy of defending the local is damaging because it obscures and even negates the real alternatives and the potentials for liberation that exist within Empire. We should be done once and for all with the search for an outside, a standpoint that imagines a purity for our politics... The multitude, in its will to be-against and its desire for liberation, must push through Empire to come out the other side.'
By Chris Reynolds
The second approach is, I think, essential if we are not be ensnared in giving 'left cover' to nationalist politics, or in vain attempts to turn the clock back. It indicates that 'Empire', or capitalist globalisation, is a step forward in a certain sense - in the same sense as Marx argued that 'the bourgeoisie, historically, plays a most revolutionary role'. This idea shocks most socialists. And yet, by Marxist criteria, the facts bear it out. On those Marxist criteria, to say that the development of capitalism is progressive has never been to say that we should support it. It is, on the contrary, to say that capitalist development expands the range, the scope, and the potentialities for working-class struggle.
Rosa Luxemburg can scarcely be suspected of supporting the imperialism of the First World War. Yet she wrote, in the Junius Pamphlet: 'This brutal victory parade of capital through the world, its way prepared by every means of violence, robbery, and infamy, has its light side. It creates the preconditions for its own final destruction. It puts into place the capitalist system of world domination, the indispensable precondition for the socialist world revolution. This alone constitutes the cultural, progressive side of its reputed 'great work of civilisation'... The capitalist victory parade and all its works bear the stamp of progress in the historical sense only because they create the material preconditions for the abolition of capitalist domination and class society in general. And in this sense imperialism ultimately works for us... Proletarian policy knows no retreat; it can only struggle forward. It must always go beyond the existing and the newly created.'
It is in the same sense that today's capitalist globalisation - also saturated with 'violence, robbery and infamy' - bears 'the stamp of progress in the historical sense'.
The Development of Capitalism in Russia, published just over 100 years ago, was Lenin's only full-length book written for long-term theoretical clarification. In it, Lenin insisted, more bluntly and explicitly than any other Marxist writer, on the progressive role of capitalism - while condemning 'people who from the general truth... deduce... the need for socialists to support the liberals' (Development, p.32).
Lenin's insistence had immediate polemical purpose. Capitalist development in Russia before 1917 was progressive as against the remnants of feudal order which dominated before the legal abolition of serfdom in 1861. Under the 1861 reform, the government granted peasants more-or-less equal plots of land - for which they had to make 'Redemption Payments' to the landlord - and kept them tied to the village commune. The commune had collective responsibility for taxes, and was the legal owner of the individual plots tilled by the individual peasant families. Peasants could not move away from their communes without special permission.
The populists (Narodniks), who were still the most influential strand of socialist thought in Russia, wanted to preserve the village communes, as a basis for future socialism and as a bulwark against a capitalist development which they reckoned was harmful and in any case could not amount to much. Lenin replied that capitalist development was substantial; that it was proceeding despite and within the framework of the commune, and would continue to do so; and that socialists should demand the removal of all the old legal obstacles to the quickest and most free development of capitalism.
As ever, this approach did not diminish Lenin's insistence on working class political independence from bourgeois reformers and liberals. After the shock of the 1905 Revolution, the Tsarist government under Stolypin introduced land reform. It abolished the Redemption Payments. Peasants were allowed to leave or move away from the commune without its permission; grants were paid to help the better-off peasants buy land from landlords or settle in new areas. Lenin had written in 1899: 'The village community (i.e., collective responsibility [for taxes, redemption payments, etc.] with no right to refuse land) becomes more and more harmful to the peasant poor.' In the 1907 edition of his book, he added not applause for Stolypin, but condemnation: 'It goes without saying that still greater harm will be done to the peasant poor by Stolypin's (November 1906) breaking up of the village community. This is the Russian 'enrich yourselves'... Black Hundreds - rich peasants! Loot all you can, so long as you bolster up tottering absolutism!' (Development, p.157) To both the preservation of the village community, and Stolypin's 'wager on the strong', the Bolsheviks counterposed confiscation of the church, state and lords' land; nationalisation of the land (after, and only after, the establishment of a democratic republic); and then the repartition of the land, or the cultivation of large estates in common, under the control of peasant committees.
Does progress stop?
Once all important remnants of feudalism or pre-capitalist economy are cleared away, the immediate political import of the idea that capitalist development is progressive diminishes drastically. It would be incongruous or even politically false for socialists in a developed capitalist economy to place the same stress on the progressive role of capitalism as Lenin did in 1899. However, the question does not disappear.
'The progressive historical role of capitalism,' writes Lenin, 'may be summed up in two brief propositions: increase in the productive forces of social labour, and the socialisation of that labour' (Development, p.596). Those developments do not automatically stop once feudal remnants have gone; on the whole, they then go forward more quickly. Yet the orthodoxy of the Marxist movement for the last 80 years has been that the progressive role of capitalism did end around the time of the First World War. Since then capitalism has been reactionary. It has ceased to do the progressive work it did before 1914. A forerunner of this magazine, Workers' Fight, put it like this in a brief policy statement we used to carry in every issue in the early 1970s: 'Having once been progressive, in that it at least developed, in the only way then possible, the productive resources of mankind, [capitalism] is now a totally reactionary force in history. Its expansion after World War 2 gave it merely the appearance of health; in reality the boom was like the flush on a sick man's face.' In a manifesto published in 1977, we repeated the thought: 'Once-progressive capitalism has reached the stage of decline.'
Were we right? I think not.
In The Development Lenin made a point-by-point list of the progressive work of capitalist development.
1. Expansion of technology and productive resources.
2. Capitalism 'destroys the scattered condition of small economic units... and draws together the small local markets into an enormous... world market'.
3. It replaces scattered production (small plots of land or workshops) by concentrated production.
4. It 'eliminates the forms of personal dependence... of preceding systems of economy' - serfdom, slavery, etc.
5. Capitalism 'creates mobility of the population'.
6. It draws people together in large industrial centres.
7. It 'increases the population's need for association, for organisation...'.
8. 'All the above-mentioned changes effected in the old economic system by capitalism inevitably lead also to a change in the mentality of the population' (p.596-9).
In points 7 and 8 Lenin describes, elliptically enough to pass the Tsarist censorship, the creation and expansion of a working class both increasingly collective (organised) and increasingly individual (desiring liberty, enjoyment, civilisation). Lenin also noted that capitalist industry destroys 'the economic dependence of the woman on the family... and on the husband... At the factory, the woman is the equal of the man...' (p.547). And he claimed that capitalist development raised the 'cultural standards', the 'standard of requirements', of the population, though it might also increase poverty by increasing the gap between what people actually got and the higher 'standard of requirements' (p.372 and passim).
Marx had described how feudalism led to its own downfall: 'New forces and passions spring up in the bosom of society, forces and passions which feel themselves to be fettered by that society' (Capital Vol.1 p.928). Likewise with capitalism - 'new forces and passions'.
The thought here is certainly not what used to be called the Whig idea of progress - that things get better, evenly, steadily, bit by bit, all the time. Lenin's and Marx's idea is that capitalist development is progressive because it creates 'new forces and passions' which sharpen contradictions; we take sides within those contradictions (for the working class) and not 'for progress' as a whole. 'For Marx, this label ['progressive'] never achieved the all-sanctifying power it later had in some parts of the socialist movement; above all, he did not assume that progressive meant to be supported politically' (Hal Draper, Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, Vol.2, p.284).
With this thought in mind, let us look at the question: does progress stop? Is the Marxist 'orthodoxy' right to claim that capitalist development was progressive only until 1914, and has become reactionary since then?
Facts and reinterpretations
A few figures. Between 1990 and 1997 - one of the slower, worse periods for world capitalist development since 1945 - manufacturing production increased 21% overall, 49% in 'low income' countries, 57% in 'middle income' countries and 15% in 'high income' countries. (Source: World Bank). Total economic output increased 18%. For comparison, the growth of manufacturing and extractive industry in the great powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution, Great Britain, over the 19th century, averaged 2.9% a year, or 22% per seven-year period (Bairoch, The Economic Development of the Third World, p.67).
Power production increased 170% in 'low income' countries between 1960 and 1990, and 370% in 'middle income' countries. Urbanisation, the number of telephone lines, the amount of paved roads, the extent of drinking-water supply and irrigated land, also increased fairly fast. Even in the poorest Third World countries, there is generally some increase in the preconditions for industrial production, outpaced though it may be by the rise in misery and poverty and the rapid rise in global inequality over the 1990s. The proportion of illiterates has dropped fairly fast between 1980 and 1995 - from 30.5% to 22.6% - though the world's total illiterate population has increased from 877 million to 885 million.
On none of Lenin's eight points has development ceased or gone into reverse. Lenin had to spend hundreds of pages listing Russian economic statistics, uncovering errors in their collection and classification, and analysing them, in order to prove his case about the development of capitalism in Russia against the populists; but we do not need to fill more pages of Workers' Liberty with statistics now. No-one really denies that production has increased, the working class has expanded, and so on. Instead, the defenders of the view that capitalist development has become reactionary uphold it by reinterpreting it.
The easiest, but weakest, reinterpretation, is to slide from the proposition that 'all capitalist development is now reactionary, and has been for decades past', to 'capitalism today is cruel, disgusting, and crisis-ridden'. To point out the ulcers and sores of capitalism does not resolve the question of whether those are ulcers and sores on a larger body, with more 'new forces and passions', or a smaller one.
Four other reinterpretations are also common.
1. Socialism is now possible (technology is adequate, the working class is big enough and concentrated enough), and capitalist development is reactionary compared to socialism.
2. Capitalist development used to be progressive because it swept away feudal and other pre-capitalist social forms. Now those forms are largely eliminated, it is no longer progressive.
3. Since the early 20th century capitalism has departed decisively and increasingly from its free-market norm - the state, finance-capital, etc. have played larger roles - and thus it has assumed increasingly aberrant forms, testifying that it has been in decline or 'transition'. (This view is argued particularly by Hillel Ticktin, but also, more loosely, by other writers).
4. The mass of means of production has increased. But so also has the mass of means of destruction (armaments). Capitalism increasingly produces means of destruction, hence is reactionary. (This recycling of the 'permanent arms economy' theory of the 'Shachtmanite' T N Vance is proposed by the 'Lambertist' school of neo-Trotskyism).
On 1: This substitutes a comparison of actual capitalist development with a hoped-for future or might-have-been present for a comparison of today's actual development with yesterday's. It therefore evades (not answers) the question posed by Lenin and Marx: does the actual development create more raw materials for socialism? In The Development Lenin insisted that actual capitalist development in Russia was progressive even though it was 'reactionary' (slower and more painful) compared to a democratic capitalism, let alone to a hypothetical socialism (p.600).
In this reinterpretation there is an echo of the argument whereby pre-1914 socialist writers like Karl Kautsky reconciled ultra-cautious tactics for the present with revolutionary principles for the indefinite future. Capitalist development is progressive, they said, and so gives ever-improving conditions for our struggle. It is foolish to try to jump the gun by radical tactics. Postpone big battles if you can. Conditions for them will be better in future. At some point capitalist development will be halted by a cataclysmic crisis - and then power will fall into the hands of the working class. Do not come to close quarters with the capitalist beast, advised these wary hunters, until you are sure that it has died a natural death.
Against that argument, Leon Trotsky wrote: 'Capitalism must 'exhaust itself' before the proletariat can take state power [so argue the cautious socialists]. What does this mean? Develop the productive forces to a maximum? Bring the concentration of production to a maximum? But if so, what is the maximum? What are its objective characteristics?' Trotsky showed that capitalist development created an increasing mass of small, backward enterprises as well as the big, advanced ones, and remonstrated against the cautious: 'When they appeal to 'objective social development'... they are forgetting that this development includes not only economic evolution, which they understand in a superficial way, but also the revolutionary logic of class relationships, which they cannot even bear to think about.' (On the Paris Commune, pp.16-17).
Workers do not have to delay revolutionary struggle until capital dies of old age. And why should capitalist development stop, or go into reverse, once it has reached a level sufficient to make working-class socialism materially possible? Trotsky argued emphatically that working-class socialism was materially possible (though in fact defeated) in the France of the Paris Commune (1871), long before any Marxist had thought of claiming that capitalist development had become reactionary.
Sadly, the further development of capitalism beyond the minimum prerequisite for working-class socialism does not necessarily make socialist revolution easier. As well as augmenting the raw material for socialism, the development also augments the wealth, power, resources and skill of the ruling class. It increases the bulk of the social contradictions, but it does not automatically resolve or soften them. There is good reason to suppose that the higher capitalist development will make our tasks of socialist construction easier and quicker after the revolution - but that is a different matter.
On 2: Apart from the fact that capitalist development has been eroding substantial pre-capitalist forms in most of the world for many decades since it supposedly became reactionary around 1914, and still does so, the argument here rests on confusing two different ideas, that 'capitalism is no longer to be supported (against pre-capitalist forms)' and that 'capitalist development is no longer progressive'.
Remember, 'progressive' and 'to be supported' are not the same. And it is not even accurate to say that Marxism mandates support for capitalism when it clashes with pre-capitalist forms. Recall that Lenin condemned the Tsarist state's Stolypin land reforms, although they undoubtedly dispelled pre-capitalist remnants. He never undertook to support the development of capitalism, but only to recognise its progressive role and to support the removal of obstacles to its most democratic, free and rapid development. (Likewise, today we support the removal of barriers between states in Europe, even under capitalism; we do not support the existing European Union.)
Such independent politics are doubly important after a century in which most 'progressive' revolutions have taken the form of erecting autocratic states to push through forced-march national industrialisation. (The pattern is widespread even if you do as most contributors to Workers' Liberty would wish, and try to define away part of it by calling the Stalinist systems not state capitalism but 'bureaucratic collectivism'.) Capitalist development is progressive as against pre-capitalist forms because it creates more potentialities for emancipation. The job of working-class socialists is to promote and develop the potentialities, not the process 'as a whole'. We have to recognise both the objectively progressive work of capital, and the need for independent democratic and working-class politics.
Capital does not cease to produce new potentialities once it stands on its own feet - on the whole, it produces them faster and more abundantly. (Quite a lot of The Development was about how more advanced forms of capitalism were replacing more backward forms - large-scale factory industry replacing hand-production in collective workshops, which in turn was replacing small handicrafts and 'putting-out' - rather than about capitalism in general ousting pre-capitalist relations.)
On 3: Here again, the analysis of actual reality is replaced by a comparison of capitalist development with an 'ideal'. The method is all the more off-beam since Marx showed long ago that capitalist development could not proceed in line with that ideal of democratic small enterprise, perfect free markets, minimal unproductive overhead expenses, and so on. Argument no.4 also evades the question by comparing actual capitalist development with an ideal (non-militarised) capitalism.
Lenin, Trotsky and the Comintern
The reinterpretations give emotional as well as intellectual protection, in the minds of Marxists, to the proposition that capitalist development has become reactionary. They seem to show that anyone denying that proposition will support capitalism, or at best postpone any decisive struggle against it to that point in the future when capitalist development finally does become reactionary. But what makes Marxists strive so hard to 'save the theory' on this point?
The Stalinist parties had their own reasons for upholding the idea that capitalist development had become reactionary. It made Stalinist development look better by comparison. It enhanced the idea that salvation could not be sought from (democratic, liberty-seeking) forces generated within capitalist development, but only from an external 'liberator' (Russian tanks). The false equation 'progressive' = 'to be supported' helped persuade workers that if only they admitted that the industrialisation, literacy and mass (pauper) welfare programs of Stalinist states were progressive, then they were obliged to support those Stalinist states.
Stalinist influence explains a lot. But the story is more complicated. The idea of capitalist development changing from progressive to reactionary about 1914 was not invented by Stalinism. It was advocated by Lenin and Trotsky. The very first of seven brief programmatic points in Trotsky's letter of invitation to revolutionaries worldwide for the first congress of the Communist International (1919) was: 'The present period is that of the decomposition and collapse of the entire world capitalist system, and will be that of the collapse of European civilisation in general if capitalism, with its insurmountable contradictions, is not overthrown' (Alix Holt and Barbara Holland [trans.], Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses, p.1; Trotsky, First Five Years of the Comintern, Vol.1, p.37).
The idea was repeated again and again by the leaders of the Communist International in its early, revolutionary years. Rosa Luxemburg's Spartacus program of December 1918 put it like this: the World War had destroyed much and left 'economic chaos' in its wake. 'Millions of workers were slaughtered. Those left alive, upon returning home, will receive the mock welcome of poverty and unemployment. Starvation and disease threaten... Financial bankruptcy... is inevitable. Only socialism can save the people'.
The Comintern's Third Congress in 1921 established - after considerable argument - that occasional economic upturns were possible in this general period of decline. But the basic message was simple and straightforward: productive forces and civilisation would decline, or any slight growth would be offset by huge convulsions.
Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg did not believe that this capitalist economic chaos would produce revolutionary workers' uprisings as an automatic reflex, without long-term preparation, organisation and education. In Europe there was a powerful workers' movement, built up and educated in Marxist ideas over many decades. During the war the 'government socialists' had kept a grip over the majority in most countries; but in the post-war convulsions a large part of the movement could be regrouped around the revolutionaries. So they reckoned - and so it was. In France, the communists won the majority of the old Socialist Party; in Germany, the majority of the 800,000-strong Independent Social Democratic Party.
The Comintern's basic concept was not that the economic laws of capitalist development had reached a stage in their workings which blocked off any further progress. In the Third Congress's theses, Trotsky spelled this out: 'If, of the two main classes in society - the bourgeoisie and the proletariat - one of them, the latter, renounces the revolutionary struggle, then the former, the bourgeoisie, would undeniably in the final analysis establish a new capitalist equilibrium - one based on material and spiritual degeneration - by means of new crises, new wars, progressive pauperisation of entire countries and the steady dying out of millions of toilers'. (Holt and Holland, p.198; Trotsky, First Five, p.307-8). 'A new epoch of capitalist upswing', or 'a new chapter of a general capitalist progress' was possible (First Five, p.263, Third International After Lenin, p.61).
Exactly that happened. The working class was disabled by Stalinism, there were crises, wars, pauperisation and millions of deaths, and through them capitalism finally re-established conditions for a long swing of expansion. The Comintern was right to denounce the post-1918 chaos and condemn illusions that the capitalists were likely to fix that chaos any time soon or without huge human cost. We are wrong if we quote those condemnations and denunciations today as apodictic truths to 'prove' that all capitalist development since 1918 must have been reactionary.
Now - what about Lenin's claim that his economic analysis of imperialism showed it to be 'moribund capitalism', 'the highest stage of capitalism'? (We discussed this in WL28.)
What about Lenin's insistence, in his wartime writings, that his revolutionary anti-war position was based on identifying the current period as 'the epoch of the reactionary, obsolete bourgeoisie' whereas a different attitude was correct in 'the epoch of the progressive bourgeoisie'? (Socialism and War. I think Hal Draper gives the right answer to this question in chapter 2 of his book War and Revolution: Lenin and the Myth of Revolutionary Defeatism. Despite myths promoted by opportunists in World War One and taken for good coin by Lenin, the basic approach of Marx and Engels on wars in their time was the same as the internationalists' in World War One.)
What about the idea, made much of in Lukacs' book Lenin, that the concept of a tight, politically-sharp revolutionary party depends on the view that we are in an epoch of capitalist collapse? (False, I think, but it needs another article).
And what about the indications in the writings of Marx and Engels that socialism depended on capitalism coming to the end of its rope economically? (There are plenty of counter-indications. Simon Clarke's book Marx's Theory of Crisis is very useful on this point).
All these questions require further articles. But worry about 'what does this imply?' or 'does this put us into conflict with what Marx or Lenin wrote?' should not be allowed to obscure the facts. There was little progressive capitalist development between the 1920s and 1945, though even then there was some. There has been a lot since.
Trotsky in the late 1930s
The hold on revolutionary socialists of the idea of the 'epoch of reactionary capitalism' has been greatly strengthened by some of Trotsky's writings in the late 1930s. In the Transitional Program of 1938, he wrote: 'The economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be achieved under capitalism. Mankind's productive forces stagnate. Already new inventions and improvements fail to raise the level of material wealth... The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only 'ripened'; they have begun to get somewhat rotten.' And in his much-reprinted article of 1939, 'The USSR in War', Trotsky further stated: 'Under conditions of decaying capitalism the proletariat grows neither numerically nor culturally'.
The terrible economic chaos of the 1930s, and the horrors of the World War which started just before Trotsky wrote 'The USSR in War', explain well enough why Trotsky wanted to restate the early Comintern's bold, straightforward ideas about capitalist decay. But two things had changed by 1938-9.
The mass Marxist-educated workers' movements had been corrupted and crushed by Stalinism and fascism. Trotsky still hoped that their fragments could, under the huge pressure of World War, be rapidly regrouped into mass revolutionary parties. As it turned out, he was wrong about that. Even in 1938-9, this perspective was edging into a mystical hope of a sudden apocalyptic coming-together of elemental mass working-class rage and a revolutionary leadership prepared by pure willpower. Recycled after 1943, it became a mandate for a lot of sectarian posturing.
Also, Trotsky's earlier qualifying comments about the possibility of a new surge of capitalist development - if and when the capitalists could make the workers pay the cost of clearing the ground for it - had faded away under the pressures of the exigencies of his arguments on the USSR. Increasingly he based those arguments, not on any straightforward case for considering the USSR to be a workers' state, but on the claim that it was economically progressive as against an economically reactionary capitalist system.
Since Trotsky conscientiously noted the narrow limits of such economic progress as had been achieved in the USSR, and the unlikelihood of the autocratic regime yielding much more, his argument pushed him into painting the blackest, most absolute, and most unqualified picture of the real economic chaos in the West. And since he could ascribe no merit to the Stalinist USSR other than economic progressiveness, the argument pushed him into blurring the distinction between 'progressive' and 'to be supported'. He had to argue for supporting, or at least 'defending' the USSR, on grounds of economic progressiveness alone.
Proposed with force and eloquence - as they were - and echoing the writings of Lenin and Luxemburg - as they did - Trotsky's ideas about the 'death agony of capitalism' acquired an axiomatic status in the Trotskyist movement out of all proportion to their context. It is no wonder that later Trotskyists preferred to reinterpret them prudently - on the lines discussed above - rather than reject them. That preference, however, caused theoretical and political harm, discussed and analysed in Sean Matgamna's introduction to The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism Vol. 1, especially pp. 63-4 and 78.
Breaking the spell
1. According to the Russian populist-socialists against whom Lenin argued in The Development, the village community had to be supported because: 'The community principle prevents capital from seizing agricultural production' (p.323). 'Should some Anglomaniac aristocrat' - commented Lenin - 'happen to offer a prize for the best work on the introduction of capitalist farming in Russia, should some learned society come forward with a scheme to settle peasants on farmsteads, should some idle government official concoct a plan for 60-dessiatine [large, 66 hectare] holdings, the Narodnik hastens to thrown down the gauntlet and fling himself into the fray against these 'bourgeois projects' to 'introduce capitalism' and destroy that Palladium of 'people's industry', the village community' (p.324).
Lenin replied, first, that the elements of capitalism were constantly forming within the community (p.173), and, secondly, that the state-enforced structures of the community, with its enforced semi-pauper quasi-equality, made the development of capitalism slower and more painful (p.157).
Stalinism, too, supposedly 'prevented capital from seizing production'. But it too had the elements of ordinary capitalism forming within it - we can see this now in China on a huge scale - and it too had state-enforced structures which made the development more painful. By its autocracy, by its national autarky, and by its strong tendencies to enterprise autarky (housing, health care, holidays, etc. all provided by the employing enterprise rather than by general public authorities), it hindered personal independence, mobility of the population, the drive for citizen and working-class self-organisation, and the drive for individual culture and enjoyment. While no better than roughly parallel to bourgeois capitalism in the development of the productive forces, it grossly obstructed several important aspects of the 'socialisation of labour' held by Lenin to signify progress brought by capitalist development.
To support capitalism against Stalinism would be as false as supporting Stolypin in Russia. But, in a comparison between Stalinism and bourgeois capitalism, Stalinism was the more reactionary.
2. The first time our tendency came across the idea of the "epoch of capitalist decline" being used to guide specific political conclusions was on Europe. In 1971, as Britain prepared to join the European Union (then called EEC), the SWP (then called IS) switched from a line of "In or out, the fight goes on" to one of opposing British entry and later, in 1975, advocating withdrawal. Trying to justify the switch, Chris Harman wrote: "We are against anything which rationalises or strengthens capitalism in an epoch in which the productive forces have developed sufficiently to make socialism an objective possibility."
In the 1960s the SWP had pointedly not been crisis-criers. Yet the idea that capitalist development had become reactionary still ranked among their theoretical axioms. It played a big role in the argument of their major text, Tony Cliff's book on the USSR. (See Sean Matgamna's article in WL56). Now it was pulled off the shelf again.
Replying to Harman, we conceded the general axiom, but deployed specific arguments which deprived it of all force: "Marxists do not oppose the development of capitalism as such, rather they oppose capitalism within its development... Of course we agree that in general the epoch we live in is one of decaying capitalism... But at the same time capitalism will always be able to expand on the basis of a working-class failure to seize power, and a 'never mind the facts, I've got my method' approach won't will this away... Abstractions about the nature of the epoch cannot invalidate the attitude Marxists must take to the development of capitalism. The only time when we could oppose the [European Union] or any rationalisation of capitalism in itself is when the concrete alternative is workers' power and a workers' state". (Sean Matgamna and Phil Semp, "IS and the Common Market", July 1971, reprinted in Permanent Revolution no.3, summer 1975).
Having stripped all the clothes and crowns from Emperor Epoch Of Decay, it is time to say that he is no Emperor at all. European capitalist integration is progressive, in the sense already stated. That this does not mandate political support for the European Union, its bureaucracy, its treaties, or its rules, should be obvious by now.
The "anti-European" slant still common on the left is also connected to the idea of the "epoch of decay" by a more indirect route. From the mid-1930s the Stalinist parties sought alliances with "progressive capitalists". Where should such creatures be found, if capitalist development had become reactionary? The Stalinists solved this conundrum by decreeing the most advanced capitalists to be the most reactionary. National, or nationalist, capitalists were progressive against those more oriented to the world market. Small capitalists were progressive as against big (despite Lenin, in The Development, declaring flatly that "the worker is particularly oppressed by small capital. The big employer is forced by sheer commercial considerations to abstain from petty oppression, which is of little advantage and is fraught with considerable loss..." - p.245). The Communist Parties had the slogan of the "anti-monopoly alliance" in domestic politics, and a similar approach, directed against the USA, Germany, and the eemerging European Union, in particular, in international politics.
Revolutionary Marxists of all stripes did, of course, oppose the "anti-monopoly alliance" and the CPs' flagrant nationalism. Many of the underlying ideas, however, remained uncriticised, to reappear later.
3. The more advanced, the worse? Then the most advanced capitalism, the USA's, is "the Great Satan". Any social formation counterposed to it, any "anti-imperialism", must be better. Hence support for Stalinism, for Islamic fundamentalism, or for Milosevic's Serbian Stalino-gangster state - irrespective of whether there is any real national-liberation issue involved.
Paradoxically, the idea of the Epoch Of Decay led Max Shachtman, once the foremost champion of Third Camp politics, to the converse position of supporting US capitalism. As late as 1961 he insisted on the idea of capitalist decline in a flat, straightforward sense by then unusual among Marxists: "The famous 'dynamism' of the Stalinist world... appears... only in contrast to the unarrested decline and helplessness of the capitalist world... [Therefore] so long as the choice before the world is only between these two [capitalism and Stalinism], it is Stalinism - totalitarian collectivism - that will gain, at one or another rate of speed". Capitalism was "nearing the end of its historical rope", whereas Stalinism was not. (The Bureaucratic Revolution, p.3, 2, 293).
Stalinism, with its totalitarian control over the working class and its ability to "solve basic social problems" in its own way (p.338), cut off the possibility of socialism, whereas, so long as this half-dead capitalism survived, the chance remained that its ever-worse decay would be resolved by working-class socialism rather than Stalinism. The socialist movement was weak. From this gloomy perspective followed not just politically-independent joint action with bourgeois forces to defend democratic rights against Stalinism - which might have the immediate result of preserving bourgeois capitalism, but made working-class sense - but de facto critical rallying to the bourgeois camp.
Oddly, Shachtman's former comrade Hal Draper, who defended a continuing revolutionary socialist perspective against him, never so far as I know explicitly rejected or tackled the idea of capitalist decline.
4. Suppose capitalist development is now reactionary. Over time it generally diminishes the basic raw materials for socialism (the working class, science and technology), rather than augmenting them. Then what future turn of events can favour socialist revolution? Only crisis. By throwing the capitalist classes and their states into disarray, and by driving the workers to consider desperate measures, crisis can give a fillip to revolution sufficient to offset the shrinkage in the raw materials for socialism.
Hence the pattern of revolutionary socialists "waiting for the crisis" - or forever hopefully seeing "the crisis" in every economic trouble or disturbance.
Despite its caricatures, the idea contains some sense. Economic turmoil may well spur revolutionary action. If capitalism developed smoothly, so that the growth of the "new forces and passions" inside it was constantly and evenly matched with a growth in the resources of the ruling class, then revolution would be hard to imagine.
In particular, it made sense in the 1960s, a formative period for many of the more experienced activists of today's revolutionary left, to look forward to economic crisis triggering revolution. The working class in the advanced capitalist countries was confident and, in many of those countries, well-organised. So long as workers could make social and economic gains relatively smoothly (note: only relatively), that confidence and organisation would remain within reformist limits. Shaken up by a crisis, there was a good chance of the confidence and organisation transforming itself into something sharper and more radical, rather than into dismayed retreat.
In fact the economic crises of the 1970s did stir up the labour movement and help fairly rapid growth of the revolutionary left. That labour movement upheavals like the rank and file Labour Party revolt of 1979-81 finally subsided in confusion, and that many of the biggest revolutionary groups of the 1970s collapsed in the 1980s, was due to the weakness of previous political organisation (so that, for example, the biggest far-left groups in Italy, Germany and Portugal were Maoist, and doomed to dismay), rather than lack of opportunities.
By now, however, after so many years of millions unemployed, and thousands homeless on the streets, revolutionaries must reflect that more and more crisis does not necessarily mean more revolution! If what we need is more crisis, well then, how much more can it take? How much more can we take?
Actually, as Trotsky argued long ago, sometimes the best economic circumstances for a growth and radicalisation of the labour movement are those of capitalist boom. Our rational hope for the future is not "more crisis", but the combination of the long-term trend of capitalism to augment the raw material for socialism with the certainty of sharp economic ups and downs.
Further: the Comintern's notion of the "epoch of decline" assumed that much of the preparatory bulk rough-hewing work of building a socialist labour movement had already been done. The revolutionary activists' job was to pull themselves together into an organised force. They could then marginalise the reformist upper crust of the labour movement, regroup the majority of the organised workers, rally unorganised workers behind them, and be ready for revolutionary action at the next sharp turn. In the early 1930s, Trotsky summed it up in a vivid phrase when he described the task of the German Marxists as being to "switch the points" for the locomotive of the workers' movement and redirect for effective struggle against Hitler. "As the switchman, by the timely turn of the switch, shifts a heavily laden train onto different tracks, so the small [Trotskyist] Opposition, by a strong and sure turn of the ideological switch, can compel the train of the German Communist Party, and the still heavier train of the German proletariat, to go on in a different direction" (The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, p.252).
Recycled on down the decades, this approach became, for some revolutionary groups, in the 1970s especially, one of "building the alternative leadership" in single combat with the incumbents over the heads of a rank and file assumed to be bursting with militancy. This magazine has argued that in fact we need a wholesale bottom-to-top "renovation of the labour movement". This perspective puts more of the preparatory, bulk, rough-hewing, "Second International" work ahead of us than the old "crisis of leadership" approach. It does not mean going back to the pre-1914 "Marxist orthodoxy" of "slow but steady". It does not imply losing a sense of urgency. It requires revolutionaries to organise on "Leninist" lines (coherently, on a sharp political basis). It involves different problems from those of the first building of mass workers' parties from a raw working class. But it is a shift from the conventional neo-Trotskyist approach of the 1970s and previous decades.
The general argument for "renovating the labour movement" is not at all unique to our tendency. The LCR in France talks a great deal about the "recomposition of the labour movement". Our arguments for rebuilding labour representation in Britain, or in the 1980s for a workers' party based on the trade unions in South Africa, have many close parallels. All the main revolutionary groups in France propose the perspective of a new broad workers' party there (in one way or another - and sometimes, I think, very inadequately - but they propose it). Many revolutionary groups take part in the Brazilian Workers' Party as factions, but as factions seeking the broad and more-or-less gradual development of the whole party and its associated trade unions. The necessity for this sort of orientation has impressed itself on many revolutionary tendencies - probably all the tendencies of any size other than the one centred on the British SWP.
Nevertheless, to put it on a sound basis we should register explicitly that it involves a break from our old orthodoxies about the "epoch of decline".
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