Chris Harman

Thinking it through

A blast from the past

(July 2003)

From Socialist Review, No.276, July/August 2003.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Correct revolutionary theory requires correct revolutionary practice

Marxist Theory after Trotsky
Tony Cliff
Bookmarks, £12.99

One of the great things about the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements has been the refusal of people to take old certainties for granted. You cannot seriously contemplate changing the world unless you are prepared to critically examine every accepted dogma. If you try, you end up rather like those 17th century clerics who tried to cling onto the 2,000 year old Aristotelian notion that the earth was the centre of the solar system.

Some people, however, interpret that as meaning that problems arise today which have never occurred previously and that we can ignore previous attempts to solve them. How faulty such a line of reasoning is was brought home to me rereading the writings contained in the third volume of Tony Cliff’s selected works, Marxist Theory after Trotsky. The great majority was written back in the late 1940s and 1950s. But they confront questions that still cause people to tie themselves into mental knots – what went wrong after liberation in ex-colonial countries, why the advanced capitalist countries could avoid economic slumps from 1940 through to 1974, and why so many workers turn to reformist ideas.

The most prevalent dogma is still that somehow Russia under Stalin was socialist (or at least ‘post-capitalist’). As a result, some people still see the collapse of the USSR 12 years ago as a great defeat for the socialist movement. Others draw the conclusion that we must avoid every attempt at serious organisation of socialists within wider movements in case we end up going the same way as Russia. Cliff began wrestling with these problems back in 1947. If Stalinism were socialism, he reasoned, then the left would have to support it, despite its totalitarian features. But that meant in reality holding that Marx and Engels were wrong in seeing the struggle for socialism as inseparable from the struggle of workers to obtain genuine freedom. On the other hand, if Stalinism was not socialism, then what was it, and how had it grown up in the country of the October Revolution?

Cliff spelt out his own conclusions in a duplicated book printed in 1948, The Nature of Stalinist Russia, which appears as the first piece in the new collection. He insisted that the only way to defend the classic Marxist conception of socialism was to break completely with the ideas that the Soviet Union was any sort of ‘socialist’ or ‘workers’ state’. He went on to show, by a meticulous gathering of empirical information, that there was a central similarity between the dynamic of the Soviet economy and that of capitalism as analysed by Marx. Both involved the accumulation of means of production as well as a complete disregard for the welfare of the workers who laboured on them. Along with this went enormous class differences between those at the top of society, controlling its productive apparatus, and the mass of people who could only get a livelihood by selling their labour power. Or, as Marx had described it in his account of capitalism, ‘the accumulation of wealth on the one side, and poverty on the other’.

The system, he said, was ‘state capitalist’ because it had the same dynamic as western capitalism, despite superficial differences. The Marxist writers Hilferding, Lenin and Bukharin had shown at the time of the First World War how competition between a mass of small firms had given way to competition between a handful of giant monopolies connected to the state in the west. There were degrees of ‘planning’ within the national economy, but ever more violent competition internationally.

Cliff saw that the rulers of the USSR had taken this trend even further after Stalin’s assumption of full power in the years 1928-29. They had used crude force to take away from the workers and peasants what they had gained from the revolution and subordinated everything inside the USSR to military competition with western states. He was not the only person to challenge the notion of Russia as a workers’ state. So did people like the American former Trotskyist Max Shachtman – or for that matter, George Orwell in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four. But such writings did not contain any analysis of the dynamic of the Soviet economy and ended up implying that the USSR was qualitatively worse than what existed in the west. It was only a short step from this to supporting western imperialism against the eastern states – which is what Max Shachtman did during the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by the CIA in 1961.

By emphasising the state capitalist dynamic of the USSR, Cliff came to a completely different conclusion. Accumulation involved a massive increase in the number of workers exploited by the system – and with it the potential force that could turn against the country’s rulers. At the same time, the pressure to catch up economically with advanced western capitalism would eventually create such conditions of economic crisis as to begin to tear apart the totalitarian structure. The alternative was not Washington or Moscow, but working class resistance to both.

Cliff’s ideas attracted only a handful of people in the 1940s and 1950s and a few hundred in the early 1960s. But these small numbers were able to relate with enthusiasm to challenges to the world system in the east as well as in the west and find themselves at the centres of new movements in the late 1960s and 1970s. By contrast those who stuck with the dogma were bewildered rather than inspired when eastern German workers rose up in 1953; disillusioned when Khrushchev revealed that Stalin had murdered thousands of Bolsheviks in 1956; thrown into turmoil when China split with Russia in the 1960s; struck dumb when Vietnam and China went to war with each other in the 1970s; demoralised when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the USSR disintegrated two years later.

Some now question the whole socialist project – and quite a few former apologists for Stalinism have ended up like Guardian columnist David Aaronovich justifying western imperialism. But Cliff’s writings are not just a vaccine against Aaronovichitis. They also cut into the confusion that still leads so much would-be socialist writing to go round and round in circles without getting to the point today. For if you can’t understand one of the great anti-working class totalitarianisms of the last century and still half-accept it was ‘socialist’ you can’t possibly be clear about what we need to do today. This book is a must for every reader of Socialist Review.

The most prevalent dogma is still that Russia under Stalin was socialist

Last updated on 27 December 2009