(IEC member, POS/SAP Belgium)

A Mild Case of Blind Factionalism

(July 1990)

From International Discussion Bulletin, Thirteenth World Congress, IDB 7, November 1990, pp.14-16.
Thanks to Joseph Auciello.
Downloaded with thanks from the Ernest Mandel Internet Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The two contributions of Socialist Action to the pre-World Congress Discussion – The USec majority, Stalinism and Eastern Europe, and The Soviet Union and the meaning of Gorbachev’s reforms (IDB 5) – deal with one of the most important aspects of world development of the last years: the meaning of the momentous upheavals which have occurred in the USSR and Eastern Europe. But they deal with that serious problem in an unserious way. They subordinate the analysis of objective events to pure factional purposes, distorting positions, knocking down self-erected straw men, evading the debate around the real differences.

The triangular struggle in the USSR and Eastern Europe

SA writes:

“For Mandel and the USec leadership … the Stalinist bureaucracy is an intermediate caste with a dual nature: that is, it has a progressive character insofar as it is identified, even if only in a distorted (or inhuman) manner, with socialism and the workers state.”

This is a misrepresentation of our position. SA will not find any documentary proof of that allegation. Nowhere and no time did we write that the Stalinist bureaucracy has anything to do with socialism or that it is progressive. The concept that you could build socialism with “inhuman means” is totally anathema to us.

But if the Stalinist bureaucracy is not socialist, it is not capitalist either. It represents a new historical phenomenon, a privileged, oppressive and exploitative ruling layer in a post-capitalist society.

The Soviet Union is a society in transition between capitalism and socialism, frozen at that stage by the delay of world revolution and the stranglehold of bureaucratic power upon it.

Historically, it can either revert to capitalism following a social counter-revolution or advance again on the road towards socialism, following a victorious political anti-bureaucratic revolution (advance towards socialism, not actually arriving there: socialism in one country is impossible even under the healthiest conditions of democratic soviet power).

But as long as neither of those decisive turns have occurred, it remains a degenerated workers’ state, ruled by a non-socialist and non-capitalist bureaucracy. This bureaucracy plays an overall counter-revolutionary role, inasmuch as it operates as a break upon world revolution and as an obstacle towards new advances in the direction of socialism in the USSR itself. It thereby, in the long run, favors a capitalist restoration in the Soviet Union.

But it is still a counter-revolutionary labor bureaucracy. A counter-revolutionary “socialist” or “centrist” is a contradiction in terms: a counter-revolutionary labor bureaucracy is not. Social democracy has been ruled by just such a counter-revolutionary labor bureaucracy since 1914.

Neither the Soviet bureaucracy nor the reformist bureaucracies in the capitalist countries are bourgeois bureaucracies. If Kirkland and Co. were bourgeois instead of labor lieutenants of Capital, the AFL/CIO would be a yellow company union. It isn’t. If the Soviet bureaucracy was a bourgeois democracy, the USSR would be a bourgeois state. It isn’t.

The idea that a workers’ state – be it an extremely degenerate one – could be administered by a bourgeois bureaucracy is incompatible with Marxism. You can’t have a ruling bourgeois bureaucracy without a ruling bourgeois class and a bourgeois state. You don’t have a ruling bourgeois class or a bourgeois state in the USSR.

Furthermore, that idea has absurd implications. The FRG and the GDR before the Anschluss, North and South Korea today, would then be ruled by bureaucracies of the same class nature. As the officer and police corps is an important branch of the bureaucracy, both Nato and Warsaw Pact generals would have had an identical class nature. People with the same class nature would be running the CIA and the KGB. This is all blatant nonsense.

If the Soviet bureaucracy is still a labor bureaucracy, this means that it has a dual nature. It both undermines the workers’ state in the long run and maintains it, for the time being – exactly as Kirkland & Co. both undermine the unions in the long run and maintain them in the meantime. This dual role implies that while the overall balance of its actions is indeed counter-revolutionary, not all its actions are.

When the Soviet bureaucracy resisted Hitler’s military onslaught on the USSR, this was not a counter-revolutionary action. When it accorded help to the Chinese revolution in a belated, insufficient and contradictory way in 1950-1960, when it did the same to the Cuban revolution after 1960 against US imperialism, when it helped colonial and semi-colonial people against imperialism as it did with Egypt in 1956 and in Southern Africa in the seventies and early eighties, it didn’t act in a counter-revolutionary way.

These actions didn’t change the overall counter-revolutionary nature of the Kremlin. They were preceded, accompanied and followed by many counter-revolutionary actions. But, in and by themselves, they could not be condemned by any class-conscious worker.

Likewise, the counter-revolutionary nature of the reformist and trade-union bureaucracies does not imply that each and every one of its actions is counter-revolutionary. The introduction of the National Health Service in Britain by the Atlee government, in spite of that government’s many counter-revolutionary actions, was not counter-revolutionary in and of itself. Neither was the recent campaign by the IG-Metall union bureaucracy for the 35-hour week in West Germany.

This has been the position of our movement on the Soviet bureaucracy since 1936 at least, if not earlier. It was the position taken by Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed, in the Transitional Programme, in In Defence of Marxism, in Stalin. It was the position of Jim Cannon and the SWP majority in 1939-1940.

In Stalin we read:

“Although by the nature of its own mode of life, its conservatism, its political sympathies, the overwhelming majority of the bureaucracy was drawn toward the new petty bourgeoisie, its economic roots were largely in the new conditions of ownership. The growth of bourgeois relations threatened not only the socialist basis of property, but the social foundations of the bureaucracy itself. It may have been willing to repudiate the socialist perspective of development in favor of the petty bourgeoisie. But under no circumstances was it ready to repudiate its own rights and privileges in favor of the petty-bourgeoisie.” (p.406, 1st edition.)

We don’t know whether it is still the position of Socialist Action. If it is, their violent polemics against the USec majority on the nature of the Soviet bureaucracy are unfounded – just a manifestation of blind factionalism. For they then attack comrades whose opinions they share.

If they have changed their position, they have the perfect right to do so. But they should argue their case openly, against Trotsky’s and Cannon’s arguments, and not hide that change behind unfounded allegations about Mandel and the USec majority.

The real differences concerning the triangular social and political struggle going on in the USSR do not hinge upon anybody’s illusions about the “socialist” or “progressive” character of the Kremlin bureaucracy. The concern the relative autonomy of the bureaucracy as a social force, and the operation in these countries of bourgeois restorationist forces separate and apart from the majority of the bureaucracy.

The Soviet bureaucracy is not a new ruling class. It has neither the roots in society nor the economic functions which precondition the emergence of ruling classes. In the final analysis, it is a transmission belt of international capital upon the Soviet state. But only in the final analysis, from a very long-term point of view.

For a whole intermediate historical period it can play and has played a relatively autonomous role, both anti-socialist and anti-capitalist.

You cannot make head nor tail of what has been going on during the last 60 years in the USSR if you don’t recognize that basic truth.

During the two gravest crises experienced by the USSR, in 1927-33 and 1941-43, Stalin did not restore capitalism. He did fight the restorationist forces. But did he advance socialism? In no way whatsoever. He defended the power and privileges of the Soviet bureaucracy against both its enemies.

When the East German workers rose up in 1953, when the Hungarian workers rose up in 1956, when the Prague Spring took place in 1968, the Soviet bureaucracy did not restore capitalism. Neither did it advance socialism. It crushed the workers in order to maintain its own power and privileges.

To deny that there are genuinely pro-restorationist forces in Eastern Europe today (on a much smaller scale in the USSR too) is to deny reality.

That some of them were part of yesterday’s nomenklatura is undeniable. But these pro-restorationist forces are different and apart from those sectors of the nomenklatura which cling to their power and privileges on the basis of collective ownership of the means of production. That’s what the debate is all about.

The analysis of the Soviet bureaucracy as based upon a triangular struggle comes to the logical conclusion that there are three possible outcomes to the upheavals presently unfolding in the USSR and Eastern Europe:

Before any of these three possible outcomes have occurred, the USSR could well go through a protracted process of uninterrupted crises.

To exclude any of these three possibilities is to revise the Transitional Program and Trotsky’s writings of 1939-40.

It is true that the outcome of the triangular struggle will depend in the final analysis upon the outcome of concrete working class struggles. But there is at least one case where a real process of restoration of capitalism has gone beyond the point of no return: the case of the GDR. And in that case, capitalism is being introduced not by Honecker, Krenz or Modrow, but by the Deutsche Bank, Siemens, Daimler-Benz, Kohl and Genscher, with the criminal complicity of the social-democracy.

For sure, parts of the SED nomenklatura are jumping on the band-wagon. But it is the imperialists who are conducting the band-wagon, not the bureaucracy. It is imperialist capital which is taking over, not the miserable dregs of the corrupt bureaucrats.

To warn the masses in the USSR and Eastern Europe that the bureaucracy’s rule could be temporarily consolidated is equal to capitulating before the bureaucracy according to SA! Only blind factionalism can produce such twisted “logic.”

How did Gorbachev arise and what does he represent?

The basic question posed for Marxists by the emergence of Gorbachev and Gorbachevism in 1985 is: what do they represent socially and politically? Why did they emerge in that moment and in that form?

Blind factionalism prevents the comrades of SA from giving a clear answer to these elementary questions. They defend successively three completely different opinions.

First, Gorbachev is supposed to represent the bureaucracy in its totality. Then he is supposed to represent at least its majority. He ends up by representing nobody – just himself. There is neither rhyme nor reason in this analysis.

Here we are really at the heart of the matter. The Soviet bureaucracy did not introduce the Gorbachev reforms in 1985 under the pressure of the IMF or of American Big Business. It did not introduce them out of fear of the workers either. It introduced them as a result of the deep crisis of its system and of its rule, a crisis which had been growing since 10 years at least. It introduced them in order to preserve its power and privileges, not those of an inexistent Soviet capitalist class nor those of foreign capital.

But it introduced them under conditions of a serious deterioration of the relationship of forces both between the Kremlin and imperialism and between the Kremlin and the Soviet masses. All the contradictions and waverings of Gorbachev’s policies, as well as all the inner contradictions of the bureaucracy, can be explained in the light of that changed situation.

For 10 years, the rate of growth of the Soviet economy has been inferior to that of the USA. It had fallen so low that it had become materially impossible to pursue simultaneously the further modernization of the Soviet economy, the arms race with imperialism stepped-up under Carter and Reagan, and a modest increase in the masses’ standard of living. From year to year, the technology gap with imperialism was growing.

If these trends continued, the USSR was in danger of becoming a second-rate power, with all the ensuing consequences for the bureaucracy’s privileges.

The deepening economic crisis had fueled a deepening social crisis. Social services declined. Poverty rose dramatically. The political credibility of the system was questioned in broader and broader circles – not yet by direct or political actions, but by manifestations of clear massive discontent. The Kremlin was losing its grip on the country.

It was under the pressure of that deep systemic crisis that a younger, modernist, better-educated and better-informed group of bureaucrats around Gorbachev replaced the dinosaurs of the Brezhnev-Chernenko type. Their purpose was to rationalize the functioning of the regime in every field of social life, in order to defend the bureaucracy’s power and privileges in a more efficient way.

But given the deteriorating relations of forces, they could only combine such an attempt at streamlining with serious concessions both to imperialism and to the masses:

July 15, 1990


Last updated on 5.8.2007