First Published: The Worker, Vol 10, No 1, January 18, 1978
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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The Chinese Communist Party has never provided its followers with a comprehensive analysis of the rise of Soviet revisionism. The Polemic on the General Line in the early 1960s blasted Khrushchev, but the origins of revisionism were never accounted for. The Chinese did allow, by their “critical support” for Stalin, that he deserved at least some of the blame.
Now the French Maoist and Sorbonne professor Charles Bettelheim has taken a stab at the subject. Two volumes of his Class Struggles in the USSR have been published, and the first is available in an Engligh translation (Monthly Review Press, 1976). This article is a review of Volume I, which covers the period 1917-1923.
Bettelheim’s preface explains that the book is the result of “self-rectification” and his personal break with the “simplistic Marxism” of the third international. Bettelheim has visited China and has praised the Maoist emphasis on small-scale, decentralized industry, and its orientation around agriculture which is the base of the economy (see his Cultural Revolution and Industrial Organization in China, 1974). In Class Struggles in the USSR he frequently uses modern Chinese examples to show how the Soviets should have done things. This aspect of the book is now colored by Bettelheim’s own widely publicized attack on China and his recognition that something is dreadfully wrong with Chinese socialism. Nevertheless, he still professes to be a Maoist, and maintains that the current regime is unfaithful to the Chairman’s ideas.
Volume I is a highly critical review of Soviet development from the February revolution to the death of Lenin. Bettelheim makes it quite clear that he has no desire to defend Stalin; in fact, he intends to blame him for practically everything that went wrong. A number of provocative attacks on Stalin are left unexplained. Presumably, they will be the subject of Bettelheim’s later volumes. These include Stalin’s alleged “mechanistic identification of legal forms of ownership with class relations”, and his thesis of “the primacy of development of productive forces”. Bettelheim cites Mao (who he claims is the author of “On Khrushchev’s Phony Communism”): “Stalin departed from Marxist-Leninist dialectics in his understanding of the laws of class struggle in socialist society.”
Bettelheim’s problem – the problem of all of Stalin’s attackers – is to prove that Stalin was not, as he himself maintained, “Lenin’s faithful disciple”. Moreover, Bettelheim asserts that Lenin in his last years had embarked on a thorough re-examination of Bolshevism, a task that his death left uncompleted.
What Bettelheim tries to do is turn Lenin into a Maoist. He imposes on Lenin the image which Mao had created of himself. Thus, Lenin is portrayed as a leader “in opposition”, “swimming against the current”, “alone with the masses, waiting”. Meanwhile the Liu Shao-chis and Teng Hsiao-pings (or Stalins) continue to entrench the new bourgeoisie. The visionary leader is absolved of all responsibility for the system as it is; he’s overruled all the time anyway. Like Mao in the cultural revolution, Lenin alone (with “the masses” of course) perceives a growing bureaucratic grip on the party and state. Bettelheim has Lenin re-examining the economics of Soviet socialism, turning to a more peasant-oriented, less centralized,“Maoistic” system. And though Lenin always spoke with clarity and precision, Bettelheim tries to give his words the mystery and, above all, ambiguity that is characteristic of Mao.
This all amounts to gross trickery and deception, for Bettelheim must produce a Lenin who never existed. He takes quotes completely out of context, and generally butchers Lenin in order to make him fit the desired mold. Fortunately, his failure helps prove that, just as Lenin is no Maoist, Mao is no Leninist.
Here is Bettelheim’s central conclusion:
Lenin sketched out what was later to be line of the Chinese Communist Party, a line aimed at drawing the working peasantry onto the socialist road, and doing this not by coercion but by persuasion. This was the line which Lenin was to elaborate in his writings of late 1922 and 1923.
Unfortunately, this gigantic step forward was presented by means of the misleading metaphor of ’retreat’. The appearance of this metaphor in Lenin’s report on the NEP was a sign that the magnitude of the political and theoretical break with the errors of the past was hardly beginning to be apparent even to Lenin himself.
Interpreting Lenin’s “retreat” as a “gigantic step forward” only testifies to the opportunism of Bettelheim and Maoism in general. He turns necessity into a virtue.
Lenin’s last writings show with increasing clearness that he was in the process of breaking with what he had retained of the economist interpretations of Marx’s analyses. Even though Lenin does not tackle in its full magnitude the problem of revolutionary transformation of production relations in industry (that is, radical transformation of the production process), he does deal with some extremely important aspects of the problem (and this already in the spring of 1921) when he comes out in favor of a certain form of industrial development based on ’the utmost of local initiative’ and of ’small scale industry’. He is not here rejecting the rapid development of large scale industry, but he is sketching a line that was put into effect in China under the two slogans of ’walk on two legs’ and ’two initiatives are better than one’. Lenin’s writings are certainly far from being the equivalent of these slogans and their relation to the fight against the various forms of the division of labor inherited from class societies but is is possible to perceive in them the start of such an orientation.
Bettelheim frequently has Lenin “sketching” a line, mainly because he can’t find him clearly stating the point that he would like to find. Far from seeing “the start of such an orientation” in the citation Bettelheim refers to, we find a strong affirmation of the primacy of heavy industry. Bettelheim has lifted two phrases out of context in order to suggest something absolutely alien to Leninism. Here’s the full quote:
In view of the obvious delay in the restoration of large-scale industry, the ’locking-up’ of exchange between industry and agriculture has become intolerable. Consequently we must concentrate on what we can do: restoring small industry, helping things from that end, propping up the side of the structure that has been half-demolished by the war and blockade. We must do everything possible to develop trade at all costs, without being afraid of capitalism ... Some improvement here, closest to the broadest and deepest ’foundation’ , will permit of the speediest transition to a more vigorous and successful restoration of large-scale industry. (my italics)
The passage is from The Tax in Kind, a work that should make Maoists shudder. Among Lenin’s other suggestions, which would have earned him a cultural revolution dunce cap, is the need to learn “from bourgeois experts, including merchants, petty capitalist cooperators and capitalists.” (Lenin also suggests that Mensheviks and SRs who disguise themselves in “fashionable non-party attire” should “be kept safe in prison”. In another section of his book, Bettelheim attacks the move to a one party state, accusing the Bolsheviks of “preferring to apply methods of repression instead of relying mainly on ideological struggle.” The existence of the “democratic parties” would “have proved helpful to the development of revolutionary Marxism.”)
Not only does Bettelheim completely mislead by suggesting Lenin’s affinity for industrial development based on small-scale industry in The Tax in Kind, but he fails to find a similar suggestion in any other of his other writings. The latest writings of Lenin, which Bettelheim holds up as the sign of his change of heart, are equally emphatic about the role of heavy industry. As late as November 1922, with only a few months of active political career remaining, Lenin wrote: “We are economizing in all things, even in schools. We must do this because we know that unless we save heavy industry, unless we restore it, we shall not be able to build up an industry at all; and without an industry we shall go under as an independent country.”
Besides those few words taken out of context from The Tax in Kind, Bettelheim points to “On Cooperation,” written by Lenin in early 1923, as proof of his changing views. He says the work has “decisive importance” because it breaks with “statist” notions which were widespread among the Bolsheviks and “carries further the break with the ideas of the Second International already begun in The State and Revolution.” If this was a “new Lenin”, it certainly never troubled the “statist” Stalin. Lenin’s article on cooperatives provided a guide to the Bolsheviks throughout the 1930s, and is singled out for special comment in the History of the CPSU (B).
Bettelheim’s other important thesis in Class Struggles in the USSR is “the transformation of the proletarian dictatorship” into an increasingly bureaucratic machine, an the eventual “independence” of the state from the proletariat. It’s essentially the same explanation given by Trotsky, who conjured up a “bureaucracy” ruling a “degenerated” proletarian dictatorship. The opportunist argument enables Bettelheim to condemn everything in early Soviet Russia, yet saves him the trouble of explaining why Mao accepted its leadership for 35 years.
The Soviet power evolved very quickly toward a system of political relations profoundly different from that which Lenin had outlined in The State and Revolution... According to Engel’s expression, taken over by Lenin, the characteristics of this system should have made the Soviet power something that was ’no longer a state in the proper sense of the word’. This power should have been based fundamentally upon the local soviets, with the central organs of state serving mainly the purpose of centralization. In practice, relations of this sort, partly ’non state’ in nature, which did appear in embryonic form in the Soviet system, failed to become consolidated. Concentration of power in the central organs of state occurred instead of mere centralization. The role of the soviets either failed to materialize or else tended to diminish as did that of the congress of soviets. This tendency continued and was accelerated under ’war communism’. It gave rise to an ever more pronounced trend toward the administrative machinery of state acquiring independence. This machinery was not really subjected to control by the masses and it even tended to escape from the effective authority of the Bolshevik Party.
This is Bettelheim’s thesis in a nutshell. And it is little different from that advanced by anarchists and Trotskyites like Trotsky, Bettleheim wants to detach Lenin from this bureaucratic trend, and make him its earliest critic, “swimming against the current”. He describes a Lenin who is dejected, cynical, waiting for a new “rectification” (maybe a “cultural revolution”?) Poor Lenin is damaged by his penchant for self-criticism. As he often remarked, enemies of the USSR seize on these passages to clain “even Lenin admits everything is going wrong”.
To make his point, Bettelheim again quotes out of context and twists Lenin’s meaning. The real Lenin, as more thorough reading of the texts reveals, was critical but optimistic, and full of concrete, practical and realizable solutions. Anarchistic catch phrases about “a new revolution” are completely alien to him.
Bettelheim quotes Lenin on the subject of old Tsarist and bourgeois officials in the state appartus : “They have been thrown out of the door but they creep back in through the window.” Bettelheim leaves the impression that Lenin was scornful and frustrated. But elsewhere in the same article, ignored by Bettelheim, Lenin says: “The apparatus which was a thoroughly bureaucratic and bourgeois apparatus of oppression, and which remains such even in the freest of bourgeois republics, we have destroyed to its very foundation.”
In another passage, Bettelheim quotes: “Down below... there are hundreds of thousands of old officials whom we got from the Tsar and from Bourgeois society and who, partly deliberately and partly unwittingly work against us.” But contrary to Bettelheim’s suggestions, Lenin was confident that this problem was being solved, as the remainder of the passage (which he does not quote) proves: “It is clear that nothing can be done overnight. It will take many years of hard work to improve the machinery, to remodel it, to enlist new forces. We are doing this fairly quickly, perhaps too quickly ... If we do not work too hurridly we shall in a few years time have a large body of young people capable of thoroughly overhauling our state apparatus.”
Bettelheim’s conclusion to this section on bureaucracy and Lenin’s battle against it has a damning tone: “Towards the end of 1920 Lenin went so far as to say ’it is the task of the Soviet government to completely destroy the old machinery of state as it was destroyed in October, and to transfer power to the Soviets.’ As we know, the reconstituted old machinery of State was never destroyed as Lenin demanded – on the contrary, it developed and became consolidated.”
Bettelheim suggests Lenin’s comment was a challenge, thrown down to an uncooperative Party, and never followed. But Lenin goes on to say, in the very next sentence: “However, our programme recognizes that there has been a revival of bueaucratic methods and that at present no economic foundation yet exists for a genuinely socialist society. A cultural background, literacy, and in general a higher standard of culture are lacking in the mass of workers and peasants.” No wonder Bettelheim doesn’t quote the whole paragraph. It smacks of the Stalinist “theory of the primacy of the productive forces”. Lenin’s real demand, outlined later in the passage, which Betteleheim says was never heeded, was “a systematic struggle” against “revival of bureaucratic methods”. And Lenin still had three years of active political life, so he was able to direct this struggle.
Bettelheim’s arguments have been adequately refuted many times over, starting with Lenin, who self-critically battled the bureaucratic distortions which he knew were both inevitable and surmountable. Lenin, whose great virtue was his “practicality”, would reply to Bettelheim: “How would you have solved these problems?” And at the time of writing, Bettelheim might have answered “Like they have done in China.” Unfortunately for Bettelheim, this argument is no longer available to him.
Mao and the Chinese communists used the occasion of Khruschev’s secret speech to launch their own campaign against Stalin. Besides Stalin’s emphasis on large-scale heavy industry (something he inherited from Lenin), the Chinese objected to his treatment of the peasants as too harsh (no wonder Bettelheim is trying to find Lenin softening up on the peasant question), his insistence that industrialization be made the basis of agricultural collectivization, and his strict adherence to a centrally planned economy. It’s therefore no surprise that the Maoist Bettelheim is hard on Stalin, though the extent of his attack may shock even some Maoists.
Bettelheim’s account of Stalin is a rehash of the writings of Leon Trotsky and Issac Deutscher. Bettelheim lays particular stress on Stalin’s late 1922 quarrel with Lenin on the Georgia question, a complicated period in which Stalin’s position as the Central Committee’s liason with the ailing Lenin left him in the firing line of a man who was physically unwell and unhappy with his isolation from party activity. Lenin’s uncharacteristic behaviour at this time, and the unreliable sources on the struggle (Trotsky is the main one) make it perilous for any honest Marxist to try to prove a profound rift between Lenin and Stalin. Of all the party leaders, none had been so close to Lenin for so long a time. And this first quarrel between the two could never match the intensity of Lenin’s frequent battles with Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev and Kamenev, who together with Stalin contended for the party leadership.
Bettelheim claims Stalin led an “undeclared opposition” after 1921. These and other allegations about Stalin are based on such notoriously anti-communist fabrications as Medvedev’s Let History Judge, the Trotskyite Lewin’s Lenin’s Last Struggle, and “documents” discovered by Khrushcev after 1956. It’s all very disgraceful that such material could find its way into a serious Marxist study. Perhaps if Solzhenitsyn had made some preposterous claims that helped Bettelheim’s arguments, he too would turn up in the book.
In comparison to Stalin, Bukharin is treated rather well. He is frequently quoted in a favorable light. But this is logical, since Bukharin’s right opportunist line on the peasantry and on the slow pace of industrialization corresponds most closely with Mao’s. We can look forward to Bettelheim on Bukharin in future volumes.
Bettelheim goes so far as to claim that the Bolshevik Party was not a Leninist Party, because of Lenin’s frequent “going against the tide”. But to conclude that because Lenin led the party, he was therefore opposed to it or opposed by it, is a great error. When Lenin went “against the tide”, he was quickly followed by the bulk of the party, usually within a few days. Stalin was foremost among those ralling the party to Lenin’s views. Once again, in placing Lenin ”against the tide” Bettelheim is trying to make him into a Mao-figure.
Though he fails to develop the point, Bettelheim toys with the thesis that the Bolsheviks had not adequately prepared the masses for power, that the October revolution came too early. “The support given to the Bolshevik Party by the masses was based mainly on coincidence between the party’s immediate political slogans and the desire of the masses for peace and of the peasants for land.” Hardly a coincidence, the revolution owed its success to the Bolsheviks’ ability to formulate slogans (such as “peace, land and bread”) that were simple and comprehensible, and that led the masses to the revolutionary objective of Soviet rule.
Sometimes Bettelheim complains about the paucity of workers in the administrative apparatus. And sometimes he complains that there were too many, that there was “a negative side to it”, because communist workers in the state were corrupted.
Bettelheim objects to the secret police, which created “an atmosphere unfavorable to free expression of opinion and free development of initiative.” But he doesn’t explain how to get along without one, nor does he wrestle with Lenin’s defense of revolutionary terror and his practical role in setting up the Cheka and later the GPU. The book would be more fun if Bettelheim would square these points with the Chinese practice, where the battle is usually over before it has begun. The poor victim finds his name on a wall poster, accused of mysterious “crimes” and is never permitted a trial or a chance to speak in his own defense. He is never heard from or seen again. The hypocrisy of Bettelheim’s ultra-democratic and liberal criticisms of the USSR under Lenin and Stalin and his utterly uncritical party democracy, “free expression of opinion and free development of initiative”.
Many of his criticisms of the USSR are in a definitely anarchist vein. These include Bettelheim’s lament for the “democratic parties”, his distaste for the use of bourgeois experts, piece wages, and high salaries for technicians. Bettelheim gives an extensive and favorable presentation of the “Workers Opposition”: “ . . . the Workers’ Opposition repeated to a large extent the ideas expounded by Lenin in his “April Theses” and in The State and Revolution. They voiced the aspirations of part of the Soviet working class and expressed some of the requirements for the revolution’s progress towards socialism.” The major weakness of the Workers’ Opposition, says Bettelheim, is that “it did not constitute a break with the elements of economism that still remained in the Bolshevik Party’s overall position.” Lenin called the Workers’ Opposition an “anarcho-syndicalist deviation”, and Stalin said it was “essentially an anarcho-syndicalist anti-Party group.”
Bettelheim’s attempt to turn Lenin into a Maoist, or a “proto-Maoist”, who was “sketching” a new line in his final months, is not born out by the facts. Besides having no basis in the articles themselves, they run totally against the grain of Lenin’s lifetime theoretical work and his practical accomplishments in building Soviet socialism. Lenin believed in the primacy of heavy industry, he never gave any consideration to Maoist notions of a partnership of small and large scale industry. He believed that the alliance between worker and peasant was the foundation of the Soviet regime, but he always insisted that the workers must lead. Lenin was sharply critical of bureaucracy, but he ruthlessly opposed those anarchists who masked their fundamental anti-Party outlook in slogans about “bureaucracy”. Lenin supported the use of material incentives, bourgeois experts, a secret police, he suppressed the “democratic parties” and he refused to tolerate factions within the party.
As for Stalin, his role as a faithful disciple of Lenin should be beyond dispute. Bettelheim has to attack it in order to make Lenin into a Maoist, for he knows that there can be no reconciling Stalin and Mao.
Bettelheim’s book should help us to see that Mao was no Leninist. The Maoists have put forward their helmsman as the fifth in a line from Marx to Stalin. Bettelheim knows better. He realizes that the Maoism which directed Chinese communism in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s was as much a break with Stalin as it was with Khruschev. He tries, unsuccessfully, to make Mao the heir of Lenin.
Lenin wrote that “anarchism was not infrequently a kind of penalty for the opportunist sins of the working class movement”. This is still true today. The anarchist deviations of Maoism are the price the communist movement has had to pay for the revisionism that followed Stalin’s death.