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Paul Thompson & Guy Lewis

The Revolution Unfinished?

5. Modern Trotskyism

c) Bureaucracy

Anti-bureaucracy – a superficial methodology

We have dealt in some detail with the inadequacies of Trotsky’s analysis of the Soviet regime and the role of the bureaucracy within it. The mistake ties mainly in characterising the bureaucracy as a “parasite on a healthy body”, i.e. the workers’ state. This implies a mechanical separation of the base and superstructure, leading to a shallow concept of change that transforms political structures, but not the basic socio-economic features of society.

What this section of the pamphlet is interested in is the effect of the analysis of the Stalinist bureaucracy on the rest of Trotskyist politics. For if there is one thing that uniquely characterises modern Trotskyism it is an obsession with bureaucracy. We believe that the inadequacies of Trotsky’s analysis have transferred themselves to create a superficial methodology of analysing the problems of institutions, particularly political organisations and trade unions.

There has been an over-concentration on bureaucracy in many areas. Great stress has been laid on replacing the “bureaucratic leaderships” (of countries, parties, unions etc.) by revolutionary ones. The error lies in thinking that the existence of a bureaucracy is separate from the nature of the institution. So the creation of a revolutionary leadership is abstracted from the transformation or replacement of the institutions themselves. As in Russia, the transformation is seen as a purely superstructural problem. This has had the unfortunate effect of drastically simplifying the nature of the revolutionary process and underestimating the changes in working class life and institutions that are necessary to challenge capitalism. It feeds the naive view that “if only we had the right leaders” the problems of the struggle would be solved.

As Bettleheim notes, for Trotskyism the concept of bureaucracy is a substitute for not only a deeper, but a class analysis. It helps mask:

... the political and ideological relations of which the bureaucratic phenomena were only the manifestation. (Quoted in Miliband, New Left Review 91)

In a general sense, flowing from the analysis of Russia, Trotskyism ties bureaucracy to abstract sociological roots. Mandel says that bureaucracy:

... is not a class rooted in the productive process but a social layer growing out of the proletariat . (On Bureaucracy)

The concentration on bureaucracies as parasitical layers creates a situation where the necessity for a division of labour is seen as allowing a basis for bureaucracy. A particular problem is identified with full-time officials, usually of petty-bourgeois origin. The working class is seen as weak, given its “scientific and cultural underdevelopment”, to stop the bureaucratic process.

A working class organisation whose members are only [man]ual workers engaged full-time in the productive process is far more easily conquered by bureaucratic politics and ideology than an organisation which makes a conscious effort to educate and select the most conscious workers and form them into professional revolutionaries. (Mandel – On Bureaucracy)

The full-time official becomes trapped within a restricted world of bureaucratic privileges, with consequent social and psychological factors reinforcing the desire to be separate from the proletarian institution. In this sense, then, bureaucratisation is seen as an inherent problem of organisation at society/state or institutional level. There is no doubt that is a degree of truth in the analysis. The Trotskyist movement has performed a vital role in identifying-process fo degeneratiOn at the level of workers’ democracy. Yet at the same time, Trotskyism generalises the analysis so broadly that it loses its specific usefulness, which is as part of a theory of organisation. Instead it becomes a substitute theory of general institutional processes. The bureaucracy “becomes the location for all problems”, as Debray noted. For Trotskyism:

... the bureaucracy is a ten-thousand-headed monster, and it is all the bureaucracy’s evil doing. (Prison Writings, p.139)

There are problems inherent in the division between leaders and led. But even in terms of organ isational questions it is wrong to reduce it to the division of labour and the sociological split between officials and rank and file. After all, Troskyists monotonously leave their own organisations accusing budding bureaucracies of “Stalinism”, then set up new ones which reproduce similar problems. These cannot be solved sociologically by the composition of organisations or structurally by rights of faction or perfect constitutions. The bureaucratisation of organisations, in so far as it can be solved, can only be checked by transformation in political practice and class struggle.

But the problems of state or union institutions are wider than these. We have to examine the fundamental dynamics behind Russia or the trade unions to understand why they are inadequate and how the existence of a bureaucracy fits into this. The trouble with the Trotskyist use of the concept of bureaucracy is that it induces a sense of fatalism that things will always degenerate short of the world revolution. Mandel refers to the “dialectic of partial conquests” being at the root of bureaucratic conservatism.

Any leaps forward are seen as a danger to existing gains. But there will be “partial conquests” for a long time and we have to examine how to change things in specific situations. The Chinese concept of revisionism is more concrete. It takes the critique of bureaucracy further. While recognising that bureaucratic elites arose out of discrepancies of power and the means to exercise it, they link it to wider questions of social relations, i.e. the problem is linked to the inadequacies of social relations and institutions in the whole society, as we explain in the next section. The Cultural Revolution was aimed at reversing the process which bureaucratisation was a part of, but Trotskyism failed to acknowledge it as an anti-bureaucratic revolution. They point to the existence of bureaucratic and undemocratic features at party and state levels. This is undoubtedly true, despite the Cultural Revolution, but it should reaffirm our basic point that the problem of transforming institutions and social relations is separable from the existence or non-existence of bureaucracies.

Bureaucracy and trade unions

These issues can be concretised by an examination of the role of trade unions. Revolutionary Marxism has taken Lenin’s analysis that there are insurmountable limitations to trade union action in a capitalist society as a necessary starting point. The institutional role the unions have is as mediators in the sale of labour power. This acceptance of the “bargain” with capital is why Lenin called trade unionism the “bourgeois politics of the working class”. This did not stop him wanting revolutionaries to work inside the unions, but with a clear sense of the limitations.

This has been largely lost by Trotskyism whose routinised practice in the unions seldom challenges its fundamental limitations. While the separation between political/economic and party/union spheres is maintained at a theoretical level, in the day to day sense the limitations connected to trade unions that are posed is the existence of a bureaucracy. Trotsky himself tended to present things in these terms. In 1929 he said:

If there were not the bureaucracy of the trade unions then the police, the army, the courts, the Lords, the monarchy would appear before the masses as nothing but pitiful and ridiculous playthings The bureaucracy of the trade unions is the backbone of British Imperialism. (Marxism and Trade Unionism – pp.58-9)

No one doubts the treacherous role played by trade union leaders, for instance during the General Strike. But the weaknesses of the General Strike were precisely the weaknesses of trade unionism. That is, once beyond bargaining over the terms of the sale of labour power and faced with classwide confrontations involving the bourgeois state trade unionism has gone beyond its political limits. The trade union leaders are merely the summit of this weakness and its most obvious manifestation. Failure to recognise the structural basis of trade unionism leads to illusions that trade unions can be something they are not. In 1933 Trotsky wrote in an article on unions in Britain:

Capitalism can only continue to maintain itself by lowering the standard of living of the working class. Under these conditions trade unions .can either transform themselves into revolutionary organisations or become lieutenants of capital in the intensified exploitation of the workers. (The Unions in Britain)

While it is necessary for Marxists to resist trade union incorporation and fight for independence from the capitalist state, we do so to provide tactical space for workers’ struggles not because:

Only on the basis of such a strategy can the trade unions be turned into instruments serving the interests of the socialist revolution. (What We Stand For – Trotskyist Opposition in IS 1973)

This utopian naivety can only mystify the essential nature of trade unionism and exaggerate the possibilities of change of the trade union structure itself. What is created is a political framework where “sell-out” and “betrayal” are the explanations for the behaviour of trade unions and their leaders. Workers need to realise the structural limits of trade union activity and the degree to which union leaders can be forced to act in their members’ interests.

So where does this leave the Trotskyist concept of bureaucracy? There is no doubt, as we emphasised earlier, that there are important truths in the analysis. The “sociological” aspect of bureaucracies becoming distanced from the rank and file through the division of labour involved in being full- time officials, does create both a world of privilege and one of desire to avoid conflict. The unfortunate effect of over-stressing it, however, is to put forward simplistic concepts of change, particularly those which emphasise corruption’ of officials. As Hyman points out:

... nor is the main reason the fact that on elevation out of the workplace, the full-time official becomes socially and therefore ideologically isolated from those he represents ... By and large the average trade union official (lay or full-time) tends to be more progressive in his outlook than those he represents. The basic problem is one of function (In Marxism and The Sociology of Trade Unionism)

It is the bargaining function, not the existence of trade union bureaucrats as a separate group in the division of labour with their own distinct interests, that creates the conditions for social privileges. These accrue as a consequence of the necessity for there to be “rules of the game”, institutionalised bargaining involving the separation of the specialist from the mass of the workers.

Similarly, the ideology that may accompany the bureaucrat is a secondary question. There are many sincere officials who don’t believe that capitalism is permanent, but who are forced by the logic of their function to accept the normality of its operation and who may adapt their beliefs to the situation they act in. Of course, they don’t all act the same; ideology, political/economic context and other factors create variability. But there are broad patterns of behaviour implied by the trade union function that become increasingly likely the greater the pressure, as now in a capitalist crisis.

Paradoxically, the “bash the bureaucracy” approach actually glorifies the rank and file. In fact, both groups may have political limitations by seeing the struggle merely in trade unionist terms. The difference is that whereas the objective situation pushes the official to stick to the rules of the game, it exerts pressure on the rank and file to overturn industrial legality and the norms of capitalist production. When they do so they often go beyond trade unionism and it is for us to transform these processes in a consciously anti-capitalist direction. This is our objection to the strategy of “rank and filism”, particularly pushed by the SWP. This sees the problem as a contradiction between trade union leaders and rank and file members, rather than between the limitations of trade union politics and the needs of mass, anti-capitalist struggle. Hence it leads to strategies based on routinised union activity, minimising politics and eventually a gradual run-down of genuine activity amongst the rank and file.

The critique of the inherent limitations of trade unionism fell by the wayside because it did not fit the needs of practice inside the unions. When time after time the unions failed to meet the needs of the struggle it was difficult for the left to say they were failing because they were unions. Much of the left was trapped by accepting that trade unionism was the limit of everyday working class struggle and consciousness, despite the growing trend to go beyond such limits. In such circumstances Trotskyist analysis became increasingly derivative of the analysis of the bureaucracy in Russia.

Traditional Trotskyists advance the strategy of replacing the leaders, substituting revolutionaries for existing bureaucrats of right or left. This is essentially the same as the concept of the political revolution in Russia, which leaves the basic structure intact. Mandel indicates this when he says:

A political revolution, on the other hand, leaves the mode of production fundamentally unchanged and power passes from one layer of a class to another layer of the same class. (On Bureaucracy, p.32)

Rank and filism and a greater stress on democratic control by the membership, derives, for the SWP, from the notion of the Russian bureaucracy as a privileged caste who cannot simply be replaced at the top, but must be replaced from below. Our position is that we are not against “democratisation of the unions”, or the election of left leaders. We tactically support both if they increase the power of the rank and file, just as we work inside the union structures to develop a political alternative to trade unionism. The replace the leaders strategy, rank and filism or building left caucuses in the unions without posing such alternatives, mystify the nature of the unions and underestimates the capacity of the masses to struggle autonomously. The Trotskyist concept of bureaucracy has some analytical value but its overall effect is to work as a substitute analysis and strategy to the real processes being examined. Its effect on the mass of the people is to create the impression that the revolutionary left is always negative and superficial in its politics: which unfortunately is so often true.

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Last updated on 13.11.2002