by Sy Landy
The publication of this Swedish edition is very welcome. Not only does it make the book more accessible to Scandinavian readers. It is also evidence of the growing awareness among revolutionaries around the world of the need to resurrect authentic Marxism. And it gives us the opportunity to take up subsequent events in the light of the analysis presented three years ago.
The Life and Death of Stalinism was a challenge to the most insidious ideology of our times: cynicism about human nature in general and the capacities of the proletariat in particular. It was published just after the revolutionary tidal wave that swept across East Europe in 1989, overthrowing Communist Party rule in country after country. Against the barrage of capitalist propaganda proclaiming the demise of communism, we asserted that the collapse of Stalinism would in the end open the road for the re-creation of a genuine Marxist vanguard of the working class.
These historic events themselves confirmed fundamental teachings of Marxism. It was working-class resistance, notably the massive Polish workers' upheaval of 1980-81, that undermined the self-confidence of the Stalinist ruling classes and destroyed their hold over society. This showed once again the centrality of the proletariat for social progress in the present epoch. Moreover, the workers' struggle was triggered by the Stalinists' drive to intensify exploitation. This drive stems from the underlying laws of motion of the capitalist system discovered by Marx. As the book explains in detail, they applied to the statified capitalist states of the East as well as to the "normal" capitalist societies of the West.
Likewise, workers dealt the hated Stalinists decisive blows in 1989. But the masses' achievements were usurped by forces drawn from the Stalinists themselves and from bourgeois elements that decaying Stalinism had nourished. The corruption of Marxism and of the very idea of a revolutionary party prevented the working class from re-creating Bolshevik parties in time to lead the revolutions to socialist conclusions. The cynicism of the far left, and its adaptation both to Stalinism and to Social Democracy, allowed it to draw only reformist conclusions from the fall of Stalinism; thus it too helped disarm the working class in the face of decisive struggles.
In 1991, the aborted coup in the USSR, a dispute over the pace of bourgeoisification, completed the cycle of political revolutions -- takeovers that preserved the capitalistic extraction of surplus value while giving a share of state power to the developing bourgeois wing of the ruling class. The flight from state ownership, in the West as well as the East, reflects the fact that state property embodies remnants of working-class gains; it hinders the all-out exploitation that the bosses need. The privatization schemes in East Europe, China and the ex-USSR all aim to strengthen capitalist rule internationally as well as nationally. All wings of post-Stalinist capital, state and private, are moving towards subordination to the Western imperialist powers.
For the defenders of freedom-through-capitalism, the events since 1989 not only prove the "socialist experiment" a failure. They also claim that Marxism, with its optimism about human nature and the proletariat, has been decisively refuted. And on the level of appearance, much in recent events seems to support their view.
"It is a historical paradox," writes Jacek Kuron, "that those who brought communism down also brought themselves down." Kuron, once an anti-Stalinist revolutionist, had become an anti-communist social democrat by the time the Polish workers exploded in 1980-81. Now he is Labor Minister in a regime that "the majority of Poles," in his judgment, "view as a government that takes from the poor and weak and gives to the rich and powerful." And so it is. The cynics not only interpret history; they also carry it out in their own interest.
On top of the harsher economic conditions, country after country in the former Soviet bloc is wracked by nationalist strife. Those parts of the region that have not already plunged into the abyss stands at the edge of mass bloodletting. Bourgeois commentators blame the "ancient quarrels" of the Slavs and other mysterious peoples, as if humanity is inherently racist. The reality is that old Stalinist leaders, in the face of economic crisis and the collapse of the Communist Parties, turned to national conflicts to avoid the potential of proletarian uprisings. This is the material basis for "ethnic cleansing."
Middle-Class Marxism Revisited
Authentic Marxists have never glorified the current consciousness of the working class. The communist program is not an ideology; it arises out of the objective needs of the working class. As class struggles deepen, the most advanced workers become conscious of their program and tasks and thus give leadership to the rest of their class and other oppressed layers of the population. The aim of this book, therefore, is to help fellow workers understand the nature of Stalinism and capitalism as a whole -- so that our class can consciously conduct its struggle and develop its program.
Our analysis has been strongly substantiated. Both bourgeois and far-left theorists expected that the fall of Stalinism would stabilize the capitalist world; after all, there was no longer a "socialist" or "anti-imperialist" Soviet Union to arm and incite the masses. The opposite has proved true, and not just in the ex-Soviet bloc. As our book explains, the USSR served as a stabilizing prop to world imperialism by restraining and diverting mass upsurges. The removal of this prop opens the road for a genuine working-class revolutionary movement.
One form of capitalism, heavily deformed by the remnants of workers' revolutionary gains, has been replaced by another. Nothing else explains the transition from one group of political rulers to another while the nomenklatura bureaucrats remained in power economically.
For example, if the Stalinist states were workers' states, why did the workers not defend them? Why did the rulers, if they were a section of the working class inherently linked to state property, choose destatification? Or if these states represented some non-capitalist class society, they are clearly pro-capitalist now: how could the same rulers change class character as a bloc? Moreover, how could a change of class nature occur so peacefully? The notion of "workers' states" or "new-class" states quietly transformed into capitalist states only confirms the reformist character of all such theories.
The middle-class Marxists to whom the book gives much attention have floundered shamefully. Ernest Mandel had long insisted that the "restoration" of capitalism was out of the question in the Stalinist "bureaucratized workers' states." By denying such an uncomfortable possibility in order to blend in with liberal reformers, Mandel misled thousands of advanced workers. Now he admits that "a process of restoration of capitalism is under way," brazenly adding that "literally no one in these countries, or in the world, denies the evidence." His after-the-fact perspicacity betrays a cynicism as contemptible as that of the overt defenders of capitalism.
Other theorists of Soviet "defensism" have been equally confounded; a map showing which countries the various groups still consider to be proletarian would present an ever-changing kaleidoscope of confusion. Whether they reject or retain some or all of their bloc of "workers' states," they offer only feeble rationalizations for their views; "theories" is far too generous a term.
A few examples. After Boris Yeltsin's counter-coup in the USSR, the British Workers Revolutionary Party abandoned its traditional workers' state position and adopted, with considerable fanfare, the untenable view that the ex-USSR was neither a workers' nor a bourgeois state. But some leaders disagreed, so the WRP retreated to a stance that simply avoids any clear line. Sometimes Russia is described as a workers' state; other times as a state without a class nature. (See Proletarian Revolution No. 42.)
The Spartacist tendency, whose very existence was based on hailing and defending Stalinism, gave up on Russia a bit later. Their "theorists" twist Trotsky out of all recognition to claim that he thought restoration of capitalism was possible without a violent counterrevolution. And now they decline to defend in principle the nationalized property remaining in the ex-Stalinist states, despite the workers' gains that go with it. Thus this tendency arrogantly proclaims its anti-working class character. (Proletarian Revolution No. 43.)
The LRCI, based on the Workers Power group in Britain, now calls the Stalinist countries "moribund workers' states" -- they are still proletarian because "planning," contrary to all the evidence, is said to rule the economy. LRCI demands a stable exchange economy before it will recognize the existence of capitalism. This is the classic reformist method of identifying capitalism as a mode of exchange rather than a mode of production. And LRCI will wait forever for its rational capitalist system governed by a textbook law of value. In reality, capitalism is a system of massive contradictions, crises and decay. The convulsions of the ex-Stalinist states corroborate Marx's analysis.
Not only defensists and ex-defensists have trouble. Tony Cliff's International Socialism tendency pretends that its theory is vindicated by Stalinism's fall. Yet anyone who reads their past work knows that they regarded "bureaucratic state capitalism" an ascending form of capitalism that would supplant the traditional "private" form. Although they now suddenly pose as the only true Trotskyists, when Stalinism fell in Russia the Cliffites plastered London with posters announcing the "death of communism" -- a gross adaptation to bourgeois propaganda and backward consciousness among British workers.
Lessons From Stalinism's Collapse
Unlike the Soviet defensists, we understood that capitalism had been restored in the USSR in the 1930's despite the remnants of a number of proletarian conquests. And in contrast to most theorists of "state capitalism" who adapted to imperialist pressures, we also saw that these remnants undermined the system; Stalinism was a weak form of capitalism, not the wave of the future. In particular, we predicted the devolution of statified capitalism towards traditional bourgeois forms. We showed that the system's contradictions compelled the rulers of statified capitalism to try to reform their system by using traditional bourgeois methods against the workers and, ultimately, to abandon Stalinism itself. We also foresaw the limitations on privatization, given capitalism's underlying drives toward centralization.
One theme of the book is that the economic breakdown of Stalinism points to similar tendencies in the West. There is now further evidence. The opening up of the Eastern economies to public scrutiny reveals that, even more than previously believed, the Stalinist economies had lived parasitically off their own capital as well as human and natural resources. Fixed capital was exhausted without replacement; environmental degradation was horrendous; industrial workers had significantly shorter life expectancies as a result of their labor. In the West, the predominance of fictitious capital partly comes from failing to replace fixed capital, thereby counting used-up constant capital as surplus value -- profit. Though not as pervasive yet in the Western imperialist countries as in the East, and not as devastating as in the superexploited "third world," this tendency will prove to be typical of capitalism everywhere in its epoch of decay.
On the political side, we warned that if proletarian communist leaderships did not emerge in time, the capitalist political revolutions would result not in an ephemeral democracy but in a drive toward Bonapartism and fascism. This was true under the Gorbachev's and Walesa's when the book was written; it remains so under the West's favorite "democrat," Boris Yeltsin, who prefers to rule by decree and plebiscite.
We also showed that the Transitional Program compiled by Trotsky remained decisively relevant, expressing the logic of the workers' struggle against capitalism in every form. In contrast, all the would-be Trotskyist tendencies (whether they held deformed workers' state, state capitalist or bureaucratic collectivist theories) expected that socialism would develop from a purely democratic political revolution. Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution -- that democratic gains can be achieved only through proletarian socialist revolution -- smashing and re-creating the state, seizing the reins of the economy -- applies to every form of capitalism in our epoch. To the pseudo-Trotskyists it is a sealed book.
Method alone does not guarantee victory. After the Stalinist betrayal of the Chinese revolution of 1925-27, some Trotskyists thought they would win many new adherents because of their accurate prediction of the workers' defeat. Trotsky himself thought otherwise and proved right: the defeat of the revolution bolstered the forces of cynicism. Likewise, we expect no gains from the hijacking of the East European revolutions.
But there is another side to the same historical coin. Through great proletarian upheavals workers learn the enormous power of their class. Thus the massive general strikes which began in France in 1968 echoed across the world, renewing the confidence and strength of the workers' movement for years. That the workers in the major industrial countries have not been defeated, despite the deepening capitalist crisis and their miserable leadership, reflects the fear the ruling class has of them since that period.
Today the same underlying drives of capitalism that initially sparked chauvinism and Bonapartism are moving toward a far deeper confrontation and polarization. In the post-Stalinist states, bourgeoisification is not proceeding easily. Workers do not look favorably on the prospect of rampant inflation and mass unemployment that the "Western model" has opened up for them. Mass strikes still prove in practice the working class's potential to overcome the growth of chauvinism. The workers of the East may well form the vanguard of a massive class explosion that will shake the world once again.
Upheaval and confrontation are inevitable; a successful revolutionary conclusion is not. An important element in the work to re-create the Fourth International, the world proletarian party, is the struggle against cynicism. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky -- all the major teachers of our movement -- proclaimed the necessity of telling the working class the truth. This book is dedicated to that goal. That is how middle-class Marxism, the religion spawned by condescending saviors, will finally be destroyed and by which the resurrection of authentic communism will be achieved.