Living in the Shadow of Stalinism

Communists today must grapple with the difficult realities of the USSR, a society where capitalism didn’t operate but working class rule was liquidated. 

Screen Shot 2015-05-17 at 11.58.23 PMAll who call themselves communists will find themselves haunted by the question of the USSR and the Soviet Bloc and forced to reckon with its historical realties. The tyranny of Stalin, the dysfunctional economic system, the social conservatism and nationalism; these are facts that cannot be brushed aside if one wants to seriously deal with the legacy of Marxism. Even more so the fact that the remaining Stalinist states are drifting toward market reform or collapse would seem at face value to discredit the fight for a society beyond the market as utopian and hopeless. While the USSR is gone we still live under its shadow, its example used as the ultimate talking point to discredit any kind of politics (whether anarchist or marxist) that looks beyond capitalism.

There are multiple ways to respond to this. One is to argue that the USSR is to be defended and that all criticisms, even those from the left-wing, are just a result of intellectuals being brainwashed by Cold War-era propaganda. This view has the benefit of not having to seriously grapple with our history, blaming the USSR’s collapse on the betrayal of “revisionism” and fully embracing its legacy. Another would be to deny any responsibility for the whole experience at all, starting the from the October Revolution itself, describing it as a mere “Bolshevik coup”. Liberals and many soft leftists can unite on this front, depicting the Bolshevik party as doomed from the start. For these types the Russian question is simply answered with the platitude “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The fate of the revolution is sealed in Lenin’s What Is To Be Done or even in the ideas of Marx himself. Neither of these will suffice, as such a serious topic requires a more nuanced and historically conscious approach.

Communists should look at the Bolshevik led revolution in 1917 as a triumph, a true historical moment of the working class seizing political power en masse. It was a triumph that was ultimately shortlived, but would give rise to the most radical wave of working class militancy seen during the inter-war period. The mutinies in the army, the left wing turn in the Soviets, the mass actions and factory occupations all show that a true transfer of power to the working class occurred. This was a revolution that was truly internationalist in scope, that saw its fate in its universalization carried out by workers in all lands. For the Bolsheviks Russia was the “weakest link” in the chain of global imperialism and their revolution was the beginning of an international revolutionary wave that would finalize the collapse of capitalism as a system. Imperialism had thrown mankind into barbarism and the Russian Revolution showed the power of organized wage slaves to challenge not only the war but the system that caused it.

The Bolshevik Party at time of October was not the bureaucratic-centralist caricature that modern day Leninist sects try to mimic but an organization that ran with a true sense of internal democracy and accountability with open debate and factions. If the Bolsheviks had a ‘conspiratorial’ quality it was because of circumstances forced upon them by an absolutist state; Lenin’s organizational ideal was the German Social-Democratic Party rather than the Nardonik tradition of peasant terrorism. Ultimately the idea that the fate of of the Russian Revolution was doomed from the beginning due to Bolshevik authoritarianism doesn’t hold up to historical scrutiny. For example, the correct line on 1917 was not only debated within the party but was debated publicly in the party press. Furthermore the Bolsheviks did not seize power as a single party, but seized power in an alliance with the Left-SRs and the rest of the pro-revolutionary left with mass support from the working class. The notion that October 1917 was a conspiratorial coup led by a despotic organization is simply not tenable.

Despite the triumph that October represented it is clear that the revolution degenerated. At what point it was beyond saving can of course be up for endless debate. Was it in 1918 with the signing of the Brest-Litovsk treaty that made a undesirable peace deal with Germany instead of the left-communist and anarchist backed option of “revolutionary war”? Or was the line crossed with the suppression of the Kronstadt Revolt and banning of factions in 1921? Orthodox Trotskyists would say that with the consolidation of power by Stalin’s regime in the late 20s the USSR had become a “degenerated workers state,” where nationalized property-forms proved the working class essentially held power although in a bureaucratized form. Other traditions such as a the followers of Tony Cliff and Raya Dunayevskaya claimed that Stalin’s rise to power consolidated a ‘state-capitalist’ system where the state centralized all capital into its hands.

To me it is clear that the degeneration of the the revolution began before the ascendance of Stalin, though Stalin cannot be equated with Lenin and represented a complete break from the early revolution. Stalin’s consolidation of power represents an absolute point of no return, where whatever proletarian content that remained in the state was extinguished. ‘Stalinism’ was the political system that ultimately resulted, a nationalist and social-conservative distortion of Marxism that has forever tainted the reputation of socialism and organized class struggle. Yet the process through which the Bolshevik State degenerated into a counter-revolutionary force was already in motion under the rule of Lenin. The rule of true soviet power was short-lived. As the Civil War heated up a sort of autocracy of commissars was forced upon the population to mobilize for war and repression was ramped up. Trotsky even considered the militarization of labor. These were not initially seen as ideal policies, but as emergency measures to win the Civil War. Yet as the Civil War cooled down a return to an ideal Soviet rule where different proletarian tendencies debated and collectively made decisions didn’t return. Instead there was an ad-hoc state raised for the purpose of militarizing peasants for civil war, forced to reconcile with the class contradictions that it ruled over. Afraid of peasant over-represention putting them out of power, the Bolsheviks were weary of expanding soviet democracy. Yet the cost of this was to cut the proletariat off from political representation. Simon Pirani’s The Russian Revolution in Retreat shows in detail how the Bolshevik Party shifted from representing workers to increasingly representing specialists and state bureaucrats after the Civil War period, when opportunities for expanded political participation from the working class were in existence. The state had degenerated into a sort of ‘red bonapartism’ where different classes contested for control and influence. In the end, the class that ultimately won out was the petty-bourgeois: peasants, specialists and state-bureaucrats.

The Bolsheviks often compared themselves to the Jacobins, and for good reason. They were leading a revolution in a peasant majority country, where capitalist industrialization had yet to fully take off. Most urban industry was state owned and for military production. As a result revolution in Russia was faced with a dual task: completing the tasks of the bourgeois revolution like modernizing agriculture and overthrowing absolutism alongside the tasks of the proletarian revolution, the establishment of the rule of the working class and advance into communist society. The common understanding of the Bolsheviks was that the latter, proletarian revolution, would rely on the expansion of working class rule across Europe and then the rest of the world. As long as the revolution was isolated on a national scale it would be limited to bourgeois tasks. Despite the enormous wave of class struggle worldwide international revolution was ultimately defeated, and as a result the society that developed in Russia was not socialism, a society in transition to communism, but rather a society in transition to capitalism.

The brutal dictatorship of Stalin that arose out of the crisis of the 1920s regime was a response to the fragility of the the worker-peasant alliance that was the core of the revolution. Peasants were not only the majority of the population but had class interests that were contrary to industrialization, as they were only interested in producing for their own use plus whatever they could profitably market. They had no material incentive to produce greater surpluses for the state. Capitalist development always rests upon the destruction of pre-capitalist forms where the direct producers are tied to their subsistence, creating a propertyless mass that must sell their labor for wage to survive. Stalin’s forced collectivizations and rapid planned industrializations were an attempt to mimic this process, to put the entire nation to their maximum productive capacity through state mobilization rather than the sporadic nature of the market. To do this at the pace Stalin’s leadership desired required breaking the back of the peasants as a class and the forced expropriation of small producers, something that Engels and Lenin warned against.

The results of Stalin’s voluntaristic social experiment are well known and created a strange historical mutation which would be basis for the Soviet system and its copy-cats from then on. During the first 5-year-plan Soviet citizens experienced peacetime famines worse than those during the civil war while chaos erupted in the countryside. Some workers reacted to these changes with excitement strangely enough, hoping that it was the beginning of changes for the better despite sacrifices. Others resisted, the most notable instances documented in Jeffrey Rossman’s work on strikes in the Ivonovo Industrial Region. Despite this resistance the eventual results were a working class completely atomized and incapable of collective resistance beyond short outbursts. As Mike Macnair notes in many of his articles, there was no objective tendency towards working class self-organization in the USSR where workers formed independent organizations to defend their interests. Rather than a proper proletariat which is compelled to labor due to its propertyless-ness as opposed to extra-economic force, Soviet workers were more like militarized artisans serving as clientele to various bureaucratic cliques. Counter-revolution in Russia essentially created a dynamic that broke down the potential for proletarian class formation.

Stalinism had more than just a disastrous consequence on the class movement in Russia, but was an international phenomena that did extreme damage to the communist movement worldwide. It was a counter-revolution within the entire Comintern, an institution already ridden with problems from the start which would head into unforeseen opportunism under Stalin’s direction. The result of Stalin’s consolidation of power in the Comintern was essentially the destruction of the Comintern as a potential world party and was a major blow to the capacity of the working class to struggle on an international level. Its bureaucratization led to an assertion of Russian national interests over the policies of the international parties which would lead to the Popular Front strategy where communist militants were sold out by party leadership in order to make alliances with progressive bourgeois. In the case of the Spanish Civil War this meant crushing potential working class insurrection and organization. In WWII the Stalinized Communist Parties told workers to not go on strike and make sacrifices for the war efforts of the imperialist Allies. The post-war era saw various Soviet backed CP’s gain popularity, for example in Italy in France, yet these parties were shells of the original Comintern parties and espoused a workerist brand of social-conservatism and nationalism. Their popularity in the working class proved to be obstacles to revolution rather than a radicalizing force.

The system that developed in the USSR would spread over Eastern Europe after WWII, creating what would be known as the Eastern Bloc. At this point the USSR seemed to offer a path that promised rapid industrialization without relying on subservience to more powerful capitalists. It also retained the privileges of petty-bourgeois specialists and bureaucrats and made promises of development for the peasantry. This made the Soviet model attractive for anti-colonialist nationalists in the periphery looking to lead independence movements, as did the fact that the USSR was opposed to the United States and could offer support. As a result what were essentially bourgeois revolutions for national independence (Cuba, China, Vietnam) took on Marxist-Leninist discourse and aligned with the USSR, the USSR promising a path of development that would (supposedly) allow for autarky without consequence and advance beyond economic backwardness faster than global capitalism would allow for.

While Stalin’s industrialization policies may have aimed to mimic capitalist development, it is clear for a number of reasons that the system that developed in the USSR was not capitalism nor was it ‘state-capitalism’, a redundant term if there was one. It is true that in the 1930s and 40s the policies of the degenerated Comintern were for alignment with capitalist states. Yet the the internal dynamics of the USSR went against capitalism; pan-nationalization of enterprises essentially eliminated labor markets. Money ceased to function as a universal commodity, acting more as an accounting tool rather than directing the flow of labor and its products. There was no private ownership of the means of production, no accumulation of value. Nor was there profit in the capitalist sense, the closet corollary to it essentially being a tax imposed on factory managers by higher-ups. Yet there was certainly stratification and inequality as well as exploitation. A surplus product was appropriated from the workers by the state, with the planning of production subordinated not to the needs of the producers but to the national-military needs of the USSR.

The state bureaucracy did not form a coherent ruling class, but was legally distinguished from the workers who were essentially a legal category. Rather than a class defined through its ownership of property, the soviet ruling elite was more a caste defined through political privileges. Yet this political caste did not represent the interests of the working class, albeit in a deformed way. Rather, they aimed to be a substitute bourgeoisie and develop the productive forces for the nation without relying on a commercial relations and internal markets. This was reflected in the official ‘Marxist-Leninst’ ideology of the USSR, where a economistic and productivist variant of historical materialism equated social progress purely with the development of the productive forces.

Yet the managers and experts of the soviet state weren’t capable of replicating the inherent dynamic of capitalism where producers are compelled to economize on labor-time through technological innovations due to the pressures of market competition. This tendency is also known as relative surplus value. While technological innovations occurred, there was no systematic tendency where enterprises were compelled to take them up in order to compete. Rather, enterprises competed more to hoard up labor and equipment to meet quotas. Being shut off from intellectual property in advanced capitalist countries also stunted technological development. Yet the lack of a tendency towards relative surplus value shows that capitalist dynamics never truly existed in the USSR, making it incapable of competing with other world powers. A major part of this was the soviet ‘social contract’ that guaranteed full employment which made it difficult to hire and fire workers at will to accommodate for rapid technological changes.

Without the tendency to expel labor from the production process at the cost of machinery in order to raise productivity there was in no way a tendency for the rate of profit to fall. Periodic crisis of overproduction are a consistent feature of capitalism, yet such a tendency was clearly absent in the USSR. Labor productivity stagnated as the consumption needs of the military and state bureaucracy continued to grow, with material reproduction barely scraping by. The initial rush for industrialization under Stalin, being caused primarily by political voluntarism, was unsustainable for an extended period of time. For its last 20 years of existence oil rent essentially kept the country afloat. Rather than a more effective and centralized form of capitalism that signaled a new level of managerial domination over the proletariat the USSR found itself incapable of controlling and exploiting labor power as effectively as its capitalist rivals. The USSR was not a higher form of capitalism but rather a society stuck between the tributary Czarist state and the capitalism we see in Russia today, aiming to find an alternative route of modernization.

“State-capitalism” was in many ways what the USSR wanted to be but was incapable of achieving. Comments by Stalin about the continuing existence of the law of value in Soviet society and Lenin’s proclamations in debates with the Russia Left-communists that state-capitalism would be an improvement shouldn’t be taken at face value as evidence that the USSR was indeed state-capitalism. Rather they help us understand what the intentions of the regime were. Soviet planners were aiming to essentially maintain the categories of money, prices, and wage labor but plan their utilization rather than leave them to the anarchy of market competition. This amounted to using the surface forms of capitalism, but orienting them towards the production of use-values directed by the needs of the state bureaucracies rather than for exchange-value. As pointed out by Hillel Ticktin, this was a system obsessed with the production of use-values, yet was incapable of reliably producing them due to the alienation of the producers from the state. As a result the system produced massive amounts of waste and defective products, incapable of expanding production at the same rate as the capitalist powers.

An internal tendency towards capitalism developed in the soviet system because of the difficulties of controlling labor and the pressures imposed by global competition. A section of the bureaucracy tended towards bringing in markets and giving concessions to the capitalist powers due to the sterility and ineffective nature of the system. The Soviet system was so dysfunctional that even many leading bureaucrats despised it, and as a result some looked for a quick fix through liberalization. Yet marketization brings in unemployment and went against the military status quo. Attempts to reform the system under Khrushchev and Gorbachev through market reforms and decentralization only created new problems.

This picture of the USSR is quite grim, hardly painting it as a model that we would want to emulate whatsoever. It also shows a society where capitalism was absent, where nationalization of the means of production essentially blocked the internal dynamics of the national economy from the world market. While not exactly autonomous from capitalism due to being exposed to military-political competition and limited trade with world capitalist powers the Soviet bloc was a world where capitalism was internally negated. Yet what existed was not communism, a society which has transcended class divisions and oppression and made the leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. Nor was the working class holding political power and building such a system – as history has shown the tendency was not towards communism but towards capitalism.

This means grappling with a difficult reality. It means coming to term with the fact that under certain circumstances the working class can take power, but that it can lose it through forces that come from within the workers movement itself. It also means that the mere negation of capitalist relations of production is not sufficient. Ending the operation of the law of value through nationalization of the means of production may end capital accumulation but it doesn’t necessarily equate with communism.

Communism is more than just the end of capitalism, but the transcendence of class society as a whole. We are looking to end more than just value production and putting the means of production into the ownership of the workers. What we ultimately aim for is a human community without class divisions and oppression. This means we have to take on oppressions and social divisions that have their root in pre-capitalist societies, such as the mental/manual division of labor, the patriarchal division of labor, the division between city and countryside and state territorialism. The problem is not just capitalism, as if every social evil that communists wish to overcome can be directly rooted to capitalism (even if capitalism serves to reinforce it). Communist revolution must overcome the entire nexus of social oppression that is rooted in the history of class society as a whole. The USSR may have abolished capital accumulation but it proved incapable of overcoming these other social contradictions.

For example, an inherent divide between manual workers and specialized experts led to the reproduction of class divisions through caste-like hierarchies in what was a sort of anti-egalitarian ‘meritocracy’. This problem with specialists, unlike the peasant question in fully industrialized countries, is still relevant today and is a difficulty the Bolsheviks faced that future revolutionaries will face as well. Specialists are essentially petty-bourgeois; they are small-proprietors of intellectual property. As a result their class interests are in the long-term hostile to the proletariat. Communism would have to flatten the mental/manual division of labor by ending monopolies on skillsets that gives specialists the leverage to assert a inegalitarian hierarchy over manual workers. This would mean changing the very nature of work and education and would be one of the biggest challenges faced in a transition to communism from capitalism. The USSR had no such tendency towards even attempting this; stratifications tended to be reinforced rather than undermined.

Of course it would be hard to argue that such transformations were even possible in the USSR if they were attempted. Socialism-in-one-country is an impossibility, especially in a country as agrarian and economically backwards as Russia in 1917. Communism requires as a precondition industrialization and co-operation across the international division of labor that puts to task the full productive capacity of humanity while ending the military-political competition of nation-states. The consequence of this is that forcibly abolishing markets and commodity relations in early phases of revolution before such pre-conditions are met can lead to the bureaucratic mess that was the USSR’s attempt at planning, not actual collective control over production. Even maintaining a proper dictatorship of the proletariat for extended period of time in a isolated Russia proved impossible. In a country dominated by small producers with class interests in the long term hostile to the proletariat a workers republic would not be able to hold onto to power for long without help from other countries with a greater proletarian majority. Internationalism is not just a moral principle, but a material necessity for the proletariat to be successful in its tasks.

Contrary to what some might say there are lessons to be learned from the history of past struggles and revolutions that deserve our attention. If revolutions are social experiments the Russian Revolution has contributed the most to the general dataset. Yet the conditions revolutionaries faced in Russia couldn’t be further from our own. While probably the closest we’ve seen to a true proletarian revolution, the Russian Revolution was even then largely a peasant uprising against an absolutist state. Because of this the nature of the lessons we can learn are largely negative, in the sense of knowing what dangers can lie ahead and the kinds of difficulties that could be faced. There really is not a coherent positive strategy for current conditions provided by Bolshevism and the Comintern though there are some organizational examples we can draw from for inspiration. Yet Communists must still take responsibility for the soiling of our name by the Stalinist counter-revolution that rose out of the ashes of October. We need a nuanced and historical materialist theory that can provide real explanations as to what went wrong and why a workers party like the Bolsheviks could become the despotic social force that it did.

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Gavril Myasnikov: hero of the working class

The life-story of Bolshevik oppositionist and left-communist Gavril Myasnikov teaches important lessons on the dangers of a political culture that stifles and represses internal debate and factions.  

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Myasnikov in 1922

The communist-left or ‘left-communism’ was not a movement composed of intellectuals isolated from the working class. The ‘left-communists’ mostly remembered for being attacked in Lenin’s famous pamphlet Left-wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder were a real tendency within the workers movement, playing an important role not only in Germany, the Netherlands and Italy but in the Bolshevik Party itself. These experiences of the communist-left in Russia can provide many important lessons to marxists today and the life story of Gavril Myasnikov is no exception.

The ‘left-commmunists’ as a faction within the Bolsheviks first developed as a response to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which made peace with Germany under unfavorable circumstances for the Bolsheviks. This initial ‘left-communist’ faction included prominent Bolsheviks Bukharin and Dzerzhinsky and saw the treaty as a capitulation to world imperialism which would close off the potential for world revolution. Their opposition to it stemmed not from militarism and nationalism but from a belief that world revolution was on the agenda, the immediate task being to form a Red Army and aid the German working class in overthrowing their government. Whether or not this position was correct is up to debate. Ultimately the treaty was signed, despite protestations not only from the left-communists, but also Left-SRs and anarchists. According to Lenin it was more important to have an immediate end to the war and consolidate the Soviet state and too risky to pursue revolutionary war. Due to the difficulty of throwing together a real army in their current circumstances his position won eventually won enough enough support to pass after heated debate and the treaty was signed.

Gavril Myasnikov was a member of this left-communist faction and had a long history of working class militancy behind him. However Myasnikov, unlike Bukharin and Dzerzhinsky, refused to become a bureaucrat. His entire life proved to be one based on intransigent opposition to capitalism and all those who stood in the way of the revolutionary proletariat’s fight against it. He would not only be an enthusiastic participant of the October Revolution but would continue to fight for the proletariat to truly have a voice in the Bolshevik party afterwards. He never surrendered in this fight and ultimately died a prisoner of Stalinism.

Myasnikov was born in the Urals in 1889 and found employment as a metal worker. He found himself in the midst of a strong tradition of working class militancy and took an active role in the 1905 revolution against Czarist autocracy. This revolution saw the formation of the first Soviets through mass strikes and the intervention of political militants. These Soviets or ‘wokers councils’ aimed to unite the entire working class on a regional basis rather than on a trade or industrial basis and showed the capacity of the working class to organize as a progressive class in history, using the Soviets to agitate for political demands against the Czar such the introduction of a parliament. Myasnikov was impressed by the role of the Bolsheviks in these events and joined the party in 1906. Shortly after the Czarist police imprisoned him in Siberia. In prison Myasnikov faced forced labor, beatings and even went on hunger strike for 75 days. He attempted escape three times, each attempt seeing him trying to rejoin the revolutionary underground only to fall back into prison.

Myasnikov had returned from exile in Siberia in 1917 and played an active role in the October Revolution. He was involved in forming a factory committee, participating in his local Soviet and Bolshevik party district to take a leading part the seizure of power by the working class in the Urals. It was the on-the-ground activity of worker militants like Myasnikov that ultimately made the October Revolution possible. Without these networks of militants who made real connections to the masses of workers no alternative center of authority to the Provisional Government would have been possible.

Myasnikov’s revolutionary zeal was representative of the times surrounding him, where new potentials for social change were opening up all around him. However Myasnikov’s millenarian drive for revanchism against the old regime was a step above others. In July 1918 Myasnikov and a crew of workers executed the Czar’s younger brother the Grand Duke Michael. It is unclear whether this was an autonomous act or an order from higher level Bolsheviks. Either way it got him called “a bloodthirsty and embittered man, and not altogether sane” by the secretary of the Perm’ Bolshevik Party Committee, though shortly after Myasnikov reported to Lenin with the Czar and his family being shot shortly after.

As these events show Myasnikov had no qualms with red terror and proletarian dictatorship when they were aimed against reactionaries. Yet when it came to suppression of dissent from within the working class itself Myasnikov would adamantly fight for freedom of speech and the right to form factions with platforms within the party as well as control over industry through producers soviets. After opposing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk Myasnikov recognized the need for unity within the party and stood by Lenin to defeat the Whites. At this point authoritarian measures were seen as temporary concessions due to the need to win the Civil War and it was hoped that the end of war would see a return of the Soviets. However by the end of the Civil War Myasnikov had joined in with groups like the Democratic Centralists and Workers’ Opposition who were criticizing the party from within, though his own critiques would differ from the aforementioned groups.

The Civil War had transformed the Bolshevik Party into a militarized an hierarchical organized and as the war ended this didn’t seem to change. The party was increasingly becoming an institution which represented petty-proprietors and professional bureaucrats as opposed to the revolutionary working class. The hopes that the proletarian democracy of the Soviets espoused by Lenin’s State and Revolution would return after the Civil War had been proven wrong. The future of the revolution was uncertain at this point and individuals like Myasnikov saw the future of the USSR as a legitimate workers republic at stake. The words of Victor Serge in his later work Memoirs of Revolutionary, also at the time a Bolshevik, capture a certain attitude within the party and amongst the broader working class:

“What with the political monopoly, the Cheka and the Red Army, all that now existed of the ‘Commune-State’ of our dreams was a theoretical myth. The war, the internal measures against counterrevolution, and the famine (which had created a bureaucratic rationing apparatus) had killed off Soviet democracy. How could it revive, and when? The Party lived in the certain knowledge that the slightest relaxation of its authority would give day to reaction.”

At this point Myasnikov primarily critiqued the Bolsheviks as a individual, not as a faction. He disagreed with the Workers Opposition’s position that unions should manage industry, counterposing to this administration of industry through producers soviets. Like his contemporaries who were also part of the communist left, the KAPD, Myasnikov believed that unions for the working class had outlived their use in the current period. However he would advocate for peasant unions, much to the dismay of the Worker’s Opposition who believed this would take power away from the industrial proletariat. His activities critiquing the party got him relocated to Petrograd from the Urals where he would be kept on a tighter leash but proved unwilling to be silenced. As a result he received the ire of Zinoviev who accused him of being an SR, threatening to expel him from the party.

In Petrograd Myasnikov focused on agitating for free speech. In March 1921 he called for unlimited free speech in a memorandum to the Central Committee. He also made it clear he thought this should extend even to monarchists, a comment that made it easy for Lenin to attack his platform. No other Bolshevik made this demand, thought eventually he would back off from this position, and argue that only manual workers should have freedom of speech. He also refused to condemn the Kronstadt rebellion, a position that the Workers’ Opposition refused to take. To Myasnikov Kronstadt was a sad example of communists murdering communists and showed how far the bureaucratization of the regime had gone.

Lenin critiqued Myasnikov’s arguments for freedom of speech on the grounds that they would allow reactionary forces to have the freedom to organize and spread their views, especially amongst the peasants. “What sort of freedom of the press? What for? For which class?” said Lenin in a 1921 letter to Myasnikov. Lenin undeniably had a point; that democracy and freedom are not metaphysical absolutes that exist independent of class context. However, while Myasnikov’s argument for free press extending to monarchists is certainly questionable it is undeniable that the proletariat cannot rule as a class if it does not have the freedom to represent itself. This requires a tolerance of internal debate and dissent as a well as a tolerance of internal factions. It also requires that the proletariat doesn’t face despotic conditions on the factory floor, which related to demands for workers control. Myasnikov responded to Lenin initially with panic but then wrote a letter in response. “You say that I want freedom of the press for the bourgeoisie. On the contrary, I want freedom of the press for myself, a proletarian, a member of the party for fifteen years.” he said. Lenin may have made him change his mind about extending freedom of the press to monarchists but his desire for a legitimate soviet democracy remained.

Lenin’s banning of factions in 1921 saw the Workers’ Opposition essentially suppressed. Myasnikov, while not yet part of an official faction, was expelled from the party in 1922. After this he would form an actual opposition organization, the Workers Group. The Workers Group united Myasnikov with former members of the Workers’ Opposition and operated as a clandestine organization, unable to print its own manifesto in Russia. The Workers Group Manifesto not only addressed issues in Russia but addressed the international communist movement as a whole. The Manifesto critiques not only the lack of working class rule in Russia but also the united front policy being imposed on the Communist Parties of the world. It also makes claims that fights for reforms are now historically obsolete and that insurrection is now on the agenda, expressing of the more voluntaristic tendencies in left-communism at the time.

The response of party leaders was to arrest Myasnikov and send him to Germany to do trade union work. It was here where we made connections with the KAPD, the left-communist party in Germany, as well as the more radical elements of the KPD (the more moderate of the communist parties who had the approval of the Comintern). The Workers Group critique of the ‘united front’ policy that sought unity with the same social-democrats who supported WWI and held back revolution at all cost resonated with the KAPD. Yet Myasnikov did not stay in Germany for long and returned to Russia during a strike wave where remaining members of the Workers Group were agitating. Shortly after arrival Myasnikov was put behind behind bars; Zionviev had promised him this wouldn’t happen if he was to return.

After spending over three years in prison and insane asylums Myasnikov was sent to Armenia, then Persia only to be arrested again. Myasnikov had already spent a good chunk of his life in prison and this one be one of his shorter sentences, leaving for Turkey after six months. In Turkey Myasnikov took up correspondence with Trotsky who was also in exile from Turkey. Years before Trotsky had helped repress and purge the Workers Group and lead the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt, yet Myasnikov looked beyond this and the two engaged in principled discussion.

After Turkey Myasnikov settled in France, publishing his pamphlet The Latest Deception that elaborated his theories of state-capitalism in the USSR. Trotsky still refused to believe the USSR was no longer a proletarian dictatorship, instead calling it a ‘degenerated workers state’. In summary his argument was that the working class had never been overthrown and nationalized property was evidence that the workers rather than bourgeois ruled (otherwise markets would return). As a result Trotsky was more of a loyal oppositionist to the Stalinist regime rather than a full-on opponent like Myasnikov. Instead of a mere political revolution that would reform the party Myasnikov claimed the sytsem itself must be overthrown and replaced with the rule of soviets with multiple political tendencies represented. He developed a theory where the ruling class in the USSR was not the proletariat with bureaucratic deformations as in Trotsky’s theory but a ‘social bureaucracy’ that expropriated political power from the proletariat and consolidated a state-capitalist system. These ideas were very similar to future state-capitalism theories expounded by the likes of CLR James, Raya Dunayevskaya and Tony Cliff and as a result have theoretical problems of their own. Their strength lies not so much in their ability to comprehend the USSR through marxist categories but rather in their political conclusions that allowed them to advocate working class independence from Stalinism.

Myasnikov would work in factories in France until 1945, meeting fellow oppositionists such as Ruth Fischer and Victor Serge. He remarried and was able to accommodate to life in France, remaining there during the war and keeping quiet. However in 1946 he disappeared. Friends inquired and discovered he had been taken back to Russia on a Soviet plane; nothing was heard of him since. What exactly happened is unclear, but it is clear that Myasnikov ultimately died a victim of the Stalinist state.

Myasnikov’s demands were not for the immediate institution of communism, which most knew wasn’t a possibility. Rather his demands were aimed to secure the proletariat the institutional means necessary to rule as a class. If this was the case, why were other Bolsheviks so hostile to Myasnikov’s demands? Wasn’t the Civil War over, meaning authoritarian measures were no longer needed? Wasn’t Lenin himself an advocate for soviet democracy in State and Revolution? Truth is that Russia was a peasant majority country, most of these peasants hostile to any kind of social change that would disrupt ownership of their property. Leading Bolsheviks worried that a return to mass soviet representation would give too much political voice to the peasants and would lead to populist or reactionary parties forming and gaining support. Getting the peasants a better deal would require the support of developed European industry, so therefore the leading Bolsheviks believed their only choice was to hold onto power at all costs through dictatorial means while giving the necessary concessions to peasant demands until world revolution came to the rescue. World revolution never came however and the result was that the Stalinist bureacracy would consolidate itself through mass repression and impose collectivization/industrialization in order to resolve ‘the peasant question’. However without the capacity to organize as a class workers had no means to combat the rise of Stalinism, nor would they have the means to oppose the full imposition of markets after the collapse of the USSR later on in 1989.

Why is the legacy of Myasnikov important today? Today many Leninist sects aiming to mimic the Bolsheviks impose crippling forms of centralism and repression of open political debate. They refuse any kind of transparency and act like rackets. It is often forgotten that before the Russian Civil War the Bolshevik was an organization that was centralist but also genuinely democratic, where dissenting views were openly discussed and factions were free to draw up platforms and debate them. The loss of this culture of internal dissent and debate was a major blow to the Russian Revolution. This was not because of vague abstract ideals of “democracy” or “freedom” but because the proletariat relies on political freedom in a very concrete form to be able to effectively organize and rule. The proletariat is an organically divided class. Factions are an expression of these divisions and enforcing a centralism that ignores them rather than a centralism based on real unity simply allows for the consolidation of bureaucratic cliques. The proletariat must also have genuine forms of political association which are not subsumed to the class interests of petty-propietors and civil bureaucracy that can adequately allow the class to represent itself. By banning factions such a form of association was blocked off. In the USSR the result of this was that the proletariat is ultimately liquidated as a class, only capable short outbursts over immediate economic demands.

Today organizations must learn from the early Bolsheviks rather than mimic the militarized, hierarchical and bureaucratic-centralist party it would become. We must aim for organizations that instead can work towards unity while allowing a healthy culture of debate. This of course doesn’t mean “anything goes” and that any political view should be accepted. Communists must work around firm principles and coherent points of unity that are clearly understood. Within these points of unity there should be room for discussion and debate, but at a certain level of divergence debate becomes pointless. For example, if a faction formed within a communist organization supporting US war with Iran or offering ‘critical support’ to MRAs those members should be expelled without question. Certain things are simply not up for debate; we are not liberals. That said many differences can and should be tolerated within a communist organization and creating a stultifying atmosphere where debate is prohibited can only limit how effectively it can grasp and intervene in its real surrounding circumstances while building a genuine connection with the working class.

Further reading:

Bolshevik Opposition to Lenin: G. T. Miasnikov and the Workers’ Group by Paul Avrich

Manifesto of the Workers Group

Letter to G. Myasnikov by V.I. Lenin

The Latest Deception by Gavril Myasnikov

What is our current historical era and how did we get here?

To understand our current conditions and why the working class is currently so weak we must look at the changes that capitalism went through in the 20th century. 

1083017372north1Our current historical period in the broadest sense can be described as the “neo-liberal era” of capitalism. “Neo-liberalism” is sadly an abused term, but really it is just a means of describing the period of capitalism from around 1973 to today. Rather than being a result of an ideological shift from public regulation to market extremism it is a response to structural tendencies in capitalism, particularly the re-emergence of its classic crisis tendencies. In many senses neo-liberalism is really a return to the capitalism of the pre-1945 era, back to capitalism as usual before managerial strata of the bourgeoisie aimed to stabilize rule through Keynesian policies. The dominance of finance capital and labor markets with a large reserve army of the unemployed are hardly novel developments in capitalism. Yet unlike pre-1945 capitalism, the neo-liberal cycle of bourgeois rule was consolidated after new advances in the states ability to integrate class antagonisms through public interest liberalism. In many ways it is continuation of the post-war era’s attempt to liquidate class conflict. Additionally, with the former colonial world now formally independent, imperialism primarily functions through proxy wars rather than direct conflicts between world empires.

The Neo-liberal era according to many has come to end with the financial crisis of 2008, yet what exactly defines the supposed new conjecture is unclear. Much of this was misplaced optimism over the potential of ‘new social movements’ that developed after the 2008 crisis. As far as we are concerned we still are living under a hegemonic ideology which proudly proclaims the end of class conflict and even history itself, where the collapse of the USSR and turn to market reforms by the remains of the “socialist bloc” supposedly signals that no alternative to the market exists.

To understand our current moment we must look at the overall trajectory of capitalism and the class struggle over the past century. At the beginning of the 20th century capitalism had undergone a breakthrough in the development of its modern institutional forms with the managerial, financial and corporate revolutions. Imperialism was raging with an unprecedented intensity with world empires competing to expand colonization of Africa and Asia. From this tendency came World War I, both a crisis of the remaining old regime and the new capitalist one which was coming into dominance. Social-democracy and syndicalism had developed institutions capable of contesting class power, but for the most part ended up rallying behind the nation when the war began.

Out of the crisis of WWI came the most revolutionary and internationalist tendencies of the workers’ movement, as more and more workers realized that the war was a travesty that served the interests of their exploiters. Bolshevism, which would produce both Stalinism and left-communism (the latter the historical tendency we most identity with), emerges as a energizing factor for an international workers movement. In the interwar period world revolution seems to be a real item on the agenda, and capitalist ideologues as well socialists believe the end days of the system are happening before their eyes. At this point even the bourgeois economist Schumpter was able to envision the collapse of capitalism. Due to the intensity of social crisis in this period states are faced with the challenge of integrating antagonistic classes, giving rise to new developments in the bourgeois state. Fascism emerges as a reactionary mass movement, integralist nationalism using the forms of the workers movements to mobilize violent gangs of mostly demobilized soldiers, criminals and petty-bourgeois to crush communism and establish a more authoritarian form of capitalism. In the USA the New Deal emerged as a state response to crisis, not relying on squadrons of blackshirts but on democratic-republican workerism and the development of public interest group liberalism and the administrative welfare state.

The barbarism of WWII brings the United States and the USSR to the hegemonic states in the new world empire. The war sees scattered initiatives of proletarian internationalism but nothing that amounts to a real threat to the dominance of capitalism. Anti-fascist alliances of bourgeois states and workers movements and the acceptance of the labor movement by the capitalist state began a conscious project to integrate the proletariat into the nation as loyal “labor-citizens” that continued after WWII. Yet even before this much of the workers movement was preoccupied with “winning the battle for democracy” and modernizing society by crushing the remains of pre-capitalist state-forms. For example in Germany it was ultimately the SPD who finished the bourgeois revolution and consolidated democracy, while  Russian Social-Democracy kept no secrets about bourgeois revolution and winning political freedom being their initial tasks.

The post-war arrangement of capitalism saw a shift in power towards the managerial strata of the bourgeoisie, with an attempt to rationally plan capitalism on a global scale. Communist internationalism had essentially collapsed as national liberation movements cleared away most of the remains of direct colonial rule from the core to periphery. In the USA and Europe the managerial strata of the capitalist class engaged in a ‘social contract’ of sorts with labor where compliance with the state promised economic growth and wealth redistribution. While waves of wildcat strikes and militancy still existed (from those marginalized from the social contract like black and latino workers), the tendency of the working class towards being integrated into capitalism through this new public interest group liberalism was overwhelming. Both liberal technocrats and New Leftists declared that capitalism had overcome its internal crisis tendencies through the welfare states and mass consumption of the new mixed economies, with class-based revolutionary movements being a thing of the past. Some even believed the USSR and Western capitalist states were both converging towards the same type of planned bureaucratic society.

The return of economic crisis in the 1970’s proved these ideas wrong. Capitalism had failed to provide a means for infinite growth without economic chaos and the ruling class was restructured to the advantage of finance capital, its strategy of accumulation shifting towards an embrace of “creative destruction” and the anarchy of the market. By the late 1970’s a definite political project amongst the capitalist class emerged to maximize the competitiveness of markets and create a fluid global labor market. This meant a shift towards privatization rather than the ideal of the mixed economy, but not necessarily a weakening of the state.

If the post-war Keynesian era was a class compromise, the neo-liberal era would be a direct attack on the working class and their relative stability. Creating a more fluid global labor market would mean attacking the social wage and the power of collective bargaining in the core, increasing the reserve army of labor (more unemployment) and shifting investment in manufacturing towards newly proletarianized laborers in the periphery where development programs are imposed through international financial and state apparatuses. In the core manufacturing doesn’t disappear, but is largely restructured to become less labor intensive where it remains. As a result the masses of unskilled workers increasingly find themselves in service industry jobs such as a food and retail, which are far more decentralized and less concentrated than manufacturing industries. These factors, coupled with a large reserve army of labor, makes traditional union organization almost impossible.

Contrary to the fantasies of its ideologues, the “neo-liberal” arrangement didn’t roll back the power of the bureaucratic and authoritarian state. While civil servants were laid off and nationalized firms were privatized the actual repressive arm of the state took on forms more pervasive and controlling than ever. A rising surplus population of individuals excluded from waged labor can mean for many (both non-employed and those employed in low wage jobs) a reliance on often harmless black market activities and illegalism for survival. State policing and surveillance, especially in low income neighborhoods, takes on a newfound paternalism and intensity in order to control these populations and enforce capitalist relations. Due to discrimination in labor markets and the white supremacist origins of the US state much of this state violence is heavily racialized, creating a stark contradiction to the multicultural ideology of the ruling class.

So why didn’t the working class fight back and protect itself from falling into this position? A big part of it had to do with the previous success of efforts by the capitalist class to integrate the labor movement into the state, a route that was admittedly taken begrudgingly after years of violent struggle. The “class compromise” of the post war era saw an overwhelming tendency towards workers choosing loyalty to the state over radical organizations as a means to secure reforms and a higher standard of living. A lack of even basic defensive organization independent from the state and the conservatism of the labor bureaucracy made resistance difficult. Labor bureaucrats already used to giving concessions to the state would have a difficult time mounting real defenses against privatization campaigns. State co-operation may have been the option with the most immediate benefits for workers in the post-war economy but in the long run it weakened the ability of the working class to fight for its basic interests.

This integration of the proletariat with the state didn’t come out of nowhere and didn’t occur smoothly without resistance either. Both social-democracy and Stalinism, two political phenomena that for us signify the ‘left-wing of capital” played a key role in this process. The political role of both these movements was rallying workers in the name of nation and democracy while systematically repressing genuine communist movements movements that developed within the class. Rather than acting as a force for communism the workers movement tended towards what G.M. Tamas termed “Rousseauian socialism”, socialism which aims to unite “the people” against caste society (the remains of the old regime in Europe continued after the turn of the century) as opposed to class society, which is ultimately only fully realized under capitalism. This was what the politics of social-democracy, the Popular Front, and the Chinese revolution ultimately were about – wiping away the remains of the old regime society that stood in the way of capitalist development while aiming to fully realize the ideals of democracy and civic equality.

The weakness of working class today is not simply due to repression from the state and fascists thugs. These certainly played a role, but much of the left also played a role by repressing the most radical wings of the movement and integrating the working class into their respective national states. The statist/nationalist left contributed much help in the development of the modern labor bureaucracy which once helped contain and manage waged labor. Yet as soon as these institutions become a barrier to the accumulation of capital they come under attack, a tendency that becomes fully fleshed out in the “neo-liberal” period. Largely integrated into the system and lacking independent political institutions, the working class is largely incapable of resisting the more direct phase of intensive disciplining to the domination of the market that marks the current era.

Whether the workers movement was doomed to act as a modernizing force for capitalism to overcome the residuals of the pre-capitalist world or simply made the wrong choices is a pointless question to ask. We can only look at how history played out and theorize on what objective factors may have influenced this. We should also not forget that despite the overwhelming hegemony of what we would call “the left wing of capital” various minorities within the old workers movement looked beyond the bourgeois politics of the hegemonic left and struggled against its role in integrating the proletariat into capitalism. This “communist left” consisting of figures like Amadeo Bordiga, Anton Pannekoek, Sylvia Pankhurst and Gavril Miasnikov was probably the most advanced political expression of the proletariat as a class struggling for Communist society to have existed and serves as vital inspiration for those looking to overcome capital today, though many aspects of their politics may be outdated.

The failure of the left in the 20th century to transcend capitalism has left a legacy where radical social change can only lead to the spectre of “totalitarianism”, where class society can never be overthrown but merely be replaced by another form of it where the new oppressors are only worse than the old. The collapse of the Soviet Union, market reforms in China and Vietnam or the embrace of neo-liberal policies by social-democratic parties have shown that the strategies and vision of the official left to be bankrupt. To most it is clearer than ever that the old ways didn’t work, that Stalinism and social-democracy didn’t offer liberation to the workers. Yet the common sense reaction to this is not to embrace a more radical and critical form of communist politics instead of the old guard left, but rather to reject the possibility of any real alternative to the ruling order. We can hardly blame people for this reaction either, as there is hardly any real alternative for people to choose.

The situation this has led to is very contradictory – on one end the irrationality and barbarism of capitalism is more exposed than ever, yet the formation of a working class collectivity capable of challenging the current order faces an array of obstacles. In the United States and other core economies decentralization of workplaces and de-industrialization leave the workforce largely incapable of the kind of union organization that marked the 20th century workers movement, where workplaces with high concentrations of workers were the norm. The traditional routes of electoral action, if they ever were a correct tactic, are also essentially blocked from having any efficacy as the state-apparatuses of modern capitalism are more subsumed to its laws of motion than ever before. Any party coming to power through electoral victories is bound to make compromises with the middle classes and other bourgeois parties and become managers of capitalism. Ideology also plays a role, as the naturalization of market relations due to their increased penetration of social life and the failure of 20th century socialism makes capitalism appear to be the only way for humanity to exist.

As hopeless as the situation may currently appear we must keep a clear head and avoid embracing despair. The collapse of Stalinism and social-democracy, though their remains may still haunt us, gives us a relatively clean slate to rebuild a genuine communist movement. Moving forward will require a strategy of patience and experimentation in new forms of organization. It will also mean a rejection of the legacy of the statist/nationalist left whose projects have only led back to capitalism.