When my distinguished son, Professor Tobias Barrington Wolff, was a little boy who went by the name of “Toby,” he found it hard to get a word in edgewise at dinner, what with his big brother talking about chess and his mother talking about literature and his father talking about philosophy and politics, so when there was a temporary lull at the table, he would stick his hand up and say, “Two things,” thus laying claim to enough air time to express a little bit of what was bubbling up in his fertile brain.
Lately, while I have been obsessing about turning eighty-three, there have been a number of comments posted on this blog that call for some response, so I feel like sticking up my hand and saying “Two things” before I am flooded with more interesting comments.
Let me start with a three-parter posted by Tom Hockett three days ago. His first comment was a correction of my account of the death of Trotsky. I said hatchet, he says ice pick. I am sure he is right. I fear I was relying on family tradition rather than scholarship. I have read Isaac Deutscher’s great biography of Stalin, but have never read his magisterial two-volume biography of Trotsky.
Here is his second comment: “It might be well either to add a bit more to your provisional definition of 'socialism' at the start of the post, to define 'state capitalism' as employed toward the end of the post, or both. For one can readily imagine Soviet or, especially, contemporary Chinese leaders arguing that their polity-economies meet your 'collective control of the means of production' condition as stated in defining the former. I presume that you would distinguish between socialism and state capitalism (a) partly by reference to the degree to which the 'collectivity' or 'state' in question is democratic, (b) partly by reference to the degree to which the state or collective in question extracts surplus value from labor, or (c) both. I imagine that were we able to elaborate option (a) adequately, we would effectively address (b) - and hence (c) - as well in so doing.”
I agree with this pretty much completely, but I would add something that is often not emphasized, but which I think is crucial [and also completely in accord with Marx’s own views, for those to whom that matters.] Socialism is an economic and political formation that is possible only after the means and social relations of production have reached a very advanced stage of development, something that was not at all true of either Russia or China. This is a complex matter which I tried to address in at least a preliminary fashion in my essay “The Future of Socialism” [which, I am pleased to see, has been looked at 830 times by folks using the link at the top of this page to box.net.] Socialism is not, at base, a set of moral principles or a vision of The Good Society. It is a stage in the evolution of the economy, brought about by struggle but requiring in addition the development of the forces of production, including knowledge, organization of production and distribution, and the education of the working population. It is not inevitable, not by any means, alas, but it is impossible without that prior development.
Tom Hockett’s third comment concerns socialism in one country. He argues that the size and wealth of the American economy is such that it might very well be able to carry off a transition to socialism even in a capitalist world economic system. About this I am really agnostic. I do not have anything like the knowledge that would be required to make a useful judgment about the possibility. I would certainly like America to try! But Tom Hockett goes on to offer a suggestion about which I really am rather skeptical. Here is what he says:
“The early Soviet Union of course didn't have quite the cards that the US has now, but it was not without vast human and other material resources; and the productive and military power that it had amassed by the early 1930s constituted a 'growth miracle' like few that have ever been seen. Against that backdrop, it is far from clear to me that the Soviet Union could not have sufficiently democratized over the course of the 1930s as to become truly socialist in your sense rather than state capitalist in your sense. Presumably the reason that this didn't happen is that the hostile environment into which the Soviet Union was born made the assumption of power by autocratically-minded and not altogether unjustifiably paranoid people - the kind who are least apt to relinquish power once internal and external threats objectively diminish - more likely. If I am right about that, then the US might well be the reason, not that Soviet socialism 'failed,' but that Soviet socialism never came to be.”
Now let us be clear. I do not read or speak Russian, and I have never visited Russia, so my opinions are those of a rank amateur, but on the basis of what I think I know [including what I learned from that Deutscher biography], I very seriously doubt that the failure of democracy to develop in the Soviet Union can in any way be laid at America’s door. I actually do think that is a plausible claim about Cuba, but there the circumstances were very different.
Well, that is quite an interruption to the dinner table conversation, and it is only the first thing! I will let someone else speak up, and then return with my second thing.