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Wednesday, December 28, 2016


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]  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.


s. wallerstein said...

After the Russian Revolution, the Western powers, including the United States, sent troops and supplies to back the White Counter-revolutionaries in the ensuing civil war. This gave Soviet leaders a pretext and maybe a good reason to repress the opposition. I'm far from an expert on that historical period, but
in the midst of a civil war backed by foreign powers, most leaders, in this case, Lenin, will tend to suppress dissent.

Wikipedia informs me that the U.S. sent 13,000 troops, which is a goodly number.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I know all that, of course.

s. wallerstein said...

I mention those factors not because I doubt your knowledge of European history, but because I wonder if you are giving them their due weight in your analysis.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

I have been wrestling with the concept of exploitation/surplus labor for awhile now; my issue is, if the Labor Theory of Value is false (as you hold, and I think so do I, though perhaps based on misunderstanding), then what, precisely, does exploitation consist in? How can surplus labor be extracted from the laborer if the LTV is false?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

See me paper, "A Critique and Reevaluation of the Labor theory of Value" for a mathematical answer to that question. If anyone is interested I can write a lengthy post about it.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Whoops. "A Critique and Reinterpretation ..." It is archived at via the link at the top of this page.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

I am neither good at nor fond of maths (though I value highly those who do understand them), and my intellectual interests are often more "big picture", but if you could write a post for a humanities semi-expert but mathematical novice, I would surely appreciate it!

s. wallerstein said...

I second the motion of Comrade Dude Diogenes.

Charles Pigden said...

Deutscher's biography is a thee-volume rather than a two volume affair. Also a tad too forgiving for my taste. See Volkogonov's life for a more critical take.

I too am interested in how a marxisante theory of exploitation can be resurrected in the absence of the LTV. I'm fairly radical about this. I think there is no such thing as value as opposed to price.

s. wallerstein said...

Charles Pigden,

What are the sins of Trotsky that Deutscher forgives in excess?

REKittinget said...

Trotsky was killed with an ice ax. You and Mr Hockett had differing concepts of the same object. The ice ax was also a strange tool to be found in Mexico City.

Charles Pigden said...

What are the sins of Trotsky that Deutscher forgives in excess? Mainly murder

s. wallerstein said...

When the Deutscher biography was republished by Verso about 12 or 13 years ago, I recall reading a review which began with the affirmation (not an exact quote): for those of you under 60, Trotsky was not a member of Amnesty International.

Trotsky was a revolutionary. He headed the Red Army. He had people shot, he oked the repression of the Kronstadt revolt, he had no problems with shooting the Tsar and his family, etc., etc.

Did he commit murder? Did he kill someone or order someone to be killed for his own personal benefit, in order to rob them, to eliminate a rival in love,
to obtain an inheritance, to revenge an insult, etc.? I doubt it.

When one looks at Trotsky a hundred years after the Bolshevik revolution and asks oneself whether it was all worth it, one may well wonder whether from a consequentialism perspective it might not have been better not to overthrow the Tsar or Kerensky and to let capitalism evolve in Russia.

However, Trotsky did not have the perspective of a 100 years hindsight. As far as I know, he acted in good faith, he made lots of mistakes (as we all do) and he was always guided by the illusion (yes, illusion) that he represented the proletariat and a higher good, that of ending capitalism exploitation.

For me, that makes Trotsky a tragic hero, not a villain.

Charles Pigden said...

Did Trotsky commits murder. Well he certainly sanctioned war crimes involving the deliberate killing large numbers of people many of them innocent, and that makes him a murderer in my eyes.

I don’t think it very likely that anything like democratic socialism would have been likely to be instigated under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky with or without Allied Intervention. Here’s a letter from Lenin to the Bolsheviks in Penza, not far from Simbirsk, written in August 1918, which illustrates this point:

Comrades! The kulak uprising in [your] five districts must be crushed without pity. The interests of the whole revolution demand it, for the ‘final and decisive battle’ with the kulaks everywhere is now engaged. An example must be made. 1) Hang (and I mean hang so that the people can see) not less than 100 known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers. 2) Publish their names. 3) Take all their grain away from them. 4) Identify hostages as we described in our telegram yesterday. Do this so that for hundreds of miles around the people can see, tremble, know and cry: they are killing and will go on killing the bloodsucking kulaks. Cable that you have received this and carried out [your instructions].
Yours, Lenin.
P.S. Find tougher people.”

This was written in August 1918 that is BEFORE the Red Terror was officially instigated, following Fanny Kaplan’s attempt to assassinate Lenin on the 30th of August. (See Volkogonov’s life of Lenin pp. 69-70) The man who could pen such a missive was, to put the point politely, somewhat lacking in democratic instincts.

A later instruction approved by the Politbureau on 11th of June 1921 following the successful suppression of Antonov’s rebellion in Tambov:

“Antonov's band [in Tambov] has been smashed by the decisive action of our troops, it has been scattered and is being captured piecemeal. In order finally to tear out all the SR-bandit roots … the All-Union Executive Committee orders as follows: 1. Citizens who refuse to give their names are to be shot on the spot without trial; 2. The penalty of hostage-taking should be announced and they are to be shot when arms are not surrendered. 3. In the event of concealed arms being found, shoot the eldest worker in the family on the spot and without trial. 4. Any family which harboured a bandit is subject to arrest and deportation from the province, their property to be confiscated and the eldest worker in the family to be shot without trial. 5. The eldest worker of any families hiding members of the family or the property of bandits is to be shot on the spot without trial. 6. If a bandit's family flees, the property is to be distributed among peasants loyal to the Soviet regime and the abandoned houses burnt or demolished. 7. This order is to be carried out strictly and mercilessly. It is to be read at village meetings”

I see nothing remotely heroic in people who could issue such an order or head a regime which could sanction such things. To my mind they have lost the benefit of any doubt.

s. wallerstein said...

"Hero" has several meanings.

One sense of "hero" is someone who a model for others. For example, I could say that Socrates or Spinoza are heroes in that sense.

I said that Trotksy is a tragic hero. That's in the sense that Brutus (in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar) or Hamlet are tragic heroes. They aren't role models. They are well-intentioned people, who are larger than life, who have a tragic flaw or flaws (hubris, according to the Greeks), whose life project goes wrong, who may leave lots of blood behind them, but who evince what we may call "nobility", etc.

By the way, Lenin never apppealed to me much (he's too full of hatred and resentment: that's clear from his writings): Trotsky, on the other hand, seems to act from nobler motives and to have been seen by others as noble.

The review of Deutcher's trilogy I refered to and misquoted is here: it answers or tries to answer your ethical questioning better than I can.

I'd be interested in what you have to say after reading the review. It's fairly short.

Charles Pigden said...

Dear S Wallerstein.

Sorry to be so long replying. I hope you won't’ find me too harsh in my response as I often admire your posts and have just emerged from one bruising controversy. But I am sorry too to say that Ascherson does not convince me that there is anything whatsoever to admire in Trotsky.

From a consequentialist point of view policies that involve murdering, exiling and brutalizing large numbers of people (hundreds of thousands perhaps millions) are only justified if it is reasonable to believe two things:

(1) that it is highly likely that if you pursue these savage policies something wonderful is highly likely to happen, so wonderful indeed as to compensate for all the carnage.

(2) that the wonderful thing won’t happen UNLESS you pursue the savage policies.

In other words it must have been reasonable to believe (indeed irrational not to believe) that a wonderful socialist utopia would almost certainly be established in the future if and only if they committed terror in the present on a massive scale.

It was never remotely sensible to believe either (1) or (2). (Of these (2) is the least defensible since it is inconsistent with Marxism as it was generally understood. The ultimate triumph of the proletariat is supposed to be inevitable. Hence it worth starting a revolution only if you have a rational assurance that this will indeed ‘lessen the birth pangs’. They had no such assurance, certainly nothing that could be derived from Marx’s writings. ) Thus the defense of Lenin and Trotsky has to be that they committed atrocities because of a dogmatic and irrational faith in falsehoods. Their lives were moral catastrophes because they were intellectual disasters, prolonged exercises in self-delusion. They were a pair of violent authoritarians who became more violent and more authoritarian in the effort to defeat the opposition that their policies predictably provoked. (Of these perhaps the most idiotic was deliberately induced hyper-inflation which made it impossible to pay the peasants for their grain thus forcing the Bolsheviks to adopt a policy of terror in the villages in order to feed the towns.) Trotsky and Lenin created a terroristic regime in the short term and helped to establish something even worse in the longer term. Even the claim that the Stalinist state was justified because it ultimately succeed in defeating Hitler is distinctly dubious since without Bolshevism there might have been no Nazism and it is very far from clear that Russia would not have industrialized as successfully, if not more successfully, without Bolshevism. (China’s successful industrialization occurred under capitalism not communism, and it is South Korea not North Korea that is the major industrial power.) It is true that the Stalinist state eventually won the war, but it very nearly lost it and the almost unimaginable losses during the first phases of the conflict were largely due to features of the Soviet system as instituted by Lenin and developed by Stalin.

On Deutscher I would say this. He’s not very honest. For example he says nothing about Trotsky’s role in developing blocking units, (necessitated by his policy of forcing people to fight for a cause that many of them, very reasonably, did not believe in). He says nothing about the use of poison gas to suppress the Tambov revolt. And he downplays Trotsky’s role in provoking the revolt of the Czech Legion which led to the loss of Siberia to Kolchak’s regime: “Every Czech found on the railway is to be shot on the spot” cabled Trotsky to the Cheliabinsk Soviet, an unfortunate order combining brutality with stupidity as the Czech Legion was considerably better armed than the local Bolshevik authorities. (See Figes ‘A People’s Tragedy, p. 577.) Here Trotsky’s high-handed and indeed murderous attitude helped create the crisis that he then had to solve at the cost of thousands of lives. Not a lot to like here.

s. wallerstein said...

First of all, I said previously that I will not defend Lenin, only Trotsky. It's not that I don't think that Lenin can be defended but I have little sense of him as a person and hence, a complete inabilty to put myself in his place.

Trotsky believed (1., without of course your adjective "savage". He believed that the Bolchevik revolution was the first step towards a socialist utopia. However, it was not sufficient in itself since only if a revolution were to occur in Western and/or Central Europe, could a socialist utopia come about. Trotsky believed that the "real" revolution would occur in Germany. There was no revolution in Germany of course.

Trotsky "savagery" and that of the Bolcheviks in general must be seen in the context of World War 1. For 4 years the Western democracies sent their youth to be slaughtered in an utterly pointless war. I have no idea how many millions died in the trenches fighting over 100 meters of territory. Those who refused to fight or showed any signs of cowardice were shot by the same Western democracies. See Kubrick's excellent film "Paths of Glory" for a powerful description of this slaughter.

In that context there is nothing strange that Trotsky shot hostages and was willing to wade through blood to reach a utopia that he believed was almost within reach.
I agree that Bertrand Russell, who as who know, opposed the war completely and was willing to go to jail for his conviction, is our best role model here, but few were as foresighted and lucid as Russell.

You say that Trotsky (and Lenin) committed their atrocities (not much worse than those committed by the Western democracies in World War 1 and no worse than those committed by their enemies, the White Russians) out of a "dogmatic and irrational faith in falsehoods". Well, many of things that Trotsky and Lenin believed turned out to be false. It's very easy to judge historical figures with the benefit of hindsight. Woodrow Wilson made a mess of Europe and the mess that Wilson and others made in the Treaty of Versailles led, according to many, to the rise of fascism, and I suppose that we can accuse almost everyone who participated in the Treaty of Versailles of an "irrational belief in falsehoods", except Keynes who apparently saw what would occur.

Out of the whole mess, we have two people to admire, Russell and Keynes.

By the way, I am a bit skeptic of the claims that without Communism everything in the world would have developed smoothly and justly. It is very clear that the fear of communism, especially during the cold war, but even in the period between the two world wars, led capitalists and capitalist leaders to carry out reforms of capitalism in order to keep their working classes from becoming communists: the New Deal in the U.S., the Popular Front in France, the Labor governments in Great Britain, the incredible advances of social democracy in the Nordic countries. That is, no Trotsky and no Lenin, maybe no New Deal, no National Health Service in Great Britain. So maybe the reds did some good after all.