written with Will
The Johnson-Forest Tendency (JFT) has been at the foundation of our project here at Gathering Forces. The theoretical contributions JFT made to the worldwide working class movement place them in the traditions of Left-libertarian socialism, libertarian Marxism, and a broader anti-authoritarianism.
With the Left and Marxist tradition in the US historically dominated by tendencies that formulated a socialism ‘from above’ – namely, Stalinism, Social Democracy, and variants of Trotskyism – JFT has played a pivotal role challenging these traditions by restoring the notion that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself to the center of Marxism.
The method and conclusions of the Johnson-Forest Tendency contextually emerged from their break with Trotskyism in regards to Trotsky’s failure to understand the state-capitalist nature of Russia. The document State Capitalism & World Revolution (SCWR) is a statement of this break, and attempts to clarify some of the fundamental questions facing revolutionaries at the time. Is Russian “Communism” what socialism/ the new society actually looks like? What is Stalinism: a revolutionary force or counter-revolution? What is the unique feature of the modern bureaucracy under capitalism?
These are just some of the key questions this work tries to get at. Looking around the world and the left, these questions are still with us today.
Lots of militants roll their eyes when discussions over Russia begin. After all, James is known for demanding the Americanization of Bolshevism and here we are talking about Russia! Considering everything going on in the world and the hundreds of other books a militant could read right now, why look at SCWR?
Although it is over fifty years old, it was a profound advance on Marxist theory and still relevant for militants today. In many ways many of the questions the book raises have yet to be surpassed in terms of the development of capitalism and the revolutionary Left’s response to the dilemma’s facing oppressed people.
The following are questions raised in the first 5 chapters of SCWR:
- What is Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism? Where does Trotsky think the Stalinists will end up? What does he think the Stalinist relationship to the bourgeoisie is?
- What is JFT’s analysis of Stalinism? According to JFT what is Stalinism’s relationship to private property and to the Russian “Communist” state? According to JFT what are the implications of Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism?
- What do they mean by “the fundamental antagonism of society was the contradiction between the development of the productive forces and the social relations of production”? Why can only worker self-management of production solve this fundamental contradiction of capitalism?
- What is the difference in understanding crisis and Russian “Communism” when using falling rate of profit in contrast to the under consumption argument? (10) What are the implications of the under consumptionist argument? (13)
- If capitalism can plan, then does under consumption disappear, does crisis disappear, does the falling rate of profit disappear? Can capitalism plan completely? Can capitalism’s plan negate working class resistance or the falling rate of profit?
- What is JFT trying to say about bureaucracy? What is the bureaucracies’ relationship to capital and to workers? What is significant about the sentence, “The bureaucracy inevitably must substitute the struggle over consumption, higher wages, pensions, education ,etc., for a struggle in production” (41). What does it mean to say that bureaucracy is an organic outgrowth of capitalist development and working class resistance? What is JFT trying to do when comparing the mode of labor in Russia and the mode of labor in the United States?
- What is JFT’s critique of Trotskyism in relationship to the plan and the bureaucracy? Why is this important when one is attempting to destroy the bureaucracy and struggle for direct democracy?
16 thoughts on “State Capitalism and the Break with Trotskyism”
Do you distinguish the JFT view of Stalinist state capitalism from the (virtually Schactmanite) view expressed by CLR James in his foreword to “Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways?”
Shane, can you expound on how they are different and how he has a Shachtmanite understanding of Stalinism in MRC?
Sure. “Hitler was no sooner destroyed than Stalin threatened to overwhelm not only Europe but the whole of the world…in every type of country, the most highly developed and the most backward, have arisen tens of thousands of educated men, organizers, administrators, intellectuals, labor leaders, nationalist leaders, who are ready to do in their own country exactly what the Communists are doing in Russia and look to Russia as their fatherland.” (1978 ed., Ch.1, pp. 12-13)
The above may even be more Burnham than Shachtman, but it certainly defines the Stalinist bureaucracy as a new class threatening to take over the world–the essence of Shachtman’s “bureaucratic collectivist” doctrine that led to his total capitulation–and seems to me very hard to reconcile with the original (and historically proven correct) “Johnsonite” conception of the Stalin bureaucracy as a restored capitalist class subject willy-nilly to the law of value and dependent on the capitalist world market.
I guess I’ll need to look over that book because it isn’t immediately apparent to me that James is calling the Stalinist bureaucracy a new class from the quote you’ve provided. If James counterposed that to the possibility of “democracy” in the “free world” I might see what you mean.
As to whether Unity & Struggle makes a distinction I can’t say. SC&WR is a foundational text of ours but MRC is not, though I’d say we’re very Jamesian in influence. We also have many critiques of James that were consistent throughout his life and some that emerged late.
But I’m pretty positive he didn’t retreat into Shachtmanism or Burnhamism (which I think are related tendencies). I think he was consistently opposed to the labor bureaucracy and state of the US as he was of the USSR, but one of his own pitfalls was in seeing the possibilities for socialism or direct democracy in the Third World as nil, for their backward social development meant they needed a vanguard party or progressive state before socialism was on the horizon. We reject that entirely, still if we think different regions are subject to their own objective conditions and pose specific challenges to self-governance.
I’ll share some notes I took when I recently re-read SC&WR and relate them to some of the questions posed in the post.
For questions #1 and #7 per Trotskyist critiques of Stalinism and JFT’s response, as a faction breaking from Trotskyism through SC&WR, we a sharp rebuttal to Trotskyism.
Trotsky put at the center that nationalization of private property was the fundamental step towards communism. However they are willing to fudge it when that nationalization is not controlled by workers. They’re willing to say Stalinist Russia is degenerated. They say little about who is controlling the means of production, and the character of the economy that is the product of Stalinist bureaucracy and how in realty it is more similar economic social relations in the U.S., both being forms of state capitalism.
Trotskyism of the 1930s/40s, and even today, spent much time concerning revolutionary leadership. It felt Russia, if it had better revolutionary leadership, would be able to progress from Stalinism. By the mid 1930s most all the old Bolsheviks were dead or killed by Stalin. Trotsky in 1940. JFT noted this was problematic for they felt Trotskyists rarely spoke about the struggles of workers themselves and their own capacities to be self-governing. Instead Trotskyists wrung their hands about problems of the Party and revolutionary leadership from above. This is a key break that also lead James to reject the vanguard party completely in Facing Reality.
Their is also the sense from Trotskyists that Stalinists are dishonest, whereas Trots are honest of the problems of socialist revolution. JFT sees it much different per a workers rebellion from below. JFT poses it quite differently from it being Stalinists as dishonest, needing reform and education from Trotskyist or whoever. JFT sees the differences as much more profound per their quote on pg. 58:
“Honesty and dishonesty, sincerity and betrayal imply that we shall do what they do, because [Stalinist or the workers] have supple spines, have failed to do. We do not propose to do what they have failed to do. We are different from them in morals because we are different from them in everything, origin, aims, purposes, strategy, tactics and ends. This fundamental antagonism JFT derive from the theory of state capitalism.”
It is not about reforming Stalinism, or the plan, or the bureaucracy…but completely sweeping it away. It is a system that is beyond repair or hope. This is the profound break that JFT made with Trotskyism through the theory of state capitalism and their focus on work relations and workers self-management. JFT feels Trots continuing to try to reform Stalinism instead of cutting it off at the root actually indirectly boost and legitimize the Stalinist project.
Per question #2 JFT sees Stalinism as the highest stage and logical conclusion of rationalism, the Plan, bureaucracy, trying to keep an orderly world and as much production as possible in a rational way be it through technology and/or more efficient labor practice and governance, etc. On rationalism JFT says Stalinism bureaucracy tries to get as much surplus labor value out of workers as possible, and that their idealism is coming from trying to perfect to bureaucracy…”to lead like they’ve never led before”. This means workers have to work like they’ve never worked before. This relates to Stalinism believing a major problem in Russia, and many other countries seeking socialism is that of underconsumption. JFT counter this all saying the problem is that of social relations in the workplace through the control of the means of production. Stalinists believed a more perfected state capitalism, experts coming up with a more perfect Plan, was socialism in action. This though was state capitalism, of so-called communists, experts, bureaucrats controlling factories and industry using capitalist modes of competition between workers, factories, and control of workers and the means of production that smashed workers self-management.
A great quote from page 121:
“The philosophy of Stalinism (state plan, state capitalism) is the philosophy of the elite, the bureaucracy, the organizers, the leaders, clothed in Marxist terminology. It is the extreme, the historical limit of the rationalism of the bourgeoisie, carefully organized to look like a new revolutionary doctrine.”
And another from page 123:
Stalinists trying to divorce Marx from Hegel, Hegel from philosophy due to the dialectic. This is to drive out the contradictions that state capitalism presents…the biggest is that its Plan suppresses class struggle though states it gives a better life for workers through increased labor, defending the supposed classless nature of state property and the plan. (123)
So the idea that work will set you free. Isn’t that what the Nazis held up as a slogan in their concentration camps? We see this also in China too with forced labor production in the Great Leap Forward that broke up families and killed millions through overwork and starvation with this “Plan” failed.
JFT is clear that Stalinism is not the product of bumbling idiots or dishonesty like Trots said at the time, but ruthless and clear in its aim and worldview. And that ruthlessness beget a ruthless critique and response of Stalinist and Trotskyism, which sought to be a left reformist critique of Stalinism instead of trying to defeat it completely.
JFT was more than a “better” critique of stalinism. It was an attempt to master the essence of the marxist method. Part of this was expressed in the difference between JFT and Trotsky in relation to Stalinism, but this is only a particular not the universal. Its not just a question of what JFT said about this or that, but how did JFT relate to marxism differently than trotsky. That relation epxresses a different method. WHat is the content of this method that JFT had and Trotskyism didnt? JFT taught their members, like MArty Glaberman and Selma James, Hegel and the Three volumes of capital. Once you put this theoritical content into the revolutionary AK 47 form, bullets come out like DRUM and the classic essay Race, Class and Gender.
Before jumping into answering the questions folks posed, here are some quick reflections meant to put the text in context and to think about WHY we are discussing it now. The introduction by Paul Buhle states:
“the insight expressed here takes us from the world of Trotsky, Stalin and [Communist leader] Norman Thomas to the world of the New Left, Black Power, and Polish Solidarity. But the form of argumentation in State Capitalism and World Revolution threatens to obscure the actual breakthrough from the casual reader. As [CLR] James would recall in his autobiographical notes, ‘the thing that mattered chiefly [to Marxists in the 1940s] was the correct political line that had enabled Lenin to defeat all his rivals and lead the Russian Revolution to success.’ If this project in retrospect had been , “a complete illusion”, then “we believed in it completely and were able to examine it and find the weaknesses that were in it.”
In other words, SCWR is full of technical Marxist terms and references to polemics with specific Trotskyists at the time, and all this can be inaccessible and outdated on the surface. It all can appear to be part of a vanguard party tradition of obsessing over the proper “line” and getting into all sorts of debates about ridiculous technicalities…. but in reality what JFT was doing in this text was using Marxist terminology to attack some of the fundamental authoritarian tendencies of the Leninist vanguard party tradition and to explain why the revolutions of the early 20th century had degenerated and how they could be revived and reignited… he was trying to turn the best part of the Marxist tradition against the worst part in order to give birth to a new revolutionary upsurge. But to really understand this we need to understand who he was debating against and why.
Paul Buhle continues:
“From the first lines of the original introduction, the text bristles with manifestations of the immanent critique [criticizing Marxism from inside the Marxist tradition], attacks on Trotskyist groups and on perspectives unknown outside the small [Trotskyist] movement. State Capitalism and World Revolution must be seen as an exercise in self-clarity or it will not likely be seen at all. Even the omissions we would now regard as major take on a distinct meaning in this light. The book seems oblivious to ethnicity and religion, always central to workingclass life, and even to race, an area where James had previously made fundamental contributions [as a major forerunner and mentor of Black Power movements worldwide]. Atomic armament and the struggle against it, the “Woman Question” [as Marxist then called women’s liberation] that had re-emerged sharply during the Second World War and would shortly become a central theoretical issue for James’ group – these issues too, were put aside. Culture, the keynote of social movements since the early 1960s [and a major focus of James’ other writings] can hardly be found at all. An almost syndicalist intensity on the shop-floor struggle and its implications crowds out these other issues. Only the workers, their essential similarity and potential world-wide links, come fully into view. And that is surely the point. James had to narrow the focus so that the outlines would become clear.”
JFT was probably the least class-reductionist Marxist tendency in the United States in the 1940s, a major forerunner and influence on the Black Liberation and Women’s liberation movements that emerged in the 60s. But it was their ability to focus so narrowly in this text on key debates in Marxist theory that allowed them to establish the theoretical method that they would later use to make such drastic breakthroughs. I would argue in studying this text, and its companion, Facing Reality, we also need to focus in on the key theoretical issues that JFT was debating out and use those as a way to sharpen our own theoretical methods. Then we can use these methods, like they did, to analyze culture, war, race, gender, religion, ethnicity, ecology, and everything else that does and should matter to well-rounded revolutionaries. So if we focus in for a second on this difficult text it’s not because we don’t care about all the other important aspects of revolutionary politics, its because we want to sharpen out tools to return to every other question even stronger. After all, where did Grace Lee Boggs learn how to be such a dynamic feminist and Black liberation leader? It was by writing State Capitalism and World Revolution, after intensely reading and critiquing Marx and Lenin’s writings!
I have read State Capitalism and World Revolution (SC&WR) a number of times. I will try to answer some of the questions in the post directly using the words and analysis of JFT. What we see is a ruthless critique of Stalinism and their break from Trotskyism with the publication of SC&WR.
Many Trotskyists during the time of SC&WR’s publication (1950) believed Stalinist Russia was still a project of socialism that could be reformed. They believed that Russia was still a workers state, although much deformed, because private property was nationalized. For them it was just a matter of getting this back into the hands of workers, of the old Soviets that were smashed within a couple years after the 1917 revolution. Trotskyists also concerned themselves greatly about the role of revolutionary leadership over the self-activity of working folks. By the late 1930s most all of the original Bolsheviks in Russia are dead or in exile. So for Trotsky and Trotskyist the crisis is over reforming the leadership in Russia and Stalinist Parties worldwide. So there is a focus on the crisis of revolutionary leadership and little to no attention paid workers themselves and their own capacities to enact their liberation according the JFT.
Related to that is the idea Trotskyists believed that Stalinism is somehow dishonest, has bumbling leadership, are comedians, and that Trotskyism offers honesty towards leading socialist revolution. Again we see Trots feeling if just Stalinist ideas and leadership were reformed we’d be on a better path to socialist revolution. JFT slams this argument completely in SC&WR. First, it notes that Stalinism is not bumbling system but ruthless and clear in its aim and worldview. And that worldview is rationalism taken to its utmost, of the state Plan, of the attempt to perfect bureaucracy, “lead like they never led before” to the aims to extract as much surplus labor value out of workers, make them work harder for the state. This takes the state enacting capitalist social labor relations upon workers; factories competing against factories, workers worked to death literally, with bureaucrats saying its for the good of the country, the revolution, it will make you free. So JFT sees Stalinism for the ruthlessness it is in theory and practice. For the question of honesty JFT say this:
“Honesty and dishonesty, sincerity and betrayal imply that we shall do what they do, because [Stalinist or the workers] have supple spines, have failed to do. We do not propose to do what they have failed to do. We are different from them in morals because we are different from them in everything, origin, aims, purposes, strategy, tactics and ends. This fundamental antagonism JFT derive from the theory of state capitalism.” (58)
So its about smashing the worldview of Stalinism, not reforming it. JFT feels Trotskyists in reality bolster Stalinism through their reformist critiques. They have not come up with the philosophy of State capitalism to explain how Stalinism obscures class relations, and essentially capitalist means of production and social relations to workers, cloaked in Marxist terminology…believing the crisis is of underconsumption and therefore more efficient production is needed on the backs of workers planed to the heights by an “enlightened” bureaucracy. China under Mao, especially during the Great Leap Forwards, is witness to the great tragedy this philosophy bought upon the backs of peasants and working folks of all background. It is the state capitalism that suppresses the class struggle, period. JFT make honest and clear as day, saying Stalinism and state capitalism in nothing to be reformed, but destroyed.
I’m going to take a stab at some of these questions.
In regards to #1, Trotsky thinks that Stalinism’s support of “socialism in one country” would lead to tensions that would tear the Comintern (international Stalinist organization) apart. Socialism in one country meant in theory that it was possible to achieve just that, socialism within national boundaries of one country. In practice it meant that Stalinist Russia put its interests before that of the proletarian revolution internationally, often dictating to the Communist Parties of other countries policies that strategically did not make sense unless you were willing to sacrifice that particular national party in the name of Russia. It was these national tensions that Trotsky thought would tear the Comintern apart.
Trotsky conceptualized Stalinist Russia as centrist, between the two poles of bourgeois democracy on the right and a proletarian state on the left. What he meant by this was that both the bourgeoisie and the working class have a definite relationship to production, but the Stalinist bureaucracy did not. So it would be taken over by either one of these poles.
Question #2 asks what the Johnson-Forrest Tendency thought about all this. They believed that the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia was a labor bureaucracy. However, this did not automatically make them class collaborators who working for the interests of the capitalist class. They are in fact enemies of private property, and hence enemies of the bourgeoisie. At the same time, they do not support proletarian revolution. They represent a last ditch attempt to salvage the system of wage slavery. But they will not be able to avoid the contradictions of capitalism that will eventually lead to great economic crises and most likely, collapse.
JFT argues that the 4th International (the Trotskyist international formation) needs to recognize that all at the same time Stalinist Russia represents these three things 1. labor bureaucracy 2. the enemy of private property 3. a counterrevolutionary force.
Trotskyists had not been able to reconcile these three characteristics because they seemed to contradict each other in their ideas about how to achieve a socialism society. Trotsky thought, similarly to the Stalinists, that nationalization of property and capital was what meant they had achieved socialism. So if Stalinists had achieved that in Russia, how could they be said to be a counterrevolutionary force?
After the hard years of the 1917 Revolution and beyond, Trotskyists had a hard time reconciling that the revolution that surpassed all revolutions in modern history was dead. This is entirely understandable. It also took JFT some time to come to these conclusions and develop the theory of state capitalism. So they are not trying to crap all over Trotskyists. Rather they were concerned about the fate of the international working class movement if revolutionaries were not able to accept that Stalinist Russia represented something new- not a degenerated workers’ state, but state capitalism, which was in fact capitalism, but different from bourgeois capitalism. State Capitalism and World Revolution was meant as a strong attempt after Trotsky’s death to intervene in the theoretical frameworks and hence strategic orientations of the 4th International, even if it really ended up serving more as an internal clarification of the theory of state capitalism.
I’ll leave it there for now. But in response to the post where it is mentioned that some militants do not see the relevance of these issues for today, I would like us to eventually try to get at how these ideas are relevant for today. The question I addressed do not necessarily help us in answering that question, but later when we get to talking about the falling rate of profit and also perhaps capital accumulation including primitive accumulation, it will help us see those forces at play in today’s world, which is most obviously highlighted by the current economic crisis.
What is the difference in understanding crisis and Russian “Communism” when using falling rate of profit in contrast to the under consumption argument? (10) What are the implications of the under consumptionist argument? (13)
So I will try to take up some of the questions above. For starters, the theory of the falling rate of profit is a revolutionary analysis because it finds an objective tendency of crisis in capitalism. Meaning that as capitalism develops this crisis worsens. And that the only way to resolve this crisis for the system as a whole is further immeseration of the working class. This is one of the fundamental reasons for the working class to struggle against the capitalists. (I also want to add that falling rate of profit is not just an economic tendency, but is integrally involves the struggles of the working class. In other words the capitalists bring in more labor saving devices to defeat the resistance of the working class. This increases the composition of the constant capital to variable capital in favor of the former which is the basis for rate to fall. There is also the question per Rosa Luxemburg and its relationship with primitive accumulation but I am not gonna go into all of this now.)
SCWR argues that Trotskysts say there can be no overproduction in Russia since the state can plan the economic dimensions. In other words production and consumption can be organized by state planners. This is one of the crucial reasons the Russian state is seen as a progressive step towards Communism. However, SCWR argues that nationalization of the economy is not progressive what so ever, because the state is a class based state. SCWR argues that analysis of the state must begin by looking at the social relations found in the modes of production in Russia. This reveals that the working class does not rule the workplace, but is in fact dominated by a new bureaucracy. And the fact that workers do not control the workplace brings up the question of who does. And if there are layers of society which are managing the working class and not working, where is the surplus value coming from which allows one layer of society not to work. This is entangled with another point that as long as the working class does not rule production, there will always be pressure to increase constant capital. This dynamic is the basis of speedups or the domination of machinery over living labor. From the social relations the law of value in operation in Russia emerges. SCWR argues that Marx’s very foundation rests on the theory that the capitalists can sell everything and still face the falling rate of profit.
The only path towards socialism/ the new society according to SCWR, is the complete reorganization of production and the destruction of the bureaucracy. This is the benchmark that is set by SCWR.
it may be slightly out of turn, but I’d like to open up the discussion to the implications of this text for our own time. Here, I will lay out two of its most significant implications.
1) Venezuela is not a socialist society and we should be opposed to Chavez, supporting the direct democratic tendencies in the working class movement that opposes him while at the same time opposing the reactionary capitalist elements who are also opposed to him.
Similar conclusions can be applied to Cuba under Castro, China under Mao as well as today, Nepal under the Maoists if/when that revolution succeeds.
The concrete historical circumstances why JFT wrote this text had to do with the Fourth International’s support for Tito and Yugoslavia. In the text, JFT attacks Pablo for defining Yugoslavia as a “deformed workers’ state.” Yugoslavia was a “workers’ state,” he argued, because it had nationalized property. It was deformed because it hadn’t achieved nationalized property through a revolution. Russia was seen as a “deformed” workers’ state because it had achieved nationalized property through a revolution, but was now ruled by a “bad” bureaucracy – the Stalinists.
As everyone has noted above, JFT saw socialism not as nationalized property (as both the Stalinists and Trotskyists did) and did not see the solution to the crisis in Russia as replacing “bad” leaders with “good” ones. Rather, they saw that only world revolution which established workers’ control of production on the shop floor and didn’t cede that power to anyone else could produce socialism.
One of the complicating factors in this whole thing was that Tito and Yugoslavia were at odds with Stalin and the Soviet Union. In this conflict, the Trotskyists assumed that Tito was “progressive,” that he was “moving to the left” of Stalin and that was the reason for the crisis. JFT saw it differently, as a conflict between competing bureaucracies. He saw Tito as a fully formed Stalinist who had perfected Stalinist methods, not as someone breaking with Stalinism to the left.
All of chapter 9 in SC&WR covers this, but this might be the key quote: “The danger of support to Titoism is that it presupposes and fortifies the conception that the breakup of Stalinism will come from competing elements in the bureaucracy, and particularly from the national bureaucracies in state power, rather than from mass revolutionary struggle against the bureaucracy” (97).
One final important quote demonstrates WHY Trots wanted to support Tito, but JFT doesn’t let them off so easily: “The defense of Yugoslavia attracts particularly those seeking an escape from the stranglehold of the two great masses of capital, without the world revolutionary perspective of revolutionary class struggle against the bureaucracy in each country” (95).
It was appealing to think that a country would emerge and break the deadlock between the US and USSR that reigned at the time, but Yugoslavia was not that country.
In our own time, it is appealing to see in Chavez and many others the potential for a revolutionary challenge to capitalism. But when that challenge does emerge (and perhaps it has already emerged in a number of places), it will have to SWEEP ASIDE Chavez and other misleaders if it is to be successful.
2) The most influential revolutionary organizations in the US today adhere to some version of the theory of “better leadership” that the Trotskyists adhered to and that JFT attacked in SC&WR.
I won’t name names, but think of all the organizations that seek to capture the leadership of unions in the name of “better leadership.” Think of all the revolutionaries who argue that we should “critically support” Democrats in every single election cycle, abandoning the effort to build our power in our workplaces, neighborhoods and schools in the process. Think of all the revolutionaries you know who uncritically talk about Chavez, or Mubarak, or even Ahmadinejad, who want to defend them against the imperialists but never mention the working class movements that threaten to overthrow them from below. Watch them, because in the next breath they’re gonna start attacking those working class movements for weakening the “anti-imperialist” movement by weakening the capitalist and authoritarian leaders at the top who are not by any stretch of the imagination working to undermine or overthrow world capitalism.
I am not going to put revolutionaries in quotes in the above paragraph. I don’t want us to think that these folks are not serious about revolution. The problem is that they are. They know the kind of society they want to live in and they are actively seeking to recruit folks to help them build that society together.
Another problem is that their vision for that society largely ends with the Stalinist vision of the Soviet Union – nationalize property and then “lead” as they’ve never led before, while the workers work as they’ve never worked before.
History has gone down this road and it’s a dead end. The question for us is how do we find our way back out?
I’ll take a stab at question 5: “If capitalism can plan, then does under-consumption disappear, does crisis disappear, does the falling rate of profit disappear? Can capitalism plan completely? Can capitalism’s plan negate working class resistance or the falling rate of profit?”
Capitalism can plan even before it becomes state capitalism. This is because “free market” capitalism actually involves a lot of bureaucracies with planned, command economies. Some multinational corporations like Microsoft, Wal Mart, etc. are larger economies than some nations in the world. Within these giant corporations there is no “free market” there is only bureaucracy….. the economy of Wal Mart is planned by it’s corporate headquarters. Its various bureaus or branches are not competing with each other, they are doing what they are told to do.
And even before the era of state capitalism you had major state interventions in the so-called “free market”. For example, the western parts of North America were not colonized by individualistic “pioneers” like small shop owners, small farmers, etc. Violence of that scale – stealing land from Chican@s, indigenous peoples, instituting massive slavery-like exploitation of Asian American workers, etc.- could only be organized with the help of the federal bureaucracy and it’s troops, geographers, planners, etc. That’s why so many states in the West are practically square… some federal planner drew some horizontal and vertical lines with a ruler on the map and started subdividing and parceling out the land and planning its settlement. This is a precursor of Stalinist state planning, and from what I understand it is something Stalin admired and tried to imitate.
All of this comes to a crescendo when the scale of capitalist accumulation becomes so large that it requires a massive international bureaucracy to operate. This is the era of state capitalism. The US ruling class organizes state capitalism internationally through it’s empire and its coalition of various ruling elites globally, and so did the Soviet Union. Both were giant conglomerates, giant multi-national corporations competing on a world stage.
The Trotskyists thought this hyper-centralized planning was progressive because it could stop the “anarchy of the free market”. They thought economic crises were caused by overproduction – too many goods being produced and not enough consumer demand to consume all of them. They thought that the planned economy of the USSR would fix that problem. As Will points out above though, economic crises are not caused only by overproduction, they’re caused by the falling rate of profit. This falling rate of profit continued in the Soviet Union even under conditions of state planning.
Some might ask how can this happen without the pressures of market competition. After all, the falling rate of profit happens when capitalists invest too much in constant capital – machinery, etc.- and not enough in labor, which is what really produces exchange value and thus profits. Capitalists shoot themselves in the foot like that because each capitalist has to to adopt the latest technologies in order to keep up with their competition, they’re not thinking about the long term viability of the capitalist system as a whole. But doesn’t the state capitalist bureaucracy overcome this by coordinating the various capitalists together into one giant self-conscious class? Well, there are two reasons this doesn’t happen 1) in State Capitalism and World Revolution, the JFT folks document how the Stalinist bureaucracy introduced aspects of competition between factories within the state capitalist system. 2) We need to remember that the USSR was competing with American imperialism for wold domination. So if the US adopted new forms of technology, especially in war production, the USSR would have to adopt it too in order to keep up, and vice versa. This drives both blocks of state capital towards increased automation, replacing human labor with machinery, which leads to a falling rate of profit. That in turn leads to the economic crises of the mid 70s which lead to the unraveling and transformation of the state capitalist systems the JFT is analyzing and their replacement by neoliberalism. (Neoliberalism itself still involves a high degree of state capitalism just in a new form, as I argue below)
Can capitalism plan completely? The JFT folks seem to suggest that if the capitalists could plan completely they would plan the world into total ruin. They document how every day in both the USSR and the US, the managers come to the workers with their plan for production. At times this plan is completely absurd. If it were put into practice it would involve tremendous waste of resources, destruction of machinery, unsafe working conditions, and inefficiency. So the workers review the plan and then decide amongst themselves what they will put into practice and what they will not. They reorganize production on the spot. They organize this process through (often clandestine) informal workgroups and shop floor committees.
I’m sure a lot of us can relate to this in terms of our own work experiences. I know as a teacher if I followed all of the school district’s requirements exactly as they lay them out most of my students would probably just drop out from frustration. My friends who work as custodians have lots of stories about how they reorganize the work process to clean better and more efficiently than management’s plans would allow them to, and they use the extra time they create to chill and discuss politics. The JFT folks argued that if workers didn’t do this on a day to day basis we’d have even worse barbarism than we already have under capitalism. They see this counter-planning process from below as prefiguring the new society – they see it as the “invading socialist society”, new social relations breaking out of the shell of the old society.
I used to think that the JFT was overly optimistic about this “counter-planning” process. I thought it was some of CLR James’ Happy Hegelianism where every time a worker frowns at the boss James says it’s the revolution breaking out. Rereading State Capitalism and World Revolution though, I now see that the JFT realized workers’ counter-planning could actually be crushed for periods of time, ushering in barbarism at a mass scale.
They argue that Henry Ford had attempted to implement centralized planning at a massive level, through a violent dictatorship inside the factory backed up by a network of gangsters loyal to him who controlled auto cities like Detroit. They argue that this would have become the norm for American capitalism as a whole if the CIO movement had not successfully beat it back. In other words if it weren’t for the general strikes of the 30s we could have had a state capitalist dictatorship here in the US and the cessation of bourgeois democracy. They argue that what the bourgeoisie fails to do here in the US they end up doing successfully in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. I agree but I would add that they only successfully do this because they were new, more aggressive rulings classes that emerged as counter-revolutions out of rebellions from below – the working class rebellions of Communism in Russia and the petty bourgeois and lumpenproletarian rebellions of fascism in Germany. But in any case, the new German and Russian ruling classes manage to suppress workers’ counter-planning through the methods of the gulag and the concentration camp. Because workers aren’t able to reorganize the disastrous plans for production that come down from on high the Fascist and Stalinist ruling classes are free to run their state capitalist societies into the ground, which is what actually happened. James in this sense successfully predicted the fall of the USSR at a time when many Trotskyists were saying it would last possibly for centuries.
It’s important to note that the JFT thought the the US economy at this time was also state capitalism, it just was not totalitarian, so the centralized state planning the US rulers did was more dynamic because it had to constantly deal with waves of working class revolt which it had to co-opt since it couldn’t’ simply crush them. Also, in the book Facing Reality, CLR James argues that even these totalitarian verisons of state capitalism were not invincible. He sees the 1956 Hungarian Revolution against Stalinism as confrimation of that.
The JFT describe the mid-20th century in the US as a kind of stalemate/ civil war between the bureaucracy and the workers. On the one hand the CIO managed to stop Ford’s plans for total domination. On the other hand, the CIO ends up getting coopted and bureaucratized. The union bureaucracy ends up playing the same role as the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia. They help plan the economy to give workers higher standards of consumption but in turn enforce speed up and increased exploitation in production in order to make those consumer goods. They try to use the increased consumer goods to buy off workers to keep them from asserting their democratic control over production. But then the JFT documents how workers resist these plans by going on wildcat strikes against both the union bureaucracy and the managers. All of this prevents the US from becoming a dictatorship and lays the groundwork for a potential direct democratic, socialist revolution.
However, we know now that this wave of wildcat strikes was crushed as mass production centers like Detroit were broken up and decentralized in the 70s and 80s. Factories were split up and parts of the production process were moved to the US south, part to the US-Mexico border, and parts to East Asian production zones. New forms of international planning emerged through the expansion of multinational corporations, the IMF, and the World Bank. In this sense, neoliberalism is still state capitalism because it requires massive bureaucratic planning to coordinate production at a global scale.
Meanwhile, the state has expanded its control even more in US cities to help crush workers’ attempts at counter-planning. We see the militarization of inner city police forces, expansion of the prison industrial complex, etc. In State Capitalism and World Revolution, the JFT argues that state capitalist planning was even more brutal to the working class because it could plan the reserve army of labor. The system could produce just enough unemployment to scare workers into not resisting in their jobs, and could also control the unemployed by making them slave laborers in a vast system of gulag prisons. In many ways, US state capitalism today is doing the same thing. The prisons and immigration detention centers of contemporary America are a new Gulag Archipelago and they serve the same purpose – to discipline both the employed and unemployed working class as well as the the lumpenproletariat and to keep all of these layers of society from rebelling and counter-planning against the total destruction of our neighborhoods and cities. The result is the same thing that James saw happening in the Soviet union – total barbarism and ruin. We see it in cities like Detroit and New Orleans, we see it in BP refusing to invest in basic safety procedures and triggering the worse oil spill in history (the workers were kept subordinated, scared, and ignorant of the overall production process, so they couldn’t rebel to force BP to fix their shit). We see it in a general deterioration of the social and physical infrastructure of this country akin to the late stages of the Soviet Union.
The question is will we see the formation of new forms of shop floor, neighborhood, and cell block resistance to all of this? Will we see the equivalent of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 against this American nightmare? If the Hungarian workers could rebel against a totalitarian dictatorship then the American working class could also rebel against the dictatorships that currently rule in the ghettoes, maquiladoras, and prison labor camps of this country. Once again we end up with the same unresolved contradiction of modern life – either we build socialism or we’ll have barbarism and more barbarism.
In his intro to a new collection of CLR James’ writings, Noel Ignatiev summarizes well the process I describe above:
“James insisted that the struggles of the working class are the chief motor in transforming society. Even before it overthrows capital, the working class compels it to new stages in its development. Looking back at U.S. history, the resistance of the craftsmen compelled capital to develop methods of mass production; the workers responded to mass production by organizing the CIO, an attempt to impose their control on the rhythms of production; capital retaliated by incorporating the union into its administrative apparatus; the workers answered with the wildcat strike and a whole set of shop-fl oor relations outside of the union; capital responded to this autonomous activity by moving the industries out of the country in search of a more pliant working class and introducing computerized production to eliminate workers altogether. The working class has responded to the threat of permanent separation from the means of obtaining life with squatting, rebellion and food riots; this is a continuous process, and it moves the society forward – ending, as Marx said, in the revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” (the entire intro is available here: http://bringtheruckus.org/?q=node/109).
I would just add that production was moved to the US South and the border, not just to other countries. Also, squatting, food riots, and rebellion are not the only modes of working class struggle today. The shop floor resistance James recognized and recorded in places like Detroit is still going on in production center today like the East Coast of China. Wen’s most recent post on Gathering Forces shows this – a massive strike just shut down Honda in China without any official union invovlement.
Great comments, everyone.
Question three asks, “What do they mean by ‘the fundamental antagonism of society was the contradiction between the development of the productive forces and the social relations of production’? Why can only worker self-management of production solve this fundamental contradiction of capitalism?”
The first question has been asked by Marxist groups as long as there have been Marxist groups. Stalinists argue(d) that the primary conflict in society is that between social production and private appropriation, meaning that the production of useful goods in capitalist society was only to the benefit of those who owned the means to produce them. While the Stalinists are not wrong in the sense that this is a feature of modern bourgeois or private society, it is not the sole criterion of capitalism. This argument was made no doubt to bolster the idea that state-owned property is the substance of socialism. But what constitutes capitalism in any form is labor-power as a commodity; that is, the creative capacities of working people divorced from them and sold on the market to the enrichment of those who purchase it. In this sense, the USSR was capitalist.
I’m not sure if the orthodox Trotskyists had framed the question this way (social production vs private appropriation), but they essentially upheld the same notion. For them, the USSR was a progressive society because the State controlled directed the means of production which apparently meant that individual capitalists were not being enriched through the surplus value and product created by labor. For the Trots, production was socialist because individual capitalists didn’t profit from the exploitation of labor, an essentially negative critique. Yet, distribution of the wealth of society was bourgeois, in the sense that the Soviet bureaucracy enjoyed a level of privilege through the consumption of the fruits of labor that your average worker or peasant did not. Socialism or Barbarism in France attacked this nonsense by saying that while distribution is a distinct thing, that it is determined by production. You can’t have a form of production that is socialist and form of distribution that is capitalist.
“Production, distribution, exchange, and consumption are integral and inseperable parts of a single process…they are moments that are mutually implied in the production and reproduction of capital.”
So as to how they are integral Castoriadis quotes Marx, “before distribution can be the distribution of products, it is: (1) the distribution of the instruments of production, and (2) … the distribution of the members of the society among the different kinds of production. The distribution of products is evidently only a result of this distribution, which is comprised within the process of production itself and determines the structure of production.”
The Maoists (fundamentally Stalinists) argue that the “principal contradiction” in contemporary society is that between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. If that is the case, then a revolution that substitutes the rule of a state bureaucracy for the rule of the bourgeoisie dissolves this antagonism. But a look at what Marx says will reveal that society is driven by the antagonism between the forces of production and the social relations of production. First of all, all the talk about principal and primary antagonisms has honestly lead to not only bureaucratic rule and exploitation, but a bunch of chauvinist conclusions, for example, that class is primary and, hence, race secondary. This notion (forces vs relations of production) I have wrestled with for years and Kautskyists and Ultraleft Marxists alike have misunderstood it.
The Sojourner Truth Organization, a libertarian Marxist group that organized in Midwestern factories in the 1970s, understood that tension as internal to the proletariat or working class. Forces of production imply both capital (which are instruments and means of production, such as machines and raw material, like cotton, respectively) and labor. Social relations of production are about the relationships between people in the production process, so this involves both capitalists and workers. What this means is that the working class was an essential part of the total conflict. This tension that Marx grounds as the moving force of history is an inherent part of the inner nature of the working class.
The working class is split between itself as a force of production, as producers, and an exploitative position in the workplace, as wage earners. Insofar as they are producers, they want to control and direct the entire work process, tear down the division of labor that suits only the ones exploiting them, dissolve the distinction between work and play, etc. This manifests in a number of ways. For a great exposition of this I suggest JFT’s American Worker by Phil Singer (Paul Romano) and Grace Lee Boggs (Ria Stone). This article written as far back as 1947 captures like no other those social tensions inside the workers and how they relate to their work. Please don’t hesitate to ask me to clarify this. I’d be more than happy.
jubayr, a GF contributer who posted this blog and fellow organizer, has offered a very useful slice on this question as the above is example isn’t the only way this historic conflict manifests. jubayr says, “one historical example of this is the Red Summer of 1919.”
“the first world war ended, and black soldiers were returning from Europe. in addition, many black folks had left the isolated life of being southern tenant farmers in the south and got involved in the war production factories in the north. these vastly new experiences were the basis of expansion in the conscious, confidence and activity. when the war ended the rulers expected the same rules of herrenvolk democracy and Jim Crow to apply, but having more confidence and skills many black folks refused to stifle their growth as human beings. one result was the summer of insurrections across the US in 1919, known as the Red Summer.
“we can see how capital needs to develop these forces in order to win a war, produce things or to simply extract value and make a profit. production – in a broad sense as the overall capacity, confidence and activity of people – is developed, but the relations of production – in this particular example, Jim Crow and white supremacy – stifle it.”
These social fetters placed upon the the working classes as the subjects of history is relevant to the next question I intend to take up later. I don’t wanna folks to bite off more than they can chew for now.
Folks should check out this new book by Haymarket: Western Marxism & the Soviet Union
This book is an encyclopedic history of the three trends in Western Marxist analysis of the Soviet Union: degenerated workers state, beauracratic collectivist, and state capitalist.
how much are readers of this site aware of Tony Cliff’s theoretical framework of State Capitalism in Russia?
Cliff, like James, was a Trotskyist who developed a criticism of the movements’ sectarian dogma.
He differed from James in that he did not advocate a break from Trotskyism, rather, Cliff advocated a break from the degeneration of Trotskyism.
The heart of Trotsky’s theory/practice was defense of World Revolution, is that something we really want to break from?