The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

TRB #2: Author’s Introduction

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The introduction to The Revolution Betrayed was written in August of 1936—as mentioned before, just two weeks before the start of the Moscow frame-up trials. The United States is still in the middle of the Great Depression. That year also sees the publication of The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money by John Maynard Keynes. Hitler rules in Germany, and in March of that year “pro-democratic militarist” Keisuke Okada is replaced as Japanese prime minister with radical militarist Koki Hirota, securing control of the government for that faction. Fascist Italy anexes Ethiopia. The Remington Rand strike begins in the US. The social democrats sell out the French General Strike, paving the way for military capitulation before Nazi Germany.  The Spanish Civil War begins. In short: it is the final preparation for what will soon become the second World War.

As will become clear in the first two chapters, the Soviet Union is at this time a mass of contradictions–poor technique, terrible productivity of labor, agricultural poverty, cultural backwardness co-exist with the most incredible rate of growth of productive forces ever seen. “The learned economists of capital still often try to maintain a deeply cogitative silence about the unpredecented tempo of Russia’s industrial development, or confine themselves to remarks about the extreme ‘exploitation of the peasantry.’ They are missing a wonderful opportunity to explain why the brutal exploitation of peasants in China, for instance, or Japan, or India, never produced an industrial tempo remotely approaching that of the Soviet Union.”

Why? Why both the explosive tempo, and why the contradictory elements: famine, inefficiency, terrible productivity of labor? Is one dependent on the other? Would it be possible to have the one without the other? We will, of course, be getting into that–after all, the book would be largely pointless if we didn’t.

But there are some contextual things that I should mention as we consider the reason the book was written.  For one, it is important to understand that the attitude of the working masses toward the Soviet Union was different in the 1930s than it was in the last half of the 20th Century. Stalinism had not discredited itself (using the name socialism), the murder and repression were only beginning and not generally known, and even more, the selling out of the Stalinist-controlled trade unions by signing no-strike pledges during WWII had not happened. Most of my readers are probably familiar with the virulent anti-communism of the McCarthy era; but fewer of you are, I would guess, aware that the seeds of McCarthyism fell on ground that had been prepared by the role of the Communist Party in the trade union movement during the war. This, in the United States in particular, left the working class already bitter toward the idea of communism.

My point is, none of this had happened yet, and millions of workers were looking toward the Soviet Union with hope, or at least with a friendly fascination. Playing on this, as opportunists inevitably will, there emerged various schools of pro-Soviet writing, marked by a refusal to be the least bit critical of the ruling clique.

Trotsky discusses the types of writing produced by “the friends of the Soviet Union.” He says, “What unites these three catagories, despite their differences, is a kowtowing before accomplished fact and a partiality for sedative generalizations . . . this kind of contemplative, optimistic and anything but destructive literature, which sees all unpleasantnesses in the past, has a very quieting effect on the nerves of the reader and therefore finds a cordial reception.”

In part, the book was in response to these nostrums that concealed more than they revealed. But that, in a sense, begs the question: why is it important to understand the Soviet Union in the first place? “The purpose of the present investigation is to estimate correctly what is, in order the better to understand what is coming to be.” It would, I hope, go without saying that an understanding, in 1936, of where the Soviet Union was headed would be of no small interest to socialists and to any class-conscious worker. And in the sense that I mentioned in my introduction to these posts, the prediction, and then the outcome, is of vital importance to us today.

“Whoever worships the accomplished fact is incapable of preparing for the future.”

This is a key element, and I would beg the reader to remember it, both as we proceed, and now, as we look at the “why” of the book’s being written. Ten thousand times in my life have I heard some form of, “Socialism failed in the Soviet Union. That is a fact, and you can’t deny it.” Indeed not. But…what is a fact? A fact is a first-order abstraction from reality. It is a fact that I have three computer monitors—this means that, in my mind, I have abstracted from my monitors everything about them except their quantity. I could have said, “My ACER monitor is six years old,” or, “My Samsung monitor has a power switch in the lower right-hand corner,” and so on. These are all facts. The monitors themselves are not facts, they are material objects, from which, in my mind, I may pull whatever abstractions are useful for my cognitive activity.

To “worship the accomplished fact” is to make a single abstraction, and fetishize it—remove it from its historical and sociological context, ignore all thought of how it came to be and where it is going, and invest it with weight that it cannot carry without its poor epistomological back breaking.

To worship the “fact” of the Soviet Union’s “failure to accomplish socialism” is as unscientific as to deny it. Without looking at context, processes, and the interrelation of this fact with others, there is no possibility of understanding.

Here is, in essence, what the book is going to be looking at: Was the USSR socialist? If it was not, does that tell us that socialism is impossible? Why or why not?

I think, in some measure at least, we can answer the first question right here in the introduction: “If you remember that the task of socialism is to create a classless society based upon solidarity and the harmonious satisfaction of all needs, there is not yet, in this fundamental sense, a hint of socialism in the Soviet Union. To be sure, the contradictions of Soviet society differ profoundly from the contradictions of capitalism. But they are nevertheless very tense. They find their expression in material and cultural inequalities, governmental repressions, political groups and the struggle of factions. Police repression stifles and distorts a political struggle, but does not eliminate it.”

Is that task Utopian?  Are the Bolshevik methods—popular uprising led by a vanguard party—responsible for the degeneration of the workers state?  And, above all, how do we make this determination?  Those who are convinced it doesn’t matter, or who are too invested in cynicism and despair to consider the matter scientifically, are invited to stop reading now.

The Revolution Betrayed Cover

 

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skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

7 Comments

  1. “… there is not yet, in this fundamental sense, a hint of socialism in the Soviet Union.”

    If the final goal was to create a perfectly classless society, there could still be some progress in that direction without achieving the complete goal. But likely Trostsky was right that there was none.

    So the talk about socialism became a sort of gospel, something that people claimed would happen someday and they claimed it had already happened, and it would increasingly look like lies. Like something to not take seriously.

    To my way of thinking, the central problem was that a small minority tried to decide the important things, and so they had to put down the wreckers and saboteurs who opposed them. Starting with the surviving Whites. The more they hurt the Whites who opposed them, the less they could trust the children and nephews and nieces of those people. It’s hard to create a classless society when you start out with a class of class enemies.

    Later, when various socialists disagreed with the way things were going, they had to persecute the heretic socialists too. I have the strong impression this didn’t start with Stalin either, he just took advantage of it and changed the tone.

    If you start out sure that there is only one good way, yours, and anybody who disobeys must be made powerless, then you create at least a 2-class society. There’s you and the people who agree with you, and then there are the powerless people who must obey. But if you just let everybody do what they want, then you don’t get a new society. You just get whatever your old society would have been if the government hadn’t coerced people. So if you want to build a utopian socialist society, somehow you have to swallow that dilemma.

    I’m not at all ready to say it can’t be done. But it would require somebody doing something that is out of the ordinary. If everybody reacts in the ways that would be natural in the old society, then the new society will not arrive.

  2. “Why? Why both the explosive tempo, and why the contradictory elements: famine, inefficiency, terrible productivity of labor? Is one dependent on the other?”

    I have a possible answer for that. I can’t much match it against the reality, but it does come from another reality.

    Say that you’re starting from roughly ground zero. I’ll make the metaphor of putting a few bacteria into a new culture medium. At the start, the bacteria have not been growing much, and also they are not adapted to their new medium. There will be vitamins they need in small quantity, that they do not have enough of. Since bacteria have billions of years of evolution telling them what to do, they immediately start making stuff. To make the vitamins they must build whole assembly lines that start from what they have, and proceed to what they need. They might need as little as four molecules of a particular vitamin, but it could take a chain of 20 enzymes to make it. Rather than make just what they need, they make a whole lot and dump it into the medium. Once they have plenty they shut down those assembly lines until they need them again. After one round, or two or three or five, there is so much vitamin in the medium that it will never again be a limiting factor for them, and they stop making it until the next time they get transferred to someplace that doesn’t have enough.

    They find the best energy source and build the assembly lines to exploit it — and usually none of the others. They find the best combination of assembly lines to make everything they need from what they have. The faster they grow, the more of their resources must go to making assembly lines to let them grow fast. Ribosomes and such.

    So they start out growing slow, while they tool up. Then they grow faster, incorporating stuff from the environment as they need it. They use whatever lets them grow fastest and ignore the rest. Later, if they run out of something, then they retool to use the next-best resources.

    By analogy, the Russian economy would start out small. They would need to make a lot of tools. Using their tools to make more tools would have priority over making stuff to consume, because they couldn’t make a lot of stuff anyway, and with more tools they would be able to make more. As they accumulated tools they could put more people to work using them. Employment would expand like bacteria growing, but it would start small and build on itself faster and faster. To the extent that the system was efficient, it would use the people who could most efficiently do the work, and ignore the rest.

    So you would have exponential growth, growing faster and faster until something showed up to limit that growth. Jobs increasing faster and faster, but the number of good jobs would have nothing to do with the number of people who needed them. The number of useful jobs would only grow as fast as the economy. The people who’re working already can only make so many tools for new people to join in, so that’s the rate that new people can be added. It increases faster and faster until you run out of people. But in the early days, the system can grow very fast while people starve who aren’t part of it yet.

    Meanwhile, capitalist economies were not growing fast. They were slowly coming out of a depression. Very likely part of the difference was that individual capitalists did not get rewarded for increasing production as fast as they could. They got rewarded by increasing profits instead. Before Keynes, increasing production led to monetary deflation which reduced profits and regulated the economy to produce less. It did not make sense for banks to lend much money during a depression, it did not make sense for industrialists to increase production, it did not make sense for consumers to spend more of their savings than they had to, etc. The “free market” used banks to regulate the amount of growth. The rules of the game did not maximize production, or jobs, or even profit. The invisible hand controlled things and regulated the economy, but it did not regulate the economy to do what anybody would want. It did not have billions of years of evolution, competing against other economies, to hone its methods. It regulated at random.

  3. The enemies of The Soviet Union are far better informed about it than its real friends, the workers of all countries.

    In this Trotsky was not only correct, but stated a truth that never changed throughout the existence of the USSR. The same could be said of Cuba post-Batista.

  4. “The same could be said of Cuba post-Batista.”

    And the same could be said for some US enemies, though not all. I think. Actually, I’m not sure about that at all. US citizens tend to be rather poorly informed about the USA. But it’s possible that US friends do much better. Maybe we should start by making a list of US friends, and then decide which of them are better informed about the USA than we are.

  5. Thank you for the explication of the quote about worshipping that accomplished fact. It was very helpful.

  6. Skzb, two comments/questions.

    1. Your noted “key element” about worshiping facts seems a little odd. I would have thought that facts would, on the other hand, dramatically help one prepare for the future. Or is the quote merely encouraging critical analysis of facts before accepting them? I would expect general agreement with that sentiment, but don’t see how it is particularly pertinent to this topic. Or is the point that this particular “fact” (socialism failed in the Soviet Union) is taken at face value by those who parrot it, without critical analysis? Basically, I’m having a little cognitive dissonance with a statement which seems to devalue facts in an argument. At some point, we will eventually have to agree that certain things are true/factual, or else any further discourse is pointless. Who gets to decide which facts are being “fetishized” and “worshiped”? Perhaps we need to set up a bureaucracy to oversee that process…. (*ducks and runs*)

    2. Will your analysis of this book constitute a rebuttal of well-recognized Soviet expatriates who come to the opposite conclusion? I’m thinking specifically of Solzhenitsyn and his arguments in The Gulag Archipelago. From the wikipedia page:

    “Solzhenitsyn definitively and painstakingly laid the theoretical, legal, and practical origins of the Gulag system at Lenin’s feet, not Stalin’s. According to Solzhenitsyn’s testimony, Stalin merely amplified a concentration camp system that was already in place. This is significant, as many Western intellectuals viewed the Soviet concentration camp system as a ‘Stalinist aberration’.”

    It would seem that he would fall in the camp who have felt that “Bolshevik methods [are] responsible for the degeneration of the workers’ state” (unless there is an important difference between Lenin’s Bolshevism and Trotsky’s, of which I am not aware). If so, it would be helpful to, perhaps, bring up some of Solzhenitsyn’s arguments/assertions and respond.

  7. skzb

    “. Your noted “key element” about worshiping facts seems a little odd. I would have thought that facts would, on the other hand, dramatically help one prepare for the future”

    Certainly, if taken in context, with an understanding of movement, of contradictions, of interrelation with other facts. To repeat an example I’ve used in other contexts: The position of an artillery shell at a given moment is a fact, but without knowledge of speed, trajectory, and other matters, this fact is not terribly useful. “Worship of the accomplish fact” is to focus on the position, excluding other factors.

    “Will your analysis of this book constitute a rebuttal of well-recognized Soviet expatriates who come to the opposite conclusion?”

    I hope and believe it will.

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