The Dream Café

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

TRB #3: Chapter One Part 1: The Law of Combined Development

| 30 Comments

wide young trotsky

I’ve tried to figure out a way to avoid this, but I just can’t. So much of the argument in the book is based on the opening paragraph of chapter one, and it contains such a vital concept, that I’m going to have to devote a post to it. Here is how the book starts:

“Owing to the insignificance of the Russian bourgeoisie, the democratic tasks of backward Russia—such as liquidation of the monarchy and the semifeudal slavery of the peasants—could be achieved only through a dictatorship of the proletariat. The proletariat, however, having seized the power at the head of the peasant masses, could not stop at the achievement of these democratic tasks. The bourgeois revolution was directly bound up with the first stages of a socialist revolution.”

The term “historical tasks” occurs a great deal in Marxist literature, and I’m afraid that, without some explanation, it will seem as if history is being seen as having agency, in exactly the way that certain casual references in discussions of evolution are sometimes seen by theists as implying that evolution has agency.

Society, driven by the production and distribution of necessities, has discovered various forms for managing that production and distribution. These forms—primitive communism (aka hunter-gatherer), slave-holding, feudal-monarchical, capitalist—are the product of several factors, including the climate and makeup of the land, the resources to be found on it, the history of the development of that culture, and, first and foremost, the development of the productive forces and its corollary, the productivity of labor.

Form and content, of course, are deeply interrelated.  Permit me to give an example. I’ll pick agriculture as the simplest and most classic case.  An improvement in agricultural technique—better seeds, for example, or a new plow design, or a new breed of draft animal—produces a greater surplus, which in a feudal society is appropriated by the landlord.  This increase permits, in turn, greater holdings for that landlord, which require a larger State (more gendarmes to keep the peasants in check, a standing army to fight off neighbors who want to appropriate the surplus for themselves) which, over time, leads to the growth of administrative cities that are centers of consumption (e.g., London).  The surplus is also used to purchase luxury items, which gives inspiration to crafts, leading to guilds and eventually to the growth of cities that are centers of production (e.g., Manchester).  As the guilds and craftsmen improve their own technique, and thus the productivity of their labor, they move us in the direction of more modern (i.e., capitalist) forms of production and exchange, which then find themselves held back by the very feudal forms in which they were developed.  A society whose content is based on commodity exchange cannot function well if the form is based on feudal law and land-ownership arrangements.  The inefficiency of trade in a society where each count or baron determines his own laws, taxes, and tariffs is ruinous to capitalism. The desire of a king to pull in as much wealth as possible and to preserve his power against the lesser nobles is antithetical to the need of capital for reinvestment to increase production. And, above all, peasants who are tied to the land by the force of law (serfdom) or economic necessity are unavailable for free labor needed in the workshops and, later, the factories.

Thus, at a certain point, the content overcomes the form; the capitalist class overthrows the feudal regime and re-creates society in its own image. The level of violence in this process is primarily the result of the relative strength of the contending classes.  The English Civil War  (1642-1651) and the Great French Revolution (1789 – 1799) are the classic types of capitalist revolution.  This comes about when a system has, in Marxist terms, exhausted itself-–in other words, reached the point where the old form is confining the new content and preventing its full development, and, indeed, threatening the strangulation of society.

But here’s the rule: A system never leaves the stage of history before it has reached that point of exhaustion. When Marxists speak of historic tasks, the term means first of all that the productive forces have been built up as much as they can without overthrowing the old arrangements. And, second, the society in question has completed the developments that go along with that, such as, in the case of capitalism, representative democracy, settling the “land question,” a more equitable justice system, and so on.

That’s the rule. Alas, history doesn’t have as a priority making things simple and straightforward. Cultures and countries don’t exist in isolation from each other, and they don’t all develop at the same tempo.

The law of combined development as regards industry states that, since technology doesn’t have to be developed independently every time,  advances in technique in backward companies will in some places surpass advanced companies exactly because of their backwardness.   Within an industry, there are many times when a company using older techniques of manufacture has surpassed a company using more modern techniques just because it was in a position, with greater credit and more available capital, to immediately take advantage of the newest discoveries that another cannot because it’s capital is still tied up in the last generation of technology.  This is especially true when there is a major breakthrough in the technique of manufacturing.  I remember working at a computer company (DNA/Avnet) in the late 70’s that was going through exactly that process with automated wire-wrap technology; it was on the wrong side, and eventually folded (there were other reasons, but that was a contributor).  Between countries this phenomenon is also not uncommon.   My favorite example is the way Hungary at a certain point in the 1980s became a leader in cell phone technology exactly because, when cell phones were introduced, Hungary was still using the old, WW II-era land line system. Instead of upgrading to an already obsolete technology, it leapfrogged and established a cell phone system that was, for a time, the most advanced in Europe.  Another example, just because I love examples that use Hungary, is that Hungarian orthography is the most logical, scientific, and rational in the world, because Hungarian literacy was so low for so long that they came late to the game and were thus able to see and avoid the ambiguities and inconsistencies that plague the orthographies of the more advanced languages.

But the same law also applies to the comparative overall technological level of countries.  Russia, which hadn’t yet abolished serfdom in the middle of the 19th Century (compared to the 14th in France, the 15th in most of Germany, and the 16th in England) was significantly “behind the times” for the creation of modern industry.  For that reason, when it started, it caught up quickly in certain ways (though not in others, as we will see). In his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky shows that the typical size of factories, for example, was considerably larger in Russia than in the advanced capitalist countries for exactly this reason—it didn’t need to start small and build, the techniques for large industry were already known, and their greater efficiency (and thus, profitability) were well established by the “American system of manufacture.”

Under these conditions, certain things that one would expect of a bourgeois nation—the settling of the land question, the creation of democratic forms, the establishment of certain sorts of equality before the law, the building of the modern nation-state—had not been addressed. Capitalism performs these “tasks” for its own self interest: Democracy and formal legal equality is better for the ruling class because it drastically reduces the cost in gendarmarie, secret police, prisons, and other expensive institutions of repression. The land question and the modern nation-state both serve to make trade more efficient, and to provide a pool of free labor for manufacturing.

By the early 20th Century, capitalism had so exhausted itself that it could only continue by massive destruction of capital and infrastructure to raise the rate of profit, and by using military (instead of economic) means to shift markets and resources among the major powers—this is exactly the significance of World War I.  But the exhaustion of capitalism in the major powers of Western Europe and the United States came at a time when Russia was still a feudal monarchy. Above, I gave the rule as, “A system never leaves the stage of history before it has exhausted itself.” But here’s the rub: capitalism is international. What happens when, on a world scale, it has exhausted itself before certain countries (Russia, India, China, a host of African and South American countries) have even started on the road? The answer, in every one of those countries, is that the bourgeoisie is unable to carry out the tasks of capitalism. This leaves those countries two choices: to fall victim to the colonial pretensions of one of the major imperialist powers and become in essence an enslaved nation, or turn the historical tasks of capitalism over to those who can carry it out: the proletariat.

From February to October of 1917, the Russian bourgeoisie held state power.   During this time they not only failed to give land to the peasant, but instituted measures of repression against peasants who demanded it. They not only failed to end the war, but launched a doomed offensive that even their own generals knew was pure adventurism.  They not only failed to provide bread, but pulled in a counter-revolutionary general to crush the working class for daring to ask. In other words, in 9 months, they proved conclusively—if not to the willfully blind bourgeois historian, at least to the worker, to the soldier, and to the peasant—that they were unable to carry out the tasks of capitalism.  In October, the proletariat seized power with those tasks still not accomplished.  And, holding power, rather than let itself be crushed by efforts to restore the monarchy, or permit Russia to become a colonial puppet of the imperialist powers, the working class chose, under the leadership of the Bolshevik party, to complete the tasks of capitalism in the only way it could: by moving forward in the direction of socialism.  This determined everything that followed

 Previous Post     Next Post

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

30 Comments

  1. Great post. Very educational to me. You’ve got a future in this, I say. I love the Hungarian examples, keep it up. I know the cellphone example from other sources.

  2. The analogy of leapfrogging past obsolete technology given the existence of more modern technology that can be used instead is a nice one. I like it. I’m not sure, however, that the choices made by the Bolshevik party were necessarily the correct ones.
    The times were certainly fraught and they were faced with a number of challenges. As you say, everything that follows was determined by the choices they made here. Since what followed was ultimately a betrayal (hence the title of the book), it would seem that at least some of these choices were indeed incorrect.
    Separating the good choices from the bad ones is, no doubt, one of the reasons Trotsky is writing the book.

  3. skzb

    Steve Halter: Indeed, we’ll be getting into some of that. But the thing to be clear on is that, had the Petrograd working class failed to take state power, it would have been crushed by Kornilov or another like him, a military dictatorship instituted, and Russia would have ended being a colonial or semi-colonial country. Was it an error to take power? I believe it was not. But the reasons are still a few chapters away.

  4. Taking power doesn’t seem to be an error–as you say there wasn’t much choice there. Perhaps, Lenin’s thinking that Stalin was a good guy at this point may be one of the bad choices. As you say, we don’t have all the reasons playing out yet.

    By the way, that picture of Trotsky at the top is kind of a definitional picture of “Young Revolutionary.”

  5. skzb

    Yeah, it kinda is, isn’t it? I believe it was a police photo from when he was arrested after the 1905 revolution.

  6. skzb, Thanks for the interesting post (OP). I appreciate the use of modern language and the neutral tone. I’m going to have to read this a couple times. There is a lot there.

    One is always at risk of oversimplification when one makes “rules” based on historical trends. Next time things might not fit the rule.

  7. I want to ask why the older systems could not adapt. Like, a noble with a feudal holding could have set up whatever industry was compatible with the raw materials he could extract from his land. All it took was vision. He could set his own taxes to make it work. His fellow nobles might see that their own wealth depended on setting their taxes appropriately. Why not?

    One reason as Steve pointed out was that the king had reason to try to keep his vassals weak. Rather than rule a strong nation with strong vassals, he would prefer to rule a weak nation with weak vassals. He might see his way around that, but then again he might not.

    So it may have tended to be a lack of vision. Easier for everybody to keep doing what they were already doing, than try something new. Maybe it wasn’t inevitable, but it was the way to bet.

    My second question: Why was capitalism exhausted? I haven’t read ahead, so I don’t know what Trotsky thought about that. My inclination is to go with a Keynsian explanation, as follows:

    In the early days of capitalism there wasn’t enough capital. It was considered a moral virtue to reduce your own consumption to invest. Investment was the road to riches, consumption that to poverty.

    But in later times a whole lot of people wanted to invest, but they couldn’t find good investment opportunities. All the stuff that people were buying didn’t take nearly as much investment as they wanted to apply. They could make new products, but who would buy them? Make something that doesn’t sell well enough and your investment is wasted.

    There was plenty of money for investment, more than the viable investments needed. Not so much money for consumption. But people could lend to governments, and the governments could consume and owe interest on government debt. There was money for foreign adventures because they kind of looked like investments. Maybe create markets. Money for Ponzi schemes because they kind of looked like investments too. If you invested in more-modern capital goods so you could make products better and cheaper, you might make a profit, but if so you made sure that somebody else took a bigger loss. And before your investment paid off, somebody else might step in and build something even more efficient. It was a mug’s game. Efficiency at production could not be the limiting factor. Sometimes businesses learned how to shut others out of the distribution chain. If you can’t reach customers, you can’t compete. Etc. There was plenty of money sloshing around to protect markets, to compete on levels other than production.

    The time came that investment tended not to pay off. But what else was there to do? If you consumed your money it was gone.

    This might get repeated when a new population enters the game, that saves a lot. They don’t want to consume, they want to invest. Their entrepreneurs have no choice but to aggressively go after foreign markets. They have to profit enough to pay the savers, and they can’t sell that much at home. They invest in the most modern technology, even if they can’t really justify the expense in expected profits, because they have to maintain market share and maybe if they do that things will work out. As they gain market share they get a lot of publicity, they are doing something right! But then when the deals go sour, the savers lose their money, the economy stagnates, and they don’t look so smart after all. Maybe China today is doing what Japan did in the Japan, Inc. days. Or maybe they’ll see a way to change the game so they don’t lose.

    Why didn’t it work that way for the USSR? First, they weren’t constrained by profit. I think the USA could pretty easily increase our entire capital goods by 30% a year, maybe 40% or even 50%, given a few years to retool. We don’t do it because we don’t want to. The USSR did want to. But when they tried to sell their products on international markets, they not only ran into government obstacles. Also they had not put much effort into marketing. US manufacturers spend a whole lot of effort figuring out how to sprinkle fairy dust on their products, to make them look somehow better than the competition, although the “better” is mostly subliminal. Not actually more usable, but somehow more stylish. Some companies spend more on fairy dust than they do on production. Russia wound up selling raw materials internationally, making them a de facto mercantilist colony.

    The US stereotype about the Russian economy, is of big stores with no customers. Long rows of identical dusty products that have not sold and will not sell. That stereotype cannot be completely correct. If the products go unused, what happens to them? Somebody has to make replacements for them, or the economy slows down. It could just be the US vision of a place with no marketing. My wife once got a job at Barnes and Noble, and what they wanted her to do was change the displays. All over the store they had piles of books with little posters etc, and a customer who comes back to the store a second time will not notice the displays she’s already seen. By changing the displays, they make them visible and increase sales. To my way of thinking this is a poor use of human hours, but they knew their business, and they lost money slower doing that than they would have without it. Coming from that mentality of course anything that lacked pizazz would look dowdy.

    But if the official stores had official products that people didn’t want, and instead there was a thriving black market selling stuff people did want, that would be some kind of marketing failure.

    This is all unreliable theory based on unreliable data and data on foreign systems. I’ll be interested to see what Trotsky says.

  8. Yeah this addresses a big question I always had about the revolution in Russia, namely that the bourgeousie was in fact relatively insignificant. And so it appeared to me that of all the countries in Europe it was the least appropriate for Marxist revolution. Similar observations will later apply to China.

  9. J Thomas, What a can of worms you opened.

    I suspect a noble that treated his vassals kindly might be thought of as weak and not worthy of respect. In those days, you literally killed your competition in some cases and needed blind support.

    Today we have the problem of too much (way too much) money chasing too few investments. So we get a hugely inflated stock market (as in China).

    I believe that today, most companies dislike their employees or the concept of employees. It helps explain why employees are often treated so badly. It is true that the employees are maybe the most important resource a company has. But the company doesn’t like that. The company would be happier if all the employees could be replaced by machines. That is the direction things have been going.

    Recently, CEOs, even though they are employees of the companies they run, have convinced themselves that they own the company and should be compensated appropriately for their “risk” of taking this multi-million dollar a year job.

    Political self-described conservatives (actually radicals) tend to think along the lines of being willing to hurt themselves as long as they think the “enemy” is hurt more. Thus poor white guys down South are willing to give up social security because they think blacks are living on it. Businesses cut wages on employees, knowing it will hurt the economy and sales, because they resent employees “stealing” from them by wanting to be paid.

    Advertising can be useful, like helping me to find that door I need to repair my house. But when there is more “fairy dust” than door, we have a problem. ;>) A lot of higher priced cars are basically re-badged versions of standard models. So $30k for the car, another $20k for the fairy dust.

  10. skzb

    Miramon: Yes. To put it in the briefest terms, the chain of capitalism broke first, not where the proletariat was strongest, but where the bourgeoisie was weakest.

  11. So to close the circle (not a new observation), it appears that some companies are basically the modern form of feudalism.

  12. Back to the OP, I am thinking about the concept of “Capitalism exhausting itself.” I do not think that this is unique to capitalism. It is kind of the nature of all organisms (and organizations). It starts out new, grows and then declines when the resources have been used up or the organism wears out or is killed.

    The problem today with US capitalism is that it is corrupt. Maybe capitalism has always been corrupt as it is easier (for some, anyway) to make money that way. Look at Trump. He starts a business, throws a bunch of fairy dust on it, gets investors, puts the money in his pocket and declares bankruptcy. It’s a good business model for him and he must have good lawyers to keep him out of jail.

    But in more general cases, businesses fail because resources get too expensive, operating costs too high, operating capital goes into the pockets of people who do not produce (e.g. CEOs) or technology is outdated. The later could be overcome, but the company has been “milked” dry of cash and cannot afford loan payments on the money it gave to say the CEO.

    If a person was cynical one might say that these problems are inherent in capitalism. If we are honest, we have to admit that this is a problem with people. These things tend to happen under all economic and political systems. So changing the political system (say to socialism) is no guarantee of eliminating corruption. It may be only a temporary fix.

  13. So I ask, “why does corruption seem to happen in all systems?” The answer is, “sociopaths migrate into positions of power.” It is universal. You name it, given time, the positions of power are likely to be usurped by sociopaths (psychopaths?).

    Why do we allow this to happen? Because we have been brainwashed into letting it happen. The “fearless leader” concept. The ruthless killer who will protect us. The righteous slayer of enemies. A leader that is perfect in all ways. Maybe we are hard wired to look for this in a leader. And then we are disappointed when he turns into a tyrant who abuses us.

    Blame it on mythologies, stories, glorified history and so on. Nowhere is there a leader who is reasonable, kind to his subjects (except in fairy tales) and works with his enemies to find solutions.

  14. skzb

    “Back to the OP, I am thinking about the concept of “Capitalism exhausting itself.” I do not think that this is unique to capitalism. It is kind of the nature of all organisms (and organizations). It starts out new, grows and then declines when the resources have been used up or the organism wears out or is killed.”

    “So I ask, “why does corruption seem to happen in all systems?” ”

    Your first comment answers your own question. Social systems–of all sorts–eventually exhaust themselves, as you said, just like an organism. At one time capitalism was progressive. At one time feudalism was progressive. Hell, in certain very important ways, even slave-based societies were progressive at one point. But eventually they outlive themselves. Sometimes the organism manages to hold onto life even after decay has started in; that’s what you call corruption. There is no need to go to a vague, handwaving, “the problem is people” with no concrete scientific basis–people are products of definite social conditions. Sometimes, we can also influence those social conditions in accordance with our desires. To do that, we must above all understand them.

    To rephrase, capitalism is no more (or less) inherently corrupt than any other economic system. At a certain point in history, it serves us by building the productive forces, by introducing useful and beneficial social constructs. Later, it becomes reactionary and regressive, and it is time to move on. The point of scientific understanding of history is to be able to identify those times in order to help push things in the right direction.

  15. I need, if I may, to remark some historical inaccuracies of the Marxist theory. First the existence of the primitive communism has been put in doubt from archaeological evidence. This evidence suggests that there was a difference between the people that may imply different classes. Nevertheless, is assumed that even if there was a social separation that all of them had to work for their survival.

    Second, and in my opinion more important, there is a form of managing the society between the presumed primitive communism and the slave-holding: the city-temple of Sumer. This apply to not only Sumer but to all the Fertile Crescent. The form of this first states was with corvée work (free and obligatory) and was directed from the temple. The grain will go to the temple and then be distributed to the population according to the direction of the clerical class. The ideological basis of work was theological, on the premise that men were created to work the lands for the gods under the direction of those in contact with them.

    The point to remark these facts is to avoid a critic that deviates the discussion, and also because the information is not abundant (just checked Wikipedia and there is not mention to corvée work before Egypt). The thing is that, in the words of my teacher, this does not invalidate the Marxist theory in no point. It was only recently that much of this was discovered and there was no way that Marxist authors had access to this. More important this does not refute actually nothing but clarifies how society evolves from one type to another.

  16. “Social systems–of all sorts–eventually exhaust themselves, as you said, just like an organism.”

    I’d prefer to think of social systems as more like ecosystems than like organisms.

    Why do organisms die of old age? I don’t know. Some don’t. I wrote a long thing about this and deleted it because it probably doesn’t help in this context.

    A system that survives, finds ways to replace damaged parts with something similar. Each species has an ecological niche, a way of life that lets it outcompete all others for some vital resource. The existing species tend to cooperate to use all available resources so there will be none left for some invader to use. There will be a collection of minor species hanging on, that grow to fit temporary niches. The system as a whole has no purpose except to maintain itself and outcompete all alternatives. So for example in places which are sometimes dry, some of the surviving plants may put a lot of resources into accumulating f;ammable material that will burn hot in a wildfire, because after the fire they are better at recolonizing the burned-over areas than their competitors. They “waste” tremendous amounts of resources for their “wars” because it works for them. They win, and they survive.

    After some big disruption, there tends to be a series of temporary ecosystems. Start with bare dirt in a temperate moist climate, and the first things that grow will be things like dandelions and grass, things that can grow well on bare dirt and that grow fast. Gradually they get replaced by woody plants that grow taller and get the light first, and maybe grow deeper roots. Those get replaced, and the replacers get replaced, until it ends up with a “climax” system that does not get replaced until there’s some big disruption. Each of the temporary systems gets replaced when mature, by something that survives better in their mature system than they do. For example, pine seedlings can’t grow when they are surrounded by a mature pine forest, for one thing they can’t get enough light. They can only grow when some of the old pines have died and left a bright spot in the sky for them. But various hardwood seedlings can grow with that much light, and so they replace the pines if they don’t get burned out. Each new dominant tree is replaced by another whose seedlings can grow with the amount of light that stops their own seedlings, until it gets to one that the replacement hasn’t evolved yet. (Of course this is oversimplified.)

    Oversimplifying, feudalism evolved from the need for security. In a world where a single farmer had no chance against a gang of 20 brigands, farmers found barons who would offer protection, who would fight for the right to be the only one to exploit them. Of course, if you were a lone farmer the baron’s enforcers could still rape your wife and daughters, and steal anything they wanted that you had, and if you complained to the baron about it who would he believe, his loyal men or some peasant? It was safer to be a serf, with ancestral rights and other serfs beside you to testify on your behalf and to raise a mass protest if the rights were violated.

    And then when the robber gangs were mostly suppressed, the barons still needed a reason to justify their existence, and so the threat they protected you from was the other barons.

    Feudalism failed for a collection of reasons. Better ships meant that wealthy ports didn’t starve even during local famines. Improved roads meant that wealthy towns at increasing distances from ports didn’t starve. Better roads also made it easier to supply sieges, so the smaller barons got smashed. Etc. Barons needed better products — better wagons, better armor, once they got crossbows they needed those and better ones, etc. They needed products their own craftsmen could not make well enough, so they had to allow commerce. Artisans and merchants multiplied while feudal lords could not. When it reached the point that the barons had no power over the king, the king’s excuse for existence was to protect his people from other kings.

    Capitalists needed capital, and getting it from bankers was always problematic. The invention of the joint stock company let them raise large amounts of capital and they did great things with it. Now we have more capital than we know what to do with.The economy is limited by predicted demand. Proles can’t spend more, they need to pay down their debts. Government can spend more but can’t tax more. Rich individuals were taught from birth never to spend the principal. Capitalists are like trees that shade out their own seedlings. We have more resources available to make new products than we have customers for the new products. We make products that in theory will let us make products cheaper, because businesses that want to make things cheaper are the biggest customers available. But making the same products cheaper — with fewer employee hours, mainly — will only make the problem worse.

    People talk like automation will open up new jobs for the displaced workers, and it could happen. When there are more workers available we can in theory produce more stuff. Capitalism in theory is supposed to balance resources and use them in the best mix to make what customers want, and it can be argued that it does that. But it is not part of capitalism’s job description to create large numbers of wealthy customers to buy the products it makes.

    If the ecosystem metaphor holds, there could be something that can grow in capitalism’s shade, that survives under late-stage capitalism better than capitalism does. I haven’t noticed anything like that but it’s worth watching for.

    At this point I doubt that using the government as a monopoly capitalist would be all that useful, any more than having a king as a monopoly feudalist. But it could be something that happens, just like we got autocratic kings like Louis XVI and Czar Nicholas.

  17. The ecosystem metaphor is interesting and probably apt from a resource utilization point of view. From a human point of view (especially for human societies) we often want to ask the question “is X better than Y?” For an ecosystem this doesn’t work particularly well. A pine forest isn’t particularly better than a hardwood forest–unless one defines degree of pineyness as the measurement.
    In order to answer X better than Y, one must first have some measurable metrics before real comparisons can be made. Both luckily and unluckily, there are all sorts of measurements we can make of human economic systems.

  18. Ecosystems don’t survive because their participants think they’re better than alternatives. They survive because in their particular regions they are the best at taking over and holding on.

    Sometimes it’s that way with economic or social systems too. I doubt that anybody in Russia liked the Stalinist purges. Dedicated stalinists were saying “Oh, if only Father Stalin knew what was being done in his name!” But nobody knew how to stop it.

    Or WWI. They used the possibility as a tool to get things done. “We have to do X because the alternative is a war more horrible than we can contemplate.” Then the war did start and nobody had contemplated how to stop it.

    Or the US prison system. It’s rather expensive, privatized or not. It does not achieve any of its stated goals beyond warehousing prisoners. The widespread blase attitude about rape of prisoners is pretty sickening, although an official government study claims that hardly more than 20% of prisoners are raped. It makes no sense that anybody would approve of the system the way it is, and people who claim not to disapprove of it are making the implicit claim that there is no alternative and so they must accept it the way it is. But it is what it is, and nobody has an effective proposal for significant change.

    Sometimes people get to choose. When scandinavian countries were gradually switching to christianity, some people came out and said that they were tired of worshipping Odin, that it was just too sad and hopless to keep doing. But they could say that because Odin was weak. Someone who said that about Islam in Saudi Arabia today could expect trouble from it.

    Usually you don’t get to choose. You can discuss your preferences with intellectuals, and then when you have made a decision what you think is best you can all go home and be pleased that you have made a good choice. But your choice will usually have no effect at all on the economic system you live under.

  19. Of course ecosystems don’t get to choose and whether anything ever gets to choose anything is a whole other topic.
    In this one, we’re looking at the interpretations provided by someone who was there for some of the decisions that got made and familiar with many of those deciders. So, we’re having a meta discussion about a meta discussion.

  20. Yes, it’s a meta-discussion about a meta-discussion.

    You get to do whatever you want, and your choices affect your power to make more choices. To a large extent, you don’t get to judge your economic system — the economic system judges you.

    Trotsky got to make choices for what his wing of the Bolshevik party would do, and to some extent his choices affected the strength and survival of the party, and the strength and survival of his wing of the party. And of course his own personal survival.

    If he had tried to out-Stalin Stalin, he might have won that way. Assuming his wing of the part went with him, it might have much improved his personal survival and that of his friends. Or possibly there was some other way to win. Estimating it from one single example is not reliable. “For want of a nail….” For long-term ecosystem survival, the individual events probably average out. But for individual historical trends, they might not. Maybe differences that look trivial — a clerk getting a divorce or falling in love, a soldier catching a cold, a messenger delayed a day by a snowstorm or a telegraph operator misplacing a comma — might have rippled out and changed the course of history for a hundred years. It’s tempting to say that Trotsky’s faction could not have won because it in fact did not win, and we can look at the historical developments that show why. But small changes early enough could have changed some of those historical developments.

    Still, sometimes there are realities that cannot be ignored, and sometimes your choices affect your own success far more than they affect the rest of the system.

  21. Additionally, from my point of view, this discussion has a greater purpose. Namely understanding large economic systems (and people) from the point of view of improving the conditions for workers. Thus, the OP is a tool of learning, not the end game.

  22. David:Yes, exactly. Also learning some Russian history.

  23. Trotsky writes in Chapter 3, “The automobile differentiates society no less than the saddle horse. So long as even a modest “Ford” remains the privilege of a minority, there survive all the relations and customs proper to a bourgeois society.

    I am reminded of an old argument I had during the Vietnam War. Namely that we stood a better chance of ‘winning’ by simply ‘bombing’ the Vietnamese with consumer goods, modern farm implements, and food. Though I think I used the paraphrase ‘Bluejeans and Twinkies.’

    Trotsky makes several acute points here; that socialism, as a primitive form of communism, must still fulfill at least the same level of material human wants as is available in capitalist countries. That the the Soviet Union, as a very backward nation, was trying to leap forward in many areas at once to do this. And that in doing so – especially in the areas of bureaucracy, privilege, and state suppression – it had wandered off the communist path. And that rather than being a temporary matter these contradictions could ultimately undermine socialist success.

  24. Excellent point. If the new system isn’t better for the worker than the old system, why bother.

  25. “Trotsky makes several acute points here; that socialism, as a primitive form of communism, must still fulfill at least the same level of material human wants as is available in capitalist countries.”

    No, the two don’t have to be comparable. In the long run, mostly, but in the short run the goal had to be to survive. That meant first producing enough military supplies and transporting them to wherever they were needed. And second, they needed to create the capital goods that could produce more of everything.

    Deciding how much investment to do versus how much consumption, is in general an unsolved problem. We can only vaguely guess how much the investment will pay off. Given a best guess about that, a decision has to be made how much to invest and how much to consume, and this is a moral and esthetic choice. Under capitalism it gets decided collectively by the individuals who own a surplus. People who don’t have enough, consume whatever they can get their hands on. People who have more than enough decide how much to invest but mostly not what to invest in.

    In the USSR, “the government” tried to decide how much to invest and what to invest in. It’s possible they didn’t invest enough in producing food. Capitalist propaganda says that when they tried to get control of food production into their own hands and away from individual farmers, the result was not as efficient. I find that reasonably plausible on theoretical grounds but I haven’t seen numbers I trust. Of course, when there wasn’t enough food somebody had to starve unless they could buy food on the international market or get charity. I tend to be a bit soft-hearted, and so I figure that making sure there’s enough food that gets distributed well enough is a very high priority. But maybe the USSR economy would have grown slower if they had done that.

    “That the the Soviet Union, as a very backward nation, was trying to leap forward in many areas at once to do this.”

    And also to stay militarily strong enough to avoid getting invaded, which in fact they failed to do.

    “And that in doing so – especially in the areas of bureaucracy, privilege, and state suppression – it had wandered off the communist path.”

    The ideals of communism appear to be about distribution of goods. Everybody should have enough, without important class distinctions. If one class has automobiles and another does not, that makes a great big class distinction.

    There are various ways to handle that. You can own the automobiles in common and arrange some sort of rationing system so people get fair use of them. You can invest in public buses to handle a lot of transportation needs efficiently, and have some sort of rationed taxi service for the rest. You can produce enough automobiles that everybody who needs one can have one.

    Whatever the ideals, they ran into practical problems. First they had to win the wars, then defeat the wreckers and saboteurs. Then deal with the purges. Then WWII. Then the Cold War and deal with China as a neighbor. Consumption goods for the public had to be a lower priority. And while there were shortages, the people who could make sure they had enough were a privileged class.

    Obviously Stalin did not do well with all this. But given the external constraints, I’m not sure anyone else could have done a lot better. Like, once WWII started, better leaders might have resulted in the war ending quicker and with less destruction and fewer deaths, but it still would not have resulted in more consumption goods until the war was over. And better choices might have resulted in a better showing during the Cold War, but probably not more consumption goods, instead a more effective military. Etc. It’s hard to create a classless society when there isn’t enough stuff to go around, and it’s hard to create enough stuff for people when national survival is a higher priority.

    To achieve their goals they needed peace. Prior to WWII, for peace they needed some sort of agreement with the Whites and the other socialists or else a more efficient way to exterminate them. I have no idea how they could have arranged peace with Hitler or the USA, but if they could have arranged peace with the Whites things would be so different perhaps some opportunity may have shown itself.

  26. J. Thomas – Are we reading the same Trotsky? Your comment seems unrelated to what Trotsky wrote.

  27. Kevin, it’s a short passage from Trotsky. I am in some ways disagreeing with him, and in others extending his claims.

    Briefly, it’s hard to create a classless society when there isn’t enough to go around. The USSR couldn’t concentrate on producing “enough” because they continually needed to put out fires — wars, insurrections, sometimes self-inflicted wounds — that had higher priority for resources.

    Also it’s hard to create a classless society when there is a class of people you cannot trust and therefore cannot give equal rights to.

    It’s easy to blame it on Stalin, but maybe Stalin was only the personification of the contradiction. Without him, they would have faced the same dilemmas and likely might have imposed the same solutions.

  28. “Within an industry, there are many times when a company using older techniques of manufacture has surpassed a company using more modern techniques just because it was in a position, with greater credit and more available capital, to immediately take advantage of the newest discoveries that another cannot because it’s capital is still tied up in the last generation of technology.”

    There are so many ambiguous “it’s”s in this sentence that it must have taken me ten reads before I understood it: allow me to indulge myself in the pleasures of editing. =)

    “In industry, there are many examples of a company using older techniques of manufacture surpassing a company using newer techniques just because the former was in a position, with greater credit and more available capital, to immediately take advantage of the latest discoveries while the latter company’s capital was tied up in the last generation of technology.”

  29. skzb

    Yeah, I think yours is clearer.

  30. Feel free to sub it in, if you’d like–my original intent was to leave the comment right under the article to help anyone else confused, but it’s unlikely they would scroll down this far.

Leave a Reply