The Left Opposition. Sitting: Serebryakov, Radek, Trotsky, Boguslavsky, Preobrazhensky. Standing: Rakovsky, Drobnis, Beloborodov, Sosnovsky
In 1626, Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus commissioned a ship. The Vasa began her maiden voyage on August 10, 1628. She was terribly designed, with serious balance problems, and horribly overloaded with decorations and brass cannon, and the first time she encountered a wind stronger than a mild breeze, she foundered and sank. The reasons for this disaster, which took the lives of 30 crew members, involved design errors combined with economic and political considerations. Scholars and engineers have learned a great deal about ship design since then, and studying the Vasa has been a useful part of that.
Taking the longest and most general view, human history can be seen as the gradual triumph of reason and planning over superstition and instinct. Where once we ducked into caves to protect us from a hostile environment, now we have the disciplines of engineering, architecture, and many related fields to build caves that are more suited to our needs, and climatology and other related fields to predict what those needs are liable to be at a given time and place. Where once we could only eat what nature provided, now we are able, thanks to agriculture, horticulture, genetics, and other fields to tailor food animals, fruits, and vegetables to provide more nutritious and digestible food in massively greater quantity and even with some consistency. And so on. This is not to argue that in any of the above-mentioned disciplines we are done learning—far from it. And all of them are to one degree or another limited by class society. But we have learned enough to make a difference in our lives, and in the last analysis, that is the point of the study of nature. It is also the point of the study of society, which, after all, is only a specialized division of the study of nature.
And this, in my opinion, is the importance of the study of history. Some say that we must study history to avoid repeating past mistakes, others that it is pointless because we never do seem to learn. Both are missing something important: this study, too, is a process. History itself—by which I mean, the collection of individual human decisions that determine general, long-term movements—is in theory as subject to conscious control as planting a row of corn. We know that planting corn crosswise on a hill will prevent erosion, but making that kind of conscious alteration in determining where we as species want to go, is still beyond us. Part of why we study history, or at least part of the effect of doing so, is to reach the point where we can subject our own destiny, our future, to planning and deliberate decision making. And just as we do not solve the problem of excessive runoff and erosion from rows of corn on a hillside by ignoring the problem, so, too, we cannot hope to determine our own future without engaging with our past, without attempting to understand why things happened as they did, without making the effort to take control of what will happen next.
All of which is to ask a simple question: If we have understood the forces of nature well enough to intervene in them to make our lives better, and if it is possible to similarly intervene in deciding on the direction of our progress, why not do the same for the economy? I would assert that there is no reason why humanity is less capable of applying planning to the creation and distribution of human wants than to the questions of where to build a highway, how to build a windfarm, when to prepare for a hurricane. After all, in a limited, contradictory, anarchic way, any manufacturer engages in some form of this when beginning production of a new product.
One of the most important triumphs of the Russian Revolution was that it was the first sustained, large-scale effort at the creation of a planned economy. It was no more a finished product than the first time we built a bridge that required more planning than “drop a log over the stream” was the final culmination of the art of bridge building, but it was an important start that allows us to discover some of the difficulties we’ll be seeing in the future. As in all new techniques, the Bolsheviks began with an a priori scheme, then did their best to correct and adjust it. Even though (or perhaps because) it was attempted under difficult or impossible conditions, we can learn a great deal.
This is why, as we look at the chapter on the zigzags of the leadership, it worth also taking a look (call it extra credit) at The Platform of the Left Opposition. The Left Opposition was formed, informally at first, in 1923 and continued in spite of exile, imprisonment, torture, and murder, until the founding of the Fourth International in 1938. It was, from the beginning, engaged in all of the controversies of the day: the growth of bureaucracy, the suppression of democracy in the Communist Party and the Soviets, the program of the Third International (ie, the program for the world working class), and the economic choices that were so thoroughly intertwined with all of the others.
For this chapter, what I think it most important to establish, and the reason I bring in the program of the Left Opposition, is to show that there were alternatives to the major errors of the Stalin clique. No one would suggest that the economic proposals of the Left Opposition were “perfect,” and certainly no one would say they would have solved every problem confronting the workers state. But by looking at the bureaucracy’s decisions on the one hand, the Opposition’s proposals on the other, and especially the way the former had to hastily, spasmodically, and often brutally change direction and adopt the latter, it is possible to see that, even under the worst of conditions (or especially under the worst of conditions), one can see a way forward if one is looking.
What, then, were those decisions, those proposals? They involved every facet of economic life. The classic case regards the peasants. The Opposition saw the need for collectivization of peasant holdings, whereas the Stalin faction denied it, and instead turned itself toward the Kulak (the well-to-do peasant who employed farm labor), which was part of the middle class basis on which that faction rested. The result was that, instead of gradual collectivization driven by incentives, by an increase in quantity and quality of farm equipment, by education and by showing the actual advantages (and by making industrial decisions to help the peasant so there were actual advantages), the ruling group was suddenly, in panic, forced to collectivize by the most brutal, coercive means, turning massive sections of the peasantry against the workers state, and, at the same time, creating conditions where the collective farms, because they had been forced into existence ahead of the advanced machinery needed, were in fact less efficient in large numbers of cases, which increased the already dangerous dichotomy between city and village. “The blame for these sacrifices lies not upon collectivization, but upon the blind, violent, gambling methods with which it was carried through.” This same sort of denial-followed-by panic-stricken-reversal runs like a thread of devastation through all of the decisions of the ruling group from 1924 to 1936. Consider, for a moment, with all that Soviet industry and agriculture managed, how much greater these accomplishments could have been with a better approach to planning the economy. But this brings up the question: why didn’t they? Is it just that the bureaucracy did not have planning technicians as skilled as those of the opposition?
Well, to be sure, making decisions about how to run something as complex as the economy of 150 million people requires skill and learning and trial-and-error, but I would argue that the difference between the Stalin camp and the Opposition camp was not about who was “smarter”; it was, like everything else, about social forces: Trotsky represented those forces that had made the proletarian revolution, Stalin the forces that were reacting against it, distrusting it. They were not individuals who had “better” or “worse” ideas, they were the representatives of particular social groupings, and carried out their tasks as best they could in the interest of those groupings. This leads us directly and immediately to the question: which forces did they represent, and how is it that those of the Stalin camp came out on top? That is the key question in all of these posts, and we’re getting there.
For now, when considering the planned economy, there is one thing I want to emphasize: When the Vasa sank, no one said, “Well, I guess we’d better not build any more ships, then.” We experiment, we learn, we study, we do it better, because there is no other way that progress happens.