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

TRB #8 Chapter Three Part 2:Contradictions of the Soviet State


History of the Russian Revolution


I ought not to have been surprised at the degree of resistance there was in my previous post to the notion that human beings are not inherently selfish, but rather that selfishness is a response to definite conditions, and to socialization in response to these conditions. It seems like whenever it comes up, the best someone can do is pull out the, “children are selfish,” thing. And, having raised four, I can tell you that there are, indeed, circumstances where a toddler will greedily cling to Jojo-the-Stuffed-Monkey crying, “Mine!” It appears to have never crossed these people’s minds that a second Jojo-the-Stuffed-Monkey makes the problem go away, and if there had never been a Jojo-the-Stuffed-Monkey, the problem wouldn’t have come up. (In practice, we parents usually solve the problem by a judicious application of Gigi-the-Stuffed-Velociraptor, but I digress). Selfishness is a response to the circumstances where there is more than subsistence, but not plenty.

I also confess to being a little surprised at those who wonder why the question of egalitarianism matters in a discussion of socialism. Apparently, I haven’t done a good job of getting across my thesis, so let me try again: This and the previous post center upon the Marxist view of the State as an instrument of class oppression. Class society exists when there is a sufficient surplus to support a leisure class but insufficient for plenty, and, in my view, the State must vanish when class society vanishes, because goods then can be distributed equally, so there is no need for an instrument to defend the privileged.

Which brings us back to the real question, perhaps the essential question of these posts: why is it the State failed to whither away? “The proletarian dictatorship forms a bridge between bourgeois and socialist societies. In its very essence, therefore, it bears a temporary character. An incidental but very essential task of the state which realizes the dictatorship consists in preparing for its own dissolution. The degree of realizing of this ‘incidental’ task is, to some extent, a measure of its success in the fulfillment of its fundamental mission: the construction of a society without classes and without material contradictions.” [Emphasis added–SB]

Trotsky goes on to say, “The philistine considers the gendarme an eternal institution. In reality, the gendarme will bridle mankind only until man shall thoroughly bridle nature.” And, to get to the heart of the matter, “It is true that capitalist anarchy creates the struggle of each against all, but the trouble is that a socialization of the means of production does not yet automatically remove the ‘struggle for individual existence.’ That is the nub of the question!”

It is, indeed. In 1917, there was not plenty. There was not the capability of producing plenty. There was a surplus. As always, when there is a surplus but not plenty, the question emerges: how to allocate the surplus? That is, who gets the luxuries? In fact, who gets the limited amount of those things which we would not consider luxuries, but close to necessities?

The Soviet State, as it emerged from the period of War Communism, was deeply contradictory. The old elements of bourgeois law, especially regarding distribution, remained in force next to elements of socialistic law; the future and the past dwelt in the same body, and were not comfortable together. The State, then, though responsible for the transformation to a socialist system, was also the arbiter of inequality; it had to enforce the system by which some had more than others, until such a time as the economy could be rescued by the working class of the advanced countries, or could develop on its own the means of producing enough for everyone, or a combination. And we have to add to this a factor the importance of which cannot be overstated: the revolution had been made by a working class with an extremely high level of theoretical knowledge, class consciousness, and fierce enthusiasm for socialism; and yet, it was exactly the best of these, the most class conscious, the most advanced, the most enthusiastic, who were also the most self-sacrificing. The Civil War took its strongest toll on the lives of these workers.

“If for the defense of socialized property against bourgeois counterrevolution a ‘state of armed workers’ was fully adequate, it was a very different matter to regulate inequalities in the sphere of consumption. Those deprived of privileges are not inclined to create and defend them. The majority cannot concern itself with the privileges of the minority.”

Who would defend those privileges? Those who had them. Or to put it in simple terms: those who had the job of deciding how the surplus was divided tended to, first, start with themselves, and second, to attempt to secure their positions so they could continue doing so. “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. And together with them there remains the guardian of inequality, the state.”

And so, we now have two forces contending with each other: One forward-looking, counting on the revolutionary workers of Western Europe, and a deeply conservative one interested in preserving its elite status. The remark I made above about the sacrifice of the most advanced workers in the Civil War had its exact counterpart: the gaps these workers left in the State machinery when they went off to die were filled by their opposite—ex-Mensheviks largely—those who had opposed the revolution, and still had no confidence in it. These forces flooded into the Communist Party and the State.

Thus the stage was set for the battle that would determine the future of the Soviet Union, and of the world working class, for the next hundred years.


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Author: skzb

I play the drum.


  1. The difficult question then becomes, is it actually possible to provide all of the luxuries that every person could reasonably want, without destroying the planet?

    For if not, then the state will never wither away, and a social democracy will forever be superior.

  2. skzb, I think you misunderstood my position. It was not the “people are selfish”, it was that it is a waste of time and energy to defend the position that ancient tribes of people were completely unselfish. Some were, some were not. It’s a digression.

    Often the people with the least, are the ones most willing to share, as they understand what it is like with nothing. The rest of your post makes sense.

    hacksoncode, good point. I am interested to see what might be proposed as a solution because resources are finite. Even with a completely egalitarian society, there well be a mechanism for distribution of wealth (a state), and that will become perverted no matter how well intentioned the original goal was.

  3. It isn’t all about wealth – we have lots of people who don’t have much but who want to Righteously look down on others. They are willing to trade their comfort to make sure others are worse off. The powerful don’t need to try to get these guys to do their work for them.

  4. I, too, think that the question of abundance is key. Even accepting that different people will be satiated with different levels of material abundance, there is still an upper boundary on how abundant an abundance can be.

    The ad-absurdium terminus of this is, “I will not be happy unless I own 100% of the planet.” Once one person adopts this position, there will not be enough for all, no matter how little the rest of us are prepared to be satisfied with.

    The perception of abundance is, I believe, *also* socially determined. Very few of us feel deprived at having to share the highway with others, assuming that the traffic isn’t so bad. Some of us are prepared to share cars with others. In some places, shared resources are a luxury: for us in London, having a Zipcar out front of our flat was very preferable to owning a car; we didn’t have to wash, service, or fuel that car (usually), or look for a parking place when we brought it back. It was perfect for the odd grocery run or a day in the country; the rest of the time there were short-hire bikes, black cabs, buses and tubes. It was a luxury to have a car that we could use whenever we wanted, without the hassle of ownership.

    By contrast, owning our flat was terrible, because of the leaseholder/freeholder split (this is a UK institution that is so baffling to Americans that it would take all day for me to explain it to you). Suffice it to say that owning a flat was nowhere near enough ownership interest, and we dreamt of owning a freestanding home with all our bourgey souls.

    However, in Berlin, renters revel in the tenancy protections they get in law, and much prefer renting to ownership. It’s flexible and pleasant and safe and secure and stable. Having been a tenant in the UK, I would never rent there again — my lease allowed my landlord to chuck me out with virtually no notice, to arbitrarily raise the rent, etc.

    Middle-class Britons who are acclimatised to the UK way of doing things just feel *cheated* and impoverished by anything less than a freehold (your shelter is just above your food on Maslow’s hierarchy, so any deficit in it is a nagging anxiety that never stops). Germans show up around the world happy to rent — even when they end up in e.g. Britain and are treated as scum by law and custom for not owning.

    We’ve decided that blueberries in February are a luxury and part of an abundant life; we’ve decided that lobster (once a trash food that was fit only for prisoners, who rioted in New England over its prevalence in their diet) is abundance; that air conditioning and many other arbitrary signifiers are likewise abundance.

    But these are local to time and place. We’ve just finished an insane summer in Burbank; our neighbours with solar-paneled roofs cranked their AC up to 11 and left the doors wide open because they literally couldn’t use up the electricity as fast as they were generating it from their photovoltaics. That felt like a kind of abundance I’d never imagined.

    It’s weird to bemoan the fact that you can’t swim without getting wet, but we bemoan not being able to ski in July as scarcity in action. This is social as much as anything.

    Some surpluses are reflected in “positional goods” that convey status messages about their owners — designer clothing, for example. Abundance in these reduces their value. Interestingly, orthodox bourgeois economists who contemplate positional goods in fashion talk about the benefits that the luxury goods industry receives from a lack of copyright protections in their designs. Because a positional good is valuable to its owner in inverse proportion to the good’s prevalence, the relentless production of knockoffs drives a likewise relentless need to spend to buy new positional goods that can perform the social function.

    If your designer t-shirt conveys your status only so long as there aren’t a bunch of low-class people in knockoffs, then the presence of these knockoffs forces you to go and buy a new t-shirt every season. Without the piracy, you could buy a single shirt and never have to replace it.

    It might be useful to have a taxonomy of abundance. Let’s think of skiing:

    * When it snows, I can sometimes afford to ski

    * When it snows, I can always afford to snow

    * I can go to a snowy place and ski every so often

    * I can go to a snowy place and ski whenever I feel like it

    * I can make it snow where I am and ski

    * I am the only person who gets to ski (when it snows, or by going to a snowy place, or by making it snow)

    That would be an exciting taxonomy to develop, I think.


  5. An excellent essay/chapter-summary/whatever, skzb. I’m not really interested in the comments this time as in seeing the next few e/c-s/w posts….

  6. Socialism cannot be built, nor equality created under conditions of scarcity which is the basis of “selfishness”. Evolutionary theory assumes a universal “drive” of all species for life and hence survival. Outside of that, regarding our own species there is no innate “human nature”. This has been understood not only by Marxists, but also by liberal theoreticians both in anthropology (see Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead and others of that generation) and social philosophy –see John Dewey et al. So when, I hear the cliché , “oh, that’s human nature” , so often stated by people in the mass media, I cringe.

    Of course that “instinct” for survival, self-preservation, etc. manifests itself with different means by different species. That is the basis of evolution and “natural selection” (I have no expertise in biology but Darwin explained thee fundamentals with the theory of “natural selection” which results in the case of the genus “homo” eventually in the ability not only to make tools,even of the most primitive nature, but to pass this knowledge on to each generation, eventually augmented by language. This is the basis of “culture”, which once becoming a property of the human species, has the goal of extracting the resources of the natural world on a basis superior to biology in the sense that is has the increased capacity to create production to satisfy survival and eventually economic “surplus”.

    Getting back to the social conditions facing the new workers state after the Octo ber Russian revolution, Steve has succinctly explained this vital history from the point of the civil war to the failure to successful extend the overthrow of capitalism to the “advanced” countries because socialism cannot be built in one country. I believe this is brilliantly explained by Trotsky in the “Revolution Betrayed “but also in the study of the failed workers revolutions inn Germany —above all– in 1918-19 as well as in 1923. Trotsky’s (See His 2 volume collection titled the “First Five Years of the Communist International” and later, “the Lessons of October” referring to the 1923 events in Germany). The history of the failures of the revolution not only in Germany in the ’20s b also n Britain and China was the subject of Trotsky’s commentary in numerous articles and books. Despite each failure and betrayal by the existing leaders of the working class, the Social Democrats and the Stalin faction, Trotsky and his supporters fought for a positive outcome at each juncture. This endeavor involved voluminous writings on the events of 1929 –33 in Germany which brought the Nazis to power revealing the complete decay of the 3rd International resulting from the consolidation of pwere by the Stalin faction. Hence, Trotsky’s call for a new (4th) International following the accession of Hitler.

    Please feel free to correct or supplement this comment, especially on the basis of Marxism and Trotskyism.

  7. Despite my efforts at proofreading, please forgive the typos. My only excuse is vision problems (“Age-related Macular Degeneration” in one eye.

  8. Why the obvious hate of the term “human nature”? And what has it to do with trying to justify socialism? It looks like another totem that needs defending because Marx said so. Stop elevating Marx and Trotsky to the status of gods where their every word needs defending. Use what is valuable and throw out the rest.

    Either way, it adds nothing to the discussion. Still, the Marxists are having it both ways by attributing selflessness (human nature) on the one hand and then denying human nature exists with the other. Another useless digression.

  9. skzb

    Danny: Well said.

    David: “Why the obvious hate of the term “human nature”?”

    Because it is unscientific, ill-defined hand-waving used to prove whatever argument the user wishes, usually in defense of pessimism and the status quo.

  10. Unfortunately, the whole discussion about the value of Marxism is, “unscientific, ill-defined hand-waving used to prove whatever argument the user wishes”. Use the same standard of proof for the things you like as for the things you don’t like.

    True, there are historical facts and as long as we are just discussing documented history, fine, no argument. But then you go on to talk about concepts, rationalizations, motives and yes, human nature, that include speculation or wishful thinking. I can live with that just fine as long as you don’t pretend they are more than that, or that something like human nature is a myth just because Marx said so (read the link I provided). Sorry for the blasphemy against your religion. The whole industry of advertising is based on understanding human nature, and they make a lot of money because of it.

    Use the same logical standard for everything. This runs the emotional risk that you may have to change some of your thinking. Sorry to be harsh, I wish there was a gentler way to say it.

    I do not mean to imply that this discussion is without value. But if you don’t have a sound logical base, and if you can’t recognize your own cognitive bias, how do you expect to come to good conclusions in the end? It will be just one more political sermon to the true believers. If your only goal and answer is to justify a repeat of the Marxist revolution, why bother with the discussion as there is nothing to learn? Just for propaganda purposes? I would hope and expect there is more.

  11. The argument about advertising is hollow, as advertising bases itself on what appeals to the current generation existing in the current socio-economic system. That has nothing to do with any kind of essential, fixed human nature; if anything, it’s the exact opposite.

    As for the link to Wikipedia, it mainly serves to underscore that there’s a great deal of debate about human nature, and Marxists are hardly the only people to dismiss the idea that it’s somehow unalterable.

  12. You have chosen to define human nature in a way to suit your purposes. Most people do not see human nature as crystalline hard core programming of our behavior. Human nature is simply the way we behave and think in a statistically predictable manner. Just because most people instinctively want to help baby animals doesn’t mean that I would expect 100% of people to do that.

    Just because somebody has a different definition of human nature does not make the concept less useful in understanding behavior. To deny that something like human nature exists, leaves a behavioral void to explain things such as my marketing example.

    It will have to be explained to me why denying “human nature” serves any purpose in the discussion or in supporting socialism. If anything, understanding human nature is useful in explaining the need for socialism. To deny “human nature” is denying part of what makes us human.

    Is the purpose of Marxism to treat everybody as cogs in a social machine? That approach is doomed to fail under the weight of it’s own oppression.

  13. skzb

    Human nature, at least as the term has been used since the mid 20th century, takes certain socially conditioned behaviors and elevates them into biological law. That various people differ on which socially conditioned behaviors are inherent does not change the arbitrary and unscientific nature of the concept.

    If these posts are succeeding ( recognize that this is a big “if”), my facts are irrefutable, and the conclusions I draw from them inarguable. These posts (again, if I’m doing what I set out to do), do not depend on Marxism, but rather serve to demonstrate its use as a method of understanding history and interpreting today’s events. Insofar as someone determined to dispute my arguments has to fall back on such concepts as “human nature,” it would seem that I’ve been successful.

  14. Again, you misunderstand. Nobody I know says “human nature” is a biological law or an absolute. You are defining human nature in a way to support your argument. Of course any discussion of human nature* (or nearly anything to do with humans) can be arbitrary and pretty much unscientific. There is nothing scientific about Marxist socialism. Yet, that does not deter you from discussing it. There is no way to repeat the experiment dozens of times, controlling all the variables to see which variables are the most important. So political systems are by definition unscientific.

    We do know something about human behavior and expectations, yet you seem to deny that such concepts exist? Why does the concept people call “human nature” seem wrong and why is this important to the discussion? Don’t say it is unscientific as this whole discussion series is subjective and unscientific. I would like an answer as to why this is important?

    What term do you suggest for what I would call human nature? Or do you deny that people have predictable behavior patterns?

    I see a large amount of tongue in cheek, which is good. I have never used “human nature” to dispute your arguments (“you can’t do that because human nature”) ;>) But we need some understanding of human behavior and the wants, needs and desires of people to even have a meaningful discussion. If you take that away, there is nothing interesting left to discuss.

    *I recently had an on-line discussion about the effect of video games on youth violence. I found a summary of all the research papers (scientific) for the last 20 years or so. It was interesting to see that the early papers concluded that video games increase “violence” and later papers refuted that conclusion and found confirmation bias in the interpretation of data of the early papers. So, anything to do with human behavior analysis is subjective (you would say arbitrary) and thus could be called unscientific (because repeatability is a problem).

  15. I just encountered a paper on something called “General Semantics”. A study of the mind’s interpretation of events and words and how we over-generalize by thinking in categories rather than particulars. Like seeing a vehicle and calling it a car, as if all cars are the same thing.

    I think this is related to any discussion of trying to influence people’s thoughts and actions or maybe in understanding those things. So this may be of interest to the group.

  16. David, I’m sorry but I think you’re playing with words and avoiding the substance. It’s completely obvious from everything Steven has written that he’s referring to “human nature” in the extremely common sense of an immutable set of inherent characteristics. The first sentence of the Wikipedia article you recommended:

    “Human nature refers to the distinguishing characteristics—including ways of thinking, feeling and acting—which humans tend to have naturally, independently of the influence of culture.”

    Now, it would be silly to claim that materialists of all people would dismiss the core material needs of human beings, which leaves us with bigger social questions of what human beings are like (i.e. “we can’t have socialism because all humans are greedy in exactly the way capitalism encourages but this has nothing to do with the totalizing socio-economic system they live in – it’s just human nature!”) So it’s not hard to infer what Steven is talking about. The reason it’s relevant is precisely because of the example above, which is a frequent argument against socialism.

    Redefining the common term “human nature” to mean “the cultural and psychological makeup of the average individual in a Western society at this very specific point in time” and then complaining that no-one else is using your definition does not count as an argument. If you want to talk about the challenges of establishing socialism or even a socialist movement in the current social climate, that’s a separate issue.

  17. The quote you included does not say that human nature is “an immutable set of inherent characteristics”. I have never heard of someone using the term in that way. My understanding of the term is the same as what was in the Wiki link. So I hardly think my definition is solely my imagination as you seem to think.

    I don’t see where you get your definition from the link, it is very clear that there is a variable understanding of “human nature.” In your quote, the key word is, “tend”, showing that human nature is not immutable and the same for everyone. You are defining the term to suit your purposes.

    So what if someone tried to use “human nature” as an argument against socialism? That is a very poor reason to attack the term, which is a useful short-hand for what was in the Wiki link. Is your position so weak that you are unable to come back with arguments that support your position? Just because they used the term “human nature”, did that totally defeat your position? Can’t you say, “no, human nature does not mean that all people are greedy.” Don’t give the term, “human nature”, more power than it deserves.

    The link to General Semantics is interesting because it discusses the power of symbology in words. Words like “terrorist” and “human nature” have a lot of subconscious power. Unfortunately, terms with power like this will be abused for a purpose, whether or not it is inconvenient to your position or if you wish the terms to not be used. So you need to have a good counter argument ready. If you are unable to come up with a good counter argument, and instead attack the term as unfair, maybe there is a problem with your position. And no, I do not believe all people are greedy and the argument that that is human nature wouldn’t slow me down one bit.

  18. People of similar cultural backgrounds tend to react, in the aggregate, in similar fashions. These aggregate reactions may change over time as culture and circumstances change. There are always outliers who react differently or even in opposition to aggregate norms. Steve is suggesting (I think) that the move towards socialism demands (requires?causes?) a change towards an egalitarian aggregate reaction. This seems entirely reasonable.

    Cory’s skiing example is a nice one that distinguishes aggregate tendencies from specific behavior. A taxonomy of egalitarian behavior.

  19. “human beings are not inherently selfish,”

    The research on altruism will disagree with you on that. The instinct to favor me and mine over others appears to be hard-wired, from what I recall from the research, and proportional to how closely related we are. Resource constraints will bring this instinct out more strongly, I’d guess, but my understanding is that it is there all the time.

  20. IMO it’s a question of the size of your tribe. If you are a sociopath, you have a tribe of one. Most people include family and friends in a tight group, and loosely include those who look like them, talk like them, have the same faith, and have similar amounts of money.

    But when you expand your tribe to include your entire species, or all intelligent life, or all sentient life, then you have graduated from tribalism to altruism.

  21. Miramon, good observation. If the social group is small, so everyone knows everybody else and what they are like, the thief and sociopath is kicked out and shunned. This is because that person is a drain on the community that they cannot afford. That’s one reason that the lone “stranger” was treated with great suspicion in the old days.

    Now days, we promote that person or make him a politician until he publicly screws the pooch. ;>)

  22. I wonder if there is any research on the percentage of people who actually hold humanity as their tribe? All I’m even vaguely familiar with is the research on the instinctual response.

  23. Probably about as many as view humanity like a wolf views sheep.

  24. As I wrote in response to TRB#3 (mistaking #3 for chapter 3 🙂 )

    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.

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