Revolution, Defeat, and Theoretical Underdevelopment:
Russia, Turkey, Spain, Bolivia
Haymarket Books, $28.
When Marx wrote that a specter was haunting Europe, he didn’t mean “national liberation,” anti-imperialism, the “tasks of economic development,” or the stages theory of history. He said what he meant and he said “communism,” requiring the overthrow of capitalism, its ruling class and its ruling relations of production, by the proletariat. Marx didn’t quite imagine the corollary proposition to his evocation of the specter of communist future– that the socialists, the “left,” the big and small C communists would be the ones scared to death of ghosts.
If all of the bourgeoisie’s economics, philosophy, sociology, and psychology of the past century amounts to the evasion of, and flight from Marx’s critique of capital (and it does), that’s only because all of the history of the last 100 years has been the flight from proletarian revolution through the substitution of national liberation, anti-imperialism, stages theory, popular fronts, for class struggle. Nothing persists in capitalism like obsolescence, planned or unplanned. Nothing has more currency, more staying power than the forms of rebellion that embody, embrace, and imitate the capitalist relations of production.
Loren Goldner, activist, author, and editor of Insurgent Notes, has produced four essays on the obstacles placed in the path to power by revolutionists themselves and Haymarket Books has compiled the essays under a single cover, and the single title Revolution, Defeat, and Theoretical Underdevelopment: Russia, Turkey, Spain, Bolivia.
The essays examine four ideologies, Leninism, anti-imperialism, anarchism and Troskyism through the real history of revolutionary struggle.
We begin with Russia. We are always beginning with Russia. The Russian Revolution is, after all, that location in time and space where the working class created and installed the original organs of its power to rule society, the soviets.
Russia was the crucible that yielded up the compounded upheaval of proletarian power and peasant war known as permanent revolution, itself the translation of the theory of uneven and combined development into the practical activity of class struggle.
There is no mistaking that each of Goldner’s studies– Russia before and after the revolution; Russia’s engagement with Turkish nationalism 1920-1925; the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939; the 1952 MNR revolution in Bolivia–is a “grapple” with uneven and combined development and with permanent revolution as the only viable path to the overthrow of capitalism.
The basics of uneven and combined development are well…basic. Capitalism does not develop uniformly, or by formula, across the globe. The ability of capital in any particular, local, environment to refashion society, to revolutionize the relations of production is circumscribed, and compromised, by the existing relations of property in which capital emerges, or is grafted on its “host.”
Marx wrote that a certain productivity of agriculture is required for the development of social organization. Capital, in its quest to fulfill its essential, and only essential task, the accumulation of more capital, requires more than just a certain level. It requires continuous advances in agricultural productivity, expelling the population from rural production, detaching that population from direct production of its own subsistence, and transforming agriculture from a subsistence activity where only a surplus product is available for exchange and into an activity where all product must be exchanged for a) the producer to subsist and b) surplus product to be replaced by surplus value extracted by and for the owner of the means of production.
To create those conditions of laboring, capital has to overthrow the pre-existing relations of property, of private property. That’s a risky business for capital as its private property is enmeshed in the general networks of credit, debt, commerce, and trade with those pre-existing forms. That’s a risky business given the sanctity of private property to the bourgeoisie in general.
Where “local” capital finds itself surrounded, stifled even, by pre-existing relations of land and landed labor, capitalism as an international system is able to insert “islands”– “zones” of industrial activity where the condition of labor is that of wage-labor, essentially the same as the condition of labor in the most advanced countries.
The result of this uneven and combined development is that agriculture does not achieve a level of productivity able to sustain a “reciprocity” between city and countryside; sufficient to sustain the accumulation of capital; and that advanced capitalist economies dominate these areas.
Just as capital is overwhelmed by the weight of all pre-existing relations bearing down on it, the capitalist class cannot make, much less lead, a revolution.
This also means that while the working class can seize power during a social upheaval, that seizure can only be sustained through the transformation of agricultural production beyond the conditions of capitalist accumulation, beyond the condition of labor as wage-labor. For the proletarian revolution to be successful, the transformation of agriculture cannot be the imitation of or analogy to capitalism, i.e “state” as the imitation or analogy to “corporate” units.
So Goldner begins with the “agricultural question” and the Russian revolution. He explores Lenin’s misrepresentation of production in the countryside as being “capitalist” not only in tendency but in fact. No such capitalist dominance had occurred or was even emerging in Russian agriculture. The large landed estate, the landlord-peasant relation, as opposed to landowner-free farmer relation continued to dominate, and the Russian peasant commune, the mir or obschina, remained at the heart (and soul) of the peasant social organization.
While the Czar’s bureaucracy saw the mir as a tax collecting body, the mir was an organization designed to ensure an equitable distribution of land, and tools, among its members. This equitable “rationing” made the commune deeply resistant to commercial penetration
To argue that capitalism was becoming dominant in the Russian countryside required both a distortion of the empirical data and an ideological commitment to “developmentalist” economics, which is itself nothing but stages theory all dressed up in the clothing of “destiny.” It was an argument that, when turned into policy, was made at the expense of historical materialism and ultimately, social revolution.
After the civil war in Russia, the Bolsheviks adopted programs designed to appeal to the so-called “economic rationality”– the “individual commercial interest”– of the rural producer as the mechanism for developing agriculture and transferring surplus from the countryside to the city, from agriculture to industry. Goldner demonstrates that the commune undermined the appeal to such “rational self-interest.” The policies did, however, make the Bolsheviks advocates, even if unwilling or unwitting ones, for an economic differentiation among the peasantry, and thus made them, the Communists, substitutes for a bourgeoisie.
In discussing the NEP, Goldner correctly points out that the Bolsheviks intended it to “guide capitalism” in an effort to revive agriculture and industry. And he’s right when he says that the NEP was not a “restoration of capitalism,” but he’s wrong when he says “because capitalism had never been abolished in the first place.” The NEP was not a restoration of capitalism because capitalism had never been established in the countryside in the first place.
The peasant communes were under attack, prior to the revolution, certainly, as the “enlightened Czarists” (an oxymoron to beat all other oxymorons) sought a capitalist transformation of agriculture, but the communes survived, and remained as they had always been– subsistence plus marginal surplus units of production. The surplus was “marginal” in the sense that the surplus was not the organizing principle of production. The surplus product was made exchangeable, unlike the condition of capitalist agriculture where all product must be produced for exchange in order to realize the surplus value embedded in the whole.
The Bolshevik predicament was that the revolution could not adequately enhance agricultural productivity because agricultural productivity was already too low. The escape from this trick-bag, of course, was only possible through the expansion of the social revolution into the advanced countries, and this in turn required the ability and willingness to continue the pursuit of revolution in the less-developed countries.
Which gets us to Goldner’s second essay “Socialism in One Country Before Stalin.” This essay deals with the ebbs and flows of the Bolsheviks’ accommodation to post-WW1 Turkish nationalism, and in particular the “romance” with Kemalist Turkey under the guise of support for “national liberation.”
The raising of post-Ottoman Turkey as struggle for national liberation endorsed by the Bolsheviks (and the Third International) was a pragmatic decision by the Bolsheviks as no issue of national liberation existed. The conflict was an inter-, and intra-,capitalist, competition. The Bolsheviks engaged in their maneuvering in order to secure their borders with Asia against the British even if, or precisely because, revolution appeared imminent on those borders.
Those maneuvers involved the sacrifice, literally, of Turkish communist militants to the Kemal regime; the transfer of gold and weapons to Kemal after that sacrifice; and all of this in the period 1921-1925, before the policy of socialism in one country was announced; before the sacrifice of the Chinese Revolution on the altar of national liberation.
This might help us understand how of much of the “ebb” of the revolutionary wave was the result of the Bolsheviks’ (and the Third International’s) own actions. The answer? “A lot.”
National liberation has not always been presented as a mechanism primarily for class collaboration with a “national” “patriotic” or simply “petty” bourgeoisie but it has always been rationalized as a precursor, a stage necessarily prior to a proletarian revolution, akin to a “bourgeois democratic revolution” or even the unworkable “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.” What the Russian Revolution exploded in its triumph, the stages theory, the Bolsheviks brought back through the trap door of national liberation.
From precursor, national liberation becomes the substitute for class struggle; and from substitute it moves to become the opponent of class struggle. Thanks to Goldner’s essay we can answer another question: When does a workers’ state stop being a workers’ state? When it establishes policies and undertakes actions separate, apart, distinct from, and in opposition to the advance of proletarian revolution.
Goldner’s remaining two essays in the volume, “The Spanish Revolution, Past and Future,” and “Anti-Capitalism or Anti-Imperialism…” (concerning the MNR and Bolivia), deal with the legacy of two revolutions where defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory.
In both Spain and Bolivia, the revolutionary struggle, populated by workers and rural poor is again sacrificed to the “stages” of history, the “economic tasks of development,” the ideology of substitutionism that becomes the practice of opposition to social revolution.
In the case of Spain, the anarchists presented overwhelming, but atomized class power. Failing to centralize that power, to exercise that power as its class dictatorship, the anarchist organizations allowed the popular front to organize counter that class, counter that proletarian revolution, as if the struggle were one for a bourgeois democracy.
Finally, in the examination of the MNR and Bolivia, Goldner engages in an exhaustive examination of the fascist, near-fascist, populist, and corporate ideologies on the formation of a “national movement.” Goldner is fascinated by the impact of German Romantic Populism, and the German military, on the formation of movements among intellectuals and the military officer in the countries of Latin America. If I were a glib person, I might say comrade Goldner is a bit too concerned with the ideological formulations of intellectuals.
I’m not. I’d say that the development of capitalism in Bolivia was so constrained by internal factors like the Spanish mita, the encomienda, the hacienda, and by the market power of the advanced capitalist countries that intellectuals, administrators, professionals, students, military officers were compressed between the rock and the hard place, that space between the rock and the hard place being a void. Under those circumstances, ideologies of the state, as an entity somehow raised above class differentiation, and representing the “people” as the volk provided the intellectuals with a fantasy of accumulation in the midst of the most impoverished of realities.
Beyond that, the story of the Bolivian Revolution and the MNR is the story of the armed intervention of the workers in the coup initiated by the MNR against the mine-owners’ government; the conversion of a coup into class struggle; the frittering away of that revolution by the Trotskyist POR which, terrified by the specter that once haunted Europe, constituted itself as an adjunct to the “left wing” of the MNR. Goldner is correct when he writes that “to ‘blame’ the POR for ‘betraying’ the Bolivian Revolution is to fall into the idealist trap of saying ‘they had the wrong’ ideas’ instead of explaining why they had the ideas they did.” The explanation is not, however, that those ideas were then— that those ideas were the legacy of a capitalism not sufficiently, nor globally, dominant. In fact, those ‘ideas’ were precisely a recoil, a flinching, in the face of a capitalism that was indeed globally dominant, had itself overgrown the notions of definitive stages– it was and is, and will always be until its overthrow, a capitalism where the limitations are not simply limitations upon capital, but limitations of capital itself.
February 27, 2018