Rejoinder: Revolutionary as Conservative

Against the Current, No. 38, May/June 1992

Tim Wohlforth

IT IS AMAZING how conservative a revolutionary can be. Today we witness the collapse of a social system, state socialism, which just a few years ago dominated one-third of the earth’s surface and attracted significant support throughout much of the rest of the world. Yet many who claim to be revolutionary thinkers have discovered nothing in these momentous events which requires them to modify their previously held ideas.

Ernest Haberkern can claim credit to be among the most conservative of these “revolutionary” thinkers. He has devoted most of his comments (“On `Leninism’ and Reformism,” ATC 37) on my article, “The Grip of Leninism” (ATC 35), to a stirring defense of Marxism warding off the attacks of Edward

No, I have not discovered any “previously unknown or untranslated documents” which throw any new light whatsoever on the Bernstein matter. I do not question the Haberkern-Draper critique of Bernstein’s interpretation of Marx and Engels’ views. I simply find the matter to be irrelevant to the subject under discussion: democracy in post-capitalist society!

More than it being “always a good idea to re-examine one’s ideas in the light of new facts,” such a process is essential when the world fundamentally changes. I therefore propose that we begin with what is new in the world rather than with old theoretical disputes and concepts.

We are witnessing the collapse of the state socialist system. This system has proven itself incapable of raising the productivity of labor relative to the competing capitalist system. We, whose thinking has been shaped by some form of Trotskyism, can rightly claim to have predicted the downfall of Stalinism. However, we were not prepared for the revolutionary-counterrevolutionary process which is now unfolding!

I wish to point to three key characteristics of this process:

1. Democracy: Throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union one-party rule has been replaced by representative democracy with competing political parties vying for office. Civil rights and liberties have been largely restored, lively debates take place in the press and on television. While we all certainly disapprove of the choices the electorate is making in these nations, there is every indication that these choices have been made freely and that the current leaderships generally reflect the thinking and desires of the people.

2. Revolution: The old system was based upon bureaucratic rule imposed through a single-party dictatorship and a command, state-owned economy. This system–whatever label one wishes to place upon it–is clearly being destroyed everywhere in the region. This is a fundamental, revolutionary change.

3. Counterrevolution: While the destruction of the old system and the placing of power in the hands of the people through democratic institutions is revolutionary, the utilization of this power by the elected leaderships to establish a capitalist economy is clearly counterrevolutionary. While, luckily, progress towards privatization has so far been slow, and is by no means irreversible, the direction is nonetheless a counterrevolutionary one.

The theoretical implications of these events are staggering and I will not pretend to probe all of them in the course of this short polemical piece. I will discuss only those implications which relate to the questions raised by Haberkern.

1. The form of democracy suited to a socialist society. In my original article I quoted Hal Draper’s position that Marx saw more than one possible structural form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In addition to the commune state form which has come down to us primarily through the Leninist tradition, Marx considered it possible that the working class could exercise its rule through more traditional representational or “parliamentary” structures.

Haberkern does not dispute that Marx-Draper held that there could be more than one governmental structure under socialism. I certainly did not assert that Marx, or Draper advocated the parliamentary form as the only possible form of workers rule. I would not
be at all surprised to learn that Draper remained right up to the time of his death an advocate of the commune form.

I certainly do confess to holding that parliamentary democracy remains the only workable form of the democratic rule of the working class in the transitional period. I have developed this thought not only in my reply to Farber but much more extensively in my article “The Transition to the Transition,” which was published in 1981 in New Left Review 130.

The decentralized direct democracy of the Paris Commune or the Russian Soviets is simply not suited to a society with a centralized governmental structure, large-scale industry, and large urban centers. It remains a utopia in the sense that its realization requires a process of complex political, social and economic change which will take many years to bring about.

I agree with Trotsky that the Paris Commune failed precisely because its decentralized structure left it defenseless against counterrrevolution. However, I hold that Trotsky’s solution to this problem–the combination of the commune structure with a centralized single party–has also failed. Sam Farber’s book is testimony to the fact that combining single-party dictatorship in Russia with the Soviets simply transformed the Soviets into powerless bodies, window dressing for party power.

The matter has some relevance to the processes unleashed by the fall of the Berlin Wall, the democratic revolution that swept through Eastern Europe and the collapse of the USSR. It explains why the soviet model has absolutely no appeal to workers in these nations.

2. The Democratic Counterrevolution. Perhaps my most fundamental difference with Farber–and now it appears with Haberkern–centers on the question of the right of the people in a socialist society to democratically choose counterrevolution. It brings us right to the heart of the notion of socialism itself.

I believe in a socialism which comes into existence through a democratic process and which remains in existence because it reflects the free choice of the citizens of the society. If this free choice is limited, then the society in question becomes–quite independent of the good wishes of its leaders–an imposed system. In time the section of society which does the imposing is transformed into a self- serving, privileged ruling stratum.

I am sure Farber, Haberkern and the readers of ATC would agree with this vision. Yet once we leave the lofty plane of generality, dangerous elements of substitutionist thinking surface. Haberkern is not even certain that the process now going on in East Europe and the Soviet Union is democratic yet I am accused of giving the word a “purely Orwellian meaning” because I apply it to the region.

After all, we are told, the various parties competing in East Europe have similar platforms “dictated to them by the International Monetary Fund,” and further, these parties, with the exception of Poland, are dominated by “the reform wing of the bureaucracy” (Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia? Come now!).

Haberkern is not sure anything much has changed. As the old adage goes: if you can’t spot a revolution you will never make one! Haberkern seems to possess within his head concepts of pure “democracy” and “revolution” that lead him to reject real democratic processes and real revolutionary change when they take place before his eyes.

Certainly, former Communists are everywhere in these countries and many bureaucrats retain their influence in the economy. (Even the revolutionary regime of Lenin and Trotsky was forced to use bureaucrats and military officers of the former regime.) Yet the Communist Party’s power monopoly has been shattered everywhere in the region and the old system that rested on this monopoly is disappearing.

It is certainly true that all the contending parties and personalities in the region share a common capitalist platform. However, this is not caused by any shortcomings in the democratic process, as it accurately reflects the prevalent ideas within these societies. The problem rests with the history of the region, which had led the masses to reject the former system while wrongly identifying it with socialism. This has left them with capitalism as the only alternative they can, at this time, support.

Haberkern’s comments on Nicaragua fit the same pattern. Haberkern thinks “it is nonsense to argue that they [Sandinistas] were defeated in a free election.” Certainly the United States influenced the electoral process through the imposition of an economic boycott, which together with support to the contras exhausted the country, and through covert and overt support for Violeta Chamorro.

It should also be noted, however, that the Sandinistas ran as the government party and utilized government resources and patronage to influence the election. Further its policies, not just imperialist pressure, contributed to its defeat.

The problem that Haberkern does not wish to address is that the conditions which the Sandinistas faced during the recent election in Nicaragua are conditions which we must expect any revolutionary regime to face in a world dominated by capitalism! If elections are not to be held under similar circumstance then elections are not to be held period! The result of such reasoning logically is support to imposed socialism, that is Stalinism.

This is precisely the point I made in my critique of Farber’s book. Yes, Lenin should have been willing to hold pluralist elections in l921; but such elections would have been a fraud if the people could not choose, if they wished, a party that opposed the socialist system itself.

Yes, such an election could well have led to the democratic victory of counter-revolution. BUT, and it is a huge but, the Bolshevik party would have survived as a revolutionary party with a mass base of support and the possibility to fight on for socialism. That would have been a far better outcome than Stalinism. On this matter Daniel Ortega was right and Lenin was wrong!

This brings us to the matter of Leninism. The methodological problem remains the same: Haberkern sustains a notion of “Leninism” in his head which bears no relationship to the actual practice of Leninists. The problem extends far beyond the organizational practices of small groups.

The topic under discussion is the practice of Lenin and Trotsky while they controlled the Soviet state. It seems reasonable to identify “Leninism” with that practice. If a person identifies himself as a “Leninist” then it is logical to assume that that person, if in power and faced with similar circumstances, would act as Lenin did. I can no longer defend Lenin’s and Trotsky’s actions in that period and therefore do not choose to consider myself a Leninist.

Lenin’s regime was different from Stalin’s regime. Yet I am convinced today that the basic structure of Stalinism was formed under Lenin. Farber’s book Before Stalinism provides the evidence of this process. I do not claim this to be some “new discovery” on my part. I have come to the notion rather late in life.

Contrary to Trotskyist hope, the slogan “Back to Lenin” has little appeal in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. There is one exception: conservative circles who seek a return to the old Stalinist regime. I leave it to Haberkern to distinguish his vision of Leninism from that of the conservatives.

I suggest that a more fruitful, and by no means easy, task is the defense and elaboration of the revolutionary notion of democratic socialism itself.

May-June 1992, ATC 38