The “New” SACP’s Explanation of Stalinism

The South African Communist Party has now been relaunched on an open basis within the country. It claims it will shed the heritage of Stalinism, and advance the struggle for socialism.

As part of this “renovation”, General Secretary Joe Slovo has published a pamphlet titled “Has Socialism Failed?“, as “the first reflections of the author only” on explaining the divergence that exists between the Marxist conception of socialism and the practice of “socialism” in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

He admits that the bureaucracies in these countries have been “all-powerful”. He refers to “unbridled authoritarianism”, “the steady erosion of people’s power both at the level of government and mass social organisations”, “the perversion of the concept of the party as a vanguard of the working class”, “anti-Leninist theory”, “a dictatorship of a party bureaucracy”. He concedes: “the majority of people had very few levers with which to determine the course of economic or social life”, “inner-party democracy was almost completely suffocated by centralism”, “all effective power was concentrated in the hands of a Political Bureau or, in some cases, a single, all-powerful personality”, “the concept of consensus effectively stifled dissent and promoted the unnatural appearance of unanimity on everything”, “the alternative to active conformism was either silence or the risk of punishment as ‘an enemy of the people’”—, etc., etc.

All these are extraordinary, and only very recent admissions, by a Party that has defended every crime of Stalinism in the past.

Attending the 26th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1981, for example, Yusuf Dadoo (national chairman) and Moses Mabhida (general secretary) of the SACP wrote:

The Congress hall was filled with delegates who had, by their honest labour and toil for the common good, richly deserved the highest honours and distinctions which the CPSU and Soviet government could bestow on them. These delegates were no arm-chair theoreticians. They were the life and blood of the heroic Soviet people…

Here were the heirs of the great Bolsheviks, no less fervent in their commitment to create a better life, not only for their own people, but for all humanity. There is no other Party which has produced such selfless, devoted and disciplined communists, such tenacious fighters for peace, freedom and socialism.

African Communist, 3rd Quarter 1981

Now it emerges… all this was lies!

Writing in the African Communist (1st Quarter, 1979) on “Human Rights and the Fight for Socialism”, Dialego – yes, the very same one – in the course of making some correct criticism of capitalist hypocrisy on human rights, claimed that in the Soviet Union: “the traditional civil freedoms now serve to strengthen a socialist democracy by making it possible for the mass of the people to take part in decision-making (as in the socialist countries today) rather than a small elite of ‘politicians’”! (Our emphasis)

The SACP denounced the revolutionary attempt of the Hungarian workers in 1956 to establish workers’ democracy as a “capitalist counter-revolution”. It applauded the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush popular revolt as a “defence of socialism”.

All this was lies, by leaders of the SACP. Can anyone believe them now?

Slovo on the nature of the bureaucracy

But Slovo says that his intention in the pamphlet is to defend socialism and Marxism. Let us examine his argument.

Marxist ideology” – he writes – “saw the future state as ‘a direct democracy in which the task of governing would not be the preserve of a state bureaucracy’ and as ‘an association in which the free development of each is a condition for the free development of all’. How did it happen that, in the name of this most humane and liberating ideology, the bureaucracy became so all-powerful and the individual was so suffocated? (His emphasis)

Trotsky, as we have seen, painstakingly addressed and answered this question. Slovo, however, has a different answer.

In some cases”, he writes, “the deformations experienced by existing socialist states were the results of bureaucratic distortions which were rationalised at the ideological level by a mechanical and out-of-context invocation of Marxist dogma.

“In other cases they were the results of a genuinely-motivated but tragic misapplication of socialist theory in new realities which were not foreseen by the founders of Marxism.

p. 11

But the rejection of the theory of permanent revolution, and Stalin’s adoption of the false idea of achieving “socialism in one country” were not “genuinely motivated but tragic misapplications” of Marxism, nor “a mechanical and out-of-context invocation of outmoded Marxist dogma”.

Though justified by scraps torn out of context from Lenin’s writings, the turn made by Stalin and the bureaucracy represented a complete rejection of Marxism, Bolshevism, and proletarian internationalism. As Trotsky explained, the turn flowed from the material interests of the bureaucracy in maintaining their privilege over the working class, and hence in opposing workers’ revolution anywhere. They were not mere ideological errors.

Where Slovo dips into a materialist analysis, again he contrives to avoid the nub of the problem, providing instead a half-baked ‘excuse’ for Stalinism. He says that:

The fact that socialist power was first won in the most backward outpost of European capitalism, without a democratic political tradition, played no small part in the way it was shaped. To this must be added the years of isolation, economic siege and armed intervention which, in the immediate post-October period, led to the virtual decimation of the Soviet Union’s relatively small working class.

p. 11

Backwardness, isolation, decimation of the working class, yes. But Slovo here hides the fact that Stalin and the bureaucracy came to accept and reinforce that isolation through abandoning proletarian internationalism and the struggle for world socialism, in favour of the false idea of “socialism in one country”.

On the basis of continued isolation, initial “bureaucratic distortions” became a thorough political counter-revolution. Quantity changed into quality. As a result, the bureaucracy compelled Communist Parties in other countries to adopt policies which led to the defeat of revolutions…in China, Germany, Spain, etc… which in turn prolonged the isolation of the Russian revolution, and even threatened its survival. As a result, a new political revolution by the working class became required to restore workers’ democracy and re-open a road to socialism. But Slovo totally ignores and hides all this.

By attributing Stalinism to “mistakes”, Slovo tries to minimise his own and the SACP’s co-responsibility for the crimes of the bureaucratic system and deflect the issue from the need to overthrow the bureaucracy. In fact, he supports the continuation of the bureaucracy under Gorbachev.

Stalinism, for him, is not the material force represented by the interests of the bureaucracy. It is a “bureaucratic-authoritarian style of leadership… which denuded the party and the practice of socialism of most of its democratic content and concentrated power in the hands of a tiny, self-perpetuating elite.” (p. 3) (Our emphasis).

This is the opposite of the scientific method of analysis of social phenomena developed by Marxism.

“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but their social being that determines their consciousness”, explained Marx. It was this method of understanding society – dialectical and historical materialism – that Trotsky applied in explaining the rise of the bureaucracy. Slovo stands this method on its head: the existence of a “tiny, self-perpetuating elite” is explained by its “style of leadership”. No serious Marxist analysis of the nature of the Soviet Union is possible on this basis.

Slovo echoes Gorbachev

But Slovo goes further than this. There was, he claims:

not enough in classical Marxist theory about the nature of the transition period to provide a detailed guide to the future. This under-developed state of classical Marxist theory in relation to the form and structure of future socialist society lent itself easily to the elaboration of dogma which could claim general ‘legitimacy’ from a selection of quotes from the masters.

p. 12

This explanation, Slovo admits, he owes to Gorbachev, who bewails the fact that the founders of Marxism:

never invented specific forms and mechanisms for the development of the new society. They elaborated its socialist ideal…they provided the historically transient character of capitalism and the historical need for transition to a new stage of social development. As for the structure of the future society to replace capitalism, they discussed it in the most general terms and mostly from the point of view of fundamental principles. (Slovo’s emphasis)

From Pravda, 26/11/1989

If Slovo meant that Marx and Engels never anticipated that the working class would first take power in a backward country, and the complexities that this would bring for the world transition to socialism, he would be correct.

But if he or Gorbachev imagine that Marx, Engels, or Lenin, could have provided a finished idea of the “structure of the future society to replace capitalism” this merely confirms their misunderstanding of communism, and of Marxism.

“On the basis of what facts, then, can the question of the future development of communism be dealt with?” asked Lenin in State and Revolution, when he was re-examining Marx and Engels’ theory of the state. “On the basis of the fact that it has its origins in capitalism, that it develops historically from capitalism, that it is the result of the action of a social force to which capitalism gave birth. There is no trace of an attempt on Marx’s part to make up a utopia, to indulge in idle guesswork about what cannot be known.”

The abolition (or rather ‘withering away’) of classes and the state, the achievement of communism, means the replacement of the “realm of necessity” by the realm of freedom and unlimited human creativity. Marxism did not conceive (like the bureaucrat Gorbachev) in terms of a (static) “structure of the future society to replace capitalism”, but in terms of forms of social, economic and political organisation which would facilitate the process of transition to a society without classes or the state.

Among those, as we have seen, were the principles first practised by the Paris Commune – and spelled out in the classic writings of Marxism on the “future state”: replacing a standing army by the armed people, the election and right of recall of all officials, no official receiving higher than the average worker’s wage, and increasing participation of all in turn, in the affairs of government.

These principles have all been systematically flouted by the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union since it usurped power from the working class.

Yet nowhere in Slovo’s whole treatment of Stalinism or of the state is there any mention whatsoever of any of these principles – all of which are indispensable to secure democracy in a workers’ state.

In State and Revolution Lenin pointed out how Marx and Engels regarded all these features as “particularly noteworthy”, and continued: “it is on this particularly striking point, perhaps the most important as far as the problem of the state is concerned, that the ideas of Marx have been most completely ignored! In popular commentaries, the number of which is legion, this is not mentioned. The thing done is to keep silent about it as if it were a piece of old-fashioned ‘naivete’.”

Slovo “keeps silent” in exactly the same way.

The abandonment of these principles of the Commune by the bureaucracy was not a “genuinely motivated but tragic misapplication” of Marxism, nor a “mechanical and out-of-context invocation of outmoded Marxist dogma.” It was a deliberate ignoring of the lessons of Marxism, and of the experience of the working class.

Slovo suppresses these lessons because they are irreconcilable with the practice of the bureaucracy in the Stalinist states. This suppression is a litmus test of his continued defence of bureaucratic rule.

Trotsky, we have seen, commented that:

With the utmost stretch of fancy it would be difficult to imagine a contrast more striking than that which exists between the schema of the workers’ state according to Marx, Engels and Lenin, and the actual state now headed by Stalin…[Yet] the present leaders of the Soviet Union and their ideological representatives do not even raise the question of the causes of such a crying divergence between program and reality.

The Revolution Betrayed

Now Gorbachev and, echoing him, Slovo, go further. There is no “crying divergence” – because the founders of Marxism did not really address “specific forms and mechanisms for the development of the new society”!!

Slovo on the Marxist theory of the state

“The concept of the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ ” – writes Slovo – “was dealt with rather thinly by Marx as ‘a transition to a classless society’ without much further definition”.

The Paris Commune, Slovo writes, “was an exceptional social experience which brought into being a kind of workers’ city-state (by no means socialist-led) in which, for a brief moment, most functions of the state (both legislative and executive) were directly exercised by a popular democratic assembly.”

Marx, Engels and Lenin did not regard the Commune as an exceptional social experience. They regarded it as a definite advance of the world proletarian revolution, as a practical step that was more important than hundreds of programmes and arguments. Marx “‘learned’ from the Commune”, wrote Lenin, “just as all the great revolutionary thinkers learned unhesitatingly from the experience of great movements of the oppressed classes.” (State and Revolution)

Slovo suppresses the “noteworthy” lessons drawn from it by Marx, Engels and Lenin – and then tells us that the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat was “dealt with rather thinly” by Marx “without much further definition” and that this is at the root of explaining the existence of the “all-powerful” bureaucracy in the Soviet Union! What kind of honesty is this?

Lenin, Slovo admits, “envisaged that working class power would be based on the kind of democracy of the Commune”. But what “kind of democracy” this was, Slovo fails to spell out. Lenin, he continues,

clearly assumed… the state and its traditional instruments of force would begin to ‘wither away’ almost as soon as socialist power had been won and the process of widening and deepening democracy would begin”. Lenin believed, he writes, “that there would be an extension of ‘democracy to such an overwhelming majority of the population that the need for a special machinery of suppression will begin to disappear”; that there would be “no longer a state in the proper sense of the word (because) the suppression of the minority of exploiters…is easy, simple’, entailing relatively little bloodshed, and hardly needing a machine or a special apparatus other than ‘the simple organisation of the armed people (such as the Soviets).

pp. 14-15

We have explained Lenin’s position on all this at length earlier in this pamphlet (see Chapter 3), and in particular how he linked his perspective for the Soviet workers’ state to the spread of socialist revolution through the advanced countries. But instead of centring his argument on this, Slovo looks for the cause of Stalinism in Lenin’s conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Slovo has told us that classic Marxist theory is “under-developed” on the political machinery for the transition to socialism. Now he outlines Lenin’s ideas on the “withering away of the state”, while suppressing the international tasks and other concrete measures needed to ensure that the state could wither away. Slovo thus creates the impression that Lenin was a mere utopian, a wishful thinker, hoping for the best.

Slovo continues, “We know that all this is a far cry from what happened in the decades which followed. The whole process was put into reverse. The complete ‘suppression of the exploiters’ was followed by the strengthening of the instruments of state suppression and the narrowing of democracy for the majority of the population, including the working class.” (His emphasis)

“We know that all this is a far cry from what happened” – writes the leader of a “Communist” Party that for generations has covered up the crimes of the bureaucracy, and denounced as counter-revolutionary propaganda any suggestion of a lack of democracy in the Soviet Union!

Slovo is trying to leave the impression that the “under-developed” state of Marxist theory excuses the bureaucracy, and that Lenin’s wishful thinking is to blame for the fact that the state did not wither away and that “the whole process was put into reverse”.

Slovo on Rosa Luxemburg

Lenin wrote State and Revolution, says Slovo, correctly: “in the very heat of the revolutionary transformation”. But, in the context of ‘summarising’ its standpoint, Slovo adds: “Understandably, the dominant preoccupation at the time was with the seizure of power, its protection in the face of the expected counter-revolutionary assault”, etc. (p.14).

The impression is created that State and Revolution was a “rush job”, written with immediate tactical considerations in mind, rather than what it was, a profound theoretical text, concerned with the state from its origins to its disappearance under communism. In fact, Lenin gathered material for it over several years. As he began work on it, in hiding from the onslaught of the Kerensky government against the Bolsheviks, he wrote confidentially to a comrade asking that “if they bump me off”, to arrange for the publication of the quotations from Marx and Engels he had collected. “I think it is important, for it is not only Plekhanov and Kautsky who got off the track.” (Quoted in Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution)

Slovo reinforces the impression of a “rush job” concerned only with the immediate situation by quoting, in the middle of his ‘summary’ of State and Revolution, from Rosa Luxemburg who: “in a polemic with Lenin” said: “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is not freedom at all.” (p. 14) Despite all the ways in which Slovo subsequently frees Lenin from blame, the impression is created that the arguments of State and Revolution could in some way lend credence to the idea of “freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party.”

That is a complete slander against Lenin. It is, as a matter of fact, the kind of slander constantly made against him by the bourgeoisie and their petty-bourgeois hangers-on in their war against workers’ revolution.

Moreover, that Slovo should now criticise the “one-party state” is something new! The SACP has defended every crime of the criminal one-party regimes in the Stalinist states in the past.

It is only now that these regimes themselves have been compelled to abandon one-party rule, that Slovo dares to address this question.

Even now, Slovo does not unequivocally reject the idea that one-party states may have some positive role to play in African countries.

Rosa Luxemburg, a founder of the German Communist Party, wrote a short pamphlet on the Russian Revolution from prison in 1918. She was a supporter of international workers’ revolution and of Bolshevism. For her part in the German revolution, she was murdered, on the orders of the Social Democrats who came to power, in 1919.

Even in prison, restricted from information, she immediately identified the Russian revolution with permanent revolution: “The problems of the Russian revolution – moreover – since it is a product of international developments plus the agrarian question – cannot possibly be solved within the limits of bourgeois society.” (The Russian Revolution, 1918)

She supported the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Yet she had criticisms of the policies of the Bolsheviks after 1917. Among them was the fact that, under conditions of the civil war, they had introduced a ban on political parties.

In fact, later, in 1921, the Russian Communist Party, for the first time in its history, also imposed a temporary ban on factions.

These measures – the one-party regime, and the ban on party factions – were later to be criminally transformed by Stalinism into inherent principles of “Marxist-Leninist” organisation. The Soviet constitution of 1936 ratified the Communist Party as the sole party in the state.

The ban on parties, Trotsky explained, “obviously in conflict with the spirit of Soviet democracy, the leaders of Bolshevism regarded not as a principle, but as an episodic act of self-defense.” The ban on factions “was again regarded as an exceptional measure to be abandoned at the first serious improvement in the situation.” (The Revolution Betrayed)

In the light of experience, Trotsky insisted that the working class in power could never again permit the suppression of the right to form opposition parties. This right (excepting only fascist parties) we would now add to Lenin’s four conditions – as a fifth condition for workers’ democracy and the transition to socialism.

How far Rosa Luxemburg’s criticism of the desperate measures taken by the Bolsheviks – under the extreme threat of overthrow by imperialist invasion and armed counter-revolution – was justified is fairly a matter for debate. But it is entirely incorrect for Slovo to imply that those measures flowed from the Marxist theory of the state, the concept of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, or from Lenin’s views in State and Revolution.

Not only were they, as Trotsky says, “obviously in conflict with the spirit of Soviet democracy.” Already in 1922, Lenin, together with Trotsky, initiated a struggle against bureaucratic distortions in the state, and against Stalin. Yet Slovo is completely silent on this fact.

Nor is it only regarding the “noteworthy features” of the Paris Commune, or Lenin’s position, that Slovo suppresses and distorts key lessons drawn by Marxism on the question of the state.

Slovo’s reformist approach to the state

Slovo claims, we have seen, that: “The concept of the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ was dealt with rather thinly by Marx as ‘a transition to a classless society’ without much further definition”.

In reality, as Lenin showed in State and Revolution, Marx and Engels painstakingly elaborated their ideas on the state as they became clarified by the experience of the working-class.

He wrote State and Revolution precisely because their theory of the state had become incredibly distorted and falsified in the hands of the “theoreticians” of the Second International to suit their reformist purposes.

“Today, the bourgeoisie and the opportunists within the labour movement” wrote Lenin, “omit, obscure or distort the revolutionary side of this theory, its revolutionary soul. They push to the foreground and extol what is or seems acceptable to the bourgeoisie.”

Slovo’s treatment of State and Revolution, and of the Marxist theory of the state in general, has precisely the same effect.

From the experience of revolution and counter-revolution in France in 1848-51, for example, Marx drew the conclusion that “all previous revolutions perfected the state machine, whereas it must be broken, smashed”.

From the Commune (Lenin pointed out), “Marx and Engels regarded one principal and fundamental lesson… as being of such enormous importance that they introduced it as an important correction into the Communist Manifesto“.

This was the idea (contained in their 1872 preface to the Manifesto) that “One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz. that the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.”

To serve its own purposes, the working class would have to overthrow and smash the old capitalist state machine – its bureaucracy and standing army – and replace it with its own, fundamentally different, form of state.

Taken together these, for Lenin, were “the chief and fundamental point in the Marxist theory of the state”. These were the lessons, he explained, that had been abandoned by the reformist leaders of the Second International – who dreamed that socialism could be achieved by the “gradual” increase in the power of the proletariat over the existing capitalist state.

Stripped of this understanding, the working class is reduced to compromises with capitalism and its state. Stripped of this understanding, as the history of this century has only too tragically borne out, its revolutionary movement towards the transformation of society, however heroic, ends up in slaughter by the forces of the capitalist state it has left intact – as has happened again and again under reformist and Stalinist leadership.

But Slovo, complaining about the “under-developed” nature of Marxist theory “about the nature of the transition period”, completely fails to mention Marx’s lessons on the need of the working class to smash the capitalist state and create its own state. He “omits, obscures or distorts the revolutionary side of this theory, its revolutionary soul.” His defence of “socialism”, his defence of “Marxism”, reduces to undiluted reformism.

Slovo on bourgeois democracy

Slovo’s further criticism of Lenin is that: “the classical description of bourgeois democracy [referring to Lenin’s State and Revolution] was an over-simplification and tended to underestimate the historic achievements of working class struggle in imposing and defending aspects of a real democratic culture on the capitalist state.”

This is also pure reformism on Slovo’s part. Marxism has always maintained (in Lenin’s words in State and Revolution) that “democracy is of enormous importance to the working class in its struggle against the capitalist class for its emancipation”; that the “democratic republic is the nearest thing to the dictatorship of the proletariat”; that “to develop democracy to the utmost, to find the forms for this development, to test them out by practice, and so forth – all this is one of the component tasks of the struggle for the social revolution”.

But Marxism also warns that democracy – universal franchise, freedom of assembly and speech, the right to form trade unions and political parties, the right to strike, etc. – is not inherent to capitalist society, and cannot he taken for granted by the working class. It has been achieved through the struggle of the working class, and can be sustained only under particular conditions.

It is true Lenin never anticipated that capitalism would survive as long as it has – giving possibilities for the working class, in advanced capitalist countries at least, to make such substantial democratic gains. But these gains exist only for the minority of those living under capitalism, generally in the most industrialised countries – and are themselves subject to attack when capitalism is in crisis. For most of those subjected to capitalism – those in the Third World – even stable bourgeois democracy is ruled out.

And such democratic gains as exist under capitalism have been won at the price of the delay of the world socialist revolution.

Slovo ignores the need for the working class to smash the capitalist state and establish its own democratic state power. He wishes to limit the working class to what democracy it can achieve under capitalism.

Even bourgeois democracy, as Lenin explained, has its limits. “We are in favour of a democratic republic as the best form of state for the proletariat under capitalism. But we have no right to forget that wage slavery is the lot of the people even in the most democratic bourgeois republic.” (State and Revolution).

Even with the most democratic republic under capitalism, even with universal franchise for parliament, and with the use of all those opportunities to the maximum, the working class cannot secure the realisation of its full will. The bourgeois control the media; they insist on secrecy in numbers of areas of government; they deploy security services against the workers’ movement; they try to corrupt the leaders of the workers’ organisations. Above all, in the final analysis, the “laws” of parliament are executed through the unaccountable bureaucracy and armed forces who defend the interests of the capitalist class.

“Capitalist democracy” – wrote Lenin – “is inevitably narrow and stealthily pushes aside the poor, and is therefore hypocritical and false through and through.”

“To decide once every few years which member of the ruling class is to repress and crush the people through parliament – this is the real essence of bourgeois parliamentarism, not only in parliamentary-constitutional monarchies, but also in the most democratic republics.”

“Democracy for an insignificant minority, democracy for the rich – that is the democracy of capitalist society.”

Lenin makes this critique in conjunction with showing the democratic superiority of the Paris Commune: “The way out of parliamentarism is not, of course, the abolition of representative institutions and the elective principle, but the conversion of the representative institutions from talking shops into ‘working’ bodies. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time.”

In smashing the old state and establishing its own, by replacing the standing army by the armed people and the bureaucracy by elected, non-privileged, officials on an increasingly rotating basis, the working class does not abolish, or reject, democracy, but extends democracy for the first time far beyond what is possible under the most democratic bourgeois state.

Marxism defends democracy under capitalism at the same time as it fights for the higher democracy of proletarian rule. As Trotsky put the matter in regard to the Russian revolution:

Even in 1905 the workers of Petersburg called their Soviet [a form of organisation of the type of the Paris Commune] a proletarian government. The name became current and was entirely consistent with the seizure of power by the working class. At the same time we opposed to Tsarism a developed programme of political democracy (universal suffrage, republic, militia, etc.). And indeed we could not have done otherwise. Political democracy is an essential phase in the development of the working masses – with the important proviso that in some cases the working masses may remain within this phase for several decades, whereas in another case the revolutionary situation may enable the masses to liberate themselves from the prejudices of political [i.e. bourgeois] democracy even before its institutions have come into being.

Preface to 1905

Yet the “democracy” established by the working class, Marxism explains, is itself a form of state. It means that the will of the majority prevails over that of minorities and individuals. With the advance to a society of abundance, even this form of suppression (“democracy”) becomes increasingly unnecessary.

As the control and direction of the affairs of society passes into the hands of all working people in the workers’ state, formal democracy becomes superseded. The withering away of the state, with the disappearance of classes, ‘paradoxically’, means the withering away of “democracy” also: “communism alone is capable of providing really complete democracy, and the more complete it is, the sooner it will become unnecessary and wither away of its own accord.” (State and Revolution)

For distorting the Marxist theory of the state on all these issues, Lenin in State and Revolution criticised the German workers’ leader Karl Kautsky.

Kautsky was a supposed opponent of reformism. Yet, by 1912, he was maintaining that “The aim of our political struggle remains, as in the past, the conquest of state power by winning a majority in parliament and by raising parliament to the rank of master of the government.” (Quoted in State and Revolution)

This false idea, that the working class could become “master of the government” through parliament alone, was identical with the position of the open reformists. Kautsky, Lenin pointed out, had reduced the idea of the “withering away” of a workers’ state to the idea that the bourgeois state could wither away by these means.

Kautsky”, commented Lenin, “has not understood at all the difference between bourgeois parliamentarism, which combines democracy (not for the people) with bureaucracy (against the people) and proletarian democracy, which will take immediate steps to cut bureaucracy down to the roots, and which will be able to carry these measures through to the end, to the complete abolition of bureaucracy, to the introduction of complete democracy for the people.

Slovo ignores the lessons of the Paris Commune. He ignores Marx’s injunctions on the need for the working class to smash the old state and replace it with its own. He believes Lenin had an “over-simplified” criticism of bourgeois democracy. What Lenin had to say about Kautsky applies equally to Slovo.

Slovo claims: “The abandonment of the term [i.e. ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’] by most communist parties, including ours, does not, in all cases, imply a rejection of the historical validity of its essential content.” (p. 16)

Marxists today prefer to talk of workers’ democratic rule, rather than the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, because the latter term has been so criminally abused by the monstrous dictatorships of Stalinism. But, by that, they do not abandon the essential content and lessons developed on the basis of this term in the classic works of Marxism.

But every “Communist” Party that has abandoned the idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” has, together with that, plunged deeper and deeper into the mud of collaboration with capitalism and its state machine. Slovo’s view of the state points wholly in the same direction.

What purports to be an explanation for the existence of Stalinism, and a defence of socialism and Marxism, turns out to be a barely disguised restatement of “social-ism by reform” within capitalism.

Slovo on “socialist alienation”

Slovo’s further explanation of the problems in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are an uncritical justification of Gorbachev’s futile attempts to “renew” the bureaucracy – and are in no way inconsistent with Gorbachev’s new turn towards restoring capitalism.

Slovo says “unavoidable inheritance from the past and the most serious distortion of socialist norms in most of the socialist countries” has resulted in “economic alienation”, a “form of ‘socialist’ alienation.”

The transfer of legal ownership of productive property from private capital to the state does not” – he writes – “on its own create fully socialist relations of production, nor does it always significantly change the work-life of the producers…. State property itself has to be transformed into social property. This involves reorganising social life as a whole so that the producers, at least as a collective, have a real say not only in the production of social wealth but also in its disposal. In the words of Gorbachev, what is required is ‘not only formal but also real socialisation and the real turning of the working people into the masters of all socialised production.’ (Our emphasis)

pp. 20-21

On the face of it, this seems admirable. That state property is in and of itself not social property is a point, as we have seen, emphasised by Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky. However, as Trotsky put it:

it is exactly for the Marxist that this question is not exhausted by a consideration of forms of property regardless of the achieved productivity of labour… State property becomes the property of ‘the whole people’ only to the extent that social privilege and differentiation disappear, and therewith the necessity of the state. In other words: state property is converted into socialist property in proportion as it ceases to be state property. (Our emphasis)

The Revolution Betrayed

The preconditions for the real socialisation of property are workers’ democracy, and a productivity of labour far above that of the most advanced capitalism. The pre-condition for the real socialisation of property is world socialist revolution. These are the preconditions which the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union and throughout the Stalinist world prevents, by the continuation of its own rule. To begin to re-establish these preconditions, it must be overthrown by the working class. But Slovo’s argument develops in precisely the opposite way.

Under socialism“, he continues (meaning, in the Stalinist countries), “guaranteed employment and the amount of remuneration did not always depend upon quality, productivity or efficiency, opening the way to parasitism at the point of production. Reward based on the socialist maxim ‘to each according to his contribution’ can obviously play a part in increasing productivity. But for socialist society as a whole to really come into its own requires an incentive based on the producers real participation in the mechanisms of social control over the products of his/her labour; a feeling that the means of production are his or hers as part of society. (His emphasis)

Slovo here defends as a “socialist maxim” the idea “to each according to his contribution [i.e. work]”. This is a complete falsification of Marxism. Marx pointed out that in the first stage of transition from capitalism to communism those who refused to work could not expect to eat, and that the principle “to each according to his needs” could be fully realised only as an abundance of everything necessary was produced (see Chapter 3).

Slovo, following Gorbachev, brazenly misquotes this qualification, thereby turning Marx’s idea on its head. Reward according to “contribution” – how is contribution determined? – is really nothing but a formula for perpetuating inequality and domination by an elite. And yet it is presented as a “socialist maxim“! Here we see plainly the ideology of an exploiting bureaucracy masquerading as socialism.

Adding insult to injury, the lack of quality, productivity or efficiency in the Stalinist economies is blamed by Slovo on “guaranteed employment…opening the way to parasitism at the point of production. It is blamed, in other words, not on bureaucratic mismanagement but the laziness of the working class!

No guaranteed employment for workers, says Slovo. Reward each person according to work, not needs. Instead of the removal of the bureaucracy, and the development of the forces of production under the democratic control and management of the working class, Slovo offers to the working class only “real participation” (along with the bureaucracy!) in “the mechanisms of social control over the products of his/her labour” (whatever this means?!) and a “feeling [!!!] that the means of production are his or hers as part of society”!!!

Despite his words quoted by Slovo, Gorbachev has never had any more intention than Stalin, Kruschev or Brezhnev of “turning… the working people into the masters of all socialised production.” In fact, with his initial program of “socialist renewal” having failed, Gorbachev is now turning the Soviet Union back towards capitalism.

In the past the SACP, including comrade Slovo as he now admits to his shame, uncritically defended Stalin’s massacres and then each successive leader of the bureaucratic dictatorship through all their twists and turns. Today Slovo’s position, that of the “new” SACP, is nothing more than defence of the “new” Gorbachev bureaucracy.

Slovo rightly criticises the “direct compulsion against producers” exercised under Stalinism. But, he continues:

There were, of course, other negative factors [in the practice of so-called “socialism”, i.e.] which require more extensive examination than is possible here. These include policies based on what has been called the ‘big bang theory of socialism’ which ignored the historical fact that many of the ingredients of social systems which succeed one another – and this includes the change from capitalism to socialism – cannot be separated by a Chinese wall.

The economy of a country the day after the workers take over is exactly the same as it was the day before, and it cannot be transformed merely by proclamation. The neglect of this truism resulted, now and then, in a primitive egalitarianism which reached lunatic proportions under the Pol Pot regime [in Cambodia], the absence of cost-accounting, a dismissive attitude to commodity production and the law of value during the transition period, the premature abandonment of any role for market forces, a doctrinaire approach to the question of collectivisation, etc.

p. 22

If there is anything correct to disentangle from this, it is the attempt to make the point, explained by Marx, and re-emphasised by Lenin and Trotsky, that “Law can never be higher than the economic structure and the cultural development of society conditioned by that structure.” But Slovo uses this idea for purposes entirely opposite to those of Marxism.

Cambodia was an extremely backward country, though with a relatively educated population. During the Vietnam war US imperialism tried to bomb Cambodia, like Vietnam itself, back into the Stone Age – because its puppet capitalist regime was being threatened by a guerilla struggle, supporting the liberation of Vietnam.

The Pol Pot regime was a proletarian Bonapartist regime, resulting from the victory of the guerilla movement. It had nothing to do with “socialism”.

Against the threat of capitalist restoration in the Soviet Union in 1929, Stalin’s bureaucracy had turned to a brutal policy of forced industrialisation and collectivisation of agriculture. Perhaps Slovo regards this as the “big bang theory of socialism”. But the Pol Pot regime was different.

It received no aid from the Moscow bureaucracy. The Chinese bureaucracy was in that period making overtures to US imperialism. In a desperate frenzy, for the sake of ‘national independence’, the Pol Pot regime turned to the idea of a primitive rural communism, trying to bypass the “foreign capitalism” of the cities. On the basis of this mad program it barbarously exterminated more than a million people, including the entire educated layer in society.

This, in the last analysis, was one of the disastrous consequences of the counter-revolutionary, nationalist, policies of Stalinism in the “Third World”, and of the delay of the world socialist revolution.

Other proletarian Bonapartist regimes in the “Third World” have been compelled into policies “dismissive” of “commodity production”, “premature abandonment of any role for market forces”, etc. – and later been forced to reverse course. In Mozambique, for example, FRELIMO had little option at first but to nationalise even small businesses when all the Portuguese fled after 1974.

But the underlying problem is the false idea which has been cultivated by Stalinism that it is possible for under-developed countries to separate their fate from that of the more advanced capitalist countries which dominate them, and “go it alone” in trying to “build socialism.”

But, let us remember, originally, Slovo was talking not of Cambodia or the “Third World”, but of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe – where capitalism has now been ended for more than seventy and forty years respectively. So far as one can disentangle his argument, the implication is that the problems of these regimes derive from… moving too fast towards “egalitarianism”!

In the Soviet Union differentiation has developed to such an extent that the top levels of the bureaucracy live like millionaires in the West while ordinary people cannot find basic goods in the shops! The regimes of Ceacescu, Honecker, etc., toppled last year, were guilty of grotesque accumulation of wealth and privilege for the top bureaucrats at the expense of the masses. Yet, for Slovo, the “problems” of these countries include moving too fast towards egalitarianism!

It is true that, as Marx – and Lenin, and Trotsky – explained, that in the “lower stage of communism” the realities of cost-accounting, commodity production, the law of value etc. cannot be ignored. But it is ridiculous to deal with these questions, as Slovo does, without reference either to the need to overcome bureaucracy or to spread workers’ revolution internationally.

It is true that, even in the first years of the Soviet workers’ state, the Bolsheviks were forced to retreat from the too drastic policies of “war communism” between 1917 and 1920 to the New Economic Policy of 1921. But their confidence in doing so was because, even if imperfectly, power in the state was in the hands of the working class – until it was usurped by the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Slovo refers to the “truism” that: “The economy of a country the day after the workers take over is exactly the same as it was the day before.” But, if the workers have really taken state power, there is just this “one” little difference – that they have the power for the first time to make themselves rather than the capitalists masters of society, to deploy all their ingenuity and creativity, and to reorganise even the existing economic resources freed from the constraints of private ownership

 If it were true that the economy of the country remained “exactly the same”, then what would be the point of the workers taking power? Slovo’s purpose, in making these arguments, is to deny the need for the working class to overthrow the state or to end capitalism.

To justify this position, Slovo grossly misuses Pol Pot. “Pol Pot shows you can’t pole-vault to socialism”, he is fond of saying. This is the same method as that of Dialego – who acknowledged the Comintern’s sectarianism in 1929-33 only for the purpose of applauding its subsequent conversion to Popular Frontism, i.e. collaboration with capitalism. Likewise Slovo raises the scarecrow of “Pol Pot” to try to put over the idea that a compromise with capitalism is the sensible alternative.

Applied to the Soviet Union, the idea that the main problem is “the absence of cost-accounting, a dismissive attitude to commodity production… premature abandonment of any role for market forces, a doctrinaire approach to… collectivisation, etc.”, is a justification for the return to capitalism Gorbachev is now advocating.

Taken to their logical conclusion, Slovo’s arguments are no different from those of the Mensheviks before 1917 who argued that the working class could not and should not take power in Russia because “conditions were not ripe for socialism”.

Yes, as Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky explained, the working class cannot leap into classless society. But nor can the working class wait for capitalism to develop the forces of production to what is necessary for achieving classless society before taking power. Unevenness of capitalism is a law. The disparities between the advanced and under-developed countries are widening, not narrowing, as capitalism continues.

The first pre-condition for opening the way to socialism is smashing the old capitalist state machine, establishing democratic workers’ rule, taking the monopolies, banks, big factories and farms into the democratic control and management of the working class – and struggling to spread the revolution internationally.

Nowhere does Slovo – or any other leader of the SACP – explain these tasks.

Slovo on the perspectives for capitalism

Slovo makes the ‘discovery’ that Marx, Engels and Lenin were, after all, “not infallible”. But what does he use to illustrate this correct remark? He says:

Lenin, for example, believed that capitalism was about to collapse worldwide in the post-October period.

It was a belief based on the incorrect premise that, as a system, capitalism had already reached the stage at which the capitalist relations of production constituted an obstacle to the further all-round development of the forces of production.

This was combined with a belief in the imminence of global socialist transformation, which undoubtedly infected much of the earlier thinking about the perspectives of socialist construction in the Soviet Union.

p. 10

Here Slovo piles confusion upon falsehood. Lenin repeatedly warned against the idea that capitalism would “collapse worldwide”; he insisted that it had to be overthrown. Trotsky emphasied the same, when he said that the alternation between booms and slumps in the capitalist economy created conditions in which the working class could come to grips with the tasks of the socialist revolution –  provided it possessed a revolutionary party able to explain these tasks and lead the struggle. If, as Slovo implies, we should base our hopes for world socialism on the automatic “collapse” of capitalism at some future stage, then why bother to build a revolutionary party? Sit back and wait!

Yes, since Lenin’s time, particularly since the Second World War, the forces of production have developed enormously under capitalism. But was Lenin wrong to insist that conditions were ripe for world socialist revolution in 1917 and thereafter? He was certainly not alone in this! The whole of Europe was convulsed in revolutions and counter-revolutions for two decades!

But the working class was set back by the treacherous class-capitulation of the Social Democratic leaders, combined with the small size and inexperience of the Communist Parties. Then, with the consolidation of the bureaucratic counter-revolution in Russia, with the physical extermination of the forces of Marxism, the leaders of the Stalinised parties of the Comintern came to play a decisive part in leading revolutions to defeat.

Conveniently, Slovo ignores all this. Instead, to hide the crimes of the Russian bureaucracy, he accuses Lenin of over-estimating the ripeness of capitalism for overthrow.

If Lenin was wrong in thinking capitalism was ripe for overthrow in the advanced countries at the end of the First World War – then surely for the working class to take power in Russia in October 1917 was a mad adventure? Is this the accusation which Slovo is really seeking to make against Lenin? If so, let him say he openly repudiates the October Revolution.

Lenin explained what he meant by the ripeness of capitalism for overthrow quite precisely. In Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism, he wrote:

Monopolies, oligarchy, the striving for domination instead of the striving for liberty, the exploitation of an increasing number of small or weak nations by an extremely small group of the richest or most powerful nations – all these have given birth to those distinctive features of imperialism which compel us to define it as parasitic or decaying capitalism. More and more prominently there emerges, as one of the tendencies of imperialism, the creation of the bondholding (rentier) state, the usurer state, in which the bourgeoisie lives on the proceeds of capital exports and by ‘clipping coupons’. It would be a mistake to believe that this tendency to decay precludes the possibility of the rapid growth of capitalism. It does not. In the epoch of imperialism, certain branches of industry, certain strata of the bourgeoisie and certain countries betray, to a more or less degree, one or other of these tendencies. On the whole, capitalism is growing far more rapidly than before. But this growth is not only becoming more and more uneven in general; its unevenness manifests itself, in particular, in the decay of the countries which are richest in capital.

Thus, continued Lenin, “Private property relations constitute a shell which is no longer suitable for its contents, a shell which must inevitably begin to decay if its destruction be delayed by artificial means; a shell which may continue in decay for a long period (particularly if the cure of the opportunist abscess is protracted), but which will inevitably be removed.

Our emphasis

The “opportunist abscess” was not cured in time; the defeat of the inter-war revolutions prepared the political conditions for the Second World War, and for the post-War upswing of capitalism. Eventually, the crisis of leadership – the crisis of the subjective factor – became an objective factor in the world situation. But today, together with the crisis of the Stalinist regimes – the conditions are returning towards those of Lenin’s time, on a far higher level. With the necessary modifications on secondary aspects, Lenin’s description of capitalism in 1916 is again essentially valid today.

Slovo accuses Lenin of an “ultra-left” perspective, because he rejects the reality that both capitalism and Stalinism are increasingly ripe for overthrow by the working class.

Were it to be accepted by the working class in South Africa, Slovo’s “Marxism” would be a recipe not only for capitulation to capitalism and its white state machine, but for ultimate disaster for our movement.

Continue to Chapter Six