Soviet ‘planning’ and bolt-on democracy

The Socialist Party in England and Wales’ Socialism event in London had a session on Stalinism’s collapse. Mark Fischer points out what it represents for Marxists

Socialist Party general secretary Peter Taaffe made a number of rather dubious claims in his competently delivered session entitled ‘Why did Stalinism collapse in the Soviet Union – what have the consequences been?’

Prominent amongst these was the assertion that his was “the only organisation” that recognised that the collapse of the Soviet Union – and in particular, the ignominious manner of its defeat – represented an important “ideological defeat” for the left as a whole that precipitated a rightwing global offensive on working class gains. He used the Labour Party as an especially pertinent example, correctly pinpointing the removal of clause four and growing confidence of the right as a political consequence of the collapse of Stalinism.

He did not even qualify this – manifestly untrue – statement about the ‘unique’ position of his organisation by admitting that the Socialist Party had arrived at it in hindsight. This was, after all, the same Peter Taaffe who told us in 1989 that talk of “capitalist restoration” was a “chimera” (Militant July 21 1989). Indeed, he once thought that “Gorbachev’s coming to power signified the beginning of the political revolution” and would define the coming decade as the “red 90s” (Militant January 19 1990). A tad on the over-optimistic side, I’m sure even comrade Taaffe would now concede.

He was not alone in this confusion, of course. Practically the entire Trotskyist/Trotskyoid left mechanically insisted that there were only two possibilities open to societies such as the USSR. There “will either be totalitarian rule under a one-party state” (i.e. the status quo) “or there will be control of industry and state by the workers” (i.e. a healthy workers’ state – Ted Grant, writing in Militant October 3 1980). Ironically, this was quoted as an example of how “Militant was absolutely correct and born out by events” in the May 1989 introduction to Grant’s selected works, The unbroken thread.

In vivid contrast, our organisation – despite its very different evaluation of the nature of bureaucratic socialism in those days – was able to point to the obvious fact that “in these countries capitalism is being restored with the consent of the broad mass of the population and that for the full-blown reintroduction of capitalism there exists no necessity for violently smashing the existing state” (editorial The Leninist April 1 1990). To halt this process, we called for “a real political revolution” in the USSR, not the counterrevolutionary farce headed by Gorbachev (The Leninist November 21 1987) – a simple fact that belies comrade Taaffe’s assertion in his reply to remarks I made during the discussion that it was our now highly critical attitude to the Stalinist states that was retrospective and that “no wing” of the Communist Party had made these sorts of criticisms at the time.

I decided not to explore these rather involved questions in my five-minute contribution to the discussion. Instead, I took issue with a much more straightforward difference – the notion that collapse of Stalinism equated with the “liquidation of planned economies”, an historical ‘gain’ of the revolution that had been preserved despite the bureaucratic excrescences.

I pointed out that planning for Marxists was not simply target-setting – it must have a genuine social content. Specifically, the democratic formulation of that plan by the direct producers themselves. The farcical nature of bureaucratic ‘planning’ in the USSR was perfectly illustrated in the five-year plans, when Stalin and Molotov arbitrarily leapfrogged one crazily unrealistic set of targets by another, with no concern for equilibrium or balance in the economy, nor indeed for genuine utility of the outputs.

Comrade Taaffe would later reply to discussion and underline that the “vital issues” that were raised as we endeavour to “understand Stalinism” would have a “direct bearing on our coming struggles”. This was not simply relevant to regimes such as Venezuela and its creeping Bonapartist authoritarianism, he suggested, but also because Stalin would be “used as a scarecrow to frighten new generations away from socialism”.

Absolutely. And the fact that SPEW comrades – including Peter Taaffe himself – can still see the unviable monstrosity of the USSR as an “anticipation from an economic point of view” of the society of the future is a pretty frightening prospect in itself. Summing up, the comrade told the meeting that what existed in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe was “planning in a rudimentary form” (although quite why and how it “disintegrated” in the 1980s he did not elaborate) and, even in this primitive form, the mass of simple “empirical evidence” countered my claim about the absence of planning. I actually got quite nostalgic when comrade Taaffe cited achievements such as Sputnik and other SPEWers talked of the rights enjoyed by Soviet citizens to “a home, a job, a decent health service” – it was like being in a CPGB meeting from the mid-70s again.

One comrade put it particularly crudely. After listing all the economic advantages conferred on the population by even bureaucratic ‘planning’, he conceded “the bit that was missing was democracy”.

The notion that democracy is a desirable, but non-essential bolt-on in a workers’ state underlines that SPEW – in common with much of the rest of the left – in practice has a top-down, paternalistic view of socialism. Many of the comrades were reduced to citing the catastrophic collapse in living standards that followed the counterrevolutions as circumstantial evidence of the partially progressive nature of these regimes. Living standards are hardly an irrelevance, but the key when we evaluate such societies should be the levels of proletarian consciousness and organisation, its room for independent initiative and the genuine workers’ control that can be observed. It simply is not Marxism to work backwards from the growth in pig iron production or even – an example closer to home – the number of council houses put up in Liverpool and extrapolate from this dull “empirical evidence” that what we have in front of us is a working class entity in any meaningful sense.

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