John Eric Marot, The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect: Interventions in Russian and Soviet History (Leiden: Brill, 2012)

What if Bukharin and Trotsky Had Made Friends?

Over the course of its existence as a distinct school of thought within the Marxist tradition, what has been called “Political Marxism” has challenged some of the sacred – and mistaken – analyses within Marxist historiography. Whether it is the transition to capitalism or the concept of bourgeois revolution, this school has drawn on Marx’s mature output to disprove the often deterministic, stagist and teleological approach of “war horse Marxism” in its various forms, either “official,” structuralist or Trotskyist. Written within this perspective, John Eric Marot’s essays have challenged, among other things, not only Lenin’s idea that the Russian countryside was already undergoing a transition to capitalism, but also one of the holiest of cows for the Trotskyist tradition: the theory of Permanent Revolution and its corollary, the alleged impossibility of constructing socialism in one country. Indeed, there is much to show that for as long as he remained active in the Soviet leadership, Trotsky may well have believed in the possibility of socialism in one country, viewing Russia as an exception to the rule that socialism could only rise out of fully developed capitalism Indeed, Trotsky’s position here recalls that of Marx in his famous correspondence with Vera Zasulich. This leads to a critique of the hagiographic overestimation of Trotsky’s role (in particular by Tony Cliff), and to questioning his specific political actions and those of the “Left Opposition.”

Most damning, perhaps, in Marot’s analysis, is that precisely what is considered Stalin’s great error – the collectivization of peasant social property relations as well as the targeting of the “Kulaks” – was rooted in what the Left Opposition, notably Preobrazhensky, at the time considered Stalin’s “Left Turn.” This was, to be sure, opposed mildly by Trotsky, who in any case thought that the greater danger to the Soviet Union came from a Bukharin-inspired capitalist restoration. But the policy had broad support from the left wing of the Bolsheviks, which was the base of the Left Opposition. In short, Trotsky’s opposition to Stalin has been overstated by many of his biographers, and by the orthodox Trotskyist tradition. This contention is so explosive that it seems to merit most of our attention here.

Marot is a former student of Robert Brenner, and his analysis is predicated upon Brenner’s theory of peasant social reproduction. Although peasants/direct producers may well sell their surplus on the market, there is no inherent market compulsion or incentive for them to innovate. Brenner’s theorization of peasant social property relations was originally applied to the transition to capitalism in England, but has since been broadly applied to pre-capitalist societies. In examining the transition debate, between those who argue that capitalism was implicit within feudal property relations (Maurice Dobb) and those who emphasized both the division of labour and more importantly, the influence of towns in the development of capitalism (Paul Sweezy), Brenner’s schema allows for both more contingency and more parametric determinism, that is to say, a given set of parameters determining the rules of reproduction for a given social formation. This is in the tradition of Marx’s 18th Brumaire: that people make their own history, but not in a vacuum. Capitalism developed in the form of the drive to expand relative as opposed to absolute surplus value; marketization became an imperative for social reproduction as a whole; and the direct producers were formally subsumed under the logic of what we now know as the labour market. It is not as if some “invisible hand” introduced the market out of nowhere.

In Brenner’s framework, peasant social property relations are predicated, first and foremost, not upon increasing the surplus but upon insuring its divvying up within the household, while still having enough to pay rent and purchase other goods and services. The market may have been an opportunity but it was not an imperative. The household was key: with multiple children in a given household, holdings were subdivided and thus the entire set of relations had a tendency towards entropy and fragmentation. Extra-economic surplus extraction was based on custom, and took for granted the reproduction of the household. Capitalist relations could not develop within this framework, as peasants producing for subsistence have no reason to specialize. Periodic crises of subsistence were aggravated by the logic of having large families and hence tiny subdivisions of land. As Marot contends, this pattern was “empirically replicated” (61) in Tsarist as well as post-revolutionary Russia.

In no later case did capitalism develop in the same spontaneous sense as in England; all other countries became capitalist through a combination of geopolitical necessity (France’s loss at Waterloo) and the self-interest of the pre-capitalist “class-like” state. Indeed during the decades leading up to the October Revolution, labour in most of Europe had not been subsumed under capital, and, as Marot would have it, commercial and industrial life in the cities did not at all mark Russia as having undergone a transition to capitalism. Thus, Lenin’s and most Bolsheviks’ view of capitalism in Russia, indeed of capitalism in general, was flawed, marked by a concentration on the forces of production as opposed to social property relations. True, there was commercial intercourse between the peasant mir and the Tsarist state apparatus, but this was a politically constituted social property relation, not a capitalist one. In other words, it was a type of “rent in kind” taxation to allow for political accumulation of military materiel and other accoutrements of absolutist state power. Certainly there was internal fractiousness amongst the peasants, as shown in the power of the Narodnik movement, but the primary contradiction was not between rich and poor peasants, but between peasants and the Tsarist state and its agents in the Landlord class.

Thus peasants had reason to celebrate the October Revolution, which displaced the landlords and gave peasants full property rights. Indeed, within a half-century of the abolition of Russian serfdom, peasants had never had it so good. Most Marxists at the time – including the entire spectrum of Soviet leadership (Stalin’s “Centre,” Trotsky’s “Left” and Bukharin’s “Right”) – assumed that the peasants, free of landlord fetters, would inexorably develop capitalism. Instead, they developed a non-capitalist commodity production that was almost entirely self-sufficient. No longer subject to the rent-in-kind of Tsarism, they had no reason, under conditions of scarcity, to pay any form of tribute to the post-revolutionary state. This was, within Brenner’s framework, a rational response to shortages in the face of civil war. The peasants, as a collectivity, could do their own form of economic planning, and this led to inevitable clashes in the subsistence crises of the late 1920s.

It was axiomatic to nearly the entire Marxist tradition that a transition to socialism required capitalist development as a precondition. Yet the permissive approach to peasant commodity production, operating in a non-capitalist manner, led within the mid-‘20s to a serious antagonism between workers and peasants. Consumer and heavy industrial goods were channeled by planners away from the urban market and towards relatively low, monopoly-set prices specifically for the increasingly comfortable peasants – from yeoman smallholders all the way up to the mythical Kulak. Yet the expansion of the peasant political economy, itself a self-sufficient entity (something recognized by Marx as far back as the 1870s), did not occur as expected, and there developed a serious case of unequal exchange. Thus in exchange for lower priced industrial goods going from town to country, peasants set their own non-market prices which were well above what the urban economy could bear.

In the face of this unequal exchange, Bukharin proposed slowing industrialization in the cities – an approach that, in Marot’s view, might have prevented the rise of Stalinism. Yet Trotsky and the Left Opposition, while opposing the twists and turns of the party leadership, refused to make common cause against Stalin. The great risk, according to Trotsky’s analysis, was capitalist restoration. Yet it was not quite so simple. Not for the first time, Bukharin seems to have had the more correct analysis. Trotsky’s mistake, which aligned him with Stalin’s approach (if not his methods), lay in theorizing a capitalist-grounded class differentiation among the peasants. Thus, liquidating the Kulaks and collectivizing what were thought to be capitalist property relations was the wrong answer to the wrong question, and its results are well known.

On the face of it, this is not a new critique. “Third Worldist” Marxists, starting with Mao Zedong, were unsparing in their criticism of the Bolshevik handling of peasants, though usually tougher on Stalin and Trotsky than on Lenin, and perhaps correctly so. Yet they still clung to nebulous concepts like “semi-capitalism” or ideas of a number of “articulations” of modes production in order to specify essentially non-capitalist but also non-feudal petty commodity production. Like the Trotskyist idea of “transitional form,” this is fuzzy where it needs to be specific. The virtue of Marx’s own work, by contrast, is that it allows us to distinguish what is common to all epochs from what is distinctive to capitalism. Without the expansion of relative surplus value (what Ellen Wood has called “market compulsion”), one could have any number of the ancillary elements that we now associate with capitalism: wage labour, commerce, even financial speculation. But these elements do not constitute capitalism if a large majority of the direct producers – as in the case of the peasants – have direct, non-market access to the means of production and subsistence.

Here, finally, is where Marot’s argument becomes highly original, if somewhat counterfactual. In a stunning case of “what if,” Marot speculates what could have taken place if Trotsky and the Left Opposition had cast their lot with the “right” and Bukkharin, and not with Stalin. There was nothing teleologically necessary about a “bureaucratically deformed workers’ state.” Indeed, if backed by the Left opposition, Bukharin’s idea of “riding out” the contradiction between peasants and urban workers through careful planning might well have been implemented (however mistaken his belief that the crisis was a capitalist one). The implications of this are far-reaching. What shape would Soviet policy have taken in international affairs, in international communism, if the combined forces of Bukharin and Trotsky had defeated Stalin’s “centre”? What would have been the approach to China, bungled in both the ‘20s and the ‘40s? Would the repressive state apparatuses have developed in the sense that we now associate with authoritarian state-socialism? Finally, could a socialist project rooted in the ideas of human development, not raw development of productive forces, have developed as early as the ‘20s?

The ultimate lesson to be drawn from Marot’s work is not merely historical, but political. Socialism must be red and green, it cannot be a project predicated on untrammeled production. Non-capitalist social relations with a relatively egalitarian logic-of-process must be maintained as pockets that have never been subsumed within capitalism. Socialism, instead of being merely about expanding the productive forces, must be about emancipation from alienated labour and about social production – the ideas that animated those who made the October revolution.

In addition to the two searing essayson early Soviet social property relations, Marot devotes a great deal of space to developing a new social interpretation of the October revolution, culminating in a reconsideration of the role of the enigmatic Alexander Bogdanov. Bogdanov, a highly original Marxian philosopher in his own right, vied with Lenin for leadership of the early Bolsheviks, and it has long been taken as gospel that Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, a philosophical critique of Bogdanov, was part and parcel of their rivalry. Marot questions this account and considers the differences between Lenin and Bogdanov to be of more philosophical than practical importance. The essays on Bogdanov, although fascinating, seem tacked on and not consistent with the more critical-historiographical tenor of the rest of the book. While this may be unavoidable in a collection of previously published essays, it would have been illuminating for Marot to explain their inclusion. My own guess is that in rethinking various aspects of early Soviet history, the account of Bogdanov is an addition to the sorely under-recognized ‘cast of characters’ of these revolutionary times, in which many socialists know the triumvirate of Lenin-Trotsky-Stalin, while few have ever heard a word mentioned of Preobrazhensky. All things told, Marot has joined the likes of Lars T. Lih and John Ridell in helping a new generation of socialists fill in the blanks. In doing so, he has provided a vital service to our movements.

Reviewed by Jordy Cummings
Marx Collegium/York University


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