The Lesson of the Soviet Union is That the Bureaucracy Chooses Capitalist Restoration
By: Wilder Pérez Varona / Interview with Eric Toussaint.
Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews.
Wilder Pérez Varona (WPV): The first question I want to ask you is in relation to the issue of bureaucracy.
Before 1917 the subject of the socialist transition is one thing: since the Revolution of 1848, the Paris Commune (which is a fundamental episode, but of ephemeral character) was always limited rather to questions of theory, principles, projection (we know that Marx and Engels were reluctant to be very descriptive with respect to those projections). The Revolution of 1917 placed this problematic of transition in other terms, in another plane; in a plane that has fundamental practical elements. One of them has to do with the issue of bureaucracy, which appeared gradually throughout the 1920s. On this question of bureaucracy as it was elaborated in those circumstances, how do you define that function of bureaucracy by giving it a role as such a relevant actor, at the level of the class triad: working class/peasantry and bourgeoisie? Why that important place? I would also like you to express yourself on the distinction of “class”. You are very careful to talk about bureaucracy as a class; however, other authors do.
Eric Toussaint (ET): Well, it is clear that the experience of Russia and then the Soviet Union is, I would say, almost the second experience of attempting to seize power in order to begin a transition of rupture with capitalism. The first experience is the Paris Commune, which lasted three months in 1871, limited at the territorial level to Paris as such, isolated from French territory and attacked. So it is clear that revolutionaries like Lenin, Trotsky, and other leaders of the Bolshevik Party had no point of comparison with other experiences and conceived of the problem of transition, as I mentioned in my presentation, in a triangular way, that is, the need for an alliance between proletariat and peasantry to defeat the bourgeoisie and Imperialism, and to resist imperialist aggression after the seizure of power.
And the issue of something like the subsistence and weight of the tsarist state apparatus, which had a bureaucracy, and then the struggle against bureaucracy and bureaucratism was rather conceived at first as a struggle against something that was part of the past, of the tsarist heritage. Within the framework of the development of the transition, from the early years, both Lenin and Trotsky and others found themselves faced with a new problem and they had to start analyzing and clarifying, and so on. Lenin did not manage to elaborate, I would say, a theory of bureaucracy because he died in January 1924, but what is absolutely true in Lenin’s case is that he, in several extremely clear and important interventions, denounced the bureaucratic deformation of the workers state under construction. Already in the debate on trade unions in 1920-1921 he said that the workers’ state led by the Bolshevik Party had bureaucratic deformations and, therefore, the workers and their unions had to maintain some level of independence from the bureaucratically deformed workers’ state. That seems very important to me.
Another aspect in Lenin’s position of late 1922 and early 1923 is found in the critique of an institution created by the same government, called the Worker and Peasant Inspectorate, and Lenin says that this body, which has to serve in the struggle against bureaucracy and to which every citizen (proletarian or peasant) can turn and denounce bureaucratic behavior, says that this same body is totally bureaucratized. And that organism was directed by Joseph Stalin. Lenin proposes a complete reform of that organism in which there were twelve thousand civil servants. At that time the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate, which supposedly fought against bureaucratism, actually helped bureaucratization and aggravated the problem in which the bureaucratically deformed workers’ state already found itself. It should also be mentioned, because it is little known, that Stalin did everything necessary to make it disappear at the public level or even to prevent public knowledge of Lenin’s letters saying that Stalin should be removed from the post of Party Secretary General.
That’s what I mean about Lenin. Then I said in my presentation that the problem of transition to socialism is not limited to the bourgeois/proletariat/peasant triangle, but that there was a fourth actor that is bureaucracy, and bureaucracy is not limited to being a legacy of the past, in the case of Russia from the tsarist past, but the bureaucracy itself emerges within the transition process and consolidates itself as an actor that is progressively gaining confidence, in the course of the transition, of its interests, and its interests (in the case of the Russian experience) began to distance themselves from the interests of both the proletariat and the peasantry and, in some way, the bourgeoisie. That is, the bureaucracy did not consciously aim at the restoration of capitalism and the power of the bourgeoisie. The bureaucracy was not, I would say, an aid to capitalist restoration, but pursued its own interests and in that case its own interests were to have the monopoly of political power and from the apparatus of the state to direct, lead the process and, in some way, transform the party into an instrument of bureaucracy, transform the unions into a transmission belt of bureaucratic power to the rank and file and have an economic development in which the proletariat and peasantry cannot really act in defense of their own interests, but begin to be (in the case of Russia) exploited by the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy headed by Stalin promoted a level not only of authoritarianism, but also of dictatorship over the working people both in the rural world and in industrial enterprises or other state-controlled economic sectors.
But of course, bureaucracy does not generate a new ideology. The bureaucracy is not going to vindicate bourgeois ideology because it is officially being fought against. Then the bureaucracy, in general, took the “official” socialist program as an ideological dress and program, and speaks in the name of deepening the process of building a socialist society because the bureaucracy does not generate an ideology of its own, which would imply distancing itself from the official program of the Revolution. Somehow the bureaucracy operates in a hidden way with its own interests, and can destroy both organizations and people who really want a deepening of the process, can destroy them using officially the defense of socialism.
In the course of the 1920s, leaders like Christian Rakovsky, a Bolshevik leader, revolutionary, important, and then Trotsky, began to understand the specificity of the bureaucracy. It took years to really understand what it was all about and it is with the 1935 elaboration of The Revolution Betrayed that Trotsky comes to a complete elaboration of the analysis of what is a bureaucratically not only deformed, but degenerated state. That is to say, the ties that the power of the Soviet Union had with the Revolution in 1935 and the first years had completely distanced themselves. There remained a society that was no more capitalist, there were no capitalists in the Soviet Union, but the process towards socialism, which implies democracy, workers’ control, forms of self-management, independent and free cultural creation, the possibility of debate among revolutionaries, of open debate, had been totally degraded and destroyed and there were no more these spaces. That is why Trotsky called for a political revolution saying, it is not so much a social revolution against property relations in the production sector, it is not an anti-capitalist revolution that has social features. A political revolution is necessary to allow the proletariat, the peasantry, all wealth-producing workers, and the people in general, to regain political power. Hence the term “political revolution”. And hence demands that are above all political: freedom of expression, freedom of organization, workers’ control, self-management, pluralism of parties respecting the constitution.
Trotsky also launched a debate on the extension or not of the revolution, what is it for, what is the Communist International for? Trotsky advocated the extension of the revolution to the international level and for permanent revolution. It is necessary to remember that a Communist International had been built, the Third International founded in 1919, then led by Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Radek (Stalin at the beginning of the Communist International did not really have any presence, he was not an internationally known leader as the head of the process of extension of the revolution). It is only when Stalin succeeds in expelling Trotsky from the Communist Party in 1927 and expelling him from the country in 1929 that he begins to fully lead the Stalinized Third International and puts that International at the service of the interests of the very bureaucracy of the Soviet Union, and no longer to really extend the revolution internationally.
WPV: And although the bureaucracy does not generate an ideology of its own, nevertheless in practice (from the historical evolution of the so-called “real socialisms”), it actually managed the capitalist restoration in those countries. You also pointed out that they exploited the classes of peasants and workers, of producers in general, how then do you distinguish that bureaucratic management and exploitation with respect to a capitalist exploitation; between the one carried out by the bureaucracy and the bourgeoisie?
ET: It is that during that long period of bureaucratic power, that same bureaucracy considers that the conditions are not yet met to pass to a process in which, as a social layer is transformed into a class for the private accumulation of wealth. What is, I would say, typical of the capitalist class: a private accumulation of wealth.
But at the same time, the lesson of the Soviet Union is that, after all, that bureaucracy that is not building a new kind of system chooses capitalist restoration and the bureaucrats themselves become capitalists. In other words, they somehow cross the border as a social layer and transform themselves into a capitalist class. As bureaucrats, before capitalist restoration, they can accumulate levels of wealth, privileges, and so on, but their privileges come from the management of a society in which large private property, capitalist property, does not exist or is totally marginal and that does not have a great future, but that social layer (or a part, a fraction of the social layer) may last for decades and at any given time decide that it is time to restore capitalism. This is what happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the Soviet Union. I personally think that’s what happened in China from the Reforms of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1980s as well, and in Vietnam we also had that evolution.
Of course, the historical perspective could have been of another kind, that is, a capacity of the producers (proletariat, peasantry or intellectual worker) to regain power from a political revolution, but that did not happen and it was not Gorbachev’s perspective. He spoke of Glasnost, in terms of liberation from political debate, but Perestroika was to introduce reforms in favor of the progressive capitalist restoration. So that is the great challenge of the transitional society: how to deal with the problem of bureaucratization and the consolidation of the bureaucracy as the leading and dominant social layer, also when the country is isolated, and has problems to really succeed in increasing production, increasing its endogenous development, and responding to the needs of the workers.
WPV: To a large extent all the reforms of the 1980s were also made with the slogan of the democratization of bureaucratized socialism. However, the history of the relationship between Socialism and Democracy has involved many conflicts, many contradictions, many misunderstandings…
ET: It is extremely complicated because (you know perfectly well in Cuba) the transition to socialism leads Imperialism to a policy of aggression that can take various forms. Therefore, this aggressive attitude makes it complicated to have total freedom of expression within the framework of the process. The same aggression produces reactions of limitation of expression, and so on; but of course, at a given moment the bureaucracy uses the external threat to maintain a limitation of the political debate because it is not really in the people’s interest to have a political debate that could weaken the bureaucratic control over society.
So, the issue is very complex. I would say that it is clear that we have to face an external aggression that can take various forms, but we cannot, under this situation of aggression, limit in an exaggerated way the possibility of expression, of organization, of protests, and so on.
In my presentation, I made reference to Rosa Luxemburg, who totally supported the Bolshevik Revolution. As you know, she was assassinated in January 1919 under orders from German Social Democratic ministers, but in 1918 she wrote several letters to the Bolsheviks, which she made public, to say “comrades Lenin, Trotsky, beware of the measures you are taking to limit political freedoms,” etc., because that can lead to a process that is going to be deadly for the Soviet Revolution. I would say, what is the balance that we must find in the transition, and at that level we must also evaluate the attitude of Lenin, Trotsky, and others… what happened to Kronstadt, that rebellion of sailors near Petrograd; what happened to the secret police (the NKVD or Cheka), which had the possibility of extrajudicial execution processes, of imprisonment of opponents… the question of trade unions; it is clear that we have to be able to analyze this.
It is also important for us to analyze what happened in a country like Cuba. The whole libertarian issue in the 1960s in Cuba, then followed by the increase in the negative influence of the USSR bureaucracy from the economic difficulties after the 1970 harvest, and then analyze and also draw lessons from the Cuban experience. It is also very important.
WPV: Of course, we have to analyze the processes in their particular contexts, but we also have to take into account certain limits in the prerogatives of the revolutionary government itself, let’s say, to assume the direction and control of the process. In this link between Socialism and Democracy, you are in favor of the limitation of democracy. In other words, it is not just Democracy, it is not the democracy that has been hegemonized by capitalist perspectives, but a limited democracy (socialist or of any other kind, a workers’ democracy).
ET: For example, for me one of the lessons of the Russian experience is the need for a multi-party system by saying that, within the framework of the transition, the existence of several parties should be allowed if they accept, respect, the socialist, working-class Constitution. In the society of transition to socialism, one cannot allow a pro-imperialist party calling for outside intervention, or supporting outside intervention, or let it freely organize, recruit and prepare a pro-imperialist strategy. But there may be different parties, which have different visions of the transition, and which can coexist; and the people must be able, thanks to their political formation and increasing it, to choose among various options. Of course, encourage debate and call for consultations on decisions to be taken.
I would also say that one of the lessons of the so-called “real socialism” societies of the twentieth century is that, and this seems fundamental to me, they must have at the economic level an important sector of private economy, small private property. The small private property of land, the small private property of workshops, restaurants, shops. The Soviet experience also had an influence on Cuba, nationalizing almost everything at any given moment, which damaged the process. I was here in 1993 when the liberation of the activity of the self-employed was announced and seemed to me to be a good measure or the peasant free markets where peasants can come to the city and sell their products. That space should have been maintained in the Soviet Union, where the forced collectivization imposed by Stalin from 1929 was a disaster, and its tremendous consequences on agriculture. That is to say, there is the question of political democracy, but also for me there must be a differentiation of statutes of producers and small private production, and small private property or private initiative must be guaranteed during the process.
In the case of China, Vietnamese and the Soviet Union, which disappeared in 1991, then the Russian Federation, Ukraine, etc., did not put limits to private property and restored the large private capitalist property. And bureaucrats or friends of the bureaucrats were transformed into oligarchs and accumulated tremendous wealth as new capitalists, even very aggressive against the workers and robbing the nation of a large part of the wealth generated by the producers.
So the debate is not just about democracy, it is also about economic reforms and the social content of economic reforms.
WPV : On the question of limits to the market, the limits to private enterprise, in these socialist experiences (including Cuba) the discussion has often turned in terms of the Plan / Market relationship. In other words, to what extent the centrally planned state must intervene, must limit, limit the expansion of the market. However, it is presupposed that there must be a central Plan; In general, it is something implicit, something that is not questioned. In relation to this, it can be assumed that the Plan thus conceived is also one of the most effective instruments available to the bureaucracy, what is your opinion on the matter?
ET: I remember discussions in Cuba about the role of the market, etc., for example, the debate that took place when Che was Minister of Industry. In the 1990s discussions about the role of the market came back, I remember very well, I was invited to all the events about globalization between 1998 and 2008-2009. Fidel [Castro] participated in all the events that lasted three, four days, at the Palacio de las Convenciones with one or two thousand Cuban and foreign guests, and Fidel on several occasions asked exactly about the role of the market and the limits to be set to the market..
Personally, my answer is as follows. It is fundamental to allow and support the small private initiative, the small agricultural production, which may even be a majority but small, that is, a majority of peasant families producing most of the agricultural production. It is one of the incentives to increase production and achieve food sovereignty, to also improve their standard of living thanks to increased production with the sale of more products, it is a powerful incentive to achieve a high level of production and quality because the farmer knows that if he does not produce quality products he will not be able to sell them on the market or to the state.
Therefore, I believe that at that level there were serious errors in the conduct of the agricultural policy of many so-called socialist countries, where they wanted to nationalize or impose cooperatives that were not really efficient. But, at the same time, for me, planning is fundamental and I would say that in modern economies it is even more important. Let’s imagine for a moment a socialist revolution in Europe or the United States. Planning is fundamental, how can you imagine the fight against climate change, if you are not planning to put an end to power stations with coal, oil or gas, and change it for forms of renewable energy? That has to be planned, because it is not the local communities, the families, who can make that decision, because the production of energy at this time is on a large scale. Therefore, combating climate change has a relationship with what I said about family production using organic methods of agricultural production, in order to combat climate change or to limit the effects of climate change that is already underway.
So, planning is important. The issue is how to ensure that the people, the citizens, can influence planning decisions. And there for me the answer, in some way, passes through the Internet, the media we have, Television, and so on. Several options can be presented to the people and decide, if we take such an option we can foresee that it will have such consequences on their living conditions, if we take another option it will have these negative effects; allow debate on these options, and at a given moment, that people pronounce on options that have to do with the priorities of the Five-Year Plan, for the decade, and so on.
For me, the lesson of the so-called socialist experiences of the last century lies in the fact that it was a planning led by bureaucratic apparatuses that decided what was most interesting and imposed priorities. On the contrary, it would have been necessary to discuss different options. For me, then, we must not end planning, we must democratize planning.
Precisamos una nueva opción socialista, autogestionaria, ecologista, socialista, feminista. Tenemos que abogar por esa perspectiva.
WPV: Returning, finally, to the framework of the event, which has been the opportunity to interview you, what does it mean for you to hold in Cuba this international event on the figure of Trotsky? What importance do you attach to dialoguing with Trotsky today?
ET: For me, this Trotsky conference is a very positive initiative. It is an academic conference, not a tribune of political organizations to recruit, but a discussion on many different aspects of Leon Trotsky’s elaboration, contribution and combat. During the conference, Trotsky’s struggle against the bureaucracy, the struggle for the extension of the revolution, the struggle to confront external aggression were analyzed. Trotsky was the head of the Red Army that managed to defeat counter-revolution and external aggression in 1919-1920 in Soviet Russia. Trotsky’s contributions on the problems of everyday life, his contributions on literature, culture (it was an important topic in this conference), the reality of Soviet society in the 1920s were also analyzed during the conference….
And why is it important to do it in Cuba? Because Cuba is, I would say, the only country of what were called “socialist countries” where capitalism has not been restored. There is a fundamental debate for Cuba about how, taking into account the lessons of the last century, the internal struggles in the Soviet Union between 1920 and 1930, on the one hand; and the recent experiences of capitalist restoration in Russia, in China, and in other countries, how to position themselves as Cubans, in a sovereign manner, and lead the way into the future. Of course, it is complicated because the external aggression continues. We have Trump, who is restricting the small space that had been opened during Obama’s term for Cuba, which was somewhat limited but indicated an opening. Now, with Trump, spaces are closing again. So, of course, the stakes for the Cuban people and the challenges for Cuban socialism are very important.
As an internationalist, I have always supported the Cuban Revolution, I have supported the fight against the blockade imposed on Cuba, I have bet on dialogue with Cubans. And to see that there is a space in Cuba to rethink Trotsky’s contribution, the meaning that this contribution can have in today’s debates in Cuba, is a joy for me. There are dozens of comrades here who are revolutionaries in their countries, who may have different positions, different visions of Trotskyism, there are of course, there are different visions of Marxism, different visions of Leninism, of Fidelismo, of Guevarism, there is not just one vision. There are discussions, but I can tell you that I feel the enthusiasm of comrades who have been fighting for decades and who consider this initiative in Cuba to be very positive.
1] Eric Toussaint. Doctor in Political Science from the Universities of Paris VIII and Liège. Militant internationalist. Author of several books published in Cuba: Global Crisis and Alternatives from the Perspective of the South (Editorial Ciencias sociales, 2010, http://www.cadtm.org/Crisis-global-y-alternativas-desde ), Las Finanzas contra los pueblos. La Bolsa o la Vida (Social Sciences Publishing House, 2004, http://www.cadtm.org/La-Bolsa-o-la-Vida-Las-Finanzas ), among others.
2] Refers to the paper presented at the International Colloquium dedicated to León Trostky held in Havana between May 6 and 8, 2019, which was hosted by the Benito Juárez house. See the paper: Eric Toussaint, “Lenin and Trotsky versus the bureaucracy and Stalin. Russian Revolution and Transitional Society. Spanish: http://rebelion.org/docs/256387.pdf. English: http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article4900
3] See Che Guevara, El Gran Debate Sobre la economía en Cuba, Editorial Ocean Press, 2018, 424 pages, ISBN: 978-1-925317-36-7, https://oceansur.com/catalogo/titulos/el-gran-debate-2.
4] See for example: http://www.fidelcastro.cu/es/discursos/discurso-en-la-clausura-del-v-encuentro-sobre-globalizacion-y-problemas-del-desarrollo-en.