The Vanguard & the Labor Opposition

Erasmo Calzadilla

What often comes up is the issue of when socialism got screwed up.

When my friends and I who think we have a certain level of political awareness get together we like to discuss and argue.  What often comes up is the issue of when socialism got screwed up.

Some maintain that this began with Marx himself, others put the accent on Lenin, and the rest blame Stalin.

To contribute to that discussion, I’m presenting this blog entry inspired by the writing of Cornelius Castoriadis, a person who discussed this question in the second half of last century.  As he noted, “The role of Bolshevik ideology in the appearance of the bureaucracy” revolved around the acceptance by the high rungs of the party hierarchy to a resistance movement known as the “Labor Opposition” at the beginning of the 1920s.

It seems that an extensive fraction of the Russian workers was already at odds with the hierarchic leadership of the Bolshevik party then in power (led by Lenin and Trotsky, among others).  Their bone of contention was around who should organize and direct the production process.  The opposition advocated the workers themselves taking charge of it, while the ranking Bolsheviks did what they could to secure this control in their hands and finally succeeded in seeing this leading role assumed by a single man, an administrative official who was accountable to the party.

We can look at the response to this proposition on the part of Trotsky, who said: “It would be the worst of errors to confuse the question of the authority of the proletariat with that of work crews that administer factories.  The dictatorship of the proletariat is expressed through the abolition of private ownership of the means of production, through domination over the entire soviet mechanism by the will of the masses, and not through the form of management of various companies.” Trotsky: Terrorism and Communism, ed. 10-18, Paris, 1963, p. 243.

Later on in the same text, he says that what is reprehensible in bourgeois militarism and in the bourgeois army are individuals acting in the service of the bourgeoisie; as for the rest, he says nothing.  The sole difference lies in “who holds the power? “ Trotsky: Terrorism and Communism, ed. 10-18, Paris, 1963, p. 257.

And also, later he says: “Under a capitalist regime, where work is paid for by the unit (or piecework), the operationalization of the system of Taylorism, etc., had as a goal to increase the exploitation of the workers and to snatch their surplus value from them.  As a consequence of the socialization of production, piecework, etc., this points to a growth in socialist production and therefore to an increase in the common good.  Workers who contribute more effort than others to the common good acquire the right to receive a greater portion of the social product than ungenerous, idle and disorganized workers.” Trotsky: Terrorism and Communism, ed. 10-18, Paris, 1963, p. 257.

Lenin seems not to lag too far behind.  In his writings and speeches from that period he repeatedly proposed that Russia should learn from the advanced capitalist countries and convince itself that it was necessary to adopt capitalist “rationalization,” methods of capitalist management and “capitalist work incentives.”

It seems that these men who were the self-proclaimed vanguard of the labor movement marched well to its rear.

Concerning the response provided by the Bolshevik leadership, Greek philosopher and psychoanalyst Cornelius Castoriadis points out:

... the same means cannot be used indifferently at the service of different ends; … an intrinsic relationship exists between the instruments that are used and the results that one obtains; … neither the army nor the factory are simple “means” or “instruments” but social structures where there are organized two fundamental forms of relations between people (production and violence)…

(For Lenin and Trotsky)…  it is only about the development of production, and to accomplish that they urge using those methods and structures that have demonstrated that they work.  The fact that, among those “demonstrations” the principal one would constitute the development of “capitalism” as a social system, that is to say that a factory doesn’t only produce fabric or steel, but also proletarians and capital, that was unworthy of attention.

I believe that these reflections by Castoriadis are a useful analysis of the current Cuban situation, especially now that “the principal concern is economic development” and that we are amid a wave of layoffs in which the bosses will ultimately be the ones who decide who will end up on the street.

There is now being born in Cuba (or was it always here?) a new labor opposition and it would be magnificent if it didn’t succumb to the rhetoric and the pressures of the “vanguard.”

4 thoughts on “The Vanguard & the Labor Opposition

  • Shane Mage: Thank you! Heavens! I was beginning to think that no one out there had any idea that private enterprise and private property rights could have a place in the socialist bridge to a classless society.

    But I have never heard Trotsky’s name mentioned as being connected with “Lenin’s” NEP. Please tell us more.

  • To single out 1920-early 1921 polemical writings of Lenin and Trotsky as source of the bureaucratic degeneration of the USSR is to make a grievous error–that is, to forget that the new workers’ state was in a desperate civil war that forced it to resort to an authoritarian siege economy called “War Communism” in which private enterprise had and could have no place. These writings, and the “Trade Union Dispute” that involved the “Workers’ Opposition” (one of whose leaders, Alexandra Kollontai, was to become a tame follower of Stalin) were entirely in the “War Communism” context and directed against Social Democrats who tried to claim that the state of siege imposed by counterrevolution and foreign invasion was somehow a contradiction to socialist principle rather than a necessary response to a terrible emergency. As soon as War Communism was replaced by NEP in April 1921 at the initiative of Trotsky and Lenin, private enterprise was legalized, peasant agriculture was freed from compulsory state grain collections, and trade unions were allowed far greater independence including the right to strike (all of which were abolished by Stalin starting in 1928-1929). Cuban “socialism” went disastrously off the rails in 1968 when Fidel Castro definitively chose the Stalinist statist, totally nationalized, model over the Lenin-Trotsky NEP model (not at all incidentally coinciding with his endorsement of Brezhnev’s invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the green shoots of democracy and economic reform that had started to flourish in the Prague Spring).

  • Oh, yeah, I forgot to add . . . When you quote Trotsky about the state abolishing private property–by making it state owned–you show that Marxism commits the same error as the so-called Utopian socialists.

    This error is in taking the abolition of private property out of the far-in-the-future society of full communism, and bringing it back into the socialist “bridge” society just emerging out of capitalism. In so doing, Marxism makes socialism unworkable and makes the socialist bridge collapse!

    So, in essence, Marxian socialism is not scientific, at all. It is merely another version of Utopian socialism where private property is abolished immediately, without a several-generations developmental period.

    The world socialist vanguard must regroup around a non-statist, cooperative understanding of workable socialism that utilizes private property rights to build the socialist bridge.

  • Interesting article, Erasmo.

    You quote Trotsky in your 5th paragraph thusly: “The dictatorship of the proletariat is expressed through the abolition of private ownership of the means of production . . .”

    This is an excellent quote. It shows that Trotsky accepted the notion that a socialist mode of production is based on the socialist state bringing about “the abolition of private ownership of the means of production.” How does the state abolish it? By making everything state property.

    In other words Trotsky was totally at one with the socialist state owning the land and all enterprise. Unfortunately, such state ownership is precisely the “statist” mode of production that Trotskyists, in Cuba and around the world, are blaming on Stalin and other nasty bureaucrats.

    I hope you will add a comment to your article admitting that Trotsky was at one with Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin in believing the state should own all the instruments of production. This is important. All the blame is on the monster Stalin, but the truth is that the real blame belongs to Marx and Engels for dishing up the recipe, and on Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin for accepting it as the “true” mode of production of socialism.

    But there is a new definition in the world for a “true” socialist mode of production. It says that the working people should own their means of production cooperatively as their private corporate property. The state should co-own a sizable chunk through non-controlling stock, in order to avoid a tax revenue system, but the primary owners should be the workers.

    Thank you, Erasmo, for helping point out how Trotsky, like other Marxists, was a partisan and advocate of the statist mode of production. If he had really been in favor of workplace democracy, he would have called for direct, cooperative worker ownership.

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