It is clear as day for those who succeed in drawing the lessons of the past and move forwards to the future: The experience so far does not demonstrate the downfall of Marxism, but of a conception of “socialism” that is its negation. As the end of the decaying capitalism comes closer, Marxism continues to guide humanity’s struggle for emancipation and happily foretells that the future lies in socialism.
In today’s conditions where the capitalist system is writhing in a historical crisis, the defence of Marxism and socialism bears great importance for the revolutionary struggle. The capitalist system has aged and decayed. Capitalist decay and crisis manifest their consequences most strikingly in social decay, imperialist wars that drag millions of people to death, tendency to authoritarianism, and the intolerable destruction of man and nature. It has become indispensable, from every aspect, to get rid of this damned exploitative and oppressive social order and set sail for socialism. Marxism is the only revolutionary worldview that paves the way for socialism which will carry humanity to freedom. For this reason, it is a fundamental and burning task today, to weed the distortions that Marxism has suffered over the years and to step up the revolutionary struggle by proving that what took place in the past under the name of socialism was not socialism.
It is evident that the bourgeoisie does everything in its power to slander Marxism and the struggle for socialism. Besides, the collapse of bureaucratic regimes that prevailed under the name of socialism for a long period in the 20th century was also exploited by bourgeois ideology as a great opportunity. Hence, it had become the order of the day to announce and propagate that Marxism, socialism and history had come to an end. However, as we predicted and expressed at that time, these sweet months of capitalism did not last long. The capitalist system, which remained alone in the world, unrivalled, stepped into the 21st century with a profound crisis, after which it would begin to be preoccupied with its own troubles. But the crises of capitalism do not lead to the spontaneous rise of socialist struggle and Marxism. The dirts that have been flung on Marxism and socialism are not automatically cleared. As I pointed out years ago, “The meaning of all that happened should be questioned under the light of revolutionary perspectives of Marxism in order to re-rail the struggle of the proletariat for socialism.” (Elif Çağlı, “Introduction”, May 1991, In the Light of Marxism, Tarih Bilinci Pub.)
What collapsed was not socialism
We witnessed the collapse of bureaucratic regimes in the Soviet Union and the like beginning from the second half of the 1980s. Thus, the Cold War between the capitalist bloc and the so-called socialist bloc, the period which was an extension of the World War II, was also coming to an end. The old era was leaving its place to hot wars that were the product of conflicts for hegemony and imperialist drive for re-division. In this new period, the importance of the duty of defending Marxism and socialism had increased even more. The way to fulfil this task was primarily to analyze what happened in the past and what the meaning of these historical experiences was. Here, to the extent this article permits, I will touch upon some of the key elements of my studies, which I began to conduct prior to the collapse and later expanded in the book named In the Light of Marxism.
With the October Revolution of 1917, the exploiting ruling powers of Russia were overthrown. Despite all its shortcomings, the proletarian revolution, which took place in a backward country like Russia, was heralding the birth of a revolutionary workers’ power based on the masses of workers and poor peasants, organized in the soviets. Among the first decrees issued by the revolutionary power was “The Right of Peoples of Russia to Self Determination”. Following the revolution, steps such as nationalizations in industry and organizing large farms in agriculture followed one another in the context of regulating the economic life. The first Soviet Constitution, drafted by Lenin in early January 1918, was remarkable in that it demonstrated the Bolsheviks’ commitment to Marxism at that time. In the Constitution, the transient nature of the workers’ state and that, being the lower phase of communism, socialism was a classless and stateless social order were both stated.
Born as the product of the victorious proletarian revolution in Russia in October 1917, the workers’ soviets power soon found itself alone and isolated in circumstances where the German Revolution was defeated and the world revolution retreated. Following the October Revolution, the revolutionary proletariat went through a harsh civil war in order to defend its power against the attacks of imperialism, the bourgeoisie and landlords. As the military historians researching the developments at that time point out, the detachments consisting predominantly of the communist workers fought to death to defend the revolution and set a moral exemplar. But unfortunately, the industrial proletariat, who led the proletarian revolution, weakened both because of the losses in the civil war and migration to the villages due to hunger in the cities. While the working class who carried out the revolution was atomizing, the factories were filled with newcoming semi-worker/semi-peasant elements from the villages. These new workers constituted a favourable social ground for the rise of bureaucratic leaders as they had not been tempered in the heat of the period of revolutionary struggle between 1903 and 1917 in big industrial centres, with their rumbling empty stomachs, lack of revolutionary consciousness, and most importantly with their traditional obedience to bureaucratic authority resulting from patriarchal heritage of Russian despotism.
As a consequence of these conditions, local soviets, the lifeblood of soviet power, began to lose their functions. On the other hand, as it became clear that the Bolsheviks were going to win towards the end of the civil war, self-seekers wearing red shirts flocked to the ruling positions of the party and the soviets, with the incentive to exploit the advantages of the ruling party. Consequently the member composition of the Bolshevik Party had radically changed. Striving to protect the revolution under all these given conditions, the vanguard elements faced with the reality of a serious bureaucratization that would hamper the progress of the revolution despite their efforts.
Under conditions of economic and cultural backwardness of Russia, bureaucratization, which Lenin criticized in his speeches and writings, began to overwhelm the whole body like a fatal disease. Along with this gloomy picture, numerous social grievances led the party and, in practice, for sure, its revolutionary leaders, to take drastic measures in the hope of saving the workers’ state from destruction. Prohibition of opposition parties, suspension of the right to opposition within the Bolshevik Party, transition to a new economic policy called New Economic Policy (NEP) etc. are the examples of some of the negative consequences of the 1921 turn. On the other hand, in order to end the commercial isolation of the Soviet Union, the British-Soviet trade agreement was signed in London in March 1921. With this agreement, the British imposed the condition of ending anti-British propaganda in the colonies on the Comintern. One of the most visible consequences of this would be that the Congress of the Peoples of the East would not meet again after its first congress. Here, with all these indicators, the 1921 turn revealed that bureaucratic deformation was growing into bureaucratic degeneration despite the concerns and struggles of the revolutionary leaders.
As a matter of fact, by 1924, despite the efforts of Lenin and the leaders of like mind, the control in the organization of the party would fall into the hands of the bureaucracy and the bureaucratic leaders whom these conditions had brought to the fore. Therefore, Soviet institutions would begin to transform into the apparatus of the bureaucracy’s rule. Lenin drew attention to the annoying consequences of the bureaucratic apparatus in his late writings and his famous will, and was virtually crying out with the sense of urgency of a revolutionary who wanted to fulfil his last duties. For example, Lenin vehemently criticized the bureaucratic practices that invalidated the rights granted by the October Revolution to the oppressed nations. In this sense, he accused Stalin first and foremost, of being the representative of Great Russian chauvinism. These practices, which were in no way compatible with the spirit of workers’ democracy, would sow irreparable seeds of hatred and segregation among the nations under the Soviet Union. Finally, with the death of Lenin, the rule of the bureaucracy in the party and the state would irreversibly be strengthened.
The pressure and coercion directed against small peasantry through “rapid collectivization” and the complete slaughter of workers’ democracy during the Stalin period laid the groundwork for the poor masses to perceive socialism as a regime that oppresses them. This reality laid the foundations for future nationalist anger against bureaucratic power in the vast rural areas of Russia. The period of conflicts between 1924 and 1928 was a bureaucratic counter-revolution process in which the bureaucracy directly liquidated the workers’ power, which had already turned dysfunctional as a result of bureaucratic degeneration. This was completely different from a potential bourgeois counter-revolution, and it was a counter-revolution process from within, not from the outside. During this period, the ruling bureaucracy reorganized the Bolshevik Party as its own apparatus of rule and in the historical 1928 turn, rose to a ruling class status by appropriating the state. While the rule of the workers’ soviets ended in reality, apparent continuation of soviets in form, unfortunately led to a “Soviet Union” that in reality reflected the power of the ruling bureaucracy.
The hostility of the Soviet bureaucracy towards world revolution was materialised in structuring its own state on the basis of “defending the interests of the nation-state”, just as in the case of the bourgeois state. In an effort to establish a status quo on this basis and maintain it on a world scale, the Soviet bureaucracy created its own official state ideology. The fable of “socialism in one country” was a horrible distortion of Marxism and it was the official ideology which was invented by the ruling bureaucracy with the aim of replacing the historical interests of the world proletariat with its own selfish national interests. This ideology would, unfortunately, distort the conception of socialism for many generations of socialists.
For the bureaucracy that had risen to the rank of a ruling class by appropriating the state, the aftermath of 1928 would be a process of legal regulations reinforcing the already established bureaucratic dictatorship. In this process, the ruling bureaucracy’s state began to seize from the working class what was left of the October Revolution, and complete the liquidation. For example, the independence of trade unions was abolished; the right to collective bargaining was put an end to; strikes were banned; striking workers were sentenced to death. Woman workers lost their gains that were the fruit of the workers’ revolution. The rule restricting the income of party members was lifted, an abyss arose between bureaucracy’s income and workers’ wages. As a result of heavy pressure and threat on the one hand, and connivance and bribery on the other, the hope of workers for a better future had completely faded. In a vortex of despair, they sunk into alcoholism in need of numbing themselves. This has been the fate of the workers under the bureaucratic dictatorship that has deluded the world, for years, into believing that it was “living socialism”.
On the other hand, with the terror of the “purge campaigns” waged by the ruling bureaucracy in the 1930s, with the labour camps where nearly 10 million prisoners were incarcerated etc. all the way to a totalitarian regime were paved. The process from 1928 until the adoption of the 1936 Constitution, which declared that “socialism has now been established in the Soviet Union” is obviously marked by the institutionalization and stabilization of the totalitarian regime. Thus bureaucracy defeated the programme of Lenin who had warned that the chief danger after the revolution was the conversion of the organs of the state from servants of society to masters over society. One thing is important to note here. Although a totalitarian regime is characterized by a highly “personalized” rule of the dictator, this situation never justifies ignoring the essence of the regime and the nature of the class dictatorship. Indeed, after Stalin’s death in 1953, the famous 20th Congress of 1956, in which Khrushchev blamed Stalin, did not change the nature of the Soviet regime.
The despotic-bureaucratic regime in the Soviet Union existed until its collapse in December 1991. During this period, what prevailed in the world socialist movement was not true Marxism, but instead a distorted “Marxism”, a conception of a so-called “socialism”, which was in fact the official ideology of the Soviet bureaucracy, and which can be described as a kind of “national developmentalism”. This would directly determine the fate of the revolutions that took place after the 1917 October Revolution and the fate of the states established within the sphere of influence of the Soviet state in the aftermath of the World War II.
There were undoubtedly some differences between these bureaucratic regimes that prevailed under the name of socialism over a certain period of history; but they were similar to each other in terms of their basic features. However, among these examples, only in the Soviet Union has the revolutionary struggle reached to the point of establishing a workers’ power, and was later overcome by the counter-revolution of the ruling bureaucracy. Whereas in other instances, the revolutionary struggle either had a different character from the outset or was derailed later on, under the influence of the bureaucratized Soviet state, resulting in the establishment of similar bureaucratic regimes. For example, a host of Eastern European states were formed from their very birth as satellites or replicas of the Stalinist bureaucratic rule. After all, the nature of the regime has not been any different in China, which established its power after World War II as a result of a massive popular revolution under the leadership of Mao and took more or less a stance against the hegemony of the Soviet bureaucracy. Established as the result of the struggles against imperialism that left deep traces in memories, national liberationist states such as Vietnam and Cuba, in the final analysis, could be able to break from the sphere of influence of American imperialism thanks to the existence of the Soviet Union, and eventually bureaucratic regimes similar to the Soviet Union were established in these cases as well.
Marxism should be grasped in its undistorted form
It is necessary to grasp fundamental ideas of Marxism in their undistorted forms in order to prove that the regimes which came into being in the Soviet Union and later in some other countries have nothing to do with socialism. Revolutionary Marxism explains that the ultimate goal of the proletariat is reaching a classless and stateless society of free producers. But to achieve this goal, there is a need for a state during the transition period from capitalism to communism, a semi-state that will wither away as it fulfils its function. This state, which can be defined as a state of the Paris Commune type, is an indispensable condition for the survival and advancement of the proletarian revolution. And this is precisely the essence of the power which Marxism calls dictatorship of the proletariat. The workers’ power must be a dictatorship for the bourgeoisie, against whom the struggle is waged but must be the broadest democracy for the working masses. Only through the establishment of a power of this nature can transition period from capitalism to communism be lived through and humanity reach communism, beginning from its lower stage, socialism, which is a classless and stateless social order without commodity-relations and national borders.
Communist society is a classless, stateless society without borders both in its lower and higher stages. It is a mode of life in which the exploitation of human beings by human beings completely ends, and associations of free producers decide and implement directly in all spheres of production and social life. While Marx emphasized the difference between the lower phase of communism (socialism) and the higher phase, he treated them as two different levels of maturity of a single social order. That is to say, the principle of distribution of production in socialism can be expressed as “to each according to her/his labour”, whereas in the higher phase of communism, humanity will be able to rise to the level of “from each according to her/his ability, to each according to her/his needs”. However, having stolen the power from the working class, the ruling bureaucracy in the Soviet Union revised Marxism and formed an official ideology known as Stalinism. For this reason, a weird conception of socialism which involves classes, state and nationalism took root in the socialist movement in Turkey and in the world, in a fashion that is difficult to weed out from minds.
Ending capitalism once and for all is a task that can only be achieved on an international scale, and therefore the transition period under workers’ democracy can only be completed on a world scale. As the October Revolution exemplifies, a workers’ power can be established in a single country as a result of a successful revolution. The historical task of this workers’ power is to put an end also to the economic privileges of the bourgeoisie, who has already lost the political power, and to initiate the liquidation of capitalism by carrying out social transformations. Since the ultimate liberation from capitalism can only be possible with the victory of the world revolution, restricting revolutionary goals to the national scale (like “socialism in one country”) is a reactionary utopia. The workers’ power which will be established by the revolutionary struggle of the working masses cannot be confined to the national scale, and its historical task is to strive for advancing the world revolution. Confined within national borders, especially on the basis of a backward economy, a workers’ power has no chance of surviving when the state of isolation continues for a long time. The course of events following the establishment of the workers’ power by the October Revolution in Russia concretizes and confirms this.
A workers’ power must be based on a commune-type social organization without a bureaucracy or professional army. Workers’ democracy is not one of the forms of the dictatorship of the proletariat, it is its condition of existence, essence, sine qua non. In order to establish workers’ democracy, it will never be enough just to smash the old state apparatus. What is more important is that the workers’ power should be able to take necessary measures that would eliminate the ground for new masters to emerge. Some of such measures can be summarized as: 1) all public office subject to election and recall at any time 2) wages not higher than the workers’ 3) everyone is entitled to do public supervision
Workers’ power must differ radically from the bourgeois state in terms of the organization and conduct of public affairs and services; in order to survive, worker’s power must have a nature of a semi-state, have no bureaucracy and be in the course of withering away from the very beginning. It is quite possible if the above-mentioned measures are implemented. After all, the workers’ power either succeeds in becoming a direct democracy of the working masses or collapses. Assigning officers, experts, etc. for the execution of public services is not the same thing as bureaucracy, which means the organization of public services in the form of a pyramid from top to bottom, based on hierarchical authority. What Marxism means by the concept of “workers’ power without bureaucracy” is not the end of the need for civil servants and experts; it is the end of the bureaucratic organization of public services.
However, it should also be emphasized that from the point of revolutionary Marxists, the “state”, even if it is a workers’ state, is nothing more than a necessary tool that must be used to achieve the desired goal (but still an unpleasant tool considering the final goal!). For this reason it is absolutely necessary to oppose any praising of the tool as if it is the goal itself, or any approach that would mean a vulgarization of Marxism as if it were a worldview admiring the “state” and “dictatorship”. Another important point is that the dictatorship of the proletariat essentially means the direct rule of the working masses organized in the form of soviets and councils. Soviet rule can and should never be reduced to the rule of the party. To conceive the Soviet rule as a one-party dictatorship means understanding nothing at all about the historical function and necessity of soviets.
It will also be illuminative to make a general assessment of the economic transformations of the transition period. What characterizes this period is not only the overthrow of the old order, the expropriation of the capitalists or the liquidation of capitalist relations of production. This period is essentially a period in which the workers’ power sets out to expand the productive forces by organizing a planned economy and lay the foundations of material and cultural developments to eliminate the privileges and contradictions stemming from the social division of labour. In other words, this is the historical era in which the economic, social and cultural foundations are laid for the relations of production of the future classless society. Moreover, state ownership cannot be identified with social property, even if it is under the rule of the working class. Proletarian state ownership is an important step towards social ownership, but only a step. The direct socialization of the ownership of the means of production without any intermediary is something pertaining to the classless social order.
While talking about the characteristics of the transition society, we should remind one thing in order to avoid any misunderstanding about the historical experience: a socio-economic formation which takes shape under the command of a bureaucratic state, as in the USSR and the like, has nothing in common with the transition period from capitalism to communism. If worker’s power has been destroyed, or has not existed at all, then there can be no transition bridge between such a social order and socialism. The bureaucratic regime is a social phenomenon that has no relationship with the dictatorship of the proletariat and the transition period, and must be studied completely on the basis of its peculiar characteristics.
The characteristics of the despotic-bureaucratic regime
There have been many debates among socialists about the character of the regime in the Soviet Union. Those who have mistaken the Soviet state for a workers’ state, albeit corrupt, claimed that the bureaucracy could not form a class, but it was a caste that held power on behalf of the working class. This error stemmed from the inadequate study of Marx and ignoring of the Eastern type of development in the historical evolution of societies. However, in his magnificently profound and intense work, Grundrisse, Marx revealed the differences of the historical evolution lines of Eastern and Western societies starting from the prehistoric ages. Let us remind that in the transition from barbarism to civilization, i.e. from a classless society to a class society with state, there have been two different forms of transition: the first being the Eastern line of civilization, and the second, the Western line of civilization. Contrary to the West, the transition to class society in the East took place on the basis of state property, not of private property. In Eastern despotism, the sole and true property owner is the state. Thus, in ancient Asiatic societies, the bureaucracy had been able to form an independent class and even risen to the position of a ruling class, governing the despotic state.
It should be emphasized here that essentially the former Asiatic sovereignties of the East, for example the Ottoman Empire in its “Dirlik” Order period, bear profound similarity with modern bureaucratic regimes with their structures based on state property. But the difference is that the despotic-bureaucratic regimes of the 20th century, like the USSR, were not formed on the basis of Asian agricultural communes, but on the basis of industrialized productive forces of the modern age. In the USSR and similar countries, under conditions where the means of production are nationalized and their private ownership is abolished, capitalist mode of production is out of the question thereafter. Formed under the rule of the bureaucracy, the essential aim of the bureaucratic command economy is to provide the accumulation of surplus-products necessary for re-production. In this regime, the distribution of productive resources takes place according to a bureaucratic central plan that reflects the preferences of the ruling bureaucracy.
In the modern despotic-bureaucratic regimes that are subject to our study the state is the property of the bureaucracy (the concept of “despotism” does not mean arbitrariness, tyranny or slave ownership, it means the authority that rules its subjects). For this reason, this bureaucracy (not junior officials etc., but the ruling elements prominent at the top) constitutes the ruling class that holds power politically and economically. Under the bureaucratic state, the proletariat gives its labour power to the state which embodies the rule of the bureaucracy. The position of the working class in the production process is determined by its dependence on the bureaucratic state and its collective exploitation by the ruling bureaucracy. In the bureaucratic regime, there is no surplus-value exploitation which pertains to capitalism, but there is exploitation of surplus-labour, and such regimes are to be classified as exploitative societies. Under a bureaucratic regime which has no private property owning wealthy classes, the bureaucracy has the collective right to disposition of state property. It appropriates the social surplus labour of the proletariat as a “collective exploiter” ruling class.
Historically the ruling bureaucracy is not a class with specific socioeconomic roots. It is a recruited class of bureaucrats who rose to the level of rulers on the basis of appropriating the state. Within its constituents there are elements that have come from various social classes (workers, petty-bourgeois, etc.) but have totally cut off their social and ideological ties with their original class roots. In the Soviet Union and similar regimes, state ownership over the fundamental means of production “cannot be bought, sold, transferred or inherited”. Unlike a private property owning class, bureaucracy does not have a capital or capitalist position to transfer by way of inheritance. However, since the bureaucracy holds the privilege of raising their children as future bureaucrats (the privileged position offered to the children of the bureaucracy in the education system), it can transfer the position of “appropriating the state” from father to son (eg North Korea).
In lieu of conclusion
The despotic-bureaucratic regime existed in an historical era when capitalist mode of production prevailed over the world and as such it was not a post-capitalist new mode of production in the course of the historical evolution of human societies. The despotic-bureaucratic regime, surrounded by world capitalism in modern industrial era, was a socio-economic phenomenon that had no future in its sui generis character. The process that began with the establishment of the bureaucratic regime had no open end towards socialism in its natural evolution. Unless these bureaucratic regimes were overthrown by the working class, the process had only one open end: integration into world capitalist system! Having portrayed themselves as “socialism”, but being in fact bureaucratic command economies based on state ownership, it was inevitable that these countries reach over time the limit of their potential to develop and come to a standstill. In this case, it was not a surprise that the bureaucracies in power initiated reform efforts towards capitalist restoration.
As the ruling bureaucracy realizes this situation and loses hope for a future, a process of split begins within its ranks by the time of the historical turning point. And, coupled with this, a process of dissolution determined by external factors takes place. In the past, it was capitalism as an external factor that was responsible for the disintegration of the Asiatic social order of the Ottoman Empire, and not its own internal dynamics. As for the modern bureaucratic regimes, many elements of the ruling bureaucracy began to seize the de facto property right in the process of disintegration where state ownership was fragmented (privatized) into private property. The ruling bureaucracy became bourgeois, undergoing a metamorphosis that proves how a historically “transient” and “rootless class” it had been. Thus, the bureaucratic regime proved to be an ephemeral and peculiar historical phenomenon that lacked the ability to sustain its existence in the long run.
The collapse of the bureaucratic states in Eastern Europe and the rapid transition to bourgeois parliamentarism in these countries revealed how “makeshift socialist” they had been in fact. Following these collapses, the Soviet Union, which fostered grave misconceptions and idealizations about socialism for many years, collapsed later on. The collapse and fragmentation of the bureaucratic regime that had prevailed on the lands of the October Revolution for a long time led to demoralization of those who did not draw necessary lessons from this historical experience. Or it resulted in many people who once claimed to be revolutionaries changing their path upon losing hope on socialism and Marxism. Other bureaucratic regimes, including such a unique and enormous example as China, set out to tread the path of integrating with capitalism at various tempos under the control of the ruling bureaucracy.
After all, it is very clear for those who draw the lessons of the past and move forwards to the future: The experience we had so far does not demonstrate the collapse of Marxism, but of a conception of “socialism” which is its negation. For all that, as the end of the decaying capitalism comes closer today, Marxism continues to guide humanity’s struggle for liberation and heralds that the future lies in socialism.
May Day 2021: The Flame is Alive!