According to the eminent existentialist philosopher Walter Matthau, the greatest thing in life is winning at the horse races. (That’s the Gospel according to Damon Runyon Chapter I:1. For myself, it is real greatness when the horse is one that nobody else likes; everybody thinks he’s a dog and he goes off at 10 to 1 or better.) Matthau goes on to say that the next greatest thing in life is losing at the horse races. (Ch. I:2.) However, for those of us who are a bit politically inclined, and don’t get to the track all that often, if the greatest thing in life is listening to Stanley Aronowitz lecture on Marxism, the next greatest thing is when he makes an error. And since I am a fan of yours, the next greatest thing should be if you are able to point out the error (or errors) which I now will do, to find out if it is indeed the third greatest thing in life.
I choose the first time I heard you speak: something about ideological trends, and your most recent talk on the crisis of Marxism.
The first one is memorable for me, not only because the error, though a minor one, has stuck in my mind for these several years, but also because it was the occasion on which I formally introduced my dear friend Roberta to our way of thinking. She had been through feminism a few years ago, was something of a mystic, and was becoming a nurse. It is my good fortune, that having spent the last six years under the rule of the medical profession in its present barbaric state, that I can number among my few personal friends some of the nurses who have had to put up with me in the various hospitals in which I have been confined. You may be gratified to know that since that lecture, Roberta has become more than a casual sympathizer of our way.
At any rate, the point is, that during the course of your lecture you asserted that the function of the Reformation was to make religion a private matter. I was shocked, because I had come to realize that you were not only our most entertaining lecturer, but that you had a deep insight into contemporary problems, and had an extraordinary knowledge of Marxism. Well, Marx and Engels didn’t think that way about the Reformation. I have lost nearly all of my old library, but I believe that the whole subject is dealt with at least in the Marx-Engels correspondence, if nowhere else.
What you say may have been one of the motives of the Lutheran Reformation, exemplified by the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. However, there was little or no practice of this doctrine in the actual German Reformation, which failed miserably. Luther left religion in the tender hands of the petty princes, Protestant and Catholic, who devastated Germany for a couple of centuries in the religious wars, in which the religion of the miserable subjects was automatically changed with the victory of one or another prince. There was no religious privacy in that Reformation.
According to Marx and Engels you are wrong essentially. The historic task of the Reformation was to break the international stranglehold of the Church on all European society, which prevented the emergence of autonomous national states to serve as vehicles for the production and distribution of commodities. The Calvinist Reformation did just this: it first achieved mastery at Geneva; there followed the great Dutch Revolution, creating the first capitalist state in Europe; overthrew a “barbaric feudalism” in Scotland; unsuccessful in France, the Huguenots nevertheless forced a break with the Pope and permitted France at least to achieve political autonomy; established the parties of the Great Rebellion in Britain, which in turn laid the foundation for the French Revolution, which did not end the international sovereignty of the Pope, but assured the victory of the bourgeoisie.
When I studied the Reformation, I found very little of the making of religion a private matter in the Calvinist church. The main feature of that church was its function as a revolutionary machine. It comprised the total organization of the population against Popery and in nationalism and for capitalist morality. All piety and morality, far from being private matters, were rigidly monitored by the church hierarchy.
* * *
Now, for your thought-provoking lecture on the crisis of Marxism. I found myself in basic agreement with the main thrust of your thesis as I understood it. Whether it is a crisis of Marxism or a crisis of Marxists and their organizations, I confess I haven’t made up my mind. It is quite true that neither classical Marxism nor the Marxism of Lenin and Trotsky has given anything to many of the critical problems which have arisen today, and around which new movements tend to arise. I believe that this is both because of the particular stage of capitalist decline in which we live and because of historical peculiarity. On the other hand Marx, in adapting Hegelian logic to materialist philosophy, political economy and history, has given us quite fine methodological tools—the best that I know of—to deal with social reality.
In my opinion the trouble with Marxists has been that they have refused, or have been unable, to use these tools in concrete analysis. They have become largely dependent upon existing doctrine, and attempt by deductive logic to determine the shape of existing reality. Existing doctrine, as you have observed, doesn’t treat with many present-day problems. This does surely bring in a crisis of doctrine, but I don’t believe it overthrows the methodology which has been left us by the masters if we choose to use it.
I am mainly concerned with one specific problem which illustrates the limitations of modern Marxists. I was disappointed that in your description of the areas of present social conflict which have precipitated an upsurge of semi-proletarian movement in the country (and to an extent in the world generally), areas where guidance from Marxism is lacking, you did not single out the question of race as the most critical—which I believe it to be.
Modern history has demonstrated, particularly in the great Russian and Chinese revolutions, that great historical transformations in the present capitalist world may be achieved not because of the orderly evolution of capitalism and the class struggle. The advancement of capitalist economic decline may accumulate crises which become the motive forces of revolution. But in opposition to this normality, some historical transformations have come about because of national historical peculiarities. This will probably be the case in the U.S. The most important peculiarity—and the one which reveals a basic weakness and contradiction here—is racial structure, which overlays the class structure, distorting it.
Marxism has given virtually nothing to this problem which would enable us to understand and cope with it. It is not that Marxists have had nothing to say on this question. On the contrary, our libraries and bookstores are loaded with what Marxists have had to say. The limitation of Marxists has been that on the basic theoretical level, they have, for the most part, written little but worthless claptrap. They have done more to obscure the nature of the problem than the authors of the racist doctrine.
Well, under separate cover I am sending you what I wrote 30 years ago on this matter. May I say with becoming Trotskyist modesty that it was and remains the only definitive materialist analysis of the whole race question in the U.S. It represents what a working person (a “raw worker” as Rose Karsner categorized me when I first joined the movement) who became a largely self-educated scholar can do with the tools which the masters have left.
Partly because of some experiences I had had, after 1946 I became dissatisfied with everything that both the Communist movement and ours had to say on this subject, and this challenged me to find out the truth. I ignored everything that Marxists had written on this subject. They had for me done already too much to obscure it. I studied the black scholars, of whom there was a whole galaxy in the early part of this century. I merely attempted, and I believe successfully, to synthesize their basic thoughts, adding only a little of my own and of my one collaborator. I did not document the work—I wasn’t enough of a scholar for that—but that is its only defect. No black militant has ever read it or given me an audience who has not identified with it. Not many white radicals think much of it, because they seem to have been steeped either in Stalin’s bureaucratic edict for a black state in the cotton belt or C.L.R. James’ Marcus Garveyism of 1939. I have found the black nationalism of white radicals to be a most poignant expression of the theoretical poverty of the movement.
Anyway, I would appreciate very much if you would take time to read it and honor me with a comment.
* * *
In that lecture there were two statements, entirely peripheral to the main thesis, which got to me like a sharp stick in the eye.
I. You discussed the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution, saying words to the effect that you didn’t know what caused it—but that Trotsky’s analysis had been wrong. You didn’t elaborate that, which makes it difficult to cope with, but I believe you meant it seriously, so I have to take it at face value.
By no means do I subscribe to everything that Trotsky wrote or said. However, his analysis of the process of bureaucratization of the Party, Soviet and the Comintern is probably the most important thing that he ever wrote except The History of the Russian Revolution, and I don’t think deserves to be brushed off by a more or less off-hand remark.
This analysis described the phenomenon (a classical one) of the triumph of the counterrevolution in the name of the revolution. Over the years Trotsky compared in detail the successive stages of the reaction with that of the French Revolution, identifying the rise of Stalinism with the fall of Robespierre and the destruction of the Jacobins, and the stages of reaction—the Directorate, First Consul, Napoleon’s Empire, and finally the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. There was a controversy surrounding the final product of the Russian reaction: did not the final restoration in France indicate the road that the Soviet Union was traveling—toward the restoration of capitalism? Trotsky defeated this argument with the demonstration that the restored monarchy had been an essentially bourgeois monarchy and did not represent a restoration of feudalism. He showed that the Soviet Union, in retaining the basic conquests of the Revolution, must continue to be defended.
The coup by which Stalin consolidated power was made possible by the devastation caused by the Civil War. The first major political problem that the Soviet state faced was obviously: who is going to run the country? The vast illiteracy of the masses of people dictated that the personnel of a bureaucracy be recruited largely from people of privileged classes of the old regime, including the Czarist bureaucracy. However dangerous this may have been, as long as the party of the proletariat was in control, Lenin was confident of maintaining the revolution. In 1921 he described the situation in this way: “We have a workers state with bureaucratic appendages.”
But after his death, the bureaucracy was able to inundate the party itself. Although I have lost most of my old library, I recall that Trotsky included the statistics in The Revolution Betrayed. At the time of the revolution, the party membership was about 115,000 members. In spite of severe erosion during the Civil War, it had increased to perhaps 500,000 in about 1921. By 1924, however, Stalin as General Secretary had been able to flood the party with 240,000 new members, largely recruited from the privileged section of the population, composed of bureaucrats of an alien class origin [the “Lenin Levy”]. This was at a time when the proletariat had been virtually destroyed.
After consolidating its power, the bureaucracy forever after was concerned primarily with maintaining its privileged position. It gradually crystallized into a privileged caste. The bureaucratization of the party was followed by that of the Soviets and finally the Comintern.
The first decisive politico-economic turn made by the new ruling stratum was to search for a non-proletarian social base, and they turned to the peasantry with the dictum “enrich yourselves.” This created the kulaks. When the wealthy peasants staged their bloodless uprising in 1929, Stalin abruptly turned to their extermination and decreed forced collectivization, the combination of which destroyed agriculture and created horrible famine.
In foreign policy, the bureaucracy turned to rapprochement with the imperialists and the colonial bourgeoisie, particularly in Britain and China. The trouble arose not because of renewed diplomatic relations and trade agreements, which were absolutely necessary for survival, but because bureaucratic instinct demanded that the Communist parties of the world base their policies upon these diplomatic arrangements. In this way, through purges of leading Communist cadres, the Comintern was eventually degraded into a mere arm of Soviet foreign policy. Already, by 1926, when Britain and China were in revolutionary turmoil, the hands of both parties were tied to the capitalist class. In Britain, this was accomplished through subservience to Ramsay MacDonald as he betrayed the general strike. In China, although Trotsky had initiated the entry of the CP into the Kuomintang in perhaps it was 1922 or ’23, he and Zinoviev both realized the limitations of coalition with the class enemy and demanded an end to it as the revolutionary period approached, but the bureaucracy was too comfortable with Chiang Kai-shek and couldn’t break. The CP was all but physically destroyed.
Regardless of the fact that the Trotsky-Zinoviev analysis of the problem in 1926-27 was not adequate to encompass the later unfolding of the Chinese Revolution under different conditions, at that time, it was quite correct. If it had been considered by the Comintern in time, it could have meant the difference in the outcome of the whole history of China.
The Soviet Economy was first organized in an exclusive, bureaucratic manner. Just divide the branches of industry among the available communists.
Trotsky’s proposal to create a planned economy was rejected as “super-industrialization.” When the old method had utterly failed to revive the economy, Stalin finally agreed to the principle of planned economy. However, by this time, all democracy had been stripped from the soviets, and if there is one thing in history which completely validates your present criticism of the lack of democracy in the Soviet countries, it is that lesson. Without some democratic control the nationalization of the means of production loses a great deal of its vitality—principally its ability to adjust to new circumstances. That was the problem with the five-year plans. Unrealistic planning preceded bureaucratic bungling of execution. And it went on like that. It took roughly 50 years to unravel the tangle in the economy created by that early history of planning without democratic responsibility. I doubt that even now the industrial planning is fully rationalized.