Branko Milanović – Trotsky on the class structure of Soviet socialism

Trotsky, without a doubt a brilliant thinker and organiser, remains an enigmatic figure.

Branko Milanović is an economist specialised in development and inequality. His newest  book is “Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World”

Cross-posted from Branko’s blog

For the reasons that are too complicated to explain here (and perhaps also because you can read about them in my forthcoming book on how income inequality was studied from Quesnay to the fall of the Berlin Wall), I reread some of the literature that looks at the class structure of socialist societies. Most of that literature is obviously Marxist or close to Marxism because anti-Marxists were busier showing that capitalist societies were not class-based than arguing that socialist societies were class societies.

I found particularly useful the work of Branko Horvat (whom I had the privilege of knowing personally) who had argued about the class character of state socialism from his early work in the 1960s. Moreover, Horvat did this using data on incomes, position in the process of production, transmission of advantages across the generations etc.—i.e. on the factual basis and not merely as definitions or tautologies. Szelényi and Konrad were also useful even if their approach is slightly different. And then very much so, the surveys of class perceptions/divisions that were carried out by sociological institutes in Yugoslavia, Poland, the Soviet Union (in the 1960s), and probably in Hungary (although I have not found the data).

But among the very early writers who argued that state socialism is, or comes close to, a class society Trotsky obviously stands out. He was not among the very first, because when the first, like Pannekoek and Labriola, appeared, Trotsky was actually in power. (One should not forget that Emma Goldman also described well many class features of early socialism.)

So I read again Trotsky’ classic “The revolution betrayed”. I wrote recently about the very negative view that Kolakowski had of Trotsky. I find that view largely justified (on the topics Kolakowski criticized Trotsky), but there is no denying indubitable qualities of Trotsky as intellectual, writer, organizer and military leader. It was his arrogance and hubris that did him in, but that’s a different topic. So, how does Trotsky approach the Stalinist state in “The Revolution Betrayed”?

His main argument is quite persuasive. First, he believes that the Soviet state is a proletarian state because private ownership of  means of production has been abolished. Second, he believes that it is a state where bureaucracy has built itself into a new stratum that has vitiated the original (“democratic”) objectives of the revolution in its superstructure (politics), but has not fundamentally managed to alter the infrastructure (that is, property has not been returned to private owners). It is (as he writes) like Caesarism that changed politics in Rome but did not affect the underlying slave-owning relations of production, or the Thermidorian reaction in France that undid the Revolution politically, but did not erase economic gains (e.g. distribution of land to small-holders).

This view leads Trotsky to two positions. First, in some parts of the book he extols the achievements of “Stalinist Thermidor” hardly less than the Soviet press of the time. He reels off with pride enormous increases in industrial output, multiple new combinates that have been built etc. He does mention lack of workers’ freedom (no free trade unions) and that most of the technology was imported. Trotsky, like Lenin, is a modernizer who sees Russia as economically backward, but thanks to its having become socialist being in the process of the catch-up with the West. So, he regards the new system as self-evidently more productive than the old.

Second, he calls only for the revolution in politics, not in economics. The new revolution, Trotsky writes, must be very different from the October revolution that overthrew the very bases on which the society was built. The new revolution needs only to overthrow the new ruling stratum (Trotsky avoid the term “class” because he believes that the term should be reserved for societies with private ownership of capital), and to reestablish the original pristine character of the revolution.

There are many problems with this view. For example, Trotsky’s present acceptance of free trade unions (for whose abolishment he argued when in power), and of the multi-party system which he also helped abolish, including all the left-wing parties, not to mention that he directed the pitiless military assaults on anarchists and on Kronstadt rebels. Even more naïve is his view that such parties, when the hypothetical Leninist-Bolsheviks (i.e. Trotskyists), return to power would not play any substantial political role because the basis of their power (private ownership of capital) has been forever withdrawn from them. Thus he has an extremely reductionist view of politics where politics is entirely determined by economic interests. Once there are no large landholdings and private companies, there is no longer any basis for conservative or right-wing political parties. Such parties might perhaps garner 1 or 2 percent of the vote (this is why Trotsky would allow them to exist), but they are, by the nature of things, always to stay marginal and irrelevant.

On Stalinist workers’ policies, Trotsky is remarkably inconsistent. On the one hand, he brilliantly exposes how little power many workers have. He even discusses the reasons why the quality of Soviet products is the worst for the products of mass consumption and the best for the products where the State is the ultimate purchaser like the armaments whose Stalinist developments he discusses with some unconcealed pride and, I presume, with quite a lot of knowledge. This was the first such analysis where the quality of workmanship is related to the power of those who consume it, and thus in itself helps us gain insight into the relations of power which exist in a society. It is, I think, brilliant. (The workmanship used in a Michelin star restaurants exceeds many times the workmanship used in McDonalds’ franchises because the patrons of the former do have political and economic power—and would sue the hell out of a Michelin star restaurant’s owner if he food-poisoned them while the buyers of big Macs cannot complain much—nor would anyone care if they did.)

But, on the other hand, he criticizes material incentives paid to stimulate harder work even if in an unrelated sentence he acknowledges that too much of leveling during the War Communism had destructive effects on economic productivity. He reserves his animus for Stakhanovist workers who, Trotsky holds, have become a new workers’ aristocracy. He lists high salaries they receive, numerous benefits in kind (vacation, top sanatoria), and in some cases even automobiles. He probably righty sees them as the base of support for Stalin amongst workers. But Trotsky’s view that one could increase production without providing material incentives is unfortunately wrong. He also fails to recognize a strong element of upward mobility which Stakhanovism allows to a part of the working class: where else could –according to Trotsky’s own examples—a worker expect to have a higher standard of living than the director of a company, or a former owner? In a nod to what would become a standard practice during the Cultural Revolution in China, Trotsky singles out for praise Stakhanovists who were (allegedly) embarrassed by the showering of such privileges. They worked simply out of necessity (pleasure) that, in a society without exploitation of labor, labor acquires for free men and women. For them, work was totally devoid of disutility; it was simply a free expression of one’s desire to do things well and is not stimulated by material incentives.

It is noticeable that Trotsky does not admire such work on the grounds of selfless dedication to socialism but rather, following Marx, believes that in a non-class-based society work will become the expression of our desire to do things well, that the homo faber has the need for self-realization in his work, and that that need can be expressed freely only when he is not a hired labored ordered around by capitalists.

These are only some of the insights provided by this small volume. I did not discuss Trotsky’s well-known attacks on the ways of life of the new Stalinist stratum, their access to domestic help and chauffeur-driven cars, nor his equally well-known acerbic attacks on the political police, torture of the Old Bolsheviks, concentration camps etc. He uses (several times) the term “totalitarian.” There is also a most interesting discussion of foreign affairs, the rise of Fascism, the wrong-headedness of Stalin’s policies of conciliation with England and France, and abandonment of pro-proletarian policies in favor of pro-bourgeois foreign stance. May I also mention that Trotsky even discusses what would happen if the Stalinist system evolved toward reintroduction of private property and allowed for “denationalization” spearheaded—he writes incredibly presciently—by the new Stalinist stratum and by foreign capitalists. Writing of that in 1936, that is sixty years before “loans for shares” happened, is not a small feat. But this may be a topic for another post.

Branko Milanović

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