A Contribution to the Discussion of the Doctrinal Preconditions of the Deformation of Socialism

[1991]

In order to cure the social sciences of many of their inveterate diseases, it seems to me extremely important and useful to support and develop in some measure A.S. Tsipko’s ideas on the doctrinal preconditions of our difficulties and failures in the building of socialism, ideas that have provoked such wide-ranging responses (see A.S. Tsipko, “Istoki stalinizma” [The Sources of Stalinism, Nauka I zhizn, 1988, nos. 11-12; 1989, nos. 1-2, essays 1-4]).

The problem of the sources of Stalinism is broad and multifaceted. First, what is Stalinism? If one looks at it only as a totality of more or less profound but subjectively conditioned departures from a Marxist-Leninist conception of socialism, as the sum total of the “errors and transgressions” of individual historical actors, then a study of the sources of this phenomenon can be fully covered by the question: who is to blame? But such an approach appears to me to have been the approach of 1956, when the first steps were made to conceptualize and interpret the preceding period of history, when the term “administrative-command system,” not to mention the term “state-bureaucratic socialism,” did not exist, and hence the question of their being the sources of the regime of personal power or of the conditions and causes leading to the establishment in our country of precisely this and no other “model” of socialism could not even arise. But now these questions have been posed. Hence I share the viewpoint of those authors (including A. Tsipko) who believe that the transgressions or, more accurately, the aggrandizement of the power of the individual person or group, incompatible with a socialist system and leading to such utterly grave and unforgivable crimes against the people, should be called not Stalinism but the Stalinist order [Stalinshchina], and should be regarded as a unique kind of malignant tumor which developed on the soil of state-bureaucratic socialism.

But it is no less important to understand and overcome Stalinism, which from my standpoint can be defined as a system of views of the essence of Socialist social relations that evolved as a result of the vulgarization, dogmatization, and revision of Marxism in a spirit of barracks-hierarchic conceptions together with the totality of the practical methods of implementing these views. In other words, Stalinism is the theory and policy of consolidating that form of state bureaucratic socialism that we are today in the process of restructuring. To give an exhaustive answer to the question of why this vast country developed along just this path, it is necessary to analyze the totality of the socioeconomic, political, cultural, historical, and intellectual-theoretical factors that contributed to it. Neither A. Tsipko nor any other author can yet provide such an analysis; for this, more time is still needed.

However, one cannot agree with the view that it is invalid even to pose the question of the doctrinal preconditions of Stalinism. Aside from the desire simply to restrain an author so that he does not go too far in his discussion, this position can be explained, in my opinion, by the lack of clarity surrounding the term “doctrinal preconditions,” so that to many people the discussion of these preconditions seems to be equivalent to shifting the blame from Stalin to Marx. Usually “doctrine” is understood to mean a developed system of views used as a guide to action (in this case to transform social reality). As regards its method, it can be speculative, nonscientific, if one ‘ ‘proceeds from a specific theoretical principle as if from its ‘nucleus’ and draws one’s conclusions from this” (K. Marx and P. Engels, Sochineniia, 2d ed., vol. 4, p. 281). Such were the theories of Utopian socialism. Or it can be scientific when “one proceeds, not from principles, but from facts” and draws conclusions on the basis of their theoretical interpretation. Such is Marxism. In either case, besides the method and the conclusions formulated on its basis, a doctrine contains some definition of ends and points out a proposed way of achieving them. On the latter, in turn, will depend the degree of its openness, its relation to other theories, and other features providing all together a conception of the nature of the doctrine. What is characteristic of Marxism in this respect is the scientific quality of its method, the humanism of its ends, and its world-view and revolutionary radicalism.

Among the features characterizing the various aspects of even the most integral doctrine, there exist certain contradictions, the elucidation and theoretical resolution of which are the inner source of its development. In part these contradictions are brought out in polemics with representatives of other ideological schools and currents. But contradictions show up most clearly, most thoroughly, when the attempt is made to apply the doctrine practically. The doctrine may then undergo either a special kind of schism—the formation of independent ideological (and associated social-political) currents— or it may become deformed. A feature of the latter case is a formal acceptance of all the postulates of the original doctrine, while its most essential aspects, which should have ensured the achievement of its implicit ends, are de facto disregarded and forgotten. But certain secondary aspects of the doctrine may also become hypertrophied, leading to a distortion of its essence. Which direction the deformation of the doctrine takes and which of its variants becomes the prevailing one depends on the place and the time of its development and application.

Something like this is what happened, in my opinion, with Marxism when it was transformed into Stalinism. Of course, Stalin perverted Marxism. There is no matter of dispute here. This was manifested not only in the way a vast number of concrete questions were resolved in a manner different from that of the founders, but mainly in the departure from the scientific method and the humanistic spirit of Marxism, in the substitution of means for ends, in the dogmatization of the theory, in the attempt, not unsuccessful, to transform it into a set of irrefutable truths. Tsipko discusses this in his essays (see Nauka i zhizn’, 1988, no. 11, p. 49). Of course, along with the acknowledgement of these departures, the author makes a number of statements that are blunt and for that reason vulnerable to criticism: for example, that Stalin’s views were typical for Marxists of that time, and that Stalin attempted as much as he was able to “accelerate the movement of Russia toward communism, begun in October 1917.”

But the unbiased reader will understand that these disputed formulations are used by A. Tsipko not to portray Stalin as a “true Marxist-Leninist” or to sully Marxism, but to show that Stalinism as an ideological system and as a left-wing extremist practice of the centralized imposition of barracks forms of socialism was broader than just the views of Stalin himself; that it occurred not apart from the world workers’ movement, and not within the framework of some insignificant, dead-end branch of it, but right in its extremely important main stream. Nor do we have the right to evade the question of how in fact this transformation of Marxism into Stalinism occurred, and what it is necessary to modify in the domain of theory, attitudes of mind, and ways of thinking so as to cleanse ourselves of the incrustations of Stalinism.

The problem of the doctrinal preconditions of Stalinism is only remotely related to the search for “the guilty.” It acquires its sense and meaning not through the study of the past at the level of personal events, which is what A. Tsipko’s opponents basically call for, but at the level of interpreting the relationship between social theory and historical practice, including questions of the inevitable simplification and dogmatization of any theory that takes place when the transition is made from its theoretical development to its adoption and especially its practical implementation; a special question is that of the incompleteness of our knowledge about society and the imperfection of even the most advanced and complete social theory, both in the sense of its historical limitations and in relation to the underdevelopment of its internal contradictions, which are brought out in full measure only in practice.

To speak briefly about the internal contradictions of Marxist doctrine which, it seems to me, had an influence on its further fate and the fate of socialism in the USSR, I would first and foremost name, on the one hand, the contradiction between the method of Marxism and the character of the knowledge acquired with this method and, on the other, the ideological form of the theory, which should have become an intellectual weapon in the class struggle and in the social-political movement.

The question of a Marxist approach to an analysis of social reality invariably arises whenever anyone attempts to explain how theoretical views and conceptions are related to “real” socialism in the form in which it was built in the USSR. A. Tsipko, calling for an exposure of the doctrinal, i.e., theory-related, preconditions of failures in the building of socialism, says that any serious commission created to establish the causes of the appearance of cracks in the new edifice would begin first with the study of the plans on the basis of which the building was built (see ibid., p. 48). Clearly, he is speaking about the plan, the design for building socialism contained in the theory of Marxism. But was there a plan? Did there exist a design in the strict sense of the word, i.e., concrete programmatic directives for transforming economic and social life, in accordance with which it would have been possible to proceed confidently to the building of the new society?

We know that Engels rejected the proposals of one of the leaders of the Fabian Society to give a programmatic exposition of the principal features of socialism. He referred to the fact that the economic features of the future society were drawn up in broad outline by him in his Anti-Diihring and that he could not write “even this incomplete sketch, in which neither political nor noneconomic social questions were touched upon at all” in a shorter form. But the main reason for his refusal lay elsewhere. “The party to which I belong,” says Engels, “does not put forth any propositions that are complete once and for all. Our views of the features that will distinguish the future noncapitalist society from contemporary society are precise conclusions drawn from historical facts and processes of development, and they have no theoretical or practical value independently of these facts and processes” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Sochineniia, 2d ed., vol. 36, pp.363-64).

This declaration is remarkable in two respects. On the one hand, we see in it a definite exaggeration of the accuracy of the conclusions sought by social science, which are, on the whole, of a probabilistic character. And, on the other hand, a categorical hostility to the drawing up of any sort of master plan—the firm conviction that projecting existing trends of development into the future, as the only possible method for scientific forecasting, does not give sufficient material to determine the concrete features of future reality in all its complexity and contradictoriness.

Even during their youth, Marx and Engels rejected the construction of blueprints for a future society so characteristic of Utopian socialism, declaring: “We do not strive to dogmatically anticipate the future, but wish only by means of criticism of the old world to find the new world” (ibid., vol. 1, p. 379). The methodology of analyzing social development which they worked out was and remains the strongest aspect of Marxist theory—the aspect esteemed by Lenin so highly. As he wrote:

“There is not even a trace of an attempt in Marx to create a Utopia, to vacuously guess about what is impossible to know. Marx poses the question of communism as a natural scientist would pose the question of the development of a new, let us say, biological species once we know that it has occurred in such and such a way and will modify itself in such and such a direction” (V.I. Lenin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, vol. 33, p. 85). Like the founders of Marxism, he, too, rejected the very idea of the possibility of “drawing up blueprints” for the edifice of socialism. At the Seventh Congress of the RCP(b), at which the new Party program was adopted, Lenin declared: “We are unable to give a characterization of socialism; what kind of socialism it will be when it achieves its finished forms, we do not know and cannot say” (ibid., vol. 36, p. 65). His plea was that we had to assume that the new economic edifice could be built only as we tested out various institutions in the course of their work, observing them in practice, testing them with the collective experience of millions and with the results of work (see ibid., p. 378).

How then did it happen that even Lenin at first not only did not avoid overestimating the ideas about the organizational forms of socialism that were contained in the works of Marx and Engels, but in supporting the line of “war communism” essentially disregarded his own arguments, stated literally on the eve of the Revolution, in favor of gradualness and the step-by-step establishment of new forms of life? Why, as a sober and subtle politician, was he, along with the other Bolshevik leaders, “caught up in the wave of enthusiasm?”

Without claiming to give an exhaustive answer to this rather complicated question, let me merely indicate two very important, from my viewpoint, reasons which were doctrinal in origin. The first of these, it seems to me, consisted in the fact that the scientific approach to the creation of socialist social relations had to be applied under the very difficult conditions that arose during the period after a violent political revolution—a revolution which, as a necessary precondition for socioeconomic transformations, imposed on the revolutionaries its own priorities, the most important of which was the question of retaining power.

With no precise notions about the future of socialist society (i.e., no design), the revolutionaries had to proceed by trial and error, rely on the elemental forces of the revolution, and, taking into account the experience of millions, build the new economic edifice. But the elemental forces of revolution are still elemental forces. They can even threaten the power of those who acquired them in order to transform society fundamentally, and can dictate forms of transformations that would hardly agree with Marxist notions of proletarian socialism, especially in backward, petty-bourgeois Russia. Hence, one can hardly consider a revolutionary period to be the most suitable time for rational reflection on the scientific quality of the method and possible ways of using it in building a new way of life, especially for those who at that time were in the very thick of events, at the epicenter of the stmggle for power. “War communism” made it possible to retain power for a time, and this was sufficient to deem it a totally justified step toward communism. It was only three years later, convinced that the “direct transition to pure socialist forms, to a purely socialist distribution” was in imminent danger of collapse (ibid., vol. 45, p. 282), that Lenin returned to thoughts of the “long labor pains” of the new society and of the necessity of seeking transitional paths to socialism. He again stressed that a theoretical image of socialism is at best an abstraction that can be realized in life only in a very imperfect form and that this form itself can be determined only gradually, through the experience of millions (see ibid., vol. 43, pp. 212,228; vol. 45, p. 390).

The second cause of a doctrinal nature responsible for a multitude of what Lenin called hasty decisions contradicting the scientific approach to the creation of a socialist order in the first years of Soviet power can be considered the seemingly paradoxical combination, inherent in revolutionary Marxism, of scientific sobriety—to the point of acknowledging the impossibility in principle of theoretically foreseeing the features of the future socialist system—with faith in the almost unlimited capacities of people to transform their social reality in conformity with the cognized laws of existence.

Whence this optimism? In describing the theoretical sources of the three component parts of Marxism, Lenin wrote that for theoretical—or, as we now say, scientific—socialism, it was the theories of the Utopian socialists “in combination with French revolutionary theories in general” (ibid., vol. 26, p. 50) that served as these sources. This point is often insufficiently appreciated. But in terms of both ideas and politics, Marxist doctrine was the child of the French Revolution—of the perception of the world and the political circumstances to which that revolution gave rise. This was particularly evident in the Marxist combination of faith in the transforming potential of human reason (realized through the cognition and conscious application of the laws of social being) with the conviction that a fundamental transformation of reality could only be brought about through the violent destruction of existing relations and their replacement by fundamentally new ones. The influence of the revolutionary fervor of the epoch and the optimism of the French rationalists explains the exaggerated notions, characteristic of Marxism, of the capabilities already achieved by social science for discovering social laws (we need only mention Engels’ statement about drawing precise conclusions from historical facts) and of the degree of malleability of social reality and of man himself, which were to be changed by dint of a conscious utilization of the laws social science had already discovered. But the assessment of the economic and sociopolitical situation in Europe in the middle and second half of the nineteenth century as the eve of a new social revolution, more profound than the bourgeois revolution, in many respects predetermined the Marxist political choice.

As for communism, which in the pre-Marxian period was “crude, poorly outlined, and rather instinctive,” Marx and Engels saw its strength to lie in the fact that it answered the hopes of the proletariat, among whom it found mass support, and that in its developed forms it would be identical to real humanism. Because of the theoretical and political organizing activity of the founders of Marxism, communism became an economically grounded revolutionary theory, aimed at effecting a decisive transformation in social life.

The confidence of the Bolsheviks who had come to power that the scientific theory at their disposal was perfectly sufficient for implementing the monopolistic right granted them by the Revolution to effect decisive transformations in social reality was in full accord with these features of Marxist doctrine. This confidence and ideological intolerance prevented them in the end from fully appreciating the possible dangers of social experimentation and from posing the question of its limits.

The world-view radicalism of Marx and Engels (especially in their youth), which Tsipko points out (see Nauka i zhizn’, 1989, no. 1, p. 47) and which was reflected in the idea that a fundamental change in the course of history was possible, that a leap could be realized from the kingdom of necessity into the kingdom of freedom, and that the transition from prehistory to the genuine real history of mankind was possible, was complemented (in accordance with the spirit and the conditions of the times) by political radicalism. And if the scientific achievements in natural science, philosophy, and economics of the end of the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries had prepared the way to transforming socialism from a Utopia into a science, political movements and political ideas (the political atmosphere) conditioned the choice by the founders of scientific socialism of what from their point of view was the only possible way (and which was later confirmed by the development of the political events of those years) to implement the scientific knowledge they had acquired about society: through the violent overthrow of the old system and the establishment of the political domination of the working class, initially in the form of a state based on the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In a retrospective glance at Europe in the nineteenth century, under the conditions of which Marx and Engels were formed as revolutionaries, it is not difficult to observe that the social cataclysms that shook it to its foundations were caused not only by the action of the irreconcilable contradictions inherent in capitalism but also by the necessity of finally “emerging” from the past feudal epoch. That exit, which extended over centuries, culminated in a sequence of bourgeois-democratic revolutions that crushed the despotic, absolutist regimes and cleared the way for democratic development. The violent forms of struggle (as the entire subsequent history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries confirmed) were related not so much to social revolution in the broad sense of the term (the transition from one social formation to another) as to the fact that the political systems of the old formation were maintained by violence, and hence there was no other way to crush them except by violence. The proletariat, which demanded changes in the economic system, participated in this struggle. The revolutionary spirit and mass enthusiasm for proposals for reorganizing society were so strong that the founders of Marxism called them the most important symptom of the approaching demise of capitalism (see K. Marx and F. Engels, Sochineniia, 2d ed., vol. 19, p. 210).

However, life showed that the nineteenth century was not the age of decay and decline of the capitalist formation in Europe, but a period of adaptation of the system to the new productive forces that had taken shape in the course of the industrial revolution. And because it was on the ascendancy, the bourgeoisie was far from being inclined to make any substantial concessions to the proletariat or even merely to enter into a compromise with it. The theoretical weakness of the Utopians, their penchant for drawing up grand master plans and for political doctrinairism, provoked Marx and Engels to mount a devastating criticism of Utopian theories and to contrast to the idealistic illusions of the Utopians their own economically based theory of a succession of social formations driven by class struggle and political revolutions. Their criticism of the petty-bourgeois mentality in the revolutionary movement without a doubt helped to rid the proletarian movement of many errors and fuse workers on a foundation of more realistic demands. But the irreconcilable character of that criticism later on also played a negative role, consolidating more and more deeply as time went on the faith of many of Marx’s disciples in the infallibility of his theory as a closed ideological system.

In underscoring their break with the doctrinairism of the Utopian schools, Marx and Engels repeatedly forewarned against dogmatizing the theory they had created and against attempts to treat it as a kind of prophecy about an “inevitable” path of development which all countries and nations had necessarily to traverse. Nonetheless, the tendency toward dogmatization gradually became manifest, and in the 1930s assumed the form of Stalinism, an over-simplified, vulgarly Marxist official ideology that had become a means for legitimizing the regime of personal power and the entire system of state-bureaucratic socialism. This took place in Russia, a country where it seemed there was least reason of all for a literal reading and uncreative application of Marxism: its social reality was far too different from the one that Marx and Engels had studied and that provided a foundation for their conclusions.

Convinced that socialism had to be built strictly in accordance with Marx and that a Marxist could not even think about another socialism, not purely proletarian, the Russian followers of Marx reduced his view of the new society, complicated but not yet fully defined theoretically, to centrally controlled, etaticized, large-scale machinery production. For although they did not know precisely what Marxist socialism should be, they did know what it should not be and feared, above all, falling into the sin of being a “petty bourgeois.”

The contradiction between, on the one hand, the scientific character of Marxist doctrine, its realism, the recognized impossibility of producing a full-fledged picture (plan) of the future while still remaining on the foundation of science, and on the other hand the irreconcilable attitude toward different variants of non-Marxist, petty-bourgeois socialism inherent in revolutionary Marxism, its orientation toward a “pure” uncompromised proletarian socialism—this contradiction moved onto the practical plane after October and became one of the principal problems of socialist revolution. On the resolution of this problem depended what paths and forms of socialist transformations would be chosen, as well as the conception of what in essence socialism actually was.

The scientific character of the theory entailed its being open to new facts and ideas, but class irreconcilability led to ideological intolerance, to the assertion that only the ideologues of the proletariat were capable of scientific discoveries in social science, and moreover only those of them who were not infected with petty-bourgeois prejudices. Science presupposed a search for the most successful forms of socialism for specific, given conditions, depending on the time and place of action, while an orientation toward violent proletariat revolution and the centralized introduction of socialism leading to rule by the proletariat (or its party) called for a ready-made and unanimously approved design of socialist construction. Ideological refusal to compromise was increasingly reduced to the demonstration of commitment to a theory and to the absolutization of conclusions already contained in Marxism, and this weakened incentives to search for new ideas.

After 1921, Lenin showed the utmost flexibility in his search for the form of economic and social development that would correspond to conditions in Russia.

The realization of Lenin’s expressed desire to search for forms of new social organization in conformity with the circumstances and the experience of millions was opposed by: the excessive power, born of the Revolution, of a small group of people convinced that they had the exclusive right to truth; the orientation, conditioned by this belief, toward the centralized management of socialism; the need, deriving from this orientation, for a design for socialist construction that would be approved by everyone, and hence the need for unanimity; and finally, their confidence that the revolutionary struggle with its losses and cmelties would not be in vain so long as it were crowned by the introduction of a purely proletarian socialism, i.e., their illogical intolerance in questions of “designing”.

Gradual progress by trial and error, feeling one’s way, supporting forms developing in the direction of socialism, the evolutionary (according to N.I. Bukharin) struggle of economic systems—such progress was unacceptable to the majority of Party leaders, both ideologically, since it did not ensure the necessary “purity” of the proletarian approach, and politically, since the specified political mechanism of power was also attuned to the implementation of a unanimously accepted design for socialist construction. But since unanimity was in principle possible only with regard to what was permanent in Marxism, it was in theory and not in life that Lenin’s heirs began to seek for a design that would satisfy everyone, deciding the question of the truly Marxist (and, after Lenin’s death, Leninist) character of proposals by means of the vote. Stalin turned out to be the greatest master of such “discussions”: he was able always to be with the “majority,” and the absence of any superfluous intellectualism in him enabled him to reduce Marxism to “elementary truths” which were difficult to dispute. The actual inventive resourcefulness with regard to “ideas” came later (after he had already been affirmed as a leader and could season his vulgarized and packaged Marxism with his own barracks-despotic notions of socialism). Thus it turned out that the “underground revolutionary Koba,” as Tsipko calls him, became the “chief Marxist” for several decades, as a result of which we even today are not always able to separate the wheat from the chaff in our theoretical baggage.

For the founders of Marxism, intellectual intransigence was only an involuntary consequence of their political commitment and a tribute paid to the age of acute class conflicts. It played a somewhat greater role in Leninism, where it reflected the more complex ideological and political conditions of Bolshevik activity and the tradition of Russian left-wing radicalism. But during Lenin’s life, it was combined with the ability to recognize mistakes once made, to learn from practice, and to draw scientific conclusions from facts and not from principles. Only in Stalinism did intransigence become the principal distinguishing feature of the doctrine, replacing science, humanism, and even the true revolutionary spirit, as opposed to the ostentatious, bureaucratic pseudorevolutionary spirit of those who, as Tsipko writes, after having gotten a grip on the Communist idiom, terrorized society for decades with the label of revisionism (see «Nauka i zhizn», 1989, no. 2, p. 57). The elevation of intransigence to an absolute brought the class approach inherent to Marxism to the point of a totally unjustified rigidity and even brutality, to the point of professing a class “exclusivity in reverse,” and opened the way to an oversimplification and dogmatization of the theory of socialism. Hence, in my view, a rethinking of the experience of socialist construction and the development of new approaches to an understanding of the essence of the socialist system requires from those who are today occupied with the theory of socialism a constructive, critical attitude toward Marxist doctrine itself.

The question is not one of rejecting socialist values or the class approach in Marxist methodology as such but one of putting an end to naive (and sometimes hypocritical) ideological pretensions. A study of the doctrinal preconditions of the path of development that the country embarked upon soon after Lenin’s death is not necessary in order to vitiate the theory or give anyone grounds for taking malicious pleasure in our failures. No. The purpose of such excursuses is only one: to free ourselves, at least by the end of the twentieth century, of illusions that had their beginnings in French rationalism of the eighteenth century with regard to the possibilities and limits of “social engineering,” to reexamine the question of the role of the social sciences in man’s transformative activity, and soberly to determine the degree to which we have penetrated into the essence of the objective laws of social being. This can be achieved only if we have definitively freed ourselves from the cult-like attitude toward Marxist theory and if we have overcome the unjustified arrogance and intellectual isolationism in which our social sciences have been residing for a very long time.