Workers’ democracy is the bottom line

By Gemma Short

Steve Bloom has written an interesting and thoughtful review of The Two Trotskyisms confront Stalinism (here). It is interesting to hear from someone who identifies with the Cannon tradition where they feel that tradition went wrong.

There is one point in Bloom’s review which is not expanded upon much. Bloom describes it as “obvious”. When posing the question “if nationalisations carried out in eastern Europe had a socialist content”, Bloom says in hindsight the answer is “obviously both ‘yes’ and ‘no’”. The question of whether nationalisations are per se progressive continues to shape how socialists have responded to a variety of regimes throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

Bloom does not explain why he thinks that the nationalisations in eastern Europe had any socialist content, other than that it is “obvious”. His answer to why they both did and didn’t have socialist content seems to be that 1. Things are dialectical, and 2. That no real world revolution measures up to a perfect, abstract, theory.

Whilst it is true that the “real world” is not “perfect” there should be a limit to how elastic your theory can be if the evidence around you consistently contradicts it! Bloom says “a dialectician can accept such contradictory realities and attempt to relate to them”. In reality the Orthodox tradition attempted to assimilate each new reality into existing theories into which they obviously didn’t fit. The question of nationalised property is one of those.

For Trotsky, and for all of Marxism before him, it was “obvious” that nationalised property is only progressive (and has any socialist content) in so far as the working class has control of the state. However Trotsky, wrongly but understandably, clung onto the existence of nationalised property in Russia as his evidence that the bureaucracy had not managed a full counter revolution, a social revolution replacing the economy put in place by the workers’ revolution. Therefore there was still some link to the working class. However no such workers’ revolution made the nationalised property in countries swallowed up in the USSR’s expansion. That nationalised property was made directly by the ruling bureaucracy.

To say that the resultant nationalised property has a socialist content is to ignore the agency of the working-class in those countries and suggest that socialism can be brought from without. Trotsky’s mistake here would misguide the movement on many other issues in the future, though most took the “nationalised property” argument to a place that I think Trotsky would never have gone. Trotsky’s definition of the bureaucracy as the “gatekeepers of the social conquests of the proletarian revolution” takes one step down the slippery slope of abandoning the idea accepted by Marxists until that point that nationalised property only has a socialist content when controlled by a workers’ democracy.

In The Fate of the Russian Revolution volume 1 Sean Matgamna quotes James Connolly on this issue: “State ownership and control is not necessarily socialist — if it were then the army and the navy, the police, the judges and gaolers, the informers and the hangmen would all be socialist functionaries, as they are all state officials … Even if you are not willing to define the bureaucracy as a new ruling class, it is clear that there was no workers’ democracy in Russia, let alone in countries in eastern Europe. Bloom might accuse me of wanting a “perfect theoretical revolution”, but for me workers’ democracy is a bottom line.

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