A Discussion on Questions of Socialism with Nirmalangshu Mukherji

The following discussion took place on Facebook in August of 2013 with Nirmalangshu Mukherji of the Department of Philosophy, University of Delhi. Prof. Mukherji is known for his commitment to democratic values starting from his student days in Kolkata in the civil liberties movement when he defended the student youth who were being repressed in the late 1960s on charges of ‘Naxalism’ right through to the current period when he played a major role in defending S.A.R. Geelani of Zakir Husain College, University of Delhi, who was framed under the NDA government in the parliamentary attack case. This confrontation with the communal offensive took place when the Delhi University Teachers’ Association, headed by the CPI (M), was following the lead of the RSS Home Minister, L.K. Advani. The exchange commenced with a query on the views of Noam Chomsky and developed into a broad discussion on socialism.

Vijay Singh

Vijay Singh: One does not have to agree with the anarchist philosophy of Noam Chomsky to appreciate his fight against US imperialism. Marxists argue that after a socialist revolution a semi-state continues to exist in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This functions to defend the interests of the majority and represses those who wish to end socialism. The experience of Soviet Russia during the civil war when several states combined with the White Army of the Capitalists and Landlords to destroy the revolution and of the Second World War when Nazi Germany attacked the USSR would tend to confirm the need to have such a semi-state. Anarchists believe that one should first abolish the state. Can the Leninist-Stalinist state of the USSR be equated with the state of the US? Surely not.

Nirmalangshu Mukherji: First, that’s Bakunin, not Chomsky. Chomsky has consistently argued for worker’s control over means of production and has advocated the necessity of a state, however illegitimate for long-term human emancipation (as Lenin emphasised in State and Revolution), to consolidate the rule of people. I have discussed these views in detail in the 2nd chapter of my book, Maoists in India: Tribals under Siege. Second, the state of Russia just after the revolution is a matter of historical details for which there is no space here. Chomsky does hold the view that the so-called proletarian dictatorship was short-lived as the Worker’s Soviets were disbanded and repressed by the Bolsheviks, and a conglomerate of Party apparatchiks, military officers and Czarist bureaucrats took over the control of means of production. Lenin, who was the original author of this controlling system, understood the consequences very quickly and tried to fight back, but it was too late. The system was thoroughly undemocratic and people had no control over the functioning of the state. In that the difference with US’s corporate-bureaucratic oligarchy is only a matter of degree. Notice the US also has a history of fighting British-guided “white forces” (they call it American Revolution), freed the blacks and resisted Hitler. Chomsky is impressed with neither. I didn’t say that this is necessarily my view.

Vijay Singh: Sorry, I do not accept the logic of Chomsky on this. My reading of Soviet history is that there was mass participation in the dictatorship of the proletariat under Lenin and Stalin. Without this Soviet Russia would not have survived the civil war or the Nazi attack. Without the ‘labour enthusiasm’ movements in the 1920s to the 1950s the Soviet economy would never have advanced nor allowed Soviet victory in the second world war. My reading is that to say that a ‘conglomerate of Party apparatchiks, military officers and Czarist bureaucrats took over the control of means of production’ is way off the mark. The military officers and Czarist bureaucrats were superseded in the 1930s by a new intelligentsia which came from working class and the working peasantry. The semi-equation of the revolutionary USSR with the US corporates is over the top.

Nirmalangshu Mukherji: Chomsky typically advances his views with astounding scholarship and documentation. If you think Chomsky is way off the mark, then it will be useful for us that you go through his evidence and tell us where he went wrong. Faith is not enough. Again notice, the oligarchy in US also made historical economic progress, brought massive welfare to the people and won the war. Now it rules the world. Will that be enough to argue that the oligarchy had (genuine) support of people? Or, is this a matter of manufacturing consent? Stalinist Russia, taking advantage of the recent revolution and the people’s love of it, launched one of the massive propaganda campaigns in history, matched only by the Americans. Chomsky’s stringent criticism of US history ensures that he is not a victim of US propaganda. In fact he would have loved to glorify Russia if it was intellectually possible. His criticism therefore has intrinsic merit.

Vijay Singh: Certainly one is ready to go through Chomsky. I was commenting on your summary of his views. My views of Soviet Russia are not based on faith but on my readings of the history of the country and interviews of people who lived there in the war and after. I think you must be aware that US hegemony is also connected with the question of imperialism. Your statement that the US won the war is astonishing: Nazi Germany was defeated by the USSR and the USSR alone. The US and the UK came into the war in Europe after the victory in Stalingrad. You must be aware of the delays on the question of the Second Front. Why was Stalinist Russia able to collectivise, industrialise, lay the economic basis for victory, and achieve an extraordinary victory? Surely not on the basis of propaganda alone!

Nirmalangshu Mukherji: From a democratic perspective, a military victory need not be glorified beyond a point. No doubt Stalin and his close commissars were master military strategists. So were Hitler and his commanders. We should not forget that both Stalinism and Nazism rose about the same time to turn ruined war-devastated economies to formidable military machines with large-scale forced labour and conscription. In each case people were driven by massive jingoistic propaganda. Nazis in fact achieved it much faster than the Soviet Union and virtually had military control of most of Europe and some of Africa. The rest of the world was compelled to form an uneasy alliance to defeat it. Roughly the same is true of US as the war enabled it to get out of the lowest economic state in its history, again with forced labour and conscription. The net result was that the world was once again divided into two imperialist camps for the loot of raw material from their respective domains. If we are not applauding US and Germany for these “feats”, why should we applaud Stalinist Russia?

Vijay Singh: One will have to look carefully as to what is a ‘democratic perspective’. If there is no difference between a Nazi regime, US imperialism and a socialist regime then of course there is no need to applaud any of them. The problem arises if there is a difference. The German social democratic writers sitting in the US argued that both Soviet socialism and Nazi Germany constituted two variants of ‘totalitarianism’. Perhaps your assumptions are based on this tradition. Soviet victory over Nazism was achieved at the cost of 27 million dead. The victory at Stalingrad alone cost one million Soviet dead. The Red Army victories in central and eastern
Europe over the Hitler war machine and the defeat of the Japanese 4th Army in Manchuria, which was a major step towards the PLA offensive against the Kuomintang, and the Chinese revolution, were the products of ‘imperialism’? The term imperialism has some meaning in Marxist political economy; it is not just a term of abuse.

Nirmalangshu Mukherji: In the very first note I agreed that there is a difference in degree, nothing more. The difference in degree arose because Stalinist Soviet Union was a new totalitarian order; so, some egalitarian measures were inevitable to begin the process of manufacturing consent. Just repression is counterproductive. It happened in the early history of capitalism as well, including the US. Calling something “socialist” will not make it so. Nazis also called their movement “national socialist”. On which definition of “socialism” does the number of deaths in a war count as a feature? How can a “socialist” state under Stalin turn into social imperialists within 3 years or so? Under any definition of imperialism, it takes time to grab resources from other countries! I was not making any assumptions at all, so the question of following a tradition does not arise. I was just looking for making a substantive distinction between US, Hitler’s Germany and Stalinist Russia. The facts you mention are all available across the board. So far you have not been able to contest any of these facts.

Vijay Singh: From the bourgeois democratic point of view there is no difference between the US, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. From the Marxist point of view there is. Imperialism, argues Lenin, is based on the domination of finance capital. Both Nazi Germany and the US have been under the domination of this class. Imperialism could not return after Stalin ‘in three years’ in the USSR. It could not return until some form of monopoly capital was established in that country. In the Soviet Union of Lenin and Stalin the role of Capital was progressively reduced. The October revolution nationalised industry and the means of production. Here progressively the planned economy expanded its area of operation under the workers’ state. With the liquidation of the kulaks (whom Lenin had called the ‘last capitalist class’) all exploiting classes were ended in Soviet society. In place of capitalist agriculture the production co-operatives were established of the middle and lower peasantry. By 1936 two forms of property existed in the Soviet Union: socialised property in the urban sector and the socialist co-operative farms in the rural sector. In this situation the Soviet Union was declared to be basically a socialist country which nevertheless had to go further towards advanced socialism and communism. Capitalism was ended but areas of commodity-money relations remained. While the industrial sector came under the planned economy where profit was not the motive of production the rural sector had commodity-money relations with industry. Further the working class received payment in the form of wages with which purchases were made at token prices. (Let us remember that rent was 2½% of wages, transport was virtually free, water and electricity had a token cost, education and health were basically free, prices of foodstuffs were reduced annually in the post-war period, bread was available free in the public dining-halls and so on.) From the 18th Congress of the CPSU (b) held in 1939 the party began to consider the transition to communist society and the Gosplan was given the task of laying the economic basis of communist society over three five year plans. The documents prepared by Gosplan are of great interest. These plans were interrupted by the war but continued in the post war period. Plans were afoot for the gradual transition of the collective farms to communes, for the replacing of money-relations between town and country by products- exchange, for the establishment of a new planning body above Gosplan which would plan for both the urban and rural sectors. Throughout the revolutionary period of the Soviet Union participation of the masses in the state and economy is amply evident. By the 1930s the new intelligentsia had come up composed of people who came from the working class and the working peasantry. They were the people who headed the Soviets, the state apparatus, the armed forces. If you talk to the survivors of this period one can learn how from illiterate villagers they became army generals and professors. Extraordinarily some of them continue to work for the Russian communist movement today with the energy they have left. This entire history helps us understand the grip that Stalin still holds in the working class and communist movement in the ex-USSR. Remember for two generations the state has been carrying out anti-Stalin propaganda. There is a basis for the commitment the communist movement has to Lenin and Stalin today.

If one does not accept Marxist political economy then there is no difference between imperialism and socialism; between the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie in the US and Nazi Germany and the dictatorship of the proletariat in the Soviet Union; between the role of US imperialism in this and the last century, the depredations of German imperialism in Europe and the liberation of central and eastern Europe and Manchuria, the assistance to the Chinese revolution by the Soviet Union and the Red Army; after all they are imperialisms to one degree or another! If it is considered that the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin was engaged in imperialism then it will have to be established either on the basis of Marxist or even non-Marxist theory. The theoretical apparatus which lies at the basis of all your analysis is the standard stock in trade of imperialist ideology in its analysis of socialist societies: manufacturing of consent, forced labour and conscription, repression, totalitarianism, imperialism, the loot of raw materials, jingoist propaganda.

Nirmalangshu Mukherji: First, “social imperialism” is not my word, it’s Mao’s. No doubt, he officially used it post-Stalin, but there was no structural difference in Soviet ECONOMY pre and post-Stalin until the final capitalist takeover in the ’80s. Second, the reason why Mao called it “imperialism” is that there is nothing in Lenin’s analysis to prevent state capital itself from growing into monopolies that have enough surplus/usury capital to export. Mao thought that Soviet Union had reached that stage. Third, if your understanding of Lenin is correct, then there was never a British empire and we were never a colony because British regime was not based on export of usury capital, Britain never reached that stage. Yet the British controlled global resources in terms of loot of raw material imported to Britain, exploitation of cheap labour abroad to set up its own capitalist structure, destruction of indigenous economies etc. Lenin never denied that form of classical imperialism. Fourth, Lenin was constructing a theoretical model of where capitalism will reach when left to a “natural” state, i.e., without intervention by the state and people’s resistance. We need to read State and Revolution and Imperialism together, as Paul Sweezy pointed out in detail. Fifth, that is precisely why Keynes recommended welfare measures via state intervention to keep productive capital active. This was also the foundation for the global Bretton Woods regime. That is why we never saw example of Leninist imperialism until the Bretton Woods and Soviet state monopoly collapsed and capitalism returned to its “natural” state in the neo-liberal era. In that sense, WW2 was a bonus for capitalism as it allowed full expression to Keynesian regime. Both US and Soviet Union would have collapsed in the ’30s with genuine proletarian takeover if Hitler did not unleash the war to trigger off productive capital, accompanied by mass enslavement, in the Western hemisphere including Russia. Stalin should have said “thank you” to Hitler just as the Indian Maoists officially did to Salwa Judum as it helped bolster a dying movement. Fortunately, Marx and Lenin (and Rosa Luxemburg) departed long before their words were taken over by the Stalinists. I am sure Stalinists would have found a way to label Marx and Lenin as “bourgeois democrats” and “imperialist ideologues”, as they did with the rest of the brilliant and revolutionary first Bolshevik politbureau. As for the listed welfare measures, I agreed already that they were impressive, but they were a necessary part for state capital to grow; you cannot undertake primitive accumulation unless you have your own brand of the middle classes although you might prefer to call them proletariat. Forms of this welfare (free and decent healthcare, education, subsidised housing and food, decent wages, etc.) are very much part of many capitalist orders across the world (Sweden, Norway, New Zealand, Saddam’s Iraq, Canada, Venezuela, so on). Stalinism is one big reason (but not the only one) why Marxist thought has virtually died out from the world as an inspiration for the proletariat to change the world. Albania was the last hope, but Enver too turned out to be a monster. [The End]

Vijay Singh: On questions of imperialism. In attempting to equate US and Nazi imperialism with an alleged imperialism of the Soviet Union in its revolutionary period there are many difficulties. On the basis of Lenin’s understanding of imperialism the rule of finance capital is a conditio sine qua non which is simply not there in the instance of the Soviet Union. Of course in a broader sense imperialism existed in earlier epochs: the Roman empire, the empires of Portugal and Spain in the period of feudalism. In the Marxist literature by the late nineteenth century Britain (and other countries such as the US, Germany, France) are generally categorised as imperialist powers in the Leninist sense. Usury capital exists in pre-capitalist formations. It is not clear here what is meant by the term ‘usury imperialism’. If one wishes to project the Soviet Union of Lenin and Stalin as an imperialist power then one has to establish it as a country where finance capital dominates. That is a difficult task. There have been attempts to argue that state capitalism was established after or shortly after the October revolution in Soviet Russia (C.L.R. James, Raya Dunayevskaya, Tony Cliff etc.) but none of them was able to establish that the operation of the law of value dominated in that country. We pointed out that Capital ceased to dominate in the Soviet Union after its nationalisation by the dictatorship of the proletariat and how commodity-money relations were being systematically reduced in the 1930s to the 1950s. The term social-imperialism was originally used by Lenin with reference to the Social-Democratic Party which subordinated itself to German imperialism during the First World War. While the CPC used the term ‘social-imperialism’ for the Soviet Union after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 the political economy basis for this was never elaborated. Now if one wishes to establish that the Soviet Union under Stalin was an imperialist power one not only has to prove that it was a power where finance capital dominated, one will also have to establish how it exploited central and eastern Europe and the people’s democracies of Asia. The imperialist powers, you point out looted raw materials, exploited cheap labour abroad and destroyed the indigenous economies. It is difficult to establish this in the case of the Soviet Union under Stalin as it encouraged the construction of the heavy engineering industry, production of the means of production, by which countries no longer can function as raw material appendages of industrial countries. But please try to make out a case for this! There were considerable differences between the Soviet Union under Stalin and the period 1953-1958. Directive centralised planning was ended in 1955 and it was replaced by decentralised co-ordinated ‘planning’ of a market economy type. The object of planning was transformed from the construction of advanced socialism and communism to the establishment of a market economy in which commodity-money relations came to predominate. The powers of the directors of enterprises were expanded over enterprise funds and surplus assets in contrast to the earlier period. Profit became the criterion of production of the enterprises. Gosbank was given the powers to financially control Soviet enterprises and even to declare enterprises insolvent and bankrupt. Twenty sales organisations were established under Gosplan for the sale of the products of Soviet industry. The means of production thereby became commodities. The Third Edition of the Political Economy Textbook recognised in 1958 that the products of Soviet industry circulated as commodities in the economy. And so on. As far as the countries of people’s democracies were concerned after 1953 they were discouraged from building up a heavy engineering basis which would have bolstered their economic independence. The argument that the Soviet economy would have collapsed but for the war unleashed by Nazi Germany in the 1930s is untenable. As is known under the Five Year Plans the Soviet Union both before and after the war with Germany (1941-45) economically expanded at incredible rates on the basis of its own socialist and communist agenda. By 1950 not only had the economic production recovered from the war but it was double that of 1940. Rationing was ended in the Soviet Union before the countries of western Europe. The suggestion that the Soviet Union and Stalin should thank the Nazis for the war not only has no economic basis it is also brutally insensitive to the 50 million war dead of all nations. While it is pointed out there existed ‘welfare states’ parallel to the facilities provided under the ‘Stalinist’ Soviet Union it is not understood that western capitalism was compelled to concede this a consequence of the Soviet achievements from the 1930s which were abundantly apparent to the working class of the west. As the market economy was rebuilt under Khrushchev and Brezhnev the welfare states in the west were eroded by the ruling classes. With the final fall of the Soviet Union major assaults on the welfare schemes of the west were inaugurated which are continuing till date. This has been fairly clear in Sweden and the UK. The welfare states of the west, then, were a consequence of the October revolution and the construction of socialism under Lenin and Stalin. The first Bolshevik politbureau is considered ‘brilliant’ and ‘revolutionary’: many indeed were. This politbureau also included Zinoviev and Kamenev who opposed the October revolution. You might want to consider why Krupskaya came to regard Trotsky as a spy of the Gestapo. But as the Soviet literature may be suspect for you let us look at non-Soviet sources. The US historian Prof. William Chase indicates that US archival sources reveal that while in Mexico Trotsky was supplying information on Soviet personnel to the FBI. Humbert-Droz, a supporter of Bukharin in Comintern, narrates in his memoirs published in Switzerland, how in 1928 Bukharin had informed him that he had plans with his supporters to assassinate Stalin. Bukharin and Trotsky opposed collectivisation and industrialisation which proved indispensible for laying the basis of the victory in the Second World War. Your appraisal of Enver and Stalin is familiar. May one recall that Bakunin condemned the ‘authoritarianism’ and ‘dictatorship’ of Karl Marx in the nineteenth century? The Mensheviks and Anarchists objected to the ‘dictatorship’ of Lenin. Trotsky dubbed Lenin as a ‘hooligan’ and went on to complain of the ‘dictatorship’ of Stalin after the death of Lenin. So we take your criticisms as compliments. Yes Marxism has virtually died out, and it is has been replaced by social- democracy (Bukharinism, Trotskyism, Bogdanovism, Monthly Review, New Left Review). The theoretical achievements of the Soviet Union in the realm of philosophy, historical materialism, political economy and other fields are generally inaccessible as they are mainly available in Russian and because they were removed from the libraries after the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU.

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