Noam Chomsky and Marxism: On the roots of modern "authoritarianism"  Part Two

Heiko Khoo continues his analysis of Chomsky’s writings on Marxism. Chomsky reveals no real understanding of the Russian Revolution and its later degeneration. For him Lenin and Stalin, in the end, are the same, or at least one prepared the ground for the other. He prefers movements such as that of the Spanish Anarchists, but again he ignores what they actually did in practice.

Was Lenin’s ‘State and Revolution’ an intellectual deviation?

In State and Revolution Lenin repeated Marx’s analysis of the Paris Commune supporting the suppression of the standing army and its replacement by an armed people, the election and right of immediate recall of all officials:

“...the abolition of all representation allowances, and of all monetary privileges to officials, the reduction of the remuneration of all servants of the state to the level of “workmen’s wages”. This shows more clearly than anything else the turn from bourgeois to proletarian democracy, from the democracy of the oppressors to that of the oppressed classes, from the state as a “special force” for the suppression of a particular class to the suppression of the oppressors by the general force of the majority of the people – the workers and the peasant”...and a rotation of administrative duties so all learn to administrate.

Chomsky argues that Lenin and Trotsky “took advantage of the popular ferment in Russia in 1917 to seize State power. One major ideological weapon employed to this end has been the claim that the state managers are leading their own society and the world towards the socialist ideal; an impossibility as any socialist – surely any serious Marxist – should have understood at once (many did), and a lie of mammoth proportions as history has revealed since the earliest days of the Bolshevik regime.” (Chomsky. Soviet Union Versus Socialism, 1986)

This is simply a falsification. The Bolsheviks did not claim that state managers were leading the world towards socialism. Lenin and Trotsky as ‘serious Marxists’ argued that Socialism in Russian was only possible when the level of economy and culture was developed to the level of the most advanced capitalist countries and this was not possible without the assistance of the world revolution. It was the backwardness of the economy which compelled them to rely on administrators, managers, engineers, and even much of the Tsarist officer caste.

Instead of carrying out the ideas of the “State and Revolution” the Bolsheviks were forced to accept privileges for these layers. Lenin and Trotsky explained openly that the revolution undertook contradictory tasks. To establish socialism required an educated, skilled and cultured working class, which did not exist in Russia. To develop the culture, skill and education of the working classes, the regime was dependent on the ‘state managers’ of the old Tsarist state.

Trotsky more than any other Marxist provided an ongoing analysis of the processes from 1917 affecting the Russian and world Revolution. In 1936 he wrote The Revolution Betrayed, which provides an analysis of how and why the revolution degenerated and the likely direction that would be taken by the Stalinist bureaucracy.

I shall give a brief overview of the ideas of The Revolution Betrayed as they relate directly to the questions raised by Chomsky.

The material premise of communism should be so high a development of the economic powers of man that productive labour, having ceased to be a burden, will not require any goad, and the distribution of life’s goods, existing in continual abundance, will not demand – as it does not now in any well-off family or decent boarding house – any control except that of education, habit and social opinion” (Trotsky, Revolution Betrayed p. 36)

Russia’s condition was pitiful; a nation ravaged by war and famine, the immediate introduction of communism was impossible. In order to develop the economy to the level required for the building of socialism, to a level of such abundance, capitalist methods of wage payment could not be avoided. Not “from each according to their abilities... to each according to their needs”, but to each according to their work.

After the overthrow of the exploiting classes – he (Lenin) repeats and explains in every chapter of State and Revolution – the proletariat will shatter the old bureaucratic machine and create its own apparatus out of employees and workers. And it will take measures against their turning into bureaucrats – ‘measures analysed in detail by Marx and Engels. (1) not only election but recall at any time; (2) payment no higher than the wages of a worker; (3) immediate transition to a regime in which all will fulfil the functions of control and supervision so that all may for a time become a bureaucrat.’ You must not think that Lenin was talking about problems of a decade. No, this was the first step with which ‘we should and must begin upon achieving a proletarian revolution’.”

“The material power, together with the weapons, goes over directly and immediately to the hands of the workers’ organisations such as the soviets. The State as a bureaucratic apparatus begins to die away the first day of the proletarian dictatorship.” (Trotsky Revolution Betrayed p. 39-40)

Trotsky saw the dictatorship of the proletariat as a bridge between capitalist and socialist society. The workers state must prepare it’s own dissolution:

The degree of realisation of this ‘incidental’ task is to some extent, a measure of its success in the fulfilment of its fundamental vision: the construction of a society without classes and without material contradictions. Bureaucracy and social harmony are inversely proportional to each other.” (Trotsky Revolution Betrayed p.41)

The Revolution Betrayed was written in 1936, yet according to Chomsky, Trotsky and Lenin betrayed the revolution immediately on seizing state power. If you read the writings of Lenin and Trotsky they never abandoned the perspective of a classless society with no bureaucratic apparatus and yes... with no state. One is then forced to ask why Chomsky falsely alleges that Lenin and Trotsky sought to establish a dictatorial tyranny from day one? All the documentary evidence in the collected writings of Lenin and Trotsky prove that they intended to bring about the society outlined in State and Revolution right until their deaths. Thus Chomsky’s contention that the State and Revolution by Lenin – his “most libertarian work” – was an “intellectual deviation”’ cannot be maintained. In fact it is probably one of his most important contributions to Marxism.

Material Backwardness and its effect on the Russian Revolution

you gentlemen who think you have a mission
to teach us of the 7 deadly sins
should first sort out the basic food position
then do your preaching that’s where it begins’

(Brecht, Three Penny Opera)

Russia was confronted by real material conditions, those of famine, and economic backwardness. The revolutionary state had to stimulate the maximum effort using bourgeois methods of wage payment:

“...under communism not only will bourgeois law survive for a certain time, but also even a bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie!”

“The state assumes directly a dual character: socialistic, insofar as it defends social property in the means of production; bourgeois, insofar as the distribution of life’s goods is carried out with a capitalistic measure of value and all the consequences ensuing therefrom.” (Trotsky, Revolution Betrayed p. 43)

“The tendencies of bureaucratism, which strangles the workers’ movement in capitalist countries, would everywhere show themselves even after a proletarian revolution. But it is perfectly obvious that the poorer a society which issues from a revolution, the sterner and more naked would be the expression of this ‘law’ the more crude would be the forms assumed by bureaucratism, and the more dangerous would it become for socialist development.” (Trotsky, Revolution Betrayed p. 44)

As any serious Marxist knows – and any serious scholar should know – the essence of the question as to why the Russian Revolution degenerated is not to be found in any politico-organisational form, not in the intentions or ideas of the leaders, or in their desires to dominate, control and be tyrants. In the words of a famous American “it’s the economy stupid”.

In the last instance economic backwardness determined the fate of the Russian revolution. Economic backwardness has innumerable consequences, not least of which is cultural backwardness, measurable in illiteracy, the lack of technical and scientific skill etc. Without the masses possessing such skills they could not manage society through the democratic Soviets (“council communism”), or any other way. Someone who had these skills would manage “on behalf” of the masses. Even in the best cases this someone demanded higher pay, better conditions, and power over the masses to impel economic development.

The Bolsheviks could not escape this fact. The only way of avoiding such a dilemma would have been through a successful socialist revolution in Germany and in the other more advanced capitalist countries. The more skilled and educated workers of these countries, with the most advanced technology in their hands, would have been able to help their Russian brothers to speedily develop modern industry. On that basis there could have been a harmonious movement towards genuine socialism. Unfortunately the revolution in Germany and elsewhere was defeated. That is the starting point of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution.

These “state managers” to which Chomsky refers, were precisely the ‘bureaucracy’, which Lenin fought against till his death. Trotsky spent the remainder of his life in mortal combat with this system of bureaucratic dictatorship. This conservative bureaucratic caste found its political representative in Joseph Stalin.

Stalin’s first ideological innovation in 1924 directly corresponded to the interests of the bureaucratic caste; it was to abandon world revolution in favour of the doctrine of ‘socialism in one country’. This was to become the ideology of every Stalinist dictatorship since that time. With world revolution abandoned, deals could be made with various capitalist governments, while the “external threat” was used to justify internal repression, and dictatorial control over the masses by the bureaucracy allowed them to consolidate a system based on privileges and extend their power in the name of internal “peaceful” economic development.

Stalin’s Bureaucratic Counter-Revolution

“Since its origins, the Soviet State has attempted to harness the energies of its own population and oppressed people everywhere in the service of the men who took advantage of the popular ferment in Russia in 1917 to seize State power.” (Chomsky, The Soviet Union Versus Socialism)

Chomsky appears to be totally ignorant of Russian history. When he says the men who took power in 1917 he must be referring to the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, yet every history student knows that by 1940, of the Bolshevik Central Committee of 1917 only Stalin and Alexandra Kollontai remained alive. Most had been murdered by the Stalinist regime! Therefore, how does Chomsky arrive at the statement that the Soviet State from the start until its demise, attempted to serve those men who seized power in 1917? Chomsky’s aim is clearly to present Stalinism and Bolshevism as one and the same thing. He ignores historical facts and distorts reality to suit this aim!

Trotsky (and Lenin could clearly see this as well) explained that the State in the Soviet Union was not a workers’ state, but a deformed workers’ state, deformed due to the concrete circumstances of the revolution, conditions of civil war, famine, of economic and cultural backwardness. This is not as Chomsky claims “a lie of mammoth proportions”. Trotsky and Lenin honestly explained the dual nature of the Russian Revolutionary state again and again. They honestly explained the backwardness not only of the country but also of the state managers.

With Chomsky we arrive at the position that the entire Russian Revolution was simply a takeover by “Red Bureaucrats”, to use the words of Bakunin, whom Chomsky cites from 1870. According to Bakunin, this Red Bureaucracy would prove “the most vile and terrible lie of the century”. In fact it is this argument, which is a lie of mammoth proportions. Chomsky is simply repeating the Stalinist lie that Stalin’s regime was merely a “further moulding”of the Soviet State.

Chomsky states, “when the world’s two great propaganda systems agree on some doctrine, it requires some intellectual effort to escape its shackles. One such doctrine is that the society created by Lenin and Trotsky and moulded further by Stalin and his successors has some relation to socialism in some meaningful or historically accurate sense of this concept. In fact if there is one, it is the relation of contradiction.” (Chomsky, Soviet Union Versus Socialism, 1986)

A cursory examination of the differences between the doctrines and practice of Stalin and the bureaucracy he and his successors represented, and those of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks of 1917, reveals precisely a “relation of contradiction”. Stalin argued for “Socialism in One Country” an idea, which has no “relation to socialism in some meaningful or historically accurate sense of this concept.” Lenin and Trotsky never argued for such a reactionary doctrine. The idea of “Socialism in One Country” stemmed precisely from the desire on the part of the rising bureaucratic apparatus, the ‘state managers’ to use Chomsky’s phrase, to consolidate their position through the creation of a new doctrine, one which suited and represented their material interests.

Not only did Stalin and his successors change the Bolshevik doctrines, the people who led the revolution were physically eliminated, and their doctrines condemned as “Trotskyism”. The ideas of 1917 were banned and the leaders of 1917 eliminated. A totalitarian state was established, millions of people were interned, tortured, purged and murdered. Chomsky calls this a “further moulding”. Remember please, that here we are dealing with the world’s best known professor of linguistics. Therefore one would assume that his words have been chosen carefully!

Perhaps the reason why Chomsky cannot distinguish between these doctrines is that he believes that Socialism can be created by a revolution where the workers and peasants run society from day one through a system of self-management or council communism, regardless of the economic backwardness of the society. This new society will self-regulate with no political leadership and with no state power immediately. Thus we arrive at the doctrine of anarchism in a single country. In reality the doctrine of Chomsky itself is the same as Stalin’s ‘Socialism in one Country’. The Russian experience and that of China, Vietnam, etc., teaches us that such a revolution isolated in a backward country would end up either defeated by capitalist restoration or as a bureaucratised regime.

Anarchist Mythology – The Spanish Revolution

The (Paris) commune was, of course, drowned in blood, as the anarchist communes in Spain were destroyed by fascist and communist armies. And it might be argued that more dictatorial structures would have defended the revolution against such forces. But I doubt this very much. At least in the case of Spain, it seems to me that a more consistent libertarian policy might have provided the only possible defense of the revolution. Of course this can be contested, and is a long story...” (Chomsky, Democracy and Education p. 134)

For Chomsky the Spanish revolution is the best example of Anarchism in action. The Anarchists had been working in Spain since the time of Bakunin. By 1919 the Anarchist-led National Confederation of Workers (CNT) had over one million members. At their congress that year they adopted the policy of “libertarian communism”.

Initially sympathetic to the Russian Revolution their representatives went to Russia in 1920 and returned to Spain warning the CNT of the “dictatorship” of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks. The Anarchists were split between moderate factions, which after the revolution of 1936 entered the bourgeois government and served as ministers, and ultra-left factions some of whom retained their anti-political and anti-state position to the end.

In 1927 the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) was formed. The CNT proposed to: “Struggle only in the purely economic field, that is by direct action, untrammelled by any political or religious prejudice.”

“While all the anarchists of the FAI were members of the CNT not all members of the CNT were anarchists. Those in the CNT who rejected the idea of revolution and a movement led by an audacious minority like the FAI began to be expelled. The result was that from 1932 at least half of the Spanish trade union movement was being guided by a dedicated anarchist nucleus – Bakunin’s dream of a secret vanguard come true.” (Demanding the Impossible, Peter Marshall, p. 457)

Chomsky praises the FAI for taking Bakunin’s methods to heart:

The phrase ‘spontaneous revolutionary action’ can be misleading. The anarcho-syndicalists, at least, took very seriously Bakunin’s remark that the workers’ organizations must create ‘not only the ideas but also the facts of the future itself’ in the pre-revolutionary period.” (Notes on Anarchism Chomsky)

For a while the moderate factions broke away “criticizing the dictadura de la FAI”.

Among its (the FAI’s) ranks numbered not only a criminal element but also a group of puritanical idealists who were the first to advocate the burning of the churches and the summary execution of priests and male prostitutes during the Civil War”

For all their declared anti-authoritarianism “the FAI undoubtedly had vanguardist tendencies”, admits Marshall. Dispensing with politics the CNT abstained from the 1933 elections which “undoubtedly led to the formation of a right wing governmentwhilst at the same time raising the ultra-left slogan “No Ballot Boxes but Social Revolution”. (Marshall p. 458)

In 1936 the Popular Front was elected with much of the CNT secretly voting for it. As the most powerful workers’ organisation the various tendencies within the workers movement expressed themselves within and through the CNT, in spite of the secret conspiracy run by the FAI leadership. But the reformist elements were readmitted at the CNT national congress in Zaragoza in May 1936 and attempts were made to make an alliance with the reformist Trade Union the UGT.

Yet Chomsky continues:

“The accomplishments of the popular revolution in Spain, in particular, were based on the patient work of many years of organization and education, one component of a long tradition of commitment and militancy. The resolutions of the Madrid Congress of June 1931 and the Saragossa Congress in May 1936 foreshadowed in many ways the acts of the revolution, as did the somewhat different ideas sketched by Santillan in his fairly specific account of the social and economic organization to be instituted by the revolution. Guérin writes, ‘The Spanish revolution was relatively mature in the minds of libertarian thinkers, as in the popular consciousness.’ And workers’ organizations existed with the structure, the experience, and the understanding to undertake the task of social reconstruction when, with the Franco coup, the turmoil of early 1936 exploded into social revolution. In his introduction to a collection of documents on collectivization in Spain, the anarchist Augustin Souchy writes: ‘For many years, the anarchists and the syndicalists of Spain considered their supreme task to be the social transformation of the society. In their assemblies of Syndicates and groups, in their journals, their brochures and books, the problem of the social revolution was discussed incessantly and in a systematic fashion. All of this lies behind the spontaneous achievements, the constructive work of the Spanish Revolution’.” (Chomsky, Notes on Anarchism)

The reality was however that the wonderful formulas of libertarian communism in May 1936, and the “patient work of organisation and education” did not prevent the dictatorial leadership of the FAI from shifting rapidly from the policy of abstentionism in politics, to direct participation in the capitalist government.

Let us look at how the anarchists fared in the cities. Almost immediately after the failure of the Fascist uprising led by Franco, revolutionary power was theirs to take, and yet the historian Hugh Thomas notes that:

Power had by then given to the Anarchists of Barcelona a sense of responsibility which amazed those members of the middle classes still in the city. The CNT ordered all its members to return to work. Yet the CNT’s power itself was now considerable. It possessed its own radio station, eight daily newspapers, innumerable weeklies, and periodicals dealing with every aspect of society... This was the only occasion in history that an Anarchist movement has controlled a great city. It is remarkable what little use the Anarchists made of this opportunity.” (Thomas, The Spanish Civil War p. 188, my emphasis)

After July 19th 1936 power in Barcelona was in the hands of the revolution. A Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias was set up to represent the workers’ organisations and various political parties and groupings. Only 7 days later on “July 26th the CNT of Catalunya formally instructed its members to ’look no further than the victory over Fascism’.(Ibid, p.189)

This argument was precisely that used by the Stalinists to justify crushing all revolutionary action when they gained sufficient power. When confronted with the issue of dissolving the Generalitat – the Capitalist provisional government of Catalonia – the leaders of the CNT-FAI made the crucial decision to leave it intact and support its President Lluis Companys:

The decision to collaborate with the Catalan government however put a brake on the further development of the Social Revolution. Within two months the Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias was abolished. On 27th September 1936 the anarchist leaders of the CNT-FAI entered the government of the Generalitat...”(Marshall, p. 461)

The anarchist’s participation in the capitalist government paralysed the movement towards “council communism and workers’ control.”

Guérin writes: “Self-management was also tried out in industry, especially in Catalonia, the most industrialised area of Spain.” (Guérin, Anarchism p.136, my emphasis)

Factories whose employers had fled were managed by “revolutionary workers’ committees” for “more than four months” (my emphasis)

On October 24th 1936, the anarchist minister in the capitalist government of Catalonia instituted a decree which ensured, “a compromise between capitalism and socialism” ( Ibid, p.137) In self managed factories run by managerial committees of between 5 and 15 persons, “the committee appointed a manager to whom it delegated all or part of its own powers. In very large factories the selection of a manager required the approval of the supervisory organisation... a government controller was appointed to each management committee.”

According to Guérin, “it appeared in practice that workers’ self management tended to produce a sort of parochial egoism, a species of ‘bourgeois cooperativism’... “each production unit concerning itself only with its own interests. There were rich collectives and poor collectives

By December 1936 the trade unions began to draw up plans “to avoid harmful competition and the dissipation of effort... “However, industrial centralization under trade union control could not be developed as rapidly and completely as the anarcho-syndicalist planners would have wished... In the meanwhile, credit and foreign trade had remained in the hands of the private sector because the Bourgeois Republican government wished it so... the CNT was imprisoned by the Popular Front and dared not go as far as that” (Guérin, pp.136-7)

Having no worthy or honourable record in Barcelona, anarchist mythology has to find another source of strength in the Spanish Revolution and it seeks it... in the peasantry.

Thus Guérin writes that in Spain thanks to, “libertarian education and a collectivist tradition” the peasants turned “directly to socialism... It seems that social consciousness was even higher in the country than in the cities.” (Guérin, Anarchism p. 131)

Guérin continues that even though in collectivised villages, “It appears that the units which applied collectivist principles of day wages were more solid than the comparatively few which tried to establish complete communism too quickly, taking no account of the egoism still deeply rooted in human nature especially amongst the women... the disadvantages of paralysing self-sufficiency made themselves felt.”

What is ignored here is that this was because the, ‘libertarian education’ and ‘collectivist tradition’ did not correspond with the interests of many small farmers. Although the measures to redistribute land, hold democratic village committees, provide socialised systems of production were laudable, they often added up to no more than bourgeois measures of land reform.

In addition, the “grass roots socialism was not the work of anarcho-syndicalists alone, as many people have supposed... the supporters of self-management were often ‘libertarians without knowing it’.” (Guérin, p.134)

Thus they did not in fact require “libertarian education and a collectivist tradition” In fact the peasants supported collectivist measures where it suited their interests, not where they had been trained in libertarian communism by various anarchists. In Catalonia, where the anarchists had their deepest base, their work amongst the peasants was totally ineffective.

Catalonia was an area of small and medium sized farms, and the peasantry had a strong individualistic tradition, so that here there were no more than a few pilot collectives” Guérin explains (p.133). The anarchists’ power base created no more than ‘a few pilot collectives,’ in the countryside.

World Revolution

Without the world revolution, the ideals Lenin expressed in the State and Revolution (i.e. Libertarian communism, to use Chomsky’s words) were and are still impossible to realise.

The Bolshevik revolution provided a powerful impetus to revolutionary discontent within the troops and masses of Germany and elsewhere in the First World War. It carried out its promise to bring Russia out of the war.

On November 9th 1918 revolution broke out in Germany. Lenin and Trotsky always believed that the German revolution would be of far greater import for the creation of socialism than the Russian. Germany was to provide the model for the world revolution, and it very nearly happened according to plan.

The German working class set up workers’ councils and were challenging for power from November 1918 through to 1923. Unfortunately the murder of the leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, had a very negative influence on the fate of the revolutionary struggle. Leadership is as decisive in revolution, class warfare, as it is in conventional war.

Lenin and Trotsky knew and repeatedly explained that it was not possible to create socialism in Russia, in other words for the workers and peasants of Russia to manage society themselves and raise the material well-being of all in conditions of economic backwardness. Lenin and Trotsky argued that this could only be overcome by revolutions in Western Europe, particularly Germany.

A Soviet Germany would create a unified plan of production with Soviet Russia. This would overcome Russian economic backwardness. When the German Revolution was lost in 1923 this left Soviet Russia isolated. The Soviet masses were exhausted and the idea of Soviet Democracy appeared to become a utopian dream. The bureaucracy increased its power inside the Soviet Union with each defeat of the world revolution. Further defeats followed in Britain 1926, China 1927. Finally Stalin’s insane policy of splitting the German working class by condemning the Social Democrats as “social fascists” led directly to the victory of Fascism in Germany.

Chomsky states that, “it’s essential that a powerful revolutionary movement exist in the United States if there are to be any reasonable possibilities for democratic social change of a radical sort anywhere in the capitalist world, and comparable remarks, I think undoubtedly hold for the Russian empire. Lenin till the end of his life stressed the idea that ‘it is an elementary truth of Marxism that the victory of socialism requires the joint efforts of workers in a number of advanced countries.’ At the very least it requires that the great centers of world imperialism be impeded by domestic pressures from counterrevolutionary intervention. Only such possibilities would permit any revolution to overthrow its own coercive state institutions as it tries to bring the economy under direct democratic control.” (Chomsky, On Democracy and Education, p.135)

Here at least for once it appears Chomsky agrees with Lenin! Let us imagine that the Venezuelan Revolution were immediately to expropriate the banks and monopolies under workers’ control and management. Would Venezuela be able to establish socialism if it were left alone?

The comparative economic backwardness of Venezuela and its isolation would inevitably mean that a bureaucratic degeneration of such a society would be possible, that is even if it were allowed to survive at all. Unless the revolution spreads to overcome the limitations of the nation state, the tendency towards bureaucratism would arise sooner or later, no matter how good the intentions of its leadership. In fact this same process would even be true of a revolution isolated in the United States of America, the most powerful country in the world.

Chomsky has made a name for himself and is admired by many on the left. Undoubtedly he has written many articles and books, and made many speeches, that provide some useful information. However, when it comes to analyzing the tasks the working class is facing he falls into a trap. He accepts many ideas about Marxism and the Russian revolution that are completely false. By doing this he does a disservice to himself and to the workers and the youth of the world who are looking for a way out of the present nightmare that capitalist society has created. He has every right to hold his views. No genuine socialist or communist would deny this. What he does not have the right to do is to distort and even falsify what genuine Marxism stands for. If he does this he is only helping the enemies of genuine socialism. The capitalist historians, the capitalist media, are constantly working away at trying to confuse the minds of millions of workers and youth. Our task is to combat all this.