Bolshevism, planning and the NEP

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Apr 17 11:58:13 MDT 1995

Louis Proyect:

Jim Lawler's discussion of the NEP is based on a highly selective
reading of Soviet history. He poses a  dichotomy between a Lenin who
had become convinced of the wisdom of a mixed economy based on
market forces and his opponents who were for centralized economic
planning such as the kind that took  place under War Communism.
These ultraleft opponents are "nihilistic" since they believe that the
state should regulate economic policy according to a master plan
despite the fact that the material base for such grandiose measures is
lacking. Since I believe that socialism involves using the power of the
state to consciously regulate economic production and distribution,
Lawler sees me as a nihilist also.

The "nihilistic" proponents of state planning, according to Lawler, achieved
some kind of victory years later when Stalin overturned the NEP, but the
victory they  achieved was hollow since Stalin's economic measures had more
in common with traditional Asiatic state tyranny rather than the
modern scientific socialism they endorsed.

Now there were Bolsheviks who did oppose the NEP. They were
organized into a faction called the Workers Opposition and were led
by such notables as Preobrazhensky, a leading economist and former
secretary of the central committee, and Antonov-Ovseenko who
denounced the CP's alleged surrender to  the kulak and foreign
capitalism. If the debate were simply between pro-NEP communists
like Lenin and the anti-NEP forces led by the Workers Opposition,
there would be no need for further discussion or analysis.

But this rather reductionist approach to Soviet history leaves out the
positions of perhaps the most important Bolshevik leader after Lenin,
namely Trotsky. Trotsky was one of the earliest advocates of a central
plan but he also supported the NEP and criticized the Workers
Opposition in the same manner as Lenin in as just a forceful manner.

Trotsky's ideas on planning emerged out of his experience with the
State Planning Commission (GOSPLAN) which was established just
before the end of War Communism, on February 22, 1921. GOSPLAN
was never fully implemented however and Trotsky criticized this state
of affairs. He urged that GOSPLAN should become "a fully fledged
planning authority, empowered to assess productive capacities,
manpower, and stocks of raw materials, to fix targets of production for
years ahead, and to ensure 'the necessary proportionality between
various branches of the national economy'". At first Lenin opposed
him, holding to the views ascribed to him by Jim Lawler, that
planning could only be effective in a highly developed and
concentrated economy, not a country with 20-odd million scattered
small farms, a disintegrated industry, and barbarous primitive forms of
private trade. (Deutscher p 41-42)

In the precongress discussion of the 12th congress of the Russian
Communist Party, Trotsky laid out his thoughts on planning:

"The policy of 'from one case to the next,' the practice of
improvisation, economic guerrilla tactics, amateurism, must more and
more, under the staunch and stubborn leadership of our party, yield
place to planning methods and the principle of planning. Otherwise
we shall, in the future as in the past, too often find ourselves straining
at gnats while swallowing camels. The expression of planning
methods in the field of industry and trade is calculation--calculation
which produces accounts for the past period, calculation which
provides estimates and plans for the period immediately ahead. Not
only each separate  factory, each separate trust, not only industry as a
whole, but our entire state, our entire Union, should go  over more and
more to a real balancing of real resources. This is not just a stunt. It is
necessary that this  balance correspond to reality, that is, to the
resources which we actually have. Better less, more sparingly, but
with stability."

In 1922, Lenin's health declined rapidly. This did not prevent him
from paying close attention to the emerging struggle between the
triumvirate consisting of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev--the old
Bolsheviks--and Trotsky who joined the Bolsheviks much later. There
were a number of issues that divided the 2 tendencies, but clearly a key
element was Trotsky's economic views. You would expect Lenin to
line up with the old Bolsheviks against Trotsky's "nihilistic" support of
planning. Clearly the portrait drawn of Lenin by Lawler would lead to
that very conclusion.

But Lenin was won over to Trotsky's economic ideas. On the eve of a
central committee meeting in December 13, 1922, Lenin told Trotsky
in a letter that "I think we have arrived at a full agreement" on
planning and other economic questions. In a subsequent letter written
to the politbureau on December 22nd, Lenin was quite specific:

"Comrade Trotsky, it seems, advanced this idea [about the
GOSPLAN's prerogatives] long ago. I opposed it...but having
attentively reconsidered it I find that there is an essential and sound
idea here: GOSPLAN does stand somewhat apart from our legislative
institutions...although it possesses the best possible data for a correct
judgment of [economic] matters...In this, I think, one could and should
go some way to meet Comrade Trotsky..." (Deutscher, p 68)

Lenin died before he could deliver the final verdict on economic
policy. Trotsky, who was his choice to lead the Communist Party, was
politically defeated and driven into exile. Bolshevism did not die when
Lenin died. The opposition forces grouped around Trotsky, Zinoviev,
Kamenev, Bukharin et al kept Bolshevism alive for some number of
decades. A complete understanding of Soviet economic policy must
take their positions into account. To sidestep them, as Lawler does,
may bolster his own economic views, but it does not do justice to the
extremely rich and complex variety of ideas that existed during and
after the NEP.

I must state at this point that I am not a Trotskyist. Furthermore, I
quote Lenin or Trotsky not in order to invoke some kind of higher
authority, but only to give you a sense of the historical context of the
economic debate in that period. Quotes from Lenin or Trotsky or Mao
or Stalin in so-called "vanguard" circles has often been used the way
quotes from the bible are used in religious sects. This is something that
the left has to avoid like the plague. Having stated that, I must also say
that Trotsky's ideas seem to have some merit.

In the next post to the list, I want to discuss the aftermath of the NEP.
I will say this much at this point: rather than counterpoising the NEP
and Stalin's Asiatic-styled tyranny as opposites, I will try to show that
they are dialectically interrelated.

In my final post on these matters, I will try to apply the lessons that
can be learned from this period in Soviet history to the problems
facing socialism today in places like China, Cuba and Vietnam. I will
also defend a notion of planning influenced by my understanding of
Marxism, my professional training as a computer systems analyst and
my experience as a technical consultant to the Sandinistas in
Nicaragua and to the African National Congress in the mid to late
1980's. I will also try to explain why so many leftists today, especially
those of the Social Democratic variety, are so enamored of phenomena
such as cooperatives, market socialism and the mixed economy.


Isaac Deutscher, "The Prophet Unarmed"

EH Carr, "The Bolshevik Revolution, Vol 1"

Moshe Lewin, "Lenin's Last Struggle"

Leon Trotsky Speaks (collection of speeches)


On Wed, 12 Apr 1995, James Lawler wrote:

> Referring to my paper at the Socialist Scholars Conference, Louis
> Proyect writes:
> "The  central idea in it is that the NEP was actually the type of
> socialism that Lenin would have preferred to seen built in the
> USSR had he lived.  Furthermore, the NEP was more consistent with
> classical Marxist notions of the transition to communism than the
> latter model adopted  by Stalin (but supported by Trotsky as
> well) that incorporated 5 year plans, extensive state ownership,
> etc. Of course, to get the full  dimensions of Lawler's thoughts
> on the matter, I suggest FTP'ing his paper [in the Marxism
> gopher]."
> After this summary, he then criticizes my paper and that of Phil
> Harvey (the third paper, with a similar orientation, was by
> Sidney Gluck):
> "Both speakers drew analogies with the transition from feudalism
> to  capitalism. This transition took centuries and the 2 property
> forms co-existed for a long time. In the transition from
> capitalism to socialism,  we will see something of the same
> nature. There will be state-owned  enterprises, worker buy-outs
> of private companies, state regulation of  the market, etc. This
> will increase until the capitalist is squeezed out, in the same
> manner as the feudal baron was eventually squeezed out."
> "I reject this notion since it is based on a false analogy.
> Capitalism took root and spread for a very simple reason. It was
> a  more dynamic system than feudalism. Since it is based on
> commodity  exchange, it overturns existing social relations in
> its relentless drive  for profit. It tends to revolutionize the
> means of production and uproot traditional social relations. In
> essence, it is like an avalanche whose  thrust is nearly
> impossible to resist.
> "No such case can be made for the type of "socialist" forms that
> Lawler and the other speaker upheld as models. Workers'
> cooperatives in  Spain, Sweden or Nicaragua are not the
> equivalent of the Italian city-states of the 14th and 15th
> centuries. There is no internal economic law which will fuel the
> growth of such forms as was the case in the early stages of
> capitalism. Such forms are weak, evanescent and totally
> dependent on the relationship of class forces in a given country
> at a  given time. For example, in Nicaragua, the cooperatives
> that sprang to life under the Sandinista government are now
> evaporating. So, for that  matter, are the main features of the
> welfare state in the advanced  capitalist countries. The Gingrich
> revolution's goal is to dismantle the legacy of the New Deal,
> while in Europe Social Democracy is evolving in a Clintonian
> direction. The welfare state is in jeopardy.
> "There is no analogy between the transition from feudalism to
> capitalism and the transition from capitalism to socialism. All
> capitalism does is create a larger and larger mass of
> proletarians. It throws them together in larger and larger
> industrial enterprises, in larger and larger urban
> concentrations, while increasing the rate of exploitation day by
> day. The global restructuring along the lines of GATT and NAFTA
> that is taking place today is nothing less than the continuing
> march of capital that began in the 15th century and was only
> briefly interrupted in the period from 1917 to 1987. Socialism
> will not come into existence gradually with the introduction of
> cooperatives, social legislation, etc. It will come into
> existence through the violent but defensive revolutionary
> struggle of the oppressed who will then use the power of the
> state to consciously regulate economic production and
> distribution. Any other notions of the transition from
> capitalism to socialism are simply self-deceptions.
> Louis Proyect (unrepentant Bolshevik)"
>      I agree that socialist developments will not come to
> fruition in a purely spontaneous manner, without political
> struggle, without a proletarian-based, socialist state.  But I
> disagree that there is no analogy between the transition from
> capitalism to socialism, and that from feudalism and capitalism.
> Political revolutions were also necessary for the bourgeoisie to
> consolidate its own economic progress.
>      In my paper I tried to expound the thought of another
> Bolshevik, V.I. Lenin.  I argue that there was a split in the
> Bolshevik party between proponents of what I call "dialectical
> socialism" (especially Lenin) and those who represent what I call
> "nihilistic socialism".
>      The essence of dialectical socialism is the idea that
> socialism (or communism) emerges from within capitalism.  This
> was Marx's idea when he said, in the German Ideology, that
> "Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be
> established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust
> itself.  We call communism the real movement which abolishes the
> present state of things."  In connection with the Paris Commune,
> Marx wrote that the working people "have no ideals to realize,
> but to set free elements of the new society with which old
> collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant."  So communism
> is not something for the future, but a present actuality,
> emerging within capitalism.  It is a product of capitalism that
> needs to be liberated from the confines of capitalism.  It is not
> something that we make up or decide on later, but something that
> is coming into existence now.
>      Marx's Capital was not just a negative refutation of
> capitalism.  It was also an "ultrasound" outline of the elements
> of the new society with which the old is pregnant.  This is what
> Marx was doing when he wrote that the Factory Acts, limiting
> child labor and the length of the working day, constituted "the
> first conscious and methodical reaction of society against the
> spontaneously developed form of the process of production".  In
> Volume III, he went further, writing of "The co-operative
> factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old
> form the first sprouts of the new".
>      In his late essay "On Cooperatives", Lenin reexamined the
> idea of cooperatives:   "to build a complete socialist society
> out of co-operatives, out of co-operatives alone, which we
> formerly ridiculed as huckstering..."  Both Marx and Lenin were
> clear that no socialism would come into existence simply through
> the spontaneous growth of cooperatives.  A working-class state is
> needed to prevent the bourgeoisie from "fettering" the
> developments occurring within bourgeois society -- cooperatives,
> regulations of the working day, etc., scientific and
> technological advances making labor more many-sided and creative,
> etc.  Louis Project gives a summary of the fettering activities,
> the roadblocks placed in the way of the emergence of socialism.
> In my paper I argued that capitalist globalization is tearing
> apart the achievements of the welfare state.  That workers of the
> world must unite is finally, in our times, more than a noble
> slogan.
>      But these acts of fettering should not obscure the emergence
> of those elements that contradict capitalist property relations.
> Socialists should identify, defend and promote them.  The role of
> the working class state is to facilitate these developments, not
> to substitute its own state-controlled system of economic
> management.  Recognition of the importance of gaining political
> power should not be confused with the idea of a state-run
> economy.
>      Louis Proyect does not see any positive developments
> occurring within capitalism, any outlines of the new society,
> other than the mere fact of growing concentrations of workers,
> who will eventually have the power of organized numbers to sweep
> away capitalism and create something different.  This is an
> essentially negative attitude to capitalism.  It is the idea that
> capitalism is producing nothing that is worth preserving under
> socialism, that it is only producing its gravediggers.  This
> approach is what I mean by "nihilistic socialism".  It was the
> attitude of many Bolsheviks who had little patience with the
> complex economy of the NEP and consequently, under Stalin's
> leadership, finally decided to create some kind of "pure"
> socialism.  But this wasn't Lenin's basic idea.  Hence he
> proposed the scandalous -- to nihilistic socialists -- idea of
> "building socialism with bourgeois hands".
>      I did not argue that socialism will emerge through some kind
> of automatic process, independent of struggle and the relation of
> class forces.  Of course, worker-owned cooperatives will be weak
> in a capitalist world.  But this does not mean there is no
> "internal economic law" that pushes workers and society in this
> direction.  I picked up a paper by Seymore Melman, who
> participated at the conference, in which he argued that workers
> are being forced to consider buy-outs as a final resort to run-
> away companies under global capitalism.  But with experience,
> this option appears in a more and more favorable light.  The
> predominance of the state-socialist model has led socialists to
> look down on cooperatives as mere "huckstering", as too
> contaminated with bourgeois features, and so not worthy of our
> support.  The discredit into which the state-socialist model has
> fallen is leading many socialists to reemphasize this idea of
> cooperatives.  There is certainly the danger that some will
> regard this as a panacea and as an automatic process.  Against
> this we should be appreciative of the warnings of Comrade
> Proyect.
> --Jim Lawler
> phijiml at
>      --- from list marxism at ---

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