Bolshevism, Planning and the NEP

James Lawler PHIJIML at
Mon Apr 24 19:00:50 MDT 1995

     Louis Proyect, a week ago, criticized my interpretation of
NEP for being "reductionist" in not taking into account the views
of Trotsky, as well as Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Bukharin.  In my
earlier submission, I had opposed "nihilist" Bolsheviks to
Lenin's "dialectical" socialism as two opposing tendencies.  The
essence of what I call nihilist socialism is a fundamentally
negative attitude to capitalism, including the market.  The
"dialectical" approach to socialism regards this as a social
system that develops at first within the womb of capitalism,
stimulated and nourished as it were by capitalism -- and still
having important characteristics of capitalism when it comes out
of the womb into broad daylight as an independent system.  This
is my terminology, not Lenin's, but Lenin puts this contrast
sharply (reductively?) when he wrote in "The Tax in Kind" (April
21, 1921), which launched the NEP:

          "Over the next few years we must learn to think of
     the intermediary links that can facilitate the
     transition from patriarchalism and small production to
     socialism.  `We' continue saying now and again that
     `capitalism is a bane and socialism is a boon'.  But
     such an argument is wrong, because it fails to take
     into account the aggregate of the existing economic
     forms and singles out only two of them.

          "Capitalism is a bane compared with socialism.
     Capitalism is a boon compared with medievalism, small
     production, and the evils of bureaucracy which spring
     from the dispersal of the small producers.  Inasmuch as
     we are as yet unable to pass directly from small
     production to socialism, some capitalism is inevitable
     as the elemental product of small production and
     exchange; so that we must utilise capitalism
     (particularly by directing it into the channels of
     state capitalism) as the intermediary link between
     small production and socialism, as a means, a path, an
     a method of increasing the productive forces."  (Lenin,
     Selected Works, Vol. 3, Progress Publishers, Moscow,
     1971, 607)

     The idea that "capitalism is a bane", *period*, expresses
the substance of what I call "socialist nihilism".  Lenin argued
that the evils of capitalism were relative, and that capitalism
can be "utilized" as something positive for the development of
socialism itself.  The idea was not that there should be a full-
fledged capitalist system, as the Mensheviks believed, but that
"elements of capitalism" should be pressed into the service of
socialism, whose own elements were also developing along side the
capitalist ones.  This was a middle position between that of the
Mensheviks who were for full-fledged capitalism, with a
capitalist state, and others, more or less "nihilistically"
inclined, who had argued that Russia could skip over capitalism
more or less completely (Populist version) or that capitalism had
already fulfilled its positive services according to the tenets
of Marxism, and so could be summarily dismissed ("Marxist"

     Louis replies that Trotski had favored a "nihilistic"
position, consisting in putting the economy under the control of
a state planning position.  "At first Lenin opposed him, holding
to the views ascribed to him by Jim Lawler ..."  Louis cites
Trotski's ideas in preparation for the 12th party congress
allegedly in favor of such central planning.  Lenin, he says,
came around to agreeing with Trotski in a letter on December 13,
1922.  Lenin's health was declining rapidly and he could not come
out more forcefully in favor of Trotski, whom he wanted, Louis
says, to replace him as head of the party.

     According to this argument, then, Lenin was opposed to the
NEP in December 1922.  If so, Lenin must have gone through an
amazing about face, not only in terms of what he argued in the
passage cited above, but in terms of what he would write in just
another few days.  In his articles "On Cooperation", written in
early January 1923, Lenin writes that it was possible "to build a
complete socialist society out of co-operatives, out of co-
operatives alone, which we formerly ridiculed as huckstering..."
(Lenin, 1971, 761.)  As a result of the NEP, large numbers of
small peasants had joined in cooperatives to facilitate the
marketing of their goods. Lenin's position had evolved from that
which he held at the time of "The Tax In Kind".  He now believed
that cooperatives were elements of socialism, rather than
"elements of capitalism", and that they, rather than "state
capitalist" enterprises, formed the decisive link between small-
peasant backwardness and socialism.

     Earlier, Lenin had classified cooperatives as among the
"elements of capitalism".  He changed his estimate at this time.
Under the conditions of Soviet power with ultimate legal control
over the land and large-scale means of production, it was
possible to see the "socialist meaning" of the cooperative
principle.  (Ibid., 761)  Through market-based cooperatives,
peasants could acquire the culture, the literacy necessary if the
country was to become a "completely socialist country". (766)
This suggests that he regarded NEP as at least "partially
socialist".  "[F]rom the standpoint of transition to the new
system", cooperatives constituted the "means that are the
simplest, easiest and most acceptable to the peasant". (761)  To
get the whole population into cooperatives will take a "whole
historical epoch" (762).

     This development of cooperatives was integrally linked with
the development of trade:

          "The thing now is to learn to combine the wide
     revolutionary range of action, the revolutionary
     enthusiasm which we have displayed, and displayed
     abundantly, and crowned with complete success -- to
     learn to combine this with (I am almost inclined to
     say) the ability to be an efficient and capable trader,
     which is quite enough to be a good co-operator.  By
     ability to be a trader I mean the ability to be a
     cultured trader.  Let those Russians, or peasants, who
     imagine that since they trade they are good traders,
     get that well into their heads.  This does not follow
     at all.  They do trade, but that is far from being
     cultured traders.  They now trade in an Asiatic manner,
     but to be a good trader one must trade in the European
     manner.  They are a whole epoch behind in that."
     (Lenin, 1971, 763.)

     It is highly unlikely that when Lenin said that he was in
agreement with Trotski's views he did not believe what he would
publish in Pravda just a few days later.  So if Lenin actually
knew what Trotski's position was, one must conclude that Trotski
was also in some way in favor of the ideas just cited.  Lenin's
position just cited does not contradict support for a state
planning commission.  One can have trade and planning too.
Lenin's position only contradicts *the kind* of state planning
that the Bolsheviks attempted under War Communism, and that they
resurrected again under Stalin, i.e., not planning as a means of
regulating and influencing trade and promoting the state and
cooperative sectors, but planning as a *substitute* for any kind
of market.

     The passage cited by Louis from Trotski is a call for the
state to plan trade, not to eliminate it.  Moreover it calls for
a gradual turn to this kind of planning, rather than the kind of
sudden abolition of spontaneous economic processes characteristic
of War Communism and Stalin's rapid centralization:  "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."  (Emphasis added.)

     Lenin followed Marx in believing that a developed socialist
("communist") society would be a planned society, (though not a
society planned *by the state*).  But this was a long-term
projection, not a goal to be implemented in the near post-
revolutionary future, and especially not in a backward country
like Russia.  What was needed was a transitional, complex
approach to developing socialism, using what was helpful from
capitalism.  Many Bolsheviks were impatient with this complexity
and wanted something more purely socialistic, in the sense of
being purified of everything connected with capitalism.  Instead
of going forward rapidly to a new society, the result was a
return to the bureaucratic centralism of the Russian past, though
on a new level thanks to the possibilities industrialization.

     The moral of this story is that there were two basically
different approaches to socialism in the Soviet period, two
different ways of thinking about socialism.  I just read an
article by John Roemer, "A Future for Socialism", in which he
fails to recognize this complexity of Soviet history:  "Private
property, characteristic of capitalism, was abolished and
replaced, under the Bolsheviks, by state property.  For complex
reasons (including bureaucratic ossification and class interest),
this form remained dominant for seventy years." (Politics and
Society, December 1994, p. 456.)  It was this kind of thinking
that facilitated the overthrow of the Soviet reform movement
beginning in 1985.  Relatively few took seriously the attempts to
legitimize the reforms by reference to an alternative model of
socialism, associated with a rediscovered Lenin who could have
written the above paragraph about "trading in the European
manner".  For the Russian liberals, Russian history was seventy
years of horror:  socialism was the bane, while capitalism was
regarded as the only boon.  The same kind of nihilism that gave
rise to Stalinism prevailed, only in reverse.

     But even the "bane" of Stalinism should be understood in
perspective.  Continuity with the Russian past suggests that we
look on twentieth century socialism from the point of view of a
world historical process in which two great ancient states,
Russia and China, made use of their traditional state systems to
confront the threat of capitalist imperialism.  The world
capitalist market ultimately triumphed over these last-ditch
efforts of traditional states to compete with capitalism.  For
Russia, this meant that the debacle of third worldization was
postponed for seventy years.  Russians are now recognizing the
boon even in the Stalinist bane.

--Jim Lawler
phijiml at

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