Did Stalinism end in the 1950s?

Mark Jones markjones011 at tiscali.co.uk
Sat Dec 7 03:56:10 MST 2002

David Walters wrote, in the thread Geothermal Energy & Ethanol:

> Mark has
> only proven
> that they [windpower etc] remain UNDER CAPITALISM, uneconomic. But
> under socialism, as a
> social priority, it's very important to exploit this, and
> including the use
> of solar, as well.
> I would hope most of us would reject the doom and gloom of Mark (and Peter
> Petroleums') perspective for a more realistic and balanced approach to
> fighting NOW for public power, a balanced use of fossil and alternative
> energy sources, and a future that's better, more productive, and happier
> than under capitalism, in other words, socialism. I think we need
> to realize
> that the technological advances in engineering (the most important) and
> generalized energy research have not been fully exploited in regards to
> solar (efficiencies going up, and therefore cost per KWH going down). Even
> Pete Petroleum's rather pessimistic view of know petrol reserves include a
> LARGE unproven category (which is odd since how can he chart it if it's
> 'unknown'??).
> All this discussion is hypothetical in many respects until we can
> get rid of
> the deregulated market an establish public power on a national and
> international basis.

It may seem grotesque to accuse David Walters of all people of being a
closet Stalinist, but I am not entirely tongue-in-cheek. Here are my

Leaving aside the question of personalities (and Stalinism as a social order
obviously would have been different without Stalin's personality) there is
the more basic question of how political choices are made and how these are
constrained and shaped by external circumstances. Sometimes when external
pressures are very strong and almost unbearable, the choice becomes one of
either surrender or of an inward mutation of the policy which defends the
original goals but in an unrecognisable and warped form.

As David ought to know and certainly does, his idea about what would happen
to energy policy 'under socialism, as a social priority' has been tried
before--under Stalin's leadership of the USSR during the 5-Year Plan periods
after 1929. Then, too, energetics and energy supply were big issues, and it
was Lenin who made electrification a main target of the planners when
working out how to industrialise backward Russia amid the devastation left
by the civil war (1918-21). There are important lessons to be learned even
today from what happened.

It should be remembered that events after 1917 did not turn out the way any
of the participants expected, including Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Lenin
assumed that the revolution in Russia would open the door to revolutions
elsewhere, above all in Germany. This assumption was not coincidental, but
basic to Lenin's entire political scheme. Lenin was clear that without the
German revolution, the Bolsheviks could never hold on alone. The only
question was whether the fledgling Soviet regime would last as long as the
1871 Paris Commune-it was a matter of counting the days, not years. (Richard
Fidler wrote a good piece on how the way the First World War ended altered
the landscape in ways that wrecked every political scheme from the right to
the left). The Mensheviks were also clear that a revolution which happened
in Russia alone must either be isolated-or must inevitably turn into not the
flagship Faril socialist freedom, but a police-state ruled by a dictator
with an iron fist (Menshevik writings in 1917 were full of warnings about
this, and even Maxim Gorky came out against the October Rising for this
reason). So the danger of what later become known as Stalinism was clear
even before the revolution. Ironically, the Mensheviks were more optimistic
than Lenin about his chances absent revolution in Germany. The danger of
Stalinism did not become a pressing political question for Lenin until some
years later.

The Soviet Union was objectively and functionally a part of the capitalist
world system from at least 1923, ie still in Lenin's lifetime. The 'Short
20th Century' actually began with the defeat of the Red Army by the Poles on
the banks of the Vistula in 1921. The so-called "Miracle before the Vistula"
was the moment when the 20th century world order made its first appearance:
there would be no world revolution but no restoration of capitalism in the
USSR either. This was the result neither side had expected. The Red Army's
defeat in Poland also marked the end of White hopes of destroying Bolshevism
because the Polish-Soviet peace settlement began the process of freezing
post-1918 boundaries that eventually led to the recognition of Soviet Russia
by the leading capitalist states.

It was the end of Intervention and of Western dreams of  an early Bolshevik
collapse but also the end of Lenin's dream of World Revolution. This double
defeat saw the beginnings of the involution of the October Revolution and
its transformation under Stalin into a guarantor of the West against Hitler
fascism. One solution was to permit the partial restoration of capitalism
under the so-called New Economic Policy. But this risked not only the
internal collapse of Soviet Power but, in some ways even worse, the risks of
Russia become a subordinate part of the capitalist world system-not a
fully-fledged industrial state but a colonial appendage, a source of raw
materials and a dumping ground for surplus production.

By the end of the 1920s the Bolshevik leadership had become convinced that
the present peace was just a breathing space. Inter-imperialist wars were
inevitable and an attack on the infant USSR was also certain. The NEP, which
skewed economic development in ways which made the state vulnerable to
attack, had to go. The Nepmen would have continued the traditional
trajectory of Russian industrial development, centred in an axis embracing
Kiev and the Donbas, St Petersburg and Moscow. This was the western part of
the Russian empire, and it was tied in closely with the world market, both
functionally thru good transport links and structurally thru the
interlinking of Russian capital and foreign finance capital. The Five-Year
Plans posed a bold solution to Russia's strategic and developmental
dilemma-by forcing the industrial and extractive centre of gravity
eastwards, a secure base area would be created in the Urals and Western
Siberia. That was where the gigantic drive to create a heavy industry would
be centred.

The problem with Stalin's plans from the get-go, as with David Walter's
hypothetical plan "to realize> ... the technological advances in engineering
(the most important) and> generalized energy research [which] have not been
fully exploited in regards to> solar [etc]", is that you both are posing
'social priorities' explicitly against the working of the law of value. In
each case, bold steps are proposed to solve complex and staggeringly-large
historical problems. Actually, the problems any future world socialist
government will inherit will be far larger and harder to deal with than the
problems which faced the Soviet government.

 The Stalinist solution was to go for the forced industrialisation of
Siberia and the Urals, coupled with the creation of gigantic hydropower
schemes on the Volga and elsewhere to solve the energy deficit by providing
massive amounts of cheap hydroelectricity. The plan was uneconomic, though
it was militarily important. The same thing applies to David Walter's idea
of posing 'social priorities' against the market. What is uneconomic under
capitalism does not become economic under socialism. This is such a basic
fact, and yet its significance eludes people almost entirely. All known
schemes for alternative forms of energy, that is, all plans for an
alternative to the petroleate society, involve moving from a richer to a
poorer energy environment, from a less to a more labour-intensive world. It
is pure wishful thinking to suppose that 'socialist technology' will solve
the problem today, any more than it did in the Soviet 1930s. It is pure
credulousness, it is nothing more than a simple-minded, infantile belief in
religious miracles, to hope for any such thing. It replaces Marxism as a
science, the science of historical materialism, with idle fantasising, with
superstition and social and intellectual passivity. This passivity is a most
striking feature of our movement nowadays. It is a sign of defeatism and the
retreat into chiliastic fantasy.

As Mark Harrison and other scholars have shown in detailed and monumental
studies, the Soviet attempt to put 'social priorities' above market
efficiency, doomed the Soviet experiment to economic failure from the start.
Moving heavy and defence industry to the Urals was a brilliant strategic
initiative, but a complete disaster economically, guaranteeing that Soviet
Russia could never outcompete the West, would always be therefore a
subordinate part of the world market, and would finally lose its
attractiveness to workers who rightly saw that what the model offered was
more work, in worse conditions, for less pay.

 Unfortunately, in the absence of free labour markets, it was possible to
embark on the massive 5-Year Plan projects only by means of the forced
conscription of labour. David Walters too would face precisely the same
problem if he tried to mobilise huge quantities of dormant capital and idle
labour to produce electricity by what are essentially uneconomic
(=unprofitable) methods. Labour enthusiasm would be an important aid (as it
was in Soviet Russia, until inevitable cynicism and disillusionment set in,
which left nothing but coercion ad the secret police as levers in the hands
of the bureaucracy). But labour enthusiasm would not and never can be enough
to realise the plan targets. Has David Walters really thought thru the
implications of his ideas about 'social priorities under socialism'? I

Voluntarism, spontaneism, defying the working of the Law of Value... it was
Trotsky himself who criticised the spontaneism of Stalin's 5-Year Plans,
arguing that the USSR could not avoid 'the background chatter of Value
around its borders' and that Stalin's attempt to defy the economic laws of
gravity could only be accomplished by bureaucratic coercion, the enforced
conscription of labour, a ubiquitous secret police, and a system of labour
camps or gulags.

But Stalin, like David Walters, argued that there was simply no alternative,
and that the 'Soviet working class' (an entity which, as Isaac Deutscher
pointed out, was originally almost entirely a figment of the Bolshevik
historical imagination) was capable of storming any position, 'even the

There is a moving passage in Deutscher's biography of Stalin (first
published in 1948) where he describes the effect of Stalin's triumphalist
propaganda on the Russian masses, who jubilantly and joyously left behind
their cramped squalid quarters (which admittedly, nevertheless did have
roofs on them and other amenities) and went off into the open steppe, where
there were literally no quarters of any kind, no amenities whatever, and
there they proceeded to 'build Communism'. Many did not survive, of course.

Stalin's forced industrialisation did succeed, in its own terms. But what it
created was an autonomous enclave of economic anti-gravity which only
managed to stay out of the capitalist world market at bayonet-point, until
the workings of the law of value buried the whole scheme in 1991.

A recent Brookings Institute report shows how the 20th century climate did
get wetter and colder for the average Russian, but not because the climate
changed (if anything it got warmer) but because the average Russian
relocated to more northerly climes; the entire social, economic and cultural
centre of gravity of historic Russia moved eastwards and northwards as a
result of socialist industrialisation (ie, under the imposition of David
Walters' 'social priorities').

Now, as if a table has been tilted from right to left then back again, the
centre of post-Soviet Russian gravity has again moved west to the old
Kiev-Moscow-St Petersburg axis. An astonishing demographic phenomenon has
evolved since 1991, which goes with the total collapse of Soviet industry:
the east and Siberia has become depopulated, entire cities have been
emptied, and the people have trekked back westwards.

This demographic tidal wave is the historical correlative of the general
working of the law of uneven and combined development, which empties out
peripheries and concentrates populations around poles of accumulation.
Russia is literally moving west, back towards Europe. So much for the
attempt to impose 'social priorities' on the iron working of the Law of
Value. But I am afraid that even David Walters (of all people!) might have
become an enthusiastic Stalinist if perchance he'd been a militant young
Russian cadre reading Pravda in 1929. He would have found articles by the
kilometre talking just as he does about "a balanced use of fossil and
alternative> energy sources, and a future that's better, more productive,
and happier> than under capitalism, in other words, socialism".

People didn't vote for what Stalin did, of course, but then--and this, apart
from the unwitting Stalinism which is a concealed feature of so much of the
happy-clappy, utopian tendency, is the whole nub of David Walters' own
political problem, which is the left's perennial problem of voluntarism and
panglossian optimism. It flies in the face of a grim political reality,
namely that, other things being equal, it is rational self-interest for
workers living in the imperialist metropoles to vote against socialism and
for capitalist parties. They will never, given the chance, vote for David's
version of  'social priorities'. No-one will ever vote for dearer
electricity, or for the chance to join a labour brigade and go around
building windmills when they could just sit at home and watch a game and
chill. (There is such a quixotic dimension to this whole discussion! I've
been tempted all week to make this joke about windmills, but I must not, I
must not). Not when they have the option, as I say, to carry on as they are
now, and let dear old supply-and-demand fix up everything, and give the ones
who count (the ones who vote in US presidential elections, that is, no-one
else in the world counts), US living standards to match--and devil take the

I would argue that it is David Walters those like him who are the true
authoritarians, not the harmless realists like me. For it is not me but
these techno-optimists, you panglossians, who produce smooth-sounding but
suspiciously-vague formulae about how good things will be 'under socialism'
while missing out the central issue of how you get things done, how, that
is, you coerce people to do stuff when there is no Law of Value, no free
labour market, capital market etc, to allocate factors of production. When,
in fact, you are planning to override the Law of Value and put it into
reverse. The Law of Value is a curse which oppresses capitalists with its
draconic logic as well as oppressing workers, but it works and people buy
into it because they get more goods on the shelves and more personal freedom
than from any other system. David Walters is claiming (I would say this
claim is pure pretence) that 'under socialism' factors of production would
be allocated better and goods, including energy, would be more freely
available. There is no evidence whatever to support this claim, either
historically or theoretically, and a great deal of theoretical and empirical
evidence to show the opposite.

Planning, as we know, is essential to capitalist societies which in fact
have generally been better at it than socialist states,
historically-speaking. But under capitalism, planning works because it is
subordinated, institutionally and functionally, to the market, that is, to
the iron working of the Law of Value. When you abolish the Law of Value but
continue to try to operate a capitalist-style social division of labour with
an industrial mode of production, you introduce not higher planning but mere
arbitrariness and finally, bureaucratic sclerosis in a police state, but
under the sign of a Party-teleology.

I would say that, just as Stalin and Stalinism generally, tends to veer
erratically from social-democratic caution and counter-revolutionary
political stagnation, to extreme over-optimism based on irrational
utopianism, so too does the kind of political false optimism advanced by
David Walters inevitably end up in the most callow kind of
counter-revolutionary reformism. This is actually made clear in his own
formulation of political priorities. His proposed solution to the
breathtaking scale of the historical impasse in which capitalism finds
itself, and which is now encouraging the imperialists to abandon every
pretence of law and civil liberty, to wage endless war on the poor of the
earth, and to hold over our heads a Damocles Sword of a genocidal holocaust
in the Middle East? David Walters says: "All this discussion is hypothetical
in many respects until  we can > get rid of> the deregulated market an
establish public power on a national and> international basis."

Well, indeed. We do need to re-regulate the market, I suppose. This will be
a step forward in the campaign to stop catastrophic climate change, the
pauperisation of 4 billion people living in the peripheries, and the looming
collapse of world oil production. But it is hardly enough, is it?

The problem with all this empty and idle talk about 'social priorities' is
that since it begins by ignoring the working of the Law of Value (which was
Marx's starting-point of course) it's proponents are unable to avoid veering
between shallow reforms and social democratic politicking on the one hand,
and irrational exuberance (to coin a phrase) about the chances of 'socialist
technology' performing miracles on the other.

The more you do things like invest in (intrinsically unprofitable)
renewables, for example, the more you lower the average rate of profit
taking the economy as a whole, and therefore the more you lower the general
level of social productivity. Well-intentioned European-style social
democrats get round this by arguing that actually there 'social priorities'
will ultimately RAISE the profit-rate. When David Walters talks about some
things being 'uneconomic' under capitalism but profitable under socialism,
he is unwittingly echoing the same social-democratic slavishness.

The standard social-democratic argument is that some goods cannot be
provided by the market but are essential anyway and must therefore be
provided some other way, for example by the state, which finances them
through taxation. We have just been talking about the social philosopher
John Rawls who argued on similar lines for the benefits even to capitalism
of providing some goods this way. Traditionally, competition between rival
national capitalisms is supposed to determine the cost-benefit and
effectiveness of different forms of social policy. Thus the general working
of the Law of Value, and its historical paramountcy, is allegedly preserved.
This is stated by bourgeois thinkers to be essential not just to the
continuance of capitalism, but to the continuation of all civilisation,
since the market and the Law of Value which undergirds it, is the only
absolute guarantor of social rationality, and the rights and freedoms of
civil society. Social-democrats are thus, even and ESPECIALLY when talking
about social priorities, the best defenders of bourgeois society and of the
historical justification for capitalism as being the most rational form of
society. Stalin is generally alleged to have similarly served to rationalise
and justify the existence of capitalism, but those who, like David Walters,
argue for social priorities in these same terms are also guilty of bourgeois

In Euro-social-democratic thinking, Country A finances health care purely
from taxation and Country B purely by the market. But competition in the
world market between the capitalists of Country A and B determines which
form of provision is ultimately the more beneficial to capitalist profits.
That system is best which results in the highest national average rate of
profit. The postwar friendly rivalry between European social-democratic
states, where there is much more 'social priority' type provision, and the
US where more is left to the market, has been a test case of where the
boundaries ought to lie in terms of which approach is more economic, i.e.,
more profitable.

David Walters is applying the same logic to the question of energy
production. He seems to assume that under certain circumstances (he even
spells out some of the circumstances, for example in the case of subsidies
to fossil fuel producers but lack of investment in photovoltaic technology)
capitalist markets are 'irrational', just as European social-democrats think
they are irrational at the margins, and sometimes misallocate resources, and
that therefore it will be possible to remedy this situation 'under socialism
'. Capitalism 'ought to' invest into alternative energy sources but does
not. Socialism will 'correct' this by investing less in hydrocarbon fuels
and more in so-called renewables. Socialist planning, and socialist 'social
priorities' will prove more rational than capitalist planning and

This really goes to the theoretical heart of this discussion. We have to
accept that important theoretical proofs, and a mass of empirical and
historical evidence, proves the opposite, namely that socialism both in
theory and in practice is bound to be a less efficient, less profitable
allocator of resources than capitalism. That is because the socialist
republic allocates resources for different reasons, unconnected with the
drive to accumulate or make profits. The socialist republic may choose to
seek sustainability as an overall social goal, but this will be at the price
of present-day consumption standards in the West. You cannot have your cake
and eat it. We need to be politically honest and upfront with people.


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