What can be learned from the history of the Soviet Union, and its failure to break free from capitalism, about a future transition to a post-capitalist society? In Paul Mason’s book Postcapitalism: a guide to our future, the places he starts looking
are (i) Aleksandr Bogdanov’s utopian novel Red Star (downloadable here), and (ii) the Trotskyist opposition’s critique of Stalinist planning. I think he presents answers that are too easy. The histories of Russian socialism and Stalinist tyranny give us lessons that are richer, but also more difficult to access, than he suggests. Here are some thoughts provoked by chapter 8 of Postcapitalism, “On Transitions”.
■ Aleksandr Bogdanov’s utopian vision – set out in his 1909 novel Red Star, about a Russian communist who is invited to Mars, where a human-like race of people live in a socialist society – was not at odds with the mainstream of communist thought in the way that Paul suggests.
By portraying the communist future, Bogdanov, a member of the Bolshevik party led by Lenin, was “defying the conventions of his time”, Mason writes. “All wings of socialism were opposed to discussing castles in the air.” Bogdanov believed workers were not ready to run society, and that a new proletarian culture, science and philosophy needed to be worked out. He “had the temerity to suggest that Marxism should adapt to new ways of thinking in science”; this was “anathema to Lenin”. And so Bogdanov was expelled from the Bolshevik party in 1909.
Well, yes and no. Firstly, Bogdanov was in no way “defying convention” among Russian communists by imagining a utopian future. All in the radical workers’ movement, communists included, had read Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s feminist, socialist and utopian novel What is to be Done, written in 1863. (Lenin titled his 1902 polemic on revolutionary organisation after it.) After the 1905 revolution, a series of utopias set in technologised cities of the future – including The Society of the Future (from Women and Socialism, 1879) by German socialist leader August Bebel, Looking Backward (1889) by the right-wing American socialist Edward Bellamy and Female Labour (1891) by Lili Braun – were translated from other European languages and circulated “in large numbers”, according to Revolutionary Dreams by the historian Richard Stites (which is full of brilliant, inspiring stories about Russian socialist utopianism).
Secondly, Bogdanov needed no “temerity” to suggest that Marxism should “adapt to new ways of thinking in science”. True, Lenin opposed Bogdanov’s philosophical ideas, which were linked to new developments in physics – and had Bogdanov expelled from the Bolshevik organisation on account of this. But that’s only part of the story. For a start, after the 1917 revolution, Bogdanov, while refusing invitations to rejoin the Bolsheviks, remained an important influence on them. More to the point, the Bolsheviks were not anti-science or anti-technology. Like most early 20th century socialists, they believed that they were standing ideologically on the shoulders of the 17th-century scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. After taking state power in an overwhelming peasant country, they saw education, literacy and rationalism as key weapons in the fight against religion.
■ Bogdanov’s novel was not meant as an alternative programme for building socialism.
Mason argues that by advocating “technological maturity as a precondition for revolution”, “peaceful overthrow of the capitalists”, “a focus on technology as a means to reduce labour to a minimum” and by insisting that “humanity itself” has to be changed, not just the economy, Bogdanov was in Red Star outlining “a complete alternative to the ideas that would dominate the far left in the twentieth century”. This is way overstating the case. The ideas that technology is the means to reduce labour to the minimum, and that communism involves changing people and not just the economy, were common to most socialists of Bogdanov’s time, and certainly to the Bolsheviks. Hundreds of their books, pamphlets and speeches that could be quoted to show this; this is from one, The ABC of Communism, by Nikolai Bukharin and Yevgeny Preobrazhensky, published in 1920:
The communist method of production will signify an enormous development of productive forces. As a result, no worker in communist society will have to do as much work as of old. The working day will grow continually shorter, and people will be to an increasing extent freed from the chains imposed on them by nature. As soon as man is enabled to spend less time upon feeding and clothing himself, he will be able to devote more time to the work of mental development. Human culture will climb to heights never attained before. It will no longer be a class culture, but will become a genuinely human culture.
Socialists in Russia and across Europe were indeed split on the other two issues Mason mentions: “technological maturity as a precondition for revolution” and the possibility of “peaceful overthrow of the capitalists”. Hopes of a peaceful transition away from capitalism were strong in many European socialist parties prior to the first world war. In Russia, the despotic character of power, and the defeat of the 1905 revolution, had always made such a prospect seem less likely. On the other hand, Russia’s technological backwardness and lack of industrial development seemed to the Mensheviks and other moderate socialists not to preclude revolution, but to mean that the bourgeoisie would play the key role in it.
Historical events, bigger than any of these actors, changed the terms of these arguments. Confronted with the unprecedented violence of the first world war, large sections of the parliamentary socialist parties supported their “own” ruling classes; the Bolsheviks were the largest socialist party to oppose the war outright. But after the Russian monarchy fell in February 1917, the demand to pull out of the war was pressed was not only by the Bolsheviks as a political party, but by a much larger movement of soldiers and workers. The Russian army suffered the biggest mass desertion in history. It was above all this movement that produced the second revolution. The Bolsheviks, left Socialist Revolutionaries and other socialists participated in it, despite often sharing some of the Mensheviks’ doubts about the difficulties and dangers for anti-capitalist revolution implied by Russia’s technological and economic backwardness. In general they justified the second revolution – and in the Bolshevik leaders’ case, aspired to be its “vanguard” – not because Russia was technologically ready, but because they thought a “workers’ state” could preside over the technological and economic modernisation of the country.
In a nutshell: the belief that technological maturity was a precondition for socialism (rather than revolution) was shared by the whole workers’ movement. The disputes that raged in and after 1917 concerned whether, and how, a “workers’ government” could oversee social and technological change.
■ The dichotomy between Bogdanov’s views and Lenin’s was far less important than the dichotomy between the Russian socialists’ collective (and heterogenous) ideas about change and the limitations imposed on them by early 20th century reality.
Mason wonders (p. 220) what would have happened if Lenin had fallen under a tram on his way to the Bolshevik meeting that expelled Bogdanov, and says he is not the first to do so. He adds: “There is a whole literature of ‘what if?’ focused on Bogdanov – and rightly so.” (I wish he had included some references to it, because I am not aware of it.)
Well … what if? Here’s a coherent argument that it would not have made much difference. … after Lenin’s funeral in 1908, a more tolerant, and less decisive, bunch of his collaborators (Zinoviev, Kamenev, and others) would have taken over. Even had Bogdanov continued to work with them, neither he nor they would have had any more influence than Lenin did on the February 1917 revolution. And when it came to the autumn of 1917, they would have faced the same choice as Lenin’s Bolshevik party did real life: to take the opportunity presented by the rising revolutionary wave to seize power, or not? Mason implies (p. 223) that Bogdanov would have been against seizing power. Certainly many
key Bolsheviks were. One possibility is that, via a different route – the Constituent Assembly of January 1918? – Russia could have ended up with a left socialist coalition rather than a Bolshevik-dominated government that within months became a single-party regime.
But, even then, the basic dilemma that Mason discusses – that the first post-capitalist project, the Soviet one, took shape in a country with a terribly low level of capitalist industrial and technological development – would have had to be resolved, one way or another, whichever socialist politicians were at its head. Another “what if” could have been that no kind of post-capitalist project was attempted. The gulf was not so much between what was in Bogdanov’s head and what was in other Bolsheviks’ heads, as between their various forward-looking ideas and the reality they were dealing with.
■ The “lesson”, “do not take power in a backward country”, is not much help.
“One lesson [of the Soviet experience] – spelled out in advance by anarchists, agrarian socialists such as Kondratieff and dissident Marxists like Bogdanov – was: ‘do not take power in a backward country’”, Mason writes. I think he is running the risk of bending the facts to suit his argument here.
Did the anarchists, agrarian socialists and dissident Marxists really spell out this warning in advance? No. The Russian anarchists, in their majority, were opposed from the start to the Bolshevik government (as to all governments) but supported the aspiration to “soviet power”, raised in 1917 and re-raised against the Bolsheviks by the Kronstadt garrison in 1921 – notwithstanding Russia’s economic level. If by “agrarian socialists” Mason means the Socialist Revolutionaries, by far Russia’s largest party in 1917, the issue as they debated it was not whether to “take power in a backward country”, but whether to do so in coalition with capitalist parties (as the SR majority did in the spring of 1917) or in coalition with the Bolsheviks (as the Left SRs did after the second revolution). (Nikolai Kondratiev, the economist to whom Mason refers, was an SR party member and very briefly, in line with the majority position, served in the last provisional government in 1917, before turning to academic research and contributing to economic debates during NEP.)
As for Marxists who were opposed to, or (a more common position) in two minds about, the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, it’s an exaggeration to say they had “spelled out in advance” the logic for holding back. The widespread assumption among Russian Marxists at the turn of the 20th century was that Russia’s economic backwardness precluded it pioneering a socialist revolution. But the extent of working-class participation in the 1905 revolution, and the weakness of the tsarist regime, provoked rethinking all round. The possibility of a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” that might oversee capitalist modernisation was mooted. The theory of permanent revolution, set out in 1906 by Lev Trotsky further challenged the standard view.
The February 1917 revolution produced an unexpected situation. Support for the socialist parties swelled beyond their own wildest dreams; the issue was not whether to take political power, but what to do with the potential power placed in their hands by the rampant workers’ movement. The main opponents of the Bolshevik slogan of “soviet power” were the Mensheviks, who Mason doesn’t mention. They didn’t say “do not take power in a backward country”, but the closest thing to it that made sense: “the working class can not take power on its own, and so it must do so in coalition with the capitalist parties”. The practical result was that most Mensheviks either participated in, or supported, the provisional governments of 1917 – earning lasting opprobrium from radicalised workers and peasants for opposing peasant land seizures and unilaterally-declared peace. Some left Mensheviks refused support for the provisional governments, participated in the soviet congress that declared “soviet power”, but refused to support the Bolshevik break-up of the Constituent Assembly.
So Mason’s suggestion that the lesson “do not take power in a backward country” was “spelled out in advance” doesn’t stand up. The closest position to that was that of many Mensheviks. But many non-Bolshevik Marxists who were in two minds about the October seizure of power – Bogdanov included – during the civil war focused their hopes on soviet power (which meant different things to different people) and sided with the Reds.
All this detail matters, because if we are to learn lessons from this history for the 21st century, we should consider what really happened, and not read back into the past debates that took place subsequently. I am not dismissing the endless discussions among socialists – whether Trotskyists, autonomists, anarchists, council communists, or others – after the revolution that used “don’t take power in a backward country” as a counter-factual logical device. Some of those are also interesting. (See the summary in Western Marxism and the Soviet Union by Marcel van der Linden.) But the issue simply was not posed like that in 1917, and it’s a-historical to suggest that it was.
■ Bogdanov’s novel is valuable now not as a political alternative to Leninism but for what it was – a technocratic utopia.
To get something of value from Bogdanov, we need to put his work in its real historical context. I think Red Star is most interesting as the socialist-technocratic utopia that it is. Bogdanov, writing not long after the invention of the telephone and the internal combustion engine, foresaw computerised management, nuclear power (for both good and evil) and interplanetary travel. He considers the problem of natural limits in a manner far ahead of most early 20th century socialists.
The point that Mason underlines, that “Martian communism is based on abundance: there is more than enough of everything”, is central.
I am less enthusiastic about Bogdanov’s picture of human relationships that evolve in Martian society. The pictures he drew of inter-personal relationships, and the function of art, in a future society, are in my view paler than e.g. those by William Morris in News from Nowhere (1890).
But as a bridge between Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done and the explosion of futurist thinking in the 1920s, it is a key link in Russian literature.
■ Mason’s account of the defeat of the Russian revolution by Stalinism is over-simplified.
The new economic policy (NEP) adopted by the Bolsheviks after the civil war created two dangers, Mason argues. First it “channeled money towards the better-off peasants [“kulaks” in Russian slang] and gave the agricultural sector a de facto economic veto over the speed of industrial development”, and, second, it “solidified a privileged bureaucracy” (p. 221). “Against the rich peasants and the bureaucrats, the Russian working class pressed for more democracy, for rapid industrialisation through central planning and for a crackdown on speculators.” Stalin defeated the Trotskyist opposition, who championed the suppression of “kulaks, speculators and bureaucrats”, and then did a U-turn, “implementing the left’s programme” of industrialisation and collectivisation, and liquidating the kulaks with his own brutal methods. Mason’s summary of the revolution’s degeneration is based squarely on Trotsky’s critique, developed in the 1930s … and steps too quickly over some deeper problems.
For a start, historians of the Russian countryside have for decades argued that the “danger” posed to the “workers’ state” by rich peasants was in large part an artificial construct. (For example, the economic historian Stephan Merl wrote that the Bolsheviks based their anti-kulak policy on “arbitrary” criteria. “There is virtually no evidence of a trend towards a ‘capitalist’ differentiation of the peasantry, defined in terms of the employment of labour.”) The whole idea that the survival of the workers’ state depended on “defeating” the kulaks, which the left opposition shared with the Stalinists, rested on exaggerated assumptions about the rich peasants’ capacity to “exploit”. And it served to displace attention from the multiplying forms of workplace exploitation in the state-owned industrial trusts, and the wider array of hierarchical social relationships that re-established themselves in the years after 1917.
Incidentally, the picture Mason draws of Russian workers pressing for industrialisation via central planning and a crackdown on speculators bears little resemblance to the real class struggles of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Workers’ movements were overwhelmingly against harsh cuts in living standards and speed-up, as well as for soviet democracy against dictatorship; the communist opposition hesitated to support these movements and campaigned to revise economic policy separately from them.
Mason’s reference to the bureaucracy, that it “solidified” under NEP, begs the crucial question of how it emerged in the first place. Shouldn’t the work of historians who reckon it had already coalesced during the civil war be considered? For example, S.A. Smith wrote that during the civil war (1917-20) the Red army became the key component of the state; as the state “acquired ever more functions, its apparatus proliferated” and by 1920 it had more than 5.8 million employees. The effective ban on all pro-soviet non-Bolshevik parties, and merging of party and state functions, had also gone a long way in that time.
All this suggests that, as a project destined to achieve a post-capitalist society, soviet Russia was in serious trouble long before the difficulties with NEP on which Mason concentrates. We will never know whether more democratic forms of soviet administration would have worked better than Stalinism did, because they were never tried.
The key problem, for Mason, was that Soviet planners “refused to recognise that even transitional economies have objective laws: dynamics that work behind the backs of the economic players and confound their willpower” (p. 223). I think this underestimates the system of power relations in which the planners were locked.
Especially from 1928-32, when Stalin imposed break-neck industrialisation and forcibly collectivised agriculture, the planners were carrying out instructions from political leaders that reflected the material interests of the bureaucracy as a social group. The administrators’ hands were tied by social realities; they got nowhere near aiming “to produce as much as possible so that work would be de-linked from wages and the ability to consume”, as Mason claims (p. 228). As for working people, they were deprived of any opportunity for active involvement in decision-making that would characterise any set-up that could be described as socialist.
The lessons of the Soviet experience for 21st century socialists have to do with this whole ensemble of power relations, not just problems of economic planning. GL, 4 April 2016.
More on Postcapitalism by Paul Mason on People and Nature
More on Bogdanov and utopianism
■ “The anthropocene in 90 minutes” – by Maria Chekhonadskikh. Mute, September 2015. A persuasive review of Molecular Red by McKenzie Wark that includes a discussion of Bogdanov’s ideas.
■ Watch “Interplanetary revolution” (1924) – an 8-minute cartoon by soviet film-makers about how the revolution would be spread to other planets (a variation on Red Star’s theme).
 The Russian historian Alexei Gusev has researched the relationship between the opposition and the workers’ movement in detail. See, for example, A. Gusev, “The ‘Bolshevik Leninist’ opposition and the working class 1928-29”, in D. Filtzer et al (eds.), A Dream Deferred: new studies in Russian and Soviet labour history (Peter Lang, 2008). A brilliant account of the workers’ movement during the industrialisation drive is: Jeffrey Rossman, Worker Resistance Under Stalin (Harvard University Press, 2005)
 S.A. Smith, The Russian Revolution: a very short introduction (Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 54 and 69. Diane Koenker, William Rosenberg and Ronald Suny (eds.), Party, state and society in the Russian civil war (Bloomington 1989) is also full of information on this. A review of many of the arguments by a socialist writer is: Sam Farber, Before Stalinism: the rise and fall of soviet democracy (Verso, 1990).