Bonapartism, Bureaucracy, Categories, Lessons And The Revolution Betrayed

Posted May 14, 2010

While the post-modern assertion that all things were only relevant to themselves, and therefore categories were false and constraining, has been given a good battering by the post-post Cold War world, there remains a real aversion to thinking about systems with their laws and categories. The thing about categories is that they are not fixed (at certain times they are necessarily arbitrary), nor are the elements characterized by them. They, like everything, are part of processes in motion. Beyond general agreements, all evolutionary biologists know that the taxonomy of species is a bit of a ‘let’s place the marker here, no let’s place it here’ exercise. But understand evolution without them? Impossible.

While Stalinism remains a political reality, without the Soviet Union, few would argue it was the same animal. Others categories go completely. Take, for example, any number of categories we no longer have any use for that are central to Trotsky’s specific analysis Russian Bonapartism like kulak and Stahkanovist. The motions of history have placed them in the dustbin, and yet some of the trends identified in them continue in new ways and different forms. Categories are extremely useful tools, indeed I can’t imagine any kind of thinking that wasn’t forced to resort to their use, and yet they too easily give rise to a kind of determinism. We have all been proven wrong too many times to claim any but the most specific prognostications (or the most general) to be ‘determined’.

But you know what? Thinking is hard work and learning is never finished. The use of intellectual tools always requires something of the arts as well as the sciences. Marx said that “‘all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided.” It takes some imagination as well as some facts so as to see things as they really are. Post-modernism is post, thankfully, but a certain challenge of theirs was entirely valid. Haughtiness led to laziness which led to mechanism in too much of the Marxist movement for too long. All three were challenged in their way by the post-modernists and in response, in my opinion, Marxism is more ‘alive’ than at any time in my political life (saying very little, I know).

Here is Part One of Chapter 11 of Trotsky’s classic The Revolution Betrayed. I think that Trotsky uses the categories of ‘fascism’ and ‘bonapartism’ with such skill in this passage. Notice how he sees past those categories for what is common in the process that created them. Though the term ‘Bonapartism’ has fallen away in left discourse with much of the idioms of the movement of the previous century, as a concept it retains much of its validity. Trotsky was instrumental in bringing that notion, born in middle of the 19th century, into his own time and context. We ought to be trying to do the same. What do these terms- as concepts- mean or not today?

For example: is Bonapartism (or how we might define it today) a character of Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution? (I am struck by Trotsky’s remark, echoing Marx, on the role of the plebiscite in bestowing power onto leaders of such systems). Even if it is not, doesn’t our history demand we at least ask? And more importantly to Trotsky’s analysis– and this is why Trotsky, despite all, will continue to be a point of reference and inspiration– the whole force of his argument and the nature of the conclusion demand the working class act in its own interests.

I suspect as the current crisis heats up and if the working class gets itself together enough to pose some challenges we’ll see more such regimes, and the resulting confusion engendered will happen despite history’s cruel, numerous, lessons. The thing about lessons in the class struggle is that the ruling class, the hegemonic actor, doesn’t need to relearn while the working class, whose very history is obscured, always has to relearn lessons every generation; and the current generational break in the continuity of much of the worker’s movement makes this task that much more difficult. A big disadvantage; hence the insistence by most Marxists, at least in part, on the need for revolutionary political parties as a way to embody lessons and generalize them to current realities.

Already there exist a few regimes with at least elements of the classical understanding of Bonapartism. And bureaucracy is a feature of every present social formation; a constant and eternal foe. We have yet to escape the contradictions faced by those Marxists of yesteryear. Ours is an ongoing struggle and the only ‘law’ of history- until now- that I subscribe to entirely is that of the class struggle. To Comrade Trotsky then and The Revolution Betrayed.

Bonapartism As A Regime Of Crisis

The question we previously raised in the name of the reader: “How could the ruling clique, with its innumerable mistakes, concentrate unlimited power in its hands?” – or, in other words: “How explain the contradiction between the intellectual poverty of the Thermidorians and their material might?” – now permits a more concrete and categorical answer. The Soviet society is not harmonious. What is a sin for one class or stratum is a virtue for another. From the point of view of socialist forms of society, the policy of the bureaucracy is striking in its contradictions and inconsistencies. But the same policy appears very consistent from the standpoint of strengthening the power of the new commanding stratum.

The state support of the kulak (1923-28) contained a mortal danger for the socialist future. But then, with the help of the petty bourgeoisie the bureaucracy succeeded in binding the proletarian vanguard hand and foot, and suppressing the Bolshevik Opposition. This “mistake” from the point of view of socialism was a pure gain from the point of view of the bureaucracy. When the kulak began directly to threaten the bureaucracy itself, it turned its weapons against the kulak. The panic of aggression against the kulak, spreading also to the middle peasant, was no less costly to the economy than a foreign invasion. But the bureaucracy had defended its positions. Having barely succeeded in exterminating its former ally, it began with all its power to develop a new aristocracy. Thus undermining socialism? Of course but at the same time strengthening the commanding caste. The Soviet bureaucracy is like all ruling classes in that it is ready to shut its eyes to the crudest mistakes of its leaders in the sphere of general politics, provided in return they show an unconditional fidelity in the defense of its privileges. The more alarmed becomes the mood of the new lords of the situation, the higher the value they set upon ruthlessness against the least threat to their so justly earned rights. It is from this point of view that the caste of parvenus selects its leaders. Therein lies the secret of Stalin’s success.

The growth of power and independence in a bureaucracy, however, is not unlimited. There are historical factors stronger than marshals, and even than general secretaries. A rationalization of economy is unthinkable without accurate accounts. Accounts are irreconcilable with the caprices of a bureaucracy. Concern for the restoration of a stable ruble, which means a ruble independent of the “leaders”, is imposed upon the bureaucracy by the fact that their autocratic rule is coming into greater and greater contradiction with the development of the productive forces of the country – just as absolute monarchy became in its time irreconcilable with the development of the bourgeois market.

Money accounting, however, cannot fail to give a more open character to the struggle of the different strata for the distribution of the national income. The question of the wage-scale, almost a matter of indifference during the epoch of the food-card system, is now decisive for the workers, and with it the question of the trade unions. The designation of trade union officials from above is destined to meet more and more resistance. More than that, under piecework payment the worker is directly interested in a correct ordering of the factory management. The Stakhanovists are complaining more and more loudly of the faults of organization in production. Bureaucratic nepotism in the matter of appointing directors, engineers, etc., is becoming more and more intolerable. The co-operatives and the state trade are coming much more than formerly into dependence upon the buyer. The collective farms and the individual collective farmers are learning to translate their dealings with the state into the language of figures. They are growing unwilling to endure submissively the naming from above of leaders whose sole merit is frequently their closeness to the local bureaucratic clique. And, finally, the ruble promises to cast a light into that most mysterious region: the legal and illegal incomes of the bureaucracy. Thus, in a politically strangled country, money circulation becomes an important lever for the mobilization of oppositional forces, and foretells the beginning of the end of “enlightened” absolutism.

While the growth of industry and the bringing of agriculture into the sphere of state planning vastly complicates the tasks of leadership, bringing to the front the problem of quality, bureaucratism destroys the creative initiative and the feeling of responsibility without which there is not, and cannot be, qualitative progress. The ulcers of bureaucratism are perhaps not so obvious in the big industries, but they are devouring, together with the co-operatives’ the light and food-producing industries, the collective farms, the small local industries – that is, all those branches of economy which stand nearest to the people.

The progressive role of the Soviet bureaucracy coincides with the period devoted to introducing into the Soviet Union the most important elements of capitalist technique.

The rough work of borrowing, imitating, transplanting and grafting, was accomplished on the bases laid down by the revolution. There was, thus far, no question of any new word in the sphere of technique, science or art. It is possible to build gigantic factories according to a ready-made Western pattern by bureaucratic command – although, to be sure, at triple the normal cost. But the farther you go, the more the economy runs into the problem of quality, which slips out of the hands of a bureaucracy like a shadow. The Soviet products are as though branded with the gray label of indifference. Under a nationalized economy, quality demands a democracy of producers and consumers, freedom of criticism and initiative – conditions incompatible with a totalitarian regime of fear, lies and flattery.

Behind the question of quality stands a more complicated and grandiose problem which may be comprised in the concept of independent, technical and cultural creation. The ancient philosopher said that strife is the father of all things. No new values can be created where a free conflict of ideas is impossible. To be sure, a revolutionary dictatorship means by its very essence strict limitations of freedom. But for that very reason epochs of revolution have never been directly favorable to cultural creation: they have only cleared the arena for it. The dictatorship of the proletariat opens a wider scope to human genius the more it ceases to be a dictatorship. The socialist culture will flourish only in proportion to the dying away of the state. In that simple and unshakable historic law is contained the death sentence of the present political regime in the Soviet Union. Soviet democracy is not the demand of an abstract policy, still less an abstract moral. It has become a life-and-death need of the country.

If the new state had no other interests than the interests of society, the dying away of the function of compulsion would gradually acquire a painless character. But the state is not pure spirit. Specific functions have created specific organs. The bureaucracy taken as a whole is concerned not so much with its function as with the tribute which this function brings in. The commanding caste tries to strengthen and perpetuate the organs of compulsion. To make sure of its power and income, it spares nothing and nobody. The more the course of development goes against it, the more ruthless it becomes toward the advanced elements of the population. Like the Catholic Church it has put forward the dogma of infallibility in the period of its decline, but it has raised it to a height of which the Roman pope never dreamed.

The increasingly insistent deification of Stalin is, with all its elements of caricature, a necessary element of the regime. The bureaucracy has need of an inviolable superarbiter, a first consul if not an emperor, and it raises upon its shoulders him who best responds to its claim for lordship. That “strength of character” of the leader which so enraptures the literary dilettantes of the West, is in reality the sum total of the collective pressure of a caste which will stop at nothing in defense of its position. Each one of them at his post is thinking: l’etat c’est moi. In Stalin each one easily finds himself. But Stalin also finds in each one a small part of his own spirit. Stalin is the personification of the bureaucracy. That is the substance of his political personality.

Caesarism, or its bourgeois form, Bonapartism, enters the scene in those moments of history when the sharp struggle of two camps raises the state power, so to speak, above the nation, and guarantees it, in appearance, a complete independence of classes in reality, only the freedom necessary for a defense of the privileged. The Stalin regime, rising above a politically atomized society, resting upon a police and officers’ corps, and allowing of no control whatever, is obviously a variation of Bonapartism – a Bonapartism of a new type not before seen in history.

Caesarism arose upon the basis of a slave society shaken by inward strife. Bonapartism is one of the political weapons of the capitalist regime in its critical period. Stalinism is a variety of the same system, but upon the basis of a workers’ state torn by the antagonism between an organized and armed Soviet aristocracy and the unarmed toiling masses.

As history testifies, Bonapartism gets along admirably with a universal, and even a secret, ballot. The democratic ritual of Bonapartism is the plebiscite. From time to time, the question is presented to the citizens: for or against the leader? And the voter feels the barrel of a revolver between his shoulders. Since the time of Napoleon III, who now seems a provincial dilettante, this technique has received an extraordinary development. The new Soviet constitution which establishes Bonapartism on a plebiscite basis is the veritable crown of the system.

In the last analysis, Soviet Bonapartism owes its birth to the belatedness of the world revolution. But in the capitalist countries the same cause gave rise to fascism. We thus arrive at the conclusion, unexpected at first glance, but in reality inevitable, that the crushing of Soviet democracy by an all-powerful bureaucracy and the extermination of bourgeois democracy by fascism were produced by one and the same cause: the dilatoriness of the world proletariat in solving the problems set for it by history. Stalinism and fascism, in spite of a deep difference in social foundations, are symmetrical phenomena. In many of their features they show a deadly similarity. A victorious revolutionary movement in Europe would immediately shake not only fascism, but Soviet Bonapartism. In turning its back to the international revolution, the Stalinist bureaucracy was, from its own point of view, right. It was merely obeying the voice of self-preservation.