Short-Circuiting the Revolution

As I understand it, the orthodox communist belief in proletarian revolution comes from three major claims:

1) The proletariat has the capacity to revolutionise society, due mainly to its central place in economic production, and to its concentration in cities and large businesses (in contrast to the isolation of peasants or small artisans);

2) The proletariat has the motivation to revolutionise society, because capitalism necessarily frustrates its interests and locks it in a class struggle that it is constantly losing;

3) If and when the proletariat revolutionises society, the result will be socialism – a society without systematic class oppression, because insofar as someone’s economic role is proletarian, it doesn’t imply a subordinate person of another class (in the way that a lord’s role implies serfs, etc).

It’s a nice collection of theses, but clearly something is missing, or needs to be said more fully, because the supposed conclusion hasn’t been reached yet. Of course, perhaps we shouldn’t expect it to have been so soon, but it’s still striking that our closeness to it seems by many standards to have substantially declined.

What interests me is the possibility that one of these three points may be in conflict with another – in particular, that the motive mentioned in point 2. may conflict with the end postulated in point 3.

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Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution

I’ve recently been reading some of the work of Eric Hobsbawm, focusing on the Industrial Revolution in Britain and its causes.

Now, there’s an idea which is widespread both among ardent defenders of capitalism and among many of its Marxist and Marxist-inspired critics, that the industrial revolution, and the worldwide technological transformation which it initiated, is intimately involved with capitalism – we have capitalism ‘to thank’ for it. Mostly this is presented as a good thing, and I would overall concur with that analysis, although the environmental consequences have not been brilliant.

What Hobsbawm argues, though, is that while the industrial revolution emerged along with the growth and strengthening of British capitalism, and while the two were certainly connected, capitalism was not actually a very ‘fertile’ ground for industrial revolution, because profit-oriented production tends to be actually quite conservative. He writes:

“It is often assumed that an economy of private enterprise has an automatic bias towards innovation, but this is not so. It has a bias only towards profit. It will revolutionise manufactures only if greater profits are to be made in this way than otherwise. But in pre-industrial societies this is hardly ever the case.

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Justifying Terrorism

For the last few days I’ve been trying to write the final post in my series on “Terrorism and Communism”, Trotsky’s apologia for the Bolshevik methods of the Russian revolution. And failing, because I don’t really know the answer to the question I’m setting myself. So this post is just a preface.

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Why Liberals Should Support the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

This post forms part of a series with my others on Trotsky’s Book “Terrorism and Communism”, but I don’t mention the book anywhere. The idea of this post is a very abstract one – to take the notion of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and suggest that it can be seen to fit very neatly and logically into certain pre-Marxist traditions of thought, specifically ‘Social Contract Theory’, of the sort produced by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.

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Terrorism and Communism: Trotsky is a Bell-End.


This, if it's not clear, is Lenin beating a worker-stereotype to death with a book

One of the key questions in evaluating Trotsky and the Bolsheviks is the issue of party vs. class dictatorship. I’m going to assume here that ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, in the sense discussed in previous posts on “Terrorism and Communism“, is desirable.

Now this question is in many respects quite obvious. The Bolshevik party destroyed proletarian rule by abusing and subordinating the soviets. They, in the cliched phrase, substituted their own party for the working class. Stalin merely continued the basic attitude of Lenin and Trotsky.

What’s interesting, really, is that this fact is so often denied by modern Trotskyists (or rather, that there are so many Trotskyists, since it would be hard to be one while also seeing the man himself as a ‘gravedigger of the revolution’).

So before going into any sort of deep and interesting discussion, I will try to convey how conspicuous this fact appears to me.

To judge a group’s actions we might look at three things: what they said, what they did, and what sort of effect it had. If some of these are bad but others good, then we have a difficult decision. But if they’re all the same…

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Terrorism and Communism: Don’t be Moral

In my last post on “Terrorism and Communism“, I laid out a set of questions that I wanted to ask – the question of rule by the proletariat vs. rule by all classes equally, the question of rule by the proletariat vs. rule by a certain political party, the question of emergency powers vs. constitutional powers, and the question of means, justified by the end or not.

Now, the easiest of these questions to answer is the third – that of exercising emergency rule by exceptional powers, or abiding by the normal constitutional procedures. The reason it’s easy to answer is that almost nobody in the world seriously believes that the same tenor of political activity that’s appropriate in peace is appropriate in war.

For example, if the constitution prescribes a checking procedure that tends to take about 5 days, and the White Armies are 2 days away, the idea that the normal procedures should be suspended in order to make rapid decisions is fairly obvious.

So in that sense, the idea of a dictatorship of the proletariat, in the main sense that the phrase would have had in the 19th century, as meaning the ‘martial law’ of the proletariat, is easy to justify – it requires only the assumptions that 1) the situation resembles a warlike one, with hostile forces sitting ready to assault each other, and 2) that the victory of the revolutionary forces is desirable. If 1. isn’t obvious then hooray, we’re unrealistically lucky, and if someone doesn’t agree with 2., then T&C is hardly the book for them to be focusing on.

So this post isn’t really going to try and answer that question, with its obvious answer, it’s going to talk about moral goodness, and why sometimes, it’s a bad idea.

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Terrorism and Communism: the Meaning of Dictatorship

Trotsky in “Terrorism and Communism” frequently counterposes his position – support for revolutionary dictatorship – with that of the ‘democratic’ Kautsky, doing so in the name of the famous Marxist phrase ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

Now, it’s routinely pointed out that this idea doesn’t mean a ‘dictatorship’ in the sense that we would now understand that term – the unaccountable rule of an individual or small group. Rather, it is very close in meaning to (perhaps even synonymous with) ‘rule of the proletariat’ or ‘power of the proletariat’ – and the proletariat is a mass class, not a dictatorial minority. So the dictatorship of the proletariat implies a great deal of ‘democracy’.

Yet here Trotsky is openly arguing against something called ‘democracy’. So the dictatorship of the proletariat is a dictatorship after all?

And, further complicating the issue, is that Trotsky and Lenin said on several occasions that their understanding of rule by the proletariat is tightly bound up with the rule of the Bolshevik party, and that when necessary this should be elevated over the momentary will of the actual workers. So there does seem to be an element of ‘dictatorship’ involved – but it’s not exactly this which Trotsky seems to be arguing for against Kautsky.

So things seem a bit confusing. I don’t claim to have matters sorted entirely, but I will try to distinguish three separate questions, answers to each of which might be termed ‘dictatorship’. These are not entirely distinct, and some issues blur the lines, but they helped me to conceptualise the issues.

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Terrorism and Communism, Preliminary Thoughts

I’ve been reading Trotsky’s “Terrorism and Communism“, in which he defends the use of repression and terrorism by the Bolsheviks in the Russian civil war. Given that I am not a huge fan of Bolshevism, I am, unsurprisingly, disagreeing with the overall thrust of the book – while also agreeing with various particular points. I suppose that’s what challenging books tend to do.

This is only going to be the first in a series of posts trying to wrestle the kinks and details out of the book and my response. I’m just going to note some preliminary reactions I felt while reading it:

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Yes, Religion is STILL the Opium of the People

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.

I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve heard or read leftists arguing that religious movements shouldn’t be blanket rejected or dismissed, because through their religion they articulate the sufferings and aspirations of people, and thus mobilise those sufferings and aspirations in fighting for change

– and then-

hear them in the same breath contrast this with, or disavow, the ‘traditional’ leftist attitude towards religion expressed in the above quote.

This point – that religion can serve as an expression and mobilisation of people in struggle against oppression – is not just not opposed to Marx’s above quoted view, it is the whole point of that view.

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Reflections on Jerry Cohen the Ex-Marxist

I’ve been reading a book by Jerry Cohen, “If you’re an egalitarian, why are you so rich?” Cohen used to be a Marxist and now calls himself, I think, an ex-Marxist. The book, based on a series of lectures, is basically him reflecting on how his views, which remain socialist and, as he puts it, egalitarian, have evolved away from Marxism. I’m going to do (hopefully) two posts on comments about his arguments, this first one about his views on ‘scientific socialism’ (which, yes, was part of what stimulated me to write my last post), and the next one specifically about his views on equality.

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