Thursday, August 5, 2021

Trotsky after Kolakowski

 As people who follow my feed know, I have recently reread the three volumes of Leszek Kolakowski’s magisterial Main Currents of Marxism. I read them first in the mid-1980s (the date when I bought them, inscribed on my copy, is June 1982), and rereading them almost forty years later. It is even more impressive now—because I know more and because the world has changed. I will write more about that in another post.

Kolakowski discusses many writers, from the Greek founders of dialectics and Hegel to Mao Zedong. His knowledge is simply astounding. With many of them he disagrees strongly, and yet Kolakowski is –discussing them on their own terms, not his—at times admirative. This is the case of Lukacs (especially) and Lenin. Lukács indeed is, after Marx, the most impressive thinker, among more than a hundred discussed in the three volumes. Young Kolakowski was, it seems evident, very influenced by Lukács.

But the person of whom Kolakowski is probably the most contemptuous (leaving aside Marcuse—who is not worth discussing) is…Trotsky. If I were to summarize it in one sentence, I would say that it is because Trotsky was Stalin without Stalin’s convictions, or rather without Stalin’s readiness to make difficult decisions when left alone (i.e. without having Lenin to back him up).  

How do we reconcile this with (I think) undeniable fact of Trotsky’s brilliance in many spheres, from writing to war-making, and his particular attraction to intellectuals? Indeed, when intellectuals who dream to change the world, think of an exemplary life, it is hard not to see that Trotsky’s probably fits the bill as one of the most brilliant such lives in history. How many intellectuals are there sipping coffee in Café Zentral in Vienna on a Friday, and leading to victory the largest army of workers and peasants in the world next Monday? How many are there writing book reviews on a Saturday, and taking hostages on the next Tuesday? Is it common to go to an art exhibition in Paris on Sunday, and to negotiate a peace treaty that gives away a third of a country’s industry on Wednesday?

The extraordinary combination of a brilliant intellectual life (for Trotsky was indeed an excellent writer) with the life of a man of action, not being afraid or deterred by obstacles, is straight out of Greek playbook of heroic lives

What went wrong? Why is that that the architect of Bolshevik victory, already by 1924 received the second least number of votes in the elections for the Central Committee? A person who was clearly number 2 to Lenin was already in May 1924, No. 2 from the bottom in terms of Bolshevik’s top echelon’s preferences.

The reason is that Trotsky’s manifold abilities could only be fully displayed  and used so long as he was put in position of command, and was ultimately controlled by, a person whom he saw as his intellectual and political equal or superior. That was Lenin. As soon as Lenin was gone from the scene, all the negative features of Trotsky’s came to the fore: his haughtiness, conceit, arrogance. His ideologically extreme positions (collectivization, willing contempt for the trade unions and workers)  were later applied by Stalin, and Trotskyists—many of them in labor camps across the Soviet Union—briefly rejoiced in their ideological victory over the “grey blur” of bureaucracy, Stalin.

It was never clear if that extremism in the 1920s was true or fake. And this is where we come to Kolakowski’s contemptuous judgment: Trotsky was a poseur. After the anchor of Lenin was gone, he did not want to take any responsibilities: he was the head of the Red Army, technically commanding millions of people, yet he refused to attend meetings; he would decline positions he was offered, including the one of Prime Minister; he would treat his comrades with contempt, so much so that they would stop talking to each other as soon as they would see him walking the corridors of the Kremlin, afraid of his biting remarks. (All of these examples are from other writings, not Kolakowsk’s book.)

His unwillingness to take charge when it was manifestly his duty to do so sowed the seeds of later defeatist outlook, and not only of the Trotskyist movement, which broke up in ever smaller groupuscules. It affected many left-wing movements that preferred to claim grandiose ideas, but were unwilling to even try to take power. Examples include the French and Italian Communist parties in the 1960-70s which totally gave up the idea of winning elections, or gaining power.

Trotsky personally did not want this to happen: he continued fighting to the end, including against his own assassin, a strong men thirty years his junior, whom Trotsky, with his bleeding head, was able to wrest to the ground. Yet by avoiding the responsibility when it was his for the taking, he charted the future path of many left-wing parties. It was reinforced by Gramsci’s oft-repeated defeatist “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. All of that meant that many left-wing politicians lost any desire to win.

“Trotskyism” eventually became a “movement” (if this term can at all be applied) of Western intelligentsia that wanted to pretend they were doing something—while in reality doing nothing. It made no inroads anywhere in the world, with the possible exception of the Spanish POUM in the 1930s. It became after World War II a useful “movement” to have nice dinner conversations and to meet clever girlfriends and boyfriends—it might have served as an eHarmony of post-war Western Europe—but it was little else.  Even worse, in its US form, it converted itself from the left to the extreme right as many formerly young Trotskyists ended up, not only supporting, but defining, the neocons’ imperialist project.

Trotsky still haunts the left: if you really do not want to win, you never will.  If it is more fun to drink cappuccinos on a square at noon then to get up at 6 am to canvass support, you will end up drinking cappuccinos.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

The long NEP, China and Xi

Many journalists, commentators and political scientists see the recent policy changes in China as “the return to communism”. They in particular point out to a number of measures whose objective was to limit lending by internet companies, to ban for-profit tutoring, and to put a squeeze on companies producing internet games (the latter were, tellingly and ominously, likened to  “the spreaders of the spiritual opium among the Chinese youth”). Western commentators are shocked by Chinese government’s apparent indifference to what such measures might do to the stock markets in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. (In effect, they have all declined during the last month). This is in signal contrast with government’s concern, and even panic, when the Chinese stock market went through severe turbulence in the Summer of 2015.

The commentators “transfer” or impute to China their own ideological biases. That bias consists in an excessive focus on the stock markets as almost sole indicators of an economy’s health. This of course is not surprising in a country, like the US, where 93% of financial assets are held by 10% of the population (see E Wolff, A Century of Wealth in America). The latter are also the richest people and consequently things that affect them will be –given that they control the media either directly (as Bloomberg) or indirectly, because they are the main buyers of the news—reported much more extensively than things that affect the other 90% of the population. All of this makes stock market acquire an hypertrophied importance compared to what is its real relevance. It gives us though an excellent insight into who really controls social and economic  life of a country.  

Donald Trump was merely an extreme example of the ruling class’s singular (and fully reasonable, from the point of view of their financial interests) obsession with the stock market. Trump often decided on his policy moves, not merely domestic but even foreign,  in function of their effect on the stock market. One might recall that Thump’s only reason for not allowing infected patients to disembark from a ship in the waters off Long Beach in March 2020 was not to spook the stock market.  (Little did  he—and all of us with him—know what will happen next.)

            Let me give you a personal story that encapsulates the  importance of the stock market for the rich. In August 1991, I was on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, the island rightly known as the abode of very rich democrats. (The most recent house owner there is Barack Obama.) The vacation coincided with the anti-Gorbachev coup in Moscow (August 19-22). So everybody, in  that small enclave where I was, rushed in the morning to watch TV news (these were the years before the Internet and smart phones).  Absolutely dramatic  events, with global and historical consequences,  were unfolding in Moscow: the coup leaders were giving a badly-organized press conference, the army had seized main buildings in Moscow, demonstrators began to descend in the streets, Yeltsin seized the Russian Parliament building, it was unclear if Gorbachev was arrested or not….One was watching history happening in front of his own eyes. But after about half-an-hour of live coverage from Moscow, the liberal elite decided that it was enough, and switched the channels: they tuned in on the New York Stock Exchange, and most attentively watched the developments there probably mentally calculating how good (or bad) were the events in Moscow for their portfolios.  Some of us who were more interested in the fate of the Soviet Union, communism and the world than in stock quotations were in the minority, and we had  to divine the events in Moscow from the gyrations of the stocks in the New York.

            China wants to be different. In a society of political capitalism, as I argued in Capitalism, Alone, the state tries to maintain its autonomy. In the United States, the state generally acts as a custodian  of the capitalist interest “managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie.”  In political capitalism, though, the state must not allow to co-opt or to be “contaminated” by capitalist interest. In other words, capitalist interest is one of the interests to consider—but not the only one, or even perhaps not the chief one.  

            This approach is consistent with the long Chinese tradition of the state keeping merchant and capitalist interests at arm’s length. Ho-fung Hung, for example, nicely describes how the Qing bureaucracy sided in industrial disputes with workers, and not with “masters” as was commonly the case in the nineteenth century Britain (my review). The same arguments were made by Giovanni Arrighi (reviewed here), Jacques Gernet (on Southern Song China), Kenneth Pomeranz (reviewed here), and Martin Jacques (reviewed here).

Furthermore, if one looks at the current Xi-led party from a Leninist perspective (which Xi may not be loath to do), the same conclusion is reinforced. The Chinese capitalism may be seen as one “long  NEP”—which might last a century or even two--wherein  capitalists are given free hand in practically all areas of economics, but the commanding heights of the economy are preserved for the state (which means they are under CPC's control) and the political power is not shared with anyone, least of all with capitalists. Thus the state maintains freedom of action vis-à-vis socially the most powerful group (capitalists), and can ignore their complaints when an overarching social interest is at stake; as in the three examples of regulatory and legal crackdown was arguably the case.

            Can the autonomy of the state end, and will bourgeoisie take over the Chinese state as it did in the West? It is quite possible. The modernization theory argues that. There are, I think, three ways in which it could happen.

            First, there could be a middle-class or bourgeois revolution. It should be noted however that no revolution against  communist regime had ever succeeded. The one that came closest was the Hungarian revolution in 1956, but it was crushed externally, by Soviet arms. So that possibility, so long as the Party-state is united is, I think, extremely unlikely.

            The second possibility is “Gorbachevization.”  This means that the top echelons of the party move towards social-democracy. This ideologically makes lots of sense given that originally communists were part of social-democracy. So the ideological gap between the two is not very wide. The end of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union came when several communist parties, became, either at the top (like CPSU) or throughout its membership  social-democratic. The latter was the case, by 1988-88, for at least the Hungarian, Polish and Slovenian communist parties. They came close to the Italian CP, ideologically and politically.

            The third possibility is “Jiang Zeminism” whereby the party increasingly accepts among its top members capitalists, and reflects their interests. In a recent paper in the British Journal of Sociology Li Yang, Filip Novokmet and I find indeed that while CPC membership (by the end of Jiang Zemin’s rule) was more similar to the overall composition of China’s urban population than before, the top (richest) CPC members were increasingly  diverging from the rest of the membership and the population. Here is our conclusion: “While the structure of CPC membership in the recent period approximates better the population structure than in 1988, the CPC top is moving further away from both CPC overall membership structure and that of the urban population as a whole” (see here).

The “insinuation” of the rich into the top party ranks was rationalized by Jiang Zemin under the  ideology of “the three represents”. One does not hear much about “the three represents” nowadays (it seems to have been replaced by Xi Jinping Thought) so that path to change is currently being blocked.  

            The future will tell us if in one of these three ways the Chinese state gets taken over by the rich, or not—that is, whether it remains autonomous in its decision-making.