Revisiting the Peasant Question, the Victory of Stalinism, and the Problem of Alternatives

Reply to Mike Haynes

John Eric Marot

How to write with open possibility when one knows the ending?

China Miéville, 2017

 (This article is in response to Mike Haynes' article here.)


In “The Problems of Political Marxism and Its Application to the Russian Question” Mike Haynes attacks Political Marxist theory generally, in part I, and my application of it to Russian questions particularly, in part II.[1] But my critic declines to closely engage with either. He says so himself. With respect to Political Marxism, the issues are so ‘huge’ that he can only make ‘assertions’ about most of them in his essay, telling readers that if they want to know more they can track down ‘things’ he has written elsewhere ‘in the past decades about some of these issues in more detail’. With respect to the origins of Stalinism, he says my account ‘doesn’t smell right’ to his ‘historian’s nose’ but does ‘not have the time’ to take up my arguments ‘in detail’. He hopes to be ‘forgiven for asserting alternatives’ while ‘providing the occasional more detailed comment.’

This is not an optimum procedure as it makes his intervention difficult for specialists, let alone non-specialists, to access. I will not follow suit.

I will not discuss Political Marxism here because Haynes is unengageable on the topic.[2] Instead, I will try to make sense of Haynes’ extraordinarily discursive critique, in part II of his essay, of my argument regarding the origins of Stalinism. But first, let me restate, as concisely as possible, what that argument was (further elaborating certain aspects of it here) since Haynes presented a badly truncated, meandering, scattershot version of it.



Restating My Argument

With their emphasis on the transient circumstance of Civil War and the ancillary ‘anti-democratic’ measures taken by the Bolsheviks to win it as the paradigmatic explanation for the ultimate ‘degeneration’ of the October Revolution, Marxists today, with few exceptions – among them Haynes – simply do not take seriously the arguments of pre-1921 Marxists spelling out the permanent, structural reasons why socialist construction in Russia would face huge obstacles.

Drawing on the pioneering work of Robert Brenner, I argued that Russia’s non-capitalist agrarian class structure under the New Economic Policy (1921-1929), inherited from Tsarist times, did not and could not support a sustained dynamic of economic development marked by the systematic growth of labour productivity in agriculture realised through cost-cutting measures of accumulation, innovation and specialization. Only such productivity increases could permit the rapid transfer of labour from agriculture to industry and, therewith, assure a breakthrough in the growth of associated production in the cities i.e., building socialism. But the peasant way of life, regulated by the village mir, or peasant political community, structurally precluded such regular productivity increases.[3]

25 million peasant households pursuing their ‘rules of reproduction’ on their Lilliputian-sized plots of land determined a pattern of economic involution that inexorably led to a subsistence crisis in the Soviet Union, just as in Tsarist times. In the fall of 1927 shortfalls in grain deliveries to the cities, triggered by poor harvests owing to bad weather, caused prices to rise and wages to fall, prompting authorities to ration basic foodstuffs the following year. It also led the ruling stratum to cleave in two with respect to a long-term solution to this crisis.

Beginning in January 1928, one faction of the ruling ‘bureaucracy’, led by Stalin, repeatedly resorted to short-termed ‘extraordinary measures’ to take grain at gunpoint from the ‘richer’ peasantry, the kulaks, as in the period of War Communism (1918-1921), when the Red Army was fighting counter-revolution and needed to be fed. Soon, a competing faction emerged led by ‘Old Bolsheviks’ Bukharin, the party theoretician, Rykov, the premier overseeing the economy, and Tomsky, head of the trade unions.

Bukharin considered Stalin’s line fatal for the whole revolution because a second edition of War Communism would, like the first, generate massive resistance by the peasantry as a whole, not just the kulaks, causing grave instability and potentially opening the way to the overthrow of the Soviet Republic. He advocated instead a course of compromise and conciliation to maintain, or try to maintain, the smychka or alliance of the peasantry and the working class, the central political-economic pillar of the New Economic Policy – and signature achievement of the Bolsheviks under Lenin’s leadership. Lenin had clearly stated: ‘We are helping the peasants because without an alliance with them the political power of the proletariat is impossible, its preservation is inconceivable’.[4]

Throughout 1928 and beyond, the ‘Right’ Opposition, as Stalin and Trotsky jointly characterised it, tried to organise to contest Stalin’s policies which, it thought, put the smychka in grave danger. Because both factions engaged in a see-saw struggle whose uncertain outcome would decide the fate of the October Revolution, the year 1928 may truly be called a “Year of Drift.”[5]

From abroad the exiled Trotsky critically supported Stalin’s 16 months long campaign against Bukharin, and urged his followers at home to do the same. His order of the day was: “With Stalin against Bukharin? Yes! With Bukharin against Stalin? Never!” Trotsky attacked Bukharin for ‘objectively’ supporting a kulak-led restoration of capitalism in agriculture, paving the way for a similar restoration in industry.

Stalin ultimately overcame the Right Opposition. Beginning in April of 1929, he systematically removed its leadership from high office in party and state. A few months later, in August 1929, the bulk of the exiled ‘Left’ Opposition, elated by the triumph of Stalin’s ‘Leninist’ course over the capitalist-roaders of the Right – and disagreeing with Trotsky over what to do next – rallied to Stalin. At this point, no significant opposition to Stalin remained in the leading echelons of the Communist Party.

But Stalin still had difficulty imposing his faction’s will on the lowers ranks of the party aktiv, particularly in the countryside, aktiv who were close to the peasantry, sympathetic to it plight and reluctant to antagonize it,[6] as well as on party members in factory committees and the trade unions working as best they could to defend the interests of rank-and-file workers against an increasingly overbearing management.[7] Stalin determined to crush resistance there too. But he had to start with the peasantry and to get to the peasantry in the first place he had to overcome opposition from the lower party echelons in the countryside, even within his own faction,[8] gingerly trying to shield the rural population from assault and abuse.

With no end in sight to the grain crisis owing to ever sharper peasant confrontations with a marauding state, Stalin finally abandoned the policy of ‘extraordinary measures’ in December 1929 and adopted a new, wholly counter-revolutionary course. He declared all-out war on the peasants, determined to destroy their rules of reproduction and impose new ones. Over the next three years he steadily ground down the mir, which had followed/enforced these rules under the Tsars, War Communism and the NEP, [9]and drove millions of peasant onto collective farms, the kolkhozy. Millions more were sent into exile and forced labour. Famine broke out in 1932-1933. Between five and seven million men, women and children perished.

In the cities, the working class, joined by millions of peasants thrown off the land, was dragooned to build industry under the Five-year plans. Workers’ resistance was brutally crushed. Stalin gutted democratically elected factory committees, last redoubts of workers’ power at the point of production, and destroyed independent unions.[10]

Stalinism, like capital, comes “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”[11]

As noted, the bulk of the Left Opposition had jumped on Stalin’s bandwagon in the summer of 1929 in the expectation that after the earlier rout of the Right, in the spring, Stalin would now implement the program of the Left Opposition fully. But, critically, it was the minimal application of the Left’s program in the past two years, in the first instance the preliminary assault on the ostensibly capitalist-roading kulaks, which had generated ferocious resistance in all layers of the peasantry – ‘rich’, ‘middle’ and ‘poor’ – in the first place. If the extraordinary measures weren’t stopped, Bukharin warned in July 1928, you’ll get an uprising of the peasant whom the kulak will take on, will organize, will lead. The petit-bourgeois spontaneity will rise up against the proletariat, smash it in the head, and as a result of the sharpest class struggle, the proletarian dictatorship will disappear.

Stalin mocked Bukharin’s prophesy of doom: “A terrible dream, but God is merciful (laughter).”[12] But the ‘dream’ became a nightmarish reality: the proletarian dictatorship did disappear, supplanted by Stalin’s.

To conciliate the peasantry at this point meant not just abolishing extraordinary measures but giving up, as well, on the Left’s idea of accelerated economic development. But Stalin chose not to appease the peasantry. He chose another path: overcome peasant resistance through brute force and push to develop the forces of production – even if it meant destroying the NEP. Contrary to Deutscher and scholarly opinion generally, Stalin never stole the Left Opposition’s program, soaking it in blood. This is because that program presupposed the more-or-less painless continuation of the NEP, not its blood-soaked annihilation.

Stalin’s strategic change of course, adopted in the winter of 1929-1930, caused much hand-wringing among the former oppositionists of the Left. They had not expected this cataclysmic turn of events. But most reconciled themselves to building ‘socialism’ in one country. Meanwhile, throughout the 1930s, Trotsky objected to Stalin’s ‘bureaucratic’ method of socialist construction.

Full-scale collectivisation and forced industrialisation in 1929-1933 embodied an entirely new program, an irrevocable break with the NEP, designed to pump-prime the forces of production – a ‘primitive accumulation’ in its own right – while collaterally transforming Stalin’s faction of the bureaucracy into a ruling class in the Marxist sense i.e., able to systematically extract a surplus from the immediate producers, peasant and worker alike, through extra-economic coercion via its monopoly ‘ownership’ of the state as its private property.

Stalin’s policies extirpated the socio-property relations set up by the October Revolution and established new ones, founding a new class society. At the same time, from late 1927 through early 1929, there was an open possibility – however small the opening – of forestalling the formation of these new relations of class and property, along with contemporaneous formation of a new state corresponding to them.

As I wrote:

The Bolshevik-influenced and led class-struggles in 1917 had emplaced relatively free social relations: the same struggles would have been required to prevent their complete displacement a decade later. Only an active, mobilised working class with a very high level of political awareness, on a par with the working class of 1917, could have developed the potential to halt Stalin’s incipient counter-revolution…The support of the masses could be counted on in light of Stalin’s objectively anti-popular policies.[13]

So Haynes is quite mistaken to contrast my work on 1917 and the October Revolution which, he says, ‘deserves high praise,’ to my account of Stalin’s counter-revolution, which his nose tells him doesn’t smell right. In 1917, the question of political leadership was paramount in determining victory or defeat of workers and peasants in their struggle against the Provisional Government. This would also be true, albeit in significantly different ways, in the late 1920s, when the ‘centrist’ Stalin periodically moved ‘left’ to attack the kulaks —Trotsky ipse dixit – and then moved ‘right’ – not attacking the kulaks owing to resistance from the Right Opposition, under pressure from workers and especially peasants to maintain the NEP or some reasonable facsimile of it.

The key point here is not that ‘Bukharinism’ offered a viable program of industrialisation and collectivisation, as his biographer Stephen Cohen and many others have claimed.[14] The point is that Bukharin wanted to preserve the NEP by stopping Stalin. That was the Right’s top priority. Trotsky, on the other hand, did think that gradual collectivisation and industrialisation was possible under the NEP. “Whither the Soviet Union: Toward Capitalism or Socialism?”[15] as Trotsky summarily put it in 1925, was now a matter of the party pursuing correct policies at home as well as abroad. Agrarian class structure could be transformed politically, via proper economic planning by the workers’ state. He had not always thought that way.

Trotsky’s original, 1906, formulation of permanent revolution theory held that short of the “direct State support of the European proletariat”[16] building socialism in Russia, even partially, was not possible. It was all or nothing. Clearly, Trotsky had modified his permanent revolution theory by entertaining the very idea of an alternate program of socialist construction in one country.

Under the NEP, the Left, including Trotsky, now considered that trade with the capitalist world under the aegis of a workers’ state made a partial transition to socialism possible. Thus, socialist construction in Russia was no longer predicated upon a contemporaneous – let alone antecedent – victory of socialist revolution abroad. The existence of a workers’ state, even isolated, had altered the equation, opening the way to build an incomplete socialism in one country.

In any event, Trotsky did not turn his back on Bukharin and Stalin just because they believed in completing ‘socialism in one country’. He distinguished the two on political, not theoretical grounds. It was Trotsky’s belief in a partial transition to socialism that prompted him to support Stalin against the back-peddling Bukharin. He convinced himself that Bukharin was prone to systematically cave in to ‘capitalist’ pressures at home and abroad. He was an incorrigible ‘Rightist’. Not so with the ‘centrist’ Stalin: he could be pushed to ’vacillate’ to the left and, ultimately, the Left could push Stalin aside entirely – and take charge.

Trotsky on no account anticipated Stalin would or could carve his own path, beyond the NEP Left and the NEP Right. But Stalin did just that. Trotsky would never acknowledge this mistake of mistakes.


Theory and Practice

Haynes ‘strongly’ agrees with me that the ‘best hope’ for ‘stopping a Stalin-like figure in the short run’ was for Bukharin and Trotsky to join hands. But the best hope was actually hopeless, in Haynes’ view. He excludes the possibility of a Bukharin-Trotsky bloc because neither had ‘completed his analysis’ to forge unity on the basis of correct, state capitalist theory.

Haynes grants that Trotsky made ‘huge mistakes,’ an idea that was central to his ‘first book,’ published over 30 years ago.[17] But in this book he also says the same about Bukharin and puts him in the same boat with Stalin. He denies that the Right Opposition’s policies differed significantly from Stalin’s because Bukharin (like Trotsky) had not mastered state capitalist theory.

After 1926 Bukharin made ‘revisions in his analysis’ of the transition from capitalism to socialism that, according to Haynes,

played directly into Stalin’s hands and, to the extent they offered any alternative at all, constituted only a more moderate version of industrialisation on the backs of the working class as it was eventually carried out under Stalin. In this sense Bukharin’s policies came, in 1927 and 1928, to be distinguished only in degree from those of Stalin and the ground around him. They were not different in kind.[18]

Among many other things, this passage elides the distinction between modifications in Bukharin’s analysis and modifications in his politics.

Let’s assume, without arguing, that Bukharin’s theoretical ‘revisions’ brought him closer to Stalin in theory. Isn’t the key point the fact – recognised by Haynes in his polemic against me if not in his book on Bukharin – that Bukharin’s policies put him in political opposition to Stalin in 1928-1929, overriding the revisions, overriding a common belief in ‘socialism in one country’. What’s more important? What people theorize or what they practice? What they say or what they do? For Marxists there can only be one answer. But my critic has another answer. He sends both men to the devil because neither had a full and proper understanding of state capitalist theory – a very pleasant, self-regarding stance for state capitalist theorists to adopt! But this is an academicism that is unaware of itself. It has nothing in common with Marxist appraisal which must the answer the question: Which side would you have been on in the dispute between Stalin and Bukharin? [19]

Correlatively and unlike Haynes’ theoreticism, holding a correct, ‘Brennerite’ theory of the dynamics non-capitalist economic formations, of peasant small-holding, was not a pre-requisite to counter Stalin. Bukharin and the Right did not understand those dynamics yet opposed Stalin. Trotsky and the Left were also completely in the dark about those dynamics yet supported Stalin. But the Bukharinists early on had what was far more important than correct theory, indeed, decisive: an intuitive understanding, nourished by a garden-variety empiricism, that Stalin’s ‘extraordinary measures’ risked calamity, whereas Trotsky and the Left waved aside such risks, intent on following a misguided theory.



What sort of political leadership and strategy, campaigning on what kind of platform, would have been necessary to garner the support of workers and peasants against Stalin’s policies, whose implementation paved the way for breaking the October Revolution, as Bukharin had presciently warned?

For the outcome to have been different, minimally, the Left, in all its configurations – Left Opposition (“Platform of the 47” 1923), the Zinoviev-Kamenev Opposition (1925-1926), the Zinoviev-Kamenev-Trotsky or United Opposition (1926-1927) – should never have adopted a program of accelerated economic development – and thus in constant opposition to the really existing alternative: the go-slow program of economic recovery and unhurried economic advanced favoured by the minimalist policies of the Stalin-Zinoviev-Kamenev leadership in 1923-1924; the Stalin-Bukharin leadership in 1925-1927; and, from 1928, systematically favoured by Bukharin and his followers alone.

The Left’s program could not have rallied popular support because workers and peasants were not prepared to sacrifice their present day material interests for the sake of potential material benefits arising from future economic development. “Trotsky’s policy was unrealisable, except in the distorted Stalinist totalitarian form.”[20] Indeed, Stalin rarely missed an opportunity to publicly denounce its ‘super-industrialising’ schemes. This was a gross exaggeration, of course. But, tellingly, he did not publicise the Right Opposition’s perspectives[21], doing everything in his power to keep those under wraps because ‘exaggerating’ the truth that the Right wanted to preserve the NEP and hold off attacking the peasantry could easily backfire: it would have popular appeal, especially among peasants.

Among workers, despite (or because of?), ‘bureaucratic’ direction, the NEP had, after all, dramatically improved the lives of a newly reconstituted proletariat. For much of the urban population, it was out of the question to jeopardise the NEP and return to some version of War Communism, a hellscape fresh in every one’s memory, when life expectancy in 1920 fell to 19.5 [sic!] for men and 21.5 [sic!] for women.[22]

Had the Left made common cause with the Right against Stalin, the Right, mollified by this crucial concession on domestic issues, may well have been more open to following the Left’s lead on foreign affairs: the pursuit of a genuinely internationalist foreign policy, the ‘united front’ instead of the ‘popular front’. The latter strategy had badly compromised the cause of communism in Britain in 1926 and destroyed the workers’ movement in China the following year.

The connection between revolution abroad and socialist advance at home had become highly attenuated between 1923 and 1927 because the absence of the former did not seem to impede the progress of the latter. Not so in 1928. That year, the connection once again became palpable, immediate. Two million tons of wheat imported from a Soviet America to 3rd World Russia in 1928 would have allowed the Bolsheviks to escape the political crisis of the late 1920s – by cushioning the impact of the economic crisis underlying it. [23] In this period of food shortages a practical link was forged once more between the fate of socialism in Russia and the progress of the revolutionary workers’ movement in the developed capitalist world, and the argument for an internationalist strategy was bound to resonate much more powerfully, especially among class-conscious workers.

Indeed, the synergies released by this unitary struggle may well have led both tendencies to radically enlarge their political horizons, notably, to think about competing for popular support by campaigning beyond the Communist Party’s ranks, objectively forming a second party.

But Trotsky never wrote a timely equivalent of Lenin’s ‘April Theses’ to effect a strategic reorientation of the Left Opposition, a reorientation founded on the Right Opposition’s altogether different program of preserving the worker-peasant alliance at all costs.



Haynes’ Critique of ‘Methodological Nationalism’: Pre-1917 Marxists on the Nature of the Coming Revolution in Russia.

The gravamen of Haynes’ critique in part II of his essay is that I fail to place Russia and the Russian Revolution in a global context. Since the system of capitalism ‘is global then the issue of any ripeness for revolution has to be analysed in global terms - not in terms of the parts.’ This is a false opposition.

Just because capitalism is ‘inherently globalising’ it does not follow that a country’s ‘ripeness for revolution’ cannot be understood in ‘national’ terms. On the contrary, Second International Marxists – Kautsky, Luxemburg, Parvus, Lenin, Plekhanov, Bukharin, Trotsky and others – understood the category world economy as a heterogeneous whole, composed of many different parts, parts identifiable by their specific socio-property relations, usually operating at the level of the nation-state.

Thus, they all agreed that Russia was becoming – had become – part of the world economy, however defined. But in discussing Russia’s ‘ripeness for revolution’ they all focused on the peculiarities of Russia and the Tsarist state – national peculiarities – that set Russia apart from all other nation states in the ‘West.’ Indeed, Haynes grants that as capitalism ‘expands it does so through process of uneven and combined development and the peculiarities this generates grow over time.’ It is the growing peculiarities of the ‘part’ that commanded the attention of Social Democrats. As Haynes says, the ‘national unit is taken as given and production relations prioritised within it.’ If this is ‘methodological nationalism’ as Haynes protests, then this is a good thing: all the leading Marxist thinkers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were methodological nationalists on this point.

All Social Democrats in developed capitalist societies scheduled their countries for socialist revolution. But they thought Russia was so peculiar that they – Trotsky excepted – scheduled that country for a ‘bourgeois-democratic’ revolution instead. This revolution would give the ‘capitalist’ development of the Russian economy a tremendous boost by overthrowing the feudal state, originally designed to secure the rule of a landed aristocracy, and replacing it with a capitalist state, ideally a Republic, allowing both capitalism and the workers’ movement to develop fully, along modern ‘Western’ lines. With this bourgeois-democratic task accomplished, Russian Social Democrats could finally emerge from the underground and operate in the open, modelling their party and their politics after the Social Democratic Party of Germany.

Trotsky also recognised these national peculiarities but concluded that bourgeois– democratic tasks could only be accomplished by the proletariat on the road to socialist revolution. Nevertheless the peculiarities of the Russian economy – its ‘backwardness’ – would not vanish with a victorious workers’ revolution.

The proletariat would still be an island in a peasant sea, an environment wholly unsuited to socialist development. International revolution alone Trotsky declared urbi et orbi in 1906 would permit durable socialist construction in Russia. Only socialist revolution in the advanced capitalist world could provide, on an international scale, what was missing in Russia on a national scale: the material foundations to socialism. No other Marxist was so explicit about the importance of the international workers’ movement for the success of socialist revolution and of socialism in Russia.

This is not because all other Marxists were provincial. But prominent Western Marxists, like Kautsky, felt no need for explicit theorisation because they all assumed a socialist revolution could only take place in an advanced capitalist country. They therefore took for granted – it required no special argument – that a workers’ revolution, say, in Germany or England, would have a domino effect over other capitalist countries owing precisely to a common material basis for socialism in all of them: developed capitalist relations of class and property within each and, through the world capitalist market, between all.

Clearly, though leading Marxists all understood Russia to be part of the international whole, they analysed Russia’s ‘ripeness’ for socialism in terms of the national part, ‘especially so’ Haynes rightly remarks, ‘if the ability to develop any of the parts is limited by the peculiarities of the way they are integrated into the whole’ – contradicting my critic’s insistence, splashed everywhere else in his intervention, that the international must always take priority over the national.

The foregoing notwithstanding, Haynes repeatedly chastises me for allegedly not examining the ‘particularities’ of Russia ‘integration’ into the world economy. This is not so.

 I wrote: “The Russian economy as a whole, though involved on the capitalist world market, was not dependent on it as were national economies in Western Europe. The distinction is vital and will have to be borne in mind at all times in order to avoid misunderstandings.” And in a subsection of my book titled Peculiarities of Tsarist economic development and the world economy: a discussion with Trotsky, I go on for 11 pages examining the “precise nature of the Tsarist economy’s participation in the emerging capitalist world market of the 19th and 20th centuries,” along with relation of the Tsarist state to this participation, and the ramifications this ensemble had for the politics of the international workers’ movement.[24]

Consequently, Haynes’ assertion that the ‘Political Marxist assumption that national units exist independently of capitalism also means that 'political Marxism' cannot deal with the specific forms and roles of the state and the inter-state system’ is meritless.

Similarly, I never argued that the peasant drive for safety first and self-sufficiency precluded their ‘integration’ in the ‘market’. I explained what that integration was by distinguishing between capitalist and non-capitalist markets. Safety first “did not mean peasants were not involved on the market for, of course, they were, some, the kulaks especially, extensively so.”[25] But that participation was not a life-or-death matter for them because no significant numbers of peasants depended on the market for their survival, because it was a non-capitalist market, because they were in full possession of the means of production land, animals, and tools and therefore exempt from the compulsions of a capitalist market to purchase their inputs by selling their output competitively, by lowering costs, improving productivity and maximizing efficiency. But Haynes misses all this because state capitalist theorists speak only of ‘markets’ in general, running together capitalist and non-capitalist markets.


State Capitalist Theory and Social Transformation

“The proletarian movement is the self-conscious independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority” Marx and Engels memorably declared in the Communist Manifesto. And that is exactly what the October Revolution was. But if the Russian working class movement did act in the interests of the immense majority in overthrowing Tsardom in February 1917 and seizing power eight months later, in October, it was not itself a movement of the immense majority – for that majority was, to repeat, an immense land-holding peasantry with patterns of economic development and material interests of its own, patterns and interests antithetical, in the long run, to those of the proletariat, posing daunting problems of all-round democratic political representation and planned economic advance.

State capitalist theory discounts this national specificity. As noted, it puts a premium on the compulsions of inter-state competition in the world economy to explain the rise and victory of Stalinism, subordinating the national ‘part’ to the international ‘whole’.

Proponents of this theory argue that the Bolsheviks were largely marionettes of forces lying beyond their control, in the ‘logic of interstate competition.’ Haynes’ co-thinker, Alex Callinicos, best summarised this logic, which ‘demanded’ the transformation of

the Bolshevik regime, whose leaders were caught between a subjective commitment to working class power and their objective location as the managers of a state confronted by more advanced imperialist Great Powers further west….[T]he forced industrialisation of Russia in the late 1920s and early 1930s subjected workers and peasants to the priorities of capital accumulation and transformed the USSR into an imperialist power in its own right, caught up in the global process of economic and geopolitical competition—under the banner of “the construction of socialism.” [26]

Even as a summary, this is misleading because it is far too abstract or general.

To reiterate, the category ‘globalising capitalist economy’ requires the local mediation of a given set of social-property relations which will condition how non-capitalist regions of the world respond to capitalism. These relations are not derivable from, or explicable in terms of world economy. Let readers reflect upon an elementary example: The pressures of capitalist economic development in Western Europe and America most definitely impacted the course of events in 19thcentury China and Japan. But the responses were quite different. Japan transitioned from feudalism to capitalism and became a major industrial power by the turn of the century whereas China did not. The Tsarist case was closer – much closer – to the Chinese case.

China, Japan and Russia possessed definite relations of class and property long before capitalism and its pressures first manifested themselves. These socio-property relations generated class conflicts, also antedating the formation of the world economy. It is the outcome of these, sometimes in conjunction with the ‘external’ pressures of world economy but irreducible to them, that would determine a transition to a new mode of production – or not. Marxism has nothing in common with economic determinism.


State Capitalist Theory and NEP Russia

I devoted the bulk of my essay to an analysis of NEP Russia (48 pages), not Tsarist Russia (eight pages) or the War Communist period (seven pages). Haynes did the reverse, evading the central issues. On my tally, Tsarist Russia accounts for around eight pages in his essay, War Communism three, and the NEP four at the most. His disparate comments are by and large tangential, at best, irrelevant at worst, to the topic at hand. Moreover the literary references that pepper his intervention constitute, in the main, anecdote not analysis. So let’s return sine die to NEP Russia.


World Economy and the Grain Crisis of 1927: The Problem of Causality

Haynes does not establish a causal link between the 1927 grain crisis in Russia and world economy. Capitalist crises are characterised by overproduction of exchange values in relation to effective demand, by poverty amidst plenty, as in the Great Depression that began in October 1929, setting the capitalist ‘West’ apart from non-capitalist Russia.

In 1927 Russia, there was a crisis of underproduction of use-values, of poverty amidst poverty, triggering rationing in the cities. Such crises were common under the Tsars well into the 20th century – except that a feudal class of surplus appropriators kept exporting grain even when peasants starved, setting off localised famines in the countryside. Such a class did not exist under the NEP. As a result peasants were free to reallocate their diminishing surpluses in their favour, while the cities had to deal with the deficits.


The War Scare of 1927

Because he does not establish a causal link between the workings of the ‘external’ world capitalist market and developments in the ‘internal’ Russian market, Haynes falls back on geo-political competition between states to explain Stalin’s policy of rapid economic development. Relying on Reiman,[27] he singles out the ‘War Scare’ of 1927 for special treatment.

According to Haynes, this crisis ‘brought home’ a ‘sense of the scale’ of the foreign military threat prompting the leadership to see the ‘internal problems of the countryside’ in a ‘different light’: Russia needed to build its military power fast, which meant industrialisation in a hurry.

Here, Haynes unwittingly concedes my fundamental point that the ‘external’ did not cause the USSR’s rural ‘internal problems’ – these already existed. It caused the leadership to look at these pre-existing problems in a ‘different light’ – a very different proposition. But the historical record still discredits Haynes’ reasoning behind this more modest proposition.

The War Scare of 1927 was one of many episodes of rising (and falling) tensions with one or more Western powers. In this instance, Britain broke off diplomatic relations to protest Soviet interference in domestic affairs through the formation of the Anglo-Soviet Trade Union Committee. However, neither France nor Germany adopted Downing Street’s bellicose posturing. By the end of the year, the War Scare was history and Reiman does not return to it. In 1928 and beyond, Reiman reports,

relations with Britain began to improve, diplomatic relations were soon restored, and a number of economic agreements signed. Economic ties with the United States also expanded, and trade talks with Germany produced results. The Soviet Union’s tense foreign policy relaxed.[28]

Consistent with Haynes’ causal reasoning, this détente should have prompted the Russian leadership to reappraise matters, to review the problems in the countryside in a ‘different light’ – by ‘scaling’ down the foreign military threat and putting off placing Russian economy on a war-footing. But this did not happen.

Doubtless the foreign threat was omnipresent from Day One of the October Revolution. But Soviet foreign policy under the NEP called for business-like relations with capitalist economies and peaceful relations with capitalist states while bearing in mind the ever-present threat of war with them. Putting the economy on a war footing through forced collectivisation and forced industrialisation was never in the cards in that period.

The rationale of the foreign peril was a boilerplate rationale. It could be and was used to justify an array of domestic policies pursued by the Soviet state, ranging from cautiously ‘riding to socialism on the peasant nag’ under the NEP, as Bukharin envisioned, to its opposite, breakneck industrialisation and collectivisation under Stalin’s dictatorship. However, geo-political competition could not determine the transition from the NEP to Stalinism. That transition was the outcome of class or class-like struggles inside the Soviet Union, struggles irreducible to competition between nation states.


A ruling class under the NEP?

Haynes is not clear on the nature of the bureaucracy in NEP Russia. The fact that there was no unanimity in the bureaucracy about what to do – to crush or not to crush the immediate producers – speaks, I think, to an absence of cohesion characteristic of an exploiting class when it comes to defending its right to appropriate a surplus.

Stalin was the first of the Old Bolsheviks to de-Bolshevise. He and his faction, ensconced in the repressive apparatus of the workers’ state and gradually extending its tentacles outwards, had few qualms about destroying the conquests of the October Revolution to build ‘socialism’ at his command. But elsewhere within the bureaucracy such qualms did exist. Support for the Right was especially strong in the Moscow party organization because much of the textile industry there was located in rural areas and worked by proletarians who still retained ownership of land. Rank-and-file party activists in the capital were therefore especially sensitive to the pressures brought to bear on their not so socially distant cousins in the surrounding countryside.[29]

As noted, it’s hard to see a ruling class in the countryside under the NEP because peasants retained control of their conditions of production, preventing their systematic exploitation. In the cities, factory committees and trade unions remained effective instruments of workers’ defence, preventing managers from taking a surplus on a regular basis. Tomsky, head of the trade union faction of the bureaucracy whose influence was national, could not bring himself to do Stalin’s bidding because it meant transforming unions into ‘houses of detention’.[30] Stalin had to sack him and his like-minded colleagues.

Through collectivisation and industrialisation in 1929-1933, Stalin’s faction seized control of the entire bureaucracy, ousting all competitors. It is this counter-revolution that transformed Stalin’s faction into a ruling class, establishing a new set of social and property relations in the society as a whole.


Conclusion: Renewing Historical Materialism

Standing way back and speaking very broadly, most Marxists do not see the late 1920s as a practical crossroads. Instead they look at the NEP period 1921-1929 as little more than a way-station on a one-way road to Stalinism, possessing no independent significance. Discussion of the ‘roots’ of Stalinism tends to halt somewhere between Lenin’s incapacitation in 1922-23 and his death in 1924, by which time the course toward full-fledged Stalinism is set. Certainly, socialist scholar-activists’ foreknowledge of the NEP’s destruction by Stalin so ‘contaminates’ (to use Miéville’s expression) their understanding of the NEP period that it blinds them to the possibility of an alternate outcome at the close of the decade – the victory of Bukharin’s line and the NEP’s preservation – and the scuttling all grand projects for a qualitative advance of the forces of production. In the absence of international revolution there was no passably socialist alternative to this alternative, however immensely difficult to sustain.[31]



[1] “The Peasant Question and the Origins of Stalinism: Rethinking the Destruction of the October Revolution.” This is chapter 1 of The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect: Interventions in Russian and Soviet History, a collection of essays written over the years. This chapter is not the book’s ‘preface’ as Haynes absentmindedly writes. An “Introduction” provides a thumb-nail sketch of each essay in the collection.

[2] A sound initiation to the basic concepts of Political Marxism may be found here, Paul Heideman and Jonah Michael, “In Defence of Political Marxism” (International Socialist Review #90, July 2013).

[3] If there is any Russian term people need to know and understand, mir is it. Boris Mironov, 1985, ‘The Russian Peasant Commune After the Reforms of the 1860s’, Slavic Review, 44:438-67; Moshe Lewin, 1990, ‘The Obshchina and the Village’, in Land Commune and Peasant Community in Russia: Communal Forms in Imperial and Early Soviet Society, edited by Roger Bartlett, New York: St. Martins Press.

[4] Lenin, ‘Third Congress of the Communist International’, Collected Works vol. 32, p. 490. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965.

[5] The title of Chapter 11 in Moshe Lewin’s Russian Peasants and Soviet Power. New York: Norton Library, 1975. This is an incomparable work by a leading materialist historian of this period, a must read for all. Haynes makes no reference to it or its author.

[6] Daniel Thornley, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Rural Communist Party, 1927-1939, (1988) chapter 1, Birmingham: Macmillan Press.

[7] Kevin Murphy, Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory, New York: Berghahn Books. 2005, Chapter 3.

[8] James Hughes, Stalin, Siberia and the Crisis of the New Economic Policy Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Chapter 7.

[9] Haynes characterises the economy of Russia under War Communism as a ‘wreck’ – a novel category this – using Germany in 1946-47 to illustrate his meaning. But, in his bid to affirm that War Communism wrought a fundamental discontinuity in agrarian social structure, Haynes confuses ‘wrecking’ of production with ‘wrecking’ of social relations of production. The former happened but not the latter. The West German economic miracle took off on the basis of the capitalist mode of production, which had never been destroyed. Similarly, agricultural production in Russia rebounded to pre-war levels by 1922 on the basis of peasant relations of production, regulated by the mir, which had never been destroyed either. Only Stalin’s policies demolished those relations by demolishing the mir.

[10] Kevin Murphy pp. 193-4


[12] The exchange is cited in Stephen Kotkin, Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, New York: Penguin Press, 2014, p. 712.

[13] Marot, The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect: Interventions in Russian and Soviet History, p. 86

[14] Stephen Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution; a political biography, 1888-1938 New York : A. A. Knopf;, 1973

[15] Leon Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-1925) pp. 319-382. Pathfinder, New York, 1975

[16] Trotsky, Results and Prospects, (emphasis in the original).

[17] Michael Haynes, Nikolai Bukharin and the Transition from Capitalism to Socialism, London and Sydney: Croom Helm, 1985

[18] Haynes, 1985, p. 100

[19] Let me illustrate the proposition that practice can trump theory. Prior to 1917, the agrarian plank of the Bolshevik platform called for nationalisation of the land, rejecting the Socialist Revolutionary call for peasants to divide the land among themselves. But in 1917 the peasantry acted just as the SRs had predicted, confounding the Bolsheviks – and rendering null and void the theoretical basis upon which their agrarian program had been based: Lenin’s idea of capitalist development in the countryside. On the critical point of what the peasants wanted and what was good for them – if not on others – the test of practice proved the superiority of ‘Populist’ perspectives over Marxist ones – Haynes to the contrary notwithstanding. Fortunately, the Bolshevik leader was not a doctrinaire. At his prompting, the Bolsheviks jettisoned nationalisation and embraced land redistribution, securing the support of the peasantry. The point is that though the Bolsheviks had the wrong political economy for years they still came up with the correct politics in the nick of time only because they were willing to pay close attention to what was going on around them. Of course, ideally you want to get both theory and practice right about the peasantry, something that would elude the Bolsheviks to the end.

[20] “Marxism and the Collectivization of Agriculture” International Socialism (1st series), No. 19, Winter 1964– 65.

[21] V.P. Danilov et al Kak lomali NEP: stenogrammy plenumov TSK VKP(b) 1928-1929 gg, vol IV p. 6 Moscow: Mezhdunarodnyĭ fond "Demokratiia︡", 2000

[22] S.A. Smith, Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890-1928 Oxford, 2017, p. 218.

[23],+United+States,+1910/112005/06&source=bl&ots=knV3rWLj8h&sig=PH28jxSZbdZ1mJ8KIaM6VxXHzCY&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiu4ISLjqTZAhUCwGMKHYSXDO4Q6AEIKzAB#v=onepage&q=supply%20and%20disappearance%2C%20United%20States%2C%201910%2F11-2005%2F06&f=false. Wheat Situation and Outlook Yearbook, Market and Trade Economics Division, Economic Research Service, US Department of Agriculture, WHS-2006, May 26, 2005, Table 27, p. 96. The wheat shortfall in Russia for 1927-1928 was 2 million tons or 72 million bushels. In the US, after deducting for home consumption and exports, there remained in the silos 113 million bushels in 27/28; 227 million in 28/29; 291 million in 29/30; 313 million in 30/31; 375 million in 31/32; 378 million in 32/33. No American worker would have gone hungry helping their Russian sisters and brothers.

[24] Marot, October Revolution pp. 20-31

[25] Marot, October Revolution, p. 60

[26] Alex Callinicos “The orphaned revolution: the meaning of October 1917” ISR 156 October 2017

[27] Michal Reiman, The Birth of Stalinism London: I. B. Tauris, 1987

[28] Reiman, p. 103

[29] Catherine Merridale, Moscow Politics and the Rise of Stalin: The Communist Party in the Capital, 1925-32 (1990) Birmingham: Macmillan

[30] Murphy, p. 178

[31]For example, the following authors do not carry the story of Stalin’s ascendency beyond Lenin’s death, and do not think the post-1924 period or the NEP generally deserve independent study, a ‘symptomatic silence’ (Althusser) that speaks more loudly than anything they say: Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy, (1991) (reprint 2018); Simon Pirani, The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-24: Soviet Workers and the New Communist Elite (2008); Paul Le Blanc, October Song: Bolshevik Triumph, Communist Tragedy 1917-1924 (2017). John Rees’ In Defense of the October Revolution, (International Socialism 2 : 52, Autumn 1991, pp. 3– 79) a 76-page riposte to Farber, allots a paltry three pages to the post-1921 period. Rees acknowledged the assistance of Tony Cliff, Lindsey German, John Molyneux, Mike Haynes and Chris Harman. Two broad explanations for the rise of Stalinist dictatorship may be distinguished here: it is either largely a product, made in Lenin’s time, of uninformed choices born of an inadequate political theory of the post-capitalist transition to socialism (Farber), or largely the result of forced choices, also made in Lenin’s time, imposed by material necessity (Rees). In my view, Rees is correct and Farber is not. But a discussion on the merits is not the point here. No matter the explanation, the three main trends of Trotskyist thought – Rees, like Haynes, is a ‘state-capitalist’; Farber is a ‘bureaucratic collectivist’; Le Blanc, a ‘degenerated workers’ state’ or orthodox Trotskyist; plus what might be called the non-party, council-communist/anarcho-syndicalist trend represented by Pirani, a ‘non-party socialist’ – all agree that the die has been cast by 1924, at the latest, and, absent international revolution, a Stalinist dénouement is all but inevitable from that point on.