Translation of radio interview with GegenStandpunkt editor on “100. Jahrestag der Oktoberrevolution” (GSP 4-17)
100 years since the October Revolution:
Looking back at an unforgivable mistake
GSP: One only deals with an error made by the Bolsheviks and their future allies if one has some affinity with them. A true enemy doesn’t reckon with the mistakes of their movement, but sees the movement as wrong. In this respect, if we want to deal with an unforgivable mistake, we have to talk first about a common ground. The good thing they did was to really make a revolution. This is different than a change of government or a change of power when a new political administration conquers the commanding heights of the state machinery with the intention of following different policies. The October revolution destroyed the entire private power of property by abolishing private ownership of the means of production – and its power to force people to subordinate themselves to the laws of capital because they are dependent on big property holders for employment, on the one hand, and because the society is dependent on the private economy for production, on the other. You can see this now in Venezuela. There was a change of power; the politicians want to govern differently, but basically they are in a jam because they haven’t eliminated the private power of property. That’s what the Russian Revolution did. That’s how revolutionaries first create the freedom to organize the economy so that it really is the means of those who do the work, so that it benefits them, and the economy does nothing else than what is needed for the benefit and convenience of working people. That was the good part.
The unfortunate part is that they didn’t know what to do with their freedom. They used their political power over the economy to reintroduce a mode of calculation they actually copied from capitalism, without the objective laws of capital still being in force and without having any political need for them. First, they liberated the whole society from capital’s power of extortion and then they set up an economy in which they used all the categories from the critique of political economy they had misunderstood from Marx, as if he had provided recipes for the right way to run an economy. Then they said they wanted to at last make use of the law of value in a conscious way, to create surplus value consciously. They reintroduced everything, all the way up to capital and interest, not as powers of capital, but as goals imposed on the economy by the state. That was the terrible aspect of this revolution. The error was inexcusable because it couldn’t be corrected and never was corrected, but was followed to the bitter end until Gorbachev and the system’s decision to terminate itself, with all its consequences.
Question: Let’s stick with capitalism’s mode of calculation. Is there any reason why, if you break the power of capital, you have to reintroduce a mode of calculation of your own?
GSP: The reason is not because of an objective necessity. The reason is really that they had an inadequate, wrong critique of capitalism which the “First International” extrapolated from Marx’s writings. This criticism attacked capitalism as an unfair system of distribution and held that wage workers are poor and stay poor because the capitalists hold power and because the capitalists retain all the surplus for themselves. They wanted to fix this distribution. What they did not see was that the relation of the workers to production actually determines distribution before the question of distribution is even asked. If production is supposed to generate profit, if the economy is set up so that more money comes out than was put in, then the workers are automatically a source of productivity, a source of wealth, and a cost factor. And that is what the Russians set up alongside the planned economy they created. In their plans, they required more come out than was put in. That then defined the position of the workers – as both a source of wealth and a cost factor. But that then also defined wealth as something different than the well-being of the workers. Wealth was then a result of a production which, in real socialism, accrued first of all to the state – which, incidentally, distributed it to the people in a completely well-intentioned way with various social aims.
Question: The editors of GegenStandpunkt write in the article that the real socialists certainly wanted to abolish bourgeois class relations, that they accomplished this, but that this class relation didn't disappear. What exactly stepped in its place?
GSP: It was replaced by a political rule – and in this respect, by the realization of this wrong critique of capitalism: a state that made the entire national economy into the means of its power which it intended to use for social purposes. But in this way, the workers were separated from what they themselves produced. First of all, the work they had to do was full of sacrifice for the state, they had to fulfill the plan and make sure the state’s coffers were well filled. Only then could the state distribute its blessings as it saw fit. In this way, of course, it also created a lot of resistance to work. If you set up work in such a way that wealth does not benefit those who do the work in the first instance, then of course you also carry over the employee who works for wages into the new system and he then makes sure that he does nothing more than he needs to do.
To give an example as an illustration of this contradiction between a planned economy which on the one hand is organized and on the other is overarched by a monetary calculation: if I have a planned economy and plan for use values – how many potatoes are needed, how many tons of steel, how many tons of coal, etc. – and if I say: ok, this will be distributed to the firms or the factories, and then I develop a step-by-step plan for production with raw materials at the bottom and computers at the top – in this type of system, it is completely uninteresting and actually harmful if more is produced at some point than the plan calls for. Nevertheless, the Russians had a planned economy in parallel and they always wanted and demanded that their people over-fulfill their plans and over-reach them. From the viewpoint of producing use values, over-fulfilling a plan is disruptive. There’s no reason that it would be good to have more potatoes than you want and need. But, of course, if you put the whole thing through a monetary calculation – one in which it’s not even known how much money will be made from the potatoes afterwards – then it’s like the west all over again: more is always better and it doesn't matter how use values fit into the proportions between the spheres of production and the division of labor.
Question: According to the article, the state in real socialism saw itself as the servant of the society. If it appropriated this wealth, but then redistributed it in the interests of the people, why does the article say elsewhere that a new system of socially generated poverty was established in real socialism?
GSP: The real socialist state wanted to be the ideal welfare state. It wanted to finally do justice to the wage-workers; it thought that capitalism was depriving them of this. Giving the wage worker his due does not criticize the role of the wage worker. When the real socialists said that they wanted a workers’ paradise, they actually expressed the mistake correctly: the worker, this stupid subject who works constantly, was not what they wanted to abolish, but they wanted to give exactly this subject what capitalism denies him: social security, fair wages, and the like. And in this sense, that’s what the state’s power was set up for.
The question is: why the system of poverty? In general, if it was confronted with social tasks, then it was confronted with poverty, since communism would actually be the mode of production that makes social tasks superfluous because it does not generate poverty in the first place. But if I begin with the wage worker as a means of state wealth to be spent on social tasks, and since wage workers are given very little so that the state has plenty of means available for its good deeds, then I have separated people from wealth. And that is what the article says: a new system of poverty was introduced. This was also known. When you looked at the GDR from the west, everyone always knew: social security is already in place, and you can’t be unemployed. But there was also very little.
Question: The state in the GDR and elsewhere in real socialism had very specific expectations of its citizens, i. e. those who were ruled. Could you perhaps explain how this is connected with this whole wrong criticism and with the establishment of the real socialist state and its economy?
GSP: With their new economic system, they did not overcome the conflict between individual interest and common good, but instituted it in a new way. This included the fact that, on the one hand, they demanded that their people see this system as the fulfillment of their social desires and, on the other hand, expected them to be totally committed to this socialist project, to fulfilling the plan, to everything that had to be done for the people. If it isn’t the case that one’s own effort also increases one’s own benefit for oneself by helping to carry out useful production while everyone else carries it out too and thus brings about benefit for the whole, then it becomes a huge moral lie: one promotes the common good, even though one’s own benefit is nowhere to be seen or far off or quite meagre.
That is the source of the claim that, on the one hand, the state would be the reconcilement of all conflicts and the untruth, on the other, that it just wasn’t the reconcilement. This is the source for why they attached so much value on the heroism of labor, the Stakhanovites, the workers who made overwork their personal passion, and on the orders they continually gave the workers. All this testifies to the untruth of the equation of individual benefit and common good and the claim that it was the same.
Question: Marx and Engels assumed that the state would die out after a communist revolution. But in your article you make it clear that the real socialist state was not designed to die out. How did that come about?
GSP: This fits well with what I said before. It is one thing to use the political force that a revolution conquers to make the conflicts of interest in the society superfluous. Here the word “dying out” is quite good, because it is not the anarchist idea that the state is done away with and then no longer exists, but it is the idea that one makes the activities of a force over people superfluous by getting rid of the conflicts of interests that force exists for and is needed in a bourgeois society.
The bourgeois state has no problem at all with the fact that it is a force. Elections are won by saying that we will offer our citizens more internal security, more police, tougher penalties, etc. The bourgeois state has no problem with violence. The real socialist state had a problem with violence precisely because it claimed to have overcome all conflicts. Although in fact it had established a system which created new clashes of interests. That made it amazingly violent. Because the real socialist state did not have the casual attitude that the bourgeois state has about using force. The bourgeois state has its criminals and it watches them and locks them up. The real socialist state always took the standpoint: something like that should not exist in our country because we are reconciling all interests, and if conflicts still occur, depending on whether they occur above or below, then the state was very quick to treat them as enemies of the state, not as violations of law and order, as in the West, but as enemies of the state, as saboteurs: they are anti-communists and then imprisoned. In this respect, the state was not only unprepared to abolish the relation of force, but it also needed a very peculiar relation of force, one with a bad conscience.
Question: Violence played a very specific role within the real socialist state once it had been established. How does this relate to violence in the revolution?
GSP: For a start, I would simply bracket this, first and foremost. The fact that a revolution is a violent affair is more or less inevitable and depends entirely on whether or not the powers that have hitherto ruled society use arms, whether there is enough of them to resist those who say they no longer want to put up with a system that they know is organized against them, and whether they demand a fight. Whether this gets bloody depends entirely on the violence of the old powers. And one can only hope that, in the future, numbers will make it ever clearer that there are only seven people who own the entire world, so the rest will be against them. But the fact that they must be removed from their privilege with violence is, I believe, beyond doubt. It is a quite different thing when this violence becomes permanently necessary in the society afterwards. This then shows that the system itself generates conflicts of interest and can enforce its logic over society only through violence.
Question: But this conflict was very quickly in the open. There was the good Lenin of the October Revolution, the civil war was imposed on him, and then at some point came the monster Stalin who had his purges and locked up an awful lot of people in the gulag. What do you think about this accusation about real socialism’s violence as it evolved in the 1930s?
GSP: It is said that in this type of revolution there were many twists and turns where different decisions could have been made, etc. In this respect, all was not over under Lenin, as it would be later. But the basic qualitative difference is supposed to be that any reasonable person would want Lenin’s revolution and that Stalin’s falsification of it was a great historic tragedy. I do not see it that way because I think that the same basic idea runs through this wrong and violently enacted critique of capitalism. And there are a few more sub-points about not only this morality in regard to workers, which we talked about, but also their theory of revolution and the theory of socialist construction they advocated. They misinterpreted Marx not only in economic terms, but also in terms of world history. They had the idea that the communists are those who are best able to read “the already ticking world clock,” they are the ones who scientifically derive each of its steps. But that’s just a lie. Scientifically, in the strict sense, one can derive each category of capital from the other when reading Das Kapital. A revolution is not scientific in the same sense. Decisions were made and they justified their decisions (post-Lenin) by saying they were able to assess, in a super-precise way, the current balance of power, the development of the productive forces, the state of contradiction between the production relations and the productive forces, etc., and therefore able to do the right thing. That’s how the successful revolution was supposed to prove Lenin’s genius at assessing the historical situation. Conversely, this meant that they did not conduct their internal disputes within the party in a reasonable way at all, as in: if we do this, it has the following consequences; if we do that, it has different consequences. This type of revolution in its early stages became the target of hostility from many sides; it was faced with the fact that it was a country in which the productive forces were completely undeveloped; Russia was essentially an agricultural country that could barely feed the cities, so they had to somehow introduce a different economy there. It was dealing with lots of necessities, and this is not something that can be held against it. However, the Bolsheviks always pretended as if their way was the scientifically correct way and anyone who did not go along with it is a right wing or left wing dissenter in the party, and as such always a traitor to the good cause. That always made internal disputes within the party very anguished moral arguments and also led to quarrels being carried out with so many arrests and executions. One line claimed that it had a monopoly on scientific wisdom and knew exactly what the historic situation now demanded, this and that and not something else. In fact, they were relative decisions. If they had seen the relative nature of their decisions, they would have proceeded far more reasonably and been a bit more kind to each other.
Question: On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution, there are a number of plans to deal with this issue in depth. On the one hand, this raises the question: what do you think about this culture of remembrance in relation to the October Revolution and the politics of history pursued with it? And in particular maybe, from a leftist perspective or a communist-identified perspective, a need now to place oneself in a tradition? What do you make of this?
GSP: First, I would like to say that a communist culture of remembrance can’t be regarded as anything but another culture of remembrance: it is the practice of declaring a thing of value, good, correct, because it always existed. It’s the stupidest argument you can think of: it’s always been that way. It isn’t any better when communists say they are part of a tradition. Here’s what you also can see: in 2017, only a small number of people think a communist revolution would be a good thing. So if they are serious, they have to look at how few of them there are and how little their criticism is resonating in the world. Then they will know what kind of work they have to do. But if they then say: we have been part of a great tradition since 1917 – 100 years long – then they simply want to take advantage of this culture of remembrance. They claim they stand for more than their own desires and their own insights, which obviously have to be spread much better than they are. But the culture of remembrance is bullshit. It’s no better than holidays like when the Federal Republic of Germany commemorates its reunification or the People’s Monument to the Battle of Jena and Auerstadt in Leipzig. The argument is always: because it was a long time ago and because you can still remember the thing, the thing is great and correct; in the latter case, because Germany prevailed over its enemies. The idea never gets any better based on who stands for it.
Question: Maybe we can go back to the beginning again. You said something could be learned from the October Revolution. What exactly would that be?
GSP: You can say that it is never a mistake to try to form the concept of a thing. It is also possible to form a concept of the ancient Egyptians and their system of rule or about the Middle Ages. That certainly does not mean a culture of remembrance. That doesn’t mean celebrating the thing with the argument that it’s old. It means: to explain something. The difference is that when I explain the ancient Egyptians or the economic and political system of the Middle Ages, I am producing a good example of useless knowledge. Yes, it’s nice to know, but it’s not good for anything. And that is not quite so in the case of the October Revolution. Because one thing is certainly true: the real socialist states have disappeared from the face of the earth, their system no longer exists, but the inadequate, wrong criticism of capitalism that gave birth to them still exists. Accusing capitalism of being an injustice to the wage earners is what modern leftist parties do. Sometimes they still say they want a revolution or sometimes they leave out this part and want to do it more in the way of social democracy: capitalism needs to be supplemented and corrected, but on the whole it is a great system of wealth creation. Correcting the system in the name of justice for the workers is a very different idea than abolishing the objective constraints of capitalism and its mode of calculation, criticizing not only the role of workers in distribution but the purpose of production and the relation of the workers to it, which means that the workers will always necessarily remain people who are relatively poor in the midst of enormous wealth and whose purpose in life is just to work. Nobody thinks that subjectively, but objectively they do. So in this respect, I think it is sensible to explain the October Revolution, to clarify a mistake that resulted in a state which no longer exists, because the mistake still exists.