Remarks on Frank's Work on Collectivization

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Author(s) Leon Trotsky
Written 9 December 1930

[Writing of Leon Trotsky, Vol. 3, 1930-1931, New York 1973, p. 82-86]

1. This work is quite interesting; it contains many valuable ideas; some chapters and parts of chapters are well worked out theoretically. And it is a successful work in literary respects.

2. Politically it looks very much like an attempt to liquidate ties with the Opposition. Fortunately for the Opposition, this attempt is based upon a number of theoretical and factual errors.

3. The analogy drawn between the contradictions of the October Revolution and those of collectivization is the most erroneous feature: because conditions were "ripe," in the former case, for the dictatorship of the proletariat but not for socialism, it supposedly follows that in the latter case, conditions are "ripe" for collectivization despite the inadequacy of the technical base. The author severely chides "vulgar Marxists" (i.e., the Biulleten Oppozitsii) for failure to understand the dialectical interrelations between the superstructure and the technical base. In fact, the author has made a trite formula out of the Marxist application of dialectics and has applied it where it is completely out of place. The dictatorship of the proletariat is a purely political concept, which, as theory tells us and experience has shown, can be abstracted from the economic base within certain limits. Collectivization has an economic content only and without that becomes nothing but an empty shell.

When we say that conditions in Russia were ripe for the dictatorship of the proletariat, what we have in mind is an absolutely specific qualitative and quantitative fact: the establishment of proletarian rule within the borders of a particular country. The sentence which the author constructs by analogy — conditions in the Soviet Union are ripe for collectivization — is lacking in both quantitative and qualitative content, and so lacks any content whatsoever. Ripe for what percentage of collectivization? Ten percent? Twenty-five percent? Or 100 percent? For collectivization with the kulak held in check? Or for collectivization as a new breeding ground for the kulak?

The author gives provisional answers to all these questions (and to that extent, he is right), but he thereby renders his own analogy inapplicable.

The whole question is one of rates, of timing. To state, as one's reply on the question under dispute, that "conditions are ripe" — "in general" — without saying for what rate or on what scale, is to replace the concrete problem with a catch-all formula, however well it may be disguised.

The author has forgotten that the proletarian dictatorship cannot be 10 percent or 90 percent. Collectivization, though, can be either. The whole problem is located somewhere between these two poles. But for the author — in the part of his work where he does his theorizing (polemicizing in partly disguised fashion against the Biulleten) — this problem disappears.

4. In the spring of this year, the Stalinist leadership proclaimed that 62 percent of all farms had been collectivized and that it was planning to collectivize 100 percent in the next year and a half or two years. Without waiting for any admissions of dizzy-headedness, we cried out in a number of letters to Russia and, later, in the Biulleten as well: "Pull back, or you'll plunge into the abyss." At that time, our critic grew indignant: "How can you say 'Pull back'? Retreat is now no longer possible!"

A month or two later, Stalin declared that if 40 percent of the more than 60 percent were to remain collectivized, that would be all right too. Our author is now using 25 percent as a working figure for the extent of collectivization, maintaining all the while his "summertime" line of argument in its entirety. Thus it seems that retreat did turn out to be "possible" after all — as much as 37 percent, in fact, no more no less. But what that means is something on the order of ten million peasant households. A reduction approximately equal to the population of Germany — a mere trifle!

During the summer the view was (according to the method of the sanctified analogy) that conditions were "ripe” for 62 percent collectivization, but now those "conditions" are invoked to justify only 25 percent. And in both cases, the figures are post factum — after the fact. Isn't what we have here, under the cover of a highly sophisticated dialectic, an impermissible fatalism, or — to put it another way — theoretical tail-endism?

5. That the Soviet Union was "ripe" for a certain amount of collectivization was something the Opposition was able to guess a long time ago. Instead of an ambiguous and purely personal defense of Trotsky (on the question of the kulaks), the author would have done better to have quoted from the official documents of the Opposition, as a current of thought within communism, on the question of collectivization itself. That is how one ought to proceed if one is to take a serious attitude toward the tendency to which one supposes (?) oneself to belong.

An element of "spontaneity" in collectivization was inevitable, but here again it is entirely a question of degree, of quantity, of the relations between the leadership and processes among the masses. The spontaneous character of the rush forward gave rise to spontaneousness in the roll backward. The author sings dithyrambs to spontaneity, forgetting that this is going on in the thirteenth year of the revolution and that the degree of "spontaneity" in the process, from the point of view of revolutionary politics, constitutes in itself a far more reliable index of how much it has of a socialist nature than do any isolated statistical examples.

6. The author has rejected the theory of administrative pressure [on the peasants to collectivize] with the argument that the bureaucracy tail-ended the process. This is correct against the liberals and Mensheviks, but absolutely inadequate (and to that extent, incorrect) for evaluating the role of leadership, planning, and foresight in socialist construction. In his very first pages, the author properly counterposes capitalist development, which unfolds automatically on the basis of the law of value, to socialist development as a consciously regulated process (in its very essence). But in his subsequent presentation not even a trace of this counter position remains (at least not in his polemic against the Opposition).

7. The author tries to show that the outburst of collectivization was predetermined. What does that mean? The sudden and panicky attack upon the kulak in order to get grain, the fruit of the prokulak policy of the last several years, was the most immediate and powerful spur to collectivization. The author rightly repeats this point several times. Was it conceivable to have a systematic policy, thought out in advance, for clipping the kulak's wings in a planned way (loans of grain, a tax in kind, and so on)? Of course it was. Would such a policy have reduced the catastrophic nature of collectivization? Unquestionably!

The consequences of mistakes by the government authorities, who command the entire economy, are transformed into objective conditions leading to results that the leadership did not at all foresee. And even though the leadership tail-ended, as far as the unfolding process of collectivization was concerned, that still does not change the fact, in any way, that the catastrophic outburst of collectivization was to a very great extent produced by the administrative actions and mistakes of the preceding period. The dialectical interaction of the various elements in the process conditioning one another is replaced by the author with mechanical determinism. An unavoidable conclusion follows from that: theoretical tail-ending is transformed into an apology for the political tail-ending of the leadership. The author's critical observations, scattered here and there, give this apology the appearance of a "higher impartiality."

8. When the author — so magnanimously opening wide his embrace to all accomplished facts — tries to remind himself about the tasks of revolutionary politics, he, alas, falls into the stance of a rationalizing bureaucrat. Thus he tries to indicate, for the entire collective-farm movement, the best "principle" for distributing income, according to the quantity and quality of labor: in this way, supposedly, the socialist character of the collective farms will best be assured. He forgets a small detail: the accumulation of collective-farm capital. Each collective farm will want to obtain the savings of its members in order to purchase livestock, machinery, and so forth. No one will want to give up his savings, the result of higher wages, "for nothing." If the payment of interest is forbidden, the collective farms will find a way to do it secretly. The socialist "principle" of distribution under conditions of scarcity in the means of production very quickly turns into its opposite. Here again the whole question comes down to one of determining the most advantageous, the optimum, tempo and scale as the basis on which to appeal, not to the peasants' prejudices, but to their judgment, in order to reduce to a minimum the catastrophic advances and retreats, during one of which the dictatorship of the proletariat itself may get buried.

9. I will not dwell on a number of other mistaken propositions which are rather narrow and particular in theme: the question of absolute rent, the question of the party and the general line, etc., etc. I will only note that on the question of the party the author has moved completely away from the Bolshevik conception of the party as the vanguard, and has theoretically dissolved it into the class, in order once again to cover for the policies of the bureaucracy, which consciously seeks to dissolve the party into the class in order to free itself from the party's control.

Let me summarize: The chapters and pages directed against bourgeois and social democratic critics are quite good and in some places are even excellent, insofar as the author does not distract both himself and the reader by bringing in criticism of the Left Opposition in contraband fashion. In the sphere of such criticism the author is wrong through and through, and he has only intensified the error pointed out by the editors of the Biulleten. Many of his mistakes, and perhaps all, could be removed by a perceptive author himself, if he did not choose to lighten his task in advance by giving his polemic a disguised character.