International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International 1991: Oppose imperialist war and colonialism!

Letter to a Soviet academician

September 19, 1990
Dear Comrade:

Contrary to the ideas which are currently fashionable among the Soviet intelligentsia, “imperialism” is not just a nasty swear word that was invented by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Finance capital does indeed rule the world, and its representatives in the centers of world capitalism are not wasting any time in taking advantage of the opportunities provided by the Soviet regime’s complete capitulation. Bush is openly speaking of establishing, on the bombed-out ruins of Iraq, a “new order.” Really, he means the “old order” of unrestrained imperialist domination of the globe that existed before 1917 dealt a blow to the solar plexus of world capitalism and opened up new vistas for the oppressed masses.

The support being given by the Soviet Union to the criminal imperialist enterprise against Iraq symbolizes the qualitative transformation that is now taking place in the political and economic direction of the regime. The counterrevolutionary reaction against October which began with the usurpation of political power by the Stalinist bureaucracy is now approaching its historical climax. As it falls into the abyss, the Stalinist regime is seeking to complete its systematic destruction of the heritage of the Bolshevik Revolution. As was foreseen by Trotsky long ago, Stalinism has paved the way for the restoration of capitalism. This process, if it is not opposed and defeated by a class-conscious Soviet proletariat, will lead to a political and social catastrophe. The content of the Shatalin plan proves that there is not a trace of exaggeration in this warning.

The premise of the Shatalin plan seems to be that all the problems of the Soviet Union will be solved by unleashing the forces of the world market. Somehow, out of the wholesale destruction of the existing productive forces, (and let us not forget that the USSR was at least until recently the third largest economy in the world), a blooming capitalist economy will emerge. How this miracle will actually be achieved is not explained.

That the Soviet economy is wracked by a profound crisis is indisputable. But how can a solution be found to this crisis without establishing its source? A doctor who encounters a sick patient first inquires into his medical history before prescribing medication. In this case, without even attempting a precise diagnosis of the illness, the treatment being prescribed by Gorbachev’s economic witch doctors is the patient’s liquidation. According to Shatalin and his associates, all the problems of the Soviet economy stem from central planning. Ergo, if planning is replaced by the unrestrained market, all the problems will be automatically resolved—and within no more than 500 days!

It is clear that Shatalin and his associates are not Marxists; but to make matters worse, these anti-Marxists obviously do not have the slightest knowledge of the historical development and practical workings of capitalism. For all the propaganda about the miracle of the market, modem capitalism is a highly planned system. Indeed, the most efficient capitalisms—those of Germany and Japan—are those which have been able to integrate and coordinate their global financial and industrial operations in accordance with highly detailed plans. It could be said that management technique in the modem transnational corporation consists of anticipating, controlling and subordinating the market to a plan. While the “invisible hand” of the market guided capitalist production in the 19th century, the “visible hand” of professional management has become increasingly critical in the course of the 20th century. Today’s modem management is armed with computers capable of reviewing and calculating millions of pieces of data upon which critical decisions are based.

For example, given the complexity of modem industry—which involves the global integration of production—the movement of inventory is subject to the most minute calculations. In the interest of economy and efficiency, production parts are delivered to factories just hours before they are needed. Obviously, the successful use of this technique, which was pioneered in Japan, requires the development of highly complex planning.

Furthermore, far from adapting passively to the “market”—a term which Shatalin only understands in the most abstract sense—the capitalists spend billions of dollars every year in “market research” and advertising campaigns aimed at both ascertaining and influencing public tastes. Every American parent knows from the demands of their children how skillfully television advertising is used to create a market for various useless and even socially destructive products. Today, there are many movies which are produced with corporate finance simply in order to create a “subindustry” of sellable goods.

While capitalism strives for ever more precise planning, this goal is frustrated by those essential contradictions which were detected long ago by Marx. Within the framework of capitalism, planning cannot overcome the anarchical tendencies which must predominate in a society where production is organized not to satisfy general social needs, but to secure profits for those who own the means of production. Moreover, it is precisely the pressure of the world market, divided among competing nation-states, that corrodes and breaks down the operations of the highly centralized corporations.

It is not central planning that lies at the heart of the Soviet crisis. Rather, it is the decades-long distortion and disruption of planning by an uncontrolled bureaucracy which, having usurped power from the working class, subordinated the rational development of the Soviet economy to the satisfaction of its whims and the expansion of its privileges. How could there be planning when the bureaucracy permitted no examination of the precise share of the national income which was employed for its own upkeep?

More than 55 years ago, in February 1935, Leon Trotsky wrote: “The more complex the economic tasks become, the demands and the interests of the population become, all the more sharp becomes the contradiction between the bureaucratic regime and the demands of socialist development....” This insight is richly confirmed by the developments of the last two decades. Underlying the stagnation of the Brezhnev era was the bureaucratic suffocation of the increasingly complex productive forces produced on the basis of 1917.

The success of central planning depends upon (1) the broadest exercise of democracy, fully involving tens of millions of Soviet producers, in the formulation, adoption, implementation and ongoing analysis of the plan; and (2) the revolutionary expansion of this system of planning, based on social ownership of the means of production, to the advanced centers of world capitalism. The realization of these two conditions requires, of course, the revolutionary overthrow of the bureaucracy and the revival of workers democracy, based on genuine soviets expressing the will of the people.

Those who issue blanket condemnations of central planning do so mainly to discredit socialism, Marxism, and the historical role which they attribute to the working class. In this way, the crisis of Soviet society is presented as the “inevitable” outcome of October 1917, rather than the product of specific historical circumstances attending the growth of bureaucracy and the consolidation of its power.

It is a tragic irony that in no country has Marxism been so falsified and debased as it has been in the Soviet Union over the last 65 years. While Marxist phrases were tom out of context and used to justify the blatantly antisocialist practices of a privileged stratum, those who fought under the banner of Marxism against the bureaucracy were annihilated. And for almost a half-century following their persecution and assassination, the ideas for which they fought were subjected to the most ruthless censorship in history.

Those who claim that Marxism has been “refuted” by the experience of the USSR are compelled, by the logic of their position, to either ignore or falsify the history of the struggle waged by the Left Opposition and then the Fourth International against Stalinism. They go so far as to suggest that there was no real difference between Stalin and Trotsky and that the dispute between them was simply a struggle for personal power. With such an “explanation,” it is hardly necessary to deal seriously with the programs and positions which were advanced by Trotsky from 1923 on.

But have any of the present-day opponents of Marxism produced an analysis of Soviet society and Stalinism that is comparable to The Revolution Betrayed! Of course, under conditions of intense repression and institutionalized falsification which existed for decades and in which the historical archives were kept under the lock and key of the KGB, neither systematic research nor analysis were possible. Even the most dedicated scholars were compelled to often conceal their critical observations beneath a heavy pile of dogmatic assertions and ritualistic quotations from “respectable” authorities. No doubt, the fact that this stultifying conformity was imposed and even sanctified in the name of “scientific socialism” underlies much of the bitterness that is directed today against Marxism. But now the historical record is becoming increasingly accessible to Soviet scholars; and it demonstrates that the Marxist faction within the Bolshevik Party, led by Leon Trotsky, waged an implacable and astonishingly far-sighted struggle against Stalinism.

Everything must be done to bring the history of this struggle, without any gaps, to the attention of the Soviet people. This is a life-and-death question: the entire future of the USSR—and, indeed, that of the international working class—depends upon the creation of a party that revives the traditions of the classical Marxism which once animated the Soviet proletariat.

With fraternal greetings,

David North