July 08, 2003

Notes: Keynes on Trotsky

Floated across my desk this morning...


http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/comments/keynes01.htm.

Review of Trotsky On England (Where is Britain Going?), by John Maynard Keynes.

From John Maynard Keynes (1933), Essays in Biography (London: Harcourt, Brace).

A CONTEMPORARY reviewing this book says: "He stammers out platitudes in the voice of a phonograph with a scratched record." I should guess that Trotsky dictated it. In its English dress it emerges in a turbid stream with a hectoring gurgle which is characteristic of modern revolutionary literature translated from the Russian. Its dogmatic tone about our affairs, where even the author's flashes of insight are clouded by his inevitable ignorance of what he is talking about, cannot commend it to an English reader. Yet there is a certain style about Trotsky. A personality is visible through the distorting medium. And it is not all platitudes.

The book is, first of all, an attack on the official leaders of the British Labour Party because of their "religiosity", and because they believe that it is useful to prepare for Socialism without preparing for Revolution at the same time. Trotsky sees, what is probably true, that our Labour Party is the direct offspring of the Radical Non-conformists and the philanthropic bourgeois, without a tinge atheism, blood, and revolution. Emotionally and intellectually, therefore, he finds them intensely unsympathetic. A short anthology will exhibit his state of mind:

The doctrine of the leaders of the Labour Party is a kind of amalgam of Conservatism and Liberalism partially adapted to the needs of trade unions ... The Liberal and semi-liberal leaders of the Labour Party still think that the social revolution is the mournful privilege of the European Continent.

"In the realm of feeling and conscience," MacDonald begins, "in the realm of spirit, Socialism forms the religion of service to the people." In those words is immediately betrayed the benevolent bourgeois, the left Liberal, who "serves" the people, coming to them from one side, or more truly from above. Such an approach has its roots entirely in the dim past, when the radical intelligentsia went to live in the working-class districts of London in order to carry on cultural and educational work.

Together with theological literature, Fabianism is perhaps the most useless, and in any case the most boring form of verbal creation ... The cheaply optimistic Victorian epoch, when it seemed that to-morrow would be a little better than to-day, and the day after to-morrow still better than to-morrow, found its most finished expression in the Webbs, Snowden, MacDonald and other Fabians ... These bombastic authorities, pedants, arrogant and ranting poltroons, systematically poison the Labour Movement, befog the consciousness of the proletariat, and paralyse its will ... The Fabians, the I.L.P.ers, the Conservative bureaucrats of the trade unions represent at the moment the most counter-revolutionary force in Great Britain, and perhaps of all the world's development ... Fabianism, MacDonaldism, Pacifism, is the chief rallying-point of British imperialism and of the European, if not the world, bourgeoisie. At any cost, these self-satisfied pedants, these gabbling eclectics, these sentimental careerists, these upstart liveried lackeys of the bourgeoisie, must be shown in their natural form to the workers. To reveal them as they are will mean their hopeless discrediting.

Well, that is how the gentlemen who so much alarm Mr. Winston Churchill strike the real article. And we must hope that the real article, having got it off his chest, feels better. How few words need changing, let the reader note, to permit the attribution of my anthology to the philo-fisticuffs of the Right. And the reason for this similarity is evident. Trotsky is concerned in these passages with an attitude towards public affairs, not with ultimate aims. He is just exhibiting the temper of the band of brigand-statesmen to whom Action means War, and who are irritated to fury by the atmosphere of sweet reasonableness, of charity, tolerance, and mercy in which, though the wind whistles in the East or in the South, Mr. Baldwin and Lord Oxford and Mr. MacDonald smoke the pipe of peace. "They smoke Peace where there should be no Peace," Fascists and Bolshevists cry in a chorus, "canting, imbecile emblems of decay, senility, and death, the antithesis of Life and the Life-Force which exist only in the spirit of merciless struggle." If only it was so easy! If only one could accomplish by roaring, whether roaring like a lion or like any sucking dove!

The roaring occupies the first half of Trotsky's book. The second half, which affords a summary exposition of his political philosophy, deserves a closer attention.

First proposition. The historical process necessitates the change-over to Socialism if civilisation is to be preserved. "Without a transfer to Socialism all our culture is threatened with decay and decomposition." Second proposition. It is unthinkable that this change-over can come about by peaceful argument and voluntary surrender. Except in response to force, the possessing classes will surrender nothing. The strike is already a resort to force. "The class struggle is a continual sequence of open or masked forces, which are regulated in more or less degree by the State, which in turn represents the organised apparatus of force of the stronger of the antagonists, in other words, the ruling class." The hypothesis that the Labour Party will come into power by constitutional methods and will then "proceed to the business so cautiously, so tactfully, so intelligently, that the bourgeoisie will not feel any need for active opposition," is "facetious" though this "is indeed the very rock-bottom hope of MacDonald and company."

Third proposition. Even if, sooner or later, the Labour Party achieve power by constitutional methods, the reactionary parties will at once Proceed to force. The possessing classes will do lip-service to parliamentary methods so long as they are in control of the parliamentary machine, but if they are dislodged, then, Trotsky maintains, it is absurd to suppose that they will prove squeamish about a resort to force on their side. Suppose, he says, that a Labour majority in Parliament were to decide in the most legal fashion to confiscate the land without compensation, to put a heavy tax on capital, and to abolish the Crown and the House of Lords, "there cannot be the least doubt that the possessing classes will not submit without a struggle, the more so as all the police, judiciary, and military apparatus is entirely in their hands." Moreover, they control the banks and the whole system of social credit and the machinery of transport and trade, so that the daily food of London, including that of the Labour Government itself, depends on the great capitalist combines. It is obvious, Trotsky argues, that these terrific means of pressure "will be brought into action with frantic violence in order to dam the activity of the Labour Government, to paralyse its exertions, to frighten it, to effect cleavages in its parliamentary majority, and, finally, to cause a financial panic; provision difficulties, and lock-outs." To suppose, indeed, that the destiny of Society is going to be determined by whether Labour achieves a parliamentary majority and not by the actual balance of material forces at the moment is an "enslavement to the fetishism of parliamentary arithmetic."

Fourth proposition. In view of all this, whilst it may be good strategy to aim also at constitutional power, it is silly not to organise on the basis that material force will be the determining factor in the end.

In the revolutionary struggle only the greatest determination is of avail to strike the arms out of the hands of reaction to limit the period of civil war, and to lessen the number of its victims. If this course be not taken it is better not to take to arms at all. If arms are not resorted to, it is impossible to organise a general strike; if the general strike is renounced, there can be no thought of any serious struggle.

Granted his assumptions, much of Trotsky's argument is, I think, unanswerable. Nothing can be sillier than to play at revolution if that is what he means. But what are his assumptions? He assumes that the moral and intellectual problems of the transformation of Society have been already solved--that a plan exists, and that nothing remains except to put it into operation. He assumes further that Society is divided into two parts the proletariat who are converted to the plan, and the rest who for purely selfish reasons oppose it. He does not understand that no plan could win until it had first convinced many people, and that, if there really were a plan, it would draw support from many different quarters. He is so much occupied with means that he forgets to tell us what it is all for. If we pressed him, I suppose he would mention Marx. And there we will leave him with an echo of his own words "together with theological literature, perhaps the most useless, and in any case the most boring form of verbal creation."

Trotsky's book must confirm us in our conviction of the uselessness, the empty-headedness of Force at the present stage of human affairs. Force would settle nothing no more in the Class War than in the Wars of Nations or in the Wars of Religion. An understanding of the historical process, to which Trotsky is so fond of appealing, declares not for, but against, Force at this juncture of things. We lack more than usual a coherent scheme of progress, a tangible ideal. All the political parties alike have their origins in past ideas and not in new ideas and none more conspicuously so than the Marxists. It is not necessary to debate the subtleties of what justifies a man in promoting his gospel by force; for no one has a gospel. The next move is with the head, and fists must wait.

March 1926.

Posted by DeLong at July 8, 2003 01:02 PM | TrackBack

Comments

[i] CONTEMPORARY reviewing this book says: "He stammers out platitudes in the voice of a phonograph with a scratched record." [/i]

Hmm... Orwell's reference to 'gramaphone minds' in Politics and the English Language does have some antecedents. Interesting.

Posted by: Richard Johnston on July 8, 2003 02:33 PM

Interesting to see Keynes on Trotsky. I don't think it would bother the average communist to know that communists only once in history took power in a country by the ballot box. There have been many elected socialist governments: in most of Western Europe, for instance. Looking at history, there are few people communists have attacked more than socialists, since improving the condition of the poor delays the inevitable proletarian revolution. I've heard this thesis, in essence, from Nader voters.

Posted by: John Isbell on July 8, 2003 03:32 PM

I have wondered if the current fashion on the part of conservatives of aggresive denunciation and belligerent rhetoric, out of all proportion to the content of what is being discussed, had some roots to it. Now I see that it lies in the fascist right and communist left. Having said that , if western society was going through a great polarization in the 20's and 30's then the rhetoric reflected it. I see no such polarization today, nor do I see a mass radicalization, so I'm utterly mystified by the 'tude on the part of conservatives.

Posted by: Lawrence on July 8, 2003 03:32 PM

Compare with Trotsky on economic planning in the Soviet command economy quoted in Abba Lerner: The Economics of Control, (1944):

"If a universal mind existed, of the kind that projected itself into the scientific fancy of Laplace - a mind that could register simultaneously all the processes of nature and society, that could measure the dynamics of their motion, that could forecast the results of their inter-reactions - such a mind, of course, could a priori draw up a faultless and exhaustive economic plan, beginning with the number of acres of wheat down to the last button for a vest. The bureaucracy often imagines that just such a mind is at its disposal; that is why it so easily frees itself from the control of the market and of Soviet democracy. But, in reality, the bureaucracy errs frightfully in its estimate of its spiritual resources. In its projections it is necessarily obliged, in actual performance, to depend upon the proportions (and with equal justice one may say the disproportions) it has inherited from capitalist Russia, upon the data of the economic structure of contemporary capitalist nations, and finally upon the experience of successes and mistakes of the Soviet economy itself. But even the most correct combination of all these elements will allow only a most imperfect framework of a plan, not more." - from: The Soviet Economy in Danger (1932) at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1932/1932-sovecon.htm

I doubt Keynes would have disagreed with that assessment.

Posted by: Bob on July 8, 2003 03:44 PM

Lawrence, are you descrbing those who equate our current President with Hitler, or describe him as a drooling idiot, conservative. The assertion that either of those who have self-identified themselves as "conservative" or "liberal" have cornered the market on ridiculously inflammatory rhetoric is itself merely a wishful accusation.

Posted by: Will Allen on July 8, 2003 04:26 PM

Will,
No I wasn't thinking of that- indeed you would have to name names-I haven't seen anyone accuse GWB as being a Hitler, nor a drooling idiot. (Although I've seen this implied by some of his supporters). I was thinking of those who accuse Democrats of being traitors, that all of the major press is impeding the war on terrorism, that Clinton let Osama bomb the World Trade Center, that the French are "ungrateful" or perfidious, more; Clinton was either a Chinese spy, a murderer, oh and he lost the nuclear launch codes too- One can wander through a Barnes and Noble on a Sunday afternoon and find all these accusations and more on the shelves.

Indeed your comeback indicates a lack of precision-Orwell had something to say about this; when you substitute a vague "something" like GWB is Hitler you are substuituting an imprecise statement for a precise one, and thus creating the impresion something was said that wasn't. This is a sort of creeping totalitarianism of language that when carriwed to its ultimate extent engenders real totalitarianism-Don't we execute traitors?


Browse through Dick Morris' latest or Ann Coulter and you get a feel for this-Watch Savage on MSNBC-Is there anything even close to this going the other way?

Posted by: Lawrence on July 8, 2003 04:59 PM

You can't watch Savage on MSNBC any more, which I celebrated with a small shot of bourbon. I think GLAAD got him off the air, all national advertisers had dropped him.
"Do something, Bones!"
"It's no good, Jim, he's dead."
"But Bones!"
"Look, Jim, I'm a doctor, not a miracle worker."

Posted by: John Isbell on July 8, 2003 05:05 PM

Will,
No I wasn't thinking of that- indeed you would have to name names-I haven't seen anyone accuse GWB as being a Hitler, nor a drooling idiot. (Although I've seen this implied by some of his supporters). I was thinking of those who accuse Democrats of being traitors, that all of the major press is impeding the war on terrorism, that Clinton let Osama bomb the World Trade Center, that the French are "ungrateful" or perfidious, more; Clinton was either a Chinese spy, a murderer, oh and he lost the nuclear launch codes too- One can wander through a Barnes and Noble on a Sunday afternoon and find all these accusations and more on the shelves.

Indeed your comeback indicates a lack of precision-Orwell had something to say about this; when you substitute a vague "something" like GWB is Hitler you are substuituting an imprecise statement for a precise one, and thus creating the impresion something was said that wasn't. This is a sort of creeping totalitarianism of language that when carriwed to its ultimate extent engenders real totalitarianism-Don't we execute traitors?


Browse through Dick Morris' latest or Ann Coulter and you get a feel for this-Watch Savage on MSNBC-Is there anything even close to this going the other way?

Posted by: Lawrence on July 8, 2003 05:05 PM

No, I don't suppose copnservatives have cornered the market in "ridiculously inflammatory rhetoric", but they certainly are a lot more productive than their competitors.

I suppose one might advance an "efficient markets" theory about it. If there's more right-wing hot air about, it must mean there's more demand for it, which in turn implies that conservatives as a whole are a lot more gullable and more easily swayed by such rhetoric. Afterall, there wouldn't be so much conservative noise if it wasn't creating more value for its producers than other kinds of rhetoric.

Of course, you would have to believe in efficient markets first and think that they apply to political rhetoric, which is a pretty tall order. On the other hand, one could look at it as a reasonable conclusion to take from public choice theory.

Posted by: Scott Martens on July 8, 2003 05:10 PM

You mean it was merely a Savage imitator I saw this weekend, up on the roof of the buildibng barbecueing, calling people "sausages." I think not-

Sorry about the double post but I recieved a message that stated it did not go through.

Posted by: Lawrence on July 8, 2003 05:38 PM

Of course, Lawrence, no "liberal" has accused GWB of allowing 9/11 to happen. If you really doubt it, go and peruse photos of anti-war rallies in the past year, and see for yourself the signs that eqaute Bush with Hitler. Go read any number of "liberal" blogs (say Atiros, who is cited here on occasion), and read the references to Bush. A mainstream Democratic candidate uses language which deliberately conflates ("regime change") a Stalinist government in Iraq with that of the United States, but oh no, you are correct, it is only the "conservatives" who use language in a insidiously dishonest and harmful manner. Let us not even begin to discuss the last refuge of the language scoundrel; the accusation of racism. Tell me, does the Democratic party running ads which imply that Republicans favor the burning of black churches, or Bill Clinton lying about his boyhood Arkansas experiences with the burning of black curches qualify? How about implying that the naming of their son "Jeb" indicates that the Bush family is a cabal of racists, which Prof. Delong has done? That you are so blind to these facts indicates that you are as devoted to truth as the typical supporter of a political party, which is to say very little.

Posted by: Will Allen on July 8, 2003 08:10 PM

Will: maybe he doesn't read weblogs as obsessively as you do (or I do, for that matter)?

Anyway, it's basically obvious that the right's overheated rhetoric is more mainstream than the left's. This will remain true until Atrios gets his own TV show.

Posted by: Walt Pohl on July 9, 2003 12:27 AM

"I see no such polarization today, nor do I see a mass radicalization, so I'm utterly mystified by the 'tude on the part of conservatives."

-Posted by Lawrence at July 8, 2003 03:32 PM

Probably because it works. The GOP has had excellent success with such rhetoric. That's lead them to increase the intensity.

Posted by: Barry on July 9, 2003 04:28 AM

Neo-cons are a product of the thing they fought: Marxism. They have appropriated marxist morality "the ends justify the means", and marxist propaganda techniques "demonize demonize demonize the ennemy"

It would be funny if the stakes weren't so high. America's most gifted and literate thinkers, writers, journalists and academics, unite to destroy a despicable ideology : communism. But once the battle won, they can't stop. The battle has blinded them. They can no longer distiguish the "good" from the "evil". So they attack socialists, reformers, liberals. They are an intellectual movement that must have ennemies to destroy so now they are attacking the center.

Trotsky sounds like a neo con attacking liberals for being too "soft". Beware of wen who preach the value of hardness. It's hardness for you my friend. Softness and pleasure for them and their patrons.

Posted by: Scott McArthur on July 9, 2003 11:23 AM

"It would be funny if the stakes weren't so high. America's most gifted and literate thinkers, writers, journalists and academics, unite ... But once the battle won, they can't stop. The battle has blinded them. They can no longer distiguish the "good" from the "evil". So they attack .... They are an intellectual movement that must have ennemies to destroy so now they are attacking the center. "

Exactly so! The fight against restrictions on reproductive freedom becomes a fight for partial birth abortion. The fight against racial discrimination becomes a fight for racial preferences. The fight to let parents send their children to the schools of their choice becomes a fight to prevent parents from sending their children to schools of their choice. And the progressive fight to have the wealthy take care of the poor becomes Ted Kennedy threatening to filibuster a bi-partisan prescription drug benefit if it excludes Warren Buffett.

So the hold on the center crumbles. From holding the majority in voter registration, with majorities in Congress, and majorities of the young and independents leaning towards one's side, one goes to being the minority on all counts....

Oh, wait, this was supposed to be an exclusive affliction of "neo conservatives". Sorry. ;-)

Posted by: Jim Glass on July 9, 2003 03:07 PM
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