Review of Danny Katch’s Socialism … Seriously

Danny Katch's book Socialism ... Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation is a great introduction to Trotskyism. That makes it a poor introduction to socialism.

With wit and humor, Katch recapitulates the errors of Trotskyism: mixing a few genuinely socialist positions with run-of-the-mill leftism. Namely, he criticizes Stalinism here, but praises it there. He cheerleads any protest or reform, even those without any class content. He defends trade unions and co-operatives as prefiguring socialist society. He envisions a "socialist" world that retains money and commodity production.

Let's take a look.

The bad

Stalinist state capitalism as a positive

Katch begins by joking that socialism "can mean almost anything to the left of slave labor camps." And so it is for Katch, who offers his own definition of socialism as

"1. Working people control the government. 2. The government controls the economy."

That sounds good until it dawns on you that "government controls the economy" is really what Trotskyists care about. This becomes apparent when Katch calls the Soviet Union -- one of the most exploitative societies in history -- "socialist" and "revolutionary":

For decades after the radical left was divided between 'Stalinists' and 'Trotskyists' ... The revolutionary socialists who supported the Russian Revolution eventually split between the Stalinist Communist parties and the far smaller Trotskyist organizations that opposed the Soviet Union's turn toward dictatorship and argued that socialism must be both revolutionary and democratic."

It's hard to read that as anything other than "the USSR under Stalin was socialist and revolutionary, but not democratic." And that has indeed long been the position of Trotskyism: that all of the state capitalist societies, no matter their brutality and crushing exploitation, have revolutionary economic foundations. For Trotsky and his followers the nature of an economic system is determined by who owns the means of production, rather than how the means of production are used.

Have no doubt about this.

Just a little later, Katch explicitly identifies state ownership (or even state intervention, as in social democracy) as kind of socialism: "Stalinism, social democracy, and other forms of socialism..." (my emphasis).

It is a grave mistake to hang socialism's hat on state ownership -- whether that state is democratic or not.

First, state ownership is a legal characteristic. Who owns an enterprise is immaterial, so long as that enterprise acts in a capitalist manner, purchasing wage labor to produce commodities. Marx and Engels were well aware of this almost 170 years ago when they warned their comrades of the faux-revolutionary program of the small capitalists:

The rule of capital and its rapid accumulation is to be further counteracted [by the small bourgeoisie] ... by the transference of as much employment as possible to the state. As far as the workers are concerned one thing, above all, is definite: they are to remain wage labourers as before. ... But these demands can in no way satisfy the party of the proletariat. ... it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power and until the association of the proletarians has progressed sufficiently far -- not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world -- that competition between the proletarians of these countries ceases and at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers. Our concern cannot simply be to modify private property, but to abolish it, not to hush up class antagonisms but to abolish classes, not to improve the existing society but to found a new one."1

Or, as Engels wrote a few decades later wrote with even more clarity:

"But, the transformation -- either into joint-stock companies and trusts, or into State-ownership -- does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces. In the joint-stock companies and trusts, this is obvious. ... The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine -- the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers -- proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head."2

Yet Trotsky was steadfast in his belief that state ownership meant that the USSR had revolutionary foundations. He maintained this belief despite the obvious fact that the logic of capital -- accumulation and exploitation as the only goals -- doesn't change whether the enterprise is owned by Joe or by Bob, or by a co-op, a corporation, or even the state. Trotsky failed to grasp this simple abstract principle. He also failed to be persuaded by more concrete realities: Stakhanovism, the purges, the famines, the show trials, the pact with Hitler, the alliances with the private capitalists in all lands. And certainly lesser persons would have soured on the "Workers' fatherland" after it dispatched numerous assassins to kill them. Not so Trotsky. He defended it up to his dying day, when a Stalinist assassin put an ice pick through his brain.

And so it is for his followers, who to this day find cause to celebrate any state that nationalizes a few industries or harasses a few of the largest corporations (see, for instance, their fealty to Venezuela under Chavez and Maduro).

But other Trotskyists -- who did not stay Trotskyists for long -- saw past the "Old Man's" naivete. To give just a couple examples: in the U.S., around the time of the January 1938 founding convention of the Socialist Workers Party, a group around Attilio Salemme and Meldon Joerger called Trotsky a "juridical cretin" for using state ownership as a reason to defend the "capitalist hell" that was the USSR. Another group around Max Geltman (pseudonym Glee) submitted to the convention a "Resolution on the Russian Question" with this language:

The nature of society is determined by the relations of production. The possession, property, or ownership of the means of production determines the class in power. The forms of possession, property, and ownership are expressed in control of and benefit from the means of production. Possession, property, or ownership of the means of production without control or benefit is a legal fiction, and of no importance in determining the real nature of society. The lords controlled the means of production in feudal society; the bourgeois, the means of production in capitalist society; the workers must control the means of production in a workers' society. Without workers' democratic control of the means of production there can be no workers' economy, no workers' rule, and no workers' state. There is no workers' democratic control of the means of production in Russia; hence there is no workers' state.3

For this, the radicals were hounded out of the Socialist Workers Party (which today is a cheerleading squadron for the Cuban Stalinists).

The Trotskyists embraced a wrong position on state ownership. There is no shame in this. It was a mistake that was common in the early workers' movement, even if revolutionaries like Engels or William Morris4 or Bebel5 repudiated it. The shame is in sticking to that position to the present day.

Leftism

I already quoted this, but read it again: "For decades after [the Russian Revolution] the radical left was divided between 'Stalinists' and 'Trotskyists.'"

It is telling that Trotskyists, while positioning themselves as the only legitimate opponents of Stalinism, see Trotskyism and Stalinism as existing at nearly the same place on a shared political spectrum. In other words, both are part of the "left."

But what is "the left?" What is this shared space that groups Stalinists and Trotskyists with Labourites and Democrats -- and which opposes them to a hodgepodge of groups that comprise "the right?"

The left-right political spectrum indicates nothing but the degree to which one advocates or opposes state intervention in the economy. State ownership is the essence of the left's definition of socialism. It is also the right's definition of socialism. Right and left, then, are just opposite ends of a pole that accepts an economy based on commodity production and wage labor. The right believes these activities should be coordinated by private individuals or firms, while the left would put the capitalist economy in the hands of the state or co-operatives.

One could oppose this interpretation with a different definition of left and right. Go ahead. Nothing can change the fact that Trotskyists share common ground and make common cause with all sorts of non-revolutionary groups. They, the Trotskyists, don't even deny this. Katch writes:

Liberalism can agree with socialism that some things about capitalism should be reformed, and socialists often work alongside liberals to win those changes. Where we differ is that liberalism views reforms as ways to preserve capitalism while socialism sees them as steps toward replacing it.

Praising anything that moves

Trotskyism is more than willing to praise anyone or anything that goes against the grain. It doesn't matter who.

For example, Katch is as wishy-washy towards Stalinists as we have seen he is towards Stalinism. In one chapter he praises the work of the "Communist" Party USA's work organizing black workers in the 1930s south. No mention is made that the same "Communist" Party was, at the same time, sending out thugs to savagely beat American Trotskyists. In fact, Stalinists as a whole get a pass:

After taking over the Bolshevik Party and government, Stalin and his allies manipulated the loyalty of the Communist parties that had formed around the world in 1917, handpicked new leaders who would blindly obey Moscow, and turned the primary function of these once-revolutionary parties into being cheerleaders for Russian foreign policy -- which is not to say that they didn't do important work building unions and other protest movements.

So Stalinists presided over the destruction of the Third International, killed many of the best revolutionaries of the era, set up one of the most exploitative states in history, completely twisted the meaning of marxism and communism to suit their counter-revolutionary ends... but it's not so bad: they organized timid protests and helped set-up business unions.

Unions

On unions, Trotskyists are stuck in the past.

As we just saw, Katch excuses Stalinists so long as they are organizing unions. Can this be excused by the tremendously positive role of unions in the class struggle? Katch would seem to think so. The prosperity of the 1950s was just a matter of workers having unionized: "When autoworkers unionized in the 1930s, they went from poverty wages to owning motorboats in a matter of two decades, but they were still autoworkers."

He omits the real reason auto workers were able to unionize in the 30s: because the capitalist class and its state wanted them to. The Wagner Act of 1935 provided a strong framework of legal protections for workers who wanted to unionize their workplace. This was not a hard-won concession. Scholar Holly J. McCammon writes that

Unions and collective bargaining both had existed before the New Deal but with Wagner they were legally authorized by and thus subject to regulation by the state. These new structures and the rules governing them were to be implemented by the NLRB and enforced by the courts. These two governmental bodies would then define the legitimate form and content of industrial conflict, which, in turn, allowed the state the capacity systematically to shape class conflict. ... the law's framers clearly realize the harm of interrupted production for capital accumulation and have thus designed and implemented the law such that the right to strike provided in it serves to foster collective bargaining but not the structural power of workers.6

This is not a crank opinion. The author of an utterly bourgeois textbook on European politics writes that

"The decline of labor unions at a time of high social unrest is troubling. In France, as in other democratic market economies, unions play important roles in integrating workers into the capitalist system. The lack of strong unions makes it difficult for employers to negotiate agreements that will have lasting effect. Unions often are able to facilitate and manage shifting employment patterns. As a result, even conservatives and employers worry about the decline of the labor movement and see it as the loss of a valuable partner. Thus, the leader of the French employers' association said in 1995: "We have everything to lose if the unions become weaker still ... and so we have to find ways of keeping their heads above water."7

That unions have been integrated into capitalism is not visible only to bourgeois writers with 50 years of hindsight. Already in the 30s the communist left came to this conclusion. Hence Pannekoek's warning that "the capitalist class itself recognised that trade unions are necessary to direct the revolt of the workers into regular channels to prevent them from breaking out in sudden explosions."8

But there's a far bigger problem with Katch's union-lauding statement. The real cause of the post-War prosperity boom wasn't unions. The boom was a result of the Second Imperialist World War that left the U.S.'s industrial competitors in ruins. Even a liberal like Michael Moore recognizes this. In his film Capitalism: A Love Story, Moore heaps praise on the post-War US economy, but then reminds us that

We got all this because our main industrial competition had been reduced to rubble. ... I guess you could say it's easy to be number one when you have no competition.

The movie then cuts to scenes of decimated European and Japanese cities. Incidentally, Moore then spends the rest of the movie taking the same tack as Katch: reform is possible and the unions can spearhead it. But still, the liberal has a leg up on the supposed revolutionary for recognizing that capitalism, in its decadent phase, can generate even marginal prosperity only through massive destruction and exploitation.

(A bit of an aside: when Katch throws revolutionary political economy out of the window to say that virtuous workers were the cause of the post-War boom, it at least prepares one for the surprising of reading him blame the 2008 crash on "greedy bankers." I guess when it comes to economics the Trotskyists are eager to apply what Katch will later mention as the 'nursery-rhyme' theory of history, in which events all depend on the moral character of individuals.)

The bottom line is that Trotskyists never understood the history of unions. In the expanding capitalism of the 19th century, it was possible for unions to win minor reforms such as higher wages and shorter working days. This, plus the reality that overthrowing capitalist society was not an immediate possibility, meant that unions were valuable organizations, giving the working class some experience winning class battles. But the 20th century on is the era of capitalism's crisis. There is no room for higher wages or shorter days -- unless those come with increased productivity, i.e., working faster and harder, making more money for the bosses. In this era unions have been totally integrated into capitalism. Legally and even ideologically, unions are the appendages of capitalism. Future workers' struggles will have to escape the structure of the unions as well as the narrow goals of the unions.

Still, kudos to Katch for saying that unionized workers are still workers: people whose waking lives are totally dominated by capitalism and whose existence depends on their ability to be profitably exploited. The best paid wage slave is still a slave.

Socialism as capitalism lite

Katch has an entire chapter devoted to a depiction of a socialist society. It's not all that different from today.

The day goes by quickly and happily, until you screw up just as you're getting ready to leave after the lunch rush. Once again, you forgot to charge someone for her meal. Each year the whole money thing feels increasingly pointless in a society in which everyone has more than enough of what they need and plenty of what they want. But money is still the main way for planning committees to keep track of how goods and services are being distributed and used.

The good

Still and all, Katch does present many genuinely socialist ideas in a way that is readable and funny.

Take this paragraph on the bleakness of life in the Eastern Bloc:

Of course there's another reason that socialist societies are imagined to be grim and dreary: most of the societies that have called themselves socialist have been grim and dreary. Shortly after the revolutions in Eastern Europe that ended the domination of the Soviet Union, the Rolling Stones played a legendary concert in Prague in which they were welcomed as cultural heroes. The catch is that this was 1990, Mick and Keith were almost fifty, and it had been years since their most recent hit, a song called 'Harlem Shuffle' that is god-awful. Forget about the censored books and the bans on demonstrations. If you want to understand how boring Stalinist society was, watch the video for 'Harlem Shuffle' and then think about one of the coolest cities in Europe going out of its mind with joy at the chance to see those guys.

Or this paragraph, which is both compelling and important:

But to say that a revolution that saw tens of millions participating in mass soviet democracy became a monstrous dictatorship because of one man's ruthless thirst for power is a nursery-rhyme version of history, like saying the American Revolution succeeded because George Washington was so honest about chopping down that cherry tree. The defeat from within of the Soviet Union was a decade-long process in which the soviets stopped functioning in conditions of war and mass poverty and the Bolshevik Party was left in charge of a state presiding over a devastated economy. As the party had to make more and more emergency decisions--often with the fate of the revolution on the line--the revolutionary dynamic of the people fighting for their own liberation completely shifted to a small number of ex-revolutionaries fighting for their own position as the leaders of the country.

Or this one:

The people running this country aren't idiots, with some obvious exceptions. The problem is that as powerful as they are compared with us, they are not the true masters of society. Capitalism is run not by capitalists but by capital itself. ...

If it seems I'm making capital sound like some mysterious evil force that gets inside people's heads like Sauron in Lord of the Rings, that's because I am.

These three passages should give you an idea of Katch's writing. It's very good.

Conclusion

The book stands as an accessible, enjoyable introduction to Trotskyism. The book has value to all workers looking for a new perspective, provided they read it aware that Trotskyism is, at best, the least coherent, consistent, and revolutionary tradition that supported the Bolshevik revolution but opposed its defeat that culminated in Stalinist tyranny. Unfortunately, this is not something they will learn from Katch. He reduces revolutionary politics to two camps: Stalinism and Trotskyism, with Trotskyism being a friendlier version of Stalinism. And that is true -- which is why it must be crushed alongside Stalinism and its variants.

Readers who wish to profit from Katch's book, while keeping their eyes open to the errors of Trotskyism, would benefit from these supplemental readings:

For accessible introductions to revolutionary politics, see the following:


  1. Marx and Engels, "Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League." 

  2. Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

  3. Socialist Workers Party, & Breitman, G. (Eds.). (1982). The founding of the Socialist Workers Party: Minutes and resolutions, 1938-39 (1st ed). New York: Monad Press: Distributed: by Pathfinder Press. See page 146. 

  4. In Morris's 1890 novel News from Nowhere, the protagonist wakes up in a communist future (sometime after 2003), where this history is relayed to him: 

    The government now found it imperative on them to meet the outcry of the master class at the approaching destruction of Commerce (as desirable, had they known it, as the extinction of the cholera, which has since happily taken place). And they were forced to meet it by a measure hostile to the masters, the establishment of government factories for the production of necessary wares, and markets for their sale. These measures taken altogether did do something: they were in fact of the nature of regulations made by the commander of a beleaguered city. But of course to the privileged classes it seemed as if the end of the world were come when such laws were enacted.

    "Nor was that altogether without a warrant: the spread of communistic theories, and the partial practice of State Socialism had at first disturbed, and at last almost paralysed the marvellous system of commerce under which the old world had lived so feverishly, and had produced for some few a life of gambler's pleasure, and for many, or most, a life of mere misery: over and over again came 'bad times' as they were called, and indeed they were bad enough for the wage-slaves. The year 1952 was one of the worst of these times; the workmen suffered dreadfully: the partial, inefficient government factories, which were terribly jobbed, all but broke down, and a vast part of the population had for the time being to be fed on undisguised "charity" as it was called.

  5. "... these institutions (telegraph, rail-way, post office, etc.), administered by the state, are not socialist institutions, as they are mistakenly taken for. They are business plants that are exploited as capitalistically as if they were in private hands ... the socialist guards against the present state ownership being regarded as socialism, as the realisation of socialist aspirations." - Bebel, Woman and Socialism

  6. McCammon, H. J. (1990). Legal limits on labor militancy: U. S. Labor law and the right to strike since the new deal. Social Problems, 37(2), 206-229. 

  7. Frank L. Wilson, European Politics Today: The Democratic Experience. Third edition, 1999. 

  8. Anton Pannekoek, "General Remarks on the Question of Organisation."