This is a transcript of an interview with the famous British historian E.H. Carr as done by New Left Review in the year 1978, under the title “The Left Today”. Carr, one of the early serious specialists in Russian and Soviet history (a little outdated now but still very useful and readable) was at the time 86 years old. Although he was never a Communist, he clearly identified with the political left, and spent much of his academic efforts combating conservative and liberal (Whiggish) historiography. Nonetheless, for a significant of his career he was not an academic, but worked at the Foreign Office, and later as assistant editor of The Times, neither of which are exactly known for being left-wing. This gave him a broad and nonsectarian perspective on events.
Carr’s discussion here touches on many issues relevant for Communism today, despite the fact this article is by now over 30 years old. In many ways, it is representative of the disillusionment of the post-Stalinist left. Many Communists in those days were so disillusioned with the clash between reality and their expectations that they drew the opposite conclusions and became rabid right-wingers; for more on this, see the article “Twilight of the Ex-Marxists”. Carr, on the other hand, did not do so, but maintained a more distant and thereby more objective and less hysterical perspective. What’s more, he was not only able to separate the wheat from the chaff in the Communist experience up until then, despite the enormous academic and political pressure brought to bear against him (even Orwell considered him dangerous), but he also was able at a high age to correctly analyze the political developments using the methods of Marx. Better than many Communists, especially the so-called ‘Eurocommunists’ (as mentioned in the article), he examined the developments in economic relations that had taken place since Marx’s death and in particular since WWII, and pointed to the increasingly aristocratic and bribed status of the working class in the developed nations as compared to precisely those countries with an underdeveloped industry and thereby an underdeveloped proletariat. Unafraid to draw the necessary conclusions, he gave a strong impetus to a better historical understanding of this phenomenon, which will in retrospect likely become generally accepted as one of the decisive historical breaks of the 20th Century.
Carr’s fame is not just because of his excellent analysis of Soviet economic history, which he pioneered together with R.W. Davies, but at least as much because of his historiographical work What is History?. This book is generally regarded as the main expression of modern history-writing, doing away with the old Whiggish history as well as certain kinds of sterile conservative positivism (à la Namier). It inaugurated the era in which the historians’ craft was increasingly seen as just that, a particular way of selecting and arranging historical elements, whether or not one wants to call those ‘historical facts’; and in so doing, it both paved the way for and sustained those ways of history-writing which emphasized new arrangements of existing and ignored material for the purpose of bringing hitherto obscure segments of history to the fore, such as social history, women’s history, history of daily life, and so on. The general climate of the New Left and the effect of the Historians’ Group in the UK in particular will have contributed to this. Also an important aspect of Carr’s contribution to historiography in that book as well as in others is his vindication of the idea of progress in history, as a prerequisite for making history-writing an intelligible and useful enterprise in the first place. That he did so without invoking the deus ex machina of the Geist and similar conceptions is a feat on its own, although also a product of the peculiarly British distaste for philosophy of history. Much of this interview must be seen in that light, including the references to the aforementioned work. Since it is essential to defend the idea of progress in history without falling in either the trap of Whiggish progressivism or idealism, Edward Hallett Carr has been a great historian for that reason alone.
All punctuation and spelling etc. is as in the original to the best of my ability. This article is reproduced without permission. Citation: Edward Hallett Carr, From Napoleon to Stalin and Other Essays (Basingstoke 1983), p. 261-276.
You have now completed ‘A History of Soviet Russia’, which covers the years from 1917 to 1929 in fourteen volumes, and commands the whole field of studies of the early experience of the USSR. In the widest historical retrospect, how do you judge the significance of the October Revolution today – for Russia, and for the rest of the world?
Let us begin with its significance for Russia itself. One need hardly dwell today on the negative consequences of the Revolution. For several years, and especially in the last few months, they have been an obsessive topic in published books, newspapers, radio and television. The danger is not that we shall draw a veil over the enormous blots on the record of the Revolution, over its costa and human suffering, over the crimes committed in its name. The danger is that we shall be tempted to forget altogether, and to pass over in silence, its immense achievements. I am thinking in part of the determination, the dedication, the organization, the sheer hard work which in the last sixty years have transformed Russia into a major industrial country and one of the super-powers. Who before 1917 could have predicted or imagined this? But, far more than this, I am thinking of the transformation since 1917 in the lives of ordinary people: the transformation of Russia from a country more than eighty per cent of whose population consisted of illiterate or semi-literate peasants into a country with a population of more than sixty per cent urban, which is totally literate and is rapidly acquiring the elements of urban culture. Most of the members of this new society are the grand-children of peasants; some of them are great-grand-children of serfs. They cannot help being conscious of what the Revolution has done for them. And these things have been brought about by rejecting the main criteria of capitalist production – profits and the law of the market – and substituting a comprehensive economic plan aimed at promoting the common welfare. However much performance may have lagged behind promise, what has been done in the USSR in the past sixty years, in spite of fearful interruptions from without, is a striking advance towards the realization of the economic programme of socialism. Of course, I know that anyone who speaks of the achievements of the Revolution will at once be branded as a Stalinist. But I am not prepared to submit to this kind of moral blackmail. After all, an English historian can praise the achievements of the reign of Henry VIII without being supposed to condone the beheading of wives.
Your ‘History’ covers the period in which Stalin established his autocratic power within the Bolshevik Party, defeating and eliminating successive oppositions to him, and laying the foundations for what was later to be called Stalinism as a political system. How far do you think that his victory was inevitable within the CPSU? What were the margins of choice during the twenties?
I tend to fight shy of the crux of inevitability in history, which very quickly leads into a blind alley. The historian asks the question ‘Why?’, including the question why, of several courses apparently available at any given moment, one particular course was followed. If different antecedents had been at work, the results would have been different. I have no great faith in what is called ‘counter-factual history’. I am reminded of the Russian proverb which Alec Nove is fond of quoting: “If grandma had a beard, grandma would be grandpa.” To re-arrange the past to suit one’s own predilections and one’s own point of view is a very pleasant occupation. But I am not sure that it is otherwise very profitable.
If, however, you ask me to speculate, I will say this. Lenin, if he had lived through the twenties and thirties in the full possession of his faculties, would have faced exactly the same problems. He knew perfectly well that large-scale mechanized agriculture was the first condition of any economic advance. I do not think he would have been satisfied with Bukharin’s ‘snail’s pace industrialization’. I do not think he would have made too many concessions to the market (remember his insistence on maintaining the monopoly of foreign trade). He knew that you could get nowhere without some effective control and direction of labour (remember his remarks on ‘one-man management’ in industry and even about ‘Taylorism’). But Lenin was not only reared in a humane tradition, he enjoyed enormous prestige, great moral authority and powers of persuasion; and these qualities, shared by none of the other leaders, would have prompted and enabled him to minimize and mitigate the element of coercion. Stalin had no moral authority whatever (later he tried to build it up in the crudest ways). He understood nothing but coercion, and from the first employed this openly and brutally. Under Lenin the passage might not have been altogether smooth, but it would have been nothing like what happened. Lenin would not have tolerated the falsification of the record in which Stalin constantly indulged. If failures occurred in Party policy or practice, he would have openly recognized and admitted them as such; he would not, like Stalin, have acclaimed desperate expedients as brilliant victories. The USSR under Lenin would never have become, in Ciliga’s phrase, the ‘land of the big lie’. These are my speculations. If they serve no other purpose, they may reveal something of my beliefs and of my standpoint.
Your ‘History’ ends on the threshold of the thirties, with the launching of the First Five-Year Plan. Collectivization and the purges lie ahead. You wrote in your preface to your first volume that Soviet sources so dwindled for the thirties that pursuit of your research into them on the same scale was impossible. Is the situation still the same today, or have more documents been published in selected areas in recent years? Does the paucity of archives prevent you from continuing beyond 1929?
More has been published since I wrote that preface in 1950, but there are still dark places. R.W. Davies, who collaborated with me in my last economic volume, is working on the economic history of the early nineteen thirties, and will I think produce convincing results. I have lately been interesting myself in the external affairs of the period and the run-up to the popular front; here, too, I find no shortage of materials. But political history in the narrower sense is more or less a closed book. Big controversies obviously occurred. But between whom? Who were the winners, who the defeated, what compromises were reached? We have no documents available comparable to the relatively free debates at Party congresses in the twenties or the platforms of oppositions. A dense fog of mystery still envelops such episodes as the Kirov murder, the purge of the generals, or the secret contracts between the Soviet and German emissaries which many people believe to have occurred in the later thirties. I could not have continued my History beyond 1929 with the same confidence that I had some clue to what really happened.
The thirties are often presented as a decisive watershed, or break, in the history of the USSR. The scale of repression unleashed in the countryside with collectivization, and throughout the Party and State apparatuses themselves with the great terror – it is argued – qualitatively altered the nature of the Soviet régime. The political rationale of the purges and camps – not repeated on the same scale in any subsequent socialist revolution – remains obscure to this day. What is your view of them? Do you regard the notion of a political rupture, especially after the 17th Party Congress, which is widely held within the Soviet Union itself, as valid?
This introduces the famous question of ‘periodization’. An event like the Revolution of 1917 is so dramatic and so sweeping in its consequences that it imposes itself on every historian as a turning-point in history, the end or beginning of a period. Broadly speaking, however, the historian has to define his periods and, in the process of organizing his material, to choose his ‘turning-points’ or ‘watersheds’; and this choice reflects – often, no doubt, unconsciously – his own standpoint, his own view of the sequence of events. Historians of the Russian Revolution from 1917 to, say, 1940 face a dilemma. The revolutionary régime which began as a liberating force was associated, long before the end of that period, with repression of the most ruthless kind. Should the historian treat this as a single period with a continuous process of development – and degeneration? Or should he split it into separate periods of liberation and repression, divided by some significant watershed?
Serious historians who take the first view (I exclude cold-war writers who merely want to blacken Lenin with the sins of Stalin) will point out that both Marx and Lenin (the latter with great emphasis) assert the essentially repressive character of the State; that from the moment when the Russian Soviet Republic proclaimed itself as a state it became by its nature an instrument of repression; and that this element was monstrously inflated, but not in principle changed, by the pressures and vicissitudes to which it was later subjected. The historian who takes the two-period line seems to have a more plausible case, till he has to locate his watershed. Should one place the transition to policies of mass repression at the time of the Kronstadt revolt of March 1921 – or perhaps of the peasant risings in central Russia in the previous winter? Or should one identify it with Stalin’s conquest of the Party and State machine in the middle twenties, with the campaigns against Trotsky and Zinoviev, and with the expulsion and exile of scores of leading oppositionists in 1928? Or with the first large-scale public trials, at which defendants pleaded guilty to bizarre charges of sabotage and treason, in 1930 and 1931? Concentration camps and forced labour existed well before 1930. I am not much impressed with a solution which defers the watershed till the middle thirties. As I said, the choice of periods reflects the standpoint of the historian. I cannot help feeling that this bit of periodization is rather neatly tailored to explain and condone the long blindness of left intellectuals in the West to the repressive character of the régime. Yet even this will not quite do. Even while the great purges and trials were in progress, an unprecedented number of left intellectuals were flocking into western Communist parties.
Well, this brings us to the second part of our original question – the significance of the Russian Revolution for the capitalist world.
Let me try to sum up very briefly. Initially, the Revolution polarized Left and Right in the capitalist world. In central Europe, revolution loomed on the horizon. Even in this country there were extremes: the communists who hoisted the red flag in Glasgow, and Churchill who wanted to use the British army to destroy the Revolution in Russia. A sizeable number, though nowhere a majority, of workers entered Communist parties in Germany, France, Italy and Czechoslovakia. But by the middle of the nineteen twenties the ebb had set in – especially among the organized workers. The Red Trade Union International never succeeded in shaking the authority of the social-democratic Amsterdam International, which became more and more bitterly anti-communist. The TUC under Citrine and Bevin followed suit. The workers in western countries were no longer revolutionary; they fought to improve their position within the capitalist system, not to destroy it. The ‘popular front’ of the nineteen thirties (at any rate in this country) was predominantly an affair of liberals and intellectuals. After 1945, the intellectuals – like the workers twenty years earlier – also turned away from the Revolution. Orwell and Camus are typical names. Since then, the process has continued at an increasing rate. The polarization of Left and Right in 1917 has been replaced by a polarization of East and West. Revulsion against Stalinism has produced – nowhere more conspicuously than in this country – a united front of Right and Left against the USSR.
But, before going further, I should like to hazard two generalizations. First, the astounding swings of opinion about the Russian Revolution in the western countries since 1917 are to be explained by what was happening in those countries quite as much as by anything happening in the USSR. Secondly, where these swings have been prompted by Soviet activities, they have related to the international policies of the USSR, and not to its domestic affairs. It is difficult to reconstruct the state of British opinion of the Russian Revolution during its first year: we had so much else to think about. But, of one thing I am sure from my own recollections. The vast majority of people who disapproved of the Revolution were moved to indignation, not by stories of community of goods or community of women, but by the hard fact that the Bolsheviks had taken Russia out of the war, and deserted her allies at the most critical moment of their fortunes.
Once the Germans were beaten everything changed. War-weariness set in, intervention in Russia was widely condemned, and the climate in Britain became sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, who were vaguely ‘left’, democratic and peace-loving. But there was very little ideology about this: capitalism versus socialism was really not an issue. After the Pyrrhic victory of the first Labour Government, the tide ebbed. The anti-Soviet wave of 1924-9 was fostered partly by party-political considerations (the Zinoviev letter had been a great vote-winner), partly by the not unfounded belief that the Russians were helping to undermine British prestige and prosperity in China. This was the time when Austen Chamberlain thought that Stalin was a good thing, because he was concerned to build socialism in his own country and not, like the more noxious Trotsky and Zinoviev, to foment international revolution.
All this was blotted out by the great economic crisis of 1930-33 which preoccupied the whole western world. For the first time, widespread disillusionment with capitalism created a movement of sympathy for the USSR. The British public knew nothing of what was going on there. But it had heard of the five-year plan, and had a general impression that the grass over there was greener. Litvinov’s disarmament campaign at Geneva made a powerful impact on the prevailing pacifist mood. But one reservation must be made. The trade unions succesfully beat off all attempts at infiltration, and the workers were not much involved. The story of the nineteen thirties is a stampede of liberal and left intellectuals into the Soviet camp. The one Stalinist purge which had a serious effect in Britain was the purge of genrals. This discouraged the anti-German wing of the Conservative Party, which had given some support to the Soviet campaign, by convincing them that the Red Army would be useless as an instrument against Hitler. These doubts were increased by Soviet hesitation at the time of Munich. The event which finally destroyed the whole edifice of British-Soviet friendship was the Nazi-Soviet pact. Even the British Party, which had sailed comfortably through the purges, was rocked to its foundations by the pact. It was a blow from which Soviet prestige in Britain, in spite of the episode of wartime enthousiasm, has never really recovered.
I need not go on after the war. A Soviet threat to Europe was soon detected and publicized. Churchill’s Fulton speech brought down the iron curtain. The first Sputnik heralded the emergence of a new super-power, challenging the former monopoly of the United States. Since then, the growth of Soviet military and economic power, and its expanding influence in other continents, have elevated the USSR to the role of Public Enemy No. 1 and have made it the target of a propaganda barrage which now exceeds in intensity the ‘cold wars’ of the twenties and fifties. That, in barest outline, is the murky and tangled story of the reactions in the West to the Russian Revolution.
How would you assess the political evolution of the Soviet State system? How does cultural and intellectual life in the USSR today compare with, say, that of the fifties, and of the twenties? In the West, the phenomenon of dissent virtually monopolizes the attention of the Left today. Do you regard it as an appropriate prism through which to view the political situation in contemporary Russia?
To review economic, social, political and cultural conditions in the USSR today is far beyond the scope of this interview, and I must really stick to this question of East-West relations. The current prominence of the dissidents in these relations is, of course, a symptom, not a causal factor. But it presents a very complex and embarrassing problem for the Left in western countries. Historically, the Left, not the Right, has been the champion of the victims of oppressive régimes. The dissidents in Soviet Russia and eastern Europe are in this category, and can rightly count on organized sympathy and protest from the Left. The trouble is that their cause has been taken up in a big way by the Right, and that what began as a humanitarian movement has been transformed into a great political campaign, inspired by quite different motives, serving different purposes and conducted in a different style; and, since the Right possesses most of the wealth and resources, has the most powerful organization, and to a large extent controls the media, it determines the strategy and dominates the campaign. The Left finds itself in the position of a camp-follower, struggling vainly to maintain its independence, serving purposes not its own, and smeared with the fundamental dishonesty of the campaign.
Two points need to be made here. The first is that human rights are universal, something belonging to human beings as such, not to members of a particular nation. A big campaign for human rights is vitiated if it confines itself to one corner of the world. Iran is the seat of a notoriously repressive régime. Yet President Carter, in the full flush of his campaign for human rights in Russia, received the Shah with full honours in the White House, and both Carter and Callaghan have sent good wishes to him for success in dealing with his dissidents. Evidently Iranian dissidents have no human rights. In China the Gang of Four, and the hundreds or perhaps thousands of their supporters in Shanghai and other Chinese cities, have simply disappeared. No trials have been held, no charges preferred against them. What has become of them – are they still alive? Nobody either knows or cares. We prefer not to know. The human rights of Chinese dissidents are a matter of indifference. All this is comprehensible enough in a campaign conducted by politicians who are primarily interested not in protecting human rights, but in exciting popular indignation and hostility against Soviet Russia. But is the moral integrity of the Left compatible with involvement in a campaign which exploits the sincerely and deeply held motivations of decent, but politically naïve people for purposes totally foreign to its professed object?
The other point concerns the style and character of the campaign. A few days ago I came across a quotation from Macaulay: ‘There is no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality.’ I am afraid I find the present fit not so much ridiculous as sinister and frightening. You cannot open a newspaper without coming up against this obsessive hatred and fear of Russia. The persecution of the dissidents, Russian military and naval armaments, Russian spies, Marxism as a current term of abuse in party political controversy – all these contribute to the build-up. An outburst of national hysteria on this scale is surely the symptom of a sick society – one of those societies which seek to unload the sense of their own predicament, their own helplessness, their own guilt, by making a scapegoat of some external group – Russians, Blacks, Jews or whatever. I find the question where all this can lead truly alarming. It is consoling to reflect that popular hysteria has infected no other European country in quite the same degree, and that even in the United States a reaction seems to have started against Carter’s pulpit diplomacy; but I am sorry that so much of our Left has been engulfed in the flood.
One of the most striking developments of the seventies has been the detachment of the West European Communist Parties from their traditional loyalty towards the USSR. In the name of Eurocommunism, the Spanish Party now speaks of the USA and USSR as equivalent threats to a socialist Europe, and the Italian Party refers benevolently to NATO as a shield against Soviet incursions. Such positions would have been unthinkable a decade ago. What is your view of the trend they represent? Does the search for a model of socialist society distinct from the USSR, adapted to the more advanced West, justify the current anti-Soviet tonality of Eurocommunism?
Eurocommunism is surely a still-born movement, a desperate attempt to escape from reality. If you want to return to Kautsky and denounce the renegade Lenin, fair enough. But why muddy the waters by labelling yourselves communist? In the hitherto accepted terminology you are right-wing social-democrats. The one solid plank of Eurocommunism is independence of, and opposition to, the Russian Party; it jumps eagerly on to the anti-Soviet band-wagon. The rest of the platform is entirely amorphous, the kind of thing which in this country we used to call ‘Lib-Lab’. Its excursions into practical politics betray its hollowness. The Italian Eurocommunists stand somewhat to the right of the socialists. The French Eurocommunists stand in several different places at once. The Spanish Eurocommunists stand nowhere at all. The British Eurocommunists are barely visible. One could have done without this sad demonstration of the bankruptcy of western Communist parties.
Marx envisaged socialism as a society of incomparably greater liberty and productivity than capitalism – a harmonious, advanced association of free producers without economic exploitation or political duress. The transition to such a society in the Soviet Union, although it has proceeded beyond capitalism, remains far from the goals of Marx or Lenin. In the much richer countries of the West, capitalism has yet to be overthrown, partly because of disappointment within the working class at the progress so far registered in the USSR. In a situation that may seem at times like a dual deadlock, do you think that the possibilities of a political breakthrough, an acceleration, towards the classical goals of revolutionary socialism are greater in the East or in the West today? You ended your book ‘What is History?’ with Galileo’s words, E pur si muove – ‘yet it moves’. Where is the main locus of historical movement towards the close of the twentieth century?
This question has so many facet that I shall have to break it up and answer rather discursively. First, a short digression on the place of Marx and Marxism in our thinking. Adam Smith had insights of genius; and the Wealth of Nations became for a whole century, and for more than one century, the bible of emergent capitalism. Today the changed economic scene has invalidated some of his postulates, and altered our view of some of his predictions and injunctions. Karl Marx had even profounder insights of genius; he not only foresaw and analyzed the impending decline of capitalism, but provided us with fresh tools of thought to uncover the sources of social behavior. But much has happened since he wrote: and recent developments, while they have confirmed his analysis, have thrown some doubts on his prognosis. To admit such doubts, and to investigate them, is not to dishonour Marx. What seem to be incompatible with the spirit of Marxism are scholastically ingenious attempts – such as I have occasionally seen in articles in the NLR – to fit Marxist texts to conditions and problems of which he took no account and which he could not have foreseen. What I should like to see from Marxist intellectuals is less abstract analysis of Marxist texts, and more application of Marxist methods to the examination of social and economic conditions which differentiate our age from his.
You ask about the prospects of a breakthrough to a socialist or Marxist society in the USSR and in the West. These are two very different problems. The Russian Revolution overthrew the old order, and hoisted the Marxist flag. But the Marxist premises were not present, and realization of the Marxist perspectives could not therefore have been expected. The tiny Russian proletariat, almost without education, was quite unlike the proletariat envisaged by Marx as the standard-bearer of revolution, and was unequal to the role imposed on it in the Marxist scheme of things. Lenin in one of his last essays deplored the shortage of ‘genuine proletarians’, and remarked sadly that Marx was writing ‘not about Russia, but about capitalism in general’. The dictatorship of the proletariat, however one interpreted the phrase, was a pipe-dream. What Trotsky called ‘substitutism’, the substitution of the Party for the proletariat, was inevitable, resulting by slow stages in the rise of a privileged bureaucracy, the divorce of the leadership from the masses, the dragooning of workers and peasants, and the concentration camps. On the other hand, something was done which has not been done in the West. Capitalism has been dismantled and replaced by planned production and distribution; and, if socialism has not been realized, some of the conditions for its realization have, however imperfectly, been created. The proletariat has enormously increased in numbers; its standard of living, its health, its education have improved remarkably. If one wanted to indulge in flights of fancy, one might imagine that this new proletariat will one day take up the burden which its weak forebears could not carry sixty years ago, and move forward to socialism. Personally I am not much addicted to such speculations. History rarely produces theoretically tidy solutions. Soviet society is still advancing. But to what end, and whether the rest of the world will allow it to pursue its advance undisturbed – these are questions which I shall not attempt to answer.
The problem of Marxism in the West is more complicated. Here the Marxist premises exist, but have not led – so far – to the Marxist dénouement. Marx formulated his theories in light of conditions in Western Europe, and especially in England. His insight and his foresight have been brilliantly vindicated – up to a point. The capitalist system has declined under the gathering weight of its internal contradictions. It has been severely shaken by two world wars and by recurrent economic crises. It shows itself impotent in the face of rising unemployment. The organized workers have gained enormously in strength, and have not hesitated to use that strength for their own ends. Yet the one thing that has not happened is the proletarian revolution. Wherever in the capitalist world revolution has momentarily loomed on the horizon – in Germany in 1919, in Britain in 1926, in France in 1968 – the workers hastened to turn their backs on it. Whatever they wanted was not revolution. I find it difficult to reject the evidence that, in spite of all the chinks that have developed in the armour of capitalism, the mood of the workers is less, not more, revolutionary today than it was sixty years ago. In the West today, the proletariat – meaning, as Marx meant by the term, the organized workers in industry – is not a revolutionary, perhaps even a counter-revolutionary force.
Why does the worker in the West today – for I think we must accept the fact – not want revolution? The first answer is ‘Fear’, stimulated in part by the example of 1917. The Russian Revolution, whatever good ultimately came out of it, caused endless misery and devastation. To overthrow the ruling class in the capitalist world today would be a still more desperate enterprise, its costs even higher. The Russian worker in 1917 may have had nothing to lose but his chains. The western worker has far more than that to lose, and does not want to lose it. When this question is raised, I sometimes resort to an analogy. The doctor tells the patient that he has an incurable disease, which will get worse at an unpredictable rate, but that he may hope to carry on somehow for a few years longer. The disease can be cured by an operation, but there is quite a chance that the operation will kill the patient. The patient decides to carry on. Rosa Luxemburg said that the decay of capitalism would end either in socialism or in barbarism. I suspect that most workers today prefer to face the slow decay of capitalism, hoping that it will last out their time, rather than face the surgical knife of revolution, which may or may not produce socialism. It is a tenable point of view.
But I want to go deeper than that. I do not know who invented the phrase ‘consumer sovereignty’. But the idea is implicit in Adam Smith and the whole of classical economics. Marx rightly put the producer in the centre of the economic process. But he took it for granted that the producer produced for the market, and therefore had to produce what the consumer wanted to buy; and this is probably a fair description of what happened till about the end of the last century – several years after Marx’s death. Since then the tables have turned and the power of the producer has increased at a frantic rate. The entrepreneur, now more and more often a big corporation, controlled and standardized prices. Mass production made it imperative to create a uniform market. Advertising grew by leaps and bounds in extent and in ingenuity. For the first time the producer was able to mould consumer taste, and to persuade the consumder to want what the producer found it most convenient and profitable to produce. We had arrived at the age of producer sovereignty.
The point is, however, that, as the proletariat increased in numbers and in sophistication, it could more and more effectively assert its claim to share in the rising profits of the new age. Engels discovered the corruption by the capitalists of what he called a workers’ aristocracy. Lenin applied the same concept to the working class of capitalist countries vis-à-vis the colonial world. But even Lenin did not foresee a partnership of producers, i.e. of employers and workers, to exploit the consumer throughout the home market. It requires no great acumen to see what is happening. ‘Job protection’ for the producer has become a decisive factor in economic policy. Over-manning in management and on the shop floor is condoned; increased prices will take care of the cost. Technological improvements which would cut costs and prices are resisted because they would involve loss of jobs; the consumer can pay. Some serious body the other day proposed to slaughter a quarter of a million laying hens in order to reduce the supply of eggs and prevent a disastrous slump in prices. The odd performances of the EEC with butter, wine and beef are familiar. So crazy an economy cannot in the long run survive. But the run can be long – longer than those who now profit by it need envisage. I have not mentioned such minor matter as the investment of the very large pension funds of the unions in industrial and commercial equities. If capitalist profits collapse, so does the provision for the old age of workers. ‘Where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also’. The workers have now in many ways a large stake in the survival of capitalism. In present conditions, the nationalization of industries, and the placing of workers on boards of directors (in which, incidentally, British workers have shown no great interest), represent not a take-over of industry by the workers, but further steps in the integration of the workers into the capitalist system. Lord Robens is quite as good a capitalist as Lord Robbins.
It is from this standpoint that we must diagnose the sickness of the Left, which is a conspicuous part of the sickness of our whole society. The Left has lost the core of its creed, and goes on repeating formulas which have lost their credibility. For a hundred years or more, the hopes of the Left had been pinned on the workers as the revolutionary class of the future. Capitalist democracy would be overthrown and replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is possible to hold that this vision will yet be realized. Large transformations of society have in the past been spread over many decades and centuries; perhaps we are merely being too impatient. But I confess that, with so many signals pointing in another direction, this prospect puts a severe strain on my capacities for optimism. I am not reassured when I look at the present disarray of the Left, divided into a galaxy of minute warring sects, united only by their failure to attract more than an insignificant fringe of the workers’ movement, and by the brave illusion that their prescriptions for revolution represent the interests and ambitions of the workers. I recall that Trotsky, in an article written shortly after the outbreak of war in September 1939, admitted, hesitantly and with many reservations, that if the war did not provoke a revolution one would be forced to seek the reason for the failure ‘not in the backwardness of the country, and not in the imperialist environment, but in the congenital incapacity of the proletariat to become a ruling class’. One should not perhaps make too much of an admission wrung from him in a dark hour of despair. I jib at the word ‘congenital’; the article was published in English, and I do not know what Russian word Trotsky may have written. But, had he survived to witness the contemporary scene, I do not think that he would have found much occasion to retract his verdict.
How then does one analyze the situation and see the future? First, employers and workers still fight in the traditional way over the division of the profits of capitalist enterprise, though occasions have occurred recently where employers and workers came to an agreement, and the agreement was resisted by the government on the ground of public interest. Secondly, a silent, but very powerful, consensus has been established between employers and workers on the need to maintain profits. The parties may still quarrel about the division of the spoils, but are united in their desire to maximise them. It is still open to ask which of these two factors will ultimately come out on top. A case could be made out for the argument that, when the physical limits of exploitation of the consumer market are reached, and when the opportunities of reinforcement of capitalism from without are exhausted in any given country, the clash between the interests of employer and worker will once more become predominant, and that the way will be clear for the long delayed proletarian revolution on a Marxist model. But I must confess myself skeptical about this prospect. I am impressed by the fact that the only considerable revolutions achieved since 1917 have been in China and Cuba, and that revolutionary movements are alive today only in countries where the proletariat is weak or nonexistent.
You challenge me by quoting the last words from my What is History? Yes, I believe that the world is moving forward. I have not altered my view of 1917 as one of the turning-points of history. I will say that it, together with the war of 1914-1918, marked the beginning of the end of the capitalist system. But the world does not move all the time or in all places at once. I should now feel tempted to say that the Bolsheviks won their victory in 1917, not in spite of the backwardness of the Russian economy and society, but because of it. I think we have to consider seriously the hypothesis that the world revolution of which it was the first stage, and which will complete the downfall of capitalism, will prove to be the revolt of the colonial peoples against capitalis in the guise of imperialism rather than a revolt of the proletariat of the advanced capitalist countries.
What conclusions can one draw for our own Left in its present plight? Not very encouraging ones, I fear, since this is a profoundly counter-revolutionary period in the West, and the Left has no solid revolutionary base. It seems to me that there are two alternatives open to serious members of the Left today. The first is to remain communists, and to remain an educational and propagandist group divorced from political action. The functions of such a group would be to analyse the social and economic transformation now taking place in the capitalist world; to study the revolutionary movements occurring in other parts of the world – their achievements, their defects and their potentialities; and to try to draw some more or less realistic picture of what socialism should and could mean in the contemporary world. The second alternative for the Left is to go into current politics, become social-democrats, frankly recognize and accept the capitalist system, pursue those limited ends that can be achieved within the system, and work for those compromises between employers and workers which serve to maintain it.
One cannot be both a communist and a social-democrat. The social-democrat criticizes capitalism, but in the last resort defends it. The communist rejects it, and believes that in the end it will destroy itself. But the communist in western countries at the present time is conscious of the strength of the forces which still uphold it, and of the lack of any revolutionary force powerful enough to overthrow it.