Alex Callinicos




5 Reorientations

5.2 A progressive problem-shift?

A given fact is explained scientifically only if a new fact is explained with it”, Lakatos wrote. A research programme which predicts novel facts and at least some of whose predictions are corroborated is a “progressive problem-shift” in the history of the sciences (Lakatos 1978: I, 33-4). Orthodox Trotskyism, by contrast, represented a “degenerating problem-shift” since, as we saw in Chapters 2 and 3 above, it sought to rescue Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism from refutation by a series of defensive manoeuvres that lagged behind rather than anticipating the facts. How well does the variant of Trotskyism developed by Cliff stand up to an application of the same criteria? To answer this question requires first taking account of Elie Zahar’s clarification of the nature of the novel facts which Lakatos requires a progressive programme to predict. On the basis of a discussion of Einstein’s transformation of modern physics, Zahar argues that a novel fact need not be one unknown at the time of the predicting theory’s formulation. Rather: “A fact will be considered novel with respect to a given hypothesis if it did not belong to the problem-situation that governed the construction of the hypothesis” (Zahar 1973: 103). Thus, if a theory formulated to resolve a specific scientific problem entails as a corollary some established fact not involved in that problem, it has successfully predicted a novel fact.

These considerations are relevant to the plight of post-war Trotskyism. For the FI was confronted, not simply with the triumph of Stalinism in the East, but with the expansion of capitalism in the West. Cliff (1987: 15), viewing post-war Britain from the perspective of colonial Palestine, was struck by the fact that

[t]he standard of living for workers was high. When I first visited a worker’s house – just an ordinary house – I asked his job and he was an engineer. My English wasn’t very good so I thought he meant an engineer with a degree. But he was a semi-skilled engineering worker. It was a complete shock. Children were better off than in the thirties. The only time I saw children without shoes in Europe was in Dublin. Children didn’t get rickets any more. This helped me to realize that the final crisis wasn”t around the corner.

Cliff’s first major contribution to the British Trotskyist movement was a critique, written in 1947, of Mandel’s attempts to deny the existence of a post-war economic recovery (Cliff 1982: 24-37). Nevertheless, the fact that “the final crisis wasn”t around the corner” played no part in the “problem-situation” involved in the formulation of Cliff’s theory of state capitalism. That, rather, was defined by what Cliff (1948: i) regarded as the “unbridgeable antagonism between the definition of Russia as a degenerated workers’ state and fundamental elements of Marxism such as ... the self-mobilization and self-conscious action of the masses as a necessary element for the socialist revolution”.

Implicit, however, in Cliff’s analysis of state capitalism was an explanation of the post-war boom. This analysis identified military competition between East and West as the chief mechanism enforcing the dynamic of capital accumulation on the USSR. The escalation of the Cold War led to unprecedentedly high levels of peacetime arms expenditure, particularly in the two superpowers. In 1962 military spending corresponded to half of world gross capital formation (Kidron 1970: 49). Now arms production has, from the standpoint of Marxist economic theory, peculiar properties. It neither provides new means of production (Department I) nor contributes to the consumption of the working class (Department IIa). The output of the arms sector therefore does not feed back, either directly or indirectly, into further production. It is a form of unproductive consumption, analogous to the consumption of luxuries by the capitalists themselves (Department IIb or III) – Cliff (1948: 121-2) calls arms “the collective consumption of the capitalist class”, which enables that class through military expansion, “to get new capital, new possibilities of accumulation”. It can be shown that, because arms, unlike capital or wage goods, do not re-enter the cycle of production, the rate of profit in the arms sector does not contribute to the formation of the general rate of profit. This has the very important corollary that, other things being equal, arms production has a stabilizing effect on the capitalist economy, for the following reasons: first, the diversion of surplus-value to military investments tends to slow down the rate of accumulation, and therefore the trend for the organic composition (the ratio of capital invested in means of production to capital invested in labour-power) to rise thereby, since, according to Marx, only labour creates profits, bringing down the general rate of profit; second, a higher than average organic composition of capital in the arms sector will not cause a rise in the general rate of profit; and third, arms production, by employing unused factors, will stimulate demand, with the consequences for output and employment that Keynesian economics would lead us to expect (see Harman 1984: 35-46).

Cliff drew on some of these stabilizing properties of arms production to help explain why Russian state capitalism did not experience the classical cycle of boom and slump characteristic of market economies (Cliff 1948: 121-25, much truncated in later versions; compare Cliff 1988: 243-4). Only later did he see that these properties could also help explain the long boom. His own version of this explanation, published in 1957, relied mainly on the third factor referred to above: the high levels of post-war arms production had secured full employment through their effect in stimulating demand (Cliff 1982: 101-7). It was Michael Kidron (1970; 1974; 1989), Cliff’s closest collaborator in the 1950s and early 1960s, who developed a much more elaborated theory of the “permanent arms economy”, which, in this respect more faithful to Cliff’s original discussion of military expenditure, focused on the role of arms production in offsetting the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. The most rigorous formulation of the theory was, however, provided much later by Chris Harman (1984). The theory of the permanent arms economy allowed the International Socialists to acknowledge the reality of the boom of the 1950s and 1960s and to avoid the kinds of response characteristic of orthodox Trotskyism – the catastrophic fantasies of Healy and the apologetic manoeuvres of Mandel. At the same time, however, the theory predicted that capitalism was experiencing an only temporary stabilization. Cliff (1948: 121-5) had pointed out that arms expenditure, by diverting surplus-value from productive investment, tended to prevent slumps at the price of a long-term tendency toward stagnation. Those economies with a relatively high level of arms expenditure, finding themselves at a competitive disadvantage, would react by increasing the share of investment taken by civilian industries, and thereby allow the tendencies towards a classical business cycle to reassert themselves (see, for example, Cliff 1982: 106-7). On this analysis, then, the growing rivalries within the Western bloc between the USA, on the one hand, and Japan and West Germany, on the other, were a foreseeable consequence of the uneven distribution of the arms burden within the Atlantic alliance whose outcome, lower American military spending, could only lead to a decline in the rate of profit and global recessions such as those of 1974-5 and 1979-82 (see Harman 1984: 93-9).

Cliff’s theory of state capitalism, and its extension in the theory of the permanent arms economy, had two further consequences. First, they provided a basis for understanding developments in the Third World. Kidron (1974: ch.6) and Nigel Harris (1971) challenged certain elements of Lenin’s theory of imperialism, and in particular the idea that the colonies (by then increasingly ex-colonies) played an essential role for the advanced countries as markets, sources of raw materials, and investment sites, Harris attempted to show in some detail that, as a result of the drive to autarky by the major powers in the 1930s, and of the post-war arms economy, the major flows of trade and investment in the world market took place among the advanced countries themselves. The Third World was, on the whole, of declining economic significance to the Western metropolis. This shift in the global centre of economic gravity had made possible the relatively peaceful dismantlement of the European colonial empires after 1945; it also suggested a bleak future for the newly independent states, pursuing economic development while denied access to the productive resources concentrated in the West. Kidron and Harris sometimes drew the extreme conclusion that any development in the Third World was impossible, a claim refuted by the rise of the newly industrializing countries (see Harris 1986 and Callinicos 1987b). Nevertheless, their modification of Lenin’s theory of imperialism allowed them to challenge the belief, very influential on the Western Left from the 1950s onwards, that national liberation movements in the Third World represented the main challenge to capitalism. Cliff (1982: 108-17) provided a critique of Lenin’s theory of the labour aristocracy, often used to justify this belief on the grounds that the Western working class had been politically incorporated by receiving a share of the fruits of colonial exploitation. The main division in the world, Cliff and Kidron affirmed, was that between international capital and international labour, irrespective of the national sites of their struggle. For socialists in the West, therefore, “[t]he best service we can render international socialism is to help stoke up the fires at home” (Kidron 1974: 164).

But how did the great Third World revolutions – China, Vietnam, Cuba – fit into this analysis? Orthodox Trotskyists saw them as a confirmation of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and argued that they had resulted in new but deformed workers’ states (see Section 3.2 above). Cliff rejected this conclusion, since it implied that socialism could be achieved without the self-activity of the working class. The theory of permanent revolution had assumed that the colonial bourgeoisie, dependent on foreign capital and fearful of its own working class, would not lead the struggle against imperialism and that therefore the proletariat would take on the tasks of both the bourgeois-democratic and the proletarian revolutions (see Section 1.1 above). But what would happen if the working class also did not lead the movement for national liberation? Cliff adduced various factors – above all, the political subordination of the working class in the backward countries, its domination by the politics of class collaboration, usually through the agency of Stalinism – to account for the proletariat’s passivity in the Third World. The resulting vacuum was filled by another social force, the urban intelligentsia, radicalized by the deprivations and humiliations of colonial rule, inspired by Stalinist Russia’s apparent success in industrializing on the basis of national autarky. National liberation movements, led by such intellectuals and usually marching under the banner of “Marxism-Leninism”, waged peasant wars which were able, in favourable conditions, to break the foreign hold on their countries. The new revolutionary regimes were not, however, workers’ states of any description, hut rather new bureaucratic state capitalisms reproducing the original Stalinist pattern. Cliff (1983) described this process as “deflected permanent revolution”: the social dynamics analysed by Trotsky, in the absence of working-class movements led by Marxist parties, led to a peculiar variant of bourgeois revolution.

What, secondly, were the implications of the analysis of contemporary capitalism developed by Cliff and his collaborators for the Western working class? One main effect of the long boom was, they argued, “a shift in the locus of reformism” (see, for example, Cliff and Barker 1966; Barker 1973; Cliff 1982: 218-38). Full employment allowed workers to achieve significant improvements in their standard of living through small-scale wage disputes in individual plants or even sections. Consequently, the social-democratic and Communist parties, oriented on parliamentary reform, became less important to rank-and-file workers. The latter’s most intense loyalties were attached instead to informal workplace institutions such as the British shop stewards, directly responsive to trade unionists’ pressures and effective instruments of the guerilla warfare in the factories which pushed up wages independently of national bargaining. The political apathy of the “affluent worker”, documented and lamented by many scholars and commentators at the turn of the 1950s, represented not the end of the class struggle but its diversion into different channels. The increasing difficulties experienced by the world economy in the second half of the 1960s, however, meant that the ruling class would be compelled to curtail this “do-it-yourself reformism” on the shopfloor – for example, through the imposition of wage controls. The resulting confrontation between capitalist offensive and a militant, self-confident rank and file would be explosive, particularly because of the decay of the mass reformist organizations:

The concept of apathy or privatization is not a static concept. At a stage of development – when the path of individual reforms is being narrowed or closed – apathy can transform into its opposite, swift mass action. However, this new turn comes as an outgrowth of the previous stage; the epilogue and the prologue combine. Workers who have lost their loyalty to the traditional organizations, which have shown themselves to be paralysed over the years, are forced into extreme, explosive struggles on their own. (Cliff 1982: 234)


Last updated on 13.3.2001