How did we get here? The threat of fascism in the US

History will not forget the US President striding out of the White House – waving a bible – after ordering the beating and gassing of peaceful protesters to clear his path. If the horror of watching George Floyd die was not enough, now we have seen the iron fist of the US ruling-class shoot, gas and brutalise tens of thousands of protesters across the entire country. The question we must answer is how did the US get here? How did we end up with a fascist in the White House overseeing the declaration of virtual martial law? The answer does not lie in the personality of Donald Trump, but in the crisis of capitalism.

The rotten door of US democracy

 In November 2016, US bourgeois-democracy was already a “rotten door” waiting to be kicked in. The rot was evident with the stolen election of 2000. Then came the 911 events; a US equivalent of the Reichstag fire. It justified the ‘War on Terror’ with the US Patriot Act, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the rendition and torture at Guantanamo, the war against whistleblowers like Julian Assange, NSA surveillance and Barack Obama’s “Terror Tuesdays” which decided who the US government should extra-judicially murder, including US citizens.  Meanwhile, in the name of stopping terrorism and protecting human rights abroad, the US escalated its interventionist rampage in the Middle East, Africa and Central and South America. Invasions, coups and sanctions overturned and subverted governments at the cost of millions of lives. These attacks on democratic norms were carried out with the support of both capitalist parties, Democrat and Republican.

President Obama watches a live stream of the execution of Osama bin Laden in 2011

That the gutting of the US constitution and the drive to authoritarianism in the US has been a bipartisan project points to the essential class forces at work. As US imperialism faces challenges to its global hegemony with its economy weakening, it is driven ever closer to policies of total war and dictatorship. As the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, warned in 1928, “In the period of crisis the hegemony of the United States will operate more completely, more openly, and more ruthlessly than in the period of boom.

However, the same class processes are driving the working class ever closer towards launching a struggle for revolutionary socialism. The ever-increasing gap between rich and poor, the daily struggle of the majority to survive, the growing threats from climate chaos and ecocide, increasing state/police violence, and the opposition to the growing threat of world war, all push the working class into struggle. The ruling class understands this objective process and is adopting ever more dictatorial forms of rule at home. Therefore, for both domestic and international reasons, the US ruling class is moving to throw off the shackles of democratic forms of rule. 

Fascism – an international project for US imperialism

In 2014, the Obama government supported a right wing coup in Ukraine that installed a government which included neo-Nazis. This demonstrates how US imperialism is not just moving to the far right at home. It is consciously seeking to foster fascism and the far right abroad to advance its global aims.  Far right governments have been fostered notably in Brazil, Poland, Hungary and India. Manoeuvers to shift the Australian ruling class to the far right are evident in the parliamentary coup against Malcolm Turnbull in 2018. The Trump Administration’s support for Brexit can also be seen in this context. 

Trump and Modi at a “Howdy Modi” Rally, Texas 2019

Fostering a network of far right and fascist allies is part of US imperialism’s rearranging of the global cards – to ensure that when it does decide to move militarily against another ‘Great Power’ ie Russia or China, it will have the full support of allied powers ready to suppress their own working classes’ opposition to war. Though the Democrats have supported this process – with advisers like fascist geostrategist Steve Bannon, Trump has far more explicitly aimed to create an international “movement” of the far right in preparation for World War 3.

Fascism comes home to the US

By the time of the 2016 US election, a section of the US ruling class decided it wasn’t enough to foster a network of allied fascist powers – these tactics needed to be ‘brought home’. Billionaires such as Robert Mercer worked with forces like Bannon at Breitbart News to whip up fascist politics online in a movement known as the “alt-right”. Murdoch had Fox News spewing out his filth daily. The Koch brothers had their networks and money flowing into the project of shifting the Republicans ever farther to the right. Sheldon Adelson was looking for candidates to further his far-right, Zionist agenda. Intelligence connected forces like Betsy Devos’s brother, Erik Prince, were actively working in the background.

During the 2016 primaries, Trump blustered onto the scene guided by Nixon-era dirty trickster, Roger Stone. The proto-fascist MAGA movement quickly became their chosen instrument. It should be remembered that Mercer originally backed Ted Cruz in 2016, but switched to Trump. They had found their man.

On election night, November 2016, the rotten door of bourgeois rule hung by a thread as a fascist was installed as President. To those who question this notion, I ask which part of fascist ideology and perspective does Trump not fit? He is rabidly anti-socialist, openly supports fascist violence and paramilitaries, expresses the desire to rule for life, has contempt for the rule of law domestically and internationally, defines dissent as treason, has massively expanded the concentration camp system for immigrants (of course with the support of the Democrats), and uses Islamophobia and anti-semitism to animate his base and divide the working class. He has put fascists in key positions in the White House, such as Steve Miller and Steve Bannon.

However, having a fascist president does not transform the US into a fascist state instantly. The US wasn’t then, and isn’t now, under a fascist form of government. Trotsky wrote extensively on the threat of fascism in the 1930’s, and remains essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the threat of fascism. Fascism is more than just dictatorship, or even police terror. It is an authoritarian political system with a clear class aim.  Under fascism, not just the revolutionary left but all civil society and independent organizations, and all forms of working class organizations such as unions and social democratic parties are crushed. The working class must be forcefully atomised to head off the threat of socialist revolution. 

Trotsky wrote that a defining element of fascism is the development of a mass based movement based on “all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy.” In Italy, Mussolini used his Black Shirts, then in Germany Hitler used his Brown Shirts as a battering ram against the working class on the road to power. Once in power, Mussolini incorporated his Black Shirts into the Italian Army. Once in power, Hitler murdered the leaders of the plebeian Brown Shirts in the “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934. These forces were not needed once they had full control of the state apparatus of violence. 

Hitler greeting Brownshirts in Bavaria 1932

Trump has been attempting to follow the old fascist playbook, but rather than repeating itself, history rhymes. Trump has had an advantage over Mussolini and Hitler. He gained control of the executive at the very start of his political career. He has, therefore, been implementing a dual strategy of building a fascist base, both within and outside the executive office — before, during, and after the election itself.

Trump has worked to do this outside the executive through ongoing MAGA rallies, open support for Nazi and fascist militias, and by cultivating support among reactionary evangelicals ie. his recent ‘bible’ walk at the ‘President’s’ Church. The network of fascist far-right media outlets continues to build its ‘Fuhrer cult’. Whilst it is clear that these forces are very much in the minority in the US, they still number in the tens of millions. 

Trump at MAGA rally in 2016

Within the executive Trump openly appeals to fascist sentiments within ICE, the military, police and other armed bodies of men within the state. The police rampage across the US in response to the Black Lives Matter protests demonstrates the success that Trump has made in animating reactionary layers in the security forces. 

Sixteen year old Brad Levia Ayala shot in Austin by police while standing still on a hill

Fascism by a thousand cuts….

Even Germany did not become fascist overnight. The Weimar Republic eroded for years, as the economic crisis in Germany, and internationally developed. Just as the Democrats in the US have facilitated this process, the SPD (Social Democratic Party) in Germany played a thoroughly rotten role. The Enabling Act of 1933 was simply the death blow of Weimar.

Even after being handed the Chancellorship by President Hindenburg in 1933, Hitler had to move incrementally to institute a full fascist dictatorship. Likewise, Trump is not kicking in the “rotten door” in one go. He has continually tested the water to undermine constitutional rule by degrees. He overturned Congress’s ability to control funds with his national security decrees to fund the border wall which the World Socialist Web Site has described as a “Rubicon” moment. The 1st Amendment was shredded with the arrest of Assange on Espionage charges. He has sought to throw off all oversight of the Executive by the Legislature, claiming “executive privilege” to stop his administration giving evidence to both Congressional committees, as well as to the Impeachment process. His lawyers have  argued in court  that whatever actions the President takes are legal by definition. He has tried to assert full Presidential control over immigration by attempting an explicit ban on immigration from Muslim majority countries.

Truump at El Paso rally Feb 2019

However, Trump has now come up against the limits of expanding his current power constitutionally. Trotsky wrote that the bourgeoisie (the ruling class) as a whole has an ambivalent attitude to fascism: “The big bourgeoisie likes fascism as little as a man with aching molars likes to have his teeth pulled” eg an unpleasant but necessary process. Whilst the logic of the class crisis drives the bourgeoisie ever closer to needing the services of fascism, it holds out as long as possible before staking it’s last card on it. And it will not do so until social democracy and bourgeois-democratic forms of liberal rule have completely exhausted their capacity to sow illusions in the working class. Entrusting the “committee of management” of the capitalist state to the hands of an erratic, vulgarian, gangster fascist like Trump is risky. Recall that within a decade of the German ruling class handing power to Hitler, conservative generals were trying to blow him up!

Armed fascists on the steps of the Michigan State House

However, we see an emerging dynamic as Trump moves to deploy his incipient extra-Parliamentary movement, as well as his personal control of the Executive, as he comes up against constitutional limits. During April, Trump asserted an unconstitutional right to override state-based shutdowns to manage the COVID19 pandemic, but he received pushback from Democratic governors in places such as Michigan. Trump, on behalf of Wall Street’s homocidal “back to work” drive, and with the support of the capitalist press, was able to mobilize his lumpen, enraged petit-bourgeois base to bludgeon the Governors into line.

We have seen Trump come up against resistance to his unconstitutional assertion that he can override state governors and put the US military directly on the streets. This came in the form of push back from former Defense Secretary, “Mad Dog” Mattis, and a retired generals revolt. They were clearly articulating that a section of the ruling class do not think the time is right to “drown the working class in blood” and assert full fascist rule. Trump has been able to mobilise his fascist base in the police and other security forces to shoot protestors, but he has come up against definite limits. We shall see if, moving forward, Trump relies further on right wing terrorist violence from extra-parliamentary forces to overcome this resistance in the coming period in the run up to the November election.

Would a Democrat victory in 2016 made things different?

At this point, it’s worth entertaining a counterfactual exercise. Looking at the class forces that Trump and Clinton rest upon, how might Trump and Clinton have behaved if the election result in 2016 had been reversed? 

Then-Sec of State Hillary Clinton, and the -New York City Police Commissioner at New York Stock Exchange Sept 9, 2011, Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Clinton was clearly the preferred candidate of a section of Wall St and the intelligence agencies. She would have continued their agenda of increasing social inequality at home and imperialist war abroad. She represented a faction which wanted to move aggressively against Russia before turning to China. Her government, in order to do this, would have had to continue the twenty year degradation of US liberal democracy in the form of militarizing police, surveillance and censorship. However, Clinton as a Democrat, doesn’t just rest upon Wall St and the intelligence agencies. The Democrats also rest upon a layer of the upper middle class, obsessed with their own privilege and identity politics. In addition the Democrats rely on trapping the working class within the parliamentary framework by pushing the ever more threadbare illusion that they are the “party of reform”. Whilst the Democrats are not, and have never been, a true social democratic party, they have functioned for a long time in the US as the “graveyard of social movements,” promoting illusions that they can be a vehicle for progressive change. The pathetic demise of the “Sanders revolution” is but the latest example. They also have the support of key unions, but not all, as some support Trump. Although union membership in the US is relatively low, their support for the Democrats can still be crucial, as seen for example in their effective reigning in of the teacher rebellions of recent years. So, would the drive to authoritarian rule and war have continued under Hillary?  Absolutely. But the Democrats’ working class social base prevents it from morphing into a full fascist movement.

What might Trump have done? It is important to note that Trump never expected to win in 2016. First hand accounts on election night have confirmed his shock at defeating Hillary. Trump’s game plan had been to use the MAGA movement to build a fascist base to continue his drive to power and to further the fascist agenda in the US. We can’t say with any certainty what would have happened, but it was obvious that Trump was not going away. Perhaps he would have had to follow a more traditional fascist path to power by building his extra-parliamentary forces until he was able to take power. A Clinton presidency’s reactionary policies and hostility to the working class would have served to feed the narrative that Trump was the man to “drain the swamp”, oppose regime change wars, restore jobs, and Make America Great Again.

But history is what it is— Trump won.

Chloroforming the working class?

It is vital that the working class be alerted to the existential threat of fascism, not just in the US but internationally, if Trump is able to consolidate his rule as dictator. We face the prospect of a fascist having full control over the largest military the world has ever seen, with bases in 180 countries and enough nuclear weapons to eliminate life on earth.  The US executive has surveillance and repressive capacities in the form of drones, the NSA and CIA at its disposal that the German Fuhrer could only dream of.

Marxists are rightfully keen to apply the fascist label only when it is scientifically sound. As I have stated, the US is not yet in the grip of fascism. But it is a deadly mistake to deny that Trump, the President of the United States, is a full blown fascist.

The World Socialist Web Site, a widely read Marxist publication, for example, has described Trump’s recent attempts to put troops on the ground in the US, as an attempted “coup d’etat”. They have stated that Trump is trying to set himself up as a “criminal”, “Gangster”, “personalist” dictator resting simply on the military and police.  Clearly, there are elements of truth in this, but it risks downplaying the real threat of fascism in the US. Seeing Trump as merely a dictatorial authoritarian overlooks both his fascist politics, and the volatile mix of class forces upon which he rests for his support.

Marxists must avoid the mistakes of the Stalinist Communist Party (KPD) in Germany in the 1930s. Trotsky addressed the problem with equating all reactionary capitalist parties with fascism in his 1931 pamphlet “For a United Front against Fascism” (Note: Bruning was the German Chancellor from 1930-32).:

There are seven keys in the musical scale. The question as to which of these keys is “better” – do, re, or sol – is a nonsensical question. But the musician must know when to strike and what keys to strike. The abstract question of who is the lesser evil – Brüning or Hitler – is just as nonsensical. It is necessary to know which of these keys to strike. Is that clear? For the feeble-minded let us cite another example. When one of my enemies sets before me small daily portions of poison and the second, on the other hand, is about to shoot straight at me, then I will first knock the revolver out of the hand of my second enemy, for this gives me an opportunity to get rid of my first enemy. But that does not at all mean that the poison is a “lesser evil” in comparison with the revolver.

Russian revolutionaries Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870 – 1924), and Leon Trotsky (1879 – 1940), , during the Bolshevik Revolution. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)


Revolution as the order of the day!

There are of course differences between the situation in Germany that Trotsky was writing about and the US today. In particular there are no longer massed based parties of the Left of either a socialist or social democratic character. The internet exists! Whilst the far right is using this tool to great effect, ultimately the internet is a weapon in the hands of the working class of truly historical proportions. I do not think it is an exaggeration to compare the internet to the printing press. The printing press was a key material development that undermined feudal forms of rule leading to their replacement with capitalism. I believe the internet may be playing the same role in the destruction of capitalism. The working class can now communicate, mobilise in real time on a global level. The recent uprising over the George Floyd murder is illustrative. A black man was horrifically murdered and his murder was uploaded to the internet where it was ‘witnessed’ by hundreds of millions. Social media has then been used to organise and amplify the ongoing rebellion which has been supported and even joined internationally as a whole generation of youth take a stand against the poison of racism and police brutality.

Justice for George Floyd and Michael Ramos protest, Austin, Texas, June 7th 2020 (Credit: League of the Fifth International)

However the internet does not resolve the crisis of leadership which is just as stark today as it was in 1938. Trotsky wrote in 1930 in ‘The Turn in the Communist International and the Situation in Germany’: 

the course of events in the very near future may resurrect in Germany, on a new historical plane, the old tragic contradiction between the maturity of a revolutionary situation on the one hand and the weakness and strategical impotence of the revolutionary party on the other. This must be said clearly, openly, and above all, in time.

We must keep arguing and discussing the nature of the fascist threat in the US and internationally and we must continue to find ways to think about what a “United Front” strategy for the working class might look like in today’s context. There is still a window of opportunity to stop fascism – class forces are still in flux and socialist revolution remains the order of the day!

GLOSSARY

The above article assume knowledge of a few key Marxist terms. If these terms are unfamiliar, I have provided a short glossary:

Working Class
In Marxist terms, the working class is everyone who has to survive by earning a wage eg by selling their labor. This is the vast majority of humanity who all share the same social interests of wanting access to good working conditions, healthcare, education and a clean environment. Marxists also call the working class the proletariat.  

The working class is not just “blue collar” or industrial workers but teachers, nurses, retail workers, people in the service industry etc but everyone who survives by earning a wage.

The working class however  is not uniform in terms of its wealth. What is commonly called the “middle class” is really just a layer of the working class that is more comfortable financially.

The unemployed, who are not currently earning a wage share the same interests as the working class

Ruling Class
The ruling class, or capitalist class, is the small percentage of society that makes their money not through earning a wage but from the profits from what they own eg their investments.. They own the “means of production” eg all the factories, banks, companies etc by which things are produced. Each country has its own ruling class which compete with each other. In Marxist theory the ruling class is also called the Bourgeoisie.

Petty bourgeois:
Small business owners are categorised as “petty bourgeois” as they are not waged workers, but neither are they part of the ruling class as they are not economically powerful and only own a small amount of capital.

The upper middle class is also classified by Marxists as petty-bourgeois. Although they earn a wage or salary, they are so privileged that as whole they see their interests as more aligned with the ruling class than the mass of the working class. This would include managers, union bureaucrats, well paid professionals etc

What is capitalism?
Capitalism is the current global economic system that dominates the globe. It is a system where the “means of production” is owned privately by individuals, the ruling or capitalist class. The aim of the production is to maximize profit or capital for the ruling class. Under capitalism, the world is divided up into competing nation states, each with its own ruling class.

What is socialism?
Socialism is a system where the “means of production” are owned and run for the benefit of all. All of the wealth and the productive capacities of humanity are organised for the common good not private profit. True socialism must be implemented internationally, not just in one country. You cannot have isolated socialist countries existing inside a global capitalist system. Although the task of overthrowing capitalism falls to the working class, the aim of socialism is not to replace domination of one class with another to work towards a society where class is abolished. Just as capitalism did not establish itself over night, nor will socialism. It will be the work of an historic period. However, it is becoming clearly by the day that humanity and the planet cannot survive unless we put an end to the profit system.




ANZAC DAY – may one day no-one march there at all.

ANZAC Day, April 25th is here again and once again Australians are being asked to stand together and declare “Lest we forget”. Every year though, during the avalanche of militaristic imagery and words that marks this “celebration”, I reflect how it hasn’t always been like this in Australia. During my lifetime I have watched ANZAC day being changed from a fading historical relic to a day elevated to a virtual state religion, central to the mythic narrative of Australian nationalism.

This change is personified by my experiences singing in primary school as a ten year old. Once a week, the highlight of my primary school week was joining the whole class “Let’s sing”  session. The old radio would be turned on at the front of the class, we would take out our colorful song books and belt out an eclectic mix of songs together.  In 1983, the songbook contained a song that leave a deep impression on me, Eric Bogle’s  “And the band played Waltzing Matilda”.

The song is a haunting ballad of the journey of a young Australian man heading off to Gallipoli, cheered off by excited crowds, only to experience the hell of war and return maimed physically and emotionally. Written in 1971 at the height of the anti-Vietnam war movement, it strikes a powerful blow against war and the false “celebrations” of ANZAC day that are meant to sanctify this horror.

The song certainly left a powerful impression on me and I am always struck by the fact it is pretty much my only memory of engaging with ANZAC day from Primary school. The 80’s were a time when the “Vietnam Syndrome” still hung in the air. This “syndrome” is the ruling classes term for the lingering anti-war sentiment that existed in the mass of  the working class after that murderous war. They knew something had to be done and they got to work.

Since the Hawke Labor Government of the 1980’s, literally billions has been spent in Australia on constructing a virtual state religion around ANZAC Day. Hawke was the first Prime Minister to make the “pilgrimage” to Turkey on ANZAC Day in 1990. Since then we have had endless speeches, parades, expanded war memorials, documentaries and books. The education system has been flooded with “educational materials” to teach this curriculum including picture books about animals who “fought” for Australia for pre-schoolers! Even when I was teaching history over ten years ago, I would surreptitiously throw out the glossy pamphlets, DVD’s etc I was sent each year but now I believe teachers are forced to teach this curriculum.

Australian culture is now saturated annually with militiaristic imagery on ANZAC Day. Even this year, under conditions of pandemic, we are being encouraged to mark ANZAC Day by lighting candles in our driveway at dawn. Whilst for ordinary people, the phrase “Lest we forget” may contain some confused anti-war sentiments, the ruling class knows full well the purpose of cultivating this “celebration”. The ruling class has been working for decades to try and ensure that the next generation will be ready when called upon to “make the ultimate sacrifice” in US Imperialism’s next bloodbath could be another World War, this time with China and Russia. For the ruling class the phrase “Lest we forget” is not a phrase to mourn the death of soldiers past but to lay the groundwork for murdering more young people in the meat grinder of imperialist war.

How dated the following lines now seem from Eric Bogle’s classic:

And now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me
I see my old comrades, how proudly they march
Reliving their dreams of past glory
I see the old men, all twisted and torn
The forgotten heroes of a forgotten war
And the young people ask me, “what are they
Marching for?”
And I ask myself the same question
And the band plays Waltzing Matilda
And the old men still answer to the call
But year after year their numbers get fewer
Some day no one will march there at all”

However, I remain grateful for being exposed to the truths of this song and the anti-imperialist and anti-war seeds it planted in my mind. One day, when the working class has overthrown capitalism and humanity has thrown off the shackles of mindless nationalism, we can again look back at ANZAC as a ritual from another time, a time when young people were forced to fight for “God and Country” and died in the mud. A time when trillions were wasted on war instead on fighting disease and hunger.

So I will mark ANZAC Day this year by once again listening to the Pogues’ haunting version of “And the band plays Waltzing Matilda” and look forward to a future April 25th, when no one will march there at all.




China: Capitalist, Socialist, or “Weird Beast”?

by Robert Montgomery, 7th September 2019.

While there is growing interest in socialism today, there’s much confusion about its meaning. Among theoretically informed socialists there’s also confusion.  The word tends to be used impressionistically, a yardstick for classifying states where capitalism has been overturned.  Such states are said to be either socialist or capitalist, either x or not-x, either the one, or the other.  Cuba is either socialist or capitalist; China is either socialist or capitalist (or state capitalist.)  

In The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky
listed criteria for evaluating post-revolutionary states.  The USSR was, “a contradictory society halfway
between capitalism and socialism”, plagued by material scarcity, and with a
level of productivity far too low to give state property a socialist character.
It was a country where socialist norms of production coexisted with bourgeois
norms of distribution; where conscious economic planning contested with the
market.  Based on a foundation of
socialized property relations expressed in nationalized means of production,
and centralized economic planning, the USSR was history’s first workers state.  An isolated island in a capitalist sea,
enmired in generalized want and scarcity, economic growth facilitated the
conversion of the state bureaucracy into a privileged bureaucratic caste. This
social caste parasitized on the body
of the healthy workers state to gain material privileges for itself. As this
stratum crystallized into a permanent social caste, the workers state degenerated. However, Trotsky insisted
that the revolution survived in the socialized property relations, nationalized
industry and central planning. Trotsky wrote, “It is the duty of revolutionists
to defend tooth and nail every position gained by the working class, whether it
involves democratic rights, wages scales, or so colossal a conquest of mankind
as the nationalization of the means of production and planned economy.” Like
Marx and Lenin, Trotsky argued that socialism could only exist internationally:
“The socialist revolution begins on the national level, unfolds on the
international, and is completed on the world scale.”

The Deformed Workers
States

 Preobrazhensky was the economic theorist of
the Left Opposition in the USSR. Since publication of his New Economics (1921), Trotskyists have viewed economically backward
countries like the USSR as transitional states between capitalism and socialism.
They are marked by a conflict between two different economic imperatives: one
determined by the law of value; the other by the social relations of a planned
economy. The law of value distributes resources in accordance with the laws of commodity
production. Planning distributes economic resources independently of the market
in accordance with socially necessary priorities.

A series of overturns of
capitalism followed the Second World War. In Yugoslavia, Eastern Europe and China
capitalism was ousted but without organs of working class struggle like the Russian
Soviets of 1917, or a party of the Bolshevik type.  After years of debate, the 4th International decided
that the establishment of nationalized property relations and economic planning
had resulted in new workers states. Since these states did not degenerate from proletarian
revolutions, they were deemed workers states, bureaucratically deformed from birth by Stalinism. In these states political power was monopolized by a
bureaucratic caste along the same lines as in the USSR. Deformed workers states
followed the “socialism in one country” dogma of the nationalist Stalinist
bureaucracy.

Mao and Stalin in Moscow, 1949

 The same criteria Trotsky used to characterize
the USSR revealed that these new states possessed the same contradictory and transitory
features. To understand the class character of China today this history must be
kept in mind.

The China Question

Aside from scattered sects and
the “Spartacist family” there are no Trotskyist tendencies that characterize
China as a deformed workers state today. Two examples suffice to represent the
consensus view among Trotskyists: Socialist Action, of the
Pabloite Unified Secretariat, and the orthodox Trotskyist, Socialist Equality
Party of the ICFI.

    1) Socialist Action ( S.A). — “China, built on a foundation of monopoly capitalism, is a major capital exporter that exploits workers at home and across the world. Its economy exhibits highly uneven development, with advanced and highly productive regions alongside impoverished and underdeveloped ones. Its military is increasingly advanced and is deployed to support the interests of Chinese capitalism worldwide. China is a major player in most theaters across the world today and is continually seeking to expand its already significant influence”. (China: A New Imperialist Power”, Dec 2018, convention resolution).

    2) Socialist Equality Party (SEP)- “Moreover, the social catastrophe which has engulfed China is the direct product of bureaucracy’s restorationist policies. Having repudiated central planning, the Chinese economy is at the mercy of the anarchic forces of the world capitalist market. The creation of innumerable private links between provincial enterprises and foreign capitalists has undermined what was considered the greatest single achievement of the 1949 revolution—the unification of China.” – World Socialist Website – Victory to the Political Revolution in China.

 Most accounts of capitalist restoration in
China like those above are based on a purported dominance of market relations
permeating the economy.  The question
then arises, if socialized property relations have been replaced by bourgeois
property, wouldn’t it have taken a counter-revolutionary struggle to restore
capitalism?  If we hold that capitalism
can be restored through the quantitative extension of market relations alone,
aren’t we repeating Bernstein’s claim that capitalism can become socialism through
the gradual expansion of the state into banking and industry?  By Trotsky’s criteria, such ‘market creep’
accounts of capitalist restoration lack explanatory power, and seem superficial
and unpersuasive.

There are plausible reasons for
holding that capitalism has been restored in China: the state owned enterprises
(SOEs) were reduced in size and pressured to become profitable; privatization
of industry has made major inroads; working class exploitation in factory
sweatshops is legend; social inequality now exceeds US levels and has produced
a billionaire stratum; and the workers in the state enterprises who should be
the bedrock of socialist consciousness have been forced on the defensive. Closer
examination of these ugly features of China’s economic reforms suggests that
the Chinese state has not undergone a qualitative transformation.

Market ‘Reforms’ & CCP Control

When the CCP began market
“reforms” in 1978 it had no intention of incubating a capitalist class or
undermining the SOEs. It hoped that market competition would make state firms
more efficient, boost exports, modernize production and transform China into an
economic “Super Power”.

But market logic didn’t meld easily with the Maoist system characterized by state ownership and central planning. As the Left Opposition argued, if the law of value is not suppressed when it conflicts with consciously determined priorities, the planning mechanism will be over-ridden and scarce investment resources will be directed by norms of profit maximization rather than by social and economic need. The laws of the market discipline workers and managers through the “law of value,” not by bureaucratic fiat. When labor power becomes too expensive, it is shed.  When firms cannot compete, they go bankrupt. The “efficiencies” of the capitalist market derive from the commodification of both labor power and the means of production.

Chinese market reforms brought significant
economic growth between 1978 and 1989. Yet growth was accompanied by large-scale
appropriations of state property, an enormous rise in social inequality, and severe
regional unevenness that threatened the unification of the country.  In 1989 the Tiananmen massacre brought this
contradiction to a head.  When Beijing’s
workers entered the mobilizations, the Deng leadership called on PLA divisions from
the provinces to drown the uprising in blood.  By 1992 the market-oriented faction in the CCP
was hegemonic. Hothouse marketization resulted in large-scale appropriations of
state property. This produced phenomena we generally associate with a social
counter-revolution: endemic corruption, environmental despoliation, mass
layoffs, increasing inter-regional unevenness, and the fracturing the social
safety net of the “iron rice bowl”.  While
indicative of the direction in which China was (and remains) headed, these
developments do not in themselves signify that capitalism has been restored.  While China’s capitalists limit themselves to
talk of “reforming,” rather than overthrowing the CCP, both the imperialists
and the indigenous capitalists anticipate the establishment of a bourgeois
multi-party democracy.

The banner in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, or Tiananmen, says “Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation,” the main group of worker protesters. CreditDavid Che

Privatization: How
Great?

How extensive is privatization?
Agriculture remains immensely significant as half the population (750 million
people) still works the land. Many leftists view Deng’s de-collectivization of
agriculture as de facto privatization. 
However, land remains state property, which has insulated poor peasant
families from the full impact of market shock. Legal prohibitions on farm
households using their land for non-agricultural purposes have limited
speculation and capitalist appropriation of land. Restrictions on land use have
proved to be a lifeline for the millions of migrant laborers now returning to
their home villages in the interior after being laid off by the export
industries of China’s east coast (China Leadership Monitor, Winter 2008)

China’s entry into the World
Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 threatened peasants unable to compete against
the large-scale, mechanized production of imperialist agribusiness. While meeting
certain WTO obligations like lower tariffs, to avoid bankrupting millions of
poor peasant households, Beijing shielded small agricultural producers.  The CCP’s “new socialist countryside” program
eliminated tuition fees for primary and secondary schools, reduced agricultural
taxes, expanded infrastructure investments and increased funding for social
services, easing pressure on rural families.

 At the height of the pro-market reforms in the
late 1990s, the state owned enterprises (SOEs) in the industrial sector saw drastic
changes. 30 million workers were laid off, and tens of thousands of small and
medium-sized enterprises were privatized through issuing shares and entering
into joint ventures. These measures were pushed through as a form of “shock
therapy” in preparation for China’s WTO entry. The intention was to force the
largest SOEs to become internationally competitive while retaining state
ownership.  Due to state control of the
banking system, the large industrial SOEs survived regardless of their
profitability.

CC, part owned by the Beijing Municipal People’s Government

By 2003, SOEs accounted for some
70% of total fixed assets and 30% of non-agricultural production. The state
sector remained dominant in strategic industries, including heavy machinery,
steel, petroleum, non-ferrous metals, electricity, telecommunications and
transportation. Since the early 2000s privatization of larger SOEs has
virtually ceased. Subsidized by the state banking system just 10% of insolvent
SOEs filed for bankruptcy in 2007/2008. 
The insolvent SOEs were kept afloat by the state banks and local
officials concerned about losing access to government resources (Economist,
13 December 2008). But the weight of the private sector grew until very
recently.

The sheer dimensions and relative
weight of the state sector suggest that despite the inroads of private
property, the Chinese economy is still predominantly collectivized. The
increasing weight of capitalist enterprises strengthens the forces of
counterrevolution but does not resolve the fundamental issue of class rule. The
task of counterrevolution is the political conquest of state power by the
capitalist class. The continuing resistance of workers and peasants across
China to capitalist encroachment, while so far politically inchoate, is
evidence that the ultimate fate of the Chinese Revolution has yet to be
decided.

Nationalization as
Criteria

Deformed workers states cannot be
defined solely by the extent of state ownership. Many capitalist states have
resorted to extensive nationalizations to prop up enterprises in strategic
sectors unable to compete on the world market. Semi-colonial states have
nationalized oil and other natural resources for purposes of national capitalist
accumulation. None of these are anti-capitalist measures, but rather attempts
to strengthen the position of the national bourgeoisie as a whole. Many who see
China as capitalist see the nationalized property as functioning to accumulate
capital in order to strengthen the emerging bourgeoisie. They view the ruling
bureaucracy as simply an agent of foreign and domestic capitalism.

Challenging the Left
Consensus

For the viewpoint of Marxist economists it is worth examining Michael Roberts’ contributions on China.  A professional economist, Roberts writes a daily blog, has authored four books on Marxist economics and the causes of the current long depression. While he has some roots in the Trotskyist tradition, Roberts eschews the workers state terminology. A great merit of Roberts’ blog is his referenced documentation, and use of graphics to illustrate his analysis. In what follows I’ll try to summarize his view of China as expressed mainly in:
China workshop: challenging the misconceptions
Trading economics the Chinese way
China: a weird beast

 Like economists in general, Robert tends to
ignore politics, especially the role of class struggle in shaping economics and
confounding predictions. This is a shortcoming of his work, which he accepts as
a necessary evil of economic analysis.

Roberts refers to China as a
“weird beast.”  It is a non-capitalist
state with interactions between competing factions of the state bureaucracy,
with increasing conflict between the private and statist sectors, between the
now dominant working class and both the CCP bureaucracy and the domestic and
transnational capitalists.  He stresses
that it is capitalism’s drive for higher productivity, conflicting with the requirement
for increasing profitability that is the main force driving the falling rate of
profit of the global capitalist economy today. This contradiction is at the
root of the Long Depression, which has plagued the capitalist world since the
GFM of 2008. Growth rates in the advanced capitalist countries have yet to
return to pre-2008 levels.

Conch Cement, is the largest  cement  manufacturer in mainland China, majority owned by   Anhui Provincial People’s Government 

Explaining Chinese
Growth

While Chinese growth has also
fallen from previous highs, which doubled real living standards every 13 years,
economic growth has stayed high compared to the slumping capitalist countries. China’s
poverty rate fell from 88% in 1981 to 0.7% in 2015, as measured by the
percentage of people living on the equivalent of US $1.90 or less per day.
While the world capitalist economies remain mired in a deep slump since the 2008
GFM, the Chinese economy has continued robust growth reaching national output
second only to the US.

Source: Michael Roberts Blog

Roberts asks how to explain
China’s success in raising 850m people out of poverty, and reaching such
phenomenal growth on a capitalist basis?  According to World Bank figures, a
disproportionate share of this change has occurred over the last fifteen years.
 How can a purportedly ‘capitalist’ economy
have bucked the trend, when the record of all other capitalist economies can
show no such result?  How is this
exception possible if China is just another capitalist economy entangled in the
same web of global market relations as the dominant capitalist powers?  He answers that the accumulation of capital by
the state sector has been the major engine of growth:

–102 big conglomerates contributed 60% of China’s outbound investments by
the end of 2016.

–State-owned enterprises including China General Nuclear Power, and China National Nuclear have assimilated Western technologies and are now engaged in projects in Argentina, Kenya, Pakistan and the UK. 

Echoing Chinese economist Dic Lo,
Roberts asks, “How can it be possible, in our times, for a late-developing
nation to move up the world political-economic hierarchy to become imperialist?
Can anyone on the left answer this question?”  The majority view of leftist economists,
pioneered by Martin Hart-Landsberg, David Harvey and Minqi Li, as well as
nearly all Marxist political tendencies, is that China is a “neoliberal
capitalist” state, employing the so-called “Foxconn Model” of low-wage,
coercive, and brutal labor exploitation.  Most Marxist and mainstream
economists consider that China is capitalist, even imperialist. It is
commonplace for Marxists to assert that Chinese export of capital to invest in
projects abroad is driven by the need to absorb ‘surplus capital’, similar
to the export of capital by the capitalist economies before 1914 that Lenin
presented as a key feature of imperialism.  Does China invest abroad
through its state companies to export ‘excess capital’ or because the rate of
profit in state and capitalist enterprises has been falling?

But isn’t the drive to expand
global influence and to “extract the natural and technological resources” of
other countries a hallmark of imperialism?  Roberts responds that this would be the case
if its purpose were to export surplus capital in order to realize higher rates
of profit than are available in the home market. He contends that massive Chinese
overseas investments in infrastructural development projects are undertaken to
expand political influence and obtain resources needed to fuel domestic
investment by the state-owned sector. Consider the case of the “one belt, one
road,’ New Silk Road project for Central Asia for example. This major
undertaking to construct the infrastructure to link China with Russia and the
West is emblematic of Chinese transnational development projects: state
sponsored, high cost/low yield investment outlays to build forward linkages
which will drive future domestic accumulation of social capital.

Hambantota Port is a Sri Lankan Port part of the Belt and Road Project

This has nothing in common with imperialism, at least in the sense that
Lenin described.

  Certainly,
Roberts’ argument is open to question. But it does fit logically with his data
on the hybrid nature of the Chinese economy.  If his Preobrazhenskyist analysis of the
Chinese economy is correct, then China isn’t capitalist; and therefore, not
imperialist. It is a transitional state whose economy is driven by the
contradictory forces of the law of value and central planning.

The Gathering Storm:
Conflict with the U.S.

For Roberts the issue ahead is
the battle for global trade and investment between China and the US. The
US is out to curb and control China’s expansion as an economic power, and is
taking aggressive measures to isolate China, block its economic progress and
surround it militarily. But this policy of economic war is failing. What
really worries U.S imperialism is China’s progress in technology and its aim to
become the manufacturing center of the global economy within a generation.

Following Marx, Roberts starts
from two premises: a socialist society of freely collaborating individuals
where scarcity, toil, exploitation and class struggle have been eliminated is possible
with the technology of AI, robots, the modern logistics industry and the
internet; socialism cannot occur until the capitalism is no longer globally
dominant, and democratically planned economies under workers control integrate production
internationally. Like any other nationally based country, China cannot move
(even gradually) to socialism unless the power of imperialism in the world
market is ended. And though China may be the second-largest economy in the
world in dollar terms, its labor productivity is less than one-third that of
the US.

Limits to Chinese
Growth

China has been transformed since
the revolution of 1949 by overturning capitalist property relations and
replacing the profit system with state control of the commanding heights of
industry and agriculture. It is now applying the newest technology as a modern,
urbanized society.  As in the former USSR, the law of value asserts its
destructive force through foreign trade and capital inflows, as well as through
domestic markets for goods, services and funds. That’s not really
surprising since socialism cannot be built ‘ in one country’. There is no doubt
that the law of value under globalized production feeds through to the Chinese
economy.  But the impact is ‘distorted’, ‘curbed’, ‘blunted’ and blocked
by bureaucratic interference by the state and the party structure to the point
that it cannot yet dominate and direct the trajectory of the Chinese economy.

In fact, the capitalist sector in
the economy is growing. There are many more Chinese billionaires (285), and
inequality of income and wealth has risen as Chinese workers struggle against
exploitation in the workplace. When, on the advice of neoliberal elements in
the monetary institutions, China relaxed its capital controls the economy
suffered serious capital flight. But 80% of all banks are state-owned, with the
government directing their lending and deposit policies. There is no free flow
of foreign capital into and out of China. Capital controls are imposed and
enforced and the currency’s value is manipulated to set economic targets much
to the annoyance of US finance capital.

There is an ongoing struggle
within the Chinese political elite over which way to go – towards the Western
capitalist model, or to continue with “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”. 
After the GFM of’08 and the ensuing Long Depression in the West, the pro-capitalist
factions have been partially discredited.  Xi now promotes ‘Marxism’ and
says state control under CCP guidance is here to stay.  But the only way
to guarantee China’s progress, to reduce the growing inequalities, and to avoid
the risk of a future swing to capitalism is to establish working class control
over Chinese political and economic life, and adopt an international socialist policy. 
That is something that Xi and the current political elite will not do.

Stock Markets and Billionaires?

If production of commodities for
profit based on market relations is the motor force of capitalism, then China
is non-capitalist. Under capitalism the rate of profit on private capital
determines investment cycles and generates periodic economic crises.  This
does not apply in China.  Public ownership of the means of production and centralized
state planning remain dominant, with the CCP’s power firmly rooted in state
ownership.

But yet again, “socialism with
Chinese characteristics” is a weird beast. It is not socialism by any
Marxist definition of democratic workers control and socialist democracy. 
And there has been a significant expansion of privately owned companies, both
foreign and domestic over the last 30 years, with the establishment of a stock
market and other financial institutions.  But the vast majority of
employment and investment is undertaken by SOEs, or by institutions under the
direction and control of the CCP.  The
lion’s share of China’s industry is not foreign-owned multinationals, but
Chinese SOEs.  As for the stock market, which enterprises may be listed,
is strictly controlled by the state.  Since
the vast majority are SOEs, share markets don’t operate like the stock markets
of finance capitalism. Chinese enterprises raise their capital mostly through
the nationalized banking system, not by floating new stock through investment
banks. Less than 8% of the population operates in the stock market as “retail
investors” as opposed to institutional investors. Trading shares on the Chinese
casino stock markets is basically like betting on a horse; or better, it’s like
putting money on one’s favorite SOE. 

Brokers watching the stock price display on the Shenzhen Exchange

A report by the US-China Economic and Security Review found that “The state-owned and controlled portion of the Chinese economy is large. The SOEs and entities directly controlled by SOEs-accounted for more than 40% of China’s non-agricultural GDP. 

Chinese Industry and
the CCP

 The party/state machine infiltrates all levels of industry in China. There are party organizations within every corporation employing more than three party members. Each party fraction elects a secretary, and the party secretary is the lynchpin of the management system of each enterprise. This extends party control beyond the SOEs, partly privatized corporations and village or local government-owned enterprises and into the private sector.
(Capitalizing China, NBER Working Paper No. 17687)

The reality is that almost all
Chinese companies employing more than 100 people have an internal party
cell-based control system. The CCP is currently writing itself into the articles
of association of the country’s biggest companies, both public and private.
There are 102 key state enterprises with assets of 50 trillion Yuan that
include state oil companies, telecom operators, power generators and weapons
manufacturers.  Xiao Yaqing, director of the State-owned Assets
Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council (SASAC), writing
in the Central Party School’s, Study Times, noted that when a state-owned
enterprise has a board of directors, its party boss tends to be the board
chairman. Communist Party members at state enterprises form the “the most solid
and reliable class foundation” for the Communist Party to rule.

Will
there be a Chinese Perestroika?

What guarantee is there that this
army of party functionaries won’t play the role that the enterprise managers
played in the restoration of capitalism in the USSR under perestroika?  Perestroika reforms in the USSR freed the
managerial strata to circumvent planning and assume greater personal control
over the means of production. Their appetite for ownership was whetted both by
perestroika as policy, and their own position as a privileged stratum managing
the productive forces directly. In China, by contrast, party cadres don’t
directly manage production but function as political functionaries under the
direct control of the Stalinist party.

Social Inequality
greater than in the U.S.

It’s true that inequality of wealth and income under China’s ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ is very high.  There are growing numbers of billionaires, many of whom are related to CCP leaders. China’s Gini coefficient, an index of income inequality, has risen from 0.30 in 1978 to a peak of 0.49 in 2003 (the U.S Gini index is .41).  Though wages in the factory sweatshops are leaving peasant incomes behind, when workers assembling Apple Ipads earn under $2 an hour, urban wages are brutally low. As urbanization has decelerated since the global recession and the growth rate has slowed, the inequality index has fallen back a little (Gini =.46). But it is also the result of the elite at the levers of power getting fat, while allowing some Chinese billionaires to flourish.

While the Chinese economy is
partially protected from the law of value and the world capitalist economy, the
threat of capitalist restoration remains high.  IMF data show that, while
public sector assets in China are still nearly twice the size of capitalist
sector assets, the gap is closing. The issue for China is whether the
capitalist sector of the economy will eventually override the planned public
sector, so that profitability will dominate over productivity and crises will
appear, leading to economic stagnation. For Roberts, that point has not yet
been reached in China.  The state sector and public investment through
one-party dictatorship still control investment, employment and production
decisions while the growing capitalist sector is still subject to that
control. Under Xi, the majority of the party elite will continue with an
economic model dominated by SOEs directed at all levels by CCP cadres. 
The currently hegemonic faction of the CCP elite understands that if the “capitalist
road” is taken and the law of value becomes dominant, it will expose China to chronic
economic instability, insecurity of employment and income, and greater
inequalities that can only lead to the threat of more social turbulence.

Ma Huateng is Chinese riches man worth $US 38 billion

On the other hand, Xi and the
party elite are united in opposing socialist democracy.  They wish to
preserve their autocratic rule and the privileges that flow from it.  The
working masses have yet to enter the stage and play a role.  They have
fought local battles over the environment in 2015, their villages, and their
jobs and wages.  But they have not fought for more democracy or economic
power since 1989. While opinion polls like that of the Pew Research Center show
passive support for the regime, worries about corruption and inequality abound.

What’s In a Name?

Is this debate over China just a sterile
hairsplitting exercise of little actual consequence? What real world difference
does it make if Marxists view China as capitalist, socialist, state capitalist,
some form of Bonapartism, or a deformed workers state?  As a matter of principle won’t Marxists defend
China against imperialism no matter what they call the state? Aside from the
most principled Trotskyists like the SEP, this is unlikely. How can we expect
that those who deem China a predatory imperialist power will defend it in a
conflict with the U.S.? And how can a movement against war be organized when both
sides are imperialist gangsters?  We are
more likely to see support for “pro-democracy” forces inside China as in the
waning days of the Soviet bloc, and as we see today with the knee jerk
cheerleading extended to the resurrected “Umbrella Revolution” in Hong Kong.
This time around, “Neither Beijing nor Washington!” will substitute for the 3rd
Camp slogan, “Neither Moscow nor Washington!”

Despite broad antiwar sentiment in the working class, soft support to
imperialism predominates on the “left.”  If
left to these forces, the material gains made by China’s workers and poor
peasants since the revolution will be left to the wolves of imperialism. We can
expect to see the pseudo-left swamp abandon the Chinese workers with the same
fecklessness with which it has betrayed Julian Assange. The broad antiwar
sentiment in the world’s working class will remain inchoate if the forces of
revolutionary Marxism aren’t capable of “calling things by their right name.”

With the US/China conflict
reaching white heat it makes a big difference if China is just the newest, big
kid on the capitalist block.  Threats may
fly over technology, intellectual property, trade imbalances, tariffs,
regulation of foreign corporations, and plans to make China the world’s leading
economic power within five years. These conflicts can’t be downplayed. Capitalist
powers fought two world wars in the 20th century to re-divide the world market.
 But when capitalist powers jostle over
relative global economic power, these conflicts may be negotiated short of
military conflict. (May, being the operative term).

U.S Pacific Fleet during “Valiant Shield” Operation 2018

On the other hand, if a
non-capitalist China tightens control over market access, and increases production
of media and other high value-added industries like semiconductor design and
production, cell phones, high-end machine tools, medical devices, and optics,
China will enter into direct competition with major US-based companies.  Should China be seen as choking off unfettered
penetration by foreign capital, the conflict will differ qualitatively from an inter-imperialist
struggle, dangerous as that may be. In the context of the long-term decline of
American capitalism, continuing long depression, the failure of the rate of
profit to recover after the GFM of 2008, and the looming prospect of a new
recession and financial collapse, China faces a definite prospect of war with
the US. If anything were to survive a nuclear exchange, or the Stalinists
capitulate short of war, imperialist capital will move to:


  • wrest control of the accumulated and natural resources of the world’s 2nd largest economy
  • open the 1.4 billion person market to its capital exports
  • seize the mineral and material wealth under its soil
  • and most importantly, exploit its massive working class for the surplus value so desperately needed to overcome its secular profitability crisis.


The stakes are high in either
case. But if China remains a post-capitalist, non-capitalist, deformed workers
state— call it what you will— a war fought with nuclear weapons will be more
than a horrible possibility.  It will be
a virtual certainty.

The venal Stalinist bureaucracy can’t be relied upon to defend the social gains made since 1949. Only the power of the massive Chinese working class can oust the Stalinist clique and defend the gains of the Chinese revolution. By uniting with their class brothers and sisters throughout the world, China’s workers can play a leading role in the fight against war, poverty, all forms of oppression, and for the socialist liberation of humanity. It will take the formation of a conscious revolutionary vanguard party of the Bolshevik type to give political form and leadership to such a movement.

Robert Montgomery is from Boston, he has been active in antiwar and labor struggles as for almost fifty years. He has functioned as an independent Trotskyist since leaving the SWP (US) in the 1970s. A historian he has published numerous articles on US labor history. A union activist he has served on numerous action committees and was local president of two different municipal library unions. He is a retired medical radiographer and P.A. (Physician Assistant).  He has contributed this article to classconscious.org as a guest contributor




Lenin’s Embalmers by Ilya Zbarsky: book review

Lenin’s Embalmers is the autobiography of Ilya Zbarsky (1913-2007) a chemist in the Soviet Union working on the preservation and display of Lenin’s body in Red Square, Moscow. Reading like a history of the 20th century his autobiography charts the history of his family, first under Tsarism, through the Russian Revolution, the purges and mass terror, WW2, the death of Stalin, the period of glastnost and perestroika and finally capitalist restoration.

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His autobiography contains many interesting unique observations and anecdotes on political life in the Soviet Union, writing from a rare position as the son of a key figure in the bureaucracy, yet influenced by and sympathetic of the analysis of Trotsky and the Left Opposition. He had a insider’s view of life in the Soviet Union and was able to interpret events as he saw them. He never made his peace with Stalin, nor did he become an anti-communist, he was of the best layers in the Soviet Union.

Beginning with a prologue, he gives an excellent summation of the inner party debate around what to do with Lenin’s body after his death following a long period of incapacitation.

His autobiography then switches to his family history under Tsarism, the story of how his father come to be associated with the team at Lenin’s Mausoleum. His father, first persecuted for his ethnic and religious background, was unable to find regular employment despite his extensive formal education. He eventually obtained a position working in a large chemical plant through the idiosyncratic whim of the widow of a powerful industrialist. As he had an important position in Russia’s economy, he avoided conscription and the horrors of WW1. Following the October Revolution he took a position in an important biochemical institution in Moscow and eventually a role in the groundbreaking experimentation to permanently preserve and display Lenin’s body.

Zbarsky goes on to write his observations of boyhood on family life and growing up from absolute poverty to then live in relative affluence corresponding with his father’s new found success. Zbarsky attended a prestigious private school and later went on to study Chemical Biology at Moscow University.  He saw the bastardisation of the curriculum though the crude ‘proletarianisation’ of the university which saw the suppression of all independent and critical thought. Disgusted with his experiences there, he eventually left the university and joined his fathers team. Zbarsky then writes on number of interesting episodes with considerable insight; his commentary on the intricacies of the long term preservation of the body and scientific and academic life in the Soviet Union more generally are fascinating.

He lived through the mass terror, he witnessed the show trial of Rykov (successor of Lenin as the Chairman of the Council of People’s commissars) and Bukharin (Editor of Pravda and Novy Mir), both former family friends of Zbarsky!

Zbarsky survived WW2 as the work of Lenin’s Mausoleum was sent to Far East Siberia so as to not endanger Lenin’s body.

In the post war period Ilya was assigned to a team of Chemists responsible for the plunder of West Germany as its biochemistry labs were sacked of all useful chemicals and instruments before the region was handed over to the Allies.

The next period Zbarsky was tasked with the preservation of leading figures from other communist parties the world over, including those of Bulgaria and Mongolia.

It was around this time that his father fell under suspicion and was imprisoned. Though this was eventually overturned following the death of Stalin, Zbarsky too fell out of favour and was unable to find work for a long time.

Zbarsky is then forced to rely on the second hand observations of his contemporaries to conclude his story with the final chapter of the mausoleum lab. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and Capitalist restoration in Russia, deprived of its massive state funding, the lab resorted to the preparation of the bodies of Russia’s burgeoning Mafioso figures who are renowned for having extensive lavish funerals.

Zbarsky was a very intelligent man and his analysis of contemporary life in Russia was informed by the perspectives of the Left Opposition. While on a scientific mission in France, he was able to read works that were banned inside the Soviet Union, Trotsky’ My Life among them. In addition, his father was a one time Social Revolutionary deputy, he once helped Trotsky cross the border from Austria to Russia while in exile. As such his biography is filled with a wealth of vignettes and anecdotes that correspond to the analysis made by Trotsky on the nature of the Soviet bureaucracy in his struggle against the grave digger of the revolution.

Zbarsky was uniquely situated to observe and document this phenomena and he excels in doing so. His book is engrossing, the information is very accessible and his acerbic wit means his observations are quite humorous in places. Zbarsky’s biography has many insightful comments and could act as a companion to any serious study of the Soviet Union and the degeneration of the Russian revolution.

Lenin’s Embalmers by Ilya Zbarsky and Samuel Hutchinson
Harvill press, 215 pages