An Interview With Paul Mattick Jr

lundi 3 mai 2004

In New York, November 17 1991

by Hannu Reime

Une brochure d’Echanges et Mouvement publiée en septembre 1999.

BP 241, 75866 Paris Cedex 18, France.

e-mail :

Hannu Reime : Your father (l) belonged to the relatively little known tradition of council communism that was born after the First World War. What was, briefly, their analysis of the nature of Bolshevism ?

Paul Mattick : I would say that the basic analysis was that Bolshevism represented, as Lenin originally described it in his first writings, a revolutionary variant of social democracy, that is to say, social democracy in what are now called third world conditions, conditions of a very early stage of capitalism or nearly a precapitalist situation, in which the left-wing party, the social democratic party, could not even think of practically working to produce a socialist revolution, but had first to fulfill the function which the bourgeoisie was unable to fulfill in a backward country, and produce a capitalist system. So I would say that their fundamental analysis of Bolshevism was that it is the ideology of the development of a form of capitalism in parts of the world in which the slow development such as took place in England between, say, the 15th and the 19th century was no longer possible, making use of an ideology derived from social democracy as a kind of cover for the actual creation of a form of wage labor and a form of capitalist relationships.

There were many disagreements within what we could call the council communist or ultra-left position. For instance, some people believed very literally that a country like the Soviet Union should be analyzed as a form directly of capitalism, and that the State planning form was really a fairly superficial difference, that what was essential was the relation between wage labor and capital, and that the capital should be concentrated in the hands of the State rather than dispersed among private entrepreneurs was a relatively unimportant difference. My father disagreed with that and believed that this represented a novel form of capitalism, that the absence of the dispersion of capital among private entrepreneurs and its concentration in the hands of the State represented a novelty, a new form. (2)

I’m actually very sorry that he’s not alive at the moment, because I think that this question has to be discussed at the present time, whether it wasn’t a mistake of all the people, members of this ultra-left current, among whom I would include myself, to think of the Bolshevik form, the centralized, State controlled economy, as a new form, which we should think of as coming after capitalism, as representing, say, a logical end point of the tendency to monopolization and centralization of capital, which is a feature of all private property capitalist systems. Instead, it seems to really have been a kind of preparation for capitalist development, a pre-capitalist form, if you want. But nonetheless, the essential point of the critique was that Bolshevism, which claimed to be acting in the name of the working class, could not have been any such thing since the majority of the Russian population at the time of the Bolshevik revolution wasn’t a proletarian population, but a peasant population, and that in practice the historical project of the Bolshevik Party was to organize the expropriation of the peasantry and the production of a wage earning proletariat in the Soviet Union, but one which was set against not, as I said, a group of private entrepreneurs, but the State functioning as the repository of the total social capital.

H. R. : We can return later to the present day changes in these countries, but was it so that your father didn’t see any difference between Bolshevism as such and Stalinism ?

P. M. : He saw no essential difference, no. You have to recognize that there is a historical difference that is to say, time goes on and the conditions change radically. For example, he recognized, as everybody did, that when the Bolsheviks first made their revolution, they probably quite sincerely expected there to be revolutionary movements in Western Europe. Had the movements, which actually did develop in 1919, continued into a socialist revolution, that would, of course, have completely transformed the meaning of the Bolshevik seizure of power in the Soviet Union. Once the revolution in Western Europe failed to develop, then the conditions were immediately radically different in the Soviet Union and the putschist character of the Bolshevik coup could not be transformed into anything else, and the decision on the part of the Bolsheviks to remain in power meant that they were inevitably started on a trajectory, which could only lead either to their relinquishing power or to Stalin, the Stalinist utilization of Leninist methods. And we can be very specific about that.

You could say, as my father and his comrades were already willing to say in the 20s, that the Stalinist program was already developed by Trotsky with the slogan of the militarization of labor, with the ruthless suppression of any left-wing and proletarian resistance to the Bolshevik dictatorship, that Stalin was not a deformation of the Russian revolution, but the logical continuation of the principle that a small group of professional revolutionaries could seize power and make decisions in the name of the working class and even against the actual and practical will of the workers themselves. And of course, it was already known by the early 1920s that the secret police organization, set up immediately by the Bolsheviks, had begun the arrest and imprisonment of the opposition. So the Gulag begins from the very beginning of the revolution and all the basic features of the Stalinist system are already present in the Leninist ideology and practice. But it’s still necessary to recognize — and they did recognize — that the conditions of the world, and therefore also Russia, in 1920, say, were not those of 1930 or 1940. So what we’re talking about is stages in the development of a system. But certainly the left, of which my father was a part, saw, I would say, from the very beginning — you can read this already in the criticism, which Rosa Luxemburg made of Lenin immediately after the Russian revolution — that the Bolshevik principle led directly in the direction of a State dictatorship over the working class. This was already visible as soon as the revolution happened.

The belated discovery by the European or American left in the 1930s or 40s or 50s or even the 1960s that terrible things were going on in Russia has always seemed to me very peculiar, because this tradition, to which my father belonged, had been saying, writing and publishing these views really since 1919.

H. R. : When you said that this analysis viewed Bolshevism as a kind of social democracy in third world conditions, do you think that this explains the relative success of Leninism in certain third world countries and third world revolutions ?

P. M. : Yes, I think it’s very important to recognize that Leninism, or Bolshevism, has only had a real existence as a meaningful social movement in underdeveloped countries. It has no real existence outside of the Soviet Union, or China, or Vietnam. In the West, the actual practice of the Bolshevik parties has always been social democratic, if you think of the Italian Communist Party, or the history of the French Communist Party. Or else it has been simply a small sectarian organization like the British Communist Party with very little actual political meaning. So you could say that historically Bolshevism was the ideology, or an ideology, of the capitalist development of underdeveloped countries under the conditions of the existence of highly developed capitalism elsewhere in the world.

H. R. : Do you interpret in this light Lenin’s remark that social democracy, as everybody called it at the turn of the century, was Jacobinism combined with a mass movement ?

P. M. : Yes, exactly. And Jacobinism, as in the French revolution, was always combined with a mass movement. The main principle, though, is that the Jacobins, or the Blanquists, or the Leninists, must control and manipulate that mass movement, which could never be allowed to acquire a momentum of its own.

H. R. : So how do you see the collapse of Bolshevist systems that has taken place in the last few years in the light of the analysis that the council communists gave of Bolshevism ? P. M. : As I said before, it seems to me that the one part of the council communist analysis, which it throws in question, was the idea, which I think everybody on the left had, that a centralized, State controlled economy represented a kind of logical end point of the tendency towards monopolization and centralization of capitalist control that operates in the private property capitalism. It seems, in fact, to have been a starting point for capitalist development. Although it has to be remembered that what is being produced in Russia now is not the free market of the 19th century, which exists in no capitalist country, but in Russia we will have, as everywhere else, some kind of mixed system combining some government sector and some government regulation with various kinds of private property capitalism. But fundamentally, I think, you can argue that the collapse of the Soviet system shows that it is impossible to have a planned economy, in which the planning functions are not carried under the control of the producers themselves, that an exploitative system, which makes use of the capital functions, the money function, that goods are produced and sold as commodities, and that labor is employed and paid as wage labor seems to require the normal capitalist structure, which is known under the name of the market.

That is to say, to run such an exploitative system efficiently and successfully, you have to be able to, for example, fire workers and have large numbers of unemployed, or you have to be able to disregard the need for housing or elementary necessities, particularly at what remains a relatively low level of production, because the Soviet Union, although in some areas, notably military, has very high level of technology, the economy as a whole remains a very underdeveloped one.

So I think that what we have is a result of the conflict between the essentially capitalist-like and class exploitative nature of the system and the form of centralized planning, and, essentially, that it shows that if you want a system that is as much like capitalism as the Soviet Union was, then you will sooner or later have capitalism. I would argue that the essential point of the council communist critique of these systems was correct, and that it has been shown by the collapse of the Soviet system that the fundamentally capitalist nature, the fundamentally class exploitative nature, of the Bolshevik system has simply, so to speak, emerged from its earlier stage, the stage, which it acquired in the course of the revolution.

H. R. : The Bolshevik Party was originally a very small revolutionary sect of the intelligentsia and they appeared very suddenly on the stage of history. Now they seem to have disappeared as suddenly.

P. M. : Actually, they were made to disappear. You have to remember that the Bolshevik Party is a very interesting case, because it’s one of the first cases of a party which was liquidated by its own leadership. Stalin killed most of them off, while continuing the policy. So you could say that maybe the genius of Stalin was to recognize what Leninism meant under conditions of a continuing attempt to develop the Soviet economy, and to realize that the fulfillment of the Leninist program under the actual circumstances of the late 1920s, 1930s, required a kind of very strict and strong centralization of political control. As I see it, we are now witnessing not the end of Bolshevism, but its continuation by different means under the conditions of the end of the 20th century. The economy had developed to the point, where, so to speak, its specifically Stalinist form had to be cast off, and what was now required was a greater degree of integration into the world market, a higher form of exploitation, which required the adoption of the forms of the so called free market, but that the process, which began with the Bolshevik revolution, is the process, which is continuing today in the Soviet Union, namely the creation of a modern industrial society based on the exploitation of wage labor. So from that point of view it seems to me that this council communist critique of Bolshevism is completely confirmed by the present day events.

H. R. : How do you see the ideological factors in this context, the fact that most of the working movement of this century has associated itself either with social democracy or Bolshevism ? Do you think anything valuable might turn out of this tradition, or is it completely over ?

P. M. : I think it’s completely over. I think what valuable element can be retained, which has actually not been retained by many people, was — to come back to the people you’re interested in, this leftwing, council communist tradition — precisely the criticism of social democracy and Bolshevism. It seems that the essential idea of that old labor movement, which began in the 19th century and went really, say, till 1940 or 1950, was that you could slowly accumulate a movement, you could slowly build, as we like to say in America, a left-wing movement, which would either one day take over the State, or which would suddenly through a revolutionary act take over the State, depeding if you take the social democratic or the Bolshevik version of it ; or even the anarchists had a very similar view, that you slowly create an organization, which would at some point become the new organization of society.

What we have seen in the last hundred years of history, is that this is not how history of capitalism works, that you cannot create an organization, which will organize the working population or act for it in the transformation of capitalism into another form of society, that historically, revolutionary movements have always developed more or less spontaneously. That doesn’t mean without thought. That doesn’t mean unconsciously or without some form of organization, but it means that the actual moments of revolution have not been organized by those social democratic or Bolshevik parties, and that the parties have always played a rather reactionary role. It seems to me that this is the great lesson of the history of the labor movement from the last hundred years. And that, I think, does have to be remembered for the future, that whatever social movements develop, which are able to challenge the basic nature of capitalism, will have to be generated by the working population itself out of its own experiences and its own social relationships, and cannot be supplied by some organizational force outside of it.

H. R. : You mean in the most highly developed capitalist countries.

P. M. : I think in the most highly developed capitalist countries. If there’s going to be a socialist movement, that’s where it has to start. On the other hand, it has to be said that one can’t even be dogmatic about this, because the world has changed very much in the last fifty years. You know Brazil, which we think of as part of the third world, I think is now the eighth largest industrial country in terms of GNP and the level of production. Much of the world is now part of the industrialized world. If you think of what has happened in Asia and even South America in the last fifty years, there is a tremendous development. And now in the Soviet Union, you already have gone very far towards the creation of a modern industrialized system. You can’t say where such movements will begin, but it certainly seems to me that you cannot have a transformation of the global capitalist system without having a transformation of the most developed parts of it.

Again the old idea, which was also an integral part of Bolshevism, that the world revolution could begin at its so called weakest links in the underdeveloped world, seems to me to have been, again, thoroughly disproved by the events of the last fifty years.

H. R. : One of the functions of Bolshevism in the Soviet Union was to, in a way, cement the unity of the Western world, or how would you say, private capitalist world. Do you think that now that Bolshevist systems have collapsed, there might be new divisions inside this Western capitalist world ? P. M. : I think in fact that the so called unity of the private capitalist part of the world, the Western world, was never very strong. There was, you have to remember, the Second World War, in which the Americans and the English fought together with the Russians, together with the Bolsheviks, against the Germans and the Japanese. After that war, the Americans, the Germans, and the Japanese, you could say, fought together against the English in the Middle East, which the Americans took over, and, of course the Russians and the Chinese became the major enemy. But it seems to me that just as in the past, so in the present, there is a tendency towards rivalries between national capitals in the West. But more important to me is that the level of integration of the world economy seems to me now to have developed more than before, and this integrated world economy may or may not come to include Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

I’m actually very dubious, because I don’t think that there will be very much economic development in Russia and very much Western investment. But I think that the real dynamic, which controls the level of integration or conflict in the West, didn’t have so much to do with opposition to Bolshevism as to the tension between the natural tendency of capital to expand internationally and the fact that the only form of social and political organization, which private property capitalism has, which is larger than the individual corporation, is the nation State so that there’s always a struggle between the tendency of capital to expand internationally and the tendency of national capitals to unite as groups and fight against each other. So for example even in the Second World War, the American Air Force was not bombing certain German armaments factories because they represented investments by the General Motors Corporation. So this tendency could operate in very concrete ways.

H. R. : During the Second World War, was it so that the council communist groups, or what remained of them at the time, were completely neutral as far as the war was concerned ?

P. M. : Yes, they were. There was a very famous — among our circles, very small circles, I say, very famous — article by Otto Rühle, which my father published in the United States in an English translation, with the very provocative title The Struggle Against Fascism Begins With the Struggle Against Bolshevism (3) and which pointed out that to fight against Hitler, but for Stalin, didn’t make very much sense from a working class point of view. I would say that the position of the council communists was not neutral, but that they continued to hold by the old slogan that the enemy is first of all in your own country, and that the job of the workers in every country was to fight against their own ruling class.

H. R. : So that was the same slogan as during the First World War.

P. M. : As during the First World War.

H. R. : But there was this very strong ideological presentation of the Second World War as something else, as a fight between good and evil.

P. M. : Yes, that’s true. But if you believed that the Stalinist terror was not preferable to the Hitlerian terror, it was very hard to take this position, and if you believed, as my father and his friends did, that Hitler was not an anomaly, although he represented a peculiarity of history, but that the fascist regime, the Nazi regime, was one product of the capitalist system. Their position was that what was necessary, remained the destruction of the capitalist system, or else you would have other Hitlers or other forms. You would have, for example, the use of atomic weapons, or the killing of millions of people through starvation and overwork, or the various forms of terror, which continue on an every day basis as long as you have private property and State capitalism.

H. R. : But still the Second World War had this very strong ideological component. P. M. : Yes, those people were very isolated. My father had actually a very interesting experience. When the war began, there was a meeting called by the union, to which he belonged, the Union of Metal Workers, the machinists’ union, which was not a very right-wing union ; it was a rather left-wing or liberal union. The union officials announced in this meeting that now that America was at war, there should be no strikes, that the important thing was for everyone to cooperate to win the war, and that after the war, then there’ll be a lot of money and everyone would live very well, and so forth. And my father took the floor and said that in his opinion, this was a very good time to go on strike, because now the workers were needed very badly, not as during the depression. Now the pressure was on to produce war materials, and this was a very good time to get more wages and better working conditions. He was ignored. But after the meeting, a couple of people said that they wanted to discuss with him, and took him outside. They said they were from the union. One of them pulled out a gun and said : « We could take you for a little ride in the country, a euphemism to take you out and kill you, but instead we will just give you a warning : don’t ever come to union meeting again », which he didn’t do, he did not want to be killed.

H. R. : Was it a real threat ?

P. M. : Oh yes, they would probably have killed him. So under these circumstances, by and large, very few people had this point of view, although it was not just confined ... For example, there was the group around Dwight Macdonald in the magazine Politics. Dwight Macdonald and the art critic Clement Greenberg published an article, in which they also came out against the war and argued that the position of socialists should be to oppose every government and to support the German working class population against their own government rather than to join one government and fight another. But it was very difficult for people to take this position, of course.

H. R. : One of the persistent themes in modern mainstream commentary is that there isn’t any more a working class in developed countries. What do you think about this in the light of your previous remarks ?

P. M. : Well, if you use Marxist definition of working class, that is to say, people who live from wage labor, then I would have to say that probably close to 90 or 95 % of the population in the developd countries is proletariat in that sense. What’s meant by this generally, is that there has been a decline in that part of the working class, which fit a certain traditional stereotype, the male factory worker.

H. R. : Blue collar.

P. M. : Blue collar factory worker, and even here, I think, there is a big exaggeration. There are quite a few such people at work. But it’s quite true that there are new forms of wage labor, for instance office work, and that many occupations, which used to be carried on by what could have been called a middle class, more or less independent entrepreneurs or professionals, have been proletarianized.

For example in this country, at the time of the Second World War about 40 % of the American population was involved in agriculture. Now it’s about 2 %, and of course, you once had many small, what they called family farms. Now most of the people who do agricultural labor are wage laborers. Similarly, now even lawyers and doctors, which were until very recently pure professions, are now more and more being hired by large corporations, by profit making hospitals, or profit making firms of lawyers, and are paid a salary or commission. So I would say that far from there being a tendency for the working class to diminish, the tendency has been for the absorption of more and more of the productive and unproductive part of the world’s population into a wage earning class. What has disappeared is the professional, or self-employed, or the small businessman of the past. People who once were neither capitalists nor workers, are now in the working class.

H. R. : If you think that Bolshevism and fascism were both two types of efforts in this century to control the working class in a very brutal and harsh way, do you think that in the future it will be more difficult to resort to these kinds of devices ?

P. M. : Well, more difficult but only for a particular reason. That is to say, fascism and Nazism were not only organizations of terror against the working population, but they had also a specific social and economic program, the development of the mixed economy, or the use of the State sector. Nazism and fascism were the originators of what was called in America the New Deal, or let’s say in general, Keynesian economics, the use of State spending both in military production but also in public works projects like in Germany building the Autobahns, the development of unemployment insurance, all kinds of State programs. So that fascism and Nazism had something specific to offer the population. In that way they were structurally very similar the New Deal or the social democratic welfare States that began to develop in all capitalist countries in the 1930s. And one important fact about the present period is that this card has already been played.

I believe we are now entering into what will be a very long and deep depression. I would expect even more severe than the depression of the 1930s. The major difference is that the card of State spending, the card of Keynesianism, is no longer available that, for example in the United States, the State sector is already about 40 %. If the State would continue the process of expansion, that would mean the abolition of private property, private entrepreneurial capitalism and the creation of a State capitalism on the Soviet model.

This seems to be highly unlikely at this point of history ! But that means that fascism could only mean now the use of various forms of political terror, perhaps against minority groups in the population. I think the emergence of someone like David Duke in Louisiana spells out something which has already been present in the Reagan and Bush administrations, the mobilizations of racial hatred as a means to promise some kind of relief to the on-going degradation of life for the majority of the American population. But the truth is that this won’t help, I mean, since it’s not actually the fault of the Blacks that the White living standard is falling. This will not actually solve the problems, whereas the Hitlerians could actually give people something. They could take the unemployed and put them to work, just as Roosevelt actually was able through the production for the Second World War ... I mean the Second World War really did create prosperity in the West, but it’s hard to imagine that a Third World War could allow mankind even to survive, much less to create new prosperity.

So war can’t any more play the role which it was able to play in the 1930s. And the welfare State as developed either by the Nazis, or by the social democracy in the Scandinavian countries, or by the New Deal in the United States is no longer an option. All over the world now people are dismantling the Welfare State, which was an essential part of the fascist program.

H. R. : This comparison between the fascist and Nazi programs and social democratic programs is scandalous for many people.

P. M. : Well, now we come back to what you were asking before, the council communist critique of social democracy. You could say that social democracy represented a benign form of fascism, whereas Nazism, National Socialism, represented a very malign form of social democracy, that in both cases you have a party organization, which speaks for the needs of the population. In both cases you even had a kind of anti-capitalist rhetoric. The Nazis had, like the social democrats and also the Bolsheviks, this slogan of being against the big monopolies ; hence also the antisemitic aspect — the Jewish bankers and the big Jewish monopolies — is a particular variation on the general populist theme of the defense of the people, which is to say, the workers, the small businessmen, the ordinary people, against the big monopolists. For social democracy as for National Socialism, of course, if you don’t actually make a revolutionary transformation of society, the big monopolists will be in control anyway. Neither the National Socialists nor the social democrats put a program of the expropriation of the monopolies into practice. But they are very similar.

H. R. : Was it your father or Otto Rühle who wrote that the Nazis realized the program of German Social Democracy even up to the point of the Anschluss of Austria ?

P. M. : I think it was my father in his essay Karl Kautsky ; From Marx to Hitler (4). Yes, and that’s actually true. And there is also then a link to Bolshevism. When Lenin says in State and Revolution that the model for the socialist society is the German postal system, you can say that in his naive way he is revealing the essential structural similarity between Bolshevism, social democracy, and National Socialism, or the New Deal. In all cases you have the attempt of the State to take over some of the functions normally played by the interplay of private capitalism in the market place in moments in which the market system is functioning so badly that there is a threat of wide-spread popular revolt. This insufficiency, let’s say, of the market system to guarantee its own reproduction is then made up for by the State, and the ideologies or social democracy, or Bolshevism, or of National Socialism can play a role in fulfilling that function.

But in the long run in every case, finally, some form of political force will have to be used to control the population whether that be the German socialists after the revolution of 1919, who organized the political force to destroy what was left of the working class movement, or the Bolshevik development of their own secret police, or the Nazi terror against the German working class. The mixture of ideology and force in all three cases follows necessarily from the fundamental function, which is the regulation under crisis conditions of the capitalist system.

H. R. : Did I understand correctly your father’s point of view that as far as the Bolshevik experience is concerned, independently of whether it succeeds or not, it has nothing to say about the possibility of socialism ?

P. M. : It has something to say about the possibility of socialism, namely that — as Mr. Karl Marx wrote very long time ago in the preamble to the statutes of the First International — a socialist revolution has to be the work of the workers themselves and not of any special organization, or sect, or party, which seeks to speak for them. This, you could say, would be the one major lesson of Bolshevism, that a working class movement must not allow any party or other form of organization to speak and act, or rule, in their name. But other than this negative lesson, no, it has nothing to do with socialism whatsoever.

H. R. : Your father saw Marx mainly as a negative thinker, as a critic of capitalism.

P. M. : Yes.

H. R. : ... and not a positive thinker.

P. M. : Well, Marx explicitly refused to make, as he said, recipes for the future, and this, I think, for the principled reason, which I just mentioned, that is to say, with the Marxist position that since a socialist revolution would have to by necessity be the product of the workers’ own movement, that it was both pointless and a mistake for any individual or political organization to decide what forms the revolutionary movement should take, that a function of the theoretical left, or the organized left, should be to try to understand and articulate the nature of capitalism and the actual nature of the movement against it as it developed, but that to draw up a program or to prescribe the forms which socialist movement or working class organization would have to take, was not only pointless but actually counterproductive.

H. R. : But there were some efforts like Anton Pannekoek’s Workers’ Councils (5).

P. M. : Yes, but you have to remember that this was not ... the great advantage that Pannekoek had over Marx, was that he lived a hundred years later, and it was an attempt not to say what the workers should do but to describe on the basis of the experience of working class movements since the end of the 19th century what forms seem to be the ones which workers have spontaneously generated. The point of his very important book Workers’ Councils was not even to say that in the future some particular form, which can be identified with the idea of workers’ councils, was the only one which could serve the revolution, but to point out that in moments of revolutionary upheaval, workers seem to have always made use of a form of the same type, namely that they were generated out of their existing organization of labor. The important thing about the workers’ council was not the specific form but the principle, that the workers’ council was the product of the workers themselves, that it arouse out of the social relations that they were already experiencing, and could be described as a kind of transformation of the social relationships in the work place into the basis for a new mode of social organization.

H. R. : What was the view of the council communists on the Spanish revolution of 1936 ?

P. M. : They, of course, supported the anarchists’ experiments in collective self-government. They were against the republican government as a government. They were, well, obviously, against the fascist opposition. But I would say they saw this as a very important experience. For example, it was an experience of agricultural wage workers in the countryside attempting to create cooperatives, and it was one of the few examples in which you had an active discussion on how to create an organization of a whole national economy on the basis of democratic decision making from the bottom up, from the rank-and-file level up on a very large scale.

It didn’t in reality get very far. It was, of course, very difficult under war time conditions, and the Communists played very quickly a very important role in crushing the revolutionary experiment. But nonetheless, it was a very important moment, I think, in the history of these ideas, and it was one of the few times when you really had a very serious and practical engagement with the problem of creating a socialist economy on the basis of a democratic decision making by the producers’ themselves.

H. R. : Did your father ever develop this theme on the nature of a socialist society ?

P. M. : No. He wanted very much to, and he intended to, and was beginning to work on such a project at the time when he died. He intended to try to get beyond the earlier stage of this theory, which was excessively tied, he felt, to the specific model of the workers’ council and to the problem about the production-distribution of goods through some kind of substitute for market relations. There’s a great deal of attention paid, especially by the Dutch council communists, to this problem. But these sort of speculations about the possible future were developed really in the 1930s, and since by 1980 a great deal had happened in the world, he felt that the whole issue had to be rethought, that, for example, the use of modern means of telecommunication, television, computer networks, made possible a kind of democratic decision making which was simply not — for practical reasons — possible in an earlier period.

H. R. : So your father took seriously this kind of technological advance.

P. M. : Yes, absolutely. He thought these were potentially extremely powerful tools.

H. R. : I would like to return to the question of ideology. Because the idea of « socialism » or « communism » has been so badly discredited in the minds of so many people by the Bolshevik experience, do you think that anything can be saved from this, starting with the terms themselves ?

P. M. : Well, as I said, I think that this movement, the workers’ movement, which started in the 19th century, is now completely over. So you could say that the words « socialism » or « communism », which were very much disgraced by the Bolshevik movement, may be irretrievable. In my opinion, that doesn’t matter very much. The fact is that capitalism remains. It has the same nature that it had before, except that it is much more highly developed. We now have, to a much greater extent than ever before in history, a world capitalist system, a global working class, which is facing the problem that the working class has always faced, namely that it has a choice between taking control over the system of production and distribution in its own hands or suffering indefinitely the consequences of the capitalist mode of production. At the present time, for example, that means, I believe, deep economic depression. And it certainly also means severe ecological disruptions and even major disasters, and continuous warfare.

Since the end of the Second World War, war has been going on somewhere in the world all the time and is now for the first time reappearing in Europe with this quite vicious national struggle which is going on in Yugoslavia. It’s not at all unthinkable that such struggles could begin elsewhere in Eastern Europe and certainly in the Soviet Union as well among the various republics. So the problem of the choice between allowing capitalism to continue in its barbaric way or of taking control collectively of the means of production remains the same. And if the second option is called socialism or not, matters to me much less than the fact that that is the only choice which people have in front of them.

H. R. : Do you think that this exacerbation of nationalist tensions in Europe — Yugoslavia being the worst case until now — is a kind of substitute for more positive relations between people ?

P. M. : Yes, because it’s a response to the actual limited possibilities of economic development in the East. Unfortunately, the Eastern countries have thrown themselves into the arms of the world market when the world market is contracting. There is not going to be very much economic development in the Soviet Union, or in Czechoslovakia, or in Hungary, or in Yugoslavia. It seems to be the natural tendency of capitalist culture for the people to define themselves in a national or racial group and to attack as an enemy some other national or racial group. This seems to be the first thing that people try, and I imagine that this will go on for some time causing a great deal of harm, until the peoples of Eastern Europe — like the people of Western Europe or the United States — overthrow a system, in which this is their only possibility

H. R. : Would you say that the Yugoslav civil war is also a very stark testimony to the bankruptcy of the Titoist market « socialism » ?

P. M. : Yes. It has collapsed completely. To a great extent the Yugoslav economy was supported by the massive emigration of workers to the West, particularly to West Germany. But also internally the Yugoslav economy was an export economy, which the general contraction of the world economy, this crisis, has affected as well. Then with the collapse, after Tito’s death, of the State, which held all these potentially warring outfits into one whole, you have a kind of warlord system. It seems to me — I’m not an expert on this part of the world — but it seems to me that what we’re seeing now, is the development of a kind of warlord situation with a Serbian chieftain who is trying to capture a certain strategic piece of territory from the Croatian chieftain, and the population, despite that it’s filled with all sort of nationalistic fervor, is at the same time trapped in the middle of this. I’m sure that the people who are sitting in Dubrovnik, would be very happy to surrender and eat, but the armies which are in control in Croatia as well as in Serbia, are going to fight it out. It’s degenerating into a kind of gangster situation, like armed gangs.

H. R. : Like in Lebanon.

P. M. : Like in Lebanon. Even though the population is genuinely stupid and patriotic, it has very little to do at this point.

H. R. : As a conclusion, would you say that we now see the world more clearly than before the collapse of Bolshevism ?

P. M. : Yes. I think that we see more clearly what Bolshevism was, that it did not represent the basis for a new form of society. It certainly did not represent the basis for an eventual conquest of social power by the working class in Russia, or China, or anywhere else. It represented a form of exploitation of the majority of the population by that small elite who occupied the higher reaches of the Communist Party. That elite is now transforming itself into a more private capitalist elite to continue its former practice of exploitation in what they are hoping will be a more effective and efficient form

H. R. : The same persons.

P. M. : It’s the same people. They were formerly commissars. Now they’re becoming capitalists. Now, of course, in such a situation of transition, new people can shove their way forward and some old people have to go to jail or go to the Riviera, if they have enough money in a Swiss bank. But probably it’s mostly the transformation of apparachiks into capitalists in so far as they are able to, while other apparachiks attempt to maintain as long as possible the old system, in which they have their personal interests involved. It may take many different forms. In Romania you have actually a segment of the old ruling Party, which is still in power, now making use of a more or less fascist system of political terror, very much like the old one, but it’s even directly the same people except that Mr. and Mrs. Ceausescu have been killed. But everyone else is still there. And they are still running Romania just as they were before. So I would say yes. The historical character of Bolshevism has been clarified by this transformation of the Soviet Union, and since you are interested in this old council communist critique, that critique has been vindicated by this experience.


(1) Paul Mattick (1904-1981).

(2) See Marx & Keynes : The Limits of the Mixed Econony, Merlin Press, London, 1969 ; and the posthumously published Marxism : Last Refuge of the Bourgeoisie ? M.E. Sharpe, Armonk, NY, 1983.

(3) Living Marxism 8, September 1939 ; French translation in La Contre-révolution bureaucratique, 10/18, Paris, 1973.

(4) Living Marxism 7, June 1939 ; published as chapter 1 in Paul Mattick, Anti-Bolshevik Communism, Merlin Press, London, 1978

(5) Southern Advocate for Workers’ Councils, Melbourne.

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