Archive for March, 2011

Anti-Socialism: Lenin, Trotsky and the Origins of Coordinatorism

So where did coordinatorism begin? Few commentators today have anything nice to say about Stalin, but the problems of Eastern bloc coordinatorism and political authoritarianism began much earlier. In other writings, we have traced contemporary difficulties back to weaknesses in the original Marxist theoretical framework. Here we illustrate the anti-egalitarian and anti-participatory sentiments of the leaders of the Russian revolution.

Leon Trotsky, a famous creator of the first coordinator economic system, said that the social rule of workers over society “is expressed … not at all in the form in which individual economic enterprises are administered.” That is, Trotsky felt it would be fine for the Bolsheviks to leave the usual factory hierarchy in place so long as central administrators like himself ruled “in the interests of workers.” As to why Trotsky championed “one-man management” in the factory we need to look no further than his cynical view of human nature: “It is a general rule that man will try to get out of work. Man is a lazy animal.” Naturally comrades at the center of society must sometimes coerce “lazy animals” for their own good. Finally, Trotsky added: “I consider that if the Civil War had not plundered our economic organs of all that was strongest, most independent, most endowed with initiative, we should undoubtedly have entered the path of one-man management much sooner and much less painfully.” In other words, Trotsky didn’t reluctantly accede to coordinator structures out of necessities compelled by the Civil War, as apologists maintain, but because he preferred them. These elitist sentiments defined Trotsky’s agenda for society, a coordinator and not socialist agenda in which central administrators would appoint “one-man managers” who would rule over “lazy workers,” in the workers’ own interests, of course. If autonomous workers’ organizations must be smashed in the process, so be it. They only prevent those such as Trotsky from protecting workers from the consequences of their own laziness – from ruling the workers to free them, so to speak. It is clear this coordinator agenda had nothing to do with making labor a “free expression and hence the enjoyment of life.”

Lenin evidenced his own coordinator orientation when he argued: “It is absolutely essential that all authority in the factories should be concentrated in the hands of management.” He followed this logic to its conclusion, noting that “any direct intervention by the trade unions in the management of enterprises must be regarded as positively harmful and impermissible.” Whereas Trotsky appealed to a cynical view of human nature to justify coordinatorism, Lenin appealed to another bulwark of antidemocratic economic ideology, modem technology. “Large scale machine industry which is the central productive source and foundation of socialism calls for absolute and strict unity of will… How can strict unity of will be ensured? By thousands subordinating their will to the will of one.” Apparently for Lenin, like Trotsky, it was sufficient that the “will of one” be well motivated, an analysis Stalin no doubt appreciated.

In response to workers who didn’t accept his self-serving analysis and demanded more say over economic policy, Lenin thundered: “A producer’s congress! What precisely does that mean? It is difficult to find words to describe this folly. I keep asking myself can they be joking? Can one really take these people seriously? While production is always necessary, democracy is not. Democracy of production engenders a series of radically false ideas.” Perhaps one of the radically false ideas Lenin had in mind was that work should be “the free expression and hence the enjoy­ment of life.”

In contrast to the coordinator sentiments of Lenin and Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg expressed a liberatory disposition when she crit­icized the Bolsheviks: “Finally we saw the birth of a far more legitimate offspring of the historical process: the Russian workers’ movement, which for the first time, gave expression to the real will of the popular masses. Then the leadership of the Russian revolu­tion leapt up to balance on their shoulders, and once more appointed itself the all powerful director of history, this time in the person of his highness the Central Committee of the Social Democratic Workers Party. This skillful acrobat did not even realize that the only one capable of playing the part of director is the collective ego of the working class, which has sovereign right to make mistakes and to learn the dialectics of history by itself. Let us put it quite bluntly: the errors committed by a truly revolutionary workers’ movement are historically far more fruitful than the correct deci­sions of the finest Central Committee.”

Luxemburg captured the difference between coordinator and liberatory inclinations when she said: “My discipline which Lenin has in mind is driven home to the proletariat not only in the factory, but in the barracks, and by all sorts of bureaucracies, in short by the whole power machine of the centralized bourgeois state… It is an abuse of words to apply the same term – ‘discipline’ to such unrelated concepts as the mindless reflex motions of a body with a thousand hands and a thousand legs, and the spontaneous coordination of the conscious political acts of a group of men. What can the well-or­dered docility of the former have in common with the aspirations of a class struggling for its emancipation?”

The answer, of course, is nothing. The question that remains is whether we can create an economic system that is efficient, equi­table, and ecologically sound based on the self-organization and collective self-management of workers and consumers. 

Looking Forward by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel. Also, the first question is not referring to the beginnings of the coordinator class but the beginning of an economic system managed by the coordinator class (i.e. coordinatorism)]

While the Left is plagued with sectarian divisions and hair splitting the reality is that many of these divisions exist for good reasons and we shouldn’t sweep them under the rug, or pretend we can ignore them. We should face them head on. The one I want to focus on in this piece is coordinatorism and its special place within authoritarian socialism, and particularly those found in the views of Trotsky and Lenin (since they seem to enjoy support from many self-proclaimed “socialists”). The reason is simple: we should learn from the mistakes of the past. In this rapidly changing world where governments topple we should be conscious of the coordinator class and the threat of coordinatorism. While I do want to see all Arab dictators bite the dust I don’t want to see those tyranies replaced with coordinatorism.

There are many other illustrative quotes highlighting the anti-socialist, anti-liberatory, anti-worker and anti-democratic sentiments of Lenin and Trotsky that apologists get ruffled about when faced with. And we will look at them. The usual arguments are, “That’s unfair; those are out of context!” or “There was a civil war/famine going on, so these actions were necessary” but as Albert and Hahnel note in the beginning excerpt from their book: “Trotsky didn’t reluctantly accede to coordinator structures out of necessities compelled by the Civil War, as apologists maintain, but because he preferred them.” And as far as the “context” argument goes it has been in my experience their context is never corrected. At best I may get a contradictory quote where Lenin says workers need “genuine control” but it’s worth keeping in mind that the quote comes before the Bolshevik putsch in October 1917. Instead, what is more useful is to look at some of Lenin’s thoughts post-October 1917 where he says things like,

We shall extend democracy in the workers’ organisations but not make a fetish of it. (1920)

Notice how “democracy in the workers’ organisations” comes from above, by the “we” that is the authoritarian Communist Party (the Bolsheviks), not the workers themselves. Notice that Lenin says he will not allow workers to make a “fetish” out of what he called, before his ascension to power, “genuine control.”

By his own words Lenin was an authoritarian, anti-democratic coordinator.

He looks down on workers and thinks they’re stupid and feels they need to be led to the Promised Land. He is the antithesis of anything socialism is supposed to be about: social ownership, management and planning of society with the egalitarian and equitable distribution of wealth and power.

The First International—that dissolved over the split between Bakunin and Marx—said only the working class can emancipate itself. This was kind of the guiding value. Workers need to control their work and to do this only workers can free themselves. They can’t be led from above. Of course we can and should challenge whether Marx lived up to this, and here Bakunin’s criticisms are worth bringing up (i.e. “The program of the International is very happily explicit: the emancipation of the workers can only be gained by the workers themselves. Is it not astonishing that Marx has believed it possible to graft on this never-the-less so precise declaration, which he publicly drafted himself, his scientific socialism? That is to say, the organization of the government of the new society by socialistic scientists and professors – the worst of all, despotic governments!” (1872) Bakunin later called this “the red bureaucracy” ).

The reality is Lenin nor Trotsky never measured up to this basic tenet. Even before the October putsch he was acknowledging that the workers and peasants were a hundred times to the left of him. And it is worth pointing out how often Lenin disassociated himself from the working class. He literally spoke of workers and peasants as if he were in a class above them, and that was true. He was. 

Lenin savagley beating a worker with a book titled “Marx.”

So, let us look at some other things Lenin said:

We are the stable centre, Lenin said, ‘we are stronger in ideas, and we must exercise the guidance from here. (1903)

Only the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, are stable, therefore you must follow/obey them.

The land of the workmen and the poorest peasants is […] a hundred times more Left than we. (1917)

That workers and the poor were so radically to the left and apart from him in terms of class comes in to play in later comments.

Large – scale machine industry which is the material productive source and foundation of socialism – calls for absolute and strict unity of will . . . How can strict unity of will be ensured? By thousands subordinating their will to the will of one […]unquestioning submission to a single will is absolutely necessary for the success of labour processes that are based on large – scale machine industry …. Today the Revolution demands, in the interests of socialism, that the masses unquestioningly obey the single will of the leaders of the labour process. (1918)

Post-revolution he starts saying there needs to be absolute and strict unity of will, subordination to one. It was indeed a steep and slippery slope to Stalin. When Trotsky took over the military one of the first things he did was bring back in generals from the Tsar government into the fold, and much to the ire of not only the working class (before that the rank and file were choosing their own leadership) but members of his own party.

The important thing to remember here is that it was the authoritarian, coordinator system Lenin and his acolytes created that allowed Stalin to even be in power. If what existed had been a self-organized and self-managed classless society there would have been no place for someone like Stalin.

Particular obstructive workers who refuse to submit to disciplinary measures will be subject, as non-workers, to discharge and confinement in concentration camps. (1919)

Obstructive workers were those who didn’t follow orders. Off to the concentration camps!!

If the trade unions, nine-tenths of whose members are non-Party workers, appoint the managers of industry, what is the use of the Party? (1920)

Remember, workers and the poor are a hundred times to the left than Lenin and his gang, and 9/10 of them are not members to his party and if they can choose their own labor bosses, that is to have “genuine control” of which Lenin advocated before he took power, then “what is the use of the Party?” Lenin in the same comment said the logic of workers choosing their own bosses “destroyed the need for the Party.”

And in the same speech is when he made the comment mentioned earlier about democracy and workers control: “we shall extend democracy in the workers’ organizations but not make a fetish of it.” As if democracy is something to be limited and extended from above by those who choose what is appropriate for you.

And in 1921 Lenin, again, speaks out against those who criticize the militarization of the economy:

Now we add to our platform the following: we must combat the ideological confusion of those unsound elements of the opposition who go to the lengths of repudiating all ‘militarisation of economy’, of repudiating not only the ‘method of appointing’ which has been the prevailing method up to now, but all appointments. In the last analysis this means repudiating the leading role of the Party in relation to the non-Party masses. We must combat the syndicalist deviation which will kill the Party if it is not completely cured of it.

And again, his concern is “the Party” which he leads. Not the revolution or liberating the workers. It’s clear that the workers are a threat to him that he fears will “kill” his precious if they are not contained . . . by him. Therefore anyone who holds views contrary to him suffer from “ideological confusion” who “repudiate” the “method of appointing” (see anti-democracy and anti-workers control). These “unsound elements” must be “cured” less they “kill the Party.”

The working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness . . .

See, we in the working class can only develop union consciousness. To have a more social understanding we need the “effort” of a strong leader who is above and beyond the working class to tell us what to think. We are clueless unless we “subordinate” ourselves to a “single will.”

The organizational principle of revolutionary Social-Democracy . . . strives to proceed from the top downward.


Obedience, and unquestioning obedience at that, during work to the one-man decisions of Soviet directors, of the dictators elected or appointed by Soviet institutions, vested with dictatorial powers.

Yikes! Leninists will deny he is authoritarian and by now it should be obvious by Lenin’s own words that he was an authoritarian tyrant.

At the time there and before the Bolshevik coup there were workers organizations that were pushing for and in some cases creating workers control over the economy and Lenin shut it down. He didn’t want workers managing production. He wanted it securely in his hands.

After the February 1917 revolution there were workers and factory councils created so workers could actually control their workplaces and within a month of the October putsch by Lenin he “decreed” these councils impotent. He said the Party would choose the bosses and that any industry of national importance—which was all of them—was under the control of the Party. No workers liberation.

There are serious lessons to be drawn from this. If we really want a classless socialist society then it is imperative that we address divisions of labor and decision-making processes. So long as power or “the organizational principle of revolutionary Social-Democracy . . . strives to proceed from the top downward” we will recreate not only class divisions but specifically: working class subjugation. Liberation can only come from the workers themselves and its “organizational principles” are balanced divisions of labor and participatory self-management.

The American sociologist C Wright Mills once said that freedom is not the ability to do as we please or choose from prechosen options but the ability to participate in formulating options and choosing accordingly. The reasoning is simple. We should not confuse freedom with doing as we please because our actions often affect others which means that if we infringe on the “freedoms” of others then it is bogus to hide our deeds under the banner of freedom. We are not and should not be “free” to kill (outside of self-defense) or rape or rob others; that violates their “freedom” to not be killed, raped or robbed. And if others are choosing our options for us then we are not free to manage or fulfill our own lives. Because we can often fall prey to the adverse effects of a groupthink mentality we may be able to see the flaws of others more easily than we can see of ourselves. For example, we know that the managed democracy of Iran where clerics filter out acceptable candidates for public office is a sham. Iranians are not really “free” to choose their own leaders. This is the point of participatory self-management; that everyone should be nurtured by social institutions that are self-organized and self-managed, to actively participate in the management of their own lives, in accordance with others, to the degree they are affected.

This philosophy recognizes that there are and will be various social institutions designed to meet our desires and needs, to assist in their fulfillment, not curtail, block, pervert, subvert or undermine as institutions sometimes can do, and that these institutions should first and foremost be self-organized and self-managed, which simply means they should be controlled, built and structured to serve specific purposes by those who want them and are affected by them.

This philosophy of individual autonomy also recognizes that while we are individuals, we also belong to a social species and that our actions often affect others. And since this philosophy is to be employed universally, all those affected by our actions, by default have a fundamental right to participate with us in formulating our options and making decisions.

This philosophy recognizes as well that not all actions, or decisions, effect everyone equally, and to ensure optimal fairness those affected more by a decision should have more of a say throughout the process.

If our current ideologies are not in line with this we should be honest enough to either admit that we are opposed to freedom and classlessness, or be open to change.

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Reviewing Green Economics by Robin Hahnel

Robin Hahnel’s Green Economics: Confronting the Ecological Crisis, M.E. Sharpe, 2010, 280 pages

In Robin Hahnel’s Green Economics: Confronting the Ecological Crisis the author sets out to make a number of arguments pertaining to the relationship between economics and ecology. With historical background about solar technology breakthroughs dating back to 1767, and understanding of greenhouse gasses beginning as early as 1824, Hahnel argues that the failure of market economies to consider a number of factors from an accurate cost benefit analysis, to time discount, to the profit motive, and more, is why King Coal prevailed and we are in the mess we’re in.

And that is really the focal point of the book: we are in big trouble. We have pumped so much carbon into the atmosphere through burning of fossil fuels or deforestation that we are on the brink of a climate disaster. This crisis is fueled by an economic system that does not take into consideration the efficient use of natural resources. The dominant global market system is not considerate of the effects of externalities. It does not care that the ecological costs of tomorrow may outweigh the economic benefits of today. It is not as if we can save reverse anthropogenic climate change with the existing economic system.
Expecting a free market system not to pollute too much is like waiting for a lead balloon to float. (125p.)
We may be able to win some political reforms to improve the situation: to clamp down on pollution, to cap carbon emissions, to control deforestation, to wrestle finance from private tyrannies and entrust in public hands, and more. And while “we need all this sooner than ASAP” (240p.), these do not alter the mindset of an economy based on private enterprise, market allocation and profiteering. Our struggles will always be an unnecessary swim upstream and our gains vulnerable to being lost. Just as these struggles are necessary in the existing world, changing dominant social institutions to relieve us of this burden is also necessary.
Green Economics however, may not be as polemical as some may want, at least in regards to how it is written. A number of the chapters in the book are probably more academic (i.e. in its treatment of economic theories) that I can see some people wanting, though it is not incomprehensible to fellow laymen. But it is strategic (i.e. why an international binding cap and trade treaty might be preferable to a domestic carbon tax, even though in theory the latter is superior or the former; or why a participatory economy is preferable to market economies or bioregionalism) and that in turn gives a lot of polemical ammo to those who want to defend the environment and make progress to an ecologically-sustainable society. And speaking of sustainability, chapter three (What on Earth is Sustainable Development?) closes with an inspiring manifesto:
• WHEREAS the natural environment provides valuable services both as the source of resources and as sinks to process wastes,
• WHEREAS the regenerative capacity of different components of the natural environment and ecosystems contained therein are limited,
• WHEREAS ecosystems are complex, contain self-reinforcing feedback dynamics that can accelerate their decline, and often have thresholds that are difficult to pinpoint,
• WHEREAS passing important environmental thresholds can be irreversible,
• WHEREAS some social institutions are similar to natural ecosystems in displaying valuable characteristics and responding unpredictably to intervention,
• WE, the present generation, now understand that while striving to meet our economic needs fairly, democratically, and efficiently, we must not impair the ability of future generations to meet their needs and continue to progress.
• In particular, WE, the present generation, understand that intergenerational equity requires leaving future generations conditions at least as favorable as those we enjoy. These conditions include what have been commonly called produced capital, human capital, natural capital, ecosystem sink services, technical knowledge, and perhaps social capital as well.
• Since the degree to which different kinds of capital and sink services can or cannot be substituted for one another is uncertain and since some changes are irreversible, WE, the present generation, also understand that intergenerational equity requires us to apply the precautionary principle with regard to what is an adequate substitution for some favorable part of overall conditions that we allow to deteriorate. The burden of proof must lie with those among us who argue that a natural resource or sink service, or a valuable social institution that we permit to deteriorate on our watch, is fully and adequately substituted for by some other component of the inheritance we bequeath our heirs. (47p.)
The way enterprises are owned and managed, how affected parties are excluded from decision-making, how sustainability is defined, how labor is rewarded or how the economy is planned all has bearing on our abilities to win. It helps to know what it is about our economy that is destructive, or to be aware of how some misconceptions about markets and policies are hindering our efforts, or what would be a better replacement, and some things we can do today to get us moving in that direction.
And if this is the kind of information you want then trust me when I say that every serious environmental activist would be well served by getting their hands on Hahnel’s Green Economics: Confronting the Ecological Crisis.
Post Script: I have to admit that I am hesitant in suggesting others buy stuff. Especially this book. It feels perverse to encourage others privately buy this book. This book is about confronting the ecological crisis, not being a party to it. On one hand I want the knowledge and message contained in this book to spread, and on the other hand I want to limit my contribution to climate change, or to our cultural problem of using the possession of material objects as a form of highlighting social status. So, in realizing that consuming this book is part of our ecological crisis—private consumption over public (this book is not likely to be found at many public libraries), the trees felled to make the paper, the fuel used to transport it, etc—or that some might want to own the book simply to have it part of their private collection, I want to close this review with a thought: we must choose cautiously what we find is worth our carbon footprint until such point as accurate accounting for ecological activities is systemic. Speaking for myself, I will offset it with a reduction in other activities because the book is worth it.
Michael McGehee is an independent writer and working-class family man from Kennedale, Texas. He has also recently established the Dallas/Fort Worth Project for a Participatory Society. He can be reached at
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