Saturday, April 10, 2010

Keynes and Trotsky

Brad DeLong quotes John Maynard Keynes' 1933 essay Trotsky On England (a response to Trotsky's book Where is Britain Going?):
Granted his assumptions, much of Trotsky's argument is, I think, unanswerable.... But what are his assumptions? He assumes that the moral and intellectual problems of the transformation of Society have been already solved--that a plan exists, and that nothing remains except to put it into operation.... An understanding of the historical process, to which Trotsky is so fond of appealing, declares not for, but against, Force at this juncture of things.... All the political parties alike have their origins in past ideas and not in new ideas and none more conspicuously so than the Marxists. It is not necessary to debate the subtleties of what justifies a man in promoting his gospel by force; for no one has a gospel. The next move is with the head, and fists must wait.
Much as I admire Keynes, he utterly fails to make his case.

Keynes first snarks on Trotksy's admittedly florid rhetoric. (E.g. "These bombastic authorities, pedants, arrogant and ranting poltroons, systematically poison the Labour Movement, befog the consciousness of the proletariat, and paralyse its will.") Keynes goes on to observe, "How few words need changing, let the reader note, to permit the attribution of my anthology to the philo-fisticuffs of the Right." Keynes position here presages the modern "moderate" religious critique of the New "militant" atheists as "just the same" as religious fundamentalists. But Keynes misses an important point in this comparison. The right, in 1933 as well as today, uses emotional rhetoric as a substitute for genuine intellectual understanding; Keynes admits that Trotsky at least backs his own emotional rhetoric with an intellectual analysis worthy of criticism, "The second half [of Trotsky's book], which affords a summary exposition of his political philosophy, deserves a closer attention."

Keynes is not above emotional rhetoric of his own: "[Trotsky] is just exhibiting the temper of the band of brigand-statesmen to whom Action means War, and who are irritated to fury by the atmosphere of sweet reasonableness, of charity, tolerance, and mercy in which, though the wind whistles in the East or in the South, Mr. Baldwin and Lord Oxford and Mr. MacDonald smoke the pipe of peace." That Keynes himself uses emotional rhetoric does not necessarily justify its use, but the commonality of emotional rhetoric makes it irrelevant as a basis to draw distinctions; it would be just as meaningless to observe that the Bolshevik and the Fascist equally walk on two legs. It is trivial to observe that any partisan and advocate believes however passionately he is correct. The antidote to fanaticism is not indecision or nihilism; the antidote to fanaticism is knowledge and judgment. Set aside the passion: Is Trotsky correct?

(In much the same sense, both the New Atheists and religious fundamentalists believe they are actually correct and their opponents not merely honestly mistaken but deluded, willfully ignorant and/or intentionally dishonest. The issue is not that it's inherently or necessarily wrong to believe one's opponents are deluded: people really are at times deluded or dishonest. The issue is: who (if anyone) really is deluded and dishonest? The "moderate" religious and accommodationist atheist critique fundamentally rests on the belief that there is no underlying truth to any controversy, only a plurality of opinion.)

Keynes accurately and succinctly represents Trotsky's political philosophy as the following propositions: [all the elements are direct quotations from Keynes' essay]
  1. The historical process necessitates the change-over to Socialism if civilisation is to be preserved.
  2. It is unthinkable that this change-over can come about by peaceful argument and voluntary surrender. Except in response to force, the possessing classes will surrender nothing. ... The hypothesis that the Labour Party will come into power by constitutional methods and will then “proceed to the business so cautiously, so tactfully, so intelligently, that the bourgeoisie will not feel any need for active opposition,” is “facetious” – though this “is indeed the very rock-bottom hope of MacDonald and company.”
  3. Even if, sooner or later, the Labour Party achieve power by constitutional methods, the reactionary parties will at once Proceed to force. The possessing classes will do lip-service to parliamentary methods so long as they are in control of the parliamentary machine, but if they are dislodged, then, Trotsky maintains, it is absurd to suppose that they will prove squeamish about a resort to force on their side.
  4. In view of all this, whilst it may be good strategy to aim also at constitutional power, it is silly not to organise on the basis that material force will be the determining factor in the end.
Keynes admits that Trotsky makes at least a valid argument: "Granted his assumptions, much of Trotsky’s argument is, I think, unanswerable. Nothing can be sillier than to play at revolution – if that is what he means." Keynes instead criticizes the soundness of Trotsky's assumptions.

Keynes does not criticize any of Trotsky's explicit assumptions. Instead, he introduces two enthymemes (hidden assumptions). First "[Trotsky] assumes that the moral and intellectual problems of the transformation of Society have been already solved--that a plan exists, and that nothing remains except to put it into operation." To a certain extent, Keynes is correct on this point. The communists of the early 20th century really did believe — mistakenly — they had worked most everything out, and all that remained was to put it in practice. Furthermore, this overconfidence by itself caused many subsequent catastrophes in the implementation of communism in the Soviet Union and China.

On the other hand, every human endeavor starts with a degree of overconfidence: If we knew in advance of the difficulties of even the most limited human endeavor, we would never attempt it. And no political philosophy or attitude — conservatism and wishy-washy indecision as well as radical change — has avoided catastrophe, as Keynes should know, with the First Imperialist War and the horrors of colonialism fresh in his mind. Again, I don't intend to justify catastrophe as acceptable; we should always do everything in our power to avoid it. I merely note that catastrophes will in fact occur despite our best efforts, even if we are entirely passive and refuse to act. The argument that any radical change might lead to an unforeseen catastrophe is not an argument, especially when conservatism and the status quo demonstrably leads to a foreseeable catastrophe or is actually in the midst of catastrophic failure.

Keynes should not be viewed as offering constructive criticism to the communist movement; we should not view him as saying, "Hey, you guys are right, just don't get too cocky." Keynes is explicitly and proudly an apologist for the capitalist ruling class and an advocate of Labour party-like reformism (in its own way a radical transformation of laissez faire capitalism). Keynes essentially condemns Trotsky's position because it is well thought out. One cannot help but imagine that were the reverse true, Keynes would criticize socialism for being fuzzy and vague.

Keynes draws an unwarranted inference: because socialism allegedly "solves" the problems of the transformation of Society, it is therefore a "gospel", unalterable and, more importantly adhered to dogmatically. But Keynes does not discuss any points that establish a "gospel": Trotsky does not criticize the Labour party for deviation from the Marxist party line; Keynes chooses to describe Trotsky's objective criticism of the Labour party: that they are, for example, objectively mistaken in their belief the capitalist ruling class will accept the outcome of the parliamentary process to the detriment of their class interests. Trotsky might or might not be correct (I of course think he is correct). But Keynes does not criticize Trotsky for being mistaken; he does not even assert that the capitalist ruling class would indeed accept a parliamentary outcome detrimental to its interest. He instead criticizes Trotsky for coming to a conclusion, without examining or criticizing how Trotsky comes to that conclusion. One cannot help but see Keynes as not merely advocating caution, but celebrating indecision.

The question is not whether early 20th century communists were overconfident. The question is whether communism in general and Trotsky's political philosophy in particular falls apart without this overconfidence. But Keynes does not quote anything by Trotsky that depends substantively on overconfidence; the most just and accurate identification of overconfidence is a peripheral (but still valuable) criticism of communism, not a substantive criticism.

Keynes introduces a more problematic second enthymeme: "[Trostky] assumes further that Society is divided into two parts – the proletariat who are converted to the plan, and the rest who for purely selfish reasons oppose it. [emphasis added]" But Keynes immediately contradicts himself: "He does not understand that no plan could win until it had first convinced many people, and that, if there really were a plan, it would draw support from many different quarters." Keynes has barely drawn a breath after saying that Trotsky believes the proletariat, who presumably constitute "many people", are already converted to the plan, before asserting that Trotsky does not understand that many people must first be convinced.

More importantly, Keynes implies that Trotsky advocates implementation of a plan without first convincing many people and the implementation of a plan that has not drawn support from many different quarters. (And we must ask: which quarters? Must we predicate our support of socialism on the bourgeoisie and "higher" elements of the middle class who will be expropriated and lose considerable economic, political and social privilege without compensation?) Instead, Keynes asserts that Trotsky means to impose socialism by force over the objections of the majority.

But Keynes refers to nothing in support of this view, and indeed there is nothing in the communist canon that supports this view. Keynes instead describes Trotsky as advocating force not against the majority of the working class to convert them "by the sword" to socialism, but against the minority of the capitalist class who will seek to maintain their privilege by force if a rigged parliamentary system fails to do so. Keynes does not bother even to assert — much less argue — that the capitalist class has not rigged the parliamentary system in its favor; he does not bother even to assert that the capitalist class will not use force to maintain its privilege if its rigged parliament fails. If we accept Trotsky's explicit assumptions — we can conclude that Keynes accepts those assumptions by not controverting them — then force is no less necessary and acceptable against the capitalist ruling class as it is against any common criminal who seeks private advantage at the expense of mutual benefit and the well-being of society.


  1. To a certain extent, you are misrepresenting Keynes. In the latter section of his essay, he has sinned by omitting things which were regarded as common knowledge at the time, which (if assumed) refute your points: (1) that a majority of the proletariat was not in favor of Trotsky's plan, and that (2) there were essentially no non-proletariat supporters of Trotsky. Add those two points, and your objections have no force. (And Keynes' claim was that a real plan would gather support from across all of society, a detail you largely ignored in your analysis.)

    Keynes was probably also looking at Trotsky in light of his experience of WWI. From a strictly economical point of view, WWI is unique in that the elites of pretty nearly all the western countries who fought agreed in advance that a war would destroy the economy of the victor and possibly others as well. And they were basically right. Everything played out pretty much as they had predicted, with the German economy in a shambles and everyone else in trouble of varying degrees as balances shifted back and forth. (And yes, the theory was apparently accepted in Germany, too. See the book Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World for more on the subject.)

    Keynes was one of those who fairly accurately predicted the mess, and he suggested alternatives to the policies which led to it, and was largely ignored. Not being a fool, he learned the lessons from this that (1) economics is not an infallible control of human behavior — people will act against their own economic self-interest and (2) plans which are regarded as infallible because they place limits on human behavior through economics will fail (see point (1)).

    So: up pops Trotsky, who has a grandiose plan, based on economics. He claims (wrongly, according to others) to have broad support -- but even he claims that all of his support comes from a single segment of society. His plan rests of using people's best interests to get them to cooperate in a way which will fail if a significant portion of them do not. In light of Keynes' lessons from WWI, what other conclusion could he possibly draw than that Trotsky's plan would fail?

  2. The Vicar: It's a waste of time arguing with someone who cannot or chooses not to read and understand simple declarative sentences in the English language.

    Go hang out with db0: You and he are equally incapable of the basics of intellectual honesty and basic reading comprehension.

  3. It's simply too much trouble to restate my argument in response to every criticism completely uninformed by the actual text.

  4. Barefoot Bum,

    The post itself is excellent and the way you deal with impertinent commentators is no less impressive.

    Kudos for both things.

    1. Welcome! Your blog looks good too.


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