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Albert Gates

Books in Review

Unrealized Ambition

(November 1952)

From The New International, Vol. XVIII No. 6, November–December 1952, pp. 328–329.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Capitalism and Socialism on Trial
by Fritz Sternberg
John Day Co., N.Y.C., 604 pages. $7.00.

For the task which Fritz Sternberg set himself, his book is too short; for the ideas which he has actually summoned up, it is far too long. Intended as a sequel to his other books, Capitalism and Socialism on Trial is presented to readers as the conclusion to Sternberg’s long studies of the rise and decline of bourgeois society and an affirmation of his socialist beliefs. That is perhaps its chief merit. It is not an unimportant merit either in these days when the apostates, particularly those who have fled a decaying and disintegrating bourgeois order in Europe in order to affirm the elasticity and power of that same order behind the borders of a still powerful American capitalist society are the stoutest defenders of capitalism.

But the truth is that Sternberg’s book is a very spotty one and not easy to follow. The large chapters, divided into many sub-parts, skips through the subject matter to form a rather mechanical statement of the main thoughts of the author. In the most general Marxist sense, very often mechanical in its understanding and presentation, Sternberg does bring home, with considerable statistical proof, the unmistakable decline of world capitalism. He does prove the collapse of capitalism as a world order and the centralization of its strength in one country, the United States. But these economic sections are very summary in character. Sternberg presents many of them merely to introduce some of his own pet theories (imperialism, Russia, etc.).

The political aspects of the book are weak and disorienting, particularly when he writes about the Russian Revolution and the Stalinist degeneration. Because of his own confusions and what appears in the book as an inability to understand Stalinism, he permits himself to be the butt of smart-alec criticisms. It is true that Sternberg has traveled several inches away from his earlier position that the economic basis of Russian society (nationalized property) had progressive aspects and that Russian imperialism (“expansionism”) was not organically inherent in the system (you see, it is a matter of choice and Stalin has chosen to be imperialistic). Yet, there is no basic analysis of Russian society and Stalinism, and Sternberg unwittingly falls a victim of his own unclarity. That is why Franz Borkenau, in his supercilious review of the book, could accuse Sternberg of “refusing to call ‘socialist’ the only completely socialist country of the world.” Borkenau taxes Sternberg precisely on the point where the latter thinks his position is strong: that Russia is not structurally driven to follow an “expansionist” line. Such a view is possible only if one makes a fetish of nationalized property and invests it with a significance per se it cannot and does not have.

It is this kind of “Marxism” that provides critics with the opportunity of side-stepping the challenge of genuine Marxism to take on its superficial and half-representatives. Sternberg does not discuss the “Russian question” fundamentally; in fact, he does not preface his discussion by a statement of what socialism is, so that a fundamental comparison might be made between the ideal of Marxism and the Stalinist nightmare. The whole section on Russia is thus quite superficial and merely serves Sternberg with the opportunity to re-heat his old chestnuts about the historical mistake of Lenin in faking the Russian Revolution, which is, in Sternberg’s mind, second only to the permanent capitalist crisis as the source of the world’s ills.

The book’s weakness – or sectarian bias – in political scholarship is again revealed in the discussion of the Russian question and Stalinism. In this part of the book there is no reference to Trotsky. Is this not unusual scholarship, when one recalls that the struggle against the Stalinist counter-revolution was organized and led by Trotsky and that it was he who wrote all the main theoretical, political and practical ideas in that struggle for a period of fifteen years. It was Trotsky who, almost alone, first made the world conscious of what was happening inside Russia. The outside world relied almost wholly on his writings for knowledge of the economic and political situation in Russia. Yet in the bibliography which Sternberg gives for his sections on Russia and Stalinism, not a single one of the many books, pamphlets and articles Trotsky wrote is given as a reference. Isn’t this incredible? But Lenin, too, is given short-shrift when Sternberg details his own views of the Russian Revolution.

In general, the political writing in this book is wholly unsatisfying where it is not wrong. One of the most uninstructive sections is that dealing with the New Deal. In The Growth of the Trade Unions, as my colleague Hal Draper has already pointed out in Labor Action, Sternberg does not even mention the CIO, except in a table of membership figures of the two American labor organizations. But in the body of the section dealing with the New Deal, the NRA and the rise of unionism, the CIO is not mentioned; therefore, nothing follows about its enormous significance in the American social struggle. Sternberg was guilty of the same glaring omission in his more limited work The Coming Crisis, in which he devoted a great many pages to the United States and its role in the present world crisis.

A close examination of Sternberg’s writings will reveal that while he seems at home when presenting a statistical analysis of capitalism in its periods of rise and decline, sustaining the general Marxist prognoses on the social order, he is a terribly confused man politically. In this field, his conceptions are mechanical and inept; economic-determinist rather than historical-materialist; static rather than dynamic.

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