Nothing but bathwater
The Soviet Union did not constitute capitalism of any sort, argues Mike Macnair
Ian Donovan’s ‘Throwing babies out with bathwater’ (April 17) is profoundly mistaken: what he wants to avoid throwing out is not babies, but merely the very dirty bathwater of the failures of the 20th century left.
On the ‘Soviet question’ and state capitalism his criticism of the CPGB amounts to implicit advocacy of a party based on theory rather than on programme. In addition (and here I am speaking for myself rather than the CPGB), I stand by the view that ‘state capitalism’ mis-characterises the USSR and its place in world history, and does so because it has the underlying, if often inexplicit, aim of taking ‘moral distance’ from the Soviet regime. This involves substantive points of some importance which relate to the issues of imperialism and working class class-political independence, so I will go into the point at some length in this article.
On Iraq, Ian’s position remains characterised by rose-tinted self-deception as to the actual political dynamics of Iraq under imperialist occupation and of the ‘resistance’ groupings. I invite readers to judge for themselves the relative plausibility of Ian’s and my arguments now and then from the record of the articles in this paper.
The remainder of his arguments as to ‘third campism’, ‘taking sides’, Respect and so on are entirely dependent on the analysis of Lenin’s Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, and the political lines drawn from it by the early congresses of the Comintern. Since I have argued pretty elaborately against this view elsewhere, and Ian has still not engaged seriously with these arguments, I will respond only to what appears to be new in his arguments; this will require a second article.
The CPGB does not have a ‘party position’ - whether ‘state capitalism’, ‘bureaucratic collectivism’, Trotskyism of any variety, ‘Ticktinism’ or whatever - on the theory of the nature of the regime of the former USSR and its satellite and imitator states.
In our ‘What we fight for’ column we say that “Socialism represents victory in the battle for democracy. It is the rule of the working class. Socialism is either democratic or, as with Stalin’s Soviet Union, it turns into its opposite.”1 This encapsulates one of the fundamental programmatic conclusions from the Soviet experience.
The Draft programme has a little more, encapsulating a second fundamental conclusion - the impossibility of socialism in a single country and national roads to communism:
The October 1917 revolution in Russia marked the beginning of the present epoch. Socialism was transformed from the realm of theory to that of practice. However, the workers’ state in backward Russia was left in asphyxiating isolation. Social democracy betrayed the goal of socialism for the sake of gaining substantive reforms within capitalism. A whole raft of reforms were in fact conceded. The capitalist class was determined that there should be no more Octobers.
Meanwhile, imperialism sponsored civil war, armies of intervention and economic boycott to strangle socialism in its cradle. In besieged Russia, society could not find its way out of poverty towards abundance. Soviet society had to be militarised if it was to survive. Workers could not exercise democratic control over society. Indeed as a collectivity the working class decomposed.
Under such conditions bureaucratic deformation was bound to occur. In the mid-20s, this isolation was theorised as ‘socialism in one country’, which became official policy in the Soviet Union. The symbolic link with the world revolution was broken. In the late 1920s Stalin oversaw a counterrevolution within the revolution. The re-enslaving of workers, the re-enserfing of peasants, monocracy, terror, the gulag and social madness followed.
Any lingering possibility of corrective reform closed. The eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the fate of similar regimes definitively confirms that there is no national road to communism.2
Given these programmatic positions, we found broadly acceptable the Left Unity Socialist Platform’s formulation in its point 3:
Socialism means complete political, social and economic democracy. It requires a fundamental breach with capitalism. ... We reject the idea that the undemocratic regimes that existed in the former Soviet Union and other countries were socialist.
However, for Communist Platform we added to the end of the second sentence: “or represented either the political rule of the working class, or some kind of step on the road to socialism”.
We also found broadly acceptable the Socialist Platform’s statement in point 5 that:
Socialism has to be international. The interests of the working class are the same everywhere. The [Left Unity] Party opposes all imperialist wars and military interventions. It rejects the idea that there is a national solution to the problems of capitalism. It stands for the maximum solidarity and cooperation between the working class in Britain and elsewhere.
For the Communist Platform we amended the second sentence to: “The interests of the working class are basically the same everywhere”, and substantively altered the final sentence (not quoted) on the EU.
Communist Platform’s February 8 agreed revise of the statement of aims says:
5. We stand on the historic examples of the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Bolshevik-led revolution in October 1917 as the first attempts of the working class to dispossess the capitalists and begin the construction of socialism. We reject the idea that the Soviet Union and similar regimes were democratic, socialist or represented either the political rule of the working class or some kind of step on the road to socialism.
6. Socialism is international or it is nothing. The victory of socialism in one or more country is only partial until the balance of forces has decisively tilted against capitalism. That means socialism must triumph in a tranche of advanced countries if it is not to suffer deformation and counterrevolution in one form or another. National revolutions are therefore best coordinated and where possible synchronised.
Again, the emphasis is not on a theory of the USSR, etc, but on the programmatic conclusions from its failure. Ian argues that “Such agnosticism is not strength, but a weakness.” But the absence of a formal position on the theoretical question is, on the contrary, essential to the idea of a party, which is founded on programmatic conclusions - as opposed to a sect, which is founded on agreement of the members to a particular theory (whether it be Cliff’s or Daum’s state capitalism, or any of the other particular theories of the USSR).
Ian is, of course, right when he writes: “Why should anyone listen to a bare assertion that presents no analysis to justify itself?” However, the point is that programmatic conclusions can be agreed while arguing for them on the basis of several different analyses.
Lenin’s analysis of imperialism is different from Bukharin’s in Imperialism and world economy (1915) and from Luxemburg’s in The accumulation of capital (1913). These differences entailed real political differences (particularly around the national question). But they led to fundamental common conclusions - opposition to the imperialist war - and hence were not obstacles to participation in a common party and faction (Bukharin) or a common proto-international (Luxemburg).
Perhaps more strikingly, it is now clear from Lars T Lih’s work, if it was not already clear, that Lenin did not in spring 1917 ‘go over’ to Trotsky’s idea of ‘permanent revolution’. Their theories on the Russian Revolution remained distinct; but these two theories led to common programmatic conclusions about the immediate tasks of the revolution, which allowed the fusion of the Bolsheviks and mezhraiontsi in July-August 1917. In fact a fortiori, Ian’s own amendment adopted by Communist Platform (quoted above) refers to the “Bolshevik-led revolution in October 1917”. This reflects the fact that the October revolution was actually led by a coalition of the Bolsheviks, the left Social Revolutionaries and a number of smaller left groups with very varying theoretical ideas.3 At the end of the day politics, and especially revolutionary politics, is about common proposals for political action - not about seeking agreement to the various possible theoretical grounds on which these can be justified.
Right at the end of his article Ian concedes that:
Mike has done some useful things in his Revolutionary strategy in pointing out that the Third International threw out, along with the opportunism and chauvinism that was allowed free rein in the Second International, a good deal of the openness that also characterised the Bolshevik Party in its pre-revolutionary period - the very openness that enabled it to become a genuine mass formation able to take power at the head of the working class in the first place ... In this sense the Comintern threw out the baby with the dirty bathwater and laid the basis not for Stalinism (which was something completely different), but for today’s fragmentation of the Trotskyist left, who are the real successors to the Comintern with all these faults.
What is missing in this comment is the understanding that the Bolsheviks could do this precisely because they were a party founded on acceptance of a political programme as the basis for common action, not one based on agreement to a theoretical scheme or ideology. In spite of his time as a CPGB member, Ian’s argument that the CPGB and Communist Platform should adopt one particular theory represents a drift back to a form of the Trotskyist left’s belief in parties founded on agreement to theoretical ideology.
In my March 20 article4 I wrote that Ian proposed to add to the Communist Platform aims the statement that ‘An isolated socialist government will either be crushed by capital or forced by material circumstances, despite the best of initial intentions, to become a surrogate capitalist force in its own right.’ This statement in effect characterises the Soviet regime as state-capitalist, not in the sense in which Lenin used the term in Leftwing communism and elsewhere, but in the sense in which various lefts use it to take moral distance from Stalinism: for example, Walter Daum in his Life and death of Stalinism.
But then the category of ‘third campism’ ceases to make sense. ‘Third campism’ as a political insult originated in Trotsky’s In defence of Marxism, and was entirely framed by the characterisation of the USSR as a part of the workers’ movement (like a trade union led by gangsters) or at least a conquest of the workers’ movement ...
Ian responds to this objection with a substantial defence of the ideas of Daum and an argument that - in effect - I am making an amalgam between the very different ‘state capitalism’ theories of Kautsky, Martov, Cliff, Dunayevskaya, Daum and so on. He then proceeds, however, to argue that the rejection of ‘third campism’ can be justified on grounds of anti-imperialism and the workers’ movement as the ‘tribune of the oppressed’ independent of the class or economic characterisation of the USSR, so that the polemic about ‘state capitalism’ - which is slightly less than half of Ian’s article - is at the end of the day irrelevant to the argument he offers.
The point I made about ‘state capitalism’ as taking moral distance from Stalinism is my point rather than the CPGB’s. It is necessary to say this, first, because - as already indicated - the CPGB does not have a formal commitment to a single theory of the USSR, but only commitments to programmatic conclusions; and, second, because my own view on the theoretical question is distinct from that which has been argued by Jack Conrad, who has written most on the issue in this paper.5 What I say here is therefore simply my own opinion on this question.
I agree with Ian that the US League for a Revolutionary Party’s ‘statified capitalism’, as most clearly expressed by Daum, has more predictive value than Cliff’s state capitalism. This is because Cliff’s state capitalism is a stage of capitalism beyond imperialism, like Soviet theorists’ ‘state monopoly capitalism’,6 towards which the capitalist states are tending, as well as the Soviet bloc; whereas the LRP, in contrast, saw already in 1978 the tendency of the regime towards a more ‘normal’ capitalism.
That said, the LRP view is by no means unique in this. Trotsky and ‘classical’ Trotskyism also predicted that, in the absence of working class ‘political revolution’, the Soviet bureaucracy would restore capitalism. Though this understanding was abandoned by all the main currents in the post-war Fourth International, it was maintained by the Spartacists and their offshoots from the 1970s, and by both the Marcyites in the 1950s US Socialist Workers Party (later Workers World Party), and the neo-Marcyites of the US Revolutionary Communist League-Internationalist in the 1970s-80s.7 More systematically grounded in political economic analysis than either of these trends, the work of Hillel Ticktin on the USSR also predicted the coming collapse of the regime.8
The strength of all these views is that they do not fall into the trap of imagining the USSR (and its imitators) as a new form of society with long-term stability, and hence as a social ‘third alternative’ to the choice between capitalism and working class rule - a point Ian makes correctly.
On the other hand, none of these views really predicted the complete inability of the Soviet working class to act as a class for itself, with class-political independence - to create trade unions or trade union-like organisations, and clandestine political parties - either under the regime or at its fall. This inability was the key to the uselessness of the Trotskyists’ ‘political revolution’ project. It is not satisfactorily accounted for by the existence of heavy repression: workers’ organisations, and indeed powerful ones, have been created in very repressive countries.
Ticktin’s account offers as an explanation the absolute atomisation of the totalitarian society: but it predicted that the fall of the regime would let loose the working class, which quite clearly did not happen at the fall and has not happened since.9 And what is meant by ‘totalitarian’ and ‘atomisation’ is precisely that this was a society without real markets in labour or other commodities, hence creating (in the absence of full freedom of speech, communication, association and so on) unmediated dependence of the individual on the state, or rather the bureaucrats with whom the individual is in contact. Hence this line of argument could not be applied if what was really involved was ‘state capitalism’, ‘state monopoly capitalism’ or ‘statified capitalism’.
Relatedly, the theoretical price of calling the Soviet and Soviet-style regimes any sort of ‘capitalist’, as opposed to saying that they contain within themselves a tendency towards capitalism - notably, features of ‘primitive accumulation of capital’ - is dreadful. An example can be found in Ian’s account of Daum’s view. For Trotsky in The revolution betrayed, material scarcity implies the state as a policeman.10 For Daum, as interpreted by comrade Ian, the law of value continues to be the dominant and determining material force in a statified economy, where competition, private property in the means of production and even money itself is suppressed. This would be the case even when the proletariat is in power through its own political party - though such a government would engage in prolonged, conscious effort to abolish that dominance. This could only succeed through the abolition of material scarcity via the internationalisation of the revolution and the development of the productive forces, to the point that the iron necessity for the exchange of equivalents begins to wither away. The law of value, after all, is the law of the compulsive tendency for equivalent and proportional amounts of crystallised average labour time to be exchanged for each other in the form of differing use-values - not as a planned process, but as a blind average of fluctuating prices in anarchic economic conditions ...
The law of value is a characteristic of capitalism. By that is meant in abstract terms, generalised commodity production or the circuit M-C-C’-M’. The preconditions for capitalism are not merely “scarcity”: scarcity is a common feature of all class societies between the big-game die-off and end of hunter-gatherer primitive communism in the later Stone Age, and the communism of the future. Capitalism requires, on the contrary, a certain degree of development of the forces of production, sufficient to allow movement beyond tied labour forms and household production to ‘free’ labour and a fully monetised economy. Without this transition there is not generalised commodity production and the law of value is not dominant.
A considerable part of the problems of the Soviet Union consisted in the absence of the material preconditions of capitalism in much of the former tsarist empire, which showed patchy development of capitalism in some parts and vast areas characterised by low population density, very poor infrastructure and an agricultural technology comparable to the western European 12th century rather than any later period.11 The continued dominance of household production in agriculture was remarked on by Trotsky in The revolution betrayed12 and by all later accounts of Soviet agriculture, in spite of the efforts to ‘modernise’ through the sovkhoz state farms and kolkhoz ‘collective farms’. These, with their peasants tied to the land by the internal passport system, looked remarkably like feudal manors, once we abstract from purely juridical or ideological forms. This similarity also applied, in a weaker sense, to Soviet factories with their partially tied workforce, locally attached welfare operations and so on.
If we turn from the preconditions for the dominance of the law of value to its effects, capitalism has been characterised since the 1760s at the latest by recurring financial crises based on (to simplify grossly) overproduction, mitigated during the 1950s-70s, but reappearing with increasing force since then: a tendency not found either in previous social forms or in the Soviet and similar regimes.13
Capitalism displays an internal dynamic towards the intensification of labour and lengthening of the working day, together with an internal tendency to revolutionise the means of means of production, producing workers working long hours alongside a large unemployed ‘reserve army of labour’. It tends to economise on labour-power. The Soviet and similar regimes displayed no such tendencies: the only ‘internal’ tendency to innovate was in the arms production sector, and even there was heavily dependent on borrowing from the genuinely capitalist countries. The tendency was towards ‘They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work’. In all these fields Ticktin’s political economy of the USSR is far more predictive than Daum’s, in spite of Daum’s heroic efforts to torture his data to make it display features of capitalism.
The internal tendencies of capitalism to produce pressure on wages, the working day, etc drive workers to organise in trade unions and similar bodies. The internal tendencies of capitalism to produce unemployment and recurrent crises produce a tendency for workers’ collectivist political action.14 It is because of these dynamics of capitalism that even under very repressive regimes it tends to generate workers’ clandestine organisations. The underlying reason for the political absence of the working class in the Soviet-style regimes, their fall and initial aftermaths is the absence from these regimes of the main dynamics of capitalism.
Not a system
In reality, since the Soviet bureaucratic regime proved able to last no more than one human life span (1917-91) or two and a half standard ‘generations’ of around 30 years, there is no real reason to consider it as a ‘system’ at all, or as any sort of class or economic form analogous to capitalism (or feudalism, or the slave-owner urbanism of classical antiquity, or the supposed ‘Asiatic mode of production’). These terms refer to phenomena of hundreds, or indeed thousands, of years’ duration. The Soviet regime was primarily a political regime and an episode - a failed episode - in an attempt both to ‘modernise’ Russia and ‘catch up’ with the ‘west’,15 and to get beyond capitalism.
To grasp the peculiar contradictions and dynamics of this short-lived regime requires political economy analysis like Ticktin’s. But it also requires recognition of the complex knot of historical class-political dynamics involved. There were aspects of the USSR which were - as I have indicated above - feudal, reflecting the low development of the forces of production in the former tsarist empire. There were aspects which displayed capitalist primitive accumulation: notably the gulag as a means of exploitation of forced labour (analogous to 18th century British transportation of convicts).
But there were also aspects which reflected - even in the ‘period of stagnation’ under Brezhnev - the original attempt to create a working class regime and to build socialism. The bureaucratic regime escaped the control of the working class. It did so initially in 1921 with the ban on factions and associated changes, and decisively with the destruction of the original Bolshevik cadre in the 1930s purges.16
But every state requires a political ideology to prevent it collapsing into localised groups of extortionists. And the state that came into being in 1918-21 was created by turning the Russian Communist Party into the spinal core of a state apparatus which served as a collective ‘man on horseback’ to protect the Russian peasantry against the white army remnants of the old landlord class. Hence the state was based on the ‘1921 ideology’: that the society is led by the working class and that the working class is politically represented by its ‘advanced part’, the party; and the party in turn is represented by its ‘advanced part’, the leadership. The ‘1921 ideology’ was not an arbitrary or unforced error. The ban on factions and the rest of the organisational forms, and the ideology itself, were required by the social dynamics of attempting to maintain worker leadership of a worker-peasant alliance, in a peasant-majority country.
Because the state needed an ideology to stay a state, it unavoidably remained committed to the ideology of its formation (just as France’s politics remain republican, US politics Whiggish, and so on). Hence the Soviet bureaucracy remained dependent on the working class, even while it expropriated it politically. The top leaders and the Soviet intelligentsia may have ceased to actually believe this ideology, but they had to pay lip-service to it right down to Gorbachev, and that substantially constrained their actions. In particular, the regime could not without politically collapsing create mass unemployment to discipline the working class, and hence could not in spite of all efforts overcome the tendency towards ‘They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work’. Even when the collapse came, if central European satellite countries rapidly moved towards ordinary semi-colonial economies, what happened in the USSR was affected by the persistence of - for example - state-owned housing at low rents.17
Recognising the bureaucratic regime’s dependence on the working class - even as it radically subordinated, and in a sense enserfed, this class - is inconsistent with characterising it as a variety of ‘capitalism’. Capital is in a certain sense dependent on the proletariat as its necessary other, but it does not behave towards the proletariat as the Soviet bureaucracy and its satellites and imitators did. Precisely because the regime was not a form of capitalism, the working class was not driven to create permanent organisations to conduct an ongoing class struggle against the bureaucracy, as the proletariat is driven to create permanent organisations to conduct an ongoing class struggle against capital, and hence the proletariat could never overthrow the regime.
This recognition of a working class component in the bureaucratic regime has two fundamental implications. The first is that the dictatorship of the bureaucracy in the USSR and its imitators has a core element, which it has in common with the dictatorship of the bureaucracy in the workers’ movement in the capitalist world. The political expropriation of the workers’ organisations by the labour bureaucracy under capitalism serves capital and blocks the working class from taking political power in various ways (for example, in the so-called ‘Leninist’ groups which cling to 1921, by producing endless splits and inanition). Its overthrow and the subordination of the full-timers and elected representatives to the ranks is a precondition of the working class obtaining political power. But it is not itself capital, and its dynamics are more similar to those of the Soviet bureaucracy than to those of capital.
The second implication is that the idea of ‘political revolution’ was an illusion; and that because it was an illusion, the USSR (etc) did not represent a strategic conquest of the working class, as Trotsky and Trotskyists since him argued.18 Rather, the local working classes made real material gains, compared both to pre-revolutionary conditions and to the real alternative to the bureaucratic regime, semi-colonisation (these gains were made clearly visible in the 1990s by the dreadful consequences for the working class of the collapse). But the gains were at most analogous to a pre-entry closed shop: ie, sectional gains not strategically defensible.
Hence Trotsky’s Soviet defencism of 1939-40 was badly overstated: even if the USSR could be characterised as a corrupt trade union in power, as Trotsky did in places, the Hitler-Stalin pact and invasions of Poland and Finland were politically more like a racist strike to get rid of migrant workers than the sort of strike socialists support.
But this also implies that Trotsky’s reinterpretation of ‘permanent revolution’ in 1930, so as to remove the immediate dependence on general European revolution, which is present in Results and prospects (1906), and to bring the theory closer to Lenin’s ‘worker-peasant alliance’ than Results and prospects, was false; and a fortiori all the post-war Trotskyists’ further reinterpretations to accommodate the geopolitical extensions of Soviet influence and its imitators were false. That is, the strategic orientation of a series of national revolutions, based, in the countries with subsisting peasant agriculture, on a worker-peasant alliance, was false. The bureaucratic regime was not an accident, but the natural and probable consequence of the isolated revolution under working class initial leadership in a peasant-majority country.
It should now be apparent why I made the throwaway remark that theories of ‘state capitalism’ are about taking moral distance from the Soviet and Soviet-style regimes. I mean by this that this approach says, ‘This is not what we want’, and ‘dramatises’ the point by identifying the regimes - falsely - with the immediate class enemy, capital. But, by denying the working class component in the bureaucratic regimes, it denies an understanding of decisive elements of the dynamic of the regimes. And it also blocks any real ability to draw lessons for the workers’ movement from the failure of the regimes as a working class political project (even if in a deformed sense).
If, as I think - and I stress that this is not a CPGB line, but merely my personal opinion - the strategic orientation of a series of national revolutions, based, in the countries with subsisting peasant agriculture, on a worker-peasant alliance, was false, that conclusion has profound implications for the question of the strategic orientation of the workers’ movement and socialists in relation to imperialism and the struggles against it. It is not the only reason for rejecting the ‘anti-imperialist united front’ approach, but it is one of the reasons for doing so.
I will return to this issue in the second part of this reply.
3. A Rabinowitch The Bolsheviks come to power London 2004 (chapters 12-15) has details.
4. ‘Anti-imperialist illusions’ Weekly Worker March 20.
5. There used to be on the CPGB website a set of ‘Theses on the fall of the USSR and the nature of the Soviet and Soviet-type regimes’, which I wrote in November 2004 to present an alternative view for a CPGB school on the issue. Like a good deal else from this period, this was lost in the 2009 cyber-attack on the CPGB site, though I can provide an e-copy to anyone who is interested. I have since written more elaborately on one element of the approach - the location of the USSR in the grand narrative of historical materialism - in ‘Historical blind alleys: Arian kingdoms, signorie, Stalinism’ Critique No39, pp545-61 (2011).
6. Notice from Ian’s quotations, in his note 4, that the LRP’s theory was in 1978 a variant of stamokap theory (on which see RB Day Cold war capitalism: the view from Moscow, 1945-1975 New York 1995), if Daum later modified this to ‘statified capitalism’.
7. Some links for both Marcyite and neo-Marcyite texts at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revolutionary_Communist_League_%28Internationalist%29. The original Marcyites took the ‘Cuba turn’ in the early 1960s and became conventional left ‘official communists’. I collaborated politically with the RCL-I and former RCL-Iers in the USFI in 1984-93 and have some further documents from this trend beyond those linked by Wikipedia.
8. Most systematically presented in HH Ticktin Origins of the crisis in the USSR New York 1992; though this book was published after the fall, it systematised arguments which had been developed and published from the early 1970s on.
9. Eg, Origins of the crisis pp87, 120, 149-51, 174.
11. Cf my review of Boris Kagarlitsky’s Empire of the periphery (Weekly Worker April 2 and April 9 2009).
12. Chapter 4, section 2; chapter 6, section 3.
13. The USSR and its satellites and imitators were affected by the global crises of capitalism, but they did not in themselves tend to generate such crises, as capitalism does.
14. The second point is well argued by Marc Mulholland in ‘Marx, the proletariat, and the ‘will to socialism’ Critique No37 (2009), pp319-43 and ‘“Its patrimony, its unique wealth!” Labour-power, working class consciousness and crises: an outline consideration’ (2010) Critique No38, pp375-417.
15. B Kagarlitsky Empire of the periphery (London 2007) is particularly useful on this.
16. Daum is helpful on this dating point.
17. D Orlov Reinventing collapse: the Soviet experience and American prospects (Gabriola Island 2008), if hardly offering a theory, is useful on these aspects of everyday life in the Soviet collapse.
18. I leave aside, of course, the ‘official’ communists, who saw no need for any revolution at all.