The place of the Soviet Union in history

The USSR was neither a new type of capitalism nor a 'degenerate' socialism, but a freakish new social system, argues Jack Conrad

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Contra Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Leo Tolstoy, Oswald Spengler, et al, there are good reasons, albeit with various reservations, to accept the idea of progress: defined as advance, development, a forward or onward movement, improvement, etc.

Admittedly, claims of spiritual, moral and artistic progress are inherently problematic. Exact measurement is impossible. We have to rely on subjective criteria. Inevitably results are inconclusive.

The animist religion of original communism was unwritten but functioned as a popular science. Nowadays, science is a multidisciplinary specialist undertaking, a productive force in its own right. However, the Abrahamic religions of the book - each of which is proclaimed to be god’s final word - amount to pure ideological mystification. Whereas the rulers of ancient Egypt, Assyria and China boasted of torturing, mutilating and massacring war captives, modern states are pledged to abide by the terms of the Geneva convention. Nevertheless, the 20th century saw industrialised warfare, Nazi death camps and the nuclear bomb. Individual artists perfect their techniques and on occasion invent new styles. But does anyone seriously think that Damien Hirst is better than Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci or Pablo Picasso?

When it comes to nature things are perhaps more straightforward.

The big bang happened some 13.8 billion years ago, producing known time and space. One hundredth of a second after the big bang the temperature of the rapidly expanding universe plunges from the “infinite” down to “a mere 10,000 million degrees Kelvin.”1 As the universe further inflates and further cools transition temperatures are crossed. Gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces separate. Quarks and anti-quarks form. Depending on their colour - ±blue, ±green or ±red - quarks either repel or attract. Quarks annihilate anti-quarks and produce electrons. Within the first second following the big bang quarks have combined to form hadron particles - the most stable being protons and neutrons.

After about three minutes protons and neutrons combine to form nuclei: held together by the effect of the strong nuclear force which more than offsets the opposing electromagnetic force. As temperatures continue to fall, things move somewhat slower. It took 700,000 years for electrons to become trapped into orbits around nuclei, thereby forming the first “stable atoms”: in the main helium and hydrogen.2 Atoms are a unity of opposites: the nuclei are positively charged, electrons negatively charged.

Some 100-300 million years after the big bang the first stars appear. The arc lights of the cosmos. These extremely massive ‘population three’ stars convert a portion of the original hydrogen into carbon, oxygen and iron. A billion years later, one by one, they begin to go supernova. The resulting debris provides the raw material that goes towards forming new stars and planets, including our solar system - which is about 5 billions years old.

Life on planet earth appeared some 3.7 billion years ago. It too undergoes a series of “major transitions”.3 A single-celled eukaryotic species - whose origins lie some 2.1-1.6 billion years ago - led to multicellular organisms: fungi, plants and animals. Sexual reproduction - in spite of its high costs - evolved 1.2 billion years ago. Shrew-like synapsids gave rise to mammals 225 million years ago. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens have been around for roughly 300,000 years.4 The human brain is famously credited with being the ‘most complex object in the universe’. Since the renaissance and Copernicus, scientific knowledge has grown in leaps and bounds. As a result, “the universe is becoming conscious of itself, able to understand something of its past history and its possible future” (Julian Huxley).5 Hence, we can confidently say that in nature there is the transformation of lower into qualitatively higher forms (as well as a dialectical interpenetration of opposites and the negation of the negation).6

Progress does not, however, constitute a universal law, a law driving nature, in all its aspects, forward to some goal of final perfection (the contention of Hegel). Take biology. The adaption of species to changing environmental conditions is dictated by reproductive success: it has nothing to do with achieving ever greater speed, dexterity, beauty or intelligence. Fossil evidence reveals many species taking an evolutionary pathway towards less complex, less energetically costly, forms: eg, “parasites tend to be much simpler than their free-living ancestors.”7 Moreover, extreme complexity, occupying a very narrow ecological niche, might well risk ending up in an “evolutionary dead-end”.8 There are countless examples of species extinction.

It should be added, at some time in the far distant future, the universe will quite conceivably expand to the point where it reaches ‘heat death’. As shown by redshift measurements ever growing distances separate the galaxies. They are flying apart. At some point the dust and gases needed for star formation are predicted to reach insufficiency. Red giants and black dwarfs come to dominate. Galaxies undergo dynamic relaxation. Stellar remnants escape their gravitational pull. Even black holes shrink and ultimately disappear due to the emission of Hawking radiation. Finally, say in a hundred trillion years, temperatures even out as the arrow of time finally reaches entropy.9 Other end of the universe theories have been presented, of course, such as the ‘big crunch’. Then there is the idea of the “big bounce”: endlessly repeated big bangs and big crunches.10 What is certain, though, is that planet earth, our sun and solar system are finite. Everything that comes into existence must go out of existence.

Human society sees both progress and retrogression. Nonetheless, as our sketch will attempt to show, the overall tendency, certainly when it comes to the forces of production, is progress. Tools get better, machines more sophisticated, communications faster and more reliable. Necessary labour is thereby reduced as productivity rises. Such progress makes it feasible to transform the relations of production. But enhancing, perfecting and augmenting the forces of production does not automatically translate into progress in the relations of production. Only under optimal conditions do the forces of production and the relations of production stand in harmony. This is how Marx’s frequently misused statement that the “hand-mill gives you society with a feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist” is best understood.11 He was not suggesting that the forces of production constitute the sole social determinate. As Engels insisted, any such proposition would be a “meaningless, abstract, ridiculous piece of jargon”.12 The application of Marxism to any particular historical period would amount to nothing more than adding one and one together to make two. Needless to say, Marxism is rather more sophisticated.

It is, for example, vital to recognise the different tempos shown by the forces of production - sometimes extraordinarily dynamic - and the relations of production. Once entrenched, the relations of production, are slow moving, sticky, tenacious. When there are changes within the existing relations of production, they are more than often brought about with the sole intention of sustaining the old order: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change” (Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa).13 What, in fact, brings about the shift from one socio-economic formation to another, is the always complex interrelationship between the forces of production and the sometimes hidden, sometimes open struggle of classes: slaveowner and slave, patrician and plebeian, landholder and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, capitalist and wage-worker. And, in the telling words of the Communist manifesto, the struggle between “oppressor and oppressed” ends, “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”14

Almost by definition oppressors exploit the oppressed. Surplus product is extracted, and, as we know, part of that, in the form of tithes, tribute or taxes, goes towards maintaining the conditions needed, if exploitation is going to continue. A government machine, armed forces, law courts, spies, officially sanctioned religion, all serve to keep the oppressed, oppressed. Needless to say, being human, the oppressed strive on a daily basis to better their immediate conditions. And ideas constantly well up, and gain a wide hearing, demanding a social levelling, a reconstitution of society from below.

According to radical anthropologists “anti-hierarchical” politics date back to our very origins as a species.15 Indeed the anti-hierarchical politics of our distant ancestors are what allowed language, cosmology, art, medicine, etc, to flower.16 Humans are “ultrasocial”.17 Hence evolved human nature surely explains why we instinctively find oppression, of ourselves, naturally, but also others, hateful, galling, distressing, unacceptable. Tellingly, oppressors have to resort to all manner of elaborate ideological justifications to excuse themselves to themselves.

The decline of original communism culminates in the neolithic counterrevolution, the oppression of women, the patriarchal family, private property and eventually slavery. The slave is available in their entirety to be used by another. A relationship based on the undisguised threat of violence.

Although slave labour was sufficiently productive to allow a small minority to devote their time to war, philosophy, geometry, politics, poetry, pleasure, etc, the average slave is unmotivated, always resentful and more than prone to steal away in a desperate bid for freedom. Slaves have to be supervised, chained, guarded, terrorised - a costly overhead.

We can perhaps talk about a slave mode of production. However, the majority of the population in classical antiquity were land-owning peasant farmers, tenants or common labourers who had to hire themselves out (incidentally, nor do the feudal or capitalist modes of production appear in pure form either). It should be added that in Rome independent peasant farmers constituted the backbone of the army’s legions: a fearsome military force. However, with the growth of aristocratic wealth the class of peasant citizens decays. Small farms are remorselessly eaten up by the latifundium. Slave labour replaces free labour. No doubt that affected the fighting capacity of the imperial army. We know that territorial expansion ceases, protecting border regions along the Rhine and the Danube became the priority and the army increasingly relied on recruiting Germanic foederati.

Slave labour, especially in the western Roman empire, was essential for the reproduction of the ruling class. Hence, when slaves had to be purchased from outsiders, that or bred internally, as opposed to being obtained far more cheaply through punishment raids and wars of conquest, the reproduction of the relations of production come to be ever more problematic. Trade declines. Self-sufficiency becomes a necessary virtue. Villas are abandoned. There is urban depopulation. Piece by piece the empire falls to Germanic invaders. What remains is fought over by mercenary armies headed by this or that would-be caesar.

Inevitably the old order uses every means at its disposal in the attempt to reverse the decline. The currency is debased. Taxes are hiked. The army and bureaucracy is doubled in size. Draconian measures of internal control are imposed. Surveillance becomes ubiquitous. So does the arbitrary seizure of property. A whole range of occupations are made hereditary. Meanwhile, lands were granted to Germanic incomers in return for military service. Emperors thereby preside over intermediate social forms. They also encourage the Vandal, Ostrogoth, Visigoth, Lombard and Burgundian kingdoms to buy into the Christianity, diplomatic etiquette and urban glamour of the Roman elite.18 There is a degree of cultural absorption and on occasion substantial reconquests. But, finally, in 476, the western empire falls. Odoacer, a foederati general, became the first king of Italy.

The transition from one mode of production is, in fact, always long, contested and painful. Nonetheless, the feudal relations of production that emerge from the wreckage of the western Roman empire exhibit both higher levels of labour productivity and, intimately bound up with that, a greater degree of personal freedom for the oppressed. Serfs are exploited, of course, but, leave aside being tied to the land and the compulsory labour days, they work according to their own volition. Moreover, the instruments of labour - horses, ploughs, scythes, flails - belong to the serf.

Capitalism delivers the legal equality between buyers of labour-power (oppressors) and sellers of labour-power (oppressed). That equality is, of course, illusory. Yet wage-workers are both freer and more productive than serfs. Indeed through assuming global proportions, through socialising labour, through relentlessly introducing one innovation after another, modern capitalism is responsible for levels of production which vastly surpass anything seen in the past.

Capitalism does not act, at least under present circumstances, as an absolute fetter on the productive forces. Nonetheless, capitalism produces wealth one-sidedly, antagonistically, destructively. The rich become super rich. Monopolies ever more monopolistic. War follows war and economic crisis follows economic crisis. Meanwhile, life for the many is increasingly insecure. And, in the endless search for profit, capitalism is driven to exploit nature with a ruthlessness that can only be described as criminal. Instead of treasuring nature, it is plundered. The results are widely known and widely acknowledged: global warming, spreading deserts, shrinking forests, toxic rivers and lakes, degraded oceans, shocking air pollution, melting polar icecaps, rising sea levels, changing weather patterns. Such developments threaten to bring about mass animal and plant extinctions, economic refugees by the tens of millions and quite conceivably a civilizational collapse.19

Yet, by the simple measure of putting the means of production under social control, nature can be restored to good health, all needs met and humanity returned to communism. That return, on a higher level, is actually what constitutes the defining aim of Marxism. Inescapably a universal task. Capitalism’s transnational corporations, the global division of labour, unites all countries into a single metabolism. Each country is dependent on what happens in another. Nowhere can survive in isolation. The absurd pretentions of Stalin, Mao, Hoxa and the Kims are soon exposed. The communist revolution can never be a mere national revolution. It is international or nothing. The active participation of the world’s leading countries are certainly required: today the United States, Germany, China, Japan, France, Britain, India, Russia, Brazil and Mexico.

By giving conscious expression to the real movement of history, by fighting to win the battle for democracy, Marxists endeavour to raise the working class to being the ruling class. A ruling class because the working class needs a state to organise itself … and to fend off the old exploiters internally and externally (a basic proposition which distinguishes Marxism from the nonsense of anarchism). But, and this is vital, the socialist state is so democratic, so pared down, so transparent that it amounts to no more than a semi-state that is already withering away.

1. Revolution and counterrevolution

In this light, the 1917 October Revolution represents far more than a bid to establish the rule of workers and peasants in Russia. Massively ambitious in and of itself. The Bolsheviks banked on their revolution triggering a general conflagration in Europe. The United States of Asia and Europe would then embark on specifically socialist tasks. With the further spread of the revolution, to China, to India, to Africa, to America, the capitalist mode of production is superseded. But, as things turned out, crucially with defeat in Germany, Russia found itself isolated. Any decisive breakthrough proved impossible.

Tsarist Russia was the “weakest link” of the imperialist chain (Lenin). A metaphor which can be misleading. It might be thought that with October 1917 the capitalist system had been broken, riven in two, put beyond repair. Needless to say, capitalism continued as a global system, in which the “Soviet economy was in large measure embedded … at all times in its history.”20 What had been conquered was a huge, but economically peripheral country, which because of war, revolution and civil war, had been reduced to ruin and starvation. Hardly the conditions needed to sustain democracy, let alone taking steps in the direction of full socialism. And popular exhaustion and unremitting hostility from the world’s dominant powers, compelled the Bolsheviks to retreat from their programme. The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry became the dictatorship of the advanced part of the proletariat. And the narrowing continued. The dictatorship of the Communist Party. Then the dictatorship of the central committee. Then the dictatorship of the politburo. Each narrowing had far-reaching and entirely negative consequences. Counterrevolution within the revolution took root.

To begin with, the post-civil war Bolsheviks tried to restore the economy so as to create the conditions necessary for the political revival of the working class. And, yes, that necessitated using capitalist methods. However, as I have argued, a qualitative break came in 1929 with the launch of the first five-year plan. What had been a process whereby the apparatus gradually developed sectional interests, reached the point of final rupture. Workers experienced not just a further erosion of civil and political rights, but atomising repression.

Any notion that the resulting social dust remained the “dominating class” was now untenable.21 Workers faced coercion in every sphere of life. Arresting strike leaders, bogus workplace votes, enforcing speed-ups, internal passports, the effective statisation of trade unions, etc, were blessed with a socialist halo. But, in terms of collective strength, individual freedom and living standards, the position of workers in the Soviet Union, was altogether inferior to the admittedly narrow, inadequate and always precarious gains that had been won in the more democratic capitalist countries.

Meanwhile, towering far above the ragged workers, the hungry kolkhoznik, the enslaved former kulaks, members of the apparatus enjoyed a privileged existence: roomy town houses, servants and chauffeur-driven cars, country dachas, closed shops, imported luxury goods, the best medical facilities, specially reserved Black Sea holiday resorts and the guarantee that their children would attend the best schools. The apparatus thereby became self-reproducing. Not that members of the apparatus could amass capital in their own “private interests”. Yet despite the obvious absence of capitalist wealth making, vital according to Adam Smith for ensuring “the public good”, the Soviet Union seemed to represent the world’s future for three or four decades.22 Leave aside the ‘official communist’ parties and their millions of members. There were plenty of bourgeois friends of the Soviet Union too. Achievements were much exaggerated. Nonetheless, the steel plants, the hydro-electric dams, the mechanisation of agriculture, the drive towards universal literacy, the health campaigns, the military might cannot be denied.

According to the standard Marxist account, to the degree that social differentiation, along with the hierarchical division of labour, is flattened, the state too is pulled down, its special functions being absorbed by society at large. Ipso facto, state property must cease being state property. By the same logic, to the degree that the state rises above society, state property will serve as an instrument of exploitation. Evidently, although official doctrine insisted that with the first five-year plan class exploitation had forever been banished, the Soviet state showed not the least sign of withering away. On the contrary it grew in size and scope.

Trotsky was clearly wrong to insist that because of the nationalisation of industry, the land, the means of transport, etc, the Soviet Union continued to be some kind of workers’ state. October 1917 resulted in state property forms: that much is true. But the working class can only exercise control over property collectively. Hence the necessity of democracy. To be meaningful that has to include time off for representatives to master information, provision for debate, the right to present alternative proposals, regular votes, the election and rotation of managers, etc. Without democracy, state property could only but belong to the apparatus. What had been taken from capitalists and landlords therefore confronted workers and peasants as an alien force.

Hence, the apparatus in the Soviet Union amounted to considerably more than any ‘normal’ bureaucracy. As a rule, bureaucracies occupy an elevated, but intermediate social position between the masses and the ruling class. The bureaucracy does the bidding, represents, serves the interests of the ruling class. There is, nonetheless, given the opportunity, an ever present tendency for the bureaucracy to pursue its own interests. Fields of responsibility are expanded, functions become power, exorbitant salaries, bribes or favours come to be expected. Leading office holders thereby claw their way into the ruling class. On occasion they manage to rise to the very top. The late Ottoman empire saw the grand vizier reduce the sultan to the status of a pampered puppet. However, inside the Soviet Union, the apparatus stood alone. There was no ruling class to obey, ape or join.

2. Property and law

Because Trotsky pivoted so much of his argument on property, we are obliged to examine this question, no matter how briefly. At first sight, it might appear that property is nothing more than a thing held, possessed, decided over by a particular person, or group of persons. However, as any worthwhile law commentary will tell you, property is “not a thing”.23 It is a concept, an institution, a “power relationship” … with, Marxists argue, origins in the emergence of classes and class society.

Property, is, in fact, a legal expression of the relations of production, and, as such, fundamentally concerns relations between people. Under capitalism, those social relations are indirect, they are bound up with the market and appear to be relations between money, land, capital and labour-power (ie, property). But, in fact, as shown by Marx, most fully in Capital, behind this “commodity fetishism”, and the apparent exchange, in value terms, of like for like, there lies the production and extraction of surplus-value. Workers as a class are exploited by capitalists as a class. However, with the overthrow of capitalism there comes the possibility of bringing about “the abolition of property” as an institution, as a power relationship (note, we are not talking about personal property, ie, toothbrushes, phones, shoes and the like, it is class property that makes way for collective appropriation).24

Bourgeois philosophers, economists and political writers are more than prone to eternalise property. John Locke considered that human beings have a natural property right over their “own persons” and that when their labour is mixed with something provided by nature “he makes it his property.”25 Adam Smith took the individual hunters and fishers among the “savage nations” as his methodological point of departure.26 Through the production and exchange of their property, he eventually arrives at the “civilized and thriving nations” of 18th century capitalism, along with their complex division of labour, different classes, states and contending schools of political economy.

Not surprisingly, Robinson Crusoe has been seized upon. From Claude-Frédéric Bastiat to Murray N Rothbard, Daniel Defoe’s eponymous character is celebrated as the quintessential self-made man - adventurous, intrepid, canny, religiously pious and, perhaps clinching it, a conscientious accountant. Crusoe masters his environment through paying attention to detail and sheer hard work. But contrary to the claims of capitalism’s apologists, when Crusoe raised his goats, dried his grapes and tended his garden plot, he did not convert the results of his labour into “property”.27 He was just a man on an island. There can, in other words, be no property outside society.

Of course, Crusoe goes on to save Friday from the cannibals and then puts him to work digging, planting, harvesting, carrying and fetching. Two more “subjects” are added to Crusoe’s “kingdom”: Friday’s father and a Spaniard. They too work for Crusoe’s benefit. Then, and only then, might we begin to talk of “property”.28 Crusoe, it should be added, got to know his little Caribbean island: its plants, wild animals, seasons, fresh water sources, tides, etc (that is the natural resources). He also took great care to keep control over the seven muskets, two fowling-pieces, two pistols, shot and gunpowder he salvaged from his wrecked Portuguese slaver-ship (simultaneously the means to exploit nature, kill enemies and, if necessary, intimidate subjects).

What about law? Law serves to regulate social production and the results of social production. Legislation, court judgements, contracts, lawsuits and appeals go together to provide predictable boundaries, a certain flexibility and state-enforced decisions. Law can, moreover, be given a new content by successive social formations. In England, the highly fragmented, custom or tradition based, Anglo-Saxon law, which itself drew upon elements of Roman law, was maintained and developed by the Norman conquistadors to further their claims, interests … and ideals.29 Law, it ought to be stressed, is closely related to ideology. Those who make the law always have a particular social ideal lodged in their heads, eg, the Normans thought they were introducing a “precisely defined” feudalism (not that the word was used at the time).30 Nonetheless, the money-economy was from the beginning working like a social acid. What the Normans called the ‘law of Edward’, ie, the legal practices operating at the time of Edward the Confessor’s death, thereby undergoes successive mutations. Law reaching its highest stage with mature capitalism: in the late 19th century, it became common to talk of the “rule of law”.31

Socialism, undoubtedly appropriates various aspects of bourgeois law … nevertheless, even when there is what might be called “proletarian law”, the legal form as such, is already in the process of “withering away”.32 Communism proper dispenses with judges, barristers, prisons, the police, law books and all such crap. Instead there is mediation, arbitration and, hopefully, reconciliation (already the practice in the more enlightened capitalist countries when it comes to various social issues). However, as we have seen, far from withering away, the legal system in the Soviet Union, just like the ever expanding state machine, was deemed to have an ever growing role to play in protecting “state property” ­­- pilfering was endemic though state property supposedly belonged to the “whole people”.33 As already demonstrated, the anti-worker, anti-peasant thrust of legislation in the 1930s and 40s is unmistakable.

In this context, those associated with the Marxist idea of law withering away were denounced as wreckers in the field of jurisprudence. Eg, Pēteris Stučka, commissar for justice in November 1917 and later chair of the supreme court of the RSFSR. Many were arrested, many were executed. Stalin wanted the law to instil a glacial fear into the hearts of the population. Judges, therefore, had to be bound to the principle of retribution. In a series of polemics Andrey Vyshinsky championed ‘legal formalism’: adversarial trials, law as a series of strict rules, interpreting the law to accord with original intent, etc. All lauded as high cultural achievements that ought to be strengthened and rigorously enforced.

Yet, to make a salient point, society’s property relations, and closely related to that, the ever expanding body of Soviet law, were second order, not first order determinates. Draconian legislation and the population’s willingness to flout the law; the Stalin cult and residual Bolshevism; Russo-centric Soviet nationalism and the underground existence of rival nationalisms; state hostility towards religion and the continued hold of religion; all such factors collide, interact and colour events. In many cases, amidst the swirling multitude of accidents, this or that superstructural phenomenon will largely determine the resulting forms. Nevertheless, it is economic realities which ultimately assert themselves “as something inevitable” (Engels).34

When it comes to locating the Soviet Union in historical terms, it is not what it said about itself in central committee resolutions, ministerial speeches, constitutions, socialist realist novels and newspaper articles that are decisive. That hardly needs saying. Nor, however, are property relations decisive. Though property relations provide the foundations for the legal superstructure and therefore stand in close proximity to the relations of production, in the final analysis, what is crucial, are the relations and forces of production themselves. Surely then, the task of the conscientious investigator is to search out, discover and fearlessly present, what lies at the most fundamental level of determination.

State property, in and of itself, has nothing to do with socialism: that is for sure. Ancient China, Babylonia, India’s Mauryan empire, the Incas all presided over state lands, state projects, state trade and state serfs. And, of course, there is the “state monopoly capitalism” Lenin discussed. That Trotsky relied on the Soviet state’s property relations, ie, the legal expression of the relations of production, just goes to show the tenuous, the superficial nature of his claim that the post-1929 Soviet Union remained a workers’ state.

3. Trotsky and his heirs and successors

Nonetheless, Trotsky was fully aware of the ruthless extraction of surplus-product. Determined to catch-up with the west the regime resorted to the “classic methods of exploitation” and in “naked and crude forms as would not be permitted even by reformist trade unions in bourgeois countries.”35 And, therefore, while Trotsky credited the apparatus with defending socialistic production, he denounced the forms of distribution as capitalistic. “Where there is scarcity”, he said, “there will be a struggle of each against all.”36 Under such circumstances the ‘parasitic’ bureaucracy was bound to win out.

Yet, the fact of the matter is that the apparatus did considerably more than parasitically misappropriate the best houses, holiday resorts, medical facilities, schools and consumer goods. The apparatus was just as intrinsic to the system, as workers and peasants. As Gosplan, the apparatus drew up detailed target figures and did its best to allocate resources and monitor results; as management, the apparatus directly involved itself in the production process right down to the shop floor. And though the apparatus could only exert partial control over the product, there can be no doubt that the production process as a whole was designed to serve the interests of the apparatus (including the infatuations, enthusiasms and hunches of various top leaders). When it comes to the consumption of the apparatus it amounted to far more than the use-values they and their families enjoyed. Output that is destined to go to the state machine ought to be included too. Hence, when it comes to department B, it would be helpful if we broke it up into three parts. Department B can be presented as department B (i) and department B (ii). Department B (i) is the means of consumption going to reproduce workers and peasants. Department B (ii) accounts for the items of individual consumption going to the apparatus. When it comes to that portion of output that goes to the armed forces, the prison system, the propaganda machine, the secret police, etc, it is, given its sheer scale, worth designating as an entirely separate department in its own right. Department C represents the collective consumption of the apparatus.

Anyway, what Trotsky believed to be the dual nature of Soviet society - socialistic production, capitalistic consumption - saw him insist upon the inherently unstable nature of the regime. One-man management, of the entire system, could organise production along military lines and ensure the atomisation of the population. That notwithstanding, a social formation which cannot rationally plan, which is dogged with poor quality products, which has its pre-history in a proletarian-led revolution, which organises wave after wave of mass killing of its own leading cadre, which faces a hostile world of redivisioinst powers, such a social formation can only but be extraordinarily fragile.

In the “interests of clarity and simplicity”, Trotsky concluded that the Soviet Union ought to be defined as a “contradictory society.”37 And as such, either it would succumb to a violent capitalist counterrevolution: from within or from without. That, or there would be a violent political revolution which restores the working class to its rightful place: any such development being closely connected to the world revolution. Incidentally, the emphasis on violence has nothing to do with any bloodlust. Trotsky discounted the possibility of a peaceful capitalist counterrevolution because the working class, having come to power, would not allow the restoration of capitalism without putting up the stiffest opposition. He clearly refused to countenance even the possibility that the first five-year plan and the 1930s orgy of killings was a social counterrevolution within the revolution. As for a violent political revolution, Trotsky knew that Stalin and his henchmen would never give up their power, their privileges, their grand ambitions without putting up the stiffest opposition too. The supposed lack of violent counterrevolution served, for Trotsky, as proof that the Soviet Union remained a workers’ state, albeit a degenerate one. Given the largely peaceful events of 1989-91 a proposition that has demonstratably been disproven. There was counterrevolution within the counterrevolution.

On the ladder of historical progress Trotsky depicted the Soviet Union as having taken one step forward with October 1917 and half a step backwards with the Stalin regime. The Soviet Union could either take a half-step up or a half-step down. Standing mid-air, so to speak, was clearly untenable. Trotsky convinced himself that the Stalin regime could not survive the coming world war, a war that everyone, apart from the determinedly naive, expected. When it did survive, when it became the world’s second superpower, when it put in place a defensive outerwall of people’s democracies, that was bound to trigger a profound crisis in the so-called Fourth International.

But Trotsky’s post-1945 heirs and successors could not bring themselves to radically rethink the degenerate workers’ state theory. Instead they adapted themselves to the unanticipated reality of the ‘socialist camp’. Michel Pablo, Ernest Mandel, Nahuel Mareno, Juan Posadas, Gerry Healy, James Robertson, Jack Barns and Ted Grant not only normalised the abnormal situation in the Soviet Union. Eastern Europe, China, North Korea, North Vietnam, etc, were given the title of ‘deformed workers’ states’ and likewise credited with being “in transition from capitalism to socialism”.

In 1951 Pablo (Michel Raptis), then the leading figure in the Fourth International, argued that World War III was “unavoidable” and that Stalinist-type states could well last “several centuries”.38 A temporal violation of Trotsky, in the attempt to keep ‘orthodox’ Trotskyism on the road (as just noted, Trotsky thought the Stalin regime could survive no more than a few years).

The problem of how there could be a workers’ state in the absence of a working class revolution remained. The solution lay in the theory of ‘structural assimilation’. Georgia, the Baltic countries and eastern Poland had been absorbed into the Soviet Union both territorially … and socially. Now eastern Europe, China, North Korea, etc, were being absorbed, not territorially, but socially through the “combined efforts of internal forces and the external role of the USSR.”39 A perfectly reasonable idea … even if the Soviet Union had been wrongly categorised.

Either way, the unintended consequence of the theory, for its Fourth International advocates, was that the October Revolution went from being the model; instead it became a magnificent exception. The centrality of working class self-liberation, democracy and the Marxist programme, had to become ever less central. Gradually, step by step, these principles morph into final aims, optional extras, or, with the most degraded fragments, antiquated relics. Stalin’s T34’s, Tito’s partisans, ‘official communist’ parties, national liberation movements, Mao’s cultural revolution, leftwing army officers, the CIA-financed Solidarność, oil-state bonaparts, formless protest movements, even Iran’s theocrats were proclaimed to be in the vanguard of the world revolution. The idea that there could be no return to capitalism without violent counterrevolution had long before been thoroughly internalised. We were endlessly told that the film of history could not be run backwards. Such was the mantra into the late 1980s … and, amazingly, well into the 1990s.

Yet, it is clear, a largely peaceful restoration of the “bourgeois order” was no chimera. Khrushchev’s de-Stalinisation results in Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, not the revival of the socialist working class, as Isaac Deutscher and others in and around the Fourth International expected.40 Despite the noticeable absence of a conscious working class, Gerry Healy, and after him, Tariq Ali, hailed Gorbachev, then Yeltsin, with being the personification of Trotsky’s political revolution.41 To put it mildly, an error of judgement.

Under sustained criticism, Ernest Mandel abandoned the dogmatic claim that the Soviet Union was inherently superior to capitalism. A society destined to outcompete the advanced capitalist countries in one field after another. He was forced to admit the waste, the irrationality, the economic slowdown, the growing possibility of capitalist restoration. However, in terms of the system’s “objective contradictions”, Mandel stuck to the triad of bureaucratic (socialistic) property forms, bureaucratic (capitalistic) distribution, and bureaucratic parasitism. And, showing an enduring inability to grasp the real movement of history, Mandel expressed his admiration for Gorbachev and the “modernist wing” of the apparatus: a social stratum which, he still insisted on defining as a “faction” of the working class.42 Another error of judgement.

4. The state capitalist ladder

Continuing with the ladder analogy, there are those on the left who consider the first five-year plan to be a step away from socialism … but half a step forward to “bureaucratic state capitalism” (Tony Cliff).43 Many other such state capitalist assessments, labels, verdicts, assumptions and pronouncements had already been presented ... and by a very diverse range of thinkers at that. Lenin thought that Soviet Russia should build state capitalism (under proletarian rule). That would be a “step forward” compared with “petty proprietor, small capital”, and, if achieved, would put “full socialism” within reach.44 Here Zinoviev followed in the footsteps of Lenin. On the other hand, there were those who used the term state capitalism pejoratively: Karl Kautsky, Theodore Dan, Emma Goldman, Herman Gorter, Amadeo Bordiga, Raya Dunayevskaya, etc. There were differences over October 1917. Either the revolution was considered premature, Russia not being ripe for socialism. That, or the stress was laid on the failure of revolution in western Europe. But the general consensus was that the Bolsheviks had been forced to substitute themselves for the capitalist bourgeoisie. However, post-1929, necessarily, this entire pejorative school found itself hopelessly mangling the elementary social categories of capitalism - the law of value, wage labour, profit, money, etc - so as to fit the still vaguely understood realities of the rapidly evolving Soviet Union. Hence we have a Procrustean bed. Not a coherent theory.

Looking back to the late 1940s, Cliff recounts how he “didn’t come” to the theory of state capitalism “by a long analysis of the law of value in Russia [sic], the economic statistics in Russia.” No, nothing of the kind. “I came to it by the simple statement that if the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class, then you cannot have a workers’ state without workers having power to dictate what happens in society.” Cliff further explains that he had to “choose between what Trotsky said - the heart of Trotsky is the self-activity of the workers - or the form of property. I decided to push away the form of property as determining the question.”45

Cliff was right to dismiss the Soviet Union as a workers’ state. If workers had no political power and no direct control over the means of production, then that category simply makes no sense. However, Cliff was keenly aware of Trotsky’s repeated polemics savaging the idea of the Soviet Union being state capitalist. The October Revolution, he said, put the working class into power, and despite Stalin, remained in power, if only because of non-capitalist property forms. As for state capitalism it was, maintained Trotsky, impossible. Neither the giant monopolies nor the great tycoons would countenance such an outcome. State capitalism actually amounted to nothing more than a tendency for the role of the state to expand. Trotsky, therefore, dismissed attempts to “identify capitalist state-ism with the Soviet system” as “absurd”.46 Naturally, Trotsky dismissed Zinoviev’s sober assessment of the Soviet Union being state capitalist too (in the Lenin sense).

Cliff pre-emptively conceded ground before Trotsky’s shade. The state exercised a monopoly over foreign trade and, Cliff asserted, in effect, within the country, the state acted as the sole employer. Hence, Soviet workers had to be categorically distinguished from workers in the west. They could not really change their employer because there was only one employer (as we have argued a badly mistaken claim). Contradicting the state capitalist theories of his contemporaries, Cliff readily admits that “if one examines the relations within the Russian economy, abstracting them from their relations with the world economy, one is bound to conclude that the source of the law of value, as the motor and regulator of production, is not to be found in it.”47

Despite that, a few decades later, in reply to a rather lame Eurocommunist critique of Cliff’s state capitalist theory,48 we find his disciples insisting that workers in the Soviet Union were just like ordinary wage-workers in the west. Peter Binns and Duncan Hallas write that “wage-labour” and a “wages system in the strict Marxian definition of the term” existed in the Soviet Union.49 A claim ‘corrected’ shortly afterwards by Binns himself (this time in collaboration with Mike Haynes). There was no “genuine labour market there”. But, the pair insisted, that does not matter in terms of theory. The existence of a “pure wage market” is not required by capitalism - as shown by the examples of slavery in the US south and serfdom in tsarist Russia.50 Of course, inserting the word “pure” is an irrelevance. After all, who had been insisting on a “pure labour market”? Capitalism has never been characterised by all-encompassing wage-labour: there is, for example, a not inconsiderable stratum of self-employed. As for the US South and tsarist Russia, both were locked into subordinate trade relations with British capitalism: cotton, tobacco, timber, cordage, leather, hemp.51 Nevertheless, and this is the real point, British capitalism did have a “genuine labour market”.

The Binns-Haynes position elicited strong objections from Duncan Hallas. He stood by the contention of wage-labour and a labour market: because without wage-labour and a labour market the theory of “bureaucratic state capitalism” falls. “If labour is not a commodity in the USSR” there could be no proletariat and without a proletariat “there can be no wage-labour/capital relationship.” Ergo, “no capital either … and no capitalism in any form.” It was vital, therefore, according to Hallas, to define work in the Soviet Union as wage-labour. Moreover, workers had so sell their labour-power for “genuine money” and buy “commodities”, goods “produced for sale” …. if that is not the case “then the USSR is not capitalist.” Instead, quelle horreur, “it must be a new method of extracting surplus product from an exploited class that is not a proletariat.”52 Such reasoning surely exposes state capitalist theory. The conclusion is everything.

We have already seen that Cliff’s first line of argument relied on what logicians call the exclusive disjunction. Either the Soviet Union was moving in the direction of genuine socialism or, given the abundant evidence that belied such a claim, it has to be going in the direction of “state capitalism”, that or it is “already state capitalism”.53 It is one or the other. A binary choice.

His second line of argument appealed to external contradictions. Military competition with Germany, Japan, Great Britain, France, the United States, etc, imposed the logic of capitalism: ie, “the increasing rate of exploitation, and the increasing subordination of the workers to the means of production.”54

Given the fixation on use-values, albeit through the mediation of target-values, this is unconvincing. With the first five-year plan, doubtless the surplus pumped out of workers substantially increased. There was an accompanying drive to build up the forces of production. Through succeeding with his programme of primary accumulation, Stalin would, as a result, have at his disposal a powerful arms industry and a Red Army equipped with modern weapons (ie, target-values which have use-values). Of course, Marxists have traditionally ascribed the task of primary accumulation to capitalism. But taking up tasks traditionally ascribed to capitalism does not equal capitalism.* The argument has to be proven.

Furthermore, it has to be said, under capitalism, that is under real capitalism, when it comes to fighting big wars, there is an overriding drive for use-values. A tank is a tank, a fighter plane is a fighter plane - for the state. True, the same cannot be said of Messerschmitt, Krupp, Vickers-Armgstrongs, de Havilland, Ford, Mitsubishi, Boeing, etc. Arms manufacturers seek to realise a profit. But, and this is vital, the dominant social logic runs in the direction of use-value, not exchange-value.

World War II can surely serve as a test case. Between 1939 and 1945 Britain subordinated its entire economy to the war effort. That meant restricting, even suspending,the operation of the law of value: banning strikes and lockouts, direction of skilled labour, military conscription, labour conscription for the coal mines, rationing, government administration of agriculture, forced savings, central allocation of steel and capital, state control over railways, ports and road haulage, government prioritising of aircraft production, etc.55 A similar pattern can be seen in Germany, the US, Italy and Japan. So total war engenders military socialism.

Actually, Cliff’s ladder was not that different compared with ‘official’ Stalinism and ‘official’ Trotskyism. Both presented the Soviet Union as being on the highest rung of post-capitalist progress. Cliff’s only disagreement appears to be that having demonstrated that the Soviet Union had not established any kind of socialism, there was only one other possibility: bureaucratic state capitalism - the “highest stage possible” under the system of capitalism before the transition to socialism.”56

Cliff’s “bureaucratic state capitalism” therefore includes a positive claim: the Soviet Union was “progressive” because it developed the “material conditions” necessary for a “higher order”.57 The events of 1989-91 should have prompted a thorough-going reappraisal. Sad to say, because of factional interests, the politics of conviction were replaced by the politics of denial. Eg, Chris Harman, an ever loyal Tony Cliff lieutenant, claimed that the Soviet apparatus simply undertook a “sideways” move from state to private ownership.58 How that squares with the Soviet Union as the “highest stage possible” under capitalism went revealingly unexplored.

5. Other ladders, other possibilities

If the Soviet Union cannot be classified as a workers’ state and nor as a state capitalism, should Marxists classify it as wholly original, a new mode of production ruled over by a class of collective exploiters? The contention of Bruno Rizzi, Max Shachtman, James Burnham, Rudolph Hilferding, Joseph Carter, Michael Harrington, Milovan Djilas, Sean Matgamna, etc?59

Understandably, many on the left want to morally distance themselves from the USSR, maintain an unsullied vision of socialism and put an end to the circus of ‘if it isn’t this ... it must be that’. Yet, because of constantly shifting moods and impressions, there are umpteen versions of the theory. In broad terms, though, what is commonly called bureaucratic collectivism can be considered: (a) universal, a previously unexpected stage between capitalism and socialism - the ladder of progress therefore goes, original communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, bureaucratic collectivism and only then socialism/communism; (b) unique, due to the Soviet Union’s unripeness for socialism, that or the failure of the October Revolution to spread internationally, the Bolsheviks morph into a wholly exceptional dictatorship over workers and peasants; (c) partial, a stage that should be expected in backward, mainly agricultural, societies attempting to modernise, under conditions where the world is dominated by capitalism.

With the publication of The bureaucratisation of the world (1939), Bruno Rizzi is widely credited as being the founder of the ‘new mode of production’ school. Doubtless, so it seems, that distinction should go to others. Lucian Laurat and Simone Weil have been mentioned.60 Nevertheless, for our purposes, not least because he has been so widely discussed, Rizzi can serve as an introduction to the universal version of the theory.

Rizzi saw the Soviet Union as dominated by a “new ruling class” which arose with the “retreat” of the October Revolution. However, this “new-formed” society was leading the entire world.61 Hitler and Mussolini were somewhat behind, but travelled along the same essential route. With Roosevelt’s ‘new deal’ so too did the USA. According to Rizzi, the Soviet Union constituted a Stalinist antechamber, which, having developed the means of production, creates the material conditions needed for the transition to communism. Claims of a new mode of production did not stop Rizzi running with a bog standard list of categories taken from capitalist political economy: eg, commodity production, surplus value, profit and wage labour. An elementary, but unfortunately, a still all too common error.

Rizzi is known nowadays mainly because of the polemic directed against him in Trotsky’s In defence of Marxism (1942). He built no organisation and left behind no group of co-thinkers. And though a member of the Fourth International, though he floated in and around the Bordigist current, it has to be admitted that his views are closer to national socialism than Marxism. Eg, he urged Britain, France and the US to grant Germany, Italy and Japan the ‘living space’ needed for their continued economic expansion. His views on Jews certainly fit with the ‘socialism of fools’ denounced by August Bebel. He did not advocate pogroms. But, according to Rizzi, while there were lone good Jews, such as Marx and Trotsky, the Jewish people as a whole were a “capitalist dung heap”.62

Thankfully, as far as I know, neither Lucian Laurat nor Simone Weil shared Rizzi’s anti-Semitism. Nonetheless, they too saw distinct similarities between the Soviet Union and Mussolini Italy and Hitler Germany. All mass movements - whether socialist, communist or fascist - seemed to be moving in the direction of a bureaucratic collectivism dominated by managers and technocrats. A pessimistic conclusion echoed by James Burnham (1905-87). Having definitively broken with Trotskyism in 1940, he almost instantly authored a best seller, The managerial revolution (1941). Burnham’s ‘managerial society’ matched Rizzi so closely that some accused him of plagiarism.63 Yet, because of his new found explicit anti-Marxism, Burnham was quickly drawn to the bosom of the US establishment. He is even regarded as providing key ideas for the paleoconservative right. In 1983 Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Laurat, Weil, Rizzi and Burnham produced what nowadays can only be regarded as literary curios. By contrast, Max Shachtman (1904-72), did manage to build an organisation. And his ideas live on in with the Democratic Socialists of America, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in Britain and the Worker-communist factions in the Iraqi and Iranian diaspora.

Shachtman started-off as an honest socialist, but ended his days backing Richard Nixon and the US war in Indo-China. That included the threat to bomb North Vietnam “back into the stoneage” (US airforce general Curtis LeMay).64 Revealingly, a “substantial” number of Shachtman’s circle made a pretty seamless transition into the US neocon movement (some, such as Hal Draper stayed true to socialism, he finally broke with Shachtman in the early 1960s).65 Latter day followers too have locked themselves into the same horrible logic. Eg, the AWL is pro-Zionist, pro-imperialist and pro-European Union.

Nonetheless, it would be stupid to dismiss Shachtman. Even as the Red Army dismembered Poland, along with Nazi Germany, Trotsky demanded that the Fourth International “defend the Soviet Union.” Shachtman found that totally unacceptable. And what had been unacceptable became intolerable when Stalin ordered the Red Army to invade Finland with a view to gaining still more territory. Nor, looking back, did Shachtman and co have any wish to celebrate the first-five year plan as a triumph for socialism. And Shachtman fielded some cogent arguments. The Soviet Union’s (reactionary) production relations are surely more important than its (progressive) property forms. If the state owns the means of production what is crucial is who controls the state. There had been a violent bureaucratic counterrevolution. And through the horrors of forced collectivisation, the purges, etc, the apparatus had been transformed into something far more than a mere parasitic caste. Not that bureaucratic collectivism was claimed to be anything more than an aberration by Shachtman. Revolution in the advanced capitalist countries would ensure its quick demise. However, concrete analysis, discovering laws of motion and predicting actual outcomes was noticeably absent. Rightly, the Soviet Union had to be distinguished from capitalism on the one side and socialism on the other. But on the ladder of progress the Soviet Union could be either placed on a higher or lower rung compared with capitalism. There is no consistency.

Joseph Carter, one of Shachtman’s comrades, seems to have been the one who coined the term ‘bureaucratic collectivism’. In his view the Soviet Union did not represent anything progressive. No, not even nationalised property forms. The new bureaucratic ruling class attempted to expand the social surplus using methods that were dreadfully inefficient and wasteful. Terrorism and forced labour was deemed to be an “inherent feature” of production relations. Carter considered bureaucratic collectivism to be “a nationally limited” economy in terms of its origins, but for the sake of its “nationally confined” productive forces, is propelled towards the overthrow of world capitalism. In other words, the “world triumph of bureaucratic collectivism”.66 What begins as unique is therefore driven to become universal.

In the 1970s, Moshé Machover and John Fantham produced a partial variant of bureaucratic collectivism, what they called, for the “sake of brevity”, state collectivism. Where the “normal path” of capitalist development was blocked, ie, in the “underdeveloped part of the world”, a new ruling class could constitute itself and then pursue a programme of modernisation, a path which ran parallel to capitalism. Examples given were of the Soviet Union, eastern Europe, China, North Korea, Cuba and various African countries which had successfully carried out national liberation revolutions. Priority was given to department A because this justified the bureaucracy ideologically. Heavy industry came with a potent aura of catching-up, rationality and boundless technocratic optimism. However, the more successful was the bureaucracy, the more the contradictions build up. Bureaucratic planning could not cope with the complexities of a sophisticated industrial society. Incidentally, the two authors claimed that their use of ‘class’ when referring to the bureaucracy was perfectly justified. “Class is not a superhistorical category”. Each mode of production is specific. Hence, while the Soviet bureaucracy might not be a class in the capitalist sense, it was “still a class”, it had proved to be stable and reproduced itself.67

Whether or not the Soviet Union can be considered a mode of production is arguable. Surely, by definition, a mode of production implies extended reproduction. Yet the Soviet Union was characterised by an inability to continuously revolutionise the means of production. A mode of production also requires a consolidated ruling class. Unarguably, Stalin carried out his policies using officials whose “trustworthiness” and “competence” he considered “dubious”.68 And, of course, from the mid-1930s onwards that “anti-bureaucratic scenario” turned murderous. Members of the apparatus were massacred by the hundreds of thousands. And those who survived lived in constant fear. Even within their families, husbands could not trust their wives, parents could not trust their children. So it was not only peasants, workers and intellectuals who were atomised. Even when the killing stopped, voicing an honest opinion, organising against superiors, even contacting foreigners, remained extraordinarily risky. Tendencies towards cohering the apparatus into a ruling class were, as a result, constantly cut short. An argument made by Trotsky and others too.**

Following the 1991 fall, nomenklatura oligarchs successfully converted state property into inheritable property. But let us not forget, only a minority of the oligarchs came from the apparatus: eg, Victor Chernomgrdin, Rem Vyakhirev and Vargit Alexperov. Most originated with a “seamier stratum of black market operators and money changers”.69 Apocryphally the entrepreneurial oligarchs started out with “two empty hands - and two sharp elbows”.70 True, powerful friends were needed. Nevertheless, it is they who to this day dominate the Forbes list of Russia’s super rich.

No less to the point, the most important oligarchs were gathered together by Putin in July 2000 at the Kuntsevo Datcha (Stalin’s former residence). Putin told them in no uncertain terms to stop meddling in politics: “You can keep what you have … But from here on out, you are simply businessesmen and only businessmen.”71 Those who failed to get “the message”, eg, Russia’s wealthiest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, were arrested, stripped of the bulk of their assets and/or fled into exile.72 Hence even today, it is problematic, to classify the oligarchs as a ruling class.

With hindsight, admittedly a great advantage, all three versions of bureaucratic collectivism fail. Obviously, the universal version deserves to sink without trace. The world has neither arrived at bureaucratic collectivism, nor is it heading towards bureaucratic collectivism. The ‘mixed economy’ of the 1950s and 60s was a symptom of capitalist decay. Not the birth of a new society. The Soviet Union is no more. China is ever more capitalistic. Rizzi, Burnham and Carter were therefore badly mistaken. Nor does Schatchman’s unique version of bureaucratic collectivism hold up. The post-1929 Soviet Union was imitated, as a state, in post World War II eastern Europe, China, etc. And, of course, the Soviet Union was not brought down by proletarian revolution in the west. The partial version stands vindicated in comparison. But evidentially it lacks depth. The idea that the Soviet apparatus amounted to a historically constituted class, that contention is impossible to seriously maintain nowadays.

Bureaucratic collectivism, as a theory, has, however, largely morphed into a barely disguised social imperialism and the claim that the US global hegemon represents a blunt instrument of progress. Once again, surely impossible to seriously maintain nowadays: withdrawal from Paris climate change agreement; strategic alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel; promotion of white identity politics and America first. Beyond saying that the Soviet Union was neither socialist nor capitalist, bureaucratic collectivism is characterised by severe limitations.

The same can be said of the work of Karl Wittfogel and his Oriental despotism (1957). Taking his cue from Max Weber, Wittfogel argued that China and India were ‘hydraulic-bureaucratic official-states’. Because irrigation and river management were central to their economic life, a strong and domineering centralised state power emerged. Private land ownership was weak and nonbureaucratic forces in society politically impotent. Wittfogel proceeded to apply the idea to Russia. It was, he said, the Mongol invaders who brought oriental despotism to Russia. From the time of Ivan III till February 1917 autocratic rulers exercised unchecked power over the armed forces, the secret police, the bureaucracy … and all classes. In comparison with the democratic west, the east was, therefore, characterised by despotism. However, the democratic promise of the Constituent Assembly was squandered by the timid moderate socialists. The Soviet Union, in effect, oversaw the “restoration” of a medieval oriental despotism but on a higher, industrialised, basis.73 A theory which influenced writers such as Barrington Moore, George Lichtheim, Maurice Godelier, Rudolp Barhro and Rudi Dutschke.

Academic critics point out, however, that the tribal Mongols had a relatively limited impact on the highly developed Kievian kingdom of Rus.74 Eg, the religious, landownership and the taxation systems. While Kiev only slowly recovers from the Mongol invasion, the Moscow principality emerges as the dominant power, first by acting as a Mongolian “appanage”, then slowly asserting its independence and taking over territories to the south and east previously dominated by the Golden Horde. The Muscovite tsars based their notions of kingship on the Mongolian khans and the Byzantine emperors, but the social system they presided over was an Asiatic despotism of their own making. Even Peter the Great’s modernising reforms were enserfed to the state and relied on serf labour. Hence European limbs were transplanted onto an Asiatic torso (Plekhanov).

Surely, the post-1929 Soviet Union, needs to be understood with categories that allow us to grasp historical development, inner-movement and the full range of contradictions involved. Crucial, in this respect, however, is the overall background of a declining capitalism. Value, money, prices, free competition and the labour market have been undermined due to the combined effects of monopoly, government intervention and working class power. Eg, the provision of unemployment benefit, housing benefit, health services, etc, run counter to the fundamental logic of capital. Undoubtedly 1917 was a revolution against tsarist absolutism, Asiatic backwardness and the remnants of serfdom. But 1917 was also a revolution against a declining capitalism, a revolution that aimed to bring about socialism. Of course, what was established in the Soviet Union was never viable. There was an ectopic social formation, a social formation which failed to become an extended mode of reproduction. A freak society which had a past, but no future. Writers such as Chris Arthur and Alexander Zimin, but most importantly Hillel Ticktin, advanced such a thesis well before the fall. The system lasts some six decades. But, despite expectations of a proletarian revolution, there is a falling back into a particularly statist, crooked and erratic form of declining capitalism.

With the first five-year plan there was a counterrevolution within the revolution. Workers were re-enslaved, collective farmers re-enserfed. Nothing progressive about that. Economically, however, there was progress. By the time of the CPSU’s 22nd Congress in 1961 the country had been radically transformed compared with 1917. Not only was the Soviet Union the second superpower militarily. In terms of steel, coal, hydro-electricity, gas, oil, machine tools, etc, it led the world. Housing, food consumption and general living standards were noticeably better too. So was healthcare. Life expectancy for new borns rose significantly, from 44.4 years in 1926-27 to 68.6 years in 1958-59. What had been a largely illiterate population now completed secondary education as a matter of routine and increasingly went onto higher education. Moreover, in the physical sciences, engineering and mathematics Soviet citizens were counted in the front rank. Nobel prizes were won in chemistry and physics. In space the Soviet Union notched up many spectacular triumphs. First artificial satellite, first manned flight, first space walk, first woman, first lunar orbiter, etc.

Such a transformation would have been impossible without taking a non-capitalist course of development. The Soviet Union’s version of original accumulation mimicked capitalism, but must be counted as a distinct phenomenon. And remember the Soviet Union did not benefit from the cheap credit facilities and generous trade terms that allowed South Korea to make the transition to being a first world country. By contrast, the Soviet Union faced an almost unremitting hostility from the world’s dominant powers. If it had relied on the market, the law of value, wage labour and the profit motive, the Soviet Union would probably have found itself reduced to a mere semi-colony of the capitalist west. Machover and Fantham were undoubtedly right on that score.

Carried away by what appeared to be an inexorable rise, Khrushchev boasted of catching up with the United States by 1970 and reaching communism by 1980. Obviously stupid. The end was already in sight. The Soviet Union proved capable of overseeing one revolution in the means of production … and that through opening new factories. And even when equipped with the latest German or American technology, Soviet factories were noticeably less productive than in the west. Waste, unrealistic targets, lies about fulfilment, a shortage of inputs and poor quality were all law-given features of the system. Surplus labour had long before been used up. Hence without revolutionising productivity, stagnation always beckoned. Every general secretary knew it. Already, in the early 1950s, Stalin was toying with various market nostrums, spells and recipes. The law of value, profit and commodity production suddenly reappeared in official texts. Ghosts conjured up by desperation. Until Gorbachev and Yeltsin the turn to the market never happened. Growth rates steadily declined ... and in the 1980s became negative. Social relations had become an absolute fetter on the productive forces. But with the actuality of the market turn, the result was not renewed growth, an ascent to Canadian levels of agricultural productivity and Swedish levels of social security (as promised by the western advocates of ‘reform’). No, predictably, the result was a catastrophic collapse.75 Estimates are that GDP fell by around 40%. Unemployment, hunger, disease and homelessness returned with a vengeance. Life expectancy declined too. Nevertheless, for a thin layer of the apparatus, the turn to the market resulted in an exchange of salaries worth a few thousand roubles per month for riches beyond Croesus. Entry into the international elite beckoned. What happened in Russia was in essence repeated in other former Soviet republics. Nomenklatura oligarchs were tolerated by the state … that or they seize the state: Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, etc. Hence the Soviet Union tumbles backwards ... and, for sure, ‘new Russia’ represents another historic dead end.

There is nothing unMarxist about arriving at that conclusion. Marx, it should be remembered, “expressly limited” his original communism, slave, feudal, ladder when it came to “the countries of western Europe.”76 This particular historical course, led to the conditions upon which industrial capitalism eventually came to dominance. And it was this capitalism that demanded his attention. Marx entertained no encyclopaedist project to arrange modes of production into some universal sequence. Biologists find all manner of answers to the human condition through anatomical, genetical and behavioural studies of the gorilla, bonobo and the chimpanzee: less so with the earth worm, the basking shark and the death cap mushroom. Marx approached western slavery and western feudalism in the same manner - looking back from his given object of investigation. That did not mean he was ignorant of the Asiatic mode of production and other possible courses history could take (eg, Marx speculated that Russia, through the peasant mir, could conceivably embark on a road that eventually arrived at the “collective production on a nationwide scale”, a destination that need not go through the “frightful misfortunes” of capitalism - see his final letter to Vera Zasulich in 1881 .. but, especially, the much more interesting drafts77).

Capitalism was important, for Marx, not just because it was the first world system (that is a system which genuinely unites the world into a single metabolism). Capitalism provides the material foundations which allow for the transition to communist social relations. Marx, needless to say, never laid down a doctrine whereby humanity had been deemed to have evolved, or was preordained to evolve, through four of five distinct stages. The case with August Comte and his various and many followers. No, as Shakespeare’s prince Hamlet damningly remarked: “There are more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (act 1, scene 5).

We are obliged to ask whether history really consists of a series of linear steps. No, surely, the evidence shows that within the broad spiral of progress, “the most diverse” social forms should be expected (Marx)78. Life is hugely complex. Neither the hunter-gatherer neolithic temple complex of Göbekli Tepe, nor the ancient farmer-town of Jericho, nor the military socialism of Sparta, nor the mercantile Arabs, nor the Inca, Mayan and Aztec amerindian civilisations, nor the absolutist monarchies of 16th and 17th century Europe, neatly match onto one of the ‘classic’ modes of production.

There have been all manner of failed transitions too.79 The proto-feudal Vandal, Ostrogoth, Visigoth, Lombard and Burgundian, kingdoms, all Arian, not Catholic, took over much of the western Roman empire, but, while they lasted, reverted to a modified version of the old order. So did the Venetian, Neapolitan and Genoan proto-capitalist city states. The Dutch republic can also be mentioned in this context. Because of the failure to make the transition to a self-sustaining capitalism beggarly proletarians and peasants were forced live on an “austere” diet of bread, potatoes and Calvinistic homilies. Meanwhile, the elite had to survive on the rather richer takings that came from banking and brokering.80

Then there are the strange turns produced by the decay of classical and feudal societies. The ancient Dorian Greek colony on the Lirpari Islands amounted to an heroic experiment in communism. Half the population were allocated to piracy. The other half to agriculture. Everyone got equal shares. The expanding power of imperial Rome eventually finished it off.*** Doubtless Spartacus would have founded something similar, if he had managed to escape the Roman prison house. The Hussite-Taborite ideology of 15th century Bohemia became a real force because its apostles successfully mobilised peasants and the urban poor. The promise was of a millenarian communism. After scoring a string of brilliant military victories, its army finally went down to the combined forces of feudal Europe. The Jesuit reduction in Paraguay, established a Catholic-communistic republic, but it too was doomed once the Spanish monarch, Charles III, announced his decree ordering the expulsion of the Jesuit order from his realms. As for a declining capitalism it too shows the widest variations: Edwardian Britain, Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa and social democratic Sweden. Each, in their own way, being a manifestation of the failure of the working class to take power and make the transition to communism.

The writings of Marx and Engels contain some wonderfully perceptive references to the danger of the communist revolution happening prematurely****. They also issued warnings about the communist revolution being stopped short or being limited to one country. Unless the revolution was the simultaneous act of “the dominant peoples” the Marx-Engels team insisted it could not survive ... sharing out poverty being a recipe for a police state.81 But not to survive does not mean an immediate return to capitalism. The cot death of working class domination in Soviet Russia saw the rise of something new, something entirely unexpected, something that has to be studied in its own right.


1. S Weinburg The first three minute: a modern view of the origins of the universe London 1993, p102-3.

2. S Weinburg The first three minute: a modern view of the origins of the universe London 1993, p112.

3. J Maynard Smith and E Szathmary The major transitions in evolution Oxford 2010, p6.

4. J Hublin et al ‘New fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco and the pan-African origin of Homo sapiensNature June 8 2017.

5. J Huxley New bottles for new wine London 1957, p13.

6. See K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 25, London 1987, p356ff.

7. SJ Gould Full house: the spread of excellence from Plato to Darwin New York NY, 1996, p174. Gould’s book is a sustained polemic against the common assumption that the main determinate behind biological evolution is the drive towards perfection. Gould argues that bacteria are fantastically successful because of their very simplicity and should not be considered biologically inferior to fish, dinosaur, sabre-tooth cat or homo sapiens.

8. For the arguments about “evolutionary dead-ends” see - www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2730552/.

9. See wikipedia.org/wiki/Future_of_an_expanding_universe.

10. A Ananthaswamy ‘From big bang to big bounce’ New Scientist December 13 2008.

11. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 6, New York NY 1976, p166.

12. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 49, New York NY 2001, p34.

13. GT di Lampedusa The leopard London 2007, p19.

14. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 6, New York NY 1976, p482.

15. C Boehm Hierarchy in the forest: the evolution of egalitarian behaviour Cambridge MA 2001, p12.

16. See the work of Chris Knight. Eg, Blood relations (1991), The evolution of culture (1999), Decoding Chomsky (2016).

17. See - K Jensen, A Vaish and MFH Schmidt www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00822/full#B193; E Szathmáry and J Maynard Smith ‘The major evolutionary transitions’ Nature No374 March 16 1995, pp227–232; K Hill, M Barton and AM Hurtado ‘The emergence of human uniqueness: characters underlying behavioural modernity’ Evolutionary Anthropology October 26 2009, pp187-200.

18. See CM Cussack Conversion among the Germanic peoples London 1998, chapter 2.

19. See J Diamond Collapse: how societies chose to fail or survive London 2006.

20. O Sanchez-Sibony Red globalization: the political economy of the Soviet cold war from Stalin to Khrushchev Cambridge 2016, pp5-6.

21. L Trotsky The revolution betrayed New York NY 1980, p248.

22. www.ibiblio.org/ml/libri/s/SmithA_WealthNations_p.pdf.

23. K Gray and SF Gray Land law Oxford 2011, p32.

24. EB Pashukanis The general theory of law and Marxism New Brunswick NJ 2003, p98n.

25. J Locke Two treatises on government London 1821, p208 - my emphasis.

26. A Smith Wealth of nations Amsterdam 2007, p10.

27. See - F Bastiat The Bastiat collection Auburn AL, 2007; MN Rothbard Man, economy and state Auburn AL, 2006 and Ethics of liberty New York NY 2002; U Grapard and G Hewitson (eds) Robinson Crusoe’s economic man: a construction and deconstruction Abingdon Oxon, 2011.

28. S Hymer ‘Robinson Crusoe and the secret of primitive accumulation’ Monthly Review September 2011.

29. HM Thomas The Norman conquest: England after William the Conqueror Lanham MD, p84.

30. J Lindsay The Normans and their world Birkenhead 1974, p441-448.

31. A term popularised by the British jurist and constitutional expert, Albert Venn Dicey. He first used it in 1875. See FW Lawson The Oxford law school:1885-1965 Oxford 1968, p72.

32. P. Stučka Selected writings on Soviet law and Marxism London 1988, p9.

33. Article 6 Constitution of the USSR Moscow 1969, p13.

34. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 49, New York NY 2001, p35.

35. L Trotsky The revolution betrayed New York NY 1980, p82.

36. L Trotsky The revolution betrayed New York NY 1980, p55.

37. L Trotsky The revolution betrayed New York NY 1980, p254.

38. M Pablo ‘Where are we going?’ January 1951 - www.marxists.org/archive/pablo/1951/01/where.html.

39. Tim Wohlforth took a lead in developing the theory in response to the revolution in Cuba. The results were published in 1964 under the title of ‘The theory of structural assimilation’ - see www.marxistsfr.org/history/etol/writers/wohlforth/1962/communistsagainstrevolution.pdf.

40. I Deutscher ‘Russia in transition’ Universities and Left Review Spring 1957 Vol 1 No 1. See -


41. See - G Healy ‘Political revolution in the USSR - a process of contradiction’ Marxist Monthly Vol 1, No7, September 1988; T Ali Revolution from above: where is the Soviet Union going? London 1988. Tariq Ali’s gem was actually dedicated to Boris Yeltsin.

42. See - E Mandel Beyond perestroika: the future of Gorbachev’s USSR London 1991ppxi-xii.

43. T Cliff State capitalism in Russia London 1974, pp162ff.

44. VI Lenin CW Vol 27, Moscow 1977, pp293-94.

45. ‘Tony Cliff interview’ The Leveller September 1979, quoted in M Linden Western Marxism and the Soviet Union Chicago IL 2009, p119.

46. L Trotsky The revolution betrayed New York NY 1980, p248.

47. T Cliff State capitalism in Russia London 1974, pp208-09.

48. D Purdy The Soviet Union state capitalist or socialist? London 1975.

49. P Binns and D Hallas ‘The Soviet Union. State capitalist or socialist?’ International Socialism January 1976.

50. P Binns and M Haynes ‘New theories of eastern European class societies’ International Socialism winter 1980.

51. The US South was “a ‘virtual semi-colony’ of the British to whom it supplied the bulk of their raw cotton” (HJ Fuller Empire, technology and seapower: Royal Navy crisis in the age of Palmerston London 2013, p221). Stalin pictured imperial Russia as a “semi-colony” of Anglo-French imperialism (History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Moscow 1939, p162). A claim which, in effect, echoed the tsarist minister, Sergi Witte. “In a secret memorandum to Nicholas II in 1899, Witte characterised Russia as occupying the position of a semi-colonial country, which supplied western Europe with cheap raw materials and agricultural products while not possessing the abilities to make use of her abundant natural materials in order to develop manufacturing industries” (http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1559904/1/Final%20Thesis%201606.pdf).

52. D Hallas ‘Eastern European class societies’ International Socialism summer 1980.

53. T Cliff State capitalism in Russia, London 1974, p282.

54. T Cliff State capitalism in Russia London 1974, p212.

55. See S Boadbetty and P Howleth ‘Blood, sweat and tears: British mobilisation for World War II’ - warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/staff/sbroadberry/wp/totwar3.pdf.

56. T Cliff State capitalism in Russia London 1974, p162.

57. T Cliff State capitalism in Russia London 1974, pp185-86.

58. C Harman ‘The storm breaks’ International Socialism spring 1990.

59. www.marxists.org/archive/shachtma/1950/09/deutscher-stalin.htm.

60. Eg, Lucian Laurat (The Soviet Economy 1931) and Simone Weil (‘Are we going towards proletarian revolution?’1933). Laurat, an Austrian left social democrat, argued that the Soviet Union had become a new kind of society. He rejected the contention of Kautsky, Gorter, etc, that Russia was not ripe for socialism - it was, if, the international revolution had happened. Without that, the apparatus developed into a caste, or class, which exploited wage-labourers and extracted surplus value. Weil was a revolutionary syndicalist. She argued that the bureaucracy ruled. A tendency she detected outside the Soviet Union. See M Linden Western Marxism and the Soviet Union: a survey of critical theories and debates since 1917 Leiden 2007, pp69-75.

61. B Rizzi The bureaucratization of the world London 1985, pp50-51.

62. Quoted in JM Fenwick ‘The mysterious Bruno R The New International September 1948. See -https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/ni/vol14/no07/v14n07-sep-1948-new-int.pdf.

63. Eg, the US SWP leader, Joseph Hansen. See - J Hansen ‘Burnham’s Managerial revolutionThe Fourth International, Vol 2, No5, June 1941. Cited in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Burnham#cite_note-27.

64. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curtis_LeMay.

65. http://www.enterstageright.com/archive/articles/0304/0304neocontrotp1.htm.

66. https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/carter/1941/09/burcoll.htm.

67. M Machover and J Fantham The century of the unexpected London 1979. See - https://bigflameuk.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/unexpected-sec1.pdf.

68. See LT Lih ‘Introduction’ in LT Lih, OV Naumov and OV Khlevniuk (eds) Stalin’s letters to Molotov, 1925-1936 New Haven CT, 1995.

69. M Goldman Oilopoly: Putin, power and the rise of new Russia p58.

70. See - C Ericson The oligarchs: money and power in capitalist Russia Stockholm 2012.

71. B Mezrich Once upon a time in Russia London 2015, p6.

72. M Goldman Oilopoly: Putin, power and the rise of new Russia pp101-02.

73. See - K Wittvogel Oriental despotism: a comparative study of total power New Haven CT 1957.

74. See - NV Riasanovsky ‘Oriental despotism and Russia’ Slavic Review Vol 22, No4, December 1963.

75. See - J Conrad From October to August London 1992.

76. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 24, London 1989, p360.

77. See - T Shanin (ed) Late Marx and the Russian road London 1984.

78. K Marx Capital Vol 3, Moscow 1971, p593.

79. Marx pointed out that “epochs in the history of society are no more separated from each other by hard and fast lines of demarcation, than are geological epochs” - K Marx Capital Vol 1, Moscow 1970, p371.

80. See - J de Vries and A van der Woude The first modern economy: success, failure, and perseverance of the Dutch economy, 1500-1815 Cambridge 1997.

81. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 5, Moscow 1976, p49.

* A similar observation was made by Rudolph Hilferding back in 1940 with his essay ‘State capitalism or totalitarian state economy’. “The concept of ‘state capitalism’ can scarcely pass the test of serious economic analysis”, as for “the accumulation of means of production and of products” being a specific feature of capitalism, this “plays a decisive part in all economic systems, except perhaps in the most primitive collecting of food. In a consumer economy, in an economy organized by the state, there is not accumulation of values but of consumers’ goods-products that the central power wants in order to satisfy consumers’ need. The mere fact that the Russian state economy accumulates does not make it a capitalist economy, for it is not capital that is being accumulated.” See - www.marxists.org/archive/hilferding/1940/statecapitalism.htm.

** And, once again, let us not forget the Austro-Marxist Rudolph Hilferding. He too discounted ideas that the Soviet apparatus had consolidated itself into a ruling class. It was heterogeneous, fearful and gagged. However, correctly in my opinion, Hilferding rejected Trotsky’s contention that the apparatus was in essence nothing more than a parasitic caste. In Hilferding’s opinion, Stalin had made the apparatus into an instrument of his own rule. Initiative came top down. What passed for debate amounted to an echo chamber. The state had therefore become autonomous of the workers, the economy ... and even the apparatus itself. Hilferfing gloomily concluded that the Soviet Union “represents a totalitarian state economy, ie, a system to which the economies of Germany and Italy are drawing closer and closer” See - www.marxists.org/archive/hilferding/1940/statecapitalism.htm.

*** In the 6th century BCE Dorian Greeks colonised the Lipari Islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Faced with Etruscan pirates they adopted a system of “complete communism.” They divided themselves into two groups. The first cultivated the land of the islands which had been made the common property of all. The second lived according to a system of public messes (syssitia) and manned the fleet. Later the Cnidians of the Lipara Islands themselves turned to piracy. “Their socialism was a highway socialism, and naturally vanished when the helmet of the Roman policeman appeared on the horizon” - MM Austin and P Vidal-Naquet Economic and social history of ancient Greece, London 1977, pp237-38.

**** Here it is instructive to quote a passage from Engels’ Peasant war in Germany. Extrapolating from the experience of Thomas Müntzer and the 1525 peasant revolution in Germany, Engels issued this warning to late 19th century social democracy: “The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government at a time when society is not yet ripe for the domination of the class he represents and for the measures which that domination implies. What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the degree of antagonism between the various classes, and upon the degree of antagonism between the various classes, and upon the level of development of the material means of existence, of the conditions of production and commerce upon which class contradictions always repose. What he ought to do, what his party demands off him, again depends not upon him or the stage of development of the class struggle and its conditions. He is bound to the doctrines and demands hitherto propounded which, again, do not proceed from the class relations of the moment, or from the more or less accidental level of production and commerce, but from the more or less penetrating insight into the general result of the social and political movement. Thus, he necessarily finds himself in an unsolvable dilemma. What he can do contradicts all his previous actions and principles, and the immediate interests of his party, and what he ought to do cannot be done. In a word he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class whose domination the movement is then ripe. In the interests of the movement he is compelled to advance the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with talk and promises, and with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are their own interests. He who is put into this awkward position is irrevocably lost” - F Engels The peasant war in Germany Moscow 1977, p115.