The VAZ plant in Tolyatti relied on imported Italian technology and trialled many new automation systems

The Soviet Union in history

Is there progress? There seems to be, in nature and likewise in society. But, argues Jack Conrad, there is retrogression, mutual exhaustion and extinction too

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, Enlightenment claims of spiritual, moral and artistic progress are inherently problematic. Exact measurement is impossible: we have to rely on subjective criteria and 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.

We are as sure as need be to call it a fact that the big bang happened some 13.8 billion years ago and produced known space-time. Quite conceivably though, our universe erupted out of some sort of multiverse and is one of an endless number of parallel universes. Theoretical physics is full of such ‘before’ debates1 … and Marxism would, philosophically, be inclined to expect not a Genesis-like moment of creation, but the ceaseless transformation and retransformation of matter.

According to the standard model of cosmology, one hundredth of a second after the big bang the temperature of our rapidly expanding universe plunges from the “infinite” down to “a mere 10,000 million degrees Kelvin”.2 As our 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 at a somewhat slower pace. 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.3 The nuclei of atoms are positively charged, electrons negatively charged - another unity of opposites.

Around about 100 million years after the big bang the first stars appear. They bring light to what had been the dark cosmos. These supermassive population III stars, a hundred to a thousand times the mass of our sun, 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 five billion years old.

Life on our planet appeared some 3.7 billion years ago. It too undergoes a series of “major transitions”.4 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.5 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).6 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).7

Progress does not, however, constitute a universal law - a law driving nature, in all its aspects, forward to some “greater perfection” (the contention of Herbert Spencer8). 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”.9 Moreover, extreme complexity, occupying a very narrow ecological niche, might well risk ending up in an “evolutionary dead end”.10 There are countless examples of species extinction.

It should be added that in the far-distant future our universe will quite possibly expand to the point where it reaches heat death. As shown by redshift measurements, ever growing distances separate the galaxies. They fly apart. At some point, according to the well founded prediction, the dust and gases needed for star formation reach insufficiency. Red giants and black dwarfs come to dominate the cosmos. 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.11 Other end of our universe theories have been presented, such as the ‘big crunch’. Then there is the idea of the “big bounce”12: the theory of endlessly repeated big bangs and big crunches has appealed to many cosmologists - including, briefly, Albert Einstein in 1930 - as an alternative to the singularity of the big bang. Though there are theoretical ways to surmount the problem, increased entropy probably discounts such an endlessly repeated pattern. What is certain though, as agreed by all modern physicists, is that planet Earth, our sun, our solar system, our galaxy are finite. Surely that applies to our universe too. Everything that comes into existence must go out of existence.


What about human society? It sees progress, but also 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.13 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”.14 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, tenaciously conservative. 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).15

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: slave-owner and slave, patrician and plebeian, landholder and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, capitalist and wage-worker. And, in the prophetic words of the Communist manifesto, the struggle ends “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large or in the common ruin of the contending classes”.16

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 those below oppressed. Needless to say, being human, the oppressed strive on a daily basis to maintain or better their immediate conditions. And ideas that demand a social levelling, a reconstitution of society from below, constantly well up and gain a wide hearing.

According to radical anthropologists, “anti-hierarchical” politics date back to our very origins as a species.17 Indeed the anti-hierarchical politics of our distant ancestors are what allowed language, cosmology, art, medicine, etc to flower.18 Humans are rightly called “ultrasocial”.19 Hence evolved human nature surely explains why we instinctively find oppression (of ourselves, naturally, but also of others) hateful, galling, distressing, unacceptable. Tellingly, oppressors have to resort to all manner of elaborate ideological justifications to excuse themselves to themselves.

Original communism is remembered in the myths of the golden age (Eden, Arcadia, etc). Characteristically, therefore, people in the past believed that conditions had changed … for the worse. The decline of original communism certainly 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, the feudal or capitalist modes of production do not appear in a pure form either). It should be added that in republican 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 latifundia. Slave labour replaces free labour. No doubt that affected the fighting capacity of the imperial army. We know that territorial expansion ceased: 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 have 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, along with the arbitrary seizure of property. A whole range of occupations are made hereditary. Meanwhile, lands are 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 Burgundy kingdoms to buy into the Christianity, diplomatic etiquette and urban glamour of the Roman elite.20 There is a degree of cultural absorption and on occasion substantial reconquests. But, finally, in 476, the western empire falls. Odoacer, a foederati general, becomes the first king of Italy.

The transition from one mode of production to another 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 at 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 productivity which vastly surpass anything achieved in the past. True, at huge cost. Capitalism criminally despoils nature, superexploits subject nations and brings premature death to generation after generation of proletarians through overwork, below subsistence wages, slum housing, new diseases and dreadful water and air pollution. However, the strength of the working class grows in leaps and bounds and that puts socialism firmly on the historic agenda.


October 1917 announces the mortality of capitalism. But with the failure of revolutions in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Finland and other European countries, with white counterrevolution, with wars of intervention, with imperialist sanctions, Russia is left isolated and suffering appalling privation, chaos and famine. To suggest that Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin or Stalin should be blamed for this would be perverse. Such individuals commanded huge political influence, however, in the last analysis, labour productivity set the limit on their actions. Russia was a poor, culturally backward country, its capitalism was locked into a typically peripheral course of development and, as a result, there were only islands of industry amidst the agricultural sea. Crucially, the mass of the population were peasants who were subject to both the vagaries of the world market and semi-feudal forms of exploitation.

Applied in a mechanical way, this could lead, of course, to the conclusion that the Bolshevik regime was historically premature, an aberration and “would soon, very soon, collapse”.21 Hence, the Mensheviks roundly condemned the appalling privation, chaos and famine … as if it were the fault of the Bolsheviks. But, though still speaking the language of Marxism, what they actually promoted amounted to counterrevolution.

Right Mensheviks, such as Irakli Tsereteli and Fyodor Dan, supported coalition governments with bourgeois parties in the attempt to restore capitalist stability. As for left Mensheviks, not least Julius Martov, they instinctively cleaved to Karl Kautsky, Rudolph Hilferding, Arthur Crispin and Wilhelm Dittman: ie, the German centrists who opposed the Independent Social Democratic Party affiliating to the Third International.22 By 1922 this rump had crept back into unity with the official SDP: I hate social revolution like “I hate sin” said its leader, and the German republic’s first chancellor, Friedrich Ebert. 23

Menshevism became a self-fulfilling prophesy. With their help the majority of European workers stayed loyal to social democracy. Alongside the promise of a gradualistic road to socialism there was widespread fear of sharing Russia’s fate. Attempts to make revolution in the west were thereby condemned to be hopeless minoritarian bids … Russia was left isolated.

For the Bolsheviks, it should be noted once again that Russia was not ready for socialism (which, here, we can take as leaving behind commodity production and the transition to a system based on “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”). No, it was Europe that was ready for socialism. Russia would, though, carry through a 1789-type democratic revolution and, with the aid of Europe, go uninterruptedly to socialism by way of their revolutionary democratic (majority) dictatorship (rule) of the proletariat and peasantry. And life, in the shape of the 1917 February revolution, and then the resulting dual-power situation, ensured that this formula took concrete form. The Bolsheviks called for all power - ie, sovereign power - for the workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ soviets ... and thereafter Russia taking the first steps “towards socialism” (Lenin).24

The Bolsheviks thought they could cement an enduring worker-peasant regime … committed, through proletarian hegemony, to promoting socialism in Europe. By contrast, Menshevism - or at least its main factions - were committed to a people’s revolution in Russia … and then allowing, even pushing, the liberal bourgeoisie into establishing a democratic, parliamentary republic. The expectation being something like a Cadet-Right Socialist Revolutionary coalition government. Once tsarism had been successfully overthrown (stage one), there would follow steady capitalist development (stage two), till eventually the working class became the majority and socialism (stage three) came onto the agenda. A mechanical perspective, which made the Mensheviks more than prone to act as a brake, when it came to both expectations and events.

Compounding their false strategic perspectives, the Mensheviks, but crucially their allies in the west, having abandoned agreed Second International resolutions to turn imperialist war into a fight for socialism, went on to constitute themselves the main social prop for the bourgeois order … and thereby readied the ground for false strategic perspectives to come true. Social democratic parties formed governments in Germany, Austria, Britain, France, Norway and Sweden … all of which introduced relatively substantive reforms within capitalism.

True, the actual course of history can be cited as proof that the self-fulfilling prophesy was right and correct from the very start. Eg, seen through the prism of the 1950s-60s long boom, this made a certain kind of sense. Fascism, the 1929 crash, the Nazi holocaust, Hiroshima, could be explained away as an unfortunate detour from an otherwise straight road to an era of “undreamed of living standards and the possibility of leisure ultimately on an unbelievable scale” (Harold Wilson).25 Fabians, Bernsteinians and Gaiskellites claimed vindication. However, as the boom petered out, the spurious validity of the self-fulfilling prophesy led to a vision of the future that shrunk to the point where it amounted to nothing more than a capitalism that works in the interest of “the many, not the few”.26

Catching up

From a Marxist perspective, the burgeoning Soviet bureaucracy had no worth, had no right to an historical existence - except, maybe as a substitute: first for the proletariat and then for the bourgeoisie.27 Shortly after the October Revolution there was a standing-in for a working class that could not rule. Economic collapse and war left little choice. True, the doctrine of ‘socialism in one country’ symbolically severed the bureaucracy from the global working class. However, the launch of the first five-year plan saw the bureaucracy reduce workers and peasants to a disempowered, atomised, exploited mass, while it took up the tasks of the bourgeoisie with a frantic determination - tasks summed up by Marx as forcing the “human race to produce for production’s sake”.28

Incidentally, Marxism, as a “model for development of Russia’s backward economy”, might have budded with Peter Struve,29 but it came to full fruition with Stalin. Indeed, the Soviet Union soon gained an enviable reputation internationally. After all, in the midst of capitalism’s great depression, here was a remarkable success story. While industrial production in the capitalist world slumped by 30% in the 1929-33 period, in the Soviet Union it purportedly grew by 300%.30 Meanwhile, unemployment was abolished, health services expanded, schools built and millions more taught to read and write. The first five-year plan emphatically answered what was widely seen as capitalism’s terminal crisis. Militant trade unionists, anti-fascists, even high reformists found their beacon of hope. George Bernard Shaw, Margaret Cole and the Webbs enthused over the Union of Socialist Fabian Republics.31

Fabian socialism was, of course, always elitist, technocratic and fundamentally undemocratic. Fabians explained the laying of thousands of miles of railtrack, the construction of huge iron and steel works, the opening of new mines, power stations and oilfields, not by the additional surplus labour squeezed from workers and peasants. True to form, they cited the country’s “elaborate organisation” and the “vocation of leadership” shown by its highest officials, crucially, the “alleged dictator”, Stalin.32 “Alleged” because he did not have the right character to play such a wicked role. The same formula applied to the establishment of a powerful military-industrial complex. Nothing to do with the surplus-labour extracted through the universalisation of piece work, the denial of legal rights and turning trade unions into tame organs of management. No, it was credited to those possessing the necessary “vocation of leadership”.

The Fabians felt a genuine, if lofty, pity for the masses, but simultaneously considered them dumb, ignorant and in urgent need of scientifically trained educators. Naturally, they believed that they themselves possessed those qualifications in spades. As for Soviet workers, they should be eternally grateful. They were being raised from the depths of Asiatic barbarism by those possessing the necessary “vocation of leadership”. Conceptually the exploitation of workers through the wage form had already been explicitly ruled out by Fabian doctrine.33 Individual workers got the going rate through the differential rent commanded by their efforts, innate abilities, skills, etc. The administrators of capital and the directors of industry were equally deemed “productive classes”.34 The only exploitation admitted by the Fabians was by “leisured classes”, such as the landlords (eliminated in the Soviet Union).

Anyway, by the time of the CPSU’s 22nd Congress in 1961 the country had been radically transformed, compared with 1917. There can be no doubt about that. 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 newborns 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 on to 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. 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 $13.3 billion Marshall aid programme that saved western Europe for capitalism or the cheap credits and generous trade terms which allowed South Korea to make the transition to being a first world country. Nor was the Soviet Union accepted into the World Trade Organisation - as was the case with China. Nor was it granted Most Favoured Nation status by the US - again as was China. No, 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. Moshé Machover and John Fantham were undoubtedly right on that score.35

Carried away by what appeared to be an inexorable rise, Nikita Khrushchev boasted of catching up with the United States by 1970 and reaching communism by 1980. Obviously stupid. In fact, the end was already in sight. The Soviet Union proved capable of overseeing one revolution in the means of production … and that most characteristically 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. Workers’ negative control, managerial lies, waste, unrealistic targets, a shortage of inputs and poor quality were all law-given features of the system. Surplus labour power had long before been used up. Hence without revolutionising productivity, stagnation always beckoned. Every general secretary knew it.

Even before World War II, Stalin was toying with various market nostrums, spells and recipes. After the publication of his Economic problems (1952) the law of value, profit and commodity production suddenly reappeared in official texts - phantoms conjured up in desperation. But till 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.

The actuality of the market turn, saw, though, not renewed growth, a rise to Canadian levels of agricultural productivity and Swedish levels of social security (as promised by the western advocates of ‘reform’ such as Times editor William Rees-Mogg). No, utterly predictably, the result was a catastrophic collapse.36 Estimates are that GDP fell by around 40%. Unemployment, hunger, disease and homelessness returned with a vengeance. Life expectancy crashed 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 are tolerated by the state … that or they seize the state: Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, etc. Hence the Soviet Union tumbles backwards ... and, for sure, ‘new Russia’ represents another historic dead end.

Strange turns

Marx, it should be remembered, “expressly limited” his original communism-slave-feudal ladder to “the countries of western Europe”.37 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 main 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 drafts38).

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, as was 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).39 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 into one of the ‘classic’ modes of production.

There have been all manner of failed transitions too.40 The proto-feudal Vandal, Ostrogoth, Visigoth, Lombard and Burgundy 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 be mentioned in this context too. Because of the failure to sustain its position as the capitalist hegemon - defeated by English capitalism - beggarly proletarians and peasants were forced live on an “austere” diet of bread, potatoes and Calvinistic homilies.41 Meanwhile, the elite had to survive on the rather richer takings that came from banking and brokering.

Then there are the strange turns produced by the decay of classical and feudal societies. The ancient Dorian colony on the Lipari Islands amounted to an heroic experiment in communism. Half the population were allocated to piracy, the other half to agriculture. Everyone got equal shares. But the expanding power of imperial Rome eventually finished it off.42 Doubtless Spartacus would have founded something similar, if he had managed to escape from Italy.

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 17th-century Jesuit reductions 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 in 1767. As for a declining capitalism, it too shows the widest variations: Bonapartist France, 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.43 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.44 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. For a popular account, see B Greene The hidden reality: parallel universes and the deep laws of physics London 2011.↩︎

  2. S Weinburg The first three minutes: a modern view of the origins of the universe London 1993, pp102-03.↩︎

  3. Ibid p112.↩︎

  4. J Maynard Smith and E Szathmáry The major transitions in evolution Oxford 2010, p6.↩︎

  5. J Hublin et al, ‘New fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco and the pan-African origin of homo sapiens’ Nature June 8 2017.↩︎

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

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

  8. H Spencer Illustrations of universal progress: a series of discussions New York 1864.↩︎

  9. SJ Gould Full house: the spread of excellence from Plato to Darwin New York 1996, p174. Gould’s book is a sustained polemic against the common assumption that the main determinant 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, dinosaurs, sabre-tooth cats or homo sapiens.↩︎

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

  11. See wikipedia.org/wiki/Future_of_an_expanding_universe.↩︎

  12. See IL Rozental Big bang, big bounce: how particles and fields drive cosmic evolution London 2011. Iosif Rozental worked in Moscow’s Space Research Institute and his book was first published in 1984, under a different title.↩︎

  13. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 6, New York 1976, p166.↩︎

  14. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 49, New York 2001, p34.↩︎

  15. GT di Lampedusa The leopard London 2007, p19.↩︎

  16. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 6, New York 1976, p482.↩︎

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

  18. See the work of Chris Knight - especially Blood relations (1991) and The evolution of culture (1999).↩︎

  19. See K Jensen, A Vaish and MFH Schmidt at www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00822/full; E Szathmáry and J Maynard Smith, ‘The major evolutionary transitions’ Nature No374, March 16 1995, pp227-32; K Hill, M Barton and AM Hurtado, ‘The emergence of human uniqueness: characters underlying behavioural modernity’ Evolutionary Anthropology October 26 2009, pp187-200.↩︎

  20. See CM Cusack Conversion among the Germanic peoples London 1998, chapter 2.↩︎

  21. www.marxists.org/archive/deutscher/1965/mensheviks-debasement.htm.↩︎

  22. See B Lewis and LT Lih Head to head in Halle London 2011.↩︎

  23. Quoted in W Lange Hans Paasche: militant pacifist in imperial Germany Oxford 2005, p230.↩︎

  24. VI Lenin CW Vol 24, Moscow 1977, pp73-74.↩︎

  25. Quoted in D Freeman Television policies of the Labour Party: 1951-2001 London 2003, p41.↩︎

  26. Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 Labour Party manifesto - labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/labour-manifesto-2017.pdf.↩︎

  27. A thesis, in essence, upheld by the left communist, Amadeo Bordiga (1889-1970): he argued that the Soviet Union, under both Lenin and Stalin, “tends” towards and “aims” at capitalism (A Bordiga The science and passion of communism Leiden 2020, p277).↩︎

  28. K Marx Capital Vol 1, Moscow 1970, p592.↩︎

  29. V Autonomov and H Hagemann (eds) Russian and western economic thought: mutual influences and transfer of ideas G Chaloupek and N Nienovsky ‘Peter B Struve as economist: philosophical foundations of economics and development theory’ New York NY 2022, p101.↩︎

  30. Official figures taken from Eugene Varga’s The great crisis and its political consequences London 1934, p103.↩︎

  31. See preface to GB Shaw Farfetched fables (1950): web.archive.org/web/20170314140058/http:/wikilivres.ca/wiki/Farfetched_Fables.↩︎

  32. Quotes in this paragraph taken from S Webb and B Webb Soviet communism: a new civilisation? London 1935, pp339, 431.↩︎

  33. The Fabians contended that Marx’s labour theory of value was “incorrect”. They wanted workers and capitalists to join together against the “leisured class” of landlords and other such parasites (G Foote The Labour Party’s political thought - a history London 1985, pp26-27).↩︎

  34. MA Briar Fabian socialism and English politics: 1884-1918 Cambridge 1962, p38n.↩︎

  35. M Machover and J Fantham The century of the unexpected London 1979. See bigflameuk.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/unexpected-sec1.pdf. A thesis discussed in J Conrad, ‘Other theories, other labels’ Weekly Worker August 10 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1455/other-theories-other-labels).↩︎

  36. See - J Conrad From October to August London 1992.↩︎

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

  38. See T Shanin (ed) Late Marx and the Russian road London 1984.↩︎

  39. K Marx Capital Vol 3, Moscow 1971, p593.↩︎

  40. 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.↩︎

  41. 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.↩︎

  42. 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.↩︎

  43. Here it is apposite to quote a passage from Engels’ Peasant war in Germany. Generalising from the experience of Thomas Munzer and the 1525 peasant revolution in Germany, he says: “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 the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realisation of the measures which that domination would imply. What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the sharpness of the clash of interests between the various classes, and upon the degree of development of the material means of existence, the relations of production and means of communication upon which the clash of interests of the classes is based every time. What he ought to do, what his party demands of him, again depends not upon him, or upon the degree of development of the class struggle and its conditions. He is bound to his doctrines and the demands hitherto propounded which do not emanate from the interrelations of the social classes at a given moment, or from the more or less accidental level of relations of production and means of communication, but from the more or less penetrating insight into the general result of the social and political movement. Thus, he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practised, to all his principles, and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination. In the interests of the movement itself, he is compelled to defend the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with phrases and promises, with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are their own interests. Whoever puts himself in this awkward position is irrevocably lost” (F Engels The peasant War in Germany, Abstract from chapter six: The peasant war in Thuringia, Alsace and Austria: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/subject/hist-mat/peas-wg.htm).↩︎

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