The nature of the beast
Could the Soviet Union be described as a ‘workers’ state’ of any type? Drawing on the groundbreaking work of Hillel Ticktin, Yassamine Mather says that the only serious answer must be an emphatic ‘no’
The collapse of the Soviet Union was inevitable and was, of course, intricately linked to decades of opportunistic and, at times, contradictory international policies that contributed directly or indirectly to the downfall of allied parties and states around the world.
By 1989, many of these once-prominent parties and states had become mere shadows of their post-war glory. The largest communist parties in the Middle East and Europe paid a costly price for adhering to Moscow’s directives. The Soviet Union vacillated between supporting and opposing third world leaders, issued contradictory recommendations to ‘brother’ communist parties, sometimes aligned with nationalist dictators, and at others advocated united fronts against dictatorships alongside bourgeois opposition forces. At times, they even suggested cooperation with these very dictators - sometimes turning a blind eye to the subsequent persecution and execution of socialists and communists by the thousands.
It is, therefore, disheartening that, when faced with a new conflict between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the western world over Ukraine, some on the left display nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ of the Soviet Union. Others have taken a position of apologism for contemporary Russia, and by extension the former USSR. In doing so, they often invoke the theory of the ‘deformed workers’ state’ - a concept intrinsically tied to Leon Trotsky and the Trotskyist tradition that followed him.
According to this theory, the USSR at its core was fundamentally a workers’ state - the pivotal moment being the Bolshevik Revolution, when the proletariat assumed political power. However, this newfound power was quickly overshadowed and dominated by a bureaucratic elite. Consequently, instead of evolving into a genuine socialist democracy that represented the workers’ interests, the state underwent a degeneration under the bureaucratic elite, leading to the label, ‘degenerate workers’ state’.
The perspective of Hillel Ticktin and Critique counters this traditional understanding in several ways and on the 50th anniversary of the journal it is important to remind everyone of some of the basic arguments.
Inherent contradictions: One of Critique’s primary arguments revolved around the innate contradictions embedded within the Soviet Union’s socio-economic fabric. Rather than acknowledging the USSR as a workers’ state - albeit a degenerate one - Ticktin visualises it as an entity constantly grappling with its inherent contradictions. For him, the Soviet Union was perpetually teetering on the brink of crisis due to these internal tensions.
Ambiguous mode of production: the Soviet Union’s mode of production defied conventional definitions. It deviated from capitalist norms, as the pursuit of capital accumulation was not its central tenet. At the same time, it could not be labelled ‘socialist’ either, given that workers lacked control over the means of production. Ticktin introduces the concept of “vended production” to describe the USSR’s system, where production occurred without clear, market-driven objectives or a cohesive plan catering to societal necessities.
Pervasive bureaucracy: Instead of perceiving the bureaucracy as a mere distortion superimposed on a workers’ state, Ticktin attributes a more intrinsic role to it within the Soviet structure. For him, the bureaucratic apparatus was not just an external, parasitic entity, but was deeply woven into the USSR’s foundational framework. It essentially acted as the counterbalance, continuously managing and mitigating the system’s internal contradictions.
Ticktin argues against the conventional notion that the Soviet bureaucracy was merely a deformation or distortion imposed on what was meant to be a workers’ state. He maintains that bureaucracy was not an aberration, but an essential component of the Soviet system. This perception rejects the notion that the bureaucracy was an unnatural overlay on a proletarian state.
Counterbalance: The Soviet bureaucracy did not merely administer or implement policies, but acted as a vital counterbalance within the system. It navigated through the system’s internal contradictions, such as disparities between planning and actual production, or between the workers’ needs and the outputs of the planned economy. The bureaucracy, in essence, worked to continuously manage, reconcile and mitigate these contradictions, ensuring the survival and stability of the system, despite its inherent flaws and inefficiencies.
Managing contradictions: Ticktin argues that the contradictions within the Soviet system were not incidental, but were intrinsic and perennial. These were often the outcome of the mismatch between ideological aspirations (like a classless society) and the pragmatic socio-economic realities (like the need for expert management and control) that unfolded. The bureaucracy, with its intricate structures and processes, managed these contradictions by mediating between different interest groups, controlling resource allocation and ensuring that the system did not implode due to its own incongruities.
Maintaining control: The bureaucracy also functioned as a control mechanism to sustain the power structures within the USSR. It perpetuated a system where power was concentrated, and decisions were centralised, despite the rhetoric of workers’ control and proletarian dictatorship. This bureaucratic apparatus ensured the stability and continuity of the authoritarian regime, maintaining a semblance of order and control amidst the economic and social disparities.
Economic role: In terms of the economy, the bureaucracy was tasked with the orchestration and execution of centrally planned economic models, trying to align them with the Soviet ideological framework, while navigating through practical, on-ground challenges. This often led to scenarios where the bureaucratic structures, in their attempt to fulfil plan targets, would manipulate or massage data, further propagating systemic inefficiencies and a disconnection between planning and actual economic realities.
Social impact: On a social level, the pervasive bureaucracy influenced the everyday lives of the Soviet populace. It established a system wherein the individuals were often bound by rigid bureaucratic norms and processes. This system, while providing a measure of stability and predictability, also stifled innovation, individual agency and flexibility. It created a paradox, where the state - while being the supposed representative of the proletariat - was often distanced from the actual needs and aspirations of the people due to its bureaucratic maze.
Political implications: Politically, Ticktin emphasises that the bureaucracy, despite its contradictions and inefficiencies, was effective in ensuring the longevity of the Soviet system. It played a crucial role in suppressing dissent, maintaining a unitary state ideology and ensuring the centralisation of power. The bureaucracy was both a vehicle and a barrier: a vehicle in propelling and sustaining the Soviet state; and a barrier in actualising the Marxist ideals of a stateless, classless society.
The degenerate workers’ state theory operates on the assumption that a workers’ state was initially formed, only to be misappropriated, misdirected and mismanaged by the bureaucratic elite, but despite that it continued to be a workers’ state. Ticktin, however, challenges this foundational premise, arguing that what materialised was a transitional entity, straddling the boundaries between capitalism and socialism.
Defining a workers’ state: Ticktin challenges the very essence of what constitutes a workers’ state by emphasising that the USSR, despite its socialist rhetoric and proletarian banners, did not substantively establish a state that was genuinely controlled and operated by the workers. The idea of a workers’ state is grounded on the principle that the working class itself has authentic control over state mechanisms - something that Ticktin argues was noticeably absent in the USSR.
Nature of USSR: In summary, the Soviet Union is perceived not as a deformed workers’ state, but rather as a transitional entity that hovered ambiguously between capitalism and socialism. This perspective views the USSR neither as a true representation of socialist ideals nor as a capitalist entity, but as a unique socio-economic formation, having characteristics of both systems, while being neither in essence. It incorporated elements of capitalism, such as bureaucratic hierarchies and centralised control, while also adhering, at least nominally, to socialist principles like state ownership and planned economy. This hybrid structure was not on a stable trajectory toward socialism, but was persistently locked in a ‘transitional’ state.
Perpetual crisis: Ticktin also emphasises the notion of ‘perpetual crisis’ within the Soviet system. The intrinsic contradictions and the imbalance between the bureaucracy and the proletariat led to continuous crises, preventing the system from stabilising and evolving into a sustainable socio-economic model. The bureaucracy perpetually worked to navigate through and manage these crises, further entrenching itself as an indispensable entity within the system.
Political alienation: The political structures led to an alienation of the workers from genuine political power. While the state purported to represent the interests of the working class, the reality, was one of political exclusion and marginalisation for the proletariat, negating the fundamental principles that define a workers’ state.
Ideological discrepancy: The juxtaposition of socialist ideology against the Realpolitik within the USSR illuminates the discrepancy between the ideological commitments towards a workers’ state and the actual implementation of policies that prevented such a state from materialising.
Impending collapse: In an extension of his critique, Ticktin’s analytical lens foresaw that the USSR’s intrinsic contradictions would precipitate its downfall. The eventual disintegration of the Soviet Union reinforced his argument, challenging the idea of the USSR as a durable, even if distorted, workers’ state.
The vast majority of what transpired in the USSR remains undocumented, making a comprehensive understanding crucial for any accurate and meaningful discussion. This does not negate the possibility of referencing factual content from Soviet materials. Indeed, one can often cite them for validation.
In his original writings in Critique Hillel Ticktin delved into what he perceived as the primary paradox within the Soviet political economy. Following that, he explored the methods of societal regulation in the USSR - or, alternatively, the techniques utilised to navigate societal disputes.
Tony Cliff, Paul Mattick and others did highlight accumulation as potentially the most significant element of Soviet political economy. However, their analysis seems to veer off track - the primary oversight is attributing the entirety of accumulation to defence concerns.
It is widely accepted that non-defence investments in the Soviet Union were not negligible. One of the more reliable estimates suggests the military applications accounted for roughly three quarters of the total engineering output. This figure surpasses that of the US, but still indicates room for other forms of investment.1 Under this umbrella are repair, replacements and general capital goods, including construction. Clearly, this points to the pivotal role of non-defence accumulation.
However, even if one were to argue for a larger defence-centric perspective, two critical questions would still need addressing. There existed a significant shortcoming within the Soviet economic framework. When defence spending diminished during particular times, notably after World War II, after the Korean War and following Khrushchev’s departure, the dynamics of no-nonsense investment underwent noteworthy changes.
It is quite striking that, while 60% of a Soviet family’s budget was needed for food - in comparison to the UK’s 25% - the agricultural sector still saw limited investment. This anomaly is further accentuated by the fact that Soviet farms were not lacking in agricultural machinery and equipment. Yet basic necessities like meat, dairy and fruit remained elusive in many Soviet localities. This situation underscores the fact that, despite the growth in non-defence investments, living standards largely remained stagnant.
Additionally, the defence sector was not without its inefficiencies. The reliability of Soviet engineering machinery, including that for defence, is questionable - malfunctioning at a rate three to four times that of their US counterparts. This inefficiency resulted in a peculiar situation where more personnel in the USSR were engaged in repairs than in actual production.
Revisiting the topic of accumulation, the overwhelming investment in non-military sectors is bewildering, to the point where it seems to eclipse consumer goods.2 Despite the robust growth of the engineering sector, surpassing light industry, there was little to no improvement in the average citizen’s quality of life. The important issue here is not merely the rate of growth; it is the continuous struggle for food and the challenge of cramped living spaces (colloquially compared to the dimensions of a coffin!). This unchanging predicament, spanning over 40 years, points towards a foundational issue in Soviet economic strategy.
The long-standing dynamics of the Soviet system hinted at an inherent force, which, through a Marxist lens, could be termed as a ‘law’. Historically, industrialisation shifted the population from rural to urban areas. Along with collectivisation, it decisively reduced the political significance of rural regions. By the 1970s, while 40% of the population lived in villages, just under 30% earned their livelihood from agricultural activities. Given the gender imbalance in rural areas, the actual number of families fully dedicated to farming was even less. Latter-day concessions to the agricultural community are more about the cities’ need for food rather than addressing any rural discontent. Through industrialisation and collectivisation, the political clout of the Soviet peasant was effectively dismantled, giving rise to the Soviet elite or bureaucracy. However, inadvertently, they set up a system with several of its original characteristics preserved. Although the production goods sector’s massive scale perhaps offered better manageability and necessitated a larger bureaucracy, this seemed to be a secondary consideration.
Despite the Soviet elite’s repeated declarations of an increase in consumer goods production, on the ground the reality remained unchanged. For instance, at the 17th party congress in 1934, there were promises to significantly enhance consumer goods production and improve quality. The 19th congress in 1952 echoed similar sentiments, emphasising the enhancement of living standards.3 During the goods shortage era of the 1920s Marxist theorists like Yevgeny Preobrazhensky emphasised the importance of boosting consumer goods output to stabilise the USSR’s economy. Though he and Nikolai Bukharin had disagreements over the desired growth rate of heavy industry, they concurred on the necessity for timely returns. In this light, Preobrazhensky’s 1931 caution about excessive accumulation appears prescient.4
Despite the genuine intentions of Soviet planners to enhance consumer goods production rapidly, they were partially hindered by the arms race and, to a significant extent, by the inherent characteristics of the USSR’s internal system. Given there was a clear desire to reform this system, but tangible change remained elusive, we must look for the presence of a deeper - almost immutable - societal principle that goes beyond individual or collective will.
One of the most evident flaws in the Soviet economy was its profound inefficiency. This waste not only drained resources, but also inflated defence costs far more than what would be required in a more rational economic setup. Whether under a capitalist or socialist model, any well-organised system would reduce such wastefulness, particularly in the military sector.
Additionally, the inferior quality of the produced goods stood out as a significant concern. It is not merely that Soviet consumer items had a reduced durability compared to their western counterparts, or that they often did not meet expectations. The real issue was the magnitude of this quality problem - evidenced by the need to construct dedicated storage spaces for the overflow of faulty or below-standard items that found no takers.
In an economic landscape where machinery repair personnel outnumbered those producing consumer goods, the persistent challenges with product quality became glaringly evident, despite the planners’ continual push and decades-long quality improvement efforts. This sentiment was echoed in a Pravda article of March 23 1972, which concentrated on the agricultural machinery domain and the challenges arising from substandard parts.
The article drew attention to the considerable tally of faulty components, hinting that the real count could be even more staggering. This discrepancy often stemmed from the reluctance to return defective parts, or significant delays in doing so, to avoid situations where returns might not have happened at all. With an already pronounced rate of equipment failures, there was a conspicuous shortage of spare parts.
Adding to the woes was the inadequate quality of the repairs themselves. Rather than specific, precise repairs, machines underwent complete overhauls even for minor glitches. For example, when it came to tractors, official data unveiled the fact that maintaining a tractor over its eight-year life could cost about two and a half times its initial price. This heightened the need for repairs and, in turn, escalated the demand for spare parts. While the unavailability of these parts would have curtailed repair costs, it led to recurrent operational hitches across the economy.
According to the Pravda article, further exacerbating the situation were tractor operators, who misused the machinery: filling them with unsuitable fuels and oils, or using them for non-agricultural tasks, such as personal transport. Intriguingly, it was emphasised that this was not a case of uninformed usage: operators were well-trained and even enjoyed a revered position in the farming world. The crux of the issue, thus, was more profound and formed the primary thrust of the article.
To sum it up, the USSR’s struggle with sub-par production resulted in an ever-growing demand for products, a ceaseless need for spare parts and a self-sustaining repair industry riddled with inefficiency and inflated costs. Some attributed this to the Soviet workforce being predominantly peasant-based. However, considering that by the 1970s 40 years had passed since the start of the first five-year plan, it is questionable if descendants of that era could still bear that label. The Soviet workforce did not handle machinery or uphold quality based on mere historical roots. Rather, the true problem was embedded in the economic system itself.
A notable inefficiency in the USSR resulted from the tardy adoption of emerging technologies. Ernest Mandel championed the idea that socialist systems have an innate advantage in quickly assimilating technological advances, referencing the USSR as a case in point.5
Although this perspective might fit an envisioned socialist model, it starkly contrasted with the actual Soviet experience. In reality, the USSR presented a discouraging framework that deterred technological advancement. This pattern, while essential for scholars of the Soviet economy, offered crucial insights.6 As the dominant measure of success continued to hinge on either tangible output or profits, introducing innovative technologies disrupted this status quo. Every new product or method faced initial challenges when transitioning to large-scale production.
While in capitalist economies, such risks often lead to commensurate rewards or are balanced by the acceptance that not all ventures will be successful, the USSR lacked a parallel incentive to mitigate these challenges. Although various bonus schemes were initiated , their volatile impact on production indicated that a consistent incentive framework was missing, especially when core output indicators, either physical or value-driven, were in play.
Furthermore, a significant hindrance was the potential interruption in production, which led to factory directors losing out on their bonuses. The frequent transitions of these directors between roles made it clear that a forward-thinking and ambitious leader might be hesitant to adopt new technologies. This reluctance was also evident in the hesitation to incorporate new fixed capital. Such conditions meant that the adoption of newer methodologies or fixed assets usually occurred out of sheer necessity, often due to inescapable administrative decisions.
Older techniques and products often fell short in quality when stacked against their contemporary equivalents. This quality gap widened when there was no renewal of fixed assets. As a result, production in the USSR became more expensive than in capitalist countries - never mind what should be expected of a genuine socialist economy. A notable example was the defence sector, where the USSR’s consumption of metals for engineering products was estimated to be a third more than in the US.
The economy’s third glaring inefficiency related to the extensive number of people who were underutilised. In 1970, the party’s central committee advocated the expansion of the Shchekinskii redundancy strategy, wherein workers were transitioned to other roles. Yet, without overturning the existing dismissal laws, this initiative had limited impact. Moreover, there was ongoing discourse about encouraging women, who made up 90% of the workforce, to remain at home to care for their families, thus reducing the working population. Besides this, actual unemployment persisted.
A fourth area of inefficiency pertained to the underexploitation of both existing and potential capacities. This was mainly due to an uneven distribution of resources because of persistent shortages, causing enterprises to over-request, irrespective of their genuine needs. For instance, there was a surplus of tractor spare parts stored at various collective farms. These parts were often left unused - either because farms liked to maintain a surplus or there was simply no inventory tracking in place. Additionally, operational capacities were often hampered due to unforeseen disruptions - be it supply shortages or in-plant machinery breakdowns, reflecting both poor quality and poor planning.
The ‘dissipation of resources’ - caused by plants and machinery taking much longer to construct or install than intended - led to a situation where mills were being produced for the sake of more mills, meaning that, in order to complete existing plants, additional plants had to be constructed.
As the centre had little real information and only its most detailed and explicit instructions were actually followed, enterprises by and large simply followed the logic of the bonus-indicator social reward system.
Even though a lower output may have been required by the centre, overfulfilment automatically arose wherever it was possible and was duly rewarded, while the consumer goods sector, being at the end of the chain, did not receive the necessary resources. The extra parts and goods available were immediately absorbed either by plants waiting or by storage depots of the enterprises in case of short supply in the future. There would then be a further clamour for new plants to produce goods in short supply.
Workers with lower targets would work at lower rates. Apart from the dozen or so indicators set by the centre, such as steel, coal power, etc, the rest of the centre’s job was largely organisational: to see that the economy did not collapse or that it ran more smoothly. Its information was poor and salaried personnel of various enterprises, who were only interested in maximising their own personal welfare, would fulfil the formal instructions, although that often resulted in an absurdity. Faced with a situation where it was to their benefit to maximise an indicator, whether it was called profit or anything else, they would wrongly inform the centre as to their potential and produce a product mix most suitable to themselves.
When prioritising sheer production numbers, businesses produced a large volume of low-quality items. If the emphasis was on total sales, they could be inclined to produce high-priced, yet low-quality, goods, particularly when there was little to no competition. When profit took centre stage, businesses would likely opt for the cheapest materials and shortest production times, focusing on products that fetched high prices and sold quickly, even if it meant compromising on quality. This could result in the creation of sub-par items like poorly crafted icons or shoes with minimal leather, while neglecting slower-selling products like books. While staff within these enterprises were aware of optimal production standards, the prevailing system often did not cater to their true interests.
In the grand scheme of things, the economy leaned more towards being ‘administered’ than genuinely ‘planned’. Evsei Liberman pointed out in the 60s that the earlier economic strategy had been efficient at consolidating resources to cater to immediate national requirements, emphasising quantity over quality. These challenges remained, and simply incorporating profit into the equation did not address the core issues.
An authentically planned economy needs vigilant management by the majority’s democratic representatives - the working class. In the absence of this, interests clash, resulting in only selective adherence to central directives, and planners often operating on misleading information. This veers away from the true intention of planning: creating an organised economic structure.
That is why positioning the USSR, based merely on its planning approach, as a socialist or workers’ state is a misunderstanding. It leant more towards an overseen or managed economic structure, with vast parts running autonomously.
Historically, the economic organisation, occasionally amounting to little more than structured terror, paved the way for industrialisation. Yet, as it evolved, the system began accruing increased waste, even with elites striving to stem this tide. A sophisticated, modern economy demands meticulous accuracy in timing and quality. While the early industrialisation stages were marked by immense wastage, a contemporary industrial economy mandates detailed refinement.
The burgeoning waste stemmed from a core discord between the societal urge for a structured economy and the individualistic ambitions of the elite and the intellectual class. Arguing in terms of a dichotomy between planning principles and market forces is an oversimplification. The initial frictions, emerging during the New Economic Policy phase, mirrored the social stratifications of that epoch.
To infer that latter-day Soviet planning mirrored that of the past is to insinuate that a workers’ state existed until 1989. Instead of a strict ‘planning’ paradigm, it is better to discuss a ‘law of organisation’, echoing the elite’s quest to uphold its privileges through seamless economic operations.
As Hillel Ticktin pointed out in 1972:
Mandel’s proposition - that “the bureaucracy can’t synchronise its interests with the productive mechanisms that grant their advantages”7 - warrants scrutiny. In reality, the elite, fulfilling their roles across diverse sectors, did bolster production.
Overlooking certain terminologies for a moment, the claim seems questionable. When the elite perform their roles as managers and administrators, be it in economic, political or military sectors, they do actively contribute to the advancement of production.
The planning system in the USSR was inherently strict, largely due to the workers’ tendency to easily reduce their efforts rather than amplify them. This adaptability ironically led to greater inefficiencies across the board. Further complicating the situation, workers were hemmed in by numerous constraints, including the internal passport, labour documentation, covert files and the ever-watchful eye of the KGB at their workplaces and homes. Equating this level of oversight with that in capitalist societies is misleading, as the depth of control in the USSR was unparalleled.
While workers in the USSR produced a surplus, much of it was rendered ineffective. The interaction here was often termed as ‘wage labour coupled with surplus-value extraction’, implying a two-way exchange. Yet, it was more akin to a coerced union in production, where the benefits for all parties remained ambiguous. Drawing parallels to wage-labour surplus or even feudal systems does not capture the nature of this dynamic.
The USSR’s elite clearly did not prioritise the working class’s wellbeing. Any leeway given to workers, such as relaxed production guidelines, was a calculated move, knowing full well that the workers would not compromise further. Their fight for rights mirrored the methods of western trade unions, relying heavily on passive resistance or overt strikes.
Ticktin’s analysis of the USSR provides a significant departure from more orthodox Trotskyist interpretations, offering a complex and critical lens through which to understand the intricacies and paradoxes of the Soviet system.
Joint Economic Committee, Congress of the United States Economic performance and the military burden in the Soviet Union Washington 1970, p218-19.↩︎
In 1966 74.4% of investment in industry was for producer goods - this figure had increased every year from 1946 (Narodnoe Khozyaistvo v 1970g Moscow 1971, p23). In 1972 investment in producer goods again increased at a higher rate than in consumer goods (Pravda January 30 1973).↩︎
KPSS v Rezolyutsiyakh i Resheniyakh part 2, Moscow 1953, p1116.↩︎
A Erlich The Soviet industrialisation debate, 1924-28 Harvard 1960, p l79.↩︎
E Mandel Europe vs America London 1970, p31.↩︎
LM Gatovsky, at a meeting of the USSR academy of sciences held in December 1965, specifically stated that there was too little connection between research and industry, and that there was not enough new machinery in enterprises (Vestnik Akademii Nauk SSSR February 1966).↩︎
International Socialist Review June 1972.↩︎