Tony Cliff, May 20 1917 - April 9 2000

A 20th century revolutionary - part II

All problems go back to labour. According to Tony Cliff's theory the allocation-labour (A-L) relationship, whereby the bureaucracy-as-collective mobilised labour-power in the Soviet Union, is presented as analogous - or exactly the same - as capitalism's use of money-capital to purchase labour-power. That is the contractual delivery of the commodity labour-power in exchange for money - ie, wages - with the aim of realising surplus labour or surplus value in the form of additional money-capital.

In fact the USSR saw neither generalised commodity production nor the generalised buying or selling of labour power. Furthermore there was neither surplus value, capital nor money. Undeniably from the 1950s onwards target figures were increasingly given rouble-names. Yet this in itself by no means justifies the conclusion that the social formation was state capitalist.

Every student of economics knows that commodity exchange and money as a medium of exchange considerably predate the capitalist mode of production. Since the dawn of civilisation money has been employed as a universal equivalent between inanimate commodities. The book of Genesis tells the story of Joseph's estranged brothers coming with money from the famine-struck land of Canaan to buy food from him in Egypt. Money was also used in ancient times as wages: ie, "a buyer of so-called services", "without the transformation" of money into money-capital, and "without any change in the general character of the economic system" (K Marx Capital Vol 2, Moscow 1967, p30). It must be emphasised then that what is characteristic of capitalism is not that the commodity labour-power is purchasable, but that "labour-power appears as a commodity" (ibid).

Soviet workers received roubles. That is self-evident. However the rouble was pseudo-money. It was not by any stretch of the imagination the universal equivalent (it was a sporadic equivalent). The rouble-names of Soviet products bore no, or merely a phantom, relationship to the labour-time necessary for their production (I am not suggesting that under capitalism price and value are the same thing - obviously they are not). Nor were prices transformed into money that could command the universe of products, not even consumer products in the retail sphere.

Invariably within inter-bureaucratic exchange it existed as a mute entry on the accountants' books (not to be confused with the rise of fictitious money under capitalism). As a performance indicator profits and losses were unimportant. Fines levied by centre for late delivery or quality failures were stubbornly ignored as a matter of course and remained forever unpaid (these fines seem to have been introduced in the 1960s). Losses never led to closure. Even in the case of success scriptural roubles (or transferable deposits in financial institutions) could not be transformed into fiduciary roubles (paper roubles). Nor could they be used independently to purchase the means of production.

Crucially, it cannot be said often enough, Soviet workers were not primarily mobilised into the workplace by the lure of roubles (which could be used to purchase an extremely limited range of things, but were essentially a lubricant within a system of rationing). They might moonlight, and exchange their services in return for paper roubles - or most likely something more useful like American cigarettes or bottles of vodka. They had to be forced by the state to deliver their labour-power to an enterprise (material incentives took the prime form of accommodation, works canteens, special rations, educational opportunities, kindergartens, etc). In other words labour-power could be bought or sold at the margins of the system. But it is treated and appears before the bureaucracy as a human being in possession of a product (albeit of a special type), not a commodity.

Having touched upon a key difference that distinguished Soviet bureaucratic socialism from capitalism, we appear to arrive at an essential feature which the two systems had in common.

From the viewpoint of both the owner of capital and the bureaucrat, living labour is necessary if the means of production are to be productively converted into new products. Hence the capitalist buys labour-power in the market from free workers. Hence the bureaucracy mobilises labour-power through on the one hand anti-parasite legislation and on the other by ensuring that the means of subsistence is only available to those registered as employed.

From the viewpoint of the worker, both under capitalism and bureaucratic socialism, the productive application of their labour-power is "not possible" until it has been "brought into connection with means of production" (K Marx Capital Vol 2, Moscow 1967, p31). In a state of separation there can be no production. Joining the worker with the means of production is therefore of central concern to capitalist and Soviet bureaucrat alike. Marx, however, very importantly stressed that it is the "specific manner in which" the union of all the technical factors of production "is accomplished" which "distinguishes the different economic epochs of the structure of society one from the other" (ibid pp36-7).

The worker and capitalist are formerly independent of each other. Both own a commodity: respectively labour power and capital. The worker is brought together with the means of production by the use of capital to purchase labour-power. Permanent relations between people are established through things. Under bureaucratic socialism too labour-power exists "separately from the means of production, from the material conditions of its application" (ibid p31). But it is brought into connection with means of production by the use of political or extra-economic means. Force, not capital, confronted the Soviet worker.

The owner of labour-power and the capitalist or bureaucrat exist as opposite poles within an interpenetrating unity (as did the slave and slave-owner, the manorial serf and the landlord). The means of production and the owner of labour-power are necessary for each other. Yet between the worker and those who own or dominate the means of production there is a fundamental inequality. Workers have nothing except their ability to labour. They are faced by another who is determined to, and does, make them do their bidding in order to feed life into the means of production. Quite clearly this social relationship arises out of the fact that the conditions required for the realisation of labour-power - that is, means of subsistence and means of production - have been separated from the owner of labour-power, being owned or dominated by another.

We need not concern ourselves here with the first five-year plan which finally brought about this separation in the USSR. The thing that interests us here is this: if A-L appears as the functional domination of the bureaucracy, it is not because allocation assumes the role of supplying the means of subsistence. Allocation takes a dominating form only because labour-power finds itself in a state of separation from its means of production (including the means of subsistence as the means of production of labour-power itself). This separation can be overcome only by the delivery of labour-power to the bureaucracy, which dominates the means of production. Therefore the functioning of labour-power, which is not at all limited to the quantity of labour required for the reproduction of its own self, is likewise the concern of the bureaucracy.

The worker-bureaucracy relation during the process of production arises only because it is inherent in society at large and a hierarchical division of labour, in the fundamentally conflictive power positions occupied by worker and bureaucrat, in their socially contradictory relation. It is not allocation which by its nature creates this relation. It is rather the existence of this relation which leads through the line of least resistance to the transformation of what appeared at the beginning as a mere technical function into an exploitative and thoroughly alienated function (see I Mészáros The power of ideology London 1989, pp265-6).

In Cliff's theory the contradictory functions of the bureaucracy as collective allocators and appropriators on the one hand and individual managers on the other are crudely conflated into the supposed "capitalist relations of production prevailing in Russia" (T Cliff State capitalism in Russia London 1974, p170). By beginning with the conclusion that the Soviet state acted like a giant "capitalist" employer he has no problem ignoring the evidence which proves the opposite (ibid p170). Slaves in ancient Athens, it should not be forgotten, were employed in the state's silver mines and had food and other necessities allocated to them. Yet, though these slaves were often purchased as commodities, they did not sell their ability to labour. The latter also applies to Soviet workers - there was no sale of labour-power. Allocation of all factors of production, including means of subsistence, in the Soviet Union actually derives from the historically evolved ability of the bureaucratic state to politically dominate.

As there was no genuine labour market, management could not effectively discipline the workforce: neither through the threat of the sack nor the incentive of consumer products through higher wages. Workers exercised no positive control over production. But they did exercise negative control. The pace of work was notoriously slow. Formal state ownership of the means of production cannot therefore be seriously equated with the state as collective capitalist employer (if by that is meant collective buying of the commodity labour-power).

Cliff inevitably equates the Soviet manager with directors and other top managers in Britain. This error automatically flows from his state capitalist mind-set. 'Captains of industry', in countries that are really capitalist, obviously do not receive their huge salaries because they sell their labour-power. Cliff is right on this score. They are an integral part of the capitalist class. These well rewarded personifications of capital are specialists in pumping out and realising the surplus value created by the working class. They have in the form of 'performance'-related pay, share ownership, floatations and options, dividends and low interest loans a very material interest in maximising output and profits.

Soviet managers not only received a mere pittance in comparison with, say, the head of British Gas - we leave aside here the debate about whether or not they constituted a class. But what really brings into question Cliff's theory of state capitalism is that these political appointees behaved in an altogether different manner to managers under the conditions of capitalism. No sizing down the workforce, no profit maximisation, no minimising inputs.

As individuals they were an integral part of the bureaucracy. Nevertheless this social elite was riven with a contradiction between its whole and the part in a way altogether different from capitalism. Soviet bureaucrats functioned as managers. However, when they did, they functioned not only as inefficient exploiters, but as intermediaries between the state and the workers. They routinely connived with the workers against centre and relied on the systematic doctoring of statistics to fool the bureaucracy-as-collective. Such a contradiction which undermined the system of control and tended it towards disintegration needs to be theorised in a way which consistently and logically explains reality, not, as Cliff does, explains it away by treating capitalism and its categories as universal.

The state-class in ancient Egypt, India, China and Mesopotamia also organised social production. But their pharoahs, emperors and kings did so not because they monopolised 'employment'. Peasants worked in the main for themselves, at their own pace and with their own means of production (in the form of rudimentary tools and draft animals). Wage and slave labour only appears as a commodity on the margins of society. The state owed its origins and developed directly as part of the process of production itself. Mobilising peasant labour, by decree and custom, it oversaw the construction of vast irrigation works which tamed the great flood plains of the Nile, the Indus, the Euphrates-Tigris and the Yellow rivers.

Productivity and population soared. China contained some 50% of the world's population at its zenith in the 13th century. It was the bureaucratic-theocratic state and its agents which distributed rights over the communal property which had been so cleverly gained from nature. By levying tribute from the masses of people the 'oriental despotisms' were able to command surpluses which made them the superpowers of their day (pre-classical Crete and Etruria, pre-Columbian Peru and Mexica had broadly similar social formations). Samir Amin calls them "rich tribute-paying formations" - as opposed to what he calls a poor one such as feudalism (S Amin Unequal development New York 1976, p20). Though these systems witnessed endemic corruption on an enormous scale, though rent by contradictions between the whole and the part, dynasties spanned hundreds of years.

We could describe the circuit of the product in such a tribute system in the following algebraic formula: MP+(L+ MP) ... P-O-T. Centre maintains irrigation channels and distributes land: ie, MP or state-controlled means of production. Of course what was really important was the power of the state. It could in practice claim its dues with or without any real input. Force decided.

Either way, peasants regulated their own ability to labour and used their own means of production: ie, L+MP. Because it was in their own interests to keep themselves and their families alive, they could be relied upon to work hard during the process of production (P) in order to maximise output (O). The state's local officials would cream off the surplus from the output in the form of T or tribute (tax-gathering). After siphoning off what they could get away with for themselves, a set quota or percentage would be delivered to the state treasury. The tribute state took hold of and judged its slice of production as use-values, over which some degree of direct control could be exercised. Exchange-value does not appear as a mediation stage. Apart from the labour and physical product that had to be delivered to the state the peasants almost formed a closed system.

Here was the problem with target-values in the Soviet Union. In its development bureaucratic socialism progressively weakened the control exercised by centre and increased the negative control of workers - this lack of control and negative control was also over the product. However, results are invariably the opposite of beginnings. In order that the bureaucracy could sense the product slipping out of control there had to be a stage, or moment, when that control was asserted. Due to proletarian revolution the Soviet Union was post-capitalist. But, not least as shown by the retreat of the New Economic Policy, also pre-real socialist. For the bureaucracy to resolve the contradiction both the law of value and workers' positive control had to be uprooted. The date of this counterrevolution within the revolution was 1928. From then onwards target-values dominated the production and circulation of the Soviet product. Using terror, the bureaucracy established its monopoly position as allocator of resources. What was sent in to factories and collective farms as input had a target-value, as did what came out. Use-values that were consumed had first to be produced as target-values.

It is therefore quite clear that the formula for the circuit of the Soviet product, A ... A', is a form only on the basis of definite socio-political conditions. It presupposes both the existence of workers who have lost power and a bureaucracy that substitutes for but is not a capitalist ruling class. This unique unity of politics and economics allowed for accumulation to take place at an unprecedented pace (and in the midst of capitalism's great crash). The bureaucracy was untrammelled by the need to realise profit.

While it could add to the number of workers, accumulation proceeded. Inefficiency remained a nagging worry. However, to begin with it did nothing to stop the development of the productive forces nor the circulation of products on an ever increasing scale.

2.1. The Soviet Union on the evolutionary ladder

We have shown that Cliff's theory of state capitalism is posited on a vulgar evolutionist reading of history. Either the Soviet Union was genuinely socialist ... or, given the ample evidence that it was not, it had to be capitalist (see T Cliff State capitalism in Russia London 1974, p282).

Not surprisingly this wooden approach - unconsciously inherited from 'official communism' - informed Cliff's 1948 critique of Max Shachtman's bureaucratic collectivism. Bureaucratic collectivism, said Cliff, "left" the Soviet Union's "historical identity undetermined"; by which he meant its exact place on a teleological ladder of historical progress (T Cliff Neither Washington nor Moscow London 1982, p87). So armed, he rounded on Shachtman and his co-thinkers in the US Workers Party for having an inconsistent evaluation of the Soviet Union.

In 1941 the Workers Party declared in a convention resolution that bureaucratic collectivism was a "reactionary social order" compared with socialism and historically more progressive "in relation to the capitalist world" (ibid). The practical result of this intermediate ranking on the ladder of evolution was to allow a "defencist position" vis-à -vis the Soviet Union in the event of a war designed to restore capitalism.

With virtually every country becoming engulfed in World War II events cascaded forward at breakneck speed. Bureaucratic collectivism and its adherents were tested in extremis. Faced with an apparently mutually predatory war on both sides, Shachtman buckled.

Stalin aggressively invaded Finland in 1939. Karela was ceded to the USSR. The great dictators had already carved up Poland and Stalin incorporated Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Now, after the launch of Operation Barbarrossa in June 1941, the USSR cemented a close alliance with the British empire and US imperialism. Indeed Shachtman came to think for a while that the USSR had been reduced to a mere pawn. Yalta and Potsdam and the division of Europe were yet to come. He discarded his defencism and pronounced the Soviet Union a "new barbarism", an example of the "decline of civilisation", etc. Later, as a corollary, Shachtman urged his tiny band of militants in the US trade union movement to support "reformist officialdom" against "Stalinist officialdom." For Cliff this wartime zigzag and the hopeless muddle evidenced in the labour movement goes to disprove the idea that the Soviet Union was neither capitalist nor socialist. The concept was "supra-historical, negative and abstract", he dismissively declared (ibid p90).

I have readily admitted that the flaws in the 'theory' of bureaucratic collectivism articulated by Shachtman are all too evident. However, Shachtman's failure to describe the Soviet Union's fundamental laws of motion, his increasingly irrational hostility towards 'official communists' in the west and eventual drift into Cold War anti-communism does not make Cliff right. The flaws in Cliff's theory are likewise only too evident.

For example, Cliff rejected out of hand Shachtman's contention that the Soviet Union was a "new barbarism". Such a designation must, by definition, be associated with a "decline in the productive forces", he insisted (ibid p92). Stalin's success in carrying through an unprecedented industrial revolution with the first two five-year plans does not coincide with Cliff's conventional reading of decline. Edward Gibbon's late imperial Rome was his model. Crude GDP, not social essence, his point of departure. Mesmerised by the spectacular target-figures Cliff was blind to the actual social laws at work in the Soviet Union, which allowed it to begin by doubling heavy industrial output, yet closed with a decade of minus 'growth' rates and the final denouement of 1991.

Cliff's attempt to show that the Soviet Union was state capitalist is totally misdirected. The baneful consequences in terms of Marxist theory are twofold. Firstly, it does not explain the actual movement of the Soviet Union through the course of time. Secondly, as shown in part one of this article, it necessitated a complete mangling of the essential socio-economic categories painstakingly revealed, explained and elaborated by Marx in Capital (see Weekly Worker April 20). Ironically capitalist society thereby loses all historical specificity in his account. The source of this elementary error lies entirely in Cliff's factional refusal to concede Shachtman's straightforward, but invaluable insight - namely that the Soviet Union was neither capitalist nor socialist.

Yes, that is, of course, purely a negative formulation. Theorised answers must be forthcoming. Marxists - that is, Marxists worthy of the name - are obliged to comprehensively, logically and verifiably lay bare the system's pre-history, laws of motion and the internal contradictions which caused its demise.

So what was the Soviet Union? Placing it on an evolutionary ladder will not do. Stalin, Shachtman and Cliff differed markedly, but all got the answers they wanted from such a device. The same approach applied to biology arbitrarily puts homo sapiens above all other plants and animals past and present. The paradigm is wrong. As Stephen Jay Gould has convincingly argued, actual evolution does not present us with a ladder: rather an upside-down cone with accidental extinctions, widening diversification and existence at any one moment across an even plane. There is no "apex" of biological evolution (SJ Gould Wonderful life London 1990, p43).

The evolutionary ladder of Stalin, Shachtman, Cliff, et al treats history as linear - a predetermined line of progressive assent, not a site of class struggle. Using the same method, dogmatists of every 'Marxist' school crassly inform us that the 9th century Saxon kingdom of Mercia was more advanced than classical Athens. Why? Because feudalism follows the slave mode of production. It matters to them not a jot that in terms of figurative art, public architecture, literature, science and philosophy, and let us not forget mass democracy, the Athens of Solon and Pericles still shines out across the centuries like a beacon. Rustic Mercia, it hardly needs saying, possessed no such attainments. A real grasp of Soviet reality demands that we leave behind all Stalinite and other such vulgar evolutionism.

Frankly my own thoughts on the Soviet Union are still at the early or tentative stage - I am busy working on the first draft of a book. Nevertheless writers as diverse as Stephen Kotkin, Moshe Lewin, Simon Clarke, Vladimir Andrle and above all Hillel Ticktin have located many of the Soviet Union's unique features, which not only mark it out as non-capitalist and non-socialist, but clearly point the way towards a general theory.

What then were the Soviet Union's essential features? The bureaucratic social formation in the USSR was born in 1928 from the internal breakdown of NEP and moved through time towards an inevitable collapse. The law of value, commodity production, wage labour, market capitalism and money were all politically snuffed out. There were targets, but no planning. Lies were endemic at every level. The bureaucracy was bedevilled with chronic internal contradictions between itself as collective and itself as management. Managers connived with their workers against centre. The system could not control its own product. Circulation and therefore reproduction was problematic. Workers found themselves systematically robbed of elementary democratic rights, but exercised negative control over production. They could not form themselves into a class for itself, but the bureaucracy could neither effectively motivate nor discipline them as a class in itself. Absolute exploitation did not give way to relative exploitation. Gulag labour was incredibly unproductive. Terror was necessary but self-consuming and self-defeating. The first five-year plan mercilessly drove down workers' and peasants' living standards. Subsequent plans failed to prevent spontaneous 'wage equalisation'. The means of production were over-accumulated. Shortage affected every sphere of society. Management hoarded everything - fixed product, labour-power, raw materials. There was a fundamental contradiction between plan-value and use-value. Soviet products served to meet targets, but characteristically had damaged or no use-value. Population set the absolute limit on the system.

All these essential features require a Soviet Capital to fully explain and logically integrate them into a materialist and historical whole. In the meantime it is plain from everything we have noted and discussed that the Soviet Union was an ectopic social formation with its own unique laws of motion, which owe their original undeveloped forms to the impossibility of building socialism in one country and the unwillingness or inability of the bureaucracy to introduce capitalism.

Present-day reality flatly contradicts Cliff's theory of the Soviet Union as the highest, most pure manifestation of capitalism. Of course, the fact that Cliff started writing against orthodox Trotskyism in the fog of unexpected events in great measure explains his myopia. We stand on the panoramic vantage point of knowing how things turned out. Yet if Cliff had been less driven by narrow factional considerations and instead had pondered longer and thought more deeply, I am convinced that he would have broken with vulgar evolutionism. Of course, having opted for state capitalism and won others, he never subsequently budged. As an intellectual he became victim of his own success in building a 'state cap' sect.

History does not conform to an "either ... or" evolutionary ladder. To use a more appropriate metaphor, it is exquisitely tendrilled, infinitely toned, and within the broad spiral of technological progress and the vicissitudes of class struggle multi-directional. Social formations in times past have presented themselves in "the most diverse" manner (K Marx Capital Vol 3, Moscow 1971, p593). Besides the 'classic' modes there have been all sorts of amalgams, transitions, dead ends, isolated turns and freaks. The great empire civilisations of Babylon, pharaonic Egypt, Maya and Aztec Mexica, and Chin dynasty China do not neatly pigeon-hole into the dogmatist's preconceived set of five classifications. Neither do the mounted bands of Scythians, Huns and Mongols. Nor do the pre-christian Anglo-Saxons, Slavs and Franks. Nor the Greek communist experiment on the Lirpari Islands, the Bohemian Hussites and the Jesuit state of Paraguay - the 'vision in the jungle'.

Even within the so-called classic modes of production there is wide variation. Ancient Greece contained the aristocratic-military dual kingdom of Sparta with its helot people-serfs alongside the peasant-citizen republic of Athens and its multi-ethnic state and aristocratically owned slaves. Feudalism as a dominant mode included the sprawling empire of Charlemagne, the papal theocracy and the Teutonic knights' warrior state. Capitalism is no less uniform, as illustrated by the dissimilarity between 'classic' 19th century Britain and other examples, such as Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa and social democratic Sweden.

Marx only sequentially linked primitive communist, slave and feudal society when it came to western Europe. Here this particular evolutionary strand led to the conditions upon which industrial capitalism eventually flowered. And it was this capitalism that interested him.

No analysis of such a thing is possible without an historical approach. On the other hand no history can be concrete by merely trying to reproduce history as a whole. Hence Marx's historicism was the concrete history of a given phenomenon and the emergence of its logical categories. Marx accordingly began with capital, its formation, theorists and latest developments. Proceeding from a profound grasp of all this, he could with scientific confidence destroy bourgeois political economy by tackling it head on, from its starting point, from its most elementary form: ie, the commodity.

By logically developing this 'atomic' category, showing its historical antecedents and actually manifested movement from one more complex contradictory configuration to another, Marx was able to penetrate the mystery of capitalist exploitation and show why the system created the conditions for its own end. Clearly he entertained no encyclopaedist project of arranging modes of production in some universal sequence of appearance, spread, or in terms of longevity. On the contrary, for Marx, their order was "determined by the relation which they bear to one another in modern bourgeois society" (K Marx Critique of political economy, Chicago 1904, p304).

Biologists find more answers to the human condition through anatomical, genetic and behavioural studies of the gorilla and the chimpanzee than of the earthworm or basking shark. Marx approached western slavery and feudalism in the same way - from his given object. That did not mean he was ignorant of the Golden Horde, the Inca or any of the other courses and potentialities contained in historic development (eg, his famous drafts for the letter he wrote to Vera Zasulich in 1881: see T Shanin [ed] Late Marx and the Russian road London 1984, and K Marx and F Engels Selected correspondence Moscow 1965, p339). 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). It was, through proletarian revolution, the material basis for the world liberation of humanity. That is why he devoted a lifetime's work researching capitalism and the conditions which conduced it; why he tended to ignore or give only passing reference to other patterns of social evolution (not, as some foolish academics suggest, his Euro-centricity).

Marx never therefore argued that humanity as a whole had evolved, or was preordained to evolve, through three or four distinct modes of production before attaining communism. No doubt if we were able to rewind the tape of history and play it back again the results would be radically different, not least in western Europe. Hannibal could have won the Second Punic War and ordered Rome to be "blotted out", razed to the ground and its site ploughed with salt. Carthaginian hegemony over the Mediterranean would have been primarily commercial. The language of 'classical' civilisation in the west would have been Semitic, not Latin. Along the same lines Harold's Anglo-Saxons could have lost at Stamford Bridge and Harold Hardrada could have fended off William the Bastard. English would then have evolved as a Teutonic language without high class Latin loan words; people would eat pig meat not pork. England would have remained part of the Scandinavian cultural world.

None of that is to suggest human social development is random or senseless. Only that within limits set by the productive forces there are all sorts of routes and accidents decided according to the interests and drives of contending classes and the pulse of class struggle.

What goes for the distant past also goes for more recent times. The German revolution could have succeeded in 1918 and thus altered the entire history of the 20th century. Thanks to social democratic treachery it lost. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were cruelly murdered and the conditions created for the barbaric capitalism of Hitler and the barbaric socialism of Stalin.

Socialism has been characterised by Asiatic despotism, irrationality and backwardness, not western democracy, rationality and efficiency. Thus many of the post-capitalist societies we have seen - ie, societies which, often through tremendous sacrifice, have broken with some sort of capitalism - began with a strong (utopian) commitment to the goal of a socialism. Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Castro, Pol Pot. But due to the heritage of material squalor all have fallen well short of genuine socialism (which is proletarian self-liberation on the solid foundations of global capitalism) and have thus been forced into excruciating experimentation, hollow pretence and along quite unique evolutionary paths.

Comrade Cliff could not bring himself to admit any such thing. There was for him only the various forms of capitalism and the next historical stage of socialism (communism). Yet even before the terrible reality of the 20th century proved it, the works of Marx and Engels contain pertinent warnings about the danger of the communist revolution being stopped short, including limiting it to one country. Unless the revolution was the simultaneous act of "the dominant peoples" they insisted it could not survive (K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 5, Moscow 1976, p49). Nor could it survive if it tried to share out poverty. But not to survive does not imply immediate extinction and an immediate return to capitalism. The Bolsheviks palpably failed to spread their revolution to the "dominant peoples": ie, Britain, France, Germany and the USA. Their epigones did nevertheless hang on for some considerable time.

Trapped in a country not yet ripe for the real domination of the working class, they adapted themselves in order to survive. However, in so doing they changed into their opposite. Democracy and socialism are inseparable. Under certain circumstances the proletariat can, to use Lukács's chastening phrase, "turn its dictatorship against itself". The dictatorial side of the regime can predominate for a brief emergency spell, such as under so-called 'war communism', without necessarily causing long-term damage.

But what we saw in the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s onwards was something else. Once the perspective of world revolution was abandoned, state and party leaders found themselves in an unsolvable dilemma.

In the attempt to solve it within the framework of one country they were compelled to cohere themselves into an exploitative social stratum which permanently abrogated democracy and fed the masses on grandiose promises. That did not mean (directly) serving the needs and interests of capital, but substituting for the functions of the capitalist bourgeoisie. In conditions of a hierarchical division of labour and the absence of working class rule that was inevitable.

Coupled with that sorry position, the bureaucracy fitfully and defensively turned the Soviet Union into an entirely novel (and unstable) social formation. A social formation which for want of anything better we call bureaucratic socialism: an oxymoron which conveys the reality of the bureaucracy ruling and exploiting the masses in the name of socialism.

Jack Conrad