The puzzle of the 20th century

Submitted by AWL on 12 October, 2016 - 1:48 Author: Martin Thomas

For anyone who denies that capitalism is the end of history, Stalinism is the great theoretical puzzle of the 20th century.

As Marcel van der Linden notes in his heroically erudite survey — the English edition is revised and expanded from earlier Dutch and German editions — attempts to solve the puzzle have been almost exclusively from the radical left, and mostly from in and about the Trotskyist archipelago. As the historian E P Thompson, in his day, sought to “rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity”, because they essayed central issues, so van der Linden has worked on our polemics and blunderings.

He has studied writings in nine languages, and tried to be comprehensive. There are omissions — for example, the exile Mensheviks — but my own attempts on “state-capitalist” lines, and Tom Rigby’s polemic against them, are starred in the bibliography; our comrade Barry Finger’s reworking of “bureaucratic-collectivist” theory is discussed in the text.

Given only 329 pages, summaries are brief. Reading the book is like a tourist visit to a country, rather than living there. It is scarcely possible in such short space not to dissatisfy. Yet tourist visits have their value; and van der Linden is generally patient and loyal in his summaries, without being uncritical.

I never knew before that there was a flurry of debate on the USSR in West Germany, around the left of the SPD and the short-lived “Titoist” UAP, in the early 1950s. The participants all rejected the “degenerated workers’ state” and “state-capitalist” formulas, and reckoned the USSR to be a new non-capitalist formation, though all eschewed the usual term “bureaucratic collectivism”. The contributors included Paul Frölich, well-known for his biography of Rosa Luxemburg, who argued, unusually for the early 50s, that the regime would drift to stifled stagnation and downfall.

I didn’t know about the work of Josef Guttmann, a former Czech Communist Party leader expelled in 1933 for Trotskyism, who as early as 1944 produced a “new formation” theory which predicted that Stalinistic planning would become increasingly ineffectual. Over the decades, however, as van der Linden shows, most contributions were framed by “stylised facts” of their time which later seemed at best partial.

From 1930s to the late 1940s, it was “stylised fact” that capitalism was in terminal decay, and also that Stalinist planning had precise control over the economy, which might be brittle but nevertheless assured good growth. From the early 1950s to the 1970s, writers mostly assumed that the USSR was stable and robust, as well as showing superior economic growth, even though capitalism was rebounding.

From the 1970s onwards, convention saw the USSR as more troubled. And then, from the 1990s, more and more writers started to see capitalism as so long-term-resilient that it was hardly surprising that alternatives went astray.

Joseph Carter, a theorist of “bureaucratic collectivism” in the WP-ISL (“Shachtmanite”) tradition, comes out as one of those less trapped by “stylised facts”: as early as 1941, he saw the USSR as having “low efficiency in production”. (So also, though van der Linden does not mention this, does Raya Dunayevskaya, with her early demonstration that the USSR’s 1930s industrial growth was in no different league from Japan’s).

Given the harassed condition of the movement which produced them, many of the contributions which van der Linden surveys were one-off articles, pamphlets, or books, which at best became the “special theory” of some small and often ephemeral group, at worst vanished without comment.

There have been, I think, five strands of thinking which gained mass and continuity so they were checked and refined in response to events by a number of writers over time.

1. The “degenerated workers’ state” formula of “orthodox” Trotskyism.

2. Tony Cliff’s version of “state capitalism”.

3. Raya Dunayevskaya’s version of ditto.

4. The French Regulation School’s version of ditto.

5. The WP-ISL versions of “bureaucratic collectivism”.

Maybe the “Bordigist” versions of seeing the USSR as capitalist should count as a sixth: I don’t know enough to say.

The numerous essays based on Karl Wittfogel’s work have probably been too scattered to count as a seventh. Van der Linden highlights the first two strands. As he rightly says, it “is almost always overlooked in commentaries on Trotsky” that his description of the USSR as a “degenerated workers’ state” was inherently and essentially also a description of it as in radical flux, unstable in the very short term. Those who continued the same form of words for decades therefore inescapably altered the substantive theory.

So, writes van der Linden: “The concept of the ‘degenerated workers’ state’ was increasingly abandoned in favour of the term ‘transitional society’… as a specific, self-perpetuating type of society”.

Van der Linden tells us that Roman Rosdolsky, the intellectual éminence grise of “orthodox” Trotskyism, had rejected the “degenerated workers’ state” formula, in favour of describing the bureaucracy as at least *becoming* a class, as early as the 1950s. He could have added that other leading writers of that tradition, Michel Pablo, Michel Lequenne, Daniel Bensaïd, would conclude that the bureaucracy became a class. Under the words “degenerated workers’ state”, the substantive content often mutated into a “self-perpetuating type of society”, in fact a sort of progressive bureaucratic collectivism.

Van der Linden also shows the mutations within the current around the British SWP and its offshoots which claimed to be continuing Tony Cliff’s 1948 version of “state capitalism”. Cliff described USSR state-capitalism as the most advanced capitalism — “only just short” of a workers’ state, as it were, with capacities for growth without crisis exceeding those of other capitalism. (Sean Matgamna has shown that on many questions such as China-Taiwan in the 1950s, Cliff’s politics were correspondingly pretty much “orthodox Trotskyist”).

Cliff’s comrades successively “de-emphasised this aspect of their theory, without, however, offering any explicit defence of the revision”. Still, right up to 1989-91, they “could hardly conceive of” — and dismissed as unlikely — “a collapse of state capitalism”. Cliff, unlike almost all other “state-capitalist” theorists (the exception, I think, is Paul Mattick), and unlike many “new-formation” theorists too, argued that there was no real (even deformed) sale and purchase of labour-power in the USSR, and thus no wage-labour. In the 1970s and 80s, Duncan Hallas and Alex Callinicos disputed that.

For Cliff, what made the USSR “capitalist” despite its exemption from the usual capitalist limits on growth without crisis, and despite the absence of wage-labour, was military competition with the USA. But the description as “capitalist” was kept on when, from the 1970s, his comrades quietly dropped the thesis of a general “permanent arms economy”.

Van der Linden does not give the same attention to the other three or four strands, and in particular not to the “bureaucratic-collectivist” ideas of Shachtman, Carter, and Draper. He summarises Shachtman’s and Carter’s first contributions in 1940-1; does not report on the melding of their views in later years; and neglects Draper’s attempts, later still, to fill out the theory. He also gets the genesis of that current conventionally garbled.

He rightly rejects the “usual” view which describes the late-1930s crank Bruno Rizzi as the first theorist of the USSR as a new formation, but still gives Rizzi too much space. Rizzi became known only because in 1939 Trotsky lighted upon a book of his as a chopping-block for Trotsky’s own argument. Trotsky did not summarise Rizzi’s analysis beyond a few bare conclusions; Rizzi’s book could influence no-one directly, since it was almost unavailable until 1977; and it was more rambling speculation than theory.

However, van der Linden repeats the conventional view that [James] “Burnham supplied the theoretical rationale” for the political positions on the USSR’s 1939 invasions of Poland and Finland of the US Trotskyist minority which became the WP-ISL; and that “Trotsky… pointed to the similarity of Burnham’s ideas and those of Bruno R”.

It required no special new theory to condemn the invasions (the “orthodox” majority condemned them too, only with contorted reservations). Burnham’s view at that time was that the USSR was not a radically new formation but a halfway house to restoration of ordinary capitalism. He moved to a view which had some parallels with Rizzi’s only after explicitly breaking with Marxism, in 1940. Van der Linden concludes “that Soviet society can hardly be explained in orthodox-Marxian terms at all”.

He censures “state-capitalist” theories for not showing that market competition functioned in the USSR, and comments sniffily that “this is possibly due to [the writers’] limited knowledge of Marx’s political-economic writings… Competition is dealt with… only in the third volume [of Capital]”.

Some of us have studied volume 3 of *Capital!* As it happens, Marx has little analysis of competition there, nothing comparable to the bourgeois economists who have lovingly dissected many variants of it. A simple wave of the hand at volume 3 is not enough to show that the undoubtedly aberrant and muffled character of the competitive pressures in the USSR economy proves it non-capitalist.

Van der Linden damns “the theoreticians of bureaucratic collectivism” because “if [they] are correct, a ruling class emerged which did not exist as a class before it came to power. In all relevant writings by Marx, it was assumed that first antagonistic classes emerge from the relations of production, that these classes… struggle with each other… and finally… a previous subaltern class is established as the new ruling class”.

His selection includes many writers who have identified the Stalinist USSR as a new formation, but denied that the bureaucracy was a class. He seems unsympathetic to the best-known of those in Britain, Hillel Ticktin, but friendly to the general “not-a-class” idea. Since Marx never offered a cut-and-dried “orthodox” definition of classes, and since the bureaucracy had a relatively stable distinct place in production, in the general organisation of society, and in the acquisition and control of revenue, I find this unconvincing.

In any case, van der Linden’s description of a new class coming to rule only after it had condensed and fought battles within the old society applies to the bourgeoisie. I don’t see that it necessarily applies to other classes in history. The feudal aristocracy, and the Ottoman bureaucracy, for example, arguably developed more from military factions than from compact classes in the societies prior to their rise to power.

None of the strands have yet flowered into a rich scientific dialogue: some have petered out, others veered into blind alleys. Our decision, in the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, to confine our “line” to programmatic conclusions, and debate the scientific assessment as a scientific question, is unusual in a world where “line on the USSR” has been often a sect badge. But the time will come; and those preparing for it will find van der Linden’s book a valuable resource.

• A longer review (2009) here

Comments

Submitted by Jason Schulman on Thu, 13/10/2016 - 00:39

None of the traditional Trotskyist explanations of what the USSR was proved to be true. The degenerated workers' state thesis has no supporters in the AWL so I won't bother with that; I agree it is simply wrong.

The official WP-ISL position on the USSR was that "bureaucratic collectivism" was a *new mode of production*, even though that phrase was rarely used in WP-ISL literature. While people like Robert Brenner and Barry Finger did a good job at explaining the USSR's "laws of motion," they didn't prove that there was a distinct bureaucratic-collectivist mode of production—and the end of the USSR, which occurred without a revolution, plus the *evolution* of China and Vietnam towards capitalism, should have been enough to make it clear that the theory was wrong.

As to state capitalism. I used to believe in a version of this theory as well. But it doesn't work. Stalinist societies could only be capitalist if in such societies concrete labor—labor directed towards satisfying real human needs—was still reduced to a monotonous, routinized activity through the dominance of abstract labor, which continued to serve as the substance of value. But it didn't.

As Hillel Ticktin explains, and Martin surely knows, abstract labor is "the imposition of the specific social form of homogeneous human labour on the labour force in order to ensure a uniform rate of exchange. Without workers working at similar rates there is no basis for value and so price." But under the Stalinist states each person and each section of the enterprise and each enterprise effectively worked in their own way at their own rates. Hence, though *alienated* labor existed in such societies, *abstract* labor did not, and hence "profit" was at most a minor indicator in a system of success indicators. Workers in the USSR, Eastern Europe, etc. did not actually *sell* their labor power: workers had to work by law, on pain of imprisonment; there was only one employer (the state); and housing, health, education and the utilities were outside the "wage" system. I say "wage" because the wage in the USSR wasn't like capitalist money, hence the Soviet phrase "we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us." In reality the relationship of the worker to the Soviet firm was analogous to the serf industrial production of 18th century Russia.

So on this specific matter Ticktin (whom van der Linden seems to like, at least to my reading of him) is right. There was no mode of production at all in the USSR—that is, no "stable, relatively harmonious, combination of a social form and a material content" (Chris Arthur's words).

As for Marx's definition of class: Marx was trained as a lawyer, and as such I think he would have agreed that class is an *inheritable* relation to the means of production, grounded on the social institution of private property in the means of production.

But the Russian nomenklatura couldn't pass on state property to their children, nor could they pass on their status in the Soviet party-state. Hence, no (state-)capitalist class or "bureaucratic-collectivist class." There was instead an elite; not a workers' elite or workers' bureaucracy, but a sort of peasant and petty-proprietor elite. Stalinism wasn't workers' Bonapartism, as Ted Grant liked to say; it was *peasant and petty-proprietor* Bonapartism.

(I leave North Korea out of this discussion because it's hard to say what exactly the DPRK is. It resembles an absolutist monarchy more than anything else. And Titoist Yugoslavia may have been a form of state-capitalism.)

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