Hal Draper: Cliff on Russia, only "a matter of terminological taste"

Submitted by AWL on 26 November, 2010 - 10:02 Author: Hal Draper

Review of Tony Cliff's "Russia", 1955 edition

Tony Cliff’s work is not one of those over-plentiful books on Russia which merely set out to describe, cuss out, or philosophise about the horrors of Stalinism. It is a serious and valuable study, from a Marxist viewpoint, of the nature of the Russian state.

The author — long a leading Trotskyist in England and now associated with the left Labor Socialist Review — believes that the best theoretical description of the Stalinist system is “bureaucratic state capitalist,” and we will have to say a word about his handling of this state-capitalist theory; but his political conclusions are very close to, if not identical with, those of Independent Socialism.

Apart from this point of view, however, Cliff’s Stalinist Russia does a preliminary job in its first two (long) chapters which is alone worth the price of the book.

These two chapters present an analytical description of the social and political conditions of Stalinism, virtually constituting a handbook on “Why Stalinism is not socialism.” And this is done by marshalling a vast amount of factual material based on official Stalinist sources laws, publications, etc.

The first chapter does this job on the socio-economic relations of the Stalinist system, including: the destruction of workers’ control, role of the “trade unions”, the wage system, legal restrictions on the worker, draconian punishments for lateness or other offences, position of women in society, slave labour, depression of the standard of living and subordination of consumer goods production, the productivity of labour under Stalinism, expropriation of the peasantry, the turnover tax, the atrocities of the criminal law, the advance of inequality and salary differentiation., etc.

And finally in this chapter Cliff presents an excellent discussion of the unplannedness of this “planned economy,” stemming from the built-in dislocations of bureaucratic mismanagement.

In Chapter II, State and Party in Stalinist Russia, Cliff has equally authoritative summaries of the Russian reality on the structure of the armed forces, the role of the “soviet” organs of government, the rigging of the elections, the monolithism of the party, etc.

All of this material is fully documented as to sources. In the course of taking up many of these questions, Cliff counterposes the Stalinist reality to the Russia of Lenin and Trotsky, making clear the gulf between the Stalinist counter-revolution and the Bolshevik state which this counter-revolution destroyed.

Socialists have long looked forward to a contribution of this sort. An approach to it — and a useful one — was a section entitled Soviet Myth and Reality in one of Arthur Koestler’s books (an otherwise vapid collection of essays whose title, The Yogi and the Commissar, has become better known than any of its contents). There was a report some years ago, I remember, that this section was going to be expanded to book-size by Koestler and Dwight Macdonald, but nothing seems to have come of it, if it was true. In any case, Cliff’s two chapters represents the best accomplishment of this task to date, for its size.

Much of the material is the subsequent sections of Cliff’s book, dealing with the nature of the system, is devoted to refuting the view that Russia is a “workers’ state” or “socialist state.” An excellent chapter, which appears as an appendix, deals directly with An Examination Trotsky’s Definitions of Russia as a Degenerated Workers’ State. It is a very effective attack on this theory, which has led to the present extreme degeneration of both wings of the “orthodox Trotskyist” movement and its Fourth International.

In a couple of other chapters (III and IV) Cliff describes a great deal of material which would be necessary part of any Marxist discussion of the nature of Stalinism. These take up some general considerations about “workers states” and then The Material Heritage of Pre-October (Revolution) Society in Russia. It is the next three chapters which attempt to present the theory of “state capitalism as applied to Russia.

Of course, as our readers know, this theory is quite mistaken in our opinion; but since this is not the place to polemicise against it, it is more important to note what kind of “state capitalist” theory is this one of Cliff’s. For there are all kinds of people who have applied who have applied this label of state-capitalism to Russia, with quite different political and theoretical meanings: just as, for that matter, the same is true of our own label of bureaucratic-collectivism.

We have often pointed out that the “state-capitalist” theory sometimes shades into versions which make it virtually identical with our own. This tends to happen where the “state-capitalism” which is seen in Russia is analysed as being so basically different from “private” capitalism that it tends to take on the characteristics of a new social system, which is not the same as any other existing system, and which is labelled a hyphenated-capitalism only as a matter of terminological taste.

Cliff’s analysis does not begin this way, but it tends to wind up so. To begin with, he makes a brave attempt to subsume the Russian Stalinist “capitalist” system within the same (Marxist) economic categories as the old capitalism. With him, as with all others who have attempted this feat, it boils down to stripping capitalism of all essential attributes which do not fit into the Stalinist picture; and, as with all others, the first of these attributes to go is capitalist profit as the motor of the system.

But he moves from this type of analysis to something else, which becomes increasingly important for his analysis till it governs his political conclusions.

This is: heavy stress on the importance of the differences between the two different “state-capitalisms” which he finds himself discussing. One state-capitalism is that which is “an organic, gradual continuation of the development of capitalism”; the other is the “state-capitalism which arose gradually on the ruins of a workers’ revolution.”

At the point where he makes this distinction explicit, he also reveals the Achilles heel of his whole theory:

“Historical continuity in the case of state-capitalism which evolves from monopoly capitalism [the first type] is shown in the existence of private property (bonds). Historical continuity in the case of state-capitalism which evolves from a workers’ state that degenerated and died, is shown in the non-existence of private property.”

The italics are Cliff’s, and his answer to this question of historical continuity is vital for him, for it is the same as asking: What is the systematic common ground between capitalism and this “state-capitalism” of his, which did not and cannot arise from capitalism? When he answers “non-existence of private property” the game is up, I think; for obviously this “non-existence” shows only that the old capitalism has not been resuscitated and says nothing at all about the positive question of what it is that has grown up on the ruins of the workers’ state.

However, I cite this to show how Cliff’s analysis moves over to the more fruitful question of the gulf between the capitalist world and the Stalinist “state-capitalist” system, and it seems to me that it would be easy to show that every one of his political, and even social, conclusions flows from his analysis of the differences between the two systems, and not at all from his (to me) laboured exposition of the “capitalist” nature of Stalinism.

So in the final two chapters, where Cliff takes up The Imperialist Expansion of Russia and The Class Struggle in Russia, the sharp point of his analysis is directed against any conceptions of the “progressiveness” of Stalinism and toward a revolutionary opposition to the whole system.

Cliff’s political standpoint is that of the Third Camp and makes no compromise with any illusions about Stalinism. This is its political strength.

Without any doubt, the book belongs in every socialist’s library.

From Labor Action, 16 January 1956

Anti-Stalinist Encyclopedia

Review by Hal Draper of "The Soviet Regime - Communism in practice", by W. W. Kulski. Syracuse Univ. Press. 1954

In January, in reviewing T. Cliff's book Stalinist Russia, 1 mentioned that it does a great job in its first couple of chapters in assembling a documented mass of material on the conditions of the people under the Stalinist regime; that it was in fact "the best accomplishment of this task to date, for its size."

The reason for the italicized qualification was the, existence of Kulski's book, which is truly unique and which has no close competitors: Kulski's" The Soviet Regime is in every sense a one-volume encyclopedia precisely on the subject of documenting the conditions of the Stalinist regime "out of their own mouths", most particularly out of their own laws and official documents.

Do not confuse this job with that performed or even attempted by any other among the scads and slews of books on Russia that come out of the publishers' assembly line. Fainsod's bulky How Russia Is Ruled, for example, also has an encyclopedic (or at least textbookish) air about it but does not really compare.

Kuiski does not pretend to be making any political or sociological analysis as he goes along, except perhaps incidentally in comments; he is interesting solely in presenting the factual material itself; and this is an advantage, from this reviewer's standpoint, because it means the book has a minimum of mere anti-Communist agitation in it.

It is solid-packed with fact and quotations, intelligently marshalled, organised and presented to document the whole picture.

Since this goes on from page 1 to page 607, If can be imagined what a bursting storehouse of such information this book is.

I do not mean by this that the tone' of the book is "objective." Professor Kulski, on the contrary, writes and presents his material as an indictment of the regime.

The book is divided into four parts - Cultural Isolation and Conformity; State and Party; Worker and Social Stratification; Peasant and Collective Farming — with a fifth part on the post-Stalin era up to 1954. It would be useless to try to list all the subjects covered in the chapters under these heads, because they cover practically everything.

The first part on "Culture" also includes the various aspects of the drive for ideological conformity in art, history writing, science, sports, linguistics,, nationalism (in re the non-Russian nationalities of the country), etc.

Under "State and Party" Kuiski covers not only all the obvious subjects like elections, governmental structure, nature of the party and its control of all other institutions, all individual freedoms and rights, but also criminal law, the courts, family and marriage problems, youth, and political aspects of non-Russian nationality questions.

The third part, of course, goes into all the ramifications of labor's lot — from wages and working conditions to bureaucratic factory management, housing, labor control, women's work, social security, and class stratification.

The fourth part is similarly extensive on the exploitation of the peasants and the organization of the collective farm system.

"This work," says Professor Kulski in his Introduction, "is intended to provide a reference book which will give indirect access to Soviet sources. To avoid the reproach of intending to make propaganda of any sort. I have limited myself to Soviet sources only, refraining from the use of foreign commentaries and second-hand accounts. I wanted the reader to hear Soviet legislators, politicians, and authors speak directly.

"This method falls to provide only one important kind of information, that concerning the actual conditions of inmates of the Soviet correctional labor camps, but the official reasons and the judicial and administrative procedures for confinement to the camps are fully discussed, because the Soviet State makes no secret of them."

This well describes the' unique character of this work and is a guide to what one can and cannot expect from its contents.

It is not the sort of book that one reads through, and I confess that I have not done so. I have been dipping into it for its sections on various separate subjects, as one usually does with a reference book.

As one might expect from the author's background (Polish Government in Exile) some of its political judgements made in passing are of the standard bourgeois type, but it is not worthwhile criticizing this further in this space; political enlightenment is not its forte. But if (say) you want to document the draconic Russian law penalizing workers for coming late to their jobs, or any other such concrete fact, this book is what you need.

From Labor Action, 19 March 1956