The mistakes of Mandel and Cliff on the Russian question

Posted in PaulHampton's blog on Sat, 26/09/2009 - 17:38,

The “class nature of the Soviet Union” was for most of the twentieth century a debate that defined the meaning of socialism. Stalinism soiled the socialist project and stood as a discredited monument to attempts to overthrow capitalism. Whether it was fending off the taunts of “Get back to Russia” on a paper sale or engaging in academic discussion on the peculiarities of the bureaucracy, no socialist could survive for long without a robust characterisation of the USSR. And while the debate might have faded since the collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe and China’s evolution to capitalism, it remains relevant for understanding Cuba and North Korea and still informs conceptions of the socialist future.

Marcel van der Linden’s book, Western Marxism and the Soviet Union (Haymarket, 2009), has recently been made available in paperback. It was first published in the Historical Materialism journal’s book series in 2007. The book is a tremendous contribution to the debate on the class nature of the USSR. Van der Linden summarises the arguments of 70 or so anti-Stalinist Marxists who wrote about the question from its inception in 1917 until the turn of this century.

The book is most impressive as an extensive, almost exhaustive review of the anti-Stalinist literature on the Russian question. Its merit is to include the views of a wide range of European and North American socialists, culled from large and small publications in dozens of languages – a genuinely internationalist volume. Trotsky well summed up the importance of a decent literature review: “Reviewing is the most responsible kind of literature. A good review presupposes that the author has an acquaintance with the subject, an understanding of the place of the given book within a series of other books – and conscientiousness.” (On Bibliography, 18 May 1924, in Problems of Everyday Life, 1973 p.134) As such, the book is a superb, objective work of scholarship that deserves to be studied.


The book explains how the nature of the Soviet Union was contested from the start. Different positions on the class nature of the Soviet Union originated from different interpretations of the October 1917 revolution.

On the one hand was the view of Lenin, Trotsky and other Bolsheviks, who argued that Russia was a workers’ state because workers’ had taken power in 1917 and had become the ruling class. By the 1920s the working class still ruled in some sense, although most of the mechanisms of democratic control over the surplus product, such as the Soviets, the factory committees and the trade unions, had withered. The workers still ruled because the Bolshevik party, which had led the seizure of power, was still intact and capable of reform. The Bolshevik party in fact ruled as a locum for the working class, on behalf of the working class, due to the backwardness of Russia and the international isolation of the revolution.

On the other side were social democratic interpretations, which denied that workers had taken power in October 1917. The most prominent exponent was Karl Kautsky. In 1919 in a polemic against the regime, he warned that a “new managerial class” would emerge to create “the most oppressive of all despotisms, which Russia ever had”. Kautsky talked of “industrial capitalism transformed from a private to a state capitalism”, and of a “bastard formation”. (Terrorism and Communism, 2009 p.18-19)

In 1925, Kautsky wrote a pamphlet, The International and Soviet Russia, in which he argued that the Bolsheviks “are today in the position, where they live from the domination and exploitation of the proletariat. But they do not desire to act in this position as a capitalist class. Therefore they stand above the proletariat and capital, in order to use them as a tool”. (2009 p.21) He would continue to develop this view until his death in 1938 – a literature that repays study in the light of this debate.

The incoherence of the “degenerated workers’ state” theory

The second major contribution of the book is to illustrate the increasing incoherence of Trotsky’s theory of the Russia as a degenerated workers’ state. Although this theory was adequate for the 1920s, when the prospect of reform remained open, once the working class had no prospect of holding power politically (once the Left Opposition was defeated), it also lost power economically (and the bureaucracy was sole master of the surplus product). As Joseph Carter put it in 1941: “Without political power the working class cannot be the ruling class in any sense.” (2009 p.94)

For a start, the theory couldn’t explain the forced march industrialisation and collectivisation that began in 1928, savagely exploiting both the working class and the peasantry. For Trotsky, the bureaucracy was an epiphenomenon, a “cancer” or a “stillborn child”, with no historical potential. In 1939 he warned that the war would be the test for the nature of the regime. Van der Linden makes the point strongly that the “bureaucratic degeneration was, for Trotsky, a phenomenon of short duration”. He argues that “this perception of historical time is almost always overlooked in commentaries on Trotsky”. He rightly points out how this aspect was “disconnected” from the theory after the war. (2009 p.67, p.161)

The theory would also struggle to explain the expansion of Stalinism, starting with the invasion of Poland, the Baltic States and Finland in 1939-40. Trotsky’s contortion that the Red Army was spreading workers’ control in Eastern Europe was embarrassingly far from reality. And extending Carter’s point, it made no sense to argue that new workers’ states were being created without the active intervention of the working class – and indeed being created over the bones of that class. As Cliff would put it in 1948, if the “buffer states” in Eastern Europe were workers’ states, then Stalin had led a proletarian revolution there. (2009 p.105, p.119)

Van der Linden rightly points out that Ernest Mandel emerged as the most important “moderniser” of the degenerated workers’ state theory after Trotsky’s death, though the period 1956-68 lacked significant creativity. (2009 p.163, p.178) During the 1970s the term degenerated workers’ state was increasingly abandoned (along with “countries with a socialist economic base”) for the more neutral but hardly more adequate “transitional society”. (2009 p.193)

However this theory was not able to account for the collapse of Stalinism in Europe in 1989-91. In 1956 Mandel had written: “The Soviet Union maintains a more or less even rhythm of economic growth, plan after plan, decade after decade, without the progress of the past weighing heavily on the possibilities of the future... All the laws of the development of the capitalist economy... which provoke a slowdown in the speed of economic growth... are eliminated.” (2009 p.281) This was not adequate at the time it was written, but such an optimistic prognosis simply wouldn’t stand up in the later period.

When it came to the end, the theory suffered from another significant anomaly: if the Soviet economy really had been so superior to capitalism, why was capitalism restored without any massive resistance from the direct producers? Overall the theory is “in part unorthodox, in part illogical”, in other words it is not consistent with the basic tenets of Marxism, such as the self-emancipation of the working class, nor is it internally coherent. (2009 p.283, p.315)

The inconsistencies of Cliff’s “state capitalism”

Another extremely valuable contribution van der Linden makes is to comprehensively debunk the myths propagated by the British SWP and its international co-thinkers, that Tony Cliff’s theory of state capitalism made him some kind of Copernicus-figure (as Chris Harman put it in the third volume of Cliff’s selected works, 2003 p.ix).

“State capitalism” had been used by German social democrats since before the turn of the century, and would be used by Bolsheviks like Bukharin before the revolution to describe the state ownership and regulation of capital, or as a market economy with state intervention. Lenin and others applied the term “state capitalism” in Russia during the 1920s while in fact characterising the USSR as some sort of workers’ state, albeit somewhat deformed or bureaucratised.

Cliff was not even the first anti-Stalinist or Trotskyist to dub Russia as state capitalism. Van der Linden cites Gavril Myasnikov, a metal worker and Bolshevik since 1906 and left-oppositionist from 1918, wrote a pamphlet The Current Deception (1931), which argued that a state capitalist ruling class had emerged in the 1920s. Myasnikov argued that “The whole of the state economy of the USSR represents as it were one big factory”. The bureaucracy was portrayed as more effective than the classical bourgeoisie, representing a higher form of production. Myasnikov drew the political conclusion that as a result, socialist sided with the Soviet Union in international conflicts. (2009 p.52)

Strangely, van der Linden does not discuss the state capitalist view of Hugo Urbahns, a left oppositionist who characterised Russia as state capitalist in the late 1920s. Many other authors also defined the USSR as state capitalist in the 1930s. Among them were Friedrich Adler, secretary of the socialist International who argued that the USSR was undergoing the primitive accumulation of capital, Helmet Wagner, a left-social democratic journalist, Friedrich Pollock and Ryan Worrall, an Australian Trotskyist active in Britain. In 1939, Worrall argued that the Stalinist bureaucracy was not a bourgeois class, but the function of the bureaucracy was identical to the function of the bourgeoisie. (2009 p.59)

CLR James and Raya Dunayevskya in the United States advocated a version of state capitalism.
From about 1946, Natalia Sedova, Trotsky’s widow no longer accepted that Russia was an sort of workers’ state, a view articulated within the Trotskyist movement by Grandizo Munis and Benjamin PĂ©ret. They characterised Russia as state capitalist in a pamphlet, The Revolutionaries in the Face of Russia and World Stalinism. (2009 p.107-08) Others in Britain such as RCP leader Jock Haston would also come to characterise the USSR as state capitalist.

Van der Linden points out the theoretical problem with treating Russia as one big factory, as Cliff would do in 1948 when he first published his state capitalist analysis. As he puts it in the book, “A capital which no longer competes with other capitals is not a capital in the Marxian sense. If the Soviet Union did not consist of many capitals, but only one, how then could there still be market competition”. (2009 112)

Cliff thought he could neutralise this objection about capital by postulating that international competition did not by means of commodities, but by means of use-values in the form of armaments. (2009 p.122) This was certainly an innovation, (though others such as Rosa Luxemburg, Paul Sweezy and Ed Sard had already pointed to arms competition) but not one consistent with Marx’s political economy, where capitals competed for a share of the surplus value pumped out of waged workers. Cliff also admitted that Soviet labour power was not a commodity. Ted Grant (1949) and others pointed out that Cliff’s theory was actually a description of a bureaucratic collectivist class, which was true up to a point – although their own degenerated workers’ state theories were also essentially also a species of (progressive) bureaucratic collectivism.

Cliff rejected Shachtman/Carter/Draper’s view of bureaucratic collectivism as “empty, abstract and therefore arbitrary” in 1948, largely on the grounds that it could not account for the impressive economic growth figures in the USSR. (2009 p.112 N.58) Cliff presented the USSR as the most advanced form of capitalism, its highest stage – another remarkable concession to the Stalinists.

Another problem for state capitalism was the nature of the Stalinist parties. For the James/Dunayevskya view as well as for Cliff, the Communist Parties were treated organic working class social democratic parties, rather than what they were – i.e. alien Stalinist proto-ruling classes within but not of the workers’ movement. The later victories of Stalinist parties in China, Vietnam and in Cuba, as well as attempts in Indonesia and elsewhere indicated that the latter characterisation had more purchase. Cliff appeared to read off his view purely from European conditions, where the level of development and the strength of bourgeois parties and social democracy restricted the Communist Parties’ ambitions.

One small quibble. Van der Linden states that Cliff’s 1948 critique of bureaucratic collectivism was reprinted in his Selected Works, volume 3 (2003). That’s what the volume states, as does an earlier collection, “Neither Washington nor Moscow” (1982) and indeed later editions of his “State Capitalism in Russia” (1988). In fact the recent reprints come from a 1968 version of the critique, a shorter account shorn of some cod-dialectics and much else found in the original 1948 version.

Van der Linden recounts many of the twists and turns of Cliff’s supporters in trying to square their version of “state capitalism” with reality. In 1980 Peter Binns and Mike Haynes wrote an article in International Socialism journal which denied that labour power was not a commodity in the USSR and that “waged labour in Marx’s sense of the word” did not exist there. This was consistent with Cliff and with reality, but conceded too much ground to new class theories. Duncan Hallas and Alex Callinicos intervened to restore ‘orthodoxy’, asserting the existence of normal waged labour and capital relations, at the expense of the truth about the reality in Russia. The book rightly describes this as “a good example of reasoning which considers the conclusion more important than the route along which the conclusion is obtained”. (2009 p.181)

The downfall of the Soviet Union “necessitated an important but seldomly explicitly recognised theoretical about-turn for Tony Cliff and his supporters”. Cliff had long defined state capitalism as a higher stage of development than Western capitalism. In 1948 Cliff had referred to the USSR as “the extreme theoretical limit which capitalism can reach” and “a transition stage to socialism”. This might have been at least plausible in the 1940s, after capitalism had suffered the Great Depression and the USSR seemed to be more dynamic. However when the Soviet Union reached a structural impasse, Cliff’s supporters simply de-emphasised this aspect of the theory, without any explicit accounting. As late as 1987, Mike Haynes criticised anyone who believed that the crisis of Soviet society was terminal. Chris Harman argued in 1990 that after rapid industrialisation from the 1930s to the 1960s walled off from the world market, the USSR had suffered a “normal accumulation crisis” which forced the bureaucracy “to try to change its ways”. (2009 p.258-59)

Van der Linden argues that it is only possible to define Russia as “state capitalist” in Cliff sense “only by reasoning with dubious analogies of the following sort:
i) In capitalism of type x, y occurred;
ii) Y occurred in the Soviet Union;
iii) Therefore, the Soviet Union is capitalist.

He concludes that “not a single theory of state capitalism succeeded in being both orthodox-Marxist as well as consistent with the facts”. (2009 p.260, p.313)

It is therefore impossible to read the book as anything other than a demolition of the SWP’s myth of state capitalism. Although this won’t be news to readers of Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty, the fact that such a distinguished review has come to that conclusion can only be welcomed.

The limits of bureaucratic collectivism

The book is also provides an account of the strengths and limitations of new class theories, usually grouped as “bureaucratic collectivism”. Van der Linden rightly rejects the view that the this theory originated with Bruno Rizzi, an obscure pro-fascist anti-semite whose fame (thanks to Trotsky) is in inverse proportion to his importance or originality.

The book argues that Lucien Laurat (Otto Maschi), an ex-communist social democrat whose book “The Soviet Economy” was published in 1931, was the first elaborate theorisation of this view. Perhaps Rakovsky and others in Russia deserve that accolade, but certainly Laurat was a pioneer and an innovator for this view. Laurat argued that the bureaucracy appropriated “surplus-value” from the workers, but not in the form of capitalist surplus-value. (2009 p.71, 73) He explicitly posed the question whether or not “another form of exploitation of man by man is in train of substituting itself for capitalist exploitation”. Despite the confused terminology, he regarded the USSR as a bastard formation.

Another pioneer was Simone Weil, who also sought to analyse “the mechanism exercised by the bureaucracy”. Van der Linden does not discuss the influential ideas of Yvan Craipeau, whose work was subjected to critique by Trotsky in 1937. Burnham and Carter’s 1937 break with Trotsky’s view is mentioned, though their influence on Rizzi is not drawn out. To be fair, the book does acknowledge that Carter described the USSR as a “huge national trust”. (2009 p.87)

A much less-known new class characterisation was made around the same time by Josef Guttmann, a highly placed young communist in Czechoslovakia who was expelled by the Stalinists for Trotskyism in 1932, after criticising the tactics of German communists who refused to form a united front against the Nazis. Guttmann apparently first put forward his view at Wittfogel’s house in 1938 and subsequently published in 1944 under the pseudonym “Peter Meyer”. In “The Soviet Union: a new class society”, (Politics, 48-55 and 81-85) and in a subsequent article, Guttmann attempted to grapple with the dynamics of Stalinism. He wrote:

“Different class societies always differ in the specific way in which the ruling class forces the producers to yield their surplus product. The specific way of capitalist exploitation is the sale of labour power by a free worker for its value; the specific way of the new class society ids the enslavement of the workers by the state.” (Peter Meyer (1947) Reply to Leon Blum, Modern Review, I, 319.)

Around this time Mandel criticised bureaucratic collectivism, challenging the view that the bureaucracy was a new ruling class. He argued that:
“Every class in history is characterized by an independent and fundamental function in the process of production – at a definite stage in the historic process – and by its own roots in the economic structure of society.
“Every class in history represents a definite stage of historic progress, including the classes that arise in periods, of historic recession whose task is to safeguard the technical conquests, etc. Each represents a definite stage in the social division of labour, a definite stage in the evolution of the ownership of the means of production.
“Every class in history is a historically, necessary organ fulfilling a necessary function from the standpoint of the development of the productive forces.
“Every class in history, advancing its candidacy to power – and all the more so, every ruling class! – is conscious of its role, possesses its own specific ideology and features; and attains a minimum of stability in its composition, a stability which it endeavours to transmit to the succeeding generations.
“Explicitly according to Marx, no social formation can become a class solely on the basis of its higher income, its political privileges or its monopolies (of education and so on).”

He went on: “The proponents of this theory have never tried to analyze the laws of the development of this new society and to show through what operation of social contradictions it would ever cease existing.” (Fourth International, VIII, 9 (82), November-December 1947, 2009 p.155)

Van der Linden appears to share these objections. He argues that the theory “cannot pretend consistency with Marxian orthodoxy anymore than both of the other main variants”. He poses three challenges to it:
1) the theory as a whole does not fit in the Marxist framework.
2) it offers mutually contradictory interpretations of the foundation of the rule of the bureaucratic class.
3) a ruling class emerged which did not exist as a class before it came to power. (2009 p.317)

I don’t think these objections are insurmountable. In first case, the theory is not compatible with a version of Marxism that rigidly adheres to a single historical series of stages – a unilinear scheme of societal development. Stalinism was clearly not a new, more progressive stage in human history, nor a necessary stage between capitalism and socialism. But this and the unilinear scheme has long been rejected by theorists in this tradition. A single trunk of development in broad outlines might by the overall pattern in human history, but it must also allow for branches and stems that led nowhere, blind alleys, historical abortions etc. If this is true for the epoch before capitalism ,then in principle why should it exclude such epiphenomenon in the modern world.

Bureaucratic collectivism also rejects a mechanical conception of base and superstructure, or rather than transfer of capitalism’s separation of economic and political spheres onto other class societies. In fact most class societies in history, the political and the economic were fused, which meant exploitation was more direct, sometimes collectively and certainly imposed largely by state coercion.
Certainly Stalinist exploitation was far more direct than under capitalism, with significant non-monetised means of subsistence allocated to the direct producers in return of the surplus product they created. No book of Capital’s proportions is necessary to uncover the social relations of Stalinism, unlike capitalism where wage labour masks exploitation. This perhaps accounts of the absence of a sophisticated economics by theorists. But it does not mean that the absence of laws of motion like those of capitalism imply the theory lacks any explanatory power.

Third, the idea that classes have to be born within earlier relations of production, and then acquire political consciousness would again do no justice to pre-capitalist class societies. Before capitalism, a new ruling class could coalesce out of an army of conquest, defeat the existing state power and impose its own forms of rule. This role was played by Stalinist party-armies, with roots in the pores of capitalist societies and in the labour movement, but developing independently with their own ideology and methods of domination. Such forces in Russian, China, Cuba etc pass the test of a ruling class in that they seized the surplus product and put it to their own use. This was different from the rise of the bourgeoisie – but then that’s the whole point – it is not about an analogy with capitalism, whatever the prefix.

And contrary to the premature obituary, van der Linden also indicates that some proponents of new class theories did grapple with the limitations of early versions of the theory – and did develop an explanation for the collapse of Stalinism. He quotes the work of Robert Brenner and Barry Finger in elaborating these ideas. It might also be noted that there have been attempts to apply it to China and to Cuba – for example by Sam Farber – which indicate its continued vitality.

The breakdown of the three theories

Van der Linden also demonstrates that the apparently tidy reduction of explanations of Stalinism to three positions is unhelpful, an argument raised by Martin Thomas in Historical Materialism journal (13, 3, 2006). This three-way bowdlerisation has been promulgated by the SWP to promote the apparent advances made by their own self-serving tradition – it can be found in Callinicos’s book on Trotskyism (1990), Cliff’s own work, and in others such as Jules Townshend’s, The politics of Marxism: the critical debates (1996).

Already there were signs in the 1940s and 1950s of a breakdown in the simple division into three apparently coherent theories. Van der Linden mentions the works of the Fritz Sternberg, Dieter Cyon, Paul Frölich and Leo Kofler as “interpretations without labels” immediately after the war. Later there were attempts to develop a different view of the Soviet Union by Rosdolsky, Chris Arthur, Pierre Naville and later Ticktin, where much of the baggage of the degenerated workers’ state theory was abandoned, but the bureaucracy was still not defined as a consolidated ruling class. (2009 p.129ff, p.211ff) Although the old theories continued to stagnate and the newer revisions brought in important empirical and theoretical insights, they were nevertheless unable to adequately develop a theory that was consistent with Marxist theory and the evolving reality in the Stalinist states.

There is another aspect to this conclusion which merits further discussion. Even within these theories, different political conclusions could be drawn. The invasion of Poland and Finland was only the first of such disputes; the Korean war, the suppression of East German uprising in 1953 and of Hungary in 1956; the Vietnam war and later the invasion of Afghanistan; and even the collapse of Stalinism itself. In each case writers using the same label often made different assessments and took different political stances. As such this demonstrated the weaknesses in all the approaches, as well as an uncoupling of theory and practice by many participants.

The irony is that at the very point of the collapse of Stalinism, there was no definitive Trotskyist explanation for the events unfolding before our eyes. Such a task remains to be completed. Van der Linden makes some useful analytical points about what needs to done, but the truth is that we are a long way from an authoritative answer. This book is welcome reminder of what has been achieved, but also how much further Marxism has to go to rejuvenate itself.

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