Was Stalinism the new barbarism?

Submitted by Wheeler_G96 on 22 February, 2021 - 3:55 Author: Paul Hampton
Stalinist gulag

Published in Workers' Liberty Series 1 No. 66 January 2001. Paul Hampton analyses the arguments used by Tony Cliff and others to rubbish the ideas developed in the 1940s by Max Shachtman and the “unorthodox” Trotskyists in the USA about the USSR. This is the second part of an article whose first part appeared in Workers’ Liberty 62.

By the late forties Shachtman came to the conclusion that Stalinism was “the new barbarism”. Cliff understood that there were two meanings of the term “barbarism’; the first sense meant a description of the period since 1917, given the belatedness of the socialist revolution, in which humanity had been subjected to the horrors of fascism, depression and war. Shachtman described Stalinism as “totalitarian or bureaucratic collectivism, a regime of modern barbarism, modern slavery, permanent police terror and super-exploitation”, echoing Trotsky’s verdict in 1939 that, “Fascism on one hand, and the degeneration of the Soviet state on the other outline the social and political forms of neo-barbarism’”. Cliff didn’t dispute this use of the word, but directed bis fire at another meaning, which made barbarism a particular stage in history:

“When Marx spoke of the ‘common ruin of the contending classes’ — as in Rome after slave society disintegrated — it was associated with a general decline of the productive forces. The Stalinist regime, with its dynamic development of the productive forces, certainly does not fit this description. Barbarism in Marx's concept meant the death of the embryo of the future in the womb of the old society. The embryo of socialism in the body of capitalism is social, collective, large scale production, and associated with it, the working class. The Stalinist regime not only did not weaken these elements, but spurred them on.” (1988: 342). The quotation is further confirmation that Cliff agreed with “orthodox” Trotskyism that the Stalinist bureaucracy was progressive, or at least the most progressive development of capitalism — its highest stage, because it developed the productive forces. He was miffed with Shachtman largely because Shachtman moved away from that view. But what did Shachtman really mean? He did not deny some development of the productive forces, nor the potential of the Russian working class. He was trying to fit bureaucratic collectivism into the broad epochal schema laid down by Marx, but remained within the parameters laid down by Trotsky in 1939: Stalinism was either part of the epoch of the transition to socialism inaugurated by the 1917 revolution; or it represented the collapse of civilisation (i.e. barbarism).'

Perhaps Shachtman was ultimately mistaken in conceiving of Stalinism as the new barbarism. But he was at least conscious of the origin of this error Cliff not the error itself). In his perspective, “The first thing to grasp about Stalinism is that world capitalism is at the end of its rope. It shows all the classical signs of decay and disintegration in addition to those special signs which are its own distinctive contribution.” He added however, that “Stalinism rose to solve a social crisis, in its own way, which other existing social forces could not or would not solve in the way that is appropriate to them”. It was his faulty analysis of capitalism, rather than of Stalinism, that was largely responsible for these errors on the place of Stalinism in history. Nevertheless, Shachtman exhibited great insight into how to formulate an answer:

“Trotsky himself once derided as ‘pseudo-Marxism’ the point of view which confines itself to historical mechanisms, formal analogies, converting historical epochs into a logical succession of inflexible social categories (feudalism, capitalism, socialism, autocracy, bourgeois republic, dictatorship of the proletariat...) Marxists, especially those educated by Lenin and Trotsky will readily admit that classes and nations can leap forward in history, can leap over stages, can be hurled backwards along the main line of historical development. But in speaking of Stalinist Russia they will obdurately refuse to acknowledge that history ‘permits’ sideleaps, mongrel social formations. unique contributions. Leap forward ? Yes! Thrust backward? Yes! Leap sideways? No ! — that is strictly prohibited by the party statutes!”

It might be reasonable to argue that the WP/ISL tradition was not especially coherent or lucid about the place of Stalinism in history, although neither were other theorists, including Cliff. Shachtman alluded briefly to Marx's comments on the so-called Asiatic mode of production, in which a state bureaucracy exploited the mass of peasants by extracting a tribute. Such a system, far from being an historical aberration, actually turns out to be the main line of development before capitalism, and is essential to any Marxist explanation of Ancient Egypt. India and China, as well as the pre-Hispanic Mayan, Inca and Aztec empires. A more fruitful parallel than barbarism would have been these oriental despotisms or tributary societies, in which the state played the role of surplus extraction, and formed the locus of the ruling class. Stalinism represented a comparable phenomenon alongside capitalism in the modern world, in countries where an indigenous capitalist class was either weak or pretty well non-existent.

The substance of Cliff's criticism is also sheer nonsense, contrasting Shachtman’s inconsistencies with “Marx’s and Engels’ analysis of capitalism, [where] the fundamentals — the place of capitalism in history, its internal contradictions, ete — remained constant from their earliest tackling of the problem until the end of their lives.” (1949: 10) They were studying a social formation that had existed for centuries and a society about which bourgeois writers had already produced mountains of material, both theoretical and empirical, on which they could build. For Trotsky and his followers the situation was completely different: the phenomenon had only just evolved, and studies of its nature and development were still extremely limited. Nor is it true that Marx's and Engels’ conception of capitalism was born fully formed — witness their developing understanding of surplus value and the distinction between labour and labour-power. Cliff preferred the safety of familiar words and the illusion of ideological rectitude to the search for the real contradictions and movement of Stalinism.

What is the historical function of the the Stalinist bureaucracy?

Cliff had given the bureaucracy the function of an historical surrogate for a normal bourgeois class, suggesting a view of its stability and longevity not shared by other theories. Shachtman had characterised the bureaucracy as a class without a past or future: it had arisen at a particular conjuncture after capitalism had been overthrown in 1917, but the failure of other socialist revolutions had left the USSR isolated. Shachtman borrowed this limited rationale from Trotsky, who had written, “the historical justification for the very existence of the bureaucracy is lodged in the the fact that we are very far removed from socialist society”. As a class without a future, Shachtman wanted to distinguish it from other ruling classes in history of greater power and durability; the bureaucracy could not solve the social crisis any more than capitalism could: only the working class had this capacity. The historical development and limits of Stalinism were defined by the belatedness of the international socialist revolution.

Shachtman, having sloughed off Trotsky’s name-tag in 1940, continued to apply the theory which Trotsky had developed in the late thirties. Joseph Carter and Hal Draper were more innovative, utilising Christian Rakovsky’s insights and Trotsky’s more critical political economy from the early thirties. Carter had understood the inherent limits of the system from the beginning, writing in 1937 that the “progressive role” of the bureaucracy was exhausted and that “economic disorder, dislocation and crises are now the rule rather than the exception”. Draper later developed the theory of bureaucratic collectivism, defining the driving force of the system as, “the contradiction between (1) the absolute need of the economy to be planned, since in a statified econagny only the Plan can perform the role in society which under capitalism is the function of the market and market relations; and (2) the impossibility of workably planning a modern complex society from the top down under conditions of bureaucratic totalitarianism.” This gave Stalinism a very definite lifespan, both in terms of its economic potential and its liability to social challenge:

To denominate Stalinism as a social system does not confer on it any determinate lease of life, nor any historical era of existence. History does not give social systems any uniform term: early tribalism must have lasted for unknown millennia; slavery for perhaps hundreds of centuries; the feudalism of the Middle Ages for over a thousand years. (If anything, the terms seem to be shrinking, logarithmically.) Unlike any previous system, bureaucratic collectivism had hardly appeared on the scene before it was shaken by economic and political convulsions. The revolution against Stalinism did not have to remain a vision for a couple of hundred years, as was true of the revolution against capitalism: it appeared in life in little more than a couple of decades — in Budapest, in East Germany, in Poland, at least.

“State capitalism” seemed to bring a veneer of Marxological sophistication to the discussion, but in fact it was a substitute for thinking , especially as Cliff failed to prove that the bureaucracy was a capitalist class, only asserting that it must be an agent of capitalism. A Capitallike analysis was unnecessary given the structure of the USSR — its laws of motion were not disguised and hidden as under capitalism, because political and economic power were fused together. The request for complex economic laws of motion in societies other than capitalism, is a red herring. One could argue about the extent to which they developed this theory, or about its validity, but it is only possible to dismiss the WPYISL tradition by ignoring a large quantity of the literature they produced for eighteen years.

What is the motive of exploitation in Bureaucratic Collectivist society?

Having tried to establish their disorientation on the place of Stalinism in history, Cliff attacked Shachtman on the motive for exploitation in bureaucratic collectivism. In his revised version, he quoted Shachtman’s comment that, “In the Stalinist state, production is carried on and extended for the satisfaction of the needs of the bureaucracy, for the increasing of its wealth, its privileges, its power”, forgetting again that this expression came from Trotsky. Cliff then sallied forth with the silly point, made nowhere by Shachtman or his co-thinkers, that: “if the Bureaucratic Collectivist society is geared to the ‘needs of the bureaucracy’ is not subordinated to capital accumulation — there is no reason why the rate of exploitation should not decrease in time, and as the productive forces in the modern world are dynamic — this will lead, will-nilly, to the ‘withering away of exploitation’”. (1988: 343-344)

No one in the WP/ISL tradition ever argued that exploitation would wither away under Stalinism — quite the opposite, they pointed to its viciousness in the USSR. If taken seriously, Cliff's view would preclude Marxists from explaining any society other than capitalism — except by reference to Marx’s flippant comment about the size of the ruling class’s stomachs — hardly adequate to explain the great ancient civilisations. It is also a methodological volte-face. In reality Gand in Marx’s theory), the mode of exploitation, or the mode of surplus extraction, is the determinant of classes. The motives of the ruling class are simply not the principal issue.

What are the class relations under Bureaucratic Collectivism?

Cliff made another methodological twist when he argued that the character of the class struggle in any epoch, is “dependent on the nature of the oppressed class itself: the position it has in the process of production, the relation between its members in this process, and the relation to the owners of the means of production. These are not determined by the mode of appropriation or mode of recruitment of the ruling class.” (1949: 1-2) Cliff cited the Spartan ruling class, the medieval clergy and the Mameluke period of “Arab feudalism” as examples of ruling classes which collectively exploited the peasantry. His point was that, “the big difference between the mode of appropriation and recruitment of the Russian bureaucracy and that of the bourgeoisie, in itself does not at all prove that Russia represents a non-capitalist society, a new class society of Bureaucratic Collectivism. To prove this, it is necessary to show that the nature of the toiling class — its conditions of living and struggle — is fundamentally different in Russia from... capitalism.” (1 949: 2) Here Cliff is asserting that if the Russian workers are proletarians in the Marxist sense, then the mode of production can only be capitalism.

However the analogy doesn’t make sense in this context: for one thing, the contrast between a society like Sparta, in which a ruling class collectively exploits the slave class, with a society like Athens in which a ruling class of landowners privately exploit their slaves, sounds like a better analogy for the relationship between capitalism and bureaucratic collectivism. During the middle ages, matters were different: the clergy were in fact a sub-section of a ruling class, whose main (private) landowners could inherit the family’s property (i.e. land). The collective exploitation of peasantry on church land was only a supplement to, rather a dominant feature of that epoch. Also it is not clear that parts of the Middle East during the Mameluke period (1 250-1517), where again a ruling class based on the state collectively exploited the peasantry, can be called “Arab feudalism’. Cliff introduced examples which served only to muddle the issues, and rested his case on the false assumption that if the basic exploiting class was a peasantry, then it must be feudalism.

In reality, peasants were exploited in different ways in precapitalist class societies; by paying rent, by paying a tribute in tax or in kind, and also by compulsory military service. That these matters were of principal concern for peasants is witnessed by the extent of peasant revolts throughout the world, some facilitating the downfall of rulers and of whole civilisations. Cliff's point, that it makes no difference to the direct producers how the ruling class appropriate their product is simply wrong; he is more concerned with establishing by analogy that the Russian workers can only be exploited by a (state) capitalist ruling class, than engaging with Shachtman’s real views.

What is the nature of the working class in Russia?

If Cliff failed to make an impression on historical matters, then he certainly felt on stronger ground when he raised the question of the nature of the Russian workers. He had seen in the New International the term “slave labour” used loosely for the Russian working class (Trotsky too had called them “semi-slaves’). Shachtman, said Cliff, had tried to avoid the conclusion that the Russian workers were not real proletarians, but denied that a labour market existed in the USSR and claimed that slave labour was “the basic factor of production”. Cliff recoiled in mock horror: “... if Shachtman is right and there is no proletariat in the Stalinist regime, Marxism as a method, as a guide for the proletariat as the subject of historical change, becomes superfluous, meaningless. To speak of Marxism in a society without a proletariat. is to make of Marxism a supra-historical theory.” (1988:348-350) Instead Cliff argued that a labour market did exist in the USSR under Stalin, citing as proof that: “the Russian worker, notwithstanding all restrictions, moves from one factory to another much more than the German worker, or for that matter, than any other worker in the whole world.” [and] ...“All the factories producing tanks and aeroplanes, machinery, etc, were run on wage labour.”

This is another blatant falsification. Far from denying the socialist potential of the working class in Russia, the WP/ISL went on arguing for it even after their American perspectives began to wither. For example, Max Martin wrote in 1957: "... if the Hungarian revolution has struck shattering blows at the myth of totalitarian invincibility and confirmed the Marxist analysis of Stalinism as a Class society in general, it has also demonstrated once again the socialist view of the key role of the working class in the struggle against all oppression and as the bearer of the socialist emancipation of society”. Shachtman also gave a devastating answer to Cliff's spurious assertion:

“The modern Stalinist bureaucracy has to its credit the development of an industrial basis for the socialist reorganisation of Russian society... This development has been grossly overrated, for Russia is even today far behind the advanced countries of capitalism. The development is nonetheless unmistakeable. Its real achievement from the class point of view, however, is the shaping and maintaining of its own grave-digger... This grave-digger is the new Russian working class, which was to total, in the figures projected for the end of the third Five Year Plan (1942), some 32,000,000 wage and salary earners, with one-third or more in industry proper, and not counting at least 10,000,000 toilers in the slave camps. Even if these figures require some modification, it cannot make a serious difference. The change between 1913 and today, between 1917 and today, certainly between 1921 and today and even between 1928 and today, is, in this respect at least, of tremendous importance. What is more, the period of Stalinist rule has seen the formation of what we called the new type of working class — old and familiar to the main capitalist countries, but not to Russia. Schwarz provides all the necessary data on this score... Today the process of developing a modern working class without rural ties is all but completed in the Soviet Union.”

Cliff was also wrong about a labour market in Russia. He confused the movement of labour with a market for the buying and selling of labour-power. But there was no market, if, as Cliff himself recognised, there were no capitalists to compete for workers, nor any reserve army of labour which Marx saw as fundamental to the operation of a labour market, nor indeed a monetary system which allowed for comparison of the “commodities” produced (including of course the labour-power). When Russian workers might spend nearly as long queueing for bread as they spent at work earning the roubles to pay for it, this was indeed a very odd market system. Shachtman recognised that Russia had a modern industrial working class, divorced from ownership and control of the means of production, and therefore forced to work. But the form of exploitation was not the same as wage labour; the surplus was extracted by the state and the state rationed (“planned”) its use, including distributing the means of consumption. Within this system, slave labour played an actual or potential role in coercing the proletariat to work. From this class structure, the workers derived their interest and their power to overturn the system and replace it with socialism: but what they lacked was the space to develop the self-conscious politics and the organisation to do so.

• Part 3 of this article will deal with Cliff's arguments on the nature of the Communist Parties


1. Trotsky, “Again and Once More Again on the Nature of the USSR’. In Defense of Marxism, 3rd edition, (1990: 9, 31). Shachtman (1947). ‘The Nature of the Russian State’, New International, April 1947. Cater reprinted as ‘Stalinism and the Marxist Tradition’ in Matgamna. (ed). The Fate of the Russtai Revolution 1998).

2. Shachtman, ‘The Russian Stalinist Social System’. Labor Action, 10th May, (1954:2); and Shachtman, °25 Years of the Russian Revolution’, New international, November. (1942: 294) {My emphasis] The reference to Trotsky is found in Appendix L of, The History of the Russian Revolution. Vol 1. (1980: 264).

3. Draper took up these issues in the first volume of his Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, (1977). For more recent contributions on this question, see Chris Wickham in ‘The Other Transition’, Past and Present. 103 (1984). and ‘The Uniqueness of the East’, Journal of Peasant Studies, 12 (1985).

4. Trotsky. ‘The Kirov Assassination’, December 28th 1934, Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1934-35, (1971: 118). Carter, ‘The Class Nature of the Stalinist State’, IB OCSPC No2, December, (1937: 10) Draper, ‘Stalinist Imperialism and the Cold war Crisis’, from Labor Action, May 10th 1954, reprinted in Draper (ed) Introduction to Independent Socialism, (1963; 102-103). Draper wrote this in 1967 and it was reprinted in a pamphlet, The Dynamics of Bureaucratic Collectivism, (V974: 45).

5. Martin, ‘The Working class vs. The Totalitarian Myth’, Labor Action, 13th May, (1957: 2). [My emphasis] Shachtman, “A Valuable Aid for Understanding Russia’. review of ‘Labor in the Soviet Union’ by Soloman Schwarz, New International, March-April, (1953:102). [My emphasis]

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