KOREA COLUMN 23
The Nature of Stalinism
Stalinism is an appropriate name for the political regime operating in the Soviet Union in the nineteen thirties and forties because a) Joseph Stalin was its absolute ruler in those years, and b) the name rightly differentiates this regime from socialism or communism in general, and from the Leninist period of Soviet power that preceded it. However, the term does not tell us anything about the economic, social or class character of the society over which Stalin and Stalinism presided.
What was the economic dynamic of Stalinist Russia – was it fundamentally the same or different from that of western capitalism? Was it fundamentally a class divided society or a classless society, or was it a transitional society on the way to becoming classless? If there were classes in Russia, what classes were they and which was the ruling class? These questions which were all bound up with one another and in reality all boiled down to one – the class nature of Soviet Union – were the subject of intense debate among socialists and Marxists for more than sixty years.
The issue was hugely significant not only in Russia itself and in other similar ‘communist’ countries, but everywhere in the world because the Soviet Union claimed, and to a considerable extent exercised, leadership of the whole international communist movement. The issue remains important today, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and of East European communism, partly because some Stalinist and semi-Stalinist regimes survive – most notably North Korea – partly for historical reasons, and partly because, theoretically, it goes to the heart of what we mean by capitalism and socialism.
In the course of the debate four main positions emerged:1) that the Soviet Union was socialist; 2) that it was a degenerated workers’ state; 3) that it was neither capitalist nor socialist but bureaucratic collectivist; 4) that it was state capitalist.
The first position was by far the most common – it was shared by mainstream ‘communists’, many social democrats, and by the right, and therefore became the ‘common sense’ view - but it was also the most damaging. On the left it often involved the denial of well established historical fact, but at bottom it rested on the idea that the essence of socialism is simply state ownership of property, not working class self emancipation or workers’ power. The right agreed with this because they regarded workers’ power as impossible anyway and knew that identifying Stalinism with socialism discredited socialism in the eyes of the masses.
The degenerated workers’ state position was associated with Trotsky and Trotskyism. It argued that the Stalinist bureaucracy had betrayed the aims of the Russian Revolution and was a counter revolutionary force hostile to the development of socialism in the Soviet Union and to workers’ revolution internationally. It called for a political revolution to overthrow Stalinism. However, it also insisted that, by virtue of its nationalised property relations, the Soviet economy remained post capitalist and this made Russia a workers’ state which was more progressive than world capitalism and had to be defended by socialists. The strength of Trotsky’s position was that it combined revolutionary socialist opposition to both Stalinism and western capitalism. Its weakness was that it opened the door to separating socialism from the self emancipation of the working class.
The bureaucratic collectivist position was first developed within the Trotskyist movement (particularly by the American, Max Schachtman) in opposition to the workers’ state view, but has subsequently been adopted by various academics. It rejects the idea that state ownership equals socialism or a workers’ state, but accepts the idea that state ownership means the abolition of capitalism. It maintains that Russia represented a new form of class society, with a new ruling class. Unfortunately the advocates of this theory have not been able to identify clearly the economic dynamic of this new mode of production or its position in historical development. This has produced confusion as to whether ‘bureaucratic collectivist’ societies were more or less progressive than capitalism and has led many its supporters to move to the right, including support for US imperialism, on the grounds that Stalinism was worse than capitalism.
The designation of Stalinist Russia as state capitalist seems to have been there from the beginning among some Trotskyists and other oppositionists, but the most coherent theory of state capitalism was developed in the late 1940s by Tony Cliff, founder of the International Socialist Tendency. Cliff’s point of departure was that if Stalinism had brought socialism or workers’ states to Eastern Europe (and North Korea) – by means of the Red Army and without workers’ revolutions – then Marx’s fundamental ideas on the revolutionary role of the working class would have to be abandoned. Faced with the choice between the state property criterion and the self emancipation of the working class, between socialism from above and socialism from below, Cliff opted decisively for the latter.
This led him to look beyond property relations as such to the actual relations of production underlying forms of property. Where state property was concerned Cliff argued that it had existed in many different societies and that the real question for Marxists was which class owned or controlled the state. He then showed, through detailed analysis, that the real relations of production in the Soviet economy, were capitalist relations: the control of the means of production by a small minority, with the large majority forced to live by the sale of their labour power and be exploited in the process.
Cliff also showed that once Stalinist Russia was seen in the context of the world economy rather than in isolation the idea that it was basically a planned economy was false. When the Stalinist bureaucracy opted for ‘socialism in one country’ it committed itself, in fact, to competition with western capitalism on capitalism’s terms, i.e. the accumulation of capital, and thus to the ruthless subordination of living labour (the workers) to dead labour (capital) – precisely the fundamental characteristic of capitalism as analysed by Marx in the Communist Manifesto and Capital.
The theory of state capitalism was not only the theory that accorded best with the Marxism of Marx, but it was also the position that best stood the test of time and events. The fall of communism in 1989-91 proved that far from constituting a superior, more progressive mode of production the so-called socialist countries had lost their economic competition with the west. It showed that the working class not only did not control these states, but also felt no allegiance to them. Finally the way the old Stalinist bureaucrats simply ‘moved sideways’ from state to private ownership, without, in most cases, losing power proved there was no fundamental, i.e. class, difference between the two systems.
The theory of state capitalism is thus a hugely important development of Marxism, essential for understanding the world in the 20th and 21st centuries and for continuing the struggle to change it.
25 May 2007