Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Ambiguities of Hillel Ticken

This article first appeared in Critique #20-21, in 1987.

This article was written a long time ago and in some ways may only be of sectarian interest now. However in polemicising with Hillel Ticktin about his analysis of Russia it does make a series of points about the problems involved in trying to argue that Russia and the other Stalinist states were neither workers' states nor capitalist states.

I have followed the ongoing Mandel/Ticktin debate with considerable interest (though not agreeing with either of them) and would like to make a brief intervention from the 'state capitalist' viewpoint. Ticktin has two important advantages over Mandel: his superior empirical knowledge of the USSR and the evident untenability of the workers' state position. The Soviet state is not composed of, controlled by, or representative of, the workers; indeed it is clearly a machine for the repression of the working class. Any one who persists in calling such a structure a 'workers' state', no matter how degenerated, is bound to entangle themselves in contradictions, evasions and ambiguities. That Ticktin has disclosed a number of these in Mandel is to his credit, but unfortunately it is insufficient to mask the numerous problems in his own analysis of the USSR. If anything there are more 'ambiguities' in Ticktin than there are in the Trotskyist position. I would demonstrate this by raising six very basic questions which, I believe, find no satisfactory answer in the Ticktin analysis.

1. What is the class structure of the USSR? The theory of class struggle is, it need hardly be said, fundamental to Marxism. How then is this theory to be applied in the case of the USSR? For Mandel there are, essentially, two classes, the working class and the peasantry, and the working class is the ruling class. This answer may be unacceptable but it is an analysis in class terms. In Ticktin a class analysis is completely absent. The dominant social group he calls the 'elite'. But 'elite' is a concept from bourgeois social science not Marxism. If it is to be incorporated into Marxist theory at all it must be as 'the elite of a particular class'. Also Ticktin in his articles refers repeatedly to 'the working class' in the USSR (e.g. 'It is our duty to assist the working class to overcome its passivity' Critique 12,p.l36) but in recent verbal debate and conversation Ticktin told me there was no working class in the USSR only a 'workforce'. Which is his 'real' position I don't know, but he certainly doesn't consider the working class the ruling class and if it isn't who is? To have a working class on the one hand and a non-class elite on the other is hopeless theoretical electicism. Of course Ticktin is entitled to say that the whole idea of social classes is not applicable to the USSR but then what he is saying is that Marxism is not applicable to the USSR.

2. What is the class nature of the Soviet state machine? This question is, of course, derivative from the first, but it sharpens it. For Marxists the very existence of a state machine is a product of, and testifies to, the existence of irreconcilable class conflicts, and every state is a weapon in the hands of one class (the ruling class) for the suppression of other classes. This basic Marxist proposition raises major problems for Mandel, and no less major ones for Ticktin. If there is no ruling class and a doubtful working class there can't really be class conflict. So how does Ticktin explain the monstrous Soviet state machine? The only answer he can give in terms of his analysis is that the Soviet state is a product of conflict between various social groups (elite, intelligentsia, workers etc.), but if this explanation is valid for the Soviet state it opens the door to non-class theories of other states. In other words we are once again moving away from Marxism.

3. Is there exploitation in the Soviet Union? The term 'exploitation' is widely used in an emotive and moral sense, but for Marxists it has a precise scientific meaning as disclosed in the theory of value and surplus value. Mandel who accepts this theory but believes the USSR is non-capitalist is logically forced to argue that there is no rule of the law of value in the USSR and no exploitation in the Marxist sense. Ticktin, however, does refer to exploitation (e.g. Critique 12,p. 136) but he denies the rule of the law of value (otherwise he would have to see the USSR as state capitalist) and he denies the existence of profits, which means that he is not using the Marxist concept of exploitation. So what does Ticktin mean by 'exploitation'? And does he realise that if he has a 'new' conception of exploitation it requires a whole new economic theory to sustain it?

4. What is the position of the USSR in the course of historical development? According to Mandel the USSR is a society transitional between capitalism and socialism whose transition is blocked by bureaucratic degeneration. There are many good reasons for rejecting this placement but at least it is a location. In Ticktin, however, we find only that the USSR is 'in the limbo of history'. Now 'limbo' has a very definite theological meaning (a region on the border of hell, the abode of pre-Christian righteous persons and unbaptised persons) but as far as I know it has yet to receive any social scientific, still less Marxist, definition. Perhaps Comrade Ticktin will enlighten us? This point is important because Ticktin's analysis contains no criteria for deciding whether the USSR is historically progressive or reactionary in relation to Western capitalism. Hopefully Ticktin's answer would be that both systems are equally reactionary but from the standpoint of the analysis this answer is arbitrary. Consequently the analysis is constantly in danger of slipping into pro-Stalinism (on the grounds that it is non-capitalist) or pro-western capitalism (on the grounds of more freedom, democracy etc.). The latter, it should be remembered, was the evolution of Max Shachtman and, even more dramatically, James Burnham, Ticktin's predecessors in regarding the USSR as neither a capitalist nor a workers' state. I see no way in which, on the basis of his curent position, Ticktin can resolve this problem.

To make matters worse Ticktin tells us that the USSR possesses 'a method of production which is not a mode of production' (Critique 9,p.61). Clearly denying the existence of a mode of production neatly avoids the problem of having to say what that mode of production is. Unfortunately there is a small price to be paid for this dubious advantage, the abandonment of yet another fundamental concept of Marxism.

5. What is the nature of other "Communist" regimes? For Socialists the key problem is the analysis, not of the Soviet Union in isolation, but of all those societies in which the economy is state owned but the workers don't control the state. Most Marxists regard the USSR as the test case for all these societies. There was a period shortly after the war when some, including Mandel, attempted to maintain a distinction between the workers' state in the USSR and bourgeois states in Eastern Europe, but this attempt was soon abandoned in the face of the obvious identity of their basic social and economic structures. Today, Mandel is so keen to assert this identity that he was even prepared to call Pol Pot's Kampuchea a workers' state for fear that any alternative characterisation would call into question Trotskyist orthodoxy on Russia. Ticktin however tells us nothing about these regimes. One state 'in limbo' and without a mode of production is problematic enough, but fourteen or fifteen is piling absurdity on absurdity. And what of the statist economies that are proliferating in the Third World? Are these countries somehow descending into 'limbo' and losing their modes of production, and if so what should be the socialist attitude to this bizarre process?

6. What is the relationship between the USSR and the world economy? Ever since Engels wrote The Principles of Communism in 1847, Marxist internationalism and rejection of 'socialism in one country' has been founded on the recognition of a world economy and world market from which it is impossible for any individual country to escape indefinitely. This was the position of Lenin and of Trotsky. It was for this reason that Trotsky always denied the possibility of the permanent survival of even a workers' state in Russia alone. Ticktin is therefore right when he charges Mandel with opening the door (objectively not subjectively) to 'socialism in one country' by maintaining the survival of a workers' state in the USSR for sixty years. But he does not realise that the same charge, on the same grounds, can be made against him. If he denies the subordination of the Soviet economy to the laws of the world economy, which he must if he denies that it is capitalist, then he is saying that it is possible for one economy to develop according to its own laws of motion, parallel with and independently of, world capitalism. If this has been possible for the Soviet economy then there is no reason, in principle, why a different economy (with a more favourable balance of social forces, different policies) should not develop according to socialist laws of motion.

Marxism is not a dogma, but neither is it a content-less method, still less a series of unconnected ideas and propositions. It has a central core of integrated concepts and categories which form a coherent theory of history and world outlook. It is precisely key concepts from this central core that Ticktin abandons or disregards in his analysis of the USSR. The result is not Marxism but an eclectic mish-mash and a thoroughgoing empiricism (which does not exclude useful empirical insights, but does exclude a consistent theory).

The root of the problem, for both Mandel and Ticktin, is, nonetheless, a dogma: the fixed idea that 'Capitalism = private property; state property = workers' state'. In the nineteenth century these equations more or less reflected the reality of the class struggle. In the second half of the twentieth century they are completely inadequate. Mandel's thinking begins and ends with them. Ticktin has broken with the second equation but not with the first. As a consequence Ticktin is, in one sense, less wrong than Mandel, but he is also less coherent.

This is not the place for a sustained advocacy of the theory of state capitalism. However I would point out that the theory does at least provide clear and consistent answers to the questions I have raised. There are classes and class struggle in the USSR, the principal classes being the state capitalist bureaucracy (which though it differs in form from the western bourgeoisie, plays essentially the same economic and social role) and the working class. The Soviet state is a product of the irreconcilable conflict of interest between these classes, and the state machine is an instrument in the hands of the bureaucracy for the suppression of the working class. There is exploitation in the Marxist sense: the bureaucracy extracts surplus value from the working class and is compelled to do so to maintain its competitive position. State capitalism is the highest stage of capitalism marking the completion within one country of the process of concentration of capital. All the so-called 'communist' regimes are state capitalist, and their proliferation is an expression of a global tendency to state capitalism inherent in capitalism. The USSR (and every other state capitalism) is subordinate to the world economy and thus ultimately subject to the law of value. Its dynamic is determined by its competition with the rest of world capitalism.

I am well aware, of course, that clarity and consistency are not fashionable virtues on the academic left, but they do have their uses, especially for revolutionary practice.

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