the commune bristol reading group 25th april: the soviet union

The next Bristol reading group session will be on Sunday 25th April at 6pm in Café Kino on Ninetree Hill, Stokes Croft, Bristol.

The session will discuss the nature of the Soviet Union and the crushing of workers’ self-emancipation. Suggested background reading below. All welcome: email for more info.

***Main reading is starred.
V.I. Lenin, “The economic basis of the withering away of the state“, chapter V, in State and Revolution, (1917)

***Maurice Brinton “The Bolsheviks and workers’ control: the state and counter-revolution“, Solidarity Pamphlet, (1975?)

Don Filtzer on labour and the Soviet state

Was the Soviet Union socialist, communist, state capitalist or something else?
The following is the journal Aufheben’s summary of the debate:

***”What was the USSR? Part 1: Trotsky and state capitalism“, Aufheben, 6, Autumn 1997

***”What was the USSR? Part 2: Russia as a non-mode of production“, Aufheben, 7, Autumn 1998

***”What was the USSR? Part 3” Aufheben, 8, Autumn 1999

Aufheben’s attempt to go further than the previous theories:
What was the USSR? Part 4: Towards a theory of the deformation of value” Aufheben, 9, Autumn 2000

9 thoughts on “the commune bristol reading group 25th april: the soviet union

  1. As with all these state capitalist theories, they are only able to square the circle by revising the nature of capitalism;

    “However, we would argue that the essence of capitalism is not the operation of the ‘law of value’ as such but value as alienated labour and its consequent self-expansion as capital. In this case, it is the alienation of labour through the sale of labour-power that is essential.[21] The operation of the ‘law of value’ through the sale of commodities on the market is then seen as merely a mode of appearance of the essential relations of value and capital.”

    But capital is only self expanding value. What is the law of value except this? Far from the sale of commodities only being a mode of appearance of the law of value, it is its essential condition. See capital Volume 1 line 1;

    “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities,”[1] its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.”

    Capitalist society is one within which the economy is based on the immense accumulation of commodities. In the USSR there was no accumulation of commodities. So it was not a capitalist society. End of story.


  2. Hi both. Yes, it should be an interesting discussion. I’m also trying to read Marce van der Linden’s ‘Western Marxism and the Soviet Union’ although I can’t see me finishing it before the session. Have either of you read it? It’s quite a broad survey of all the theories. Personally, I’ve yet to be convinced by any of the theories currently in circulation, including state capitalism, but then again I’ve not really studied this topic in any detail. So its a good opportunity to become more familiar with the the various theories around.


  3. No sorry. The theory of state capitalism began with the Mensheviks in 1918. Lenin then created a version to explain NEP. It was then taken over the Democratic Centralists – who correctly in my opinion – pointed out in the mid-1920s that the bureaucracy was counter revolutionary and the economy was capitalist – so the USSR was state capitalist. The introduction of the five year plans in 1928 abolished capitalism in the economy and introduced bureaucratic central planning. Anton Ciligia continued to call the economy state capitalist on the grounds that the bureaucracy was a new class, which exploited the working class. He did not deal with the issue of planning versus commodity production.
    Trotsky alternatively said that the USSR was a degenerated workers state – a bureaucratically planned economy overruled by a authoritarian bureaucracy akin to fascism – but was not capitalist. The bureaucracy received privileges but was a caste not a class.
    A different theory of bureaucratic collectivism was developed first by Bruno Rizzi in 1930. Rizzi’s book is pretty incoherent – he thinks National Socialism, that is the Nazis, were a stage towards socialism. But the label was taken up by Max Schactman and Burnham in the US SWP in the late 1930s. Its an exaggeration though to say they ever developed a theory.
    State capitalism was the resurrected by Tony Cliff after WWII. His theory is three quite different theories, first; the USSR is not a socialist state and therefore its a capitalist state second; its not a socialist state and its not a capitalist economy, there is no labour market, there is central planning, there is no law of value, there are no profits, there are no markets etc. but capitalism is introduced from the outside by military competition with capitalist states third; its not a socialist state and it is a capitalist economy, the law of value does exist, there is the over accumulation of capital and there are profits and the organic composition of capital.
    Three different theories all in the same book!
    So its a case of take your pick. All of the various state capitalist theories to follow have basically followed one of the three Cliff variants.
    Coherence and consistency are not an issue for the state capitalists!
    Ticktin’s theory in the early 1970s says that the USSR is a waste economy. It is driven by the need to create waste. And yes that does sound ridiculous and it is.
    The CIA defined the USSR as a bureaucratically centrally planned economy within which the law of value, profits, markets, competition, commodity production, private ownership, the capitalist class, etc. were abolished.
    Largely agreeing with Trotsky’s description.
    The contentious issues are whether the bureaucracy was a caste or class? Question is does it really matter? It had aspects of both.
    Whether or not there was the law of value or profit in the economy? There wasn’t. But that doesn’t stop people saying there was.
    Whether or not there was “exploitation”? There was not capitalist exploitation, but there was the extraction of surplus labour by the bureaucracy from the working class, which could IMO be called exploitation.
    What does any of it matter now anyway? In as much as the USSR no longer exists and this is no longer therefore, a programmatic question, in other words we cannot do anything about it, positively or negatively any more.
    Key point is that the restoration of capitalism in the former bureaucratically planned economies in the 1990s created globalisation and extended the world market by a third. That obviously refutes state capitalism, as capitalist restoration is impossible, if the state is already capitalist.


  4. Yes I have read the Dutch version of Marcel van der Linden’s Book, I would think it is basically the same (though the English version is more recent, it may have additions and revisions, I’m not sure). I thought the book very useful as a summary of many of the different theories. He himself suggests that Russia under Stalinism can best be seen as a kind of non-capitalist mdernisation dictatorship – which actually comes close to Aufheben’s suggestion that Russia was a kind of incomplete capitalism, capitalism in a state of becoming.

    My own opnion? For many years, I accepted basically Cliff’s analysis of Russia as state capitalist from 1928 onwards. And yes, the basics of capitalism are there: wage labour, explotation, and competition (through the arms race whcih forced the Russion state to compare productivity, and ush for productivity rises in reaction to the West, analogous to market competition). And, from near autarchy , the system moved more and more into the direction of producing for the world market.

    I still think Russia was state capitalist. But I don’t agree with Cliff’s analysis anymore, because he put the start of state capitalism in 1928. There was wage labour, expoitation, before that – and market competition from 1921 onwards (NEP). Russia tried to break with capitalism in 1917-1918 – but failed. After that, it was capitalist, in essence, though with remnants of workers’power during the first years, to be gradually suffocated or even smashed (Kronstadt…).


  5. Well if you accept Cliff’s theory then you’ll know that wage labour, exploitation and competition are not there.
    I think you could say that the USSR was state capitalist in the 1920s but not in the 1930s with the advent of planning. As paradoxically Cliff conceded. (Its the second theory of his 1948 book)


  6. Exploitation WAS there, according to Cliff’s theory (and here, I still agree with his theory). Competition also – on an international scale, through the arms race. Strictly speaking, following his original reasoning – the USSR as One Big Company – there was no wage labour, because, when you can sell your labuor power only to one buyer – the One Big Company, the state – , the sale is no real sale, and the whole thing begins to look like slavery, more than like wage labour. I think Cliff was inconsistent and unclear on this.

    The thing becomes much clearer if you see that te state may own the whole economy, but seperate state enterprises bought labour power, and even competed for workers. Ther was a labour market, there was wage labour, in the USSR. Later followers of Cliff’s theory – SWP people like Chris Harman -revised the theory in this drection, by the way. This made the theory some\what more onsistent. Stilll, the timing – capitalism only since 1929 – remained wrong, as was the acceptance of pre-1929 Russia (after 1917) as somehow a workers’ state.


  7. hi,
    has anyone of you read the explanation by aufheben? i find it the most complete so far, because it goes beyond the prevailing sociological approach ( to have one fixed definiton of wage, labour power, commodity, state capitalism… and then looking for traces of these categories inside the ussr… what trotsky’s tradition and state cap tradition were doing). Aufheben try to do an exposition with simultaneous critique of these categories where they show they come from a particular tradition of the 2nd International (i.e. the belief that state monopoly cap was the highest stage of cap, thus the ussr was the most developed form of cap…) I think that only with historicisng the issue of the nature of ussr we can avoid the rather sociological/scholastic polemics


  8. The sociological approach – that is one that rests on categories like wage labour, labour power, the commodity, state capitalism – is really the only one to take if one is analysing an economy. Or rather a capitalist economy which is defined by wage labour, labour power, the commodity and state capitalism indeed.
    Abandon all those categories sure. But why bother with Marxism then?
    Exploitation in the sense of capitalist exploitation, the extraction of surplus value, was not there according to Cliff’s second theory. He was quite clear, the law of value did not operate within the USSR. As the law of value, is the means through which surplus value is extracted from the working class, there was no exploitation in the sense of capitalist exploitation.
    He later changed his mind in the same book and said that there could be the “over accumulation of capital” something which depends on the operation of the law of value to exist, but hey who’s going to quibble about something as basic as consistency?
    Its true Harman did later revise the theory. In order to say that the law of value did operate in the USSR, but that doesn’t mean it did. After all he produced absolutely no empirical evidence for his assertion. That’s not surprising. There was no evidence.
    If there was a labour market you need to explain what your proof for its existence is, given that there was no competition between enterprises, labour was allocated centrally, and that the bulk of the wage was a social wage no connected to production. To the extent that different enterprises offered “incentives” that to was determined by the state, who decided in advance what proportion of output production units could retain.
    Of course the lack of empirical evidence is not an issue in this case. Some people believe in god. There’s no evidence either. But that’s never stopped anyone before now has it?


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