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Book Review: 'Class Theory and History - Capitalism and Communism in the USSR'

Back in the USSR

Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the USSR. By Stephen A Resnick and Richard D. Wolff. Routledge, 2002

"The exploitation of workers”, the authors contend, “prevailed across the entire history of the USSR. When one kind of exploitative class structure was overthrown, another soon took its place . . . The 1917 revolution displaced private capitalism in industry but established an enduring state capitalism there instead”.

This is the sort of thing we say but, as the authors point out, how you regard(ed) the former USSR depends on your definition of class and exploitation. According to them, those in the Marxist tradition have used two different criteria for defining class: one based on property (legal ownership) and one based on power (actual control). The first view (embraced by the official ideologists of the former regime and the Trotskyists and by many in the old Labour Party) is that capitalist class society is abolished when legal private property rights over means of production vested in individuals are abolished and replaced by state ownership.

Although a classless society will have to involve the ending of such legal private property rights, it is clear, if only from the experience of Russia, that this is not enough. Nor is it really a Marxian approach since it emphasies what the law (formal property relations) says rather than looking at what the underlying productive relations actually were. Hence the alternative definition: that class is defined in relation to who actually controls access to and the use of means of production. On this, arguably more Marxian approach, where there is state ownership the question arises of who controls the state; those who do would, in practice if not in law, be the owners of the means of production.

This second is the approach we came to adopt, arguing that Russia was not, and never at any time since 1917 had been, a classless society but a class society in which the workers were exploited by an exclusive group that controlled the state. In fact, it is the approach adopted by nearly all those who argue that Russia was, or became, state capitalist.

But, as Resnick and Wolff point out, it still leaves open the question of what a classless, socialist (or communist, the same thing) society might be. Some who use this argument say that Russia would have been socialist (or become socialist) if only the state had been democratically controlled by the population or if only industries had been controlled and managed by those working in them. We don't take this view because, for us, common ownership of the means of production implies the disappearance of production for sale and with it of markets, prices, wages and money itself. If Russia had retained these but become democratic it would still have been capitalist, even though a democratic state capitalism or a worker-managed capitalism would be an unrealistic utopia.

Resnick and Wolff use this ambiguity to criticise not just the “property” theory (the Trotskyist nonsense about Russia having been a “degenerate workers' state” is an easy target) but also the “power” theory and to advance their own “surplus” theory of class: that class structure is determined by who appropriates and distributes the surplus produced at enterprise level. If it's not the direct producers then there's exploitation of them by another class; if it is the direct producers then that's communism. That right from 1917-18 the surpluses of enterprises were appropriated by state officials is the reason they give for saying that Russia always was state capitalist. (We say it was because commodity production, the wages system and money never disappeared.)

This theory raises a number of difficulties, the first being the definition of communism. Because Resnick and Wolff concentrate on what happens at enterprise level their argument leads to the conclusion that communism can exist at enterprise level. This is, in fact, their argument; which makes producer co-operatives the typical communist organisation. Insofar as communism is equated with any kind of “common ownership” then such co-operatives could be called “communist” since the co-operative's assets and products are commonly owned by its members. In fact, in their detailed economic history of the USSR between 1917 and 1990 that takes up most of the book, the only example of “communism” they identify in Russia are the collective farms set up in the 1930s, on the ground that, legally, the surplus they realised was not directly appropriated by state officials but belonged to the farmers as a collective group.

Traditionally, however, “communism” has meant a communist society, i.e., a whole social system based on the common ownership of the means of living and their democratic control by all the people (when we ourselves talk of “common ownership” this is to be taken as shorthand for common ownership of all the means of production by society).

Resnick and Wolff are prepared to consider “communism” existing above enterprise level, by for instance whole industries being commonly owned by those working in them and even (as a theoretical limiting case) of all industry being commonly owned by all productive workers. So that, for them, a fully communist society would be one in which all enterprises and all industries would be owned by those working in them, so that it would be the producers who would not only produce the surplus but also appropriate it (i.e., it would belong to them as soon as it was produced) and, even if through delegation either to professional managers or to state officials, decide its distribution.

Such a society would have more in common with what the co-operative movement and syndicalists used to envisage than with what we understand by socialism or communism, especially as Resnick and Wolff envisage buying and selling relationships existing between the various commonly-owned enterprises and industries. Thus they talk about “communist” markets and even “communist” value, surplus value, price and profit—enough to make our hair stand on end and conclude that they are not talking about communism or socialism in the original sense of a society in which all the means of production and distribution are commonly owned and democratically controlled by all the people. Since in such a society what was produced would also be commonly owned by everybody (or by nobody, the same thing from another angle), the question that would arise would not be how and where to sell it but how to distribute it through non-market mechanisms. Value, prices, profits, wages, money, etc are capitalist economic categories that won't exist in socialism.

That Resnick and Wolff are thinking in terms of an economic system based on capitalist economic categories is also evident from their treatment of productive labour, which is behind their workerist position that the surplus(-value) produced in an enterprise should belong only to that enterprise's “productive” workers to the exclusion of its “non-productive” workers such as its purchasing, sales, cleaning and guarding staff.

Here again, they are employing a concept that is relevant only to capitalism. Under capitalism a “productive” worker is a worker who produces surplus value. This is because the aim of capitalism is to maximise the amount of surplus value produced. Thus, for it, only workers whose labour is exchanged against capital (as opposed to being paid out of income) are productive. This does not mean that other workers, paid out of someone's income, are not productive in the broader (and more normal) sense of productive of use-values. A tailor employed by a landowner or a capitalist to make him a suit still produces a suit even if they don't produce surplus value. Similarly, a civil servant by his or her work still provides a service (even if in many cases one that is only useful under capitalism). Anyone who works, whether for an employer, on their own account or as a volunteer, is productive insofar as they produce something, whether an object or a service, that is in some way useful to somebody. All such workers are productive of use-values.

Since socialism (communism) will be a society that will produce wealth solely in the form of use-values then everybody who produces any use-value will be productive, and there will be no sense in trying to distinguish those who, if society were still capitalist, would have been regarded as producers of surplus value. And even less sense in placing such producers in a privileged position with regard to other producers by allowing them the first say in how products should be distributed. That wouldn't be democratic and it's not socialist either. Socialism, we insist, is the common ownership of the means for producing and distributing wealth (i.e., use-values) by and in the interest of the whole community (including non-producers such as the sick and the old).
Adam Buick