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Was Russia Ever Socialist . . ?

We examine the Socialist Party’s reaction to the Bolshevik coup d’état and recall the analysis of Soviet Russia the Party pioneered.

The apparent triumph of the Bolsheviks in the backward Russia of 1917 sent the Marxist movement into turmoil. Moreover, previously impotent political organisations across Europe and North America showed themselves to be more impressed by the sudden and unexpected success of revolutionaries in the midst of bloody world war, than concerned for the event’s potential impact on core elements of Marxist theory as they had always previously been understood. Contrary to legend, the Socialist Party was initially affected by this feeling like other radical parties, praising the Bolshevik’s successful attempts to remove Russia from the bloodbath that was the First World War.

As for what was happening in Russia at a deeper level, the Socialist Party was more sceptical. Indeed, what focused our attention above all were the lavish claims made on the Bolsheviks’ behalf by their supporters in Britain about ‘Red October’ (early November in the Western calendar). The first detailed analysis of the Russian situation, written by Jack Fitzgerald, appeared in the August 1918 Socialist Standard under the heading ‘The Revolution in Russia – Where It Fails’. It tackled the claims of the (then) Socialist Labour Party in Britain by outlining why the Bolshevik takeover could not really lead to the establishment of socialism in Russia. The article asked:

‘Is this huge mass of people, numbering about 160,000,000 and spread over eight and a half millions of square miles, ready for socialism? Are the hunters of the North, the struggling peasant proprietors of the South, the agricultural wage-slaves of the Central Provinces, and the industrial wage-slaves of the towns convinced of the necessity, and equipped with the knowledge requisite, for the establishment of the social ownership of the means of life?

Unless a mental revolution such as the world has never seen before has taken place, or an economic change has occurred immensely more rapidly than history has ever recorded, the answer is ‘No!’ … What justification is there, then, in terming the upheaval in Russia a Socialist Revolution? None whatever beyond the fact that the leaders in the November movement claim to be Marxian Socialists.’

In fact, over time the Socialist Party went on to identify as many as five key reasons why the establishment of socialism in Russia by the Bolsheviks was impossible:

• First, as indicated by Fitzgerald, the mass socialist consciousness needed before a successful socialist revolution could take place was noticeably absent in Russia, as elsewhere. Fitzgerald seized on a remark by Litvinoff which suggested that the Bolsheviks did not really know the views of the entire working class when they seized control, only some sections of it such as the factory workers of Petrograd.

• Second, it was not even the case that the working class was in a numerical majority in Russia, a society dominated by its peasant economy. How could a majority socialist revolution be carried out when the workers were still in a minority and when the largest social class were the largely illiterate peasantry? While illiteracy did not entirely preclude the spread of socialist understanding, it certainly made it more difficult. In any event, the peasants had long shown themselves more interested in ridding themselves of the heavy tax burden on land, and increasing the size of their plots, than in demanding common ownership.

• Third, socialism could not exist in an economically backward country where the means of production was not sufficiently developed to support a socialist system of distribution.

• Fourth, and crucially, it was not possible to construct socialism in one country alone, given the nature of capitalism as a world system with a world-wide division of labour. Isolated ‘socialism in one country’ would be doomed to failure, no matter how honourable the intentions of the revolutionaries involved.

• The fifth reason advanced for the non-socialist nature of Bolshevik Russia went to the very root of our political differences with Bolshevism: socialism could not be achieved by following leaders (enlightened or otherwise).

State capitalism

In the absence of world socialist revolution, there could realistically only be one road forward for semi-feudal Russia – the capitalist road. With the virtual elimination of the small Russian bourgeoisie, it would be necessary for the Bolsheviks to develop industry through the state ownership of enterprises and the forced accumulation of capital. In The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It, written before the revolution, Lenin had envisaged just such an approach to the Russian crisis. According to this document, Lenin saw that immediate measures required included nationalisation of the existing banks and the formation of a single state bank, together with the nationalisation of all insurance companies, the nationalisation of the monopolies and all other key industrial concerns. The Socialist Standard took the opportunity to again cast doubt on the supposed general applicability of Bolshevik actions in Russia – in this instance, the development of ‘state capitalism’ as a precondition for the establishment of socialism:

‘If we are to copy Bolshevik policy in other countries we should have to demand State Capitalism, which is not a step towards Socialism in advanced capitalist countries. The fact remains, as Lenin is driven to confess, that we do not have to learn from Russia, but Russia has to learn from lands where large scale production is dominant’ (‘A Socialist View of Bolshevist Policy’, July 1920).

As we took great pains to point out to our pro-Bolshevik opponents, Lenin admitted that the social formation in Soviet Russia was essentially state-capitalist, albeit under the guidance and control of a so-called ‘proletarian state’ guided by a vanguard party of professional revolutionaries. For Lenin, the nature of the revolutionary polity in such circumstances was the crucial determinant of the type of social system in existence. Without what Lenin termed ‘revolutionary democracy’, state capitalist monopoly would remain state capitalism. With workers’ control of production and control of the proletarian state by the vanguard party of the working class, however, socialism would be a reality. According to The Impending Catastrophe and How To Combat It, socialism was merely ‘state-capitalist monopoly made to serve the interests of the whole people’.

More than twenty years after the Bolshevik seizure of power, we remained unconvinced that state capitalism was really socialism even if presided over by those who proclaimed themselves socialist:

‘… the chief characteristics of Capitalism [in Russia] have not disappeared and are not in the process of disappearing. Goods are not produced for use but for sale to those who have the money to buy, as in other countries. The workers are not members of a social system in which the means of wealth production are socially owned and controlled, but are wage-earners in the employ of the State or of semi-State concerns, etc. The Russian State concerns are no more ‘socially owned’ than is the British Post Office or the Central Electricity Board, or any private company… The Bolshevik attempt to usher in Socialism by ‘legal enactments’ and by ‘bold leaps’ before the economic conditions were ripe, and before the mass of the population desired Socialism, has been a total failure. In course of time that failure will become obvious to the workers inside and outside Russia’ (Questions of the Day, 1942).

Capitalism, based on the separation of the producers from the means of production had not been abolished, nor could it have been. Production still took place as a system of exchange involving the circulation of capital. Capital expanded consequent on the exploitation of wage labour, and articles of wealth were still being produced for sale on the market with a view to the realisation of surplus value. Indeed, much of the Party’s early analysis of the economic basis of the Soviet system reflected a desire to demonstrate the similarities between Russian state capitalism and the British private enterprise-based capitalism the Party was most familiar with.

Who are the capitalist class?

Over time, while it was clear that state capitalism in Russia (and then its satellites) retained all the essential features of capitalism, there were some apparent differences, even if superficial. One related to who the capitalist class were in Russia, as the system’s supporters often claimed that capitalism could not really exist in Russia as there was no capitalist class in the traditional sense. But in fact, there was a capitalist class of this nature, as the 1940s pamphlet Soviet Millionaires by Reg Bishop showed, and always a private sector running in parallel to the major state-owned institutions and corporations – though it was peripheral. Nevertheless, it was clear that real power and control – including economic decision-making – rested with a powerful group of leading bureaucrats who had privileged lifestyles and high incomes as a result of their position at the top of the Soviet hierarchy.

This controlling class could not merely be equated with the supervisors and managers within capitalism referred to by Marx who received a wage based on the amount needed to produce and reproduce their labour power. On the contrary, this class of bureaucrats in Russia was using its position of control to perform the functions carried out by individual capitalists in earlier phases of capitalism’s development and to command a privileged income derived from surplus value. Though it did not have legal title to the means of production, and was not able to bequeath property, it was clearly a possessing class of the type mentioned in our Declaration of Principles, exercising a ‘monopoly… of the wealth taken from the workers’. This state capitalist class, like the privately owning capitalist class in the West, was privileged in consumption, receiving bloated ‘salaries’ that were not the price of labour power but a portion of the total surplus value created by the working class. They were also privileged because of the multitude of benefits and perks open to them, including access to exclusive consumption outlets such as expensive shops and restaurants from which the working class was physically denied access.

The prevailing view in the Socialist Party was that the nature of a class could not be determined simply by legal forms or even by methods of recruitment (the Soviet possessing class was not recruited via inheritance but by other, more meritocratic, methods that have not been entirely unusual for possessing classes in history). So the Party ultimately concluded that although the state capitalist class did not have legal property titles to the means of production, it nonetheless constituted a capitalist class exercising a collective ownership of the means of production and distribution. What was judged to be of prime importance, therefore, was the social reality of capitalism rather than a particular legal form; the opponents of the theory of state capitalism had never been able to see beyond the latter.

The theory of state capitalism

The Socialist Party of Great Britain was the first political group in Britain, and quite possibly the world, to identify the state capitalist direction taken by Russia under the Communist Party dictatorship, though many others came to the same conclusion over time, if not always for the same reasons. Unlike us, most of these groups stood in the Leninist tradition or at least showed a willingness to identify positive aspects of the Bolshevik takeover that could be applied by the socialist movement elsewhere in the future. In particular, the Leninist conception of socialism as state ownership and direction of the economy under the control of a vanguard party operating through the political medium of workers’ councils was readily accepted by most of these groups. Hence they only later ascribed a ‘state capitalist’ characterisation to Russia when they judged that state ownership no longer coincided with ‘proletarian democracy’ and the power of the soviets. This was essentially the analysis initially put forward by ‘council communists’ such as Otto Rühle who saw in the crushing of the soviets the rise of ‘commissar despotism’ and state capitalism (Rühle himself later realized the inadequacy of this position and came to view nationalisation and state regulation as intrinsically state capitalist). The largest ‘Left Communist’ group in Europe, the German KAPD, developed a similar perspective. It identified capitalism as the private (specifically non-state) ownership of the means of production, and, like the council communist Workers’ Socialist Federation in Britain, praised the Bolsheviks for their construction of socialism in the industrial centres of Russia. Later, the KAPD became critical of the Soviet system with the final crushing of the soviets and the introduction of the New Economic Policy, which it thought heralded a ‘reversion to capitalism’.

Despite the initial excesses of Left Communist and council communist groups who invariably let their early admiration for the Soviet political form dominate their analysis, arguably the worst example of the conflation of socialism with state ownership plus ‘revolutionary democracy’ came from the Trotskyists. Ironically, the Trotskyist theories of state capitalism, being by far the most fragile, are the most well-known. C. L. R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya from the American Socialist Workers’ Party were the first Trotskyists to break with Trotsky himself and identify the state capitalist nature of the USSR though perhaps the most widely known theory was that elaborated by Tony Cliff and circulated as a discussion document within the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain in the period immediately after the Second World War, before being published as Russia: A Marxist Analysis. Cliff – who was the driving force behind what became the British SWP – said his reasons for breaking with orthodox Trotskyism by identifying the Soviet Union as state capitalist were plain enough:

‘When I came to the theory of state capitalism I did not come to it by a long analysis of the law of value in Russia… Nothing of the sort. I came to it by the simple statement that… you cannot have a workers’ state without the workers having power to dictate what happens in society’ (interview with The Leveller, 30 September 1979).

In reality, Cliff had been heavily influenced by fellow Trotskyist Jock Haston about the Socialist Party's view of state capitalism existing in Russia rather than socialism or a ‘workers’ state’, but Cliff could never break entirely with the perspectives of Lenin and Trotsky. Indeed, Cliff’s analysis was firmly rooted in the idea that the USSR was a form of ‘workers’ state’ before Stalin’s first Five Year Plan of 1928 established the bureaucracy as a new class consuming surplus value. Like all the Trotskyists that have followed him, Cliff did not identify the USSR as a society developing along state capitalist lines from 1917 but only from Stalin’s ascension to power. Under Lenin, Russia was supposedly a society in transition from capitalism to communism, based on working class power. For Cliff, a perceived change of political control led to a fundamental change in economic structure, to what in fact amounted to a ‘reversion to capitalism’. Perhaps surprisingly, those Trotskyists who remained faithful to Trotsky’s own view when in exile of Russia as a ‘degenerated workers’ state’ made some of the most pertinent criticisms of Cliff’s analysis, particularly his conclusion that the economic structure of the Soviet system had changed in 1928 and had assumed a capitalist basis. Foremost among these critics was rival British Trotskyist Ted Grant (founder of what became Militant):

‘If Comrade Cliff’s thesis is correct, that state capitalism exists in Russia today, then he cannot avoid the conclusion that state capitalism has been in existence since the Russian Revolution and the function of the revolution itself was to introduce this state capitalist system of society. For despite his tortuous efforts to draw a line between the economic basis of Russia before the year 1928 and after, the economic basis of Russian society has remained unchanged… money, labour power, the existence of the working class, surplus value, etc. are all survivals of the old capitalist system carried over even under the regime of Lenin… the law of value applies and must apply until there is direct access to the products by the producers’ (Against the Theory of State Capitalism, 1949).

This conclusion was certainly rejected by Cliff and all the other Trotskyist state capitalist theorists, though not of course by us.

Today, many council communist, left communist and Trotskyist political groupings identify Soviet Russia, certainly post-Lenin, as having always been essentially state capitalist, and like us, they have applied their analysis of Russian society to other ‘socialist’ countries exhibiting similar features in Asia, Africa and Central America. That we were not alone in identifying the capitalist nature of the USSR does not of course diminish our position as the one organisation which promoted a state capitalist analysis of the events in Russia at the time of their happening, and not merely with the benefit of hindsight. What is more, we have remained one of the few organisations committed to such a critique of the USSR and similar regimes, that has never sought to adopt or promote the Leninist vanguardism which so clearly led to that state capitalist outcome.


Next month's issue will be a special issue on 'The Aftermath of Leninism' looking at the surviving Leninist regimes today.