1960s >> 1964 >> no-721-september-1964

Book Review: ‘Russia: A Marxist Analysis’

Russian State Capitalism

Russia: A Marxist Analysis by Tony Cliff (International Socialism, 18/-)

The problem of Russia was a much more immediate one for the Trotskyists than it was for other groups. It is for this reason that so much of the research into the nature of the social order in Russia has come from this source. It would be foolish to pretend that we can learn nothing from their works and particularly foolish to pretend that nothing can be learned from Tony Cliff’s Russia: A Marxist Analysis. Cliff is the leading exponent of one of the Trotskyist state capitalist theories.

As a follower of Trotsky, he holds that the Russian revolution was the first stage of a world socialist revolution. The failure of this revolution to spread left the Russian “Workers’ State” isolated. In these circumstances, asks Cliff, what social order could appear in Russia? Socialism was out of the question and the backwardness of the country had already led to the appearance of a bureaucratic clique above the workers. Capitalism had to develop there. This did not take the form, as might have been expected, of a bourgeois restoration. Instead the bureaucracy transformed itself into a class when it began the process of rapid capital accumulation in 1928. In doing this it was carrying out the traditional function of the bourgeoisie.

The historic mission of the Stalinist bureaucracy became the establishment of capitalism in Russia. This it did with a ruthlessness previously unparalleled. Primitive capital accumulation in Britain, as described by Marx, was bloody enough. In Russia—with its slave camps, political terror and “dekulakisation” which drove the peasants into the factories—it was worse. The first part of Cliff’s book analyses this process in detail. The name Cliff chooses for Stalin’s regime is Bureaucratic State Capitalism. This describes a situation where a bureaucracy in control of the state machine fulfils the function of the bourgeoisie in capitalist relations of production.

In the second part of the book Cliff shows how Bureaucratic State Capitalism—with its irrational price system and other contradictions—has become a positive hindrance to the further development of the productive forces in Russia. The Stalinist bureaucracy has now fulfilled its purpose and is superfluous. Khrushchev’s reforms can’t disguise this fact. What of the future? Cliff maintains that there can be no return from a state-directed economy to a market economy and that therefore the overthrow of the bureaucracy can only lead to Socialism. As proof of this he instances the Hungarian Revolution.

We agree with Cliff’s description of Stalin’s Russia as Bureaucratic State Capitalism though not with his analysis of how and why it came about. Nor can we accept what Cliff suggests is going to happen. To talk of a “return” to a Western style market economy is nonsense for such a system has never existed in Russia. Bureaucratic State Capitalism is a stage in the development of Capitalism in Russia. This stage is now coming to an end and a market economy similar in some respects to that in the West is appearing. Cliff ignores the example of Yugoslavia; he also makes no reference to the proposals of Prof. Liberman and Academician Nemichinov for a relaxation of controls and a more rational and flexible price system. Of course, this evolution away from a bureaucratically-directed economy need not be automatic; Russia is a leading military power with a huge defence budget. A worsening of the international situation, as Cliff points out, could lead to a tightening of bureaucratic control over the economy.

One point that is brought out by Cliff is that the form of appropriation of surplus value under bureaucratic State Capitalism is different from that of the capitalism analysed by Marx. The ruling bureaucracy in Russia only exercises a de facto class monopoly over the means of production. Thus their share appears only to a small extent in the forms of rent, interest and profit: they get it in other ways, particularly as bloated salaries, pensions and prizes. As Cliff points out, towards the end of feudalism the ruling ideology condemned interest and profit, by which they meant only rent. So in Russia where the ruling ideology condemns unearned income, the surplus value is camouflaged as “earned income”. This is important as it brings out a difference between capitalism in Russia and the capitalism we know in the West.

Who are the recipients of this share out? Do they form a class? Cliff maintains that they do because they carry out the functions of a capitalist class. This seems fair enough. The bureaucracy is made up of the top political, military and industrial managers. This is not a homogeneous social group and there is room for conflict. Under the bureaucratically-directed economy of Stalin’s era the managers of the industrial enterprises were subject to the control of the political bureaucrats; now that Russia is moving; away from a bureaucratically-directed economy, the managers are gaining more freedom. Any move in this direction n bound to strengthen their hands again-the party bureaucrats. The managers appear to be the emerging dominant group in Russia. The completion of this process should put an end once and for all to the myth that Russia is Socialist.

Russia has set a pattern of capitalist development for backward and peasant countries; and Bolshevism is the theoretical aspect of this. This explains its attraction in the less developed parts of world. In this pattern the historic mission of the capitalist class is performed by an industrialising elite. In Russia these were the leaders of a revolutionary party; elsewhere they are young military officers, revolutionary intellectuals and nationalist political leaders. The very fact that such regimes are called state capitalist implies an enhanced role for political leaders and state officials. The evolution of capitalism in these countries may thus be different from the pattern described by Marx in Capital. There is a crying need for a detailed Marxist analysis of this new pattern. Cliff’s book on Bureaucratic State Capitalism in Russia is a contribution to this. It should be essential reading for all Socialists.

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