Book Review: Russia’s Rich Men (The End of Inequality? by David Lane)

The End of Inequality? by David Lane.
This is an interesting discussion of “social stratification” in Russia even though Lane dismisses the various theories which say Russia is a class society in the Marxian sense — which for some reason he calls theories of state capitalism even though only one of those he mentions used this term. This does not mean that Lane thinks Russia is a classless society. Far from it. He just thinks Marxian definitions do not apply.

Even so, the first two chapters where Lane points out that Socialism in Marx’s sense could not have been established in Russia after 1917 because of the low level of productivity then prevailing rely heavily on Marxist ideas. Indeed Lane seems to recognise that Socialism is not possible till the means of production can produce abundance, but he does persist in using the misleading phrase “state socialism” to describe Russian society.

The other three chapters are based on the evidence of social research carried out in Russia, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia which reveals that the pattern of status and style-of-life groups (which some sociologists use to define class) in these countries is much the same as in the West.

The one difference, claims Lane, “is the absence of a private propertied class possessing great concentrations of wealth”. Later he speaks of “the elimination of inheritance of substantial wealth”. Now, while it is true that the predominant form of class monopoly in Russia is the ruling class’s collective control over the means of production, it is not true that there are no individually wealthy persons there. Members of the Russian ruling class do have the chance to accumulate — out of high salaries, bonuses, prizes and even fiddles — considerable private fortunes. Lane himself says that the salary of a government Minister is nine times the average wage, and this is not counting various fringe benefits like cars, big houses, holidays and special shops. In Britain this would be an income of about £250 a week (which would be worth more in Russia because of the low rates of income tax there). Some of this is bound to be saved and over the years a large sum, which can be inherited, built up.

In fact this whole field of individual wealth in countries like Russia — its sources, its distribution, where it is invested — is wide open for original research. It is even fair to speculate whether, with the spread of enterprise freedom and the possible success of the Russian civil rights movement, private ownership of wealth rather than political power may not become the predominant form of class privilege in Russia.


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