Russia: Socialism or State Capitalism?

One of the permanent discussions within the “left” has been about Russia. Is it socialist? or is it the same sort of society as exists elsewhere? Since the Russian Revolution of 1917 the Socialist Party of Great Britain has always argued that what had to happen in Russia was the development of capitalism. It has been capitalism with the difference that, unlike in Western Europe and the USA where capital is largely owned and controlled by a minority of private capitalists, in Russia it is owned by the State. There is state capitalism.


What is the State? It is the machinery for imposing the rule of one class over another, i.e. government, law, armed forces, police, prisons etc. Where there are no classes dividing society, where there is freedom, there will be no State. The existence of a Slate in Russia means that it is a class-divided society.


Socialist society will be very different. There will be no State, because social relationships will be based on mutual cooperation and not on coercion. It will be a world society free of the problems and limitations of the profit economy. This is the Marxist conception of Socialism. The common, mistaken idea of Socialism is a sort of utopian capitalism where the working class control their own exploitation. Such an idea is absurd, as the essence of capitalism is the subordination of wage-labour to capital. It is because of this misconception that the “left” have experienced such difficulties in understanding what has taken place in Russia.


The Communist Party of Great Britain, though it is now falling apart, still holds on to the claim that Russia is an example of Socialism in practice. On another side, the Socialist Workers’ Party asserts that there was Socialism in Russia until Stalin came to power, but then it suddenly took a turn for the worse and went back to being capitalism. Others, such as the International Marxist Group, argue that Russia did have Socialism, but it degenerated under Stalin and is now neither Socialism nor capitalism but a “degenerate workers’ state”—which can only be defined by saying what it isn’t. If the CP line that Russia is socialist is hard to understand in the light of the last sixty years, it is even harder to grasp the Trotskyist line that suddenly in 1926 Stalin came along and changed Russia overnight from a socialist democracy to a capitalist dictatorship. In fact, the history of Russia does not bear out such a theory.


Capitalism in the Soviet Union was not a “Stalin phenomenon”, as it has been called, but an inevitable result of the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. Marx, by whose theories some of the leading revolutionaries are supposed to have been influenced, wrote in the Preface to The Critique of Political Economy:


No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces, for which there is room in it, have been developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society.


This is why the Mensheviks argued before 1917 that Socialism could not be established in Russia but that capitalism had to be developed first.


It can be argued that such a formulation was too simple. Marx’s statement applied to the world system of international capitalism and not to a single backward country in isolation. Until the death of Lenin it was assumed in Russia that


in one country it is impossible to accomplish such a work as a socialist revolution. (Lenin, November 1920.)


Even Stalin, in 1925, laid down that


for the definitive triumph of socialism the organisation of socialist production, the efforts of one country alone are not enough, particularly of an essentially rural country like Russia; the efforts of the proletarians of several advanced countries are needed . . . (The Theory and Practice of Leninism.)


Because the revolution had taken place in a backward country with a small working class there was only one course: to develop capitalism. But here was a problem. The Bolsheviks had won their support from the proletariat of Moscow and Petrograd and claimed to stand for its interest. Marxism argues that capitalism cannot be made to operate in the interests of the workers. And so the Bolsheviks began to tread the path already taken by the Labour Party in Britain, which led to trying to be the friend of the workers and their exploiter at the same time. How true was Engels’s statement:


The worst that can befall the leader of an extremist party is to be compelled to take over the government at a time when the moment is not yet ripe for the rule of the class he represents . . .  He finds himself necessarily in an insoluble political dilemma: what he can do is in conflict with his entire previous attitudes, his principles, and the immediate interests of the party; what he is supposed to do cannot be done . . .  he is compelled to represent not his party, his class, but the class for the rule of which the movement happens to be ripe. For the sake of that movement he must act for the interests of an alien class, and must feed his own class with phrases and promises along with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are really their own. He who gets himself into that false position is irredeemably lost.

(The Peasant War in Germany)


When the Bolsheviks first gained power they attempted to establish what is today known as “workers’ participation” by means of the Troika. Socialists see schemes to “give workers a say in management” as efforts to mask the class struggle. The builders of capitalism in Russia in the 1920s found trade-union interference inconvenient, and by 1935 the Troika had given way to industrial management similar to that which existed in the rest of Europe. Indeed, one text-book on Soviet industrial law stated:


One-man management is the most important principle of the organisation of socialist economy.

(Gintsburg & Pashukanis)


Soon after the suppression of the Troika came the legal prohibition of effective trade-unionism in Russia. Trade-union organization for the defence of wages and working conditions has existed in Britain since the last century, and socialists have always acknowledged its importance in the industrial class struggle. In state-capitalist Russia trade unions exist, but as extensions of State power over the workers. Immediately after the Revolution strikes were permissible: in 1922 there were 192,000 workers on strike in state-owned enterprises, in 1923 165,000, in 1924 43,000, in 1925 34,000, in 1926 32,900, in 1927 20,000 and in 1928 8,900. Since 1929 no official strike has ever taken place in the Soviet Union. Between 1932 and 1949 the Russian Trade Union Congress did not even convene.


When these facts are presented to members of the Russia-idolizing Communist Party of Great Britain they are likely to admit that it is all quite true, but deceptive. The fact of the matter, they will say, is that Russian workers have no need to go on strike against the State because they control it through the Soviets. Do they?


One of the Bolshevik revolutionary slogans was “All power to Soviets”. The Soviets were local councils through which delegates of the village or workplace were to be democratically accountable to the local people. The Soviets were headed nationally, until 1937, by the Congress of Soviets, which met five times in 1918, yearly from 1919 to 1932, and then not until 1935. After 1937 it was replaced by the Supreme Soviet. From 1937 to 1953 every decision of the Supreme Soviet was carried unanimously, nor was there ever a single abstention or a speech in opposition. In fact the Supreme Soviet is merely a rubber-stamp for the dictatorial leadership of the Russian Communist Party. For example, the first Five Year Plan began in October 1928 but was not given permission to go ahead by “the highest authority in the land” until April 1929.


Since there is no democracy in organization at the top in Russia, what about the bottom? Not much democracy there either. The local Soviets are totally dominated by Communist Party officials (usually full-time party bureaucrats) who are there to ensure that the Soviets approve all decisions which are made at a higher level. Elections to the Soviets are undemocratic: there is never more than one candidate standing for each place. The vote for that one candidate is invariably in the region of 98 per cent. Indeed, one book describes how in 1947 a candidate polled 104 per cent, in the election to his local Soviet by gaining 2,122 votes in a constituency which had only 1,617 voters. That candidate was Joseph Stalin!


Democratic Soviets never have and never will run capitalist Russia. “The dictatorship of the proletariat” is a myth. There is the dictatorship of the Communist Party. That is what the CP stands for in Britain. The Russian rulers use political power in the interests of capitalism.


In supporting and excusing a capitalist dictatorship, the Communist Party shows quite clearly which side of the class struggle it is on. The Trotskyists, while sensibly refusing to accept Russia as an example of Socialism, try to find ways of showing that it is not capitalism either. The reason for this is that they are taking the same road as the Bolsheviks took: calling for armed struggle, believing that workers are unable to understand Socialism, committing themselves to conspiratorial leadership rather than the democratic struggle. And the same road inevitably leads to the same destination. That is the dilemma of the left. For the Socialist Party of Great Britain, which rejects Leninist Bolshevism, the road to Socialism is not littered with nasty examples of past mistakes.


Steve Coleman