Russia: Leftists in Dispute

In 1968 was published an English translation of Ernest Mandel’s monumental work of Trotskyite orthodoxy, Marxist Economic Theory. This was reviewed in International Socialism and led to an exchange of pamphlets between I.S. and Mandel’s supporters in Britain, the International Marxist Group. IMG have republished this controversy with the title Readings on State Capitalism, which has a certain interest for Socialists as discussion centres on the view that Russia is State capitalist.

Mandel, Kidron and Harman (who took over the is banner half-way through the controversy) agree that Russian society is not Socialist. Mandel, however, maintains that Russia is a very degenerate workers’ state, which has begun a transition towards Socialism with an economy “marked by the contradictory combination of a non-capitalist mode of production and a still basically bourgeois mode of distribution”. A capitalist mode of distribution on the basis of a non-capitalist mode of production is not only contradictory but, from a Marxist point of view, an absurdity; for it is the mode of production which in the end determines the character of all other aspects of society, including the mode of distribution (i.e. the way the social product is divided).

Kidron and Harman describe Russia now as state capitalist, but think that “Russia in the 10 years after 1917 . . . was not itself capitalist”. What then was it?

Discussion about the nature of Russian society is discussion about the meaning of both capitalism and socialism, and Mandel has well grasped the nature of Socialism as a moneyless, wageless, stateless society, with the “free distribution of goods and services”, existing on a world scale: “Socialism means a classless society. It therefore presupposes not only the suppression of private property of the means of production, henceforth managed in a planned way by the associate producers themselves, but it also calls for a level of development of the productive forces which makes possible the withering away of commodity production; of money, and of the state”.

Kidron, on the other hand, describes “socialism” vaguely as “workers’ control of production”, with the implication that this could be control of the production of commodities.

So we have Mandel denying Socialism properly, but saying that a world Socialist revolution is an impossibility and that instead the working class of each country should aim at establishing “a society in transition from capitalism to socialism”, based on nationalization under workers’ control; and we have Kidron saying correctly that no transitional society between capitalism and Socialism is possible (“socialism is a total system; it cannot grow piecemeal within the interstices of a capitalist society”), but defining Socialism wrongly and meaning by it precisely the same as Mandel’s impossible “transitional society”!

If Mandel were claiming that Russia cannot be described as capitalist, but some new form of exploitative society, then his argument would be stronger. But he is claiming that Russian society is better and more progressive than what exists in the West: basically a society which workers should support. This is dangerous nonsense. To suggest that Russia, where trade-union rights like strike action and democratic rights available in the west are denied, offers a precedent for future working-class development, is to mock the sufferings of the working class there.

But the main reason for saying that Russia is capitalist is the existence of the wages system there. As Marx pointed out, wage-labour and capital presuppose each other. Wage-labourers produce value, some of which returns to them in the form of wages, the rest going to those who monopolise the means of production as surplus value; this surplus value is re-invested in production and so becomes capital, wealth invested in production with a view to profit.

That capital accumulation out of the surplus value produced by wage-labour has never ceased in Russia since 1917 should be obvious enough, but Mandel puts forward the view that what has governed production in Russia has been “the consumption desires of the bureaucracy”. He paints Russia as a society where usurpers (the bureaucracy) have come to power and live off the workers who continue to produce under non-exploitative conditions. Mandel actually says that Russian workers, though paid wages, are not exploited at the point of production as in the West; but that they are robbed as consumers by a “parasitic and pilfering” bureaucracy

Mandel says the IS view is essentially a Menshevik one. According to Mandel the Mensheviks held that “a socialist revolution in a backward country is impossible and that whatever you do, capitalism, and only capitalism, can flower there,” and that “whatever one did, capitalism was on the agenda in that country (as long as it would not have been overthrown in all or most of the industrially advanced countries of the world)”. The Mensheviks may have held these views, but the fact remains that it is an analysis and in accordance with the Marxian materialist conception of history. Socialism can only be established on a world scale and on the basis of an advanced industrial economy; in the absence of the Socialist revolution all that can develop in so-called backward countries is capitalism.

We in the Socialist Party of Great Britain have always been logical on this point. Yes, we reply; Russia is state-capitalist and, yes, the Russian revolution was not a Socialist revolution, but a seizure of power by a political party which later came to form the nucleus of a new state-capitalist ruling class. This was inevitable, given the absence at the time of Socialist consciousness amongst the majority of the workers of the world. This is what we said at the time and subsequent developments in Russia have proved the soundness of the Socialist Party’s analysis.

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