Tuesday, 10 June 2008

A Reply To Mike McNair Part I

This is the first part of a reply to Mike Mcnair on the question of the Class nature of the USSR and other Stalinist states. The original discussion began in comments to my previous blog A Critique of the AWL on Socialist Action

Given the nature of the debate, and for ease of viewing and further comments I have moved the debate to a separate blog, and my intention will be to break down Mike's argument into a number of distinct sections, and to respond to them in individual posts. That way further debate should be facilitated.


“But in very brief, I am *not* a "new class" theorist: my view is that the USSR (etc.) is a form of Bonapartism (high autonomy of the state) transitional between feudalism and capitalism, and that to the extent any class is in the ascendant it is an old class, the petty proprietors.”

I agree that the USSR was a Bonapartist regime. I find your argument that it was the petty proprietors – in which you include the intelligentsia (owners of intellectual property – a term I think in itself is problematic) – who were in the ascendant hard to reconcile with Marxist theory, or empirical evidence, and in conflict with your argument later that the bureaucracy rested upon at least a section of the urban working class. Every bureaucracy is a bureaucracy attached to some class – a state bureaucracy attached to the ruling social class – and in its composition can best be described as petit-bourgeois (though recognising the wide range this term covers) determined by its relationship to the means of production – occupying a necessarily intermediate and mediating role – its lifestyle, and world outlook. Even were we to accept the idea that petty proprietors as a class – and thereby with the same class characteristics as the bureaucracy – were in the ascendant (and I am far from accepting that was the case) it is a far cry from that to identify the state bureaucracy and its interests with those of the petty producers. Indeed as I say later you do not you identify the bureaucracy – correctly – as remaining based on, and ideological tied to the urban working class (not just in the Stalinist states, but globally) so whether the petty property owners were becoming ascendant or not seems moot. It is of no more significance than Marx’s correct observation that within capitalism the social function of the capitalist class would become redundant, and consequently a new middle class of manager’s, technicians etc. would rise, and become numerous, possibly even more numerous than the proletariat proper. Indeed, perhaps even less so. Within the context of an existing capitalism that middle class remains a reservoir of bourgeois public opinion that can only be drawn towards the opposite pole of the proletariat by the increasing effective social weight of the latter. In a Workers State the latter is already the dominating social force. To the extent the social roots of the old exploiting classes have been thoroughly uprooted, the middle class like other intermediary classes is necessarily drawn behind the proletariat. In the context of the USSR the weakness of the Proletariat, and the continued existence of capitalist encirclement – together with the condition of those petty producers – meant that the pull of bourgeois ideas continued to hold sway within large sections of them, hence the largely bourgeois content of much of the samizdat papers circulated by the intelligentsia and other sections of the middle classes – and although this could exert some influence on the ideas circulated within the realm of the State and Party elites it could in no way change the nature of those petty producers as an intermediary class, could in no way change the fact that the working class remained the ruling social class, or that the State remained the State of that ruling social class.

I find the idea that this regime was transitional between feudalism and capitalism novel, but I have to say somewhat bizarre. We have seen lots of regimes that were transitional between feudalism and capitalism, and none of them looked like the USSR. That in itself is not proof that your argument is wrong, but it does mean that a stronger burden of proof is required for your argument to explain why this instance was different from all the others which did share some fairly common features, though of course were not identical in their historical development. I suppose the closest example would be that of Bismark’s Germany, which developed through a sort of state capitalism, but then it is difficult if that is your model to see how your argument is different from the State Capitalist argument put forward by Martin Thomas, which borrows from Dunayetskaya. What we would have would be indeed a new class theory which is nothing more than a more centralised, and rigorous form of Bismarkian State Capitalism, with Stalin in the role of Bismarkian Bonaparte.

I find that argument untenable. Bismark’s State Capitalism did not proceed via a complete, or even near complete statisation of production. It does not do so for very good reasons of the mechanics of capitalist production to do with the maximisation of the rate of profit, and the allocation of Capital to the most profitable activities. Capital as capital must accumulate, and to do so it must maximise Surplus Value. It can only do though if Capital moves to those areas where Surplus Value is highest i.e. it achieves this through the average rate of profit. But, this in itself requires – short of a socialist society – the fundamental role of market prices. But market prices in themselves require the existence of competition between producers. A thoroughly statised economy usually means the absence of such competition, and therefore of effective market prices. The fundamental mechanism for ensuring the allocation of Capital to ensure the maximisation of Surplus Value is removed. I say usually, because it is, of course conceptually possible to consider a fully statised economy where the State acts as a central accounting office, and where Capital is taken in and redistributed according to market mechanisms resulting in competition between enterprises, and market prices. That could be one version of what Marx and Engels described when they spoke of a transitional economy in which Co-operatives continued to compete against each other under the direct control and management of their workers, and through a market mechanism, but in which the actual title deeds to the enterprises were vested with the Workers State. That is not what existed in Bismark’s Germany or in the USSR, or even in Tito’s Yugoslavia.

The closest we have to that kind of State Capitalism is, as I have said in the past, actually what exists in the developed Capitalist economies where although the top few thousand families often continue to have some relation to a particular branch of economy, their wealth is so large that in reality it is spread across the whole of the economy both in the form of share ownership of a wide range of companies – often with interlocking share ownership of companies – and the ownership of State debt. The problem of the average rate of profit is resolved almost instantaneously – whereas for Marx it was a dynamic process requiring years – not by the movement of market prices, and reallocation of physical Capital, but by the revaluation of share prices and corresponding changes in the price earnings ratio, and dividend yield. This small number of super capitalists act as a state capitalist class, and the Stock Exchange acts as the allocator of Capital so as to maximise Surplus Value for this state capitalist class as outlined above. Again this was not what we saw in the USSR or elsewhere.

The obvious question to ask is if these were regimes that were transitional between feudalism and capitalism then why did we not see the kind of automatic processes that led to the domination of Capital that we saw in every other society transitional between feudalism and capitalism? Why did we not see a differentiation of the peasantry into a proletariat, and bourgeoisie? One of the reasons that feudalism broke down was the role of money economy. The feudal lords replaced payment of rent in kind with payment in money, for the simple reason that as trade increases, and as their wants increase their demands rise beyond those which can be met simply by peasant production, and barter of those goods for the things they do want is inefficient and cumbersome compared with the use of money. To obtain money the peasant himself has to engage with the market, has to divert a portion of his production to the market, and thereby to inevitably the merchant. Now we saw that under NEP, we see it in China now and in Vietnam and other Stalinist states, but that process was brought swiftly to a halt by Stalin in 1928, precisely because of the logic of where it leads. Incidentally, I think the Chinese Stalinists will do the same thing in some form too, but I’ll come to that later. But, if you are right if this regime was a transitional society between feudalism and capitalism why stop that process? Of course, Bukharin and the Right didn’t want to stop it, but the fact is that Stalin did stop that process, and stopped it not because this regime was transitional between feudalism and capitalism – in which case the function of the State would be to facilitate that movement – but was transitional between a backward capitalism, and socialism.

Go to Part II


Anonymous said...

Just by way of a quick and very partial reply - I am in the midst of marking exam scripts and will get back to your critique when I have finished.

In the first place, I have previously written at more length on 'intellectual property' and the petty proprietors as a class: http://www.cpgb.org.uk/worker/509/review.html.

Secondly, I am not particularly scared by being accused of revising Marx. See for example my critique of Marx and Engels on the state and law, 'Law and State as Holes in Marxist Theory' (2006) Critique No 40 pp. 211-236. I think that there are core claims of Marxism which are justified, and more peripheral arguments which have been proved false. We have to discard the peripheral arguments in order to defend and develop the core claims. (More on this in my long Weekly Worker series on strategy, forthcoming as a pamphlet).

Third: I see no reason whatever in the core claims of Marxism for supposing that a state or bureaucracy must under all circumstances be the state or bureaucracy of some ruling surplus-extracting class. I do not, in fact, think that Marx held this view. Witness, for example, the (IMO much overstated in Marx) 'Asiatic Mode of Production'. Witness also the whole argument of the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte!

If Stalinism had proved to be a long-lived social form lasting for some centuries, we would be forced to analyse it as a class formation . If it had shown any signs of being subject to a 'political revolution' in which the proletariat asserted itself (like the bourgeoisie asserting itself against the Restoration in 1830 in France) we would be driven to Trotsky's analysis. In fact, neither was the case. We are to analyse it as, in the first place, a historically ephemeral phenomenon; and in the second place, as one *not* analogous to 1660-1688 in Britain or 1815-1830 in France.

Mike Macnair

Boffy said...


Thanks for your provisional comment. I will try to read your comments on "intellectual property" - actually I might have come across this article before - in order better to udnerstand your position and to reply further at some future point.

I was not trying to "scare" you by saying that in my opinion some of your basic concepts or arguments revise Marx - I have questioned whether he got it right on soem aspects of Economics myself - but clearly for a marxist any concept or argument that DOES conflict with those basic tenets, needs a greater degree of justification than would normally be the case. Again I will try to read your Critique article.

As for your position in respect of the State and trhe ruling social class, I have to say I am at a loss to understand this. If we take Engels argument in "The Origin", the argument it seems to me is quite clear that he is saying that the State arises as the State of a ruling class, and arises to defend that class from other classes. You must have a different reding of the 18th Brumaire, also, to the one I have, because I think that Marx's position again is clearly that the State is the State of the ruling social class, albeit in this case one that is exhibited via a Bonapartist regime, but the fundamental aspect of his analysis, it seems to me that even where this Bonapartist state DOES free itself from the political control of that ruling social class, the class dynamics of the society, the fundamental requirments of how the productive and social relations interact, continues to constrain that State to act as the State of the class which rules socially on the basis of those productive relations. That is the fundamental issue of Soviet Bonapartism as a deformed or degenerated Workers State.

But, if we want a clearer expression of Marx's view then - in addition to what he says in his Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, we have his sttement in the Critique of the Gotha programme where he says,

"The German Workers' party — at least if it adopts the program — shows that its socialist ideas are not even skin-deep; in that, instead of treating existing society (and this holds good for any future one) as the basis of the existing state (or of the future state in the case of future society), it treats the state rather as an independent entity that possesses its own intellectual, ethical, and libertarian bases."

For my money that is as clear a statement form Marx as you can get that the State is the product of Civil Society, and of those productive relations over which rules a social class, even one that is weak.

Boffy said...


Why do you think the AMP contradicts the idea of the State being the State of a ruling class. Agreed, under the AMP we are dealing with a caste rather than a class, but surely mutatis mutandis the argument holds doesn't it. Both a class and a caste are relatively stable social formations, both related to the means of production, but maintained by different means as a consequence of historical development. Class relationships develop on the basis of the ownership of private propoerty whereas Caste relationships develop on the basis of control over State or collectively owned property. But in both cases the State exists as the instrument of force of the ruling group, be it a class or a caste.

In so far as the USSR is concerned then it is likely that over a long time period a stable system could only have been developed without a return to capitalism, or a further development towards socialism, if some kind of caste system did develop, in other words if the Bureaucratic Collectivist argument were to have become reality. Trotsky was wrong to define the Bureaucracy as a caste, because a caste is indeed a fixed social formation, whose membership is assured on the basis of birth - just as classes become stable social formations on the basis of inheritance or lack thereof of ownership of the means of production - and contrary to the BC and SC theories there is no evidence to support such a contention in the USSR, in fact the evidence contradicts such an assertion.

Had the BC theory been a reality then a whole superstructural change would have been required in the USSR that enshrined in law or in custom the right of inhertitance of social position such as existed under the Chinese dynastic, or the Indian Caste systems. No such change was effected, or even came close. Had such a change come about thenas TRotsky says, Marxists would have had to reassess their beleifs. It means we would indeed have to assess on the same basis that Burnham himself did, and in the way that Hayek did what this means, and how the similar formations in Western society related to it. Whether indeed the post capitalist new class theorists such as Dahrendorf were correct.

If the BC theory was correct then as Trotsky points out it would mean that historically the working class had proved incapable of making itself the ruling class, just as the slaves had done under ancient society, and that the role of Marxists would then be confined not to a struggle for socialism as an historical dead-end incapable of being acomplished, but of seeking to gain the best conditions for the workers under their new conditions of slavery.

Incidentally, in the quote Sean Matgamna often rips out of context in trying to show that TRotsky was moving towards a BC theory he notably fails to include these comments of TRotsky made just a few lines after the quote he gives.

"The march of events has succeeded in demonstrating that the delay of the socialist revolution engenders the indubitable phenomena of barbarism-chronic unemployment, pauperization of the petty bourgeoisie, fascism, finally wars of extermination which do not open up any new road. What social and political forms can the new “barbarism” take, if we admit theoretically that mankind should not be able to elevate itself to socialism? We have the possibility of expressing ourselves on this subject more concretely than Marx. Fascism on one hand, degeneration of the Soviet state on the other outline the social and political forms of a neo-barbarism. An alternative of this kind – socialism or totalitarian servitude – has not only theoretical interest, but also enormous importance in agitation, because in its light the necessity for socialist revolution appears most graphically.

If we are to speak of a revision of Marx, it is in reality the revision of those comrades who project a new type of state, “nonbourgeois” and “non-worker.” Because the alternative developed by me leads them to draw their own thoughts up to their logical conclusion, some of these critics, frightened by the conclusions of their own theory, accuse me ... of revising Marxism. I prefer to think that it is simply a friendly jest."

"Again and Once More Again
on the Nature of the USSR",


"If, however, it is conceded that the present war will provoke not revolution but a decline of the proletariat, then there remains another alternative: the further decay of monopoly capitalism, its further fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy wherever it still remained by a totalitarian regime. The inability of the proletariat to take into its hands the leadership of society could actually lead under these conditions to the growth of a new exploiting class from the Bonapartist fascist bureaucracy. This would be, according to all indications, a regime of decline, signalizing the eclipse of civilization.

An analogous result might occur in the event that the proletariat of advanced capitalist countries, having conquered power, should prove incapable of holding it and surrender it, as in the USSR, to a privileged bureaucracy. Then we would be compelled to acknowledge that the reason for the bureaucratic relapse is rooted not in the backwardness of the country and not in the imperialist environment but in the congenital incapacity of the proletariat to become a ruling class. Then it would be necessary in retrospect to establish that in its fundamental traits the present USSR was the precursor of a new exploiting régime on an international scale.

We have diverged very far from the terminological controversy over the nomenclature of the Soviet state. But let our critics not protest: only by taking the necessary historical perspective can one provide himself with a correct judgment upon such a question as the replacement of one social régime by another. The historic alternative, carried to the end, is as follows: either the Stalin régime is an abhorrent relapse in the process of transforming bourgeois society into a socialist society, or the Stalin régime is the first stage of a new exploiting society. If the second prognosis proves to be correct, then, of course, the bureaucracy will become a new exploiting class. However onerous the second perspective may be, if the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of fulfilling the mission placed upon it by the course of development, nothing else would remain except openly to recognize that the socialist program based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, ended as a Utopia. It is self evident that a new “minimum” program would be required for the defense of the interests of the slaves of the totalitarian bureaucratic society.

But are there such incontrovertible or even impressive objective data as would compel us today to renounce the prospect of the socialist revolution? That is the whole question."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for reminding me (on 'the commune') that I haven't yet replied to your very extensive reply to my outline theses on the 'Soviet question'. I have now had a chance to read them and have various scribbled notes, which I will now try to turn into comments.

To begin with, I should say that there seems to be a fair amount of common ground between our overall views, though also very substantial differences. As you will probably have gathered from the 'strategy' discussion on 'the commune' (I don't know if you've read the book or the original articles) I am trying to break out of the standard 'Leninist model', as you are, though I come to rather different conclusions. On the USSR, my interpretation is, like yours, one of 'proletarian revolution too early to survive': though I don't agree that the result is post-capitalist or a 'workers' state after 1928'.

Behind this is deeper and more extensive differences about the approach to Marx and Engels and historical materialism. As I said in my provisional reply, my view is that there are core claims of Marx and Engels which have to be defended - one the one hand the class-political perspective, on the other the core of the political economy (labour theory of value, endogenous necessity of cycles). On the other hand, a great deal of their concrete judgments has to be discarded in order to maintain the theoretical core.

On the economic front, for example, I think it is clear that Farjoun & Machover (Laws of Chaos) disproved the account of the formation of a general rate of profit and 'prices of production' in Capital.

On the historical front, given that Marx and Engels had access to less than 1% of the historical information now available, a very large proportion of their concrete judgments about history is open to question, and some of their theoretical views also require correction.

A particular aspect of this is the theory of the state. My opinion is that Engels' arguments on the state in Origins are to a considerable extent simply wrong. The state does not first appear in Greece and Rome but in ancient Eqypt and Mespotamia, probably in Shang Dynasty China, and in early pre-Columbian America.

The AMP theory addresses this phenomenon, but no account is taken of it in Origins. Even if Origins was explicitly limited to the European case this would be unacceptable, since - for example - ancient Greek law-codes are plainly partially derived from Mesopotamian law codes. But the AMP theory itself is also unacceptable for a substantial number of empirical reasons, chiefly because the archeological evidence (& in Egypt and Mesopotamia the epigraphic and papyrological evidence) precludes the idea of the closed self-contained village economy. In fact, moreover, the work of Indian historians has shown that the material relied on by Marx to develop the AMP theory was British interpretations which both served imperial ideological needs, and were based on classical Greek and Roman texts about Iran which served antique ideological needs.

Approaching the question of the origins of the state, etc., at a more basic and abstract level, I define a 'class' in the sense that a class can rule and that class societies have particular dynamics as involving inheritable private property in the means of production. I think this is a silent assumption made by Marx as a result of his early legal studies in Berlin: German legal scholars of the time, both of the Hegelian and the Historical schools, defined 'ownership' in this way. But even if Marx didn't make this assumption, I think that it is necessary to understanding the internally competitive structure of ruling classes, including pre-capitalist ones.

I do not exclude the possibility of a 'bureaucracy' - an exploiting group defined by relationship to a state or state-like structure, which does not *in principle* or automatically inherit social position - which is not attached to a 'ruling class' in the sense given above, in two circumstances.

The first is that it seems to me that the development of exploiting classes, and the development of states/ religious bureaucracies, is contemporaneous and it is not clear which came first, and doubtful whether we will ever know (both developments were certainly prehistoric and the archeology will not settle the point).

Once classes come into existence, however, IMO the dynamic character of ruling classes forces them to reshape states in order to subordinate them to themselves, so that historic states are almost invariably the states of ruling classes.

The second case is the case of state formations which exist in periods of equilibrium between rising and declining classes. In my opinion in the case of states created at a very early stage in the rise of a rising class, the state can temporarily escape all control from the rising class on the road to becoming a state of the declining class; and at a certain stage of this evolution it can no longer be called a state of the rising class.

You compare my argument that the society in the USSR is transitional between feudalism and capitalism with the 'early capitalism' version of state capitalism (Bismarck, etc). I don't hold that view. I would regard the economic regime created by the forced collectivisation, etc., as involving re-enserfment of the peasantry and something close to the serf industries of 18th century Russia (Kagarlitsky). It is more like serfdom than slavery because, like the feudal lord-peasant relationship, the factory or collective farm manager and that factory's workers/ collective farm members have a relationship which is not one of total unfreedom, but involves reciprocal rights and duties (the management is expected to provide various forms of welfare) but does involve labour immobility.

Mike Macnair

Boffy said...


Thanks for your comments, and I look forward to further discussion here and at the Commune. At the moment I'm travelling in Europe so my comments in response are only provisional as I don't have access to my Library and other materials.

However, I hope you find my further comments useful as part of this discussion. I have posted them as a separate blog here.