The fantasy of state capitalism in the USSR

Submitted by martin on 15 May, 2007 - 4:49

By Paul Hampton
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Chris Ford’s plea for more attention to Raya Dunayevskaya (Transcending our fragmented tradition Solidarity 3/111, 3 May 2007) rests heavily on her “extensively researched original analysis of the USSR as a state-capitalist society which she first outlined in 1941.”

Aside from a rather overblown cultist reverence, the substance this argument simply does not stand up. Dunayevskaya’s state capitalist view was not particularly original and suffered from the same errors made by others who used the label to describe Stalinism.

At best Dunayevskaya established the theoretical possibility of state capitalism, but then Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky never denied it either. The AWL has used the term to describe modern Venezuela and various other social formations.

But nowhere did Dunayevskaya establish the actuality of state capitalism in Russia in the 1940s. At most she showed that the USSR was a class society. Dunayevskaya’s work on Stalinism, found for example in the collection “The Marxist-Humanist Theory of State Capitalism” (1992), is characterised by a basic methodological flaw: it assumes what needed to be proven.

Dunayevskaya’s first article, “The Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics is a Capitalist Society” (February 1941) is notable for the poverty of its critique of Trotsky and as such is vastly inferior to Shachtman’s “Is Russia a Workers’ State?” published in December 1940.

Its only significance is its bald assertion, that “the Soviet government occupies in relation to the whole economic system the position which a capitalist occupies in relation to a single enterprise.” This idea of Russia plc, or the USSR Ltd was promoted by Cliff and the SWP for decades too, until even his own mandarinate (Hallas, Callinicos) had to concede that without any competition between capitals you cannot have capitalism.

Dunayevskaya’s “Analysis of the Russian Economy” (1942-43) usefully showed that Russia was still a backward country in spite of the exaggerated claims of Stalin. She described the empirical facets of exploitation in the USSR in the 1930s, such as the terror, the ration books, the labour passports, the means of consumption directly provided by factories, the absence of trade unions, the draconian discipline, the sheer absurdity of “wage” and price levels – in fact some of the very features that demarcated the exploitation of the Soviet worker from their counterparts in capitalist states such as Nazi Germany.

Yet, in her most theoretical articles, The Nature of the Russian Economy (1946-47), Dunayevskaya continuously asserted that the USSR was a capitalist society. She grafted the categories of capitalism onto Stalin’s Russia, deriving “capital” from the mere existence of means of production, talking of the “organic composition of capital”, “profits”, “surplus value”, “free waged labour” and “the law of value”, without the slightest proof.

She appeared to deduce the “capitalist” nature of the Russian economy from the existence of capitalism on a global scale, from the general trend toward statisation (“collectivism”) during that period and from her assertion that workers “sold” their labour power for a wage in the USSR. (1992 p.74, p.25, p.79-82)

In fact her theory completely abstracted from the actual history of the USSR and in particular from the counter-revolution that overthrew the workers’ state established by the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Dunayevskaya appeared to date the counter-revolution to 1936-37 – to the new constitution and the Moscow trials. (1992 p.27) This conveniently skipped over the actual process by which Stalin’s bureaucracy was able to crush first the working class opposition led by Trotsky and then turn on the incipient capitalists such as the kulaks and the Nepmen, making the bureaucracy the sole master of the surplus product in 1928.

Once the working class lost political power, it was no longer the ruling class and Russia no longer a workers’ state. But the Stalinists also smashed the last vestiges of the capitalist class during this period, giving rise to their peculiar form of class rule. Dunayevskaya’s state capitalism explained none of this.

Dunayevskaya deserves credit for siding with workers against the Stalinists in Russia during and after WWII, for supporting the East German uprising in 1953, the Hungarian revolution 1956 and criticising Castroism and other variants of Stalinism. This was the political merit of those who ascribed the “state capitalist” label to Stalinism.

But state capitalism was never a rational, scientific characterisation of Stalinism, from which consistent working class politics could be derived. State capitalism never captured the essence of Stalinist class rule. None of the theories ever grasped its origin, development or decline. It was a blind alley in the ideological struggle to understand the nature of the Stalinist states.

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