Workers' Liberty 14 Forum section
How not to fight the poll tax; Trotsky on Zionism; Hitler, Stalin, and art.
A symposium on the nature of the Stalinist states: Martin Thomas; Stan Crooke; Duncan Chapple, Pete Keenlyside, and others; Sean Matgamna.
The contributions on the nature of the Stalinist states from Martin Thomas and Sean Matgamna are below. The other items from this Forum are currently available only on pdf.
"Deformed capitalist states"
The revolutions which created state-monopoly industrialism were all made in under-developed capitalist countries. They were not just capitalist countries, but capitalist countries with a great weight of colonialist or pre-capitalist landlord domination (or, in Cuba, a particularly archaic and stagnant form of capitalism).
The revolutionaries mobilised the masses not against capitalism but against foreign and landlord domination.
The revolutionary forces were militarised. At the head of peasant armies, there were tightly-knit elites of middle-class origin.
The most important capitalists in those countries were closely tied to foreign and landlord interests. No wonder that a section of the — very large — middle classes turned against them, fighting for a better national industrial development. On taking power, the revolutionaries did not want to share their victory with those established capitalists.
The result is a form of economy parallel to market capitalism. Its characteristic divergences from market-capitalist development are systematisations of divergences imposed ad hoc by many less monopolistic states, concerned to develop a base for national industrial capitalism. So is state-monopoly industrialism a special form of state capitalism?
Objection 1: Capitalism is a market system. A command economy can't be capitalism.
Answer: Notice that the Marxist classics never raise this issue, although their theoretical models of 'state capitalism' are obviously not free-market systems.
For Engels, under state capitalism 'freedom of competition (would) change into its very opposite — into monopoly; and the production without any definite plan of capitalistic society capitulates to the production upon a definite plan of the invading socialistic society (but) so far still to the benefit and advantage of the capitalists' (Anti-Duhring, p.329). What makes this state capitalism still capitalism is that 'The workers remain wage-workers — proletarians'.
Capitalism is the system of exploitation of wage-labour by capital, whether carried out in a free market or a state-controlled economy. And the workers remain wage-workers under state-monopoly industrialism.
Objection 2: The workers are not really wage-workers under state-monopoly industrialism. They are state slaves. Wage-labour implies a more or less free labour market.
Answer: "State capitalism, for the worker, is wage-labour plus control and surveillance," as the Algerian Marxist Benhouria puts it.
But for all that, there are labour markets in the state-monopoly industrialist societies. Instead of being handed rations, the workers are paid wages and buy their subsistence. Indeed, in the USSR, and much of Eastern Europe, enterprises bid against each other by offering bonuses to attract good workers. There is a difference between the situation of the bulk of the workers — wage-workers — and that of the slaves in forced labour camps.
The connected political question is this: do the state-monopoly industrialisms create a wage-working class of the sort discussed in Marxist theory? A class with socialist potential? Yes!
Objection 3: Wage-labour done does not define capitalism. It is wage-labour and capital. You need to show that capital exists in the USSR. Machinery and factories are not of themselves capital. Capital is a social relation.
Answer: The record of the last 50 or 60 years is undeniably that the state-monopoly industrialisms aim not just for the production of particular use-values—be they palaces or power stations — but for the production of wealth in general, wealth not limited to any predefined form. That is capital.
What mechanism drives them to that aim? It is the competition of their national capital on the world market. For some it is direct and immediate competition in world trade.
The USSR and China were long outside world trade. But weren't those state-monopoly industrialisms attempting to prepare themselves to enter world trade without being devastated? Isn't that also a form of competition?
Objection 4: If these state-monopoly industrialisms are just forms of capitalism, then why can't they be ordinary capitalist societies? Why don't they allow trade unions and opposition parties'
Answer: They are very special forms of capitalism. Trotsky thought state-capitalism would be impossible because the single state capital would be "too tempting an object for social revolution". Engels thought the same: "No nation will be put up with... so barefaced an exploitation of the community by a small band of dividend-mongers".
Trotsky and Engels were not entirely wrong. These regimes are inherently tense and vulnerable.
Objection 5: State-monopoly industrialism is very different from what we know as capitalism in Britain. What is the sense in applying the same term to two such different societies?
Answer: Only in the textbooks does history proceed tidily from stereotype slavery to stereotype feudalism to stereotype capitalism. Each of the major modes of production known to history has seen wide variations. History is full of hybrid and exceptional formations which cannot be slotted tidily into one category or another.
For decades Trotskyists argued that the USSR could be a "degenerated workers' state" despite being utterly different on almost every point from the theoretical norm of a workers' state; why should its rather smaller differences from the theoretical norm of a capitalist state prevent it being considered a "deformed capitalist state"?
Martin Thomas, October 1988
"A unique way of getting surplus product"
It seems to me nonsense to characterise Russia in terms of capitalism.
To take — as some comrades do — aspects of capitalist states throughout the world, and of capitalist formations throughout history, and from them to create a kind of pastiche, is a-historical. It loses sight of Russian realities, and it obscures the particular Stalinist socio-economic formation we are examining by pasting a collage of images and, so to speak, historical snapshots over it.
Capitalism is essentially the exploitation of wage labour by capital for the extraction of surplus value, and an economic system that is regulated by the consequences of that fundamental class relationship, by way of a really controlling and regulating market. It is regulated by such facts as that investment is determined by profit, and if you don't make a profit you go under.
That's an abstract model, but it's the essence of capitalism. Today, of course, and for most of this century, you find various inroads made by state activity into the classic model of capitalism, inroads which mitigate the laws and change some of the workings of capitalism.
In the USSR it has been a matter not of mitigations and offsettings of the laws of capitalism, but of a qualitatively different system.
The dominant thing there is the existence of a state bureaucracy millions strong, clustered in and around an al]-controlling, all-owning, all-encompassing state, which operates the economy politically. Political, or politico-economic, decisions broadly determine what the spontaneously regulating market determines in the classic capitalist model, and what the market and government intervention on behalf of the capitalist class determine in recent real capitalism.
The Stalinist system is not regulated by anything like 'spontaneous capitalism'. It is different from even the most extreme modification we have seen of spontaneous capitalism — that of wartime Nazi Germany. It is not regulated by any kind of autonomous mechanism, but by state power.
The rulers' real control over what happens in the interstices of the economy has been assessed by socialists since Trotsky's time as blind and feeble. Silt has built up, clogging the arteries of the system, and producing strains and convulsions.
Nevertheless, it has to be either/or. Either there is some broad correspondence between what is decided and what happens, or the system would have collapsed into chaos long ago. Instead of the once-impressive industrialisation achieved in the USSR by the Stalinist system, there would have been a collapse into peasant subsistence economy and the generation of market capitalism out of that.
Even when it ceases to exercise active, centralised, deliberated control, the state bureaucracy squats on the society exercising the control of inertia. Because of it nobody else can move and do things on the requisite scale.
In the totalitarian state monopoly systems the central feature is the preponderance of state power. Therefore to call it state capitalism is to miss the point. It is a distinct form of economy, or rather a distinct socio-economic formation.
In any case, we should not, like vulgar Marxists, try to analyse a society just by saying 'What's the economic mainspring?' We should talk about socio-economic formations. In Stalinist states we have a unique level of bureaucracy and state power, together with the elimination of the old ruling class, or their utter marginalisation and subordination (China). We have a unique way of appropriating surplus product.
How did the Stalinist bureaucracies evolve? If bureaucracies similar to that of the USSR arise in other countries such as Yugoslavia, Vietnam, or Cuba, how do you explain them?
Monopoly capitalism has developed the forces of production on a world scale. It competes with the rest of the world and with its 'other selves' on the basis of vast concentrations of the means of production. In order for backward countries to compete they too must concentrate the means of production, and only the state can do this. So a vast spread of statification occurs.
This happens both in "bureaucratic collectivist" states and in other societies which are quite different and where there is a ruling bourgeoisie. The root cause is the same, though the medium varies — capitalist military regimes, Stalinist peasant armies, hybrid formations like the Syrian and Iraqi factions of the "developmentalist" Ba'ath party, etc.
The end result varies, too, from Egypt, where a military regime conducted a 20-year experiment in almost Stalinist state power without eliminating the old ruling class, to Mao's China; from the Stalinist, and seemingly durable, level of state control imposed on Burma by the army for 30 years to the looser "Stalinism" of 1960s Cuba.
Those socio-economic formations which are the result of a thoroughgoing "anti-capitalist revolution" in which the old ruling class is eliminated fully, and fully replaced by a new collective ruling elite clustered around the state power, which is its collective state power—those seem to me to be qualitatively different from the in-between and hybrid cases like 1960s Egypt.
You must divide the states subject to statification into two distinct types. In the first type you have a powerful mass movement which makes a revolution and eliminates the old ruling class. It is simultaneously counter-revolutionary against the working class. That type is Stalinist, in that it has a programme based on the Russian revolution in its degenerate Stalinist phase and creates mechanisms to squeeze the working class. It has a very strong ruling elite and it is very stable, for a long time.
The other variant is where a less powerful, less ideologically motivated group takes power from the old ruling class, usually in a military struggle, and then sets out to develop the means of production using the state. These don't usually destroy the old ruling class.
There is an essential distinction between state capitalism and the Stalinist formations. The distinction lies in the nature of the ruling class and in its relationship to state power and the relationship of state power to society. There are all kinds of halfway houses, but there's no reason to equate the hybrids with the basic distinct species.
Sean Matgamna, Summer 1987.