From International Socialism 2:5, Summer 1979, pp. 80–88.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Thanks to Sebastien Budgen.
Class Struggles in the USSR – First period: 1917–1923, Second period: 1923–1930
The Harvester Press. Each volume £12.50
Charles Bettelheim is the most important instance of a widespread phenomenon on the European left today. The past few years have seen an outpouring of analysis and discussion of the ‘socialist’ countries from those whose politics, whether orthodox communist or maoist, had previously involved the suppression of the slightest critical tremors.
Various factors have contributed to this situation. The evolution of the eastern bloc, and in particular the massive struggles which have shaken parts of eastern Europe (Poland 1970 and 1976, Czechoslovakia 1968, the Rumanian miners’ strike of 1977), have had a considerable impact , as did the split between the Russian and Chinese bureaucracies after 1963.
The only attempt to come to terms with this history produced by this crisis which goes beyond Stalinist apologetics or social-democratic liberalism is Bettelheim’s massive study of the USSR. Class Struggles in the USSR invites comparison with the path-breaking analysis of the Soviet Union by Tony Cliff.
Like Cliff, Bettelheim refuses to accept that state ownership of the mean of production is the main criterion of the existence of a workers state:
‘Life has made its business to show, or rather to recall, that changes in legal forms of ownership do not suffice to cause the conditions for the existence of classes and for class struggle to disappear. These conditions are rooted, as Marx and Lenin often emphasised, not in legal forms of ownership, but in production relations, that is, in the form of the social process of appropriation, in the place that the form of this process assigns to the agents of production – in fact, in the relations that are established between them in social production.’ (I, 21) 
Bettelheim thus rejects the approach to the problem of analysing the ‘socialist’ countries typical of both orthodox Stalinists and Trotsky’s epigones. Like Cliff he concludes that capitalist relations of production prevail in the USSR: ‘The producers (in the Soviet Union – AC) are still wage-earners working to valorise the means of production, with the latter functioning as collective capital by a state bourgeoisie.’ (I, 44)
There, however, the resemblance ends. Bettelheim’s aim is to use the Russian case to establish the superiority of the Chinese model of socialism, and in particular, to bring out the universal relevance of the Cultural Revolution of 1966–7. As we shall see, this leads him to champion a form of extreme idealism.
The first volume of Class Struggles in the USSR is devoted to the period between the October revolution in 1917 and the eve of Lenin’s death in January 1924. Bettelheim concentrates on the form taken by the class struggle during those years within the new Soviet state machine and the Bolshevik party itself. He carefully documents the atrophy of the Soviets, the growth of a state bureaucracy largely inherited from Tsarism, the re-emergence of the secret police, and, within party and state, the concentration of power in the hands of a small group around the Politburo and party secretariat under Stalin.
In this way, according to Bettelheim, the conditions for the formation of a new ‘state bourgeoisie’ were created. The process was facilitated by the prevalence of ‘economism’ within the Bolshevik party. ‘Economism’, on this interpretation, involves the ‘thesis of the primacy of the development of the productive forces’. According to this thesis, it is the development of the productive forces, not the class struggle, which is the motor of historical change. As Stalin put it, ‘First the productive forces of society change and develop, and then, depending on these changes and in conformity with them, men’s relations of production, their economic relations, change’ (quoted I, 23). On an ‘economistic’ interpretation of marxism, the development of a classless communist society would depend solely on economic growth and technological progress.
Their ‘economism’ led the Bolsheviks, with the exception of Lenin, to underestimate the importance of the ideological and political conditions of the transition to communism and thus to neglect the emerging ‘state bourgeosie’ within the Soviet state apparatus itself.
These ‘economistic’ tendencies were strengthened during the period of ‘war communism’ between 1918 and 1921, when the methods of forcible extraction of grain surpluses from the peasantry imposed by the necessities of civil war were identified with the construction of socialism. The New Economic Policy (NEP), introduced in 1921, which substituted reliance on the market rather than coercion in the state’s relations with the peasantry, was seen as only a temporary tactical retreat.
The result was that the Bolsheviks ignored the necessity of transforming the social relations of production: the problem as they saw it was to secure economic growth under state control. They therefore failed to develop ‘proletarian social practices’. In their absence, the penetration of party and state bureaucracy by the bourgeoisie continued unabated: The fundamental condition for the process to occur whereby the state machinery of the proletarian dictatorship acquired independence, was the predominance of bourgeois or prebourgeois social relations and the develoment, on that basis, of bourgeois social practices. These practices made possible the reproduction of capitalist relations.’ (I, 333–4)
Only Lenin, in the last years of his life, began to recognise the dangers with which the Soviet state was faced. Re-evaluating NEP, according to Bettelheim, he abandoned his previous ‘under-estimation’ of the revolutionary role of the peasantry and came to see the alliance between workers and peasants as the basis of the transition to communism.
This positive assessment of NEP provides the framework for the second volume of Bettelheim’s work, which focuses upon the ‘great change’ of 1928, when Stalin scrapped NEP and embarked on forced collectivisation of the peasantry and rapid industrialisation.
Bettelheim is concerned to refute the traditional view of 1928, which is that a procurement crisis resulting from the withholding of grain by the kulaks (rich peasants) made the abandonment of NEP and the resort to coercion to secure gain inevitable. He argues (drawing heavily on S. Grosskopf’s L’alliance ouvrière et paysanne en URSS (1921–1928)) that the grain crisis of 1927–8 was the result of the gradual abandonment of NEP by the Soviet regime. The main source of the grain sold to the state was, not the kulaks, but the middle and poor peasants, whose incentive to provide the grain was gradually undermined by the failure of industry to provide them with the equipment they needed to develop their plots. Instead the state’s resources were concentrated on the development of heavy industry:
‘The procurement crisis of 1927–1928 thus appears not at all the result of an “inevitable economic crisis” but as the outcome of political mistakes. These were due to the feebleness of the Party’s roots in the countryside and also to ideological reasons which led the Party (even while recognising that agriculture was the basis of economic development) to underestimate in practice the aid that should have been given to the peasant masses, and to concentrate nearly all its efforts on industry.’ (II, 107–8)
Already in the last years of NEP, Bettelheim argues, stress was in practice being placed on the development of heavy industry at any price. This situation reflected the growing power of the ‘state bourgeoisie’, and, in paticular, of the managers of the large-scale enterprises. This power was mirrored in various ways: the restoration of hierarchical labour-management relations within the factories; a stress upon large-scale, capital-intensive investment and upon profitability which led to a growing dependence upon technology imported from the capitalist west and to large-scale urban unemployment; the persistence of commodity relations; the restoration of piece-rates. But the ‘Bolshevik ideological formation’ also played its part. The growing ‘economism’ of the Bolsheviks, with their stress upon the development of the productive forces above all else, encouraged the party leadership, when confronted with the grain crisis of 1927–28, to formally abandon the policy which in practice they had already severely weakened.
Bettelheim views the struggles within the Bolshevik party during the 1920s through the prism of the worker-peasant alliance: ‘The worker-peasant alliance was, indeed, the chief link at that time, the factor on which action had to be taken first and foremost in order to strengthen the dictatorship of the proletariat. The various oppositions which took shape within the party between 1924 and 1927 all overlooked or neglected this chief link’ (II, 358).
Trotsky and the Left Opposition are dealt with summarily. Having shown that Trotsky, like Stalin, accepted the thesis of the primacy of the productive forces (I, 27–9), Bettelheim repeats the usual Stalinist cant that Trotsky ‘underestimated’ the peasantry and argues that his programme of speeded-up industrialisation would have led to the destruction of the worker-peasant alliance.
Stalin, by contrast, gets rather different treatment. On the basis of a rather short-lived and stage-managed ‘self-criticism’ movement in the factories during 1928 Bettelheim depicts Stalin as a precursor of the Chinese Cultural Revolution!
More generally, Bettelheim’s favoured alternative to both Stalin and Trotsky is Mao:
‘China’s example shows that it is not necessary (and indeed that it is dangerous) to aspire to build first of all the material foundations of socialist society, putting off till later the transformation of social relations, which will thus be brought into conformity with more highly developed productive forces. China’s example shows that socialist transformation of the superstructure must accompany the development of the productive forces and that this transformation is a condition for truly socialist economic development. It shows, too, that when the transformations are carried out in this way. industrialisation does not require, in contrast to what happened in the Soviet Union, the levying of tribute from the peasantry, a procedure which seriously threatens the alliance between the workers and the peasants.’ (I, 42)
Let’s leave China out of the discussion for the minute.  Note the slide which takes place within this passage, from ‘the transformation of social relations’ to ‘the socialist transformation of the superstructure’. Bettelheim surreptitiously identifies the relations of production with their ideological and political conditions of existence.
Yet Marx was careful to distinguish between the relations of production on the one hand and politics and ideology on the other, and to subordinate the latter to the former:
‘In the social production of their existence men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.’ 
Elsewhere Marx defines the relations of production (in class societies) as follows:
‘The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus labour is pumped out of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself, and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element ... It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers – a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity – which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure.’ 
Bettelheim, however, systematically conflates the relations of production with the superstructure – and especially, as we shall see, with ideology.  Let us first consider the ‘thesis of the primacy of the productive forces’.
Now, while what Marx writes on this subject is often ambiguous, it is fairly clear that he regarded the relations of production – the social relations between the direct producers and the owners of the means of production – as the motor of historical change. This can best be seen in Capital, Volume 1, where Marx shows in great detail that it was the emergence of capitalist relations of production which engendered the technological transformation of the labour process which led to the mass industries of today, rather than vice versa.
For example, Marx argues that capitalism initially involved the exploitation of the workforce on the basis of a labour-process based on handicraft production and inherited from pre-capitalist modes of production through the extension of the working day (the extraction of absolute surplus-value). It was the shift to the production of relative surplus-value, which involved the cheapening of labour-power through increased productivity in wage-good industries, which led to the Industrial Revolution: ‘The production of absolute surplus-value turns exclusively on the length of the working day, whereas the production of relative surplus-value completely revolutionises the technical processes of labour and the groupings into which society is divided.’ 
Rejection of technological determinism does not, however, require us to adopt the opposite position and treat the productive forces as a mere effect of the relations of production, as Bettelheim argues.  A given set of relations of production can only come into existence on the basis of a certain level of development of the productive forces. Capitalism could only develop if the productivity of agricultural labour were high enough to support an urban population of considerable size, if communications were sufficiently developed and secure to permit long-distance trade, and so on.
Similarly, (and here the political significance of this argument should become clear) communism presupposes that the productive forces have reached a certain level of development. Crucially, it requires the existence of a world economy created through international capitalist competition. Marx and Engels insisted on this as early as 1845 when they argued that ‘This (international – AC) development of the productive forces ... is an absolutely necessary practical premiss (of communism – AC), because without it privation, want, is merely made general, and with want the struggle for necessities would begin again, and all the old filthy business would necessarily be restored.’ 
This passage is a remarkable anticipation of the evolution of the Soviet state after 1917. The failure of the European revolution confined the new workers’ state to a backward country devastated by war where a decimated working class was overwhelmed by a vast mass of petty-bourgeois peasant producers. The Bolshevik leaders were well aware of the dangers presented by their isolation from the rest of the world economy. It was in order to break out of this isolation that they launched the Communist International in 1919.
Yet Bettelheim completely ignores the international dimension of the Bolshevik revolution. In over 1,100 pages there is precisely one reference to the German revolution – an astounding omission when one considers that both objectively and in the minds of the Bolshevik leaders it was the failure of German communism between 1918 and 1923 which set the stage for the decision to build ‘socialism in one country’.
Bettelheim treats the class struggle in the USSR as a process hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world. The joy with which Lenin welcomed the overthrow of the Kaiser in November 1918, the eager participation with which the Bolshevik leaders (Stalin excepted) greeted the prospect of a German October in 1923, the internationalism of ‘the Bolshevik ideological formation’ are ignored. The theory of ‘socialism in one country’ devised by Stain and Bukharin in the mid-1920s is foisted onto Lenin (see I, 40), in spite of his constant repetition that ‘We always staked our play upon an international revolution and this was unconditionally right ... We always emphasised ... the fact that in one country it is impossible to accomplish such a work as a socialist revolution.’ 
Bettelheim’s separation of the forces and relations of production and his support for ‘socialism in one country’ lead him to claim that communism can be built by an act of pure will, independent of whether or not its material conditions exist. In his discussion of the lead-up to the ‘great change’ of 1928 Bettelheim concentrates almost exclusively upon the failure of political will he sees as involved in the gradual undermining of NEP. The line was wrong, not the material situation. For example, ‘the recourse to the criterion of profitability ... reflected, in the last analysis, a certain situation in the class struggle and a certain state of class consciousness.’ (II, 273)
In building ‘socialism in one country’ the Bolshevik leaders were free to choose between a continuation of NEP (advocated by Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky) and forced industrialisation and collectivisation (the course ultimately adopted by Stalin). They made the wrong choice because they had the wrong ideas:
The limits (of the class struggle in the 1920s – AC) ... were set on the plane of social forces, by the weakness of the Soviet proletariat. This weakness was not so much “numerical” as ideological. It was a matter of the slight extent to which the proletarian ideology had penetrated the masses, a circumstance itself connected with the poor development of socialist democracy. On the plane of theoretical ideology it was connected with the absence of a rigourous analysis of the nature of the existing production relations and of the need to struggle to change them as to make decisive progress towards socialism.’ (II, 315)
Yet he has no answer to the orthodox Stalinist’s rejoinder. The policy of ‘industrialisation at a snail’s pace’, rejection of capital-intensive high-technology investment, etc. which Bettelheim advocates would have left the Soviet Union disarmed in the face of the growing danger of war with the western imperialist powers. It was the pressure of military competition with the west which in the final analysis forced rapid industrialisation on the Soviet bureaucracy. No doubt Bettelheim would in reply stress the virtues of Mao-style protracted people’s war, but guerillas alone would not have stopped the tanks of the Wehrmacht (if truth be told, they did not even free China of the Japanese).
There was an alternative, even though Bettelheim’s myopic stress on ‘socialism in one country’ prevents him from grasping it. There were a number of moments in the inter-war period when the structure of world capitalism was under heavy pressure – China 1925–27, Germany before 1923 and after 1929, France and Spain in 1936. If the Soviet state had placed the interests of the world revolution before its own short-term interests, then the isolation of the USSR might have been ended by revolution in the advanced industrial countries. But it did not. 
In the 1920s and 1930s the perspective of international revolution was championed by Trotsky and his followers, whom Bettelheim dismisses as ‘economist’ and ‘ultra-left’. Yet which is more unreal – a programme predicated on the necessity of liberating the productive forces created by international capitalism or Bettelheim’s apparent belief that imperialism would have permitted the Soviet state to build a disarmed, bucolic ‘socialism in one country’?
For Bcttelheim is it ‘the consciousness of men that determines their existence’. This naturally leads him to concentrate upon ideological factors in his analysis of the Soviet state. Consider, for example, this passage:
‘The October revolution was unlike all previous revolutions, except the Paris Commune, by virtue of the fact that it was carried out through the guidance of proletarian ideas.’ (I, 92 – italics added)
Yet when Marx discusses the significance of the Paris Commune in The Civil War in France he concentrated, not on the ideas at work within it, but on the political structure of the Commune – the factors, like the election of all officials and the arming of the people, that placed it under the direct control of the working masses. The political tendencies influential within the Commune were far from being ideologically proletarian. On the contrary, they included all sorts of left republicans and the followers of petty bourgeois socialists like Blanqui and Proudhon against whom Marx had waged bitter war for many years.
Similarly, in those writings like the Letters from Afar where Lenin analysed the nature of the dual power produced by the revolution of February 1917, he did not argue that the Soviets were proletarian because of the ideas that guided them. It would have been surprising if he had, since the Soviets were then dominated by reformists and petty bourgeois populists of the Menshevik and SR stripe.
Like Marx, Lenin concentrated on the Soviets’ ability to serve as organs of workers’ democracy and workers’ power by virtue of the direct control exercised through them by the masses. This theme informs The State and Revolution. It is also present in the writings of Trotsky and Gramsci.
This conception of working-class power is central to marxism. Workers’ power is not the product of some act of will. It arises from the tendencies inherent in capitalist relations of production which drive workers collectively to organise themselves in defence of their interests. Those organs of struggle that unite the mass of workers at the point of production (the internal commissions of Italy 1918–20, shopfloor organisation in Britain today) represent working-class power in embryo.
The transformation of these organs into Soviets – into a workers’ government – is the result of the action of the workers themselves. The role of the revolutionary party is not to substitute itself for this process, but to make it a conscious one directed towards the seizure of state power. 
Bettelheim’s fundamental error is to see working-class power as a matter, not of the proletariat directly exercising power, but of the ideas inculcated into the masses by those who control the state machine. So he writes;
‘The Bolshevik Party (was) the party whose ideology, political line, style of leadership, capacity to develop the alliance between the working class and the peasantry and, consequently, relations with the masses, constituted the ultimate guarantee of the proletarian character of the ruling power.’ (I, 103–4)
‘Proletarian character’, Bettelheim assures us, is nothing to do with the working class:
‘The working-class members of a proletarian party may be relatively few (especially in a country where the working class itself is not large) without that circumstance damaging its proletarian character, which is determined by its ideology and political line.’ (II, 331)
It follows that ‘in the historical conditions of 1918–23, preserving the proletarian character of party policy meant concentrating authority in the hands of those who embodied the historical experience and theory of the revolutionary movement, Russian and international – in other words, at the start of the period, in the hands of the Political Bureau and Central Committee.’ (I, 309)
Bettelheim refuses to examine the conditions under which the party could continue to be part of the working class and not a substitute for it – the restoration of the Soviets as democratic organs of working-class self-government, a regime of democratic centralism within the party, the extension of the revolution to the west, etc.
The basis on which the Bolshevik leaders could remain in contact with the masses while their working-class base decayed is a magical one. For example, Lenin’s ‘exceptional position’, his ability to avoid the ‘economist’ errors of the other Bolsheviks, is put down to purely personal qualities – ‘his distinctive capacity for listening to the masses and the solidity of his theoretical training’. (I, 346)
The result is that the development of the Stalinist bureaucracy is seen as the gradual penetration of an increasingly autonomous state apparatus by the bourgeoisie and its ideas and practices. The implication is that the structure of the state machine, and its material foundations, are secondary factors: what counts is the ideology of those who run it. Because the Bolsheviks suffered from a tendency towards ‘economism’, they were unable to combat the growth of the ‘state bourgeoisie’. The isolation and backwardness of the Russian economy, the paralysis of the Soviets, are irrelevant for Bettelheim.
Bettelheim’s substitutionism is not tied to the specific conditions of Soviet Russia:
‘The establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat means that the proletariat sets itself up as the ruling class, and this cannot be done through organs of the soviet type, which are mass organisations, or through state organs exclusively derived from these. The constitution of the proletariat as ruling class is necessarily effected through an apparatus that is specifically proletarian in ideology and aims, and in the role of leadership and unification that it plays in relation to the masses: in other words, through a proletarian party that plays this role politically and ideologically, and plays it, too, in relation to the machinery of state issuing from the mass organisations.’ (I, 109) 
Bettelheim’s recent protests against developments in China since Mao’s death do not alter the basic position. His idealist refusal to take into account the material conditions of the transition to communism leaves him disarmed in the face of the brutal realpolitik of Deng Xiaoping, for whom ideological struggle and industrialisation at a snail’s pace are a dangerous luxury in the shadow of Russian military power.  The collapse of the elaborate charade of the ‘Cultural Revolution’, whose leaders have been hounded, gaoled and sometimes killed while the Chinese masses look on passively (or even enthusiastically), simply confirms the bankruptcy of maoism and of its western spokespeople like Bettelheim.
1. The ideological role of the dissident Soviet intelligentsia is discussed in Robert Linhart’s contribution to Power and Opposition in Post-Revolutionary Societies (London 1979) and in D. Lecourt, Dissidence on Revolution? (Paris 1978). Replies to the nouveaux philosophes are numerous: the most thorough is F. Aubral, X. Delacourt, Centre la nouvelle philosophie (Paris 1977). See also the documents published in Telos, No. 33, Fall 1977.
2. All references in the text are to volumes I and II of Class Struggles in the USSR.
3. But see N. Harris, The Mandate of Heaven: Marx and Mao in Modern China (London 1978).
4. K. Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (London 1971), pp. 20–1.
5. K. Marx, Capital, Volume 3 (Moscow 1971), p. 791.
6. The conflation of relations of production with their ideological and political conditions of existence is characteristic of the althusserian school (Bettelheim acknowledges his debt to ‘the break made by L. Althusser and his associates with the “economistic” interpretation of Capital‘, 48 n2). Paul Hirst detects the same error in Poulantzas’ theory of classes (see Economic Classes and Politics, in A. Hunt (ed.), Class and Class Structure (London 1977). Agreement with Hirst on this point does not, of course, imply acceptance of his conclusion that there is ‘a necessary discrepancy between economic relations and political forces’ (ibid., p. 127).
7. K. Marx, Capital, Volume 1 (Harmondsworth 1976), p. 645.
8. This position is most cogently argued in B. Hindess and P. Hirst, Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production (London 1975).
9. K. Marx and F. Engels, The German Ideology, Collected Works, Volume 5 (London 1976), p. 49.
10. Quoted in T. Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia, pp. 144–5. See also T. Cliff, Lenin, Volume 3 (London 1978) and Volume 4 (London 1979).
11. See. F. Claudin, The Communist Movement (Harmondsworth 1975) for a detailed account by a former leader of the Spanish Communist Party of Stalin’s betrayal of the world revolution.
12. On this whole question see A. Callinicos, Soviet Power, IS (First Series), No. 103, November 1977.
13. J. Petras, Socialist Revolutions and their Class Components, New Left Review, No. 111, September–October 1978, owes its scant theoretical content to a version of this thesis.
14. See N. Harris, A New Elite, Socialist Review, March 1979.
Last updated: 29.2.2012