Tony Cliff

The Nature of Stalinist Russia

Chapter 2
The economy of a workers’ state



If Russia is not a workers’ state, degenerated or otherwise, what is it, and how did it become what it is? We shall answer this by tackling the following questions: What are the relations of production in a workers’ state? Why was it impossible to preserve such relations in a backward country under conditions of siege? What relations of production came in their place? How did the transition from one set of relations to another take place? What is common and different to these two sets of relations? Why do prevailing relations of production in Russia not express themselves in the traditional relations of property? What are the laws of motion of Russian economy? The following chapters will attempt an answer to these questions. We shall begin in this chapter by analysing the economy of a workers’ state.

It is necessary, before considering the fundamental features of the economy of a workers’ state, to mention one very important factor. As Marx and Engels expected the revolution to begin in the developed countries, they assumed that from its inception the new society would be materially and culturally more developed than the most advanced capitalist countries. Every prognosis, however, is conditional. History did not unfold exactly as Marx and Engels had expected. It was in Russia, one of the most backward capitalist countries, that the revolution first broke out and the workers took power, while the revolutions which followed in the more developed countries failed.

Marx and Engels’ analysis of the economy of a workers’ state in a developed country can serve as a norm with which we can compare the development in Russia, to show to what extent it conformed to it, then diverged from it, and finally contradicted it.



1. The transformation of capitalist relations of production into socialist relations of production

The development of the productive forces under capitalism creates the material conditions necessary for socialism. There are two sorts of productive forces: the means of production and labour power. The centralisation of capital and the socialisation of the labour process under capitalism becomes the basis of socialist production.

Thus of all the relations of production which prevail under capitalism – relations between capitalists and capitalists, between capitalists and workers, between the workers themselves, between technicians and workers, technicians and capitalists, etc. – only one section is carried over into the socialist society, namely the relations obtaining between the workers in the process of production; the workers united through social production become the basis for new relations of production. Some elements in the relations of production existing under capitalism are abolished altogether by socialism through the abolition of the capitalists, while others, such as the “new middle class” (technicians, accountants, etc.) will be fitted into a new context.

This “new middle class” constitutes part of the productive forces, and as such is a necessary element of production. However, its position in the hierarchy of capitalist society is a transitory one, as transitory as capitalism. Socialist will do away entirely with this hierarchical position in the process of production above that of the proletariat. A new relationship will be created between the different elements necessary for the socialist mode of production, between mental and manual labour. The new relationship (to be dealt with more fully later on) begins to take shape with the transition period.

The working class, which constitutes part of the productive forces and a part of the capitalist relations of production at one and the same time, becomes the basis for the new relations of production and the point of departure for the development of the productive forces on the foundation of these relations. In the words of Marx,

Of all the instruments of production, the greatest power is the revolutionary class itself. The organisation of the revolutionary elements as a class pre-supposes the existence of the productive forces which could be engendered in the bosom of the old society. [1]



2. The division of labour and the division into classes

Engels writes:

In every society in which production has developed spontaneously – and our present society is of this type – it is not the producers who control the means of production, but the means of production which control the producers. In such a society each new lever of production is necessarily transformed into a new means for the subjection of the producers to the means of production. This is most of all true of that lever of production which, prior to the introduction of large-scale industry, was by far the most powerful – the division of labour. [2]

The division of labour, expressed in the separation of manual from mental labour, is of an historically transitory character; it has its roots in the separation of the workers from the means of production, and in the resultant antagonism of these two elements to each other. In the words of Marx:

Intelligence in production expands in one direction because it vanishes in many others. What is lost by the detail labourers, is concentrated in the capital that employs them. It is a result of the division of labour in manufactures, that the labourer is brought face to face with the intellectual potencies of the material process of production, as the property of another, and as a ruling power. This separation begins in simple co-operation, where the capitalist represents to the single workman, the oneness and the will of the associated labour. It is developed in manufacture which cuts down the labourer into a detail labourer. It is completed in modern industry, which makes science a productive force distinct from labour and presses it into the service of capital. [3]

The complete victory of communism means the complete abolition of the separation of mental and manual labour. It would be impossible to abolish this separation immediately after the revolution, but workers’ control over production will become an immediate bridge between mental and manual labour, and the point of departure for their future synthesis, the total abolition of classes.

Here we come to a problem which is fundamental from the standpoint of the transformation of the relations of production, of the bridge between mental and manual labour.



3. Workers and technicians

Technicians constitute a necessary element in the process of production, an important part of the productive forces of society, whether capitalist or communist. At the same time, as we have already said, under capitalism they form a layer in the hierarchy of production. They come into being as part and parcel of this hierarchy. Their monopolist position as regards the “mental process of production” (as Bukharin terms it) is the result of the separation of the workers from the means of production on the one hand, and the socialisation of labour on the other. Socialist will abolish this hierarchy. In the transition period it will continue to exist in one sense, but in another, be abolished. Insofar as mental labour remains the privilege of the few, the hierarchical relations will continue to exist in the factories, railways, etc., even after the proletarian revolution. But seeing that the place of the capitalist in the hierarchy will be taken by the workers’ state, i.e., by the workers as a collective, the technicians being subordinated to the workers, the mental hierarchy in this sense will be abolished. Workers’ control over technicians means the subordination of capitalist elements to socialist ones. The more efficient workers’ control, the higher the material and cultural level of the masses, the more will the monopolist position mental workers by undermined, till it is completely abolished and a full synthesis of mental and manual labour achieved. [4]



4. Labour discipline

Every form of social production needs the co-ordination of the different people participating in it; in other words, every form of social production needs discipline. Under capitalism this discipline confronts the worker as an external coercive power, as the power which capital has over him. Under socialism discipline will be the result of consciousness, it will become the habit of a free people. In the transition period it will be the outcome of the unity of the two elements – consciousness and coercion. The state institutions will be the organisation of the masses as a conscious factor. Collective ownership of the means of production by the workers, i.e., the ownership of the workers’ state of the means of production, will be the basis for the conscious element in labour discipline. At the same time the working class as a collective, through its institutions – soviets, trade unions, etc. – will appear as a coercive power as regards the disciplining of the individual workers in production. Individualistic consumption, the “bourgeois right” as regards distribution, will serve as a method of coercive discipline.

The technicians, supervisors, etc., have a special place in labour discipline. Under capitalism, the supervisor is the transmission belt through which capitalist coercion of the worker is exercised. Under communism a supervisor will full the same need as conductor of an orchestra. He will not fulfil any coercive function, as labour discipline will be based on consciousness and habit. In the transition period, whereas the workers, as regards themselves, will be both a disciplining and a disciplined factor, a subject and an object, the technicians, even though they remain formally discipliners of the workers, in reality will serve only as a transmission belt, this time of the workers’ state.



5. The workers and the means of production

The Communist Manifesto says:

In bourgeois society, living labour is but a means to increase accumulated labour. In communist society, accumulated labour is but a means to widen, to enrich, to promote the existence of the labourer.

In bourgeois society, therefore, the past dominates the present; in communist society, the present dominates the past. In bourgeois society, capital is independent and has individuality. [5]

In communist society accumulation will be conditioned by the needs of consumption of the people. In capitalist society accumulation determines the extent of employment and the rate of wages – i.e. the rate of consumption of the working people. Even as regards the capitalist himself the factor that makes him a capitalist is not consumption but accumulation. As Marx said:

Accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake: by this formula classical economy expressed the historical mission of the bourgeoisie, and did not for a single instant deceive itself over the birth-throes of wealth. [6]

The process of capitalist accumulation determines, limits and undermines consumption. This is because the worker is dominated by the product of his labour. Communist consumption will determine the accumulation of means of production. This is because the labourer will dominate his product.

In every society, whatever form the relations of production take, rationalisation of production generally involves a more roundabout way of production, i.e., an increase in the proportion of the total social labour devoted to the production of means of production. This means an increase in the ratio of “accumulation” relatively to rate of consumption. Under communism this increase in the rate of ‘accumulation’ as against the rate of consumption would at the same time mean a large absolute increase in the consumption of the toilers. Under capitalism, however, because of the antagonistic way of distribution, the rate of surplus value increases, and thus also the rate of accumulation, while the rate of consumption of the masses remains a subordinate factor.

The fact that under capitalism accumulation for accumulation’s sake is the result of two factors: one the separation of workers from the means of production, the other the existence of competition between the capitalists (no matter whether individual, monopolist or state). Socialism abolishes both these elements of the relations of production. Workers’ control over production and the abolition of national boundaries – these are the two conditions for the full subordination of accumulation to consumption. Under such conditions society will accumulate in order to consume.

The subordination of accumulation to consumption, by raising the material and cultural conditions of the masses will at the same time undermine the monopoly of the technicians over the “mental means of production”, and thus strengthen the workers’ control over production.



6. The relations of distribution in the transition period

The most exact and concise analysis of this question was given by Marx in his Critique of the Gotha Programme:

What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundation, but, on the contrary, as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth-marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. Accordingly the individual producer receives back from society – after the deductions have been made [deductions in the interests of society as a whole] – exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual amount of labour. For example, the social working day consists of the sum of the individual labour hours; the individual labour time of the individual producer is the part of the social working day contributed by him, his share in it. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such and such an amount of labour (after deducting his labour for the common fund) and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as costs the same amount of labour. The same amount of labour which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another.

Here obviously the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is exchange of equal values. Content and form are changed, because under the altered circumstances no one can give anything except his labour, and because, on the other hand, nothing can pass to the ownership of individuals except individual means of consumption. But, as far as the distribution of the latter among the individual producers is concerned, the same principle prevails as in the exchange of commodity-equivalents, so much labour in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labour in another form.

Hence, equal right here is still in principle – bourgeois right, although principle and practice are no longer in conflict, while the exchange of equivalents in commodity exchange only exists on the average and not in the individual case.

In spite of this advance, this equal right is still constantly stigmatised by a bourgeois limitation. The right of the producers is proportional to the labour they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labour.

But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labour in the same time, or can labour for a longer time; and labour, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labour. It recognises no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognises unequal individual endowment and thus productive capacity as natural privileges. It is therefore a right of inequality in its content like every right. Right by its very nature can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard in so far as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only, e.g., in the present case, are regarded only as workers, and nothing more seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another and so on and so forth. Thus with an equal capacity to work, and hence an equal share in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right instead of being equal would have to be unequal.

But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development thereby determined.

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished, after labour has become not merely a means to live but has become itself the prime necessity of life, after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be fully left behind and society inscribe on its banners: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. [7]

The bourgeois right of the transition period includes its own negation. In order that the same amount of labour which every worker gives to society in one form he receives back in another even if the workers are different from one another in respect of their skill, their needs and those of their families, etc., in one thing they must be absolutely equal: in respect of the ownership of the means of production. The advance of production, the increase of the amount of means of production belonging to society, i.e., owned equally by all the workers, will progressively undermine equal rights in the distribution of the products. This will in turn progressively increase equality among the people.

Bourgeois right in the transition period, while it lays down that every worker will receive means of consumption from society according to the labour he gives it, is based on social equality as regards the means of production, and thereby will wither away of itself.



7. In conclusion

The economy of a workers’ state and a capitalist economy have many common characteristics. As the workers’ state is a transition stage between capitalism and communism it inevitably includes some of the features of the society out of whose ruins it arises, and some of the nuclei of the future society. These elements, antagonistic as they are, are bound together, the former being subordinated to the latter. Common to both a workers’ state and capitalism is the division of labour, primarily the division between mental and manual labour. The distinguishing feature is the existence or non-existence of workers’ control over production. Workers’ control forms the bridge, albeit a narrow bridge, to the abolition of the separation of manual and mental labour, which will be completely realised with the establishment of communist society. Common to both a workers’ state and capitalism is the fact that the technicians form a hierarchy above the workers (although in a workers’ state in essence it cannot really be called a hierarchy). The distinguishing feature lies in the fact that in a workers’ state the technicians are not subordinated to capital, but to the will of the workers’ state, to the proletariat as a collective. This is the point of departure to the abolition of any social hierarchy in production. Elements of coercion in labour discipline will exist in a workers’ state as well as in capitalism. But in a workers’ state, unlike in capitalism, they will not be the only elements, and they will be more and more subordinated to elements of consciousness until such time as social solidarity, harmonious relations between people and education will altogether abolish the need for coercion in the process of production. In a workers’ state as well as in the capitalist commodity economy, equivalents are exchanged: a product containing a certain quantity of socially necessary labour is exchanged for another product containing an equivalent amount. But in a workers’ state this result is achieved not through the action of blind forces but through the conscious direction of the economy; besides which all the workers have equal rights in the ownership of the means of production.Bourgeois right under the bourgeoisie means exploitation; the bourgeois right of distribution in a workers’ state “tacitly recognises unequal individual endowment and this productive capacity as natural privileges”, but at the same time it declares the equality of producers towards the means of production. The point of departure of the bourgeois right of distribution in a workers’ state is the non-existence of any exploitation whatsoever, and the evolution towards the total abolition of all economic inequality, even that resulting from natural individual endowment.




1. K. Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, London n.d., p.146.

2. F. Engels, Anti-Dühring, op. cit., p.320.

3. K. Marx, Capital, New York 1932, Vol.I, pp.396-397.

4. Because of the double role of technicians in their relation to workers in the process of production, the founders of Marxism pointed out that the subordination of the technicians to the interests of society as a whole will be one of the greatest difficulties experienced by the new society. Thus Engels wrote: “If ... a war brings us to power prematurely, the technicians will be our chief enemies; they will deceive and betray us wherever they can and we shall have to use terror against them but shall get cheated all the same.” K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Correspondence, London 1942, p.493.

5. K. Marx, Selected Works, op. cit., Vol.I, p.652.

6. K. Marx, Capital, op. cit., Vol.I, p.652.

7. K. Marx, Selected Works, op. cit., Vol.I, pp.563-566.


Last updated on 5.1.2004