Tony Cliff

State Capitalism in Russia

Chapter 6:
Further consideration of Stalinist society, economics and politics



The Stalinist bureaucracy is a class

An examination of the definitions of a social class given by different Marxist theoreticians, will show that, according to all of them, the Stalinist bureaucracy qualifies as a class. Thus, for instance, Lenin writes:

We call classes large groups of people that are distinctive by the place they occupy in a definite historically defined system of social production; by their relations towards the means of production (in the majority of cases [not always] fixed and formulated in laws); by their role in the social system of labour; and consequently, by their method of obtaining the share of national wealth which they dispose of, and by the size of that share. Classes are such groups of people one of which can appropriate the labour of another owing to the difference in their position in a given system of social economy. [1]

Bukharin gives a very similar definition:

A social class ... is the aggregate of persons playing the same part in production, standing in the same relation toward other persons in the production process, these relations being also in things (instruments of labour). [2]

If there is any doubt left about whether the Stalinist bureaucracy is a class or not, we need but peruse Engels’ analysis of the merchant class which did not even take a direct part in the process of production. He writes:

A third division of labour was added by civilisation: it created a class that did not take part in production, but occupied itself merely with the exchange of products – the merchants. All former attempts at class formation were exclusively concerned with production. They divided the producers into directors and directed, or into producers on a more or less extensive scale. But here a class appears for the first time that captures the control of production in general and subjugates the producers to its rule, without taking the least part in production. A class that makes itself the indispensable mediator between two producers and exploits them both under the pretext of saving them the trouble and risk of exchange, of extending the markets of their products to distant regions, and of thus becoming the most useful class in society: a class of parasites, genuine social ichneumons, that skim the cream of production at home and abroad as a reward for very insignificant services; that rapidly amass enormous wealth and gain social significance accordingly; that for this reason reap ever new honours and ever greater control of production during the period of civilisation, until they at last being to light a product of their own – periodical crises in industry. [3]

In the light of this definition it is clear why Marx could designate the priests, lawyers, etc., as “ideological classes”, which have a class monopoly over what Bukharin aptly calls the “means of mental production”.

It would be wrong to call the Stalinist bureaucracy a caste for the following reasons: while a class is a group of people who have a definite place in the process of production, a caste is a judicial-political group; the members of a caste can be members of different classes, or in one class there can be members of different castes; a caste is the outcome of the relative immobility of the economy – a rigid division of labour and immobility of the productive forces – whereas the Stalinist bureaucracy was transformed into a ruling class on the crest of the dynamism of the economy.



The Stalinist bureaucracy – the extreme and pure personification of capital

Marx wrote:

Except as personified capital, the capitalist has no historical value, and no right to that historical existence ... But, so far as he is personified in capital, it is not values in use and the enjoyment of them but exchange value and its augmentation, that spur him into action. Fanatically bent on making value expand itself, he ruthlessly forces the human race to produce for production’s sake; ... So far, therefore, as his actions are a mere function of capital – endowed as capital is, in his person, with consciousness and a will – his own private consumption is a robbery, perpetrated on accumulation ... Therefore, save, save, save, i.e., reconvert the greatest possible portion of surplus value, or surplus-product into capital! Accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake. [4]

The two functions – the extraction of surplus value and its transformation into capital – which are fundamental to capitalism, become separated with the separation of control and management. While the function of management is to extract the surplus value from the workers, control directs its transformation into capital. For the capitalist economy these two functions alone are necessary; the bondholders appear more and more only as consumers of a certain part of the surplus value. Consumption of a part of the surplus product by the exploiters is not specific to capitalism, but existed under all class systems. What is specific to capitalism is accumulation for accumulation’s sake, with the object of standing up to competition.

In capitalist corporations most of the accumulation is institutional; the corporation finances itself internally, while the greater part of the dividends disbursed among the shareholders is used for consumption. Under a state capitalism which evolved gradually from monopoly capitalism, the bondholders would appear mainly as consumers while the state would appear as the accumulator.

The more that part of the surplus value devoted to accumulation increases as against the part consumed, the more purely does capitalism reveal itself. The more the relative weight of the factor of control increases as against that of bondholding, in other words, the more the dividends are subordinated to internal accumulation by the corporation or the state-owner, the more purely does capitalism reveal itself.

(Everyone knows that those who have the control of capital in their hands, those who are the extreme personification of capital, do not deny themselves the pleasures of this world, but the significance of their spending is much smaller quantitatively and different qualitatively than that of accumulation, and is of no basic historical importance.)

We can therefore say that the Russian bureaucracy, “owning” as it does the state and controlling the process of accumulation, is the personification of capital in its purest form.

However, Russia is different from the norm – the concept of state capitalism evolving gradually from monopoly capitalism. This divergence from the concept of state capitalism which evolves gradually, organically, from monopoly capitalism, does not render the question of the concept of state capitalism unimportant. Far from it, it is of the greatest significance to find that the Russian economy approaches this concept much more closely than ever could a state capitalism which evolved gradually on a capitalist foundation. The fact that the bureaucracy fulfils the tasks of the capitalist class, and by doing so transforms itself into a class, makes it the purest personification of this class. Although different from the capitalist class, it is at one and the same time the nearest to its historical essence. The Russian bureaucracy as a partial negation of the traditional capitalist class is at the same time the truest personification of the historical mission of this class.

To say that a bureaucratic class rules in Russia and stop at that, is to circumvent the cardinal issue – the capitalist relations of production prevailing in Russia. To say that Russia is state capitalist is perfectly correct, but not sufficient; it is also necessary to point out the differences in the juridical relations between the ruling class in Russia and that in a state capitalism which evolved gradually from monopoly capitalism. The most precise name for the Russian society is therefore Bureaucratic State Capitalism.



The form of appropriation of the bureaucracy is different to that of the bourgeoisie

In Russia the state appears as an employer, the bureaucrats as managers only. There is a complete separation between the function on ownership and that of management. This, however, is only formally so. In essence ownership is in the hands of the bureaucrats as a collective; it is vested in the state of the bureaucracy. But the fact that the individual manager appears not to own the means of production, and that the appropriation of his part in the national income is in the form of a salary, may deceive one into believing that he receives only the reward for his labour power in the same way as the worker receives the reward for his labour power. In addition, as the labour of management is necessary for every process of social production, and as such has nothing to do with relations of exploitation, the difference between the function of the worker and that of the manager is befogged because both are included in the social process of production. Antagonistic class relations thus appear to be harmonious. The labour of the exploited and the labour of organising exploitation both appear as labour. The state appears to stand above the people, as personified ownership, while the bureaucrats who direct the process of production and are therefore historically the personification of capital in essence, appear as labourers, and as such, producers of values by their labour itself.

It is clear, however, that the income of the bureaucracy has a direct ratio to the work of the workers and not to its own work. The size of this income is in itself sufficient to reveal the qualitative difference between the income of the bureaucracy and the wages of the workers. If there were no qualitative difference between them, we should have to say, for example, that Lord McGowan, who receives the highest director’s salary in Britain, does no more than sell his labour power. Besides this, the state, which is the employer and appears to rise above all the people, is in reality the organisation of the bureaucracy as a collective.

What determines the division of surplus value between the state and the bureaucrats as individuals?

While the quantitative division of the total value produced between wages and surplus value is dependent on two elements qualitatively different – labour power and capital – the division of the surplus value between the bureaucracy as a collective (the state) and individual bureaucrats cannot be based upon any qualitative difference between them. One cannot therefore speak of exact general laws of the division of the surplus value between the state and the bureaucracy or of the distribution of the share of the bureaucracy between the different bureaucrats. Similarly one cannot speak about exact general laws regulating the distribution of profit between profit of enterprise and interest, or between the owners of different sorts of shares in capitalist countries. (See K. Marx, Capital, Vol.III, p.428.)

It would be wrong, however, to assume that absolute arbitrariness governs this decision. The tendencies can be generalised. They are dependent on the pressure of world capitalism which demands an acceleration of accumulation, the material level which production has already reached, the tendency of the rate of profit to decline which relatively decreases the sources of accumulation, etc. Taking these circumstances into account, we can see why a constantly increasing part of the surplus value is accumulated. At the same time the bureaucracy which administers the process of accumulation, does not overlook the gratification of its own personal desires, and the quantity of surplus value consumed by it rises absolutely. These two processes are possible only if there is a constant increase in the rate of exploitation of the masses, and if new sources of capital are constantly found. (This explains the process of primitive accumulation in which the Russian peasantry is pillaged, and the plunder of the countries of Eastern Europe.)



Relations of production and law

The overwhelming majority of the means of production in Russia is in the hands of the state. Bonds or other forms of legal claim cover so small a part of the means of production as to be of only minor significance.

Why is this so? Is there no tendency to introduce such a form of private claim on a large scale? Why is there a difference between the law of property prevailing in Russia and that in the rest of the capitalist world? In order to answer these questions we must first analyse the relationship between the relations of production and the law of property.

Law is based on the economy. Property relations are the juridical expressions of the relations of production. But there is no exact and absolute parallel between relations of production and the development of law, in the same way as there is no exact and absolute parallel between the economic basis and the other elements of the superstructure. This is because law does not express the relations of production directly but indirectly. If it reflected the relations of production directly, every gradual change in the relations of production being accompanied by an immediate and parallel change in law, it would have ceased to be law. The function of law is, so to say, to bring harmony between the antagonistic interests of the classes, to fill up the gaps which tend to break in the socio-economic system. In order to achieve this, it must rise above the economy, while basing itself upon it.

From the standpoint of its content, law is the indirect reflection of the material basis on which it is erected, but from the standpoint of its form, it is but the assimilation and completion of the law inherited from the past. There is always a time-lag between changes in the relations of production and changes in law. The deeper and quicker the change in the relations of production, the more difficult it is for law to keep pace and still formally preserve continuity with its past development. There are numerous historical examples of the rise of a new class which has been reluctant to publicise its coming to power and has accordingly tried to adapt its existence and rights to the framework presented by the past, even though this framework has stood in absolute contradiction to it. Thus, for a very long time the rising bourgeoisie endeavoured to prove that profit and interest are but some sort of rent – at that time the rent of the landlord was justified in the eyes of the ruling classes. The English capitalist class tried to base its political rights on the Magna Carta, the charter of rights of the feudal class, which is fundamentally in contradiction to bourgeois right from the standpoint of both content and form. The attempt of a ruling class to hide its privileges under the cloak of he law handed down from the past is most strongly made in the case of a counter-revolution which dare not declare its existence.

Revolutionary socialism does not hide its aims, and the law it dictates on taking power is therefore revolutionary both in content and form. Had the armies of intervention been victorious after the October revolution, their bloody rule would have been accompanied by the restoration of most of the old laws scrapped by the October revolution. But, as the bureaucracy in Russia transformed itself gradually into a ruling class, the changes in the relations of production were not expressed immediately in the complete change of the law. For various reasons, the main one being the need Stalinist foreign policy has of pseudo-revolutionary propaganda among the workers all over the world, the Russian bureaucracy did not openly declare that a counter-revolution had taken place.

This, however, is insufficient to explain why the bureaucracy does not restore private property in the form of bonds or shares covering the whole economy in such a way that every member of the bureaucracy should be able to bequeath a safe economic position to his son. Other factors must be taken into account. The desires of a class, a caste or a social layer are moulded by its material conditions of life. Not only has each class its own special place in the process of production, but each owning class has a different stronghold in the social wealth. If the simple desire for the maximum material and cultural benefits in the abstract had been the driving force of humanity, then not only would the working class have desired socialism, but also the petty and middle bourgeoisie, and even the big bourgeoisie; the more so as this generation lives under the shadow of atomic warfare. But this is not the case. When people make history, they make it according to the external, objective reality in which they find themselves, and which moulds their desires. The feudal lord thus strives to increase the area of his and his son’s domains; the merchant endeavours to give his sons security by bequeathing them a large quantity of money; the physician, the lawyer and the other professions attempt to pass their privileges on to their sons by giving them “mental means of production” – education. There being no Chinese wall between the different classes and layers, however, each will, of course, try to bequeath more than its special privileges: professionals will inherit both material and mental means of production; merchants will be provided with a higher education, and so on.

The state bureaucracy, as Marx said in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law, possesses the state as private property. In a state which is the repository of the means of production the state bureaucracy – the ruling class – has forms of passing on its privileges which are different from those of the feudal lords, the bourgeoisie or the free professionals. If co-option is the prevailing mode of selection the directors of enterprises, heads of departments, etc., every bureaucrat will try more to pass on to his son his “connections” than he would, let us say, a million roubles (even though this has importance). Obviously he will at the same time try to limit the number of competitors for positions in the bureaucracy by restricting the possibilities the masses have of getting a higher education, etc.



The synthesis of the extremities of development

Russia presents us with the synthesis of a form of property born of a proletarian revolution and relations of production resulting from a combination of backward forces of production and the pressure of world capitalism. The content of the synthesis shows historical continuity with the pre-revolutionary period; the form shows historical continuity with the revolutionary period. In the retreat from the revolution the form does not move right back to its point of departure. Despite its subordination to content, it yet has considerable importance.

History often leaps forward or backward. When it leaps backward, it does not return directly to the same position, but goes down a spiral, combining the elements of the two systems from which and to which the society passed. For example, because in the state capitalism which is an organic, gradual continuation of the development of capitalism, a form of private property would prevail in the ownership of shares and bonds, we must not conclude that the same will apply to state capitalism which rose gradually on the ruins of a workers’ revolution. Historical continuity in the case of state capitalism which evolves from monopoly capitalism, is shown in the existence of private property (bonds). Historical continuity in the case of state capitalism which evolves from a workers’ state that degenerated and died, is shown in the non-existence of private property.

The spiral development brings about the synthesis of two extremes of capitalist development in Russia, a synthesis of the highest stage which capitalism can ever reach, and which probably no other country will ever reach; and of such a low stage of development as has yet to demand the preparation of the material prerequisites for socialism. The defeat of the October revolution served as a springboard for Russian capitalism which at the same time lags well behind world capitalism.

This synthesis reveals itself in an extremely high concentration of capital, in an extremely high organic composition of capital; and on the other hand, taking the level of technique into account, in a low productivity of labour, in a low cultural level. It explains the speed of the development of the productive forces in Russia, a speed far outstripping what youthful capitalism experienced, and the very opposite of what capitalism in decay and stagnation experiences.

Youthful capitalism practiced inhuman brutality on the toilers, as shown by the struggle against “vagabonds”, the poor laws, the forcing of women and children to work fifteen to eighteen hours a day, etc.; aged capitalism again commits many of the brutalities of its childhood, with the difference that it is able, as fascism has shown, to carry them out much more effectively. Both periods are characterised by the use of compulsion in addition to the automatic mechanism of the economic laws. The synthesis of state capitalism with the youthful tasks of capitalism gives the Russian bureaucracy an unlimited appetite for surplus value and capacity for inhuman brutality, while enabling it to practise at the same time the highest efficiency in carrying out its oppression.

When Engels said that “man sprang from the beasts, and had consequently to use barbaric and almost bestial means to extricate himself from barbarism”, he certainly was not describing the socialist revolution, when history becomes “conscious of itself”. But he well described the pre-history of humanity. Peter the Great will go down in history as one of the fighters against barbarism using barbaric methods. Herzen wrote that he “civilised with a knout in his hand and knout in hand persecuted the light”. Stalin will go down in history as the oppressor of the working class, as the power which could have advanced the productive forces and culture of humanity without the knout, because the world was mature enough for it, but which nevertheless advanced them “knout in hand”, simultaneously endangering all humanity with the threat of decline through imperialist wars.

The proletarian revolution swept all the impediments to the development of the productive forces from its path and abolished a low of the old barbarities. But being isolated, and taking place in a backward country, it was vanquished, leaving the field free for the fight against barbarism by barbaric methods.



Economics and politics

The state is “special bodies of armed men, prisons, etc.” – a weapon in the hands of one class to oppress another class or other classes. In Russia the state is a weapon in the hands of the bureaucracy for the oppression of the mass of toilers. But this alone does not describe all the functions of the Stalinist state. It answers also to the direct needs of the social division of labour, of the organisation of social production. A similar task was fulfilled, mutatis mutandis, by the states of ancient China, Egypt and Babylonia. There, because big irrigation works which could be organised at all only if done on a large scale were so wholly necessary, the state developed not only as a result of the appearance of class divisions, and so indirectly as a result of the social division of labour, but also directly, as part of the process of production. Interdependence and mutual influence of class divisions and the emergence and strengthening of the state are so intricate as to make any separation of economics and politics impossible. Similarly, in Russia, the Stalinist state did not rise only as a result of the widening abyss between the masses and the bureaucracy and so the growing need for “special bodies of armed men”, but also as a direct answer to the needs of the productive forces themselves, as a necessary element of the mode of production.

One of the Chaldean kings said:

I have mastered the secrets of the rivers for the benefit of man ... I have led the waters of the rivers into the wilderness; I have filled the parched ditches with them ... I have watered the desert plains; I have brought them fertility and abundance, I have formed them into habitations of joy.

Plekhanov, who cites this, remarks: “For all its boastfulness, this is a fairly accurate description of the role of the oriental state in organising the social process of production.” [5]

Stalin could also claim that he built the industries, drove the productive forces of Russia forward, etc. Although, of course, the tyranny of the Chaldean king was historically necessary and progressive in its time, while that of Stalin is historically superfluous and reactionary.

As in ancient societies, so in Russia today, the double function of the state, as a guardian of the ruling class and as organiser of social production, leads to a total fusion of economics and politics.

This fusion is characteristic of capitalism in its highest stage, as well as of a workers’ state. But whereas under a workers’ state this fusion means that the workers, being politically dominant, advance even closer to a situation in which the “government of persons is replaced by the administration of things and the direction of the process of production” [6], under capitalism in its highest stage it means that political coercion is added to the automatism of the economy and is, indeed, given the major role. “The ... special feature of the capitalist order is that all the elements of the future society appear in it in a form in which they do not draw nearer to socialism but draw further away from it.”

Thus, for instance:

as regards the army, development brings general obligatory military service ... that is, an approach to the people’s militia. But it is realised in the form of modern militarism, which brings the domination of the military state over the people and pushes the class character of the state to the extreme. [7]

This fusion proves that our period is so ripe for socialism that capitalism is compelled to absorb more and more elements of socialism. As Engels said, this is the invasion of socialist society into capitalism. However, this absorption does not lighten the burden of exploitation and oppression; on the contrary, it makes it bear down much the more heavily. (In a workers’ state the workers are free economically because they are politically free. A workers’ state is also a fusion of economics and politics, but with symmetrically opposite results.)

Wherever there is a fusion of economics and politics it is theoretically wrong to distinguish between political and economic revolution, or between political and economic counter-revolution. The bourgeoisie can exist as the bourgeoisie, owning private property, under different forms of government: under a feudal monarchy, a constitutional monarchy, a bourgeois republic, under a Bonapartist regime such as that of Napoleon I and III, a fascist dictatorship and for a certain time even under a workers’ state (the kulaks and NEP-men existed till 1928). In all these cases there is a direct relationship of ownership between the bourgeoisie and the means of production. In all of them the state is independent of the direct control of the bourgeoisie, and yet in none of them does the bourgeoisie cease to be a ruling class. Where the state is the repository of the means of production, there is an absolute fusion between economics and politics; political expropriation also means economic expropriation. If the Chaldean king quoted above were politically expropriated, he would necessarily also have been economically expropriated. The same applies to the Stalinist bureaucracy, and mutatis mutandis, also to a workers’ state. Seeing that the workers as individuals are not owners of means of production even in a workers’ state, and their ownership as a collective is expressed through their ownership of the state which is the repository of the means of production, if they are politically expropriated they are also economically expropriated.



Can there be a gradual transition from a workers’ state to a capitalist state?

The proletariat cannot take over the bourgeois state machine but must smash it. Does it not follow that the gradual transition from the workers’ state of Lenin and Trotsky (1917-23) to the capitalist state of Stalin, contradicts the basis of the Marxist theory of the state? This is one of the pivots of the defence for the theory that Russia today is still a workers’ state. Those who hold to this theory quote Trotsky in 1933 (but omit to quote his opposite statement of a later date). He wrote in The Soviet Union and the Fourth International:

The Marxian thesis relating to the catastrophic character of the transfer of power from the hands of one class into the hands of another applies not only to revolutionary periods, when history madly sweeps ahead, but also to the period of counter-revolution when society rolls backwards. He who asserts that the Soviet Government has been changed gradually from proletarian to bourgeois is only, so to speak, running backwards the film of reformism.

The question at issue is the validity or otherwise of the last sentence.

Capitalist restoration can come about in many ways. Political restoration may precede economic restoration: this would have been the case if the White Guards and armies of intervention had succeeded in overthrowing the Bolsheviks. Or economic restoration, even if not complete, may precede political restoration: this would have been the case if the kulaks and NEP-men who entrenched their economic privileges until 1928 had succeeded in overthrowing the regime. In both cases the transition from a workers’ state to a capitalist state would not have been gradual. Indeed, to say that it might have been gradual could justifiably be branded as “only, so to speak, running backwards the film of reformism”. But where the bureaucracy of a workers’ state is transformed into a ruling class, economic and political restoration are indissolubly interwoven. The state becomes gradually further divorced from the workers, the relations between it and the workers become more and more like the relations between a capitalist employer and his workers. In such a case the bureaucratic clique that first appears as a distortion, gradually transforms itself into a class which fulfils the tasks of the bourgeoisie in capitalist relations of production. The gradual evolutionary divorce of the bureaucracy from the control of the masses, which continued until 1928, reached the stage of a revolutionary qualitative change with the First Five-Year Plan.

The question, however, still stands: does this not contradict the Marxist theory of the state?

From the standpoint of formal logic it is irrefutable that if the proletariat cannot gradually transform the bourgeois state into a workers’ state but must smash the state machine, the bureaucracy on becoming the ruling class also cannot gradually transform the workers’ state into a bourgeois state, but must smash the state machine. From the standpoint of dialectics, however, we must pose the problem differently. What are the reasons why the proletariat cannot gradually transform the bourgeois state machine, and do these continue as an immovable impediment to the gradual change of the class character of a workers’ state?

Marx and Engels said that only England could bypass the smashing of the state machine as the first step in the proletarian revolution. This did not apply to the Continent of Europe. They said that in England the “social revolution might by effected entirely by peaceful and legal means”. On this Lenin comments: “This was natural in 1871, then England was still the model of a purely capitalist country, but without militarism and, to a considerable degree, without a bureaucracy.” [8]

It is, then, the bureaucracy and the standing army that constitute the impediment to the workers’ peaceful accession to power. But the workers’ state has no bureaucracy or standing army. Thus a peaceful transition can be accomplished from a workers’ state where these institutions do not exist, to a state capitalist regime where they do.

Let us now see whether what excludes a gradual social revolution excludes a gradual counter-revolution.

If the soldiers in a hierarchically built army strive for decisive control over the army, they immediately meet with the opposition of the officer caste. There is no way of removing such a caste except by revolutionary violence. As against this, if the officers of a people’s militia become less and less dependent on the will of the soldiers, as well they might, seeing that they meet with no institutional bureaucracy, their transformation into an officers’ caste independent of the soldiers can be accomplished gradually. The transition from a standing army to a militia cannot but be accompanied by a tremendous outbreak of revolutionary violence; on the other hand, the transition from a militia to a standing army, to the extent that it is the result of tendencies inside the militia itself, can and must be gradual. The opposition of the soldiers to the rising bureaucracy may lead the latter to use violence against the soldiers. But this is not essential. What applies to the army applies equally to the state. A state without a bureaucracy, or with a weak bureaucracy dependent on the pressure of the masses may gradually be transformed into a state in which the bureaucracy is free of workers’ control.

The Moscow trials were the civil war of the bureaucracy against the masses, a war in which only one side was armed and organised. They witnessed the consummation of the bureaucracy’s total liberation from popular control. Trotsky, who thought that the Moscow trials and the “Constitution” were steps towards the restoration of individual capitalism by legal means, then withdrew the argument that a gradual change from a proletarian to a bourgeois state is “running backwards the film of reformism”. He wrote:

In reality, the new constitution ... opens up for the bureaucracy “legal” roads for the economic counter-revolution, i.e., the restoration of capitalism by means of a “cold strike”. [9]



Stalinism – barbarism?

The word “barbarism” denotes different things. We talk about the barbaric exploitation of the workers, the barbaric oppression of the colonial peoples, the barbaric murder of the Jews by the Nazis, etc. “Barbaric” here does not denote a stage in the history of humanity, a certain content of social relations, but a certain aspect of the actions of a class, which may even be a rising, progressive class: for instance, we talk about the barbaric eviction of the peasantry in Britain at the time of rising capitalism, or the barbaric looting of the population of South America, etc. “Barbarism” may, however, denote something which, even though it has some connection with the former meaning, is yet entirely different. It may denote the total destruction of civilisation by the decline of society into an a-historical era. This sees “barbarism” as a whole stage in the history of humanity. A particular event may indeed be barbaric in both senses. The activity of the ruling classes in a third world war, for instance, would be barbaric in the first sense, and as the cause of the total decline of society it would be barbaric in the second sense also. Essentially, however, the meanings are different and must be kept distinct. Barbarism used in connection with our epoch in the first sense signifies the price humanity is paying for the belatedness of the socialist revolution. Used in the second sense it signifies the loss of all hope in a society which has decayed and declined. According to this it would be wrong to define Nazism as barbarism in the second sense, as “renewed feudalism”, as the “state of the termites”, as an a-historical period, etc., as the Nazi system was based on the labour of proletarians who are historically its gravediggers and the saviours of humanity. It would be even less justified to designate the Stalinist regime as barbarism in the second sense, as this regime, in the face of Russia’s backwardness and fear of annihilation through international competition, is rapidly increasing the numbers of the working class.

This question is not a matter of philological hairsplitting, but of prime importance. To use the word barbarism in its second sense would be as wrong as to use the word slave to designate the Russian workers, if slave is used as something distinct from proletarian. Slavery, like barbarism in its first sense, used to denote one aspect of the condition of the Russian worker under Stalin as well as of the German worker under Hitler – his lack of legal freedom, his partial negation of himself as a worker – would be a correct term. But used as a basic definition of a regime it would be wrong. We must therefore strongly oppose the use of the word barbarism in its second sense to denote the Stalinist regime. We must indeed oppose its use in general to denote the stage society has reached today, and can only condone its use in the first sense, that is, used to describe certain aspects of declining capitalism as a whole, whether American, Russian, British or Japanese. Is Stalinist Russia an example of capitalist barbarism? Yes. As example of that barbarism which is a total negation of capitalism? No.



Is the Stalinist regime progressive?

A social order which is necessary to develop the productive forces and prepare the material conditions for a higher order of society, is progressive. We must emphasise the material conditions, because if we include all the conditions (class consciousness, the existence of mass revolutionary parties, etc., etc.), then any social order will be progressive, as its very existence proves that all the conditions for its overthrow are not there.

It does not follow from this definition that when a social order becomes reactionary, becomes an impediment to the development of the productive forces, that these productive forces cease to advance, or that the rate of advance falls absolutely. There is no doubt that feudalism in Europe became reactionary in the thirteenth to eighteenth centuries, but this did not prevent the productive forces developing at the same rate as before or indeed of developing at an even faster rate. Similarly, while Lenin said that the period of imperialism (beginning with the last decades of the nineteenth century) signified the decline and decay of capitalism he at the same time said:

It would be a mistake to believe that this tendency to decay precludes the possibility of the rapid growth of capitalism. It does not. In the epoch of imperialism, certain branches of industry, certain strata of the bourgeoisie and certain countries betray, to a more or less degree, one or another of these tendencies. On the whole, capitalism is growing far more rapidly than before. But this growth is not only becoming more and more uneven in general; its unevenness also manifests itself, in particular, in the decay of the countries which are richest in capital (such as England). [10]

Lenin spoke of the decay of capitalism, and in the same breath he said that the democratic revolution in Russia, by sweeping away the remnants of feudalism, would give tremendous possibilities of development to Russian capitalism, which would stride forward at an American tempo. And this view he held at the time that he believed that the “Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasantry” would perform the tasks of the bourgeois revolution in Russia.

Looking at the figures for world industrial production since 1891 we can see that in the period of imperialism the productive forces of the world are far from absolute stagnation [11]:

World industrial production
(1913: 100)













As regards the capacity of production, we need but take into account the control of atomic energy to see what strides have been made.

Were the backward countries isolated from the rest of the world, we could certainly say that capitalism would be progressive in them. For instance, if the countries in the West declined and disappeared, Indian capitalism would have no less long and glorious a future than British capitalism had in the nineteenth century. The same is true of Russian state capitalism. Revolutionary Marxists, however, take the world as our point of departure, and therefore conclude that capitalism, wherever it exists is reactionary. For the problem humanity must solve today, under pain of annihilation, is not how to develop the production forces, but to what end and under what social relations to utilise them.

This conclusion as regards the reactionary character of Russia state capitalism, notwithstanding the rapid development of its productive forces, can be refuted only if one could prove that world capitalism has not prepared the material conditions necessary for the establishment of socialism, or that the Stalinist regime is preparing further conditions necessary for the establishment of socialism than those prepared by the world at large. The former contention leads one to the conclusion that we are not yet in the period of the socialist revolution. The most one can say to the latter is that Stalinist Russia will bequeath to socialism a higher concentration of capital and of the working class than any other country. But this is only a quantitative difference: if we compare the economies of the USA and England we find that the concentration of capital and socialisation of labour is much higher in the former than in the latter, but this does not make the present-day capitalism in the USA historically progressive.

One may claim that planning inside Russia is an element which transforms the Russian economy into a progressive one in comparison with the capitalism of other countries. This is totally unsound. So long as the working class has no control over production, the workers are not the subject of planning but its object. This applied just as well to the planning within the gigantic enterprise of Ford as to the whole economy of Russia. As so long as the workers are the object, planning is important to them only as an element of the material conditions necessary for socialism: as an aspect of the concentration of capital and workers.

In a factory employing 100,000 workers planning is more elaborate and developed than in a factory employing 100 workers, and still more so it is in state capitalism which employs 10,000,000 workers. This does not make the relations of production in the big enterprise progressive relatively to those in the smaller one. The plan in each is dictated by the blind external force of competition between independent producers.

The very fact of the existence of the Stalinist regime declares its reactionary nature, as without the defeated October revolution the Stalinist regime would not have existed, and without the maturity of the world for socialism the October revolution would not have broken out.




1. V.I. Lenin, Works (Russian), Vol. XXIX, p.388.

2. N. Bukharin, Historical Materialism, London 1926, p.276.

3. F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, op. cit., p.201.

4. K. Marx, Capital, Vol.I, pp.648-652.

5. G.V. Plekhanov, The Materialist Conception of History, London 1940, p.32.

6. F. Engels, Anti-Dühring, op. cit., p.309.

7. R. Luxemburg, Sozialreform oder Revolution? 2nd ed., Leipzig 1908, p.41.

8. V.I. Lenin, State and Revolution, op. cit., pp.30-31.

9. Fourth International and the Soviet Union. Thesis adopted by the First International Conference of the Fourth International, Geneva, July 1936.

10. V.I. Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, op. cit., p.109. My emphasis.

11. J. Kuczynski, Weltproduktion und Welthandel in den letzten 100 Jahren, Libau 1935, pp.20-21.


Last updated on 26.7.2002