Tony Cliff

The test of time

(June 1998)

From Socialist Review 221, July 1998.
Copyright © 1998 Socialist Review.
Downloaded form the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.


The Berlin Wall collapsed nearly ten years ago. Shortly afterwards the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and Russia followed suit.

In 1947, 51 years ago, I came to the conclusion that the Stalinist regime was state capitalist. I wrote a couple of books to develop the theory. But of course one cannot be sure of one’s own ideas unless the test of events confirms them. The collapse of the Stalinist regimes made it possible to confirm or refute the theory.

The collapse of the Stalinist regimes makes a postmortem possible. If Russia was a socialist country or the Stalinist regime was a workers’ state, even though a degenerated or deformed one, the collapse of Stalinism would have meant that a counter-revolution had taken place. In such circumstances, workers would have defended a workers’ state in the same way that workers always defend their unions, however right wing and bureaucratic they may be, against those who are trying to eliminate the union altogether. Workers know from their own day to day experience that the union, however feeble, is a defence organisation of workers against the bosses. Workers in a unionised workplace earn higher wages and have better conditions than in workplaces where there are no unions.

Did the workers in Russia and Eastern Europe defend the regime in 1989-91? Of course not. Workers in these countries were completely passive. There was less violence at the time than during the miners’ strike in Britain in 1984-85. The only country where the regime was defended, and violently, was Romania; but it was not defended by workers, rather by the Securitate, the secret police.

If there had been a counter-revolution, the people at the top of society would have been removed. But characteristic to the collapse of the Stalinist regimes was that the same personnel, the nomenklatura, who had managed the economy, society and politics under Stalinism, continued to be at the top. For the people at the top the years 1989-91 did not mark a step backward or a step forward, but simply a step sideways.

Therefore, it is clear that there was not a qualitative change between the Stalinist regimes and what exists at present in Russia and eastern Europe. As at present no one denies that the regime is capitalist, it follows that it was capitalist before.


The birth of state capitalism in Russia

The October Revolution of 1917 brought the working class to power in Russia. The impact of the revolution internationally was absolutely massive. Workers’ revolutions took place in Germany, Austria and Hungary, while mass Communist parties rose in France, Italy and elsewhere. Lenin and Trotsky were absolutely convinced that the fate of the Russian Revolution depended on the victory of revolution in Germany. Without it, they repeated again and again, they were doomed.

Tragically, the German Revolution of 1918-23 ended in defeat. The lack of a revolutionary party with experienced cadres capable of giving a lead to the most advanced workers doomed the revolution. Since then, again and again, we have seen proletarian revolutions that did not end in victory for lack of a revolutionary party: Spain and France in 1936; Italy and France in 1944-45; Hungary in 1956; France in 1968; Portugal in 1974-75; Iran in 1979 and Poland in 1980-81.

The defeat of the German Revolution in 1923 had huge consequences in Russia. It led to a swing towards pessimism and right wing adaptation. Stalin openly campaigned against Trotsky in 1923. He was aided by the fact that Lenin was on his deathbed and out of circulation for about a year before he died. Trotsky’s explanation of the rise of Stalinism as the product of the isolation of the Russian Revolution and the pressure of world capitalism was absolutely correct. Hence his description at that time of the Stalinist regime as a degenerated workers’ state was apt.

During the years of invasion and civil war which followed the Russian Revolution, the Soviet regime was attacked by the armed forces of Germany, Britain, the United States, France, Italy, Japan, Romania, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Turkey. These armies, together with the White Russian armies did not manage to beat the Red Army. On the other hand, the revolutionary government of Russia did not manage to beat the capitalist governments of the world. So in the end the pressure of world capitalism forced the Stalinist regime to become more and more similar to that of world capitalism. The laws of motion of the economy and of the Russian army were identical to those of world capitalism.

When in 1928 Stalin declared that within 15 or 20 years Russia would have caught up with the advanced industrial countries, it meant that in the space of one generation Russia would achieve what took Britain over 100 years of the Industrial Revolution. In Britain it took three centuries for the Enclosures to get rid of the peasantry and to facilitate the development of capitalism. In Russia the peasantry were expropriated in three years by so called “collectivisation”.

When Stalin built his industrial-military machine he had to start from a much weaker base than the countries he faced in competition, but with ambitions no smaller than theirs. If Nazi Germany had tanks and planes, the military machine that Stalin built could not reflect the true productive forces of Russia (after all, in 1928 the peasants had no tractors but wooden ploughs) but had to reflect those of Germany.

The industrialisation of Russia was very much orientated on building heavy industry as the base for the armaments industry. One piece of research I did that I found quite thrilling was to compare the production of the different five year plans. I found the targets of the first, second, third, fourth and fifth five year plans and compared them (in Russia under Stalin nobody would have dared to do this).

When it came to heavy industry the target for steel for the first five year plan was 10.4 million tons; for the second, 17 million, the third 28 million, the fourth (resulting from the war) 25.4 million, and the fifth 44.2 million. It was clear that the graph was shooting steeply upwards. The same applied to electricity, coal and pig iron. When it came to consumer goods the picture was completely different. For example in cotton goods the first five year plan target was 4.7 billion metres; the second, 5.1; the third, 4.9; the fourth, 4.7. Thus over 20 years the target did not rise at all. For woollen goods the picture was even more dismal. The first five year plan aimed to raise production to 270 million metres; the second to 227; the third to 177; the fourth to 159. The targets cut production over 20 years by nearly 40 percent.

Russia was very successful at producing Sputniks, but not at producing shoes.

Capitalism is dominated by the need for capital accumulation. Ford has to invest continually otherwise it will be beaten by General Motors. Competition between capitalist enterprises forces every one of them to invest more and more, to accumulate more and more capital. Competition between the capitalists also forces every one of them to increase the exploitation of workers. The tyranny of capital over workers is the other side of the coin to competition between capitals.

The same applies to the Stalinist tyranny towards the workers and peasants of Russia. The harsh exploitation, including the gulag, was the by-product of the competition between Russian capitalism and other capitalist powers, above all Nazi Germany.


Arguments against the theory of state capitalism

Three main arguments are brought forward to discount the theory of state capitalism. First, it is argued that capitalism is synonymous with private property. In Russia the means of production was state owned, not privately owned, so it could not be capitalist.

Secondly, capitalism is not compatible with planning. The Russian economy was a planned economy. Thirdly, Stalinist Russia needed only a political revolution to change the government structure, while under capitalism it is necessary to carry through not only a political revolution but also a social revolution.

I shall deal with each of the arguments in turn.

In 1847 Proudhon, a muddled French socialist, wrote in his book The Philosophy of Poverty that capitalism is equal to private property. Marx, in a scathing critique, entitled The Poverty of Philosophy, wrote, “Private property is a juridical abstraction.” If private property is equal to capitalism, then under slavery we had capitalism because there was private property; under feudalism we had capitalism because there was private property. The form of property is only a form, it does not tell you the content. There can be private property with slavery, with serfdom and with wage labour. If someone says, “I’ve a bottle full of something,” it doesn’t tell you what the something is. It can be wine, it can be water, it can be rubbish. Because the container and the content are not the same, it means the same content can be put into different containers. The water can be put in a bottle, or a glass, or a cup. If private property can contain slavery, serfdom and wage labour, then of course slavery can exist with private property and with state property. In medieval times the dominant relations were between serfs living in villages and the feudal lord of the manor. But there was another kind of serfdom – serfs working on church property. The fact that the church was not owned by individuals did not make the burden of the serfs on church lands any lighter.

What about the second argument, that in Stalinist Russia there was a planned economy, while under capitalism there is no plan? This is not correct. The characteristic of capitalism is that there is a plan in the individual unit, but no planning between units. In the Ford factory there is a plan. It will not produce one and a half engines per car, nor two wheels per car. There is central command about how many engines, wheels and so on are produced. There is a plan, but there is anarchy between Ford and General Motors. In Stalinist Russia there was a plan for the Russian economy, but there was no plan between the Russian economy, and, for example, the German economy.

The third argument about differentiation between a political and a social revolution falls flat in a situation where the state is the repository of wealth. In France in 1830 there was a political revolution. The monarchy was overthrown and a constitutional monarchy established. This did not change the social set up because the owners of wealth were the capitalists, not the state. Where the state is the repository of wealth, however, to take political power from the rulers is to take their economic power. There is no separation between political and social revolution.


The significance of the theory of state capitalism

For over 60 years Stalinism had massive support inside the international working class movement. It pushed revolutionary socialism, Trotskyism, to the margins. The appeal of Stalinism was extremely significant. Now, with the collapse of the Stalinist regime in Russia things have changed. In February 1990 Eric Hobsbawm, the guru of the British Communist Party, was asked, “In the Soviet Union it looks as though the workers are overthrowing the workers’ state.” Hobsbawm replied, “It obviously wasn’t a workers’ state, nobody in the Soviet Union ever believed it was a workers’ state, and the workers knew it wasn’t a workers’ state.” Why didn’t Hobsbawm tell us this 50 or even 20 years ago?

Nina Temple, general secretary of the British Communist Party, said around the same time, “I think the SWP was right, the Trotskyists were right that it was not socialism in Eastern Europe. And I think we should have said so long ago.”

Reading Nina Temple’s statement, one can only think what would have happened if the pope declared that god does not exist? How would the Catholic Church survive? The disarray among Stalinist parties throughout the world is overwhelming. Those of us who declared Russia to be state capitalist long before the collapse of the Stalinist regime established a bridgehead to the future and preserved the authentic tradition of Marxism, of socialism from below.


Last updated on 25.7.2002